Alex Chester: You So Hapa

Alex Chester is a California gal living in NYC. She has been performing since she was a little girl and has always dreamed of running a theatre company based on diversity. Alex is going to make that happen with WeSoHapa. She is also the creator of the multicultural blog www.MeSoHapa.com. Theatre credits include: “How the Grinch Stole Xmas” – Madison Square Garden (NYC) and the Broadway sit-down production at The Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. Minnie Fay in “Hello Dolly” directed by Lee Roy Reams at the Signature Theatre (Off-Broadway),  Joy/Skyler in “A Taste of Chocolate” with AMAS directed by Dan Knechtges (NYC). Connie in “A Chorus Line” at The Berkshire Theatre Festival (Regional), “The King and I” at Dallas Summer Musicals (Regional). TV credits include:  “ER,” “The Closer,” “7th Heaven,” and several national/international commercials. Follow her on TwitterInstagram and Facebook!

What inspired you to start Me So Hapa?

I started Me So Hapa a little over a year ago because I wanted a creative outlet to voice my opinions on the entertainment industry and food. I offer a unique perspective coming from two or more cultural backgrounds. I also feel that food can bring everyone together.

Food is always a good entry point to explore other cultures.

A lot of my Hapa friends takes one cuisine and mix it with the other. For example, one of my friends adds kimchi to matzah ball soup.

What is your background?

I’m half-Japanese and part French, Russian and Romanian. Because my mom is Jewish, that also makes me full Jewish. At my family’s wedding, there was a Buddhist monk and a rabbi.

[Laughs] How did your parents meet?

My mom was working for a Japanese bank, and my dad was a patron at the bank. She’s a family law attorney.

As someone who is Hapa, what’s been the hardest part of being a performer and perceived as ethnically ambiguous?

First of all, I hate the word ambiguous. To me, it’s like saying, “You don’t really fit anywhere, so we’re going to put you here because white people are okay with that still.” It’s been hard because I’m never Asian enough and I’m never white enough. I’ve been called in for shows where they see me and they’re like, “You don’t really fit this.” But you called me in; you’ve seen my picture.

It’s also frustrating not seeing anyone else out there who’s like me, really. It’s very rare that there’s a Hapa performer on screen or in theater. And if there is another Hapa performer, they are playing full Asian or full Caucasian. It’s very rare to see characters who are actually Hapa, so being one means your are a minority within a minority.

I’ve never heard someone say that, but it’s so true.

Recently, me and my friend Rebecca Lerman did a video called “Whitewash This” in response to “Ghost in a Shell.” There was so much hate from full Asian people! There was stuff like, “You can’t represent us.” You’re a Hapa; you’re a product of—what was it—white male, Asian female. They meant that in the derogatory sense.

Did they seem like Asian Americans or Asian people from other parts of the world?

I think they were Asian Americans. I believe the video was put into a reddit thread, and it opened a floodgate.

Do you feel people perceive you as more Asian or more white?

They don’t know what I am, which is always entertaining because I’m continually asked, “What are you? Are you from here?” [Laughs] Yes, I’m American, thank you very much. When I do tell them what I am, I get, “You don’t look Japanese. Really, you’re Jewish? You don’t look Jewish.” I always go, “What does that mean? I don’t have a big nose and horns growing out of my head?”

I recently told someone that I came to America when I was nine, and they said, “But you don’t have an accent.” That was 20 years ago, but thanks. How do you feel sexism and racism overlap in the entertainment industry?

As a woman in the entertainment industry, I feel like you always have to be careful. When people don’t feel like you’re a sex object who can be exploited, they don’t feel they can manipulate you. I’ve had several married friends who won’t wear their wedding bands at auditions. If a casting director sees one, they might go, “I can’t sleep with her.”

Wow.

I feel like that’s such a double standard. Maybe men do deal with that, but I doubt women are looking at casting and wondering if they could sleep with male actors. Obviously, you don’t want to be mean to anyone and burn bridges, so it’s a really fine line to walk. You can’t always just call someone out.

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In addition to Me So Hapa, there’s also We So Hapa. How did this collaboration come about?

We So Hapa came about because I don’t see any shows created for actors, because they are multicultural. I’ve met so many Hapas since I’ve moved to New York, and it’s been interesting listening to their perspective and experiences in the entertainment industry. Also, many of them are ridiculously talented. There’s no reason why these people shouldn’t be on Broadway right now. I’ve always wanted to start my own theatre company, and now is the time. I contacted Rebecca and my friend Kalen Sakima. Kalen has his own production company called Sakima Productions, and Rebecca is also a writer and incredibly creative woman. I knew I wanted them on-board to help shape this project.

Are you all Hapas?

Yes.

Correct me if I am wrong, but a person is still considered Hapa if they are, for example, half-Vietnamese and half-Chinese, even though they do not look mixed race.

Hapa came from Hawaii, I believe, as a way to describe people who are mixed. Essentially, it just means you’re mixed and that’s why I love the word. It’s a cute and happy word.

That’s fascinating because it means a lot more people have Hapa-ness to them than we think, given that this country is an immigrant nation.

Exactly! There was a National Geographic article talking about how in 100 years, everyone is going to be mixed. There will no longer be such a thing as pure white or pure black. It’s something everyone will be able to relate to.

I actually think it’s a very healthy perspective to have on the world, but for whatever reason, some people are fearful of it.

They are, and that’s another reason why I wanted to do this cabaret. Particularly with the political climate and what is going on with Black Lives Matter, I feel Hapas will bridge the gap. We can bring two cultures and two creeds together. I have a friend who’s Filipino-German-Jewish. She looks full Filipino, but she was raised Catholic while her dad was Jewish. Being Hapa is a great way to show that we are just one big family.

How did your upbringing influence your advocacy and theater work?

I come from a long line of strong women. I’m third-generation on both my mom and dad’s sides. My grandmother was an accomplished musician, activist, and paralegal. My mom is an attorney, so they were always encouraging of changing the world and making it a better place. My dad was the head of Parks & Recreation for Monrovia, so he’s done a lot with the environment.

Wow, definitely some strong leadership skills from your lineage.

Most definitely. They’ve always been so supportive of my career and everything that I do. I know I’m very lucky with that.

What’s the biggest misconception with Hapas?

That we’re exotic. I would have guys come up to me and go, “Are you French? What are you? You’re so beautiful.” I’m like, thank you but now you have to tone down the creepiness and talk to me like a person.

I’ve said this myself, but how do you deal with the casual rhetoric of people who are mixed race being very attractive?

I’m not going to lie—mixed race people are beautiful. I have very attractive friends. [Laughs] But there’s the stigma that if you’re pretty, you don’t have to deal with any problems. It’s so bizarre because it makes people approach you like you’re an object rather than an actual person.

It’s really about getting to know the person, and not simply one aspect of their personhood.

And not saying stupid things. Talk to me like a human being first before asking me what am I.

With advent of online dating and the visual component always being perceived first, the creepiness factor has really grown exponentially.

Because people feel they can put everything on social media now, there’s no filter in everyday life anymore.

Tell me about the “We So Hapa” cabaret event.

It’s a one-night event on September 12 at 8:30 p.m. at The Triad. We are finalizing our cast list, and it’s going to be a great group of talented people. We have so much support within our community. We have monologues and music about being mixed and things we have witnessed. I really hope people come away with a positive message.

I can’t wait to see it!

Thank you! People complain about lack of diversity, but we also have to take responsibility for that by creating the work for actors.

What’s your advice for others who struggle with identity politics and people defining them incorrectly?

Having a strong support group between my family and friends have really helped. Living in New York City can be incredibly tough and emotionally draining when you’re pounding the pavement. In a way, you have to not care as much and keep plugging away [at it]. Also, be vocal about it. So many actors are scared that they will be blackballed if something they say will be interpreted as negative, and that’s something we all have to get past. Honestly, if you’re not going to hire me because I have these views about diversity, then maybe I don’t want to work with you anyway.

For example, I have a really hard time when I get sent in for fresh-off-the-boat Chinese roles. One, I am not Chinese, and two, I am not fresh-off-the-boat. When I have gone in, it’s really awkward. “Hey, I don’t look like this at all and I do not have a proper accent.” We’re so hungry for acceptance and booking that job. Yeah, everyone needs their weeks for SAG or Equity, but it’s also our moral obligation to say, “No, this does not work for me. This is not right.”

What’s your advice for non-actors to help engage in this dialogue about media representation?

First of all, if you’re not in the entertainment industry but you want to see more diversity, then don’t support projects that are white-washing. People might say it won’t affect the entertainment industry, but if we all did it, it would hurt their profit. It’s just a matter of everyone actually taking action. And talk about it, tweet about it, tell your friends and neighbors about what is going on. I always love it when people want to talk to me about diversity. If you don’t know what’s going on, I’m happy to share my views.

Whenever we’re crossing cultural boundaries, there’s always a non-douchey way to ask questions about things you haven’t encountered.

Exactly. You can say, “I don’t want to sound douchey and I don’t mean to, but I want to ask you this question.” I’ll be okay with that.

That’s always far better than, “I don’t want to make this awkward so I’ll go with my assumptions.”

Yes. Just be open and honest, and I will be too.

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