By Jana Monji
On March 9, Tzi Ma attended the premiere for Disney’s father-daughter live-action tale Mulan, fully expecting to later attend another for Alan Yang’s Tigertail.
Now, Tigertail has had its Hollywood premiere canceled and is streaming on Netflix, while Mulan has yet to open. And instead of as the star of the two Asian American films, Ma recently found himself garnering attention for a short video on washing hands.
Mulan was scheduled to open March 27, but that’s been pushed back to July 24. Ma said he feels terrible about Tigertail‘s premiere cancellation, saying he wants it in theaters and still thinks it’s going to happen somewhere down the line.
But Ma does see the bright side of Netflix, which released Tigertail on April 10. “It’s not too shabby to have 170 million people being able to watch it,” Ma said, noting that Netflix has a “built-in audience” and the release is global, so he’s still excited.
Yet between the high of a Disney premiere and Tigertail streaming, Ma also had a dose of COVID-19 anti-Asian American hate. “It was actually very early on, probably around the time that charter flight was coming in from China where they brought some of the Americans back from Wuhan,” he recounted. That would have been in early February, before any of the lockdown, shelter-in-place measures were put in place in Los Angeles.
“I live in Pasadena. My neighborhood grocery store is Whole Foods; it’s really close to me,” Ma said. “I pulled into the underground parking lot. As I was crossing, I noticed a car turning the corner and just slowly approaching. I thought he was being courteous and was going to stop for me to cross. That didn’t happen. He continued to roll slowly and also I noticed he was rolling down the window. He stopped right in front of me. The car was perpendicular to me and he looked me straight in the eye. He said, ‘You should be quarantined,’ and took off.”
The Whole Foods on Arroyo Parkway is the newer of two locations in Pasadena. It has a dedicated underground parking lot and is upscale. Sometimes the Amazon Prime truck is parked just in front of the parking lot’s only entry way.
Ma, born in Hong Kong and raised in New York where his parents had a Chinese restaurant on Staten Island, considers himself “pretty street smart.”
“I’m very alert when I’m outside, but that was my one time when I let my guard down,” he said. “I was at home. I’m in my neighborhood grocery store. I just went cold. My world got turned upside down all of a sudden.”
Ma believes he was in shock. “After I recovered, I screamed at the top of my lungs,” Ma said, “but unfortunately, he was already at the top of the ramp turning right. I’m sure he didn’t hear me or if he did, he ignored me.”
Soon after the incident, Ma said he was contacted by the IW Group about recent anti-Asian American attacks to star in an online video for the company’s #WashTheHate campaign.
A marketing communications group that focuses on multicultural and multigenerational markets, the IW group launched #WashTheHate at about the time that the live-action Mulan would have opened. As part of the community campaign, anyone can record a 20-second video washing their hands while relating a personal story about how COVID-19 has impacted their life. The videos can then be posted on social media, including on the #WashTheHate Facebook page.
Becoming involved in the campaign and talking about his experience has cut down the downtime Tzi Ma thought he would have during the Los Angeles lockdown.
But he was busy before then – last year, the actor acted alongside in Lulu Wang’s critically acclaimed film, The Farewell. His character travels back to mainland China to see his mother, who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s a decision his daughter Billi (Awkwafina) finds hard to accept.
There’s a similarly strong focus on family connection in Tigertail, and his character Pin-Jui, like Haiyan, is an immigrant to the United States.
Ma plays an older Pin-Jui, who has left Taiwan for New York, changed his name to Grover and grown old. Grover finds that his dream in the US not as wonderful as he imagined, and he struggles to get an emotional connection with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko), who is also going through difficult times. Tigertail doesn’t come with fancy costumes or a happy Disney ending (and merchandizing pitches). It’s low key, pensive.
In hopeful young Pin-Jui, who is a bit of a rascal in Taiwan, Ma sees a man who is not what his wife needs; in the US as Grover, he’s also not what his daughter wants.
In a traditional Chinese families, Ma said, “We don’t talk about self too much. We don’t have a Western ideal of showing love.” This story is specifically about the Taiwanese experience and affords the community “an opportunity to show the world another side of us with another voice… to prevent people from lumping us together,” but Ma said the story also has some universals for those who crossed these oceans to come here, a story he said is true of many regardless of ethnicity – after all, only Native Americans were originally here.
Ma originally became interested in Tigertail because of writer and director Yang’s acceptance speech at the 68th Emmy Awards in 2016, where he and Aziz Ansari accepted an Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series award for Master of None.
In his speech, Yang emphasized the importance of Asian American representation on television:
Seventeen million Asian Americans in this country, and there are 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos; we got Long Duk Dong. So we got a long way to go, but I know we can get there. I believe in us, it’s just gonna take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you could do me a favor, just a couple of you, get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good.Alan Yang
That inspired Ma. After hearing Yang’s speech, Ma thought, “This guy’s doing something and maybe I want to work with him.”
To Ma, it’s important for others to recognize that the work of creatives is equally important. Though parents might want their children to be doctors, Ma said actors, writers and directors “can send out a message to millions at a time” and have enormous potential to “change perceptions, change misconceptions.”
“One of the most important things for me in Tigertail is that it is an immigrant story,” Ma said. “It is a generational story. It is about a common man, somebody you can recognize. Somebody you know, depending upon how old you are.”
Tigertail is streaming exclusively on Netflix. Tune in to see Tzi Ma as another Asian American father, or join him in the IW campaign while he advocates for change just by playing a regular guy and washing his hands.
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