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Pointing Out Clues to Ms. Swan and Mr. Wong

November 06, 2000

Alex Borstein's defense of her characterization of Ms. Swan on "Mad TV" doesn'twash ("Providing the Real Origin of 'Mad TV's' Ms. Swan," Oct. 30). It really doesn't matter what "fictional country" Ms. Swan is from or Borstein's nationality. What matters is how the character is perceived by viewers.

The first time I saw Ms. Swan, I didn't see how one could think of her as anything other than Asian--most likely Chinese or Korean. She displayed all the stereotypical characteristics that narrow-minded whites attribute to Asians: vocal inflections, mannerisms, stoical facial expression.

Has "Mad TV" ever portrayed a grinning, foot-shuffling, watermelon-eating, buffoonish Sambo? If someone tried that, the phone lines to Fox would be tied up for hours and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume would be calling for the producer's head. I suppose Borstein would just have Ms. Swan tell Mfume to "take a chill pill."

FORREST G. WOOD

Bakersfield

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To Alex Borstein: I can see what you're saying when you refer to Ms. Swan as an amalgamation of nationalities, and there are similarities to Bjork. But I think it's a little disingenuous to say that you're not doing "yellowface" because you don't use yellow makeup.

Most viewers will never read your commentary explaining the sources of Ms. Swan's character, and you can't necessarily control the way people interpret your work. I think most viewers will think, based on what they see of Ms. Swan on TV, that she is an Asian woman.

LIBBY HARTIGAN

Los Angeles

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Borstein's disavowal of Ms. Swan's Asianness can be refuted by a "smoking gun." On "Mad TV's" own official Web site (http://www.madtvonfox.com), a list of the show's old sketch titles recalls that Ms. Swan was originally given the name "Ms. Kwan," a Chinese surname. Only later was the character rechristened with the more ethnically ambiguous "Swan." So, if the word-mangling manicurist was never intended to be Asian, as Borstein insists, whydid she start off with an ethnically Asian name?

ROBERT PAYNE

Studio City

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Regarding "Asian Americans Living in a 'Bamboozled' World," by Guy Aoki (Counterpunch, Oct. 23): Mr. Aoki's words chilled me to the bone as he proudly recalled threatening Artisan Entertainment President Bill Block into dropping his interest in the "Mr. Wong" animated series. Block was warned "not to even think about" acquiring the series. Imagine if a conservative Christian group had engaged in similar tactics; free-speech advocates would be up in arms. But because Aoki attacks artists in the name of "racial diversity," I guess it's OK.

Aoki complains about white actors who portray comical Asian characters. How is that any different from male actors who portray women, or young actors who portray the elderly, or Latino actors who portray Italians, or Jewish actors who portray Gentiles (or vice versa)? The point of acting is to be something you're not. Having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years, I can attest that Asian actors engage in countless sendups of white people. The important question when it comes to comedy is, is it funny?

As a member of the Asian American community, I want to make it clear that Aoki doesn't speak for me, and I roundly condemn his attempts to censor free expression (and I actually find "Mr. Wong" hilarious).

DAISY KEPP

Beverly Hills

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Aoki complains that the title character in the animated Internet series "Mr. Wong" still has an exaggerated foreign accent "even though he's been living in the United States for at least 60 years." That's a good point, and it raises a few other questions: Why did the Indian chief in "Blazing Saddles" speak Yiddish? Why does Mojo Jojo, the villainous talking monkey from "The Powerpuff Girls," speak with a thick Slavic accent? And in "The Simpsons," why haven't Apu and Groundskeeper Willie lost their thick accents after living for decades in Springfield?

Thank you, Mr. Aoki, for finally making me realize that comedies are unrealistic. Job well done.

CHRISTOPHER COLE

Los Angeles

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