The Big and Small of Ken Jeong

Whether we like it or not, comedian and actor Ken Jeong is suddenly the Asian American star soaring in the media firmament. If you’re like me, you’re ambivalent about having the hyperactive evil elf from The Hangover become the character Americans flash on first when they think of Asians.

“Suck my little Chinese nuts,” screams Jeong as Mr Chow in The Hangover. Not quite the tone we like to see struck by an Asian star.

I watched the Billboard Music Awards last night to see whether, as its host, Jeong is more likely to boost or bruise our image. Pop music is about as big a cultural force as there is in America, and taking center stage as the MC is definitely a magnified moment under the cultural microscope. A tour de farce (not a typo) of edgy chutzpah by Jeong would have shown some big nuts as well as the cultural savvy so often denied us in media depictions. On the other hand, had Jeong used his mega-moment to feed the American media’s apparently insatiable appetite to see Asian men demeaned as goofy but harmless non-entities, he would have deserved the purgatory of benign neglect. It could have gone either way because Jeong has done both so far in his rise to stardom.

It was a toss-up. Jeong was nattily dressed, supremely poised and displayed admirable straight-faced sang froid while delivering his lines to mega-stars like Keith Urban. He also showed some surprising skill in tickling the ivories to show his bona fides as a music man as the show opened. On the other hand, Jeong did play into the stereotypes as the “Little White Elvis” and while crawling on the stage under the legs of some white male celeb whose identity escapes me. I understand it’s all in good corny network-approved fun, but pictures speak loudly. A small Asian man crawling on the floor in front of a large white man is an image that’s likely to linger long after everyone has forgotten its context.

I want to make clear that I am not down on Jeong because of the accident of his physical size. At around 5-5 he is undoubtedly a man of small stature. And as much as we would prefer to see tall, well-built Asian males like Yao Ming as our avatars in the media, we are receptive to small Asian men who have the emotional and intellectual wattage with which to command a scene or a stage. After all, the biggest of all Asian stars, Bruce Lee, was only about 5-7 — and no Asian American faults him for his size.

I am not yet ready to compare Ken Jeong with Bruce Lee, but Jeong has definitely shown serious power in his various acting roles as well as on the comedy stage. It takes a real pair and street smarts to pull of scenes that win awards for the kind of memorable WTF moments that people have come to expect from Jeong. That’s what keeps him in the running as an Asian media figure who could really help whittle away those lingering images of Asian male timidity and cluelessness.

I’m not going to rush out to see Ken Jeong play nasty Mr Chow in The Hangover II, which opens this Thursday, but I am hoping it will elevate him higher on the media firmament. Then we will be able to see whether, given the opportunity, Jeong will use his small size and big personality to dynamite or prop up those creaky stereotypes.