Jimmy O. Yang’s Crab Club feasts on Asian American stories

Entertainment
Ken Cheng, Jimmy O. Yang, Jessica Gao

Ken Cheng, from left, Jimmy O. Yang and Jessica Gao, co-founders of the Crab Club production company, pose for a portrait in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Yang, whose Netflix holiday rom-com “Love Hard” drops Friday, has been turning the production company he operates with Gao and Cheng into a real Hollywood force. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

One of the hottest “clubs” in Hollywood is run by “Crazy Rich Asians” actor Jimmy O. Yang and his producing partners. There’s no DJ or bottle service. If you gain entry, you better know how to eat a Dungeness crab.

Yang, whose Netflix holiday rom-com “Love Hard” drops Friday, has been turning Crab Club, the production company he operates alongside Jessica Gao and Ken Cheng, into a real Hollywood force.

Why Crab Club? The moniker comes from their regular crab dinners with other Asian American friends working in entertainment. The aim was not just to eat, but also to support each other. The meals rotate among their Los Angeles-area homes. For Yang, it was a “cool dinner club.”

“I just felt very normal, kind of like when I was shooting ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ where we didn’t have to explain ourselves,” Yang told The Associated Press.

Being in Hollywood, the gatherings eventually transcended beyond being a support group and are now an incubator for TV and film projects told on their terms. In 2019, Yang, Gao and Cheng formed Crab Club, Inc., and it didn’t take long for the company to prove it has legs.

Comedian Jo Koy showed up to one of the dinners and there was a spark of “synergy,” Yang said. Talk of all of them working together led to Crab Club’s first project: “Easter Sunday,” a comedy about a Filipino American family starring Koy. The movie, which will premiere in April, found a partner in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.

“We all broke the story together. But Ken is the main writer,” Yang said. “He wrote such an amazing script that it was legendarily greenlit by Steven Spielberg on the first draft.”

They’re now co-writing “The Great Chinese Art Heist” with Yang’s former “Crazy Rich Asians” director, Jon M. Chu, attached. Crab Club is also producing an Amazon Studios comedy series, to be co-penned and executive produced by Cheng, about outcasts in Los Angeles.

“If somebody sends us a project, we have two rules,” Cheng said. “The first is the project has to sort of spotlight a marginalized voice or a marginalized community. We’re three Chinese Americans. Obviously, we’re going to lean towards Asian American projects or Asian diasporic projects…The second mandate is all three of us have to like it and want to do it.”

Crab Club dinners — which were temporarily halted during the pandemic — weren’t intended to be some exclusive Asian Algonquin Round Table. It really started out as being about eating crab. Gao, showrunner of the highly anticipated Marvel/Disney+ “She-Hulk” series, said they and two other friends created a text thread in 2017 to alert each other if they saw Dungeness crab at a bargain price.

“When the prices dropped to the single digits per pound, we would all — like the Avengers — assemble to have a crab dinner,” Gao said. “We would all take turns hosting at each other’s houses. And we’re all very good cooks.”

It’s been invite-only due to the difficulty accommodating beyond 10-15 people and because the host has to buy the crabs. Their little supper club has started to generate buzz, with producers and actors asking how they can join.

People in the group have spent so many years “siloed off” always being the only Asian on sets, Cheng said. Here, they can cook up ideas or gripe about having doors closed by industry people because of their race or ethnicity.

They also have each other’s back outside of Crab Club productions. When the plot of “Love Hard” and Yang’s casting were revealed, there was immediate criticism that the story would hinge on the trope of the nerdy Asian guy not being a believable romantic option.

In the sweet but not sappy Christmas flick, a New York man (Yang) uses a photo of his hunky childhood friend as an online dating profile pic. He forms a bond over text and phone chats with a Los Angeles writer (Nina Dobrev). When she busts his catfishing after surprising him at his home, Cyrano-esque hijinks ensue.

“I knew that there would be tweets like that from watching the trailer because of course you boil that story down…It’s like, ‘Oh what are you trying to say? Oh, this kind of Asian guy with glasses is not hot and this other guy is hot?’” Yang said.

He assures the movie is more nuanced. Originally, his character was not written as Asian American. Yang took the role after he got producers to agree that the “hot guy” be played by someone of Asian descent (Darren Barnet of “Never Have I Ever” has the role). Yang also knew playing this part meant viewers would see an Asian family on screen.

That level of consideration is one reason Cheng and Gao are protective of Yang when it comes to critics.

“This is a situation that I think really illustrates the kind of unfair position that actors of color are put in,” Gao said. “Jimmy actually cares about his community and wants to protect his community.”

Like Yang, Gao and Cheng are extremely busy with projects outside of Crab Club. Gao has her hands full with “She-Hulk,” where people of color comprise more than half the writing staff. Cheng has a slew of commitments including an HBO comedy pilot about siblings running a Chinese restaurant.

It would be easy for the trio to only focus on their own careers in such a cutthroat business. But, they also want to help emerging writers and actors add to what could be a “golden age of Asian American art,” Cheng said.

A golden age seems long overdue. In May, a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report found that only 5.9% of 51,159 speaking roles across 1,300 top-grossing movies between 2007 and 2019 were portrayed by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Only 3.4%, or 44, of those movies had Asians or Pacific Islanders as a lead or co-lead.

The ongoing lack of representation is why the trio will send projects to other writers if they’re not the right fit. Gao says they need to overcome Hollywood’s history of making people of color compete for scraps of opportunities.

“The circle gets bigger,” Gao said. “A rising tide lifts all boats. That’s the philosophy that we believe.”

___ Terry Tang is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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