It’s a Sunday morning in July. The doors to the dining room of a private home in West Los Angeles are swung wide open so that the 30 or so women sitting at folding banquet tables and on couches can take in some fresh air. Some crowd around the kitchen, where open boxes of donuts and bagels and trays of frittatas are out for a self-serve buffet. There’s a strawberry pie in the mix, for good measure, and plenty of coffee. Welcome to the Asian Women Writers Brunch.
The ongoing event has been Jennifer Hsu’s passion project. A practicing doctor, Hsu started writing three years ago after she says she grew tired of seeing her favorite Asian American TV characters being killed off, like Susie Chang (Tina Huang) on “Rizzoli & Isles” and Glen Rhee (Steven Yeun) on “The Walking Dead.”
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“I started learning how to write but knew having any sort of success was a serious long shot,” says Hsu, who has since written for a short-form digital show. “I wanted to also help the talented writers and artists I met along the way.”
Inspired by Lena Waithe’s Black Women Who Brunch, Hsu organized the Asian Women Writers Brunch so fellow writers could connect in person, rather than simply seeing each other’s names fly by on a screen. She reached out to fellow writer and the CW’s “Nancy Drew” executive producer Melinda Hsu Taylor (no relation) and Michelle Sugihara, executive director of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) for help.
Together, they organized the first brunch in February, extending invites to upper-level writers, and then expanding to guild members, staff writers and writers’ assistants. According to Hsu, in just three months, interest swelled from 20 RSVPs to over 50. Executive producers from shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” have attended. The volunteer-run group has organized five brunches total so far, with a sixth planned for September.
Part of the objective, says Taylor, is to create pipelines for Asian American women to land jobs — or, at the very least, get face time with people who can help. Because, as it often goes in the industry, it’s about who you know.
“I think people are only comfortable hiring people whom they’ve met or whom a third party can vouch for them,” notes Taylor.
She says that while diversity programs can be helpful — even crucial — in making writers rooms more inclusive (she’s gone through them herself), there are drawbacks. “It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword because sometimes people get kind of pigeon-holed as the diversity writer, and then it’s difficult for them to move up the ranks.”
And then there’s the sense of community, something that’s hard to find when there are so few writers of Asian descent on a single show. Lana Cho, a frequent brunch attendee, admired the sense of camaraderie the black women’s brunch seemed to foster.
“I was so jealous when I saw how involved they were, how supportive and how big it was,” says Cho, co-executive producer of Hulu’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
Adds Shuo Zhang, who was recently staffed on her first show, “I wouldn’t have found this outlet for issues that are so specific to Asian women without the people here talking about them, together.”
Issues, brunch attendees tell Variety, like the isolation that can come with being the lone Asian American woman on staff, tokenization and being relegated to writing only for characters of Asian descent.
Since starting her career in 2003, Taylor says it’s really been in the past five years that she has seen writers rooms make diversity a priority; “Nancy Drew” is the first one where she has had more than one female writer of Asian descent.
A 2019 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report revealed that between 2016 and 2017, minority writers made up only 11 percent of writing credits for 39 percent of scripted broadcast shows. A recent WGA inclusion report card showed that POC writers made up 30 percent of TV staffing season in 2019, an uptick of one percentage point from last season (although this is still preliminary data, as the 2019-2020 season unfolds).
“It’s still microscopic. We’re talking about it and everybody’s ‘rah-rah’ about [diversity], but when you’re looking at it statistically, there’s still work to be done,” says Simran Baidwan, co-executive producer of NBC’s “Manifest.”
So, the idea that there might only be room for one writer of Asian descent on a staff still looms large for writers like Stefanie Woodburn. She remembers a mentor for one writing fellowship telling her as much; the fellowship was geared towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“‘Look around the table. You are never going to be in a writers room that looks like this,’’ she recalls the mentor saying. Woodburn is now drawing on her own mixed Chinese/white background and developing a period drama centered on a Eurasian courtesan.
Baidwan says that groups like the Asian Women Writers Brunch are vital in making the industry more inclusive, not just with entry-level writing positions but funneling upwards into more senior and executive positions.
“Yes, we are the content creators. You need it there. But you also need it with the people in positions of power. You need it at networks, you need the greenlighters, the people who are able to make those decisions in every department,” Baidwan says.
“The Asian women’s brunch is really important. The black women’s brunch is really important. The Latinx brunch is really important. I think that’s why all of this has to continue because it shouldn’t just be, ‘Oh, well, we did this once,’” she adds, before loosely quoting a line from the song “My Shot” from “Hamilton” and one that she heard oft-repeated when “Crazy Rich Asians” came out in 2018. “It should not just be a moment. It should be a movement.”