Denver Pop Culture Con 2019: Ming-Na Wen and Asian Representation in Hollywood

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Most of the time, she was giggling like this! Her happiness is contagious, that’s for sure. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying going through my notes, remembering these awesome celebrity spotlight panels I attended at Denver Pop Culture Con earlier this month.

For this installment, I’m going to share my fun time with the illustrious Ming-Na Wen.

I first saw Ms. Wen on the big screen in The Joy Luck Club when I was in college. I had read Amy Tan’s novel just before heading off to school; seeing the movie and putting the vibrant characters to life on the screen was such a treat. Ming-Na’s portrayal of June was spot on, playing a young woman who had grown up under the stern eye of a Chinese “Tiger Mom.” Not long after The Joy Luck Club, Ming-Na was one of the original interns in the long-running hospital drama ER. Again, she was portrayed as a stereotypical Asian-American overachiever, but she undergoes a transformation during the series. After getting to know her as Dr. Chen, she brought the most badass Disney princess* to life in Mulan. Mulan is definitely my favorite Disney princess, my natural choice when I got to choose a princess to cosplay during my first Disney Princess Half Marathon in 2012.

*I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Mulan is not a princess. She’s not the daughter of a king or queen, nor did she marry a prince. She’s an Army-brat-turned-Army-soldier-turned-Army-spouse (in the Disney telling of the story). And that’s okay.

But I digress.

Suffice it to say, Ming-Na Wen is one of my favorite actresses and I was so excited to get to add her Celebrity Spotlight panel to my Denver Pop Culture Con schedule earlier this month. Most of the panel consisted of audience Q&A, so let’s hear more of what she had to say, okay?

“I’m In the Same Room As a Disney Princess!”

Yes, I felt the same way as the first audience member who had the chance to ask a question. To be honest, my notes aren’t even clear about what this individual’s question was, in part because the audience went ape about Ms. Wen being one of the Disney princesses.

She did take a moment to tell us about the Disney Legends recognition, and that just two weeks prior, she learned she was going to be recognized as part of the 2019 class, alongside fellow fan favorites Robert Downey, Jr., James Earl Jones, Jon Favreau, and Hans Zimmer. The 2019 class will be formally recognized at the D23 Expo in August.

“Hi, Caitlyn!”

I’m not sure if that’s how the young lady’s name is spelled, but an adorable 4-year-old named Caitlyn asked Ms. Wen “How did you play Mulan?”

To which Ms. Wen answered: “Disney wanted me for my voice.”

No, not necessarily her singing voice (that was Tony-award-winning Lea Salonga). But Ms. Wen did explain that her voice, meaning her personality, her background, her points of view, were important to the story Disney was telling in their adaptation of the Ballad of Mulan.

She asked Caitlyn’s mother permission before concluding her answer, “Mulan is a badass, isn’t she?”

For those who follow Ms. Wen on social media, you’ll know she carries a pretty blunt presence. That personality carried over during the panel. In fact, several times during the panel she had to check herself from going too far beyond PG-13…she would stop and say “Hi Caitlyn!” as her way of suggesting “Whoa, I almost said something R-rated!”

Ming-Na Wen at Denver Pop Culture Con
Image credit: Patricia Vollmer

“Stop and Go”

A question was asked about her thoughts concerning Asian representation in Hollywood. This definitely interested me, since I’m half Asian and am keenly aware of this subject myself.

Ms. Wen summarized her thoughts with “Stop and go.” She reminded us that this year marks 21 years since the release of the original Mulan film, suggesting that there has been Asian representation in film throughout the past couple of decades. She pointed out that China is becoming a much larger player in films that are getting released in the U.S.: “China’s part of the economic equation.” She also reminded us how popular the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians has been.

I can certainly see her point. I probably have a biased look at Asian representation in part because, while growing up, my family and I purposefully sought out films with Asian stars. My mother and I watched numerous 1980s Hong Kong action films featuring John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat together while I was growing up.

Look carefully as you’re watching new releases. China’s investing in and taking an active role in casting, producing, and marketing more and more films that are designed for American release. The two biggies whose names I’ve seen in opening credits are Alibaba Pictures and Huayi Brothers. These two companies have financed a variety of American hits, including the two Bad Moms films, the most recent Mission: Impossible movies, as well as the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboots. Alibaba Pictures has an agreement with Amblin Entertainment and DreamWorks (both under the umbrella of Amblin Partners).

In order to keep the funding flow alive, American filmmakers who are counting on this investment have noticed correlations between the inclusion of Asian and Asian-American actors and box office draws in China. Rogue One is a great example, with Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen having prominent roles, and viewership in China increasing nearly exponentially compared to A Force Awakens. I’m not a huge fan of the title of this Vanity Fair article, but the data presented is compelling.

So is it Asian inclusion for the sake of Hollywood just trying to be good humans, or was it driven by purse strings? I don’t know the answer to that. No matter the reason, I think Ms. Wen was hinting that the increased Asian investment in films that are popular in the U.S. will lead to increased Asian representation.

Favorite Mulan Scene

A fan asked Ms. Wen for her favorite scene in Mulan. She pointed out the scene where Mulan is sitting with her father, and he observes that one of the flowers nearby was blooming later than others, a metaphor for Mulan’s own late blooming. “My, my, what beautiful blossoms we have this year. But look! This one’s late. But I’ll bet that when it blooms, it will be the most beautiful of all.”

But she also mentioned her favorite quote, which fit in with the scene well (but was said, by the Emperor, in a different scene): “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.”

Favorite Disney Princess

Not Mulan.


Ms. Wen said her favorite princesses are Ariel, Elsa, and Anna. She shocked the room with that answer.

“I Was Such a Ding Dong!”

Yes, she said that. It was in response to a fan asking what it was like for Ms. Wen to film all of her Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Melinda May action scenes in high heels.

She did all of the Season 1 action scenes in heels. Later she found out that wasn’t necessary, and told us, “I was such a ding dong!”….I’m not sure if the heels were CGI’d into a scene, or they were okay with her character not being in heels, but starting with Season 2, Ms. Wen didn’t have to endure the discomfort.

For a fun read, check out this opinion piece about action women wearing uncomfortable shoes.

“I Have High Hopes”

The last tidbit I’m going to share was Ms. Wen’s response to the question “What do you think about the upcoming live-action Mulan film?”

“I have very high hopes about it.”

She told us about how the live-action version, due for release in March 2020, will focus less on humor and music, and more on the actual folklore from the Ballad of Mulan, the series of poems from which the 1998 film was inspired. I think it’s going to be less-child-friendly than the animated version.

In addition, Disney focused their casting exclusively in Asia, with the actress chosen to play Mulan herself having only done one other American film (with Jackie Chan and Jet Li). Lo and behold, the casting list on IMDB is exclusively Asian and Asian-American. You’ll recognize many of the names, but the majority are Chinese film stars who perhaps haven’t crossed over to western film yet.

I think we’re about to see Asian representation take a very interesting turn, indeed.

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