A couple years after college, a friend of mine spilled some devastating news about our mutual past. Apparently during our freshman year at Yale, Anthony Young, one of the hottest sophomores on campus, almost asked me to a school dance, but took my friend instead. “It should have been you!” she said, as my heart sank. Anthony was a star intramural athlete with hair that fell over his eyes and T-shirts so tight you had no choice but to stare at his muscular biceps. He was also, like me, half-Chinese.
What I hadn’t realized until I started watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, though, is I’d never seen a guy like Anthony Young as the alpha-male lust object of a TV or movie rom-com. Of all the wonderful things to come of the beloved CW show’s first season, which came to an end Monday night, I’d posit that the show’s most subversive act was placing Josh Chan — a ripped and wonderfully chill Filipino skater dude (played by Broadway vet Vincent Rodriguez III, also Filipino) — front and center as the love interest of a prime-time sitcom.
We’ve seen John Cho of Harold and Kumar win over his gorgeous Latina neighbor (in more of a Revenge of the Ethnic Pothead Nerds scenario) and John Cho of Selfie kiss his white co-star (only for the show to be canceled right afterward). What makes CXG’s Josh Chan unusual, though, is not just that he’s an Asian love interest on television, but his specificity as a character. He is a realistic depiction of a guy you’ve actually met in life and who exists everywhere — except for American pop culture. Chances are, if you grew up anywhere in America with a sizable, multi-generational East Asian population (though particularly in Southern California), you knew, hung out with, or lusted after tons of Josh Chans, also known as Asian bros — a broad and often crush-worthy spectrum of guys that includes half the male population of my high school in small-town Los Alamos, New Mexico, along with most of the snowboarders and rock climbers I’ve met in New York. (Cho, a legitimate trailblazer, should get credit for probably the bro-iest Asian representation on film to date pre–Josh Chan, as “MILF guy #2” in 1999’s American Pie, a.k.a. the guy who shouts “MILF! MILF! MILF!” and makes out with a painting of Stifler’s mom.)
Josh Chan is distinct from the John Chos who came before him in that he’s not a nerd or control freak whom the girl eventually realizes is sexy, or a skinny Asian buffoon whose horniness is played up for comic relief (looking at you, MILF guy #2 and Long Duk Dong) — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend treats his good looks as a matter of fact. The show’s setup is essentially a late-20s /early-30s Felicity with musical numbers, centered on a pretty, successful, Jewish, Manhattan lawyer named Rebecca Bunch (played by show co-creator Rachel Bloom) who drops everything to move to the hilariously banal, far-inland L.A. suburb of West Covina, California, in pursuit of the hunk who was her boyfriend for a minute during high-school summer camp: Josh Chan. The fact that he’s Asian isn’t even referenced until the second episode, when it’s mentioned by way of introducing his muscle-y doppelgänger buddy, White Josh.
Rodriguez himself is essentially Josh Chan incarnate. He grew up in Daly City, California, or “the West Covina of San Francisco,” he says, and built his muscles on dance and martial arts. Before CXG, he tells me, he can’t remember another instance in his 12 years of acting reading a character breakdown and “feeling like it was describing me. Asian men are not used to going in for these kinds of roles, despite the fact that we could probably name a lot of friends who are like Josh,” he says. “I grew up with Joshes all around me.”
Rene Gube, a Filipino-American who is one of the show’s writers and has a recurring role as Josh’s basketball-playing, pot-smoking Catholic priest, Father Brah, concurs. “I grew up in San Diego, which is a big Navy town, and had a lot of Filipinos and Asian-Americans, so this is a dude I knew growing up all around me. At parts of my life, I was this dude.” Gube, by the way, was his high-school prom king.
Bloom, too, went to a high school in Manhattan Beach where the homecoming queen was Japanese and the homecoming king was Chinese. “They were just the coolest, most popular people in school. It didn’t seem like a thing,” she says. In writing Josh Chan, Bloom and CXG co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna insist they were just trying to emulate the actual demographics of West Covina, which is 50 percent Hispanic and 25 percent Asian, and create someone who could be the laidback opposite — and believable object of obsession — for their high-strung heroine. “We wanted him to be a guys’ guy, somebody you’d remember from your teenage years,” says McKenna, “and in a Southern California context it just makes sense that he would be non-white. We got to Asian pretty quickly.”
Good-looking, athletic, and socially adept, the Asian bro, to me, is a subset of the general bro category of dude for whom Chris Evans is the ne plus ultra, a guy eminently capable of getting chicks and happiest in his natural environment: a sports bar during the NCAA finals bro-ing out with other bros. What distinguishes the Asian bro from his white counterparts is perhaps a certain je ne sais quoi that comes from having grown up as “other” with family members who don’t speak English.
I should know — I was raised by an Asian bro. My father is the Manhattan-raised son of Chinese immigrants who my blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother still thinks is the most handsome man she’s ever seen, and who taught me everything I know about sports and fixing cars. He spent his college years playing pool, hanging out with members of Columbia’s most Animal House–ish frat, and being a roadie for his roommates’ band, which sometimes jammed after-hours with a not-yet-famous Jimi Hendrix. When he came to visit me in Brooklyn over Christmas, he got hit on by some giggling 20-something women in a Chinatown store who wanted to know if he’s Mongolian (which I hear is code for saying he’s hot). I’ve had ex-girlfriends of his track me down to ask if he’s divorced. That whole paragraph felt weird to type, but it’s true.
My date to senior prom, George Liu, was a serious tennis player who wooed me, if you can call it that, with basketball stats. Another high-school friend, a cute Japanese guy who hung out with skaters and dated what seems like all of my girlfriends, is now revered on the BMX trick-biking scene of Boulder, Colorado. My best guy friend from college is a total Josh — a Korean lawyer and dad who married the prettiest, funniest woman I know and is the mayor of every bar or party he enters.
While that may just sound like a list of every great, masculine Asian guy I know, in truth it’s only a fraction. Asian bros are everywhere, from the famous (Jeremy Lin, Hideiki Matsui) to the YouTube famous (Six Pack Shortcuts king Michael Chang). There’s an entire documentary, 9-Man, about a hypercompetitive men’s volleyball league in New York’s Chinatown, dedicated to them, and a web reality series called K-Town filled with them.
“So what you’re saying is that your dad and this Josh Chan character are guys who like things guys like, and they’re also Asian?” a white male friend of mine asked when I was explaining this phenomenon to him. “What’s the big deal?” I eventually had to give up.
Ask Asian men my age, however, and they often cite a kind of Darwinian bro-ification they had to adopt to endure adolescence. A successful Brooklyn restaurant owner told me how he had to join a Korean gang as a teenager because guys kept stepping to him because of some perceived weakness due to his race. “I think it’s perception perpetuated by representation,” says Chiwan Choi, a Korean writer friend of mine who carries a street-toughness about him. “You go through a phase of wanting to change your look, but then you realize you can’t change your skin.” I know from experience, and statistics, that I am rare to be mixed-race with an Asian father. Asian men fare very badly on online dating sites like OKCupid and experience a Bamboo Ceiling in corporate advancement, a bias that surely correlates with the historical effeminization of Asian men onscreen.
My colleague E. Alex Jung wrote about 2015 as a breakthrough year for Asian Americans on TV, and he’s right. But there’s a vast gulf between getting America to embrace a loving, human portrayal of a Taiwanese immigrant family on Fresh Off the Boat, or a wacky physician on Dr. Ken, and presenting on prime-time TV a single and mingling Asian man whom college women of all races in Ohio would conceivably want to bone. (That said, praise should also be given to Aziz Ansari’s Master of None for introducing Kelvin Yu’s Taiwanese finance bro character, Brian, who can text women a question mark and always get a response because all girls like his ass.)
“I don’t know if the word is ignorant — I think it’s a cop-out,” says Rodriguez. “It’s so easy to make an Asian person the doctor, the lawyer, the smart kid in school. What’s harder is challenging the norm and hiring Asian actors to play your Average Joe.” Not only is Josh Chan, as Rodriguez says, “an everyman character,” but he’s the rare Asian onscreen who’s been allowed to be non-exceptional in academia, though perhaps exceptional as a human being. Rodriguez tells me that while filming a scene where Josh does calculations on a napkin, he had to ask a few times if he was doing the math too fast.
Rodriguez, who came up through musical theater, says that watching Filipino-American Paolo Montalbán as Prince Christopher in the 1997 Disney TV movie Cinderella gave him and many of his friends “this new aspiration, because if he did it, and he’s representing us, then maybe we could do it,” Rodriguez explains. “It’s one of the reasons I purposefully strayed from Asian-specific roles at the beginning of my career, because I saw this lack of representation from the Asian community in non-Asian-specific roles. I don’t want to be a deliveryman or a doctor. I don’t relate to that — I relate to being an American who was born here and understands the American dream and wants to chase after it.” (Montalbán went on to star in the Mortal Kombat TV series, but his latest screen credits have been “forensic scientist,” “second investigator,” “military tech,” and “Tahiti cop #1.”)
For a while, Rodriguez turned down shows like Miss Saigon, but eventually he had to cave and take what was available, which was usually stereotypical Asian characters in musicals with outdated books. He was Bun Foo, one of two Chinese henchmen characters in a regional tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie. His costume included a Chinese cap with a tail of black hair attached that had been purchased at a Halloween shop. Another time, he toured as Luke, one of two Chinese gambler characters used as comic relief in Anything Goes.
Over time, he found himself self-selecting out of going for lead roles, or doubting his agent when he put him up to replace Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “There have been times of weakness in my career where I felt, Oh, I couldn’t go in for that, they won’t consider me, or I’m not right for the show because I’m not white,” Rodriguez says. “And it’s because I’m looking at it through a white filter, because this is a decade into my career and I know who they’ll cast and who they won’t.”
Bloom says she had no idea about the opportunity gap in Hollywood until she started talking to friends of hers who are minorities in the biz. “When we were going around looking for an Asian leading man who could also sing and dance, everyone was like, ‘Good fucking luck,’” Bloom said. To find Rodriguez, they eschewed the usual L.A. casting system and dug deep into the New York one. Their Josh Chan was working as an anonymous ensemble member of Here Lies Love, an Off Broadway musical (composed by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim) about First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos.
Bloom and McKenna wrote the character of Josh Chan very intentionally as a bro; they both used the term multiple times when I talked to them. The outfit Josh wears in the pilot — tight V-neck T-shirt, jeans, beaded bracelet, flannel shirt tied around his waist — is based on the outfit Rodriguez wore to his first audition. “I actually say ‘dude’ a lot.’ I say ‘like’ a lot,” he says. Josh’s job at a kitschy electronics store, Aloha Tech, seems to be partially based on Rodriguez’s love of taking selfies. “In our minds, Josh Chan was the most popular guy in school,” Bloom explains. “Everyone loved him and that kind of happy bro-ness. He’s not close-minded, he sees possibilities anywhere, and he can make a friend wherever he goes.”
From the moment Josh Chan is introduced on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend we’re trained to see him as a guy who can get it. “We’ve set him up as a sexpot,” Bloom says. “He’s a red-blooded American man.” In one episode, a pretty blonde woman he went to high school with refers to him as “Josh Chan, who I have a crush on to this day.” In another, Greg (Josh’s brooding best friend who, it’s clear from the beginning, will also be vying for Rebecca’s heart) tells Josh that Rebecca is into him, and Josh replies, “Yeah, maybe she’s a little into me, but most girls in this town are.” Every time Josh touches Rebecca, we can see her get turned on. And who among us didn’t swoon when they finally kissed after 13 episodes of buildup? “That kiss is not just a happily ever after fairy-tale kiss,” Bloom says. “That is a precoital kiss.”
Even as the show shifted focus to Greg as Rebecca’s “true” romantic interest at the end of the season, it has never lost sight of Josh’s essential appeal as part of that love triangle. “The connection between Josh and Rebecca is very much a nostalgic call back to high school,” Bloom explains, “but on the flip side, they would never be able to just be friends.” He is a legitimate sexual Prince Charming, and like catnip for Rebecca. In the finale, while an emotionally shut down Greg is puking in a trash can, Josh is seductively eyeing Rebecca at his sister’s wedding. He tells her to meet him on the roof, and they grind on what Rebecca imagines is a magic carpet; his shirt goes missing, just because. Best of all, when Rebecca, in his (presumably postcoital) arms, confesses she moved to West Covina for him and is so excited for their love story to finally begin, he gets to freak out, just like a regular guy. Now, that’s progress, bro.