TV’s ‘New Amsterdam’ tackles Asian hate

NBC DRAMA DEPICTS ANTI-ASIAN HATE — Screenshot from the April 2 “New Amsterdam” speaker series virtual event.

Over the past year and especially during the last couple of months, videos on various social media platforms have showed Asian people being brutally attacked on a daily basis. Incidents like this have become all too familiar: “When COVID was at its worst, a man stopped me in the street, he grabbed my arm, and spat in my face, then shoved me aside like I was nothing.”

These words were spoken by Dr. Agnes Kao, a fictional character on the NBC TV medical drama, “New Amsterdam.” The character was telling her story to her medical director, Dr. Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold), when he wondered how she could correctly diagnose a Filipina patient with a mysterious illness.

In a bedside scene earlier in the show, Agnes is seen touching the patient on the arm, but is surprised when she immediately flinches and pulls away. After a pause, Agnes says, “Did something happen to you?”

Agnes knew because she used to flinch the same way after being the victim of an anti-Asian attack. Actress Christine Chang, who plays Agnes, knew because it actually happened to her.

After the incident, which took place in New York in May 2020, Chang went to Y. Shireen Razack, a writer and co-executive producer on “New Amsterdam,” and told her what happened. Razack, a South Asian, then told David Schulner, creator and executive producer of the show. Razack then wrote the episode which aired nationally March 30.

Little did they know that on March 16 in Atlanta, eight people would be killed, six of whom were women of Asian descent. They had no idea that the reporting center Stop AAPI Hate would release a study that revealed it had been informed of 3,795 “hate incidents” from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021.

Stop AAPI Hate learned of 503 incidents that occurred in the first two months of 2021.

The “New Amsterdam” creators also didn’t know that their episode would shine a bright light on a dark subject would hit the airways at a time when hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had skyrocketted, and the need to speak out against it would be greater than ever.

That’s why the producers and cast members from “New Amsterdam” joined together with NBC Bay Area and the Asian Pacific Fund April 2 to present the first ever NBC’s “New Amsterdam” speaker series, a virtual event, which featured a discussion with cast members Chang and Daniel Dae Kim and executive producers Schulner and Razack.

Moderated by NBC Bay Area anchor Janelle Wang, the program included a discussion about the episode and the need for action against anti-Asian violence.

For Schulner, who thinks of his cast and crew like family, learning that this happened to Christine Chang hit him deeply. When Wang asked him about this episode, Schulner broke down in tears and needed a moment to compose himself. Then he spoke about telling stories that have meaning.

“To not do something, to not amplify these stories, it would be criminal,” he said. “I’m so glad that I get to use the 43 minutes we have each week to make a difference.”

He then credited his writer, Razack, for running with the story after he gave her the green light to tell it. For Razack, writing this particular episode was emotional. “When it happens to someone close to you, it makes it a story that has to be told,” she said. “We were asking our actor to relive that trauma on our set. I want to thank Christine for having the courage to do that.”

For Chang, doing this episode has helped her heal. “It’s been really positive and I felt seen and supported,” she said. “Like a lot of other Asians, I have felt invisible for much of my life. I’m really proud to be on a show that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.”

(Another recent episode dealt with systemic racism, according to Schulner).

Actor Daniel Dae Kim, who plays Dr. Cassian Shin, agreed, and added that diversity on the show matters. “This show is a real testament as to how all of us need to work on this together,” said Kim. “You had an East Asian cast member share her story with a South Asian writer, who then brings it to David, a white male, and tells him, ‘This story needs to be told.’”

As for the ongoing hate currently raging against the AAPI community, Chang encouraged the public to educate themselves about racism against Asians in this country.

“This is not new,” she said. “Talk to people in your communities. Volunteer to escort seniors. And speak up.”

Speaking up and reporting hate incidents is vitally important, said Kim. “For every incident caught on video, how many others are not?” he asked and added that statistics determine how funds are distributed to AAPI communities in need. “It affects legislation. It affects policing. This is why we should be reporting this.”

And talking about it as well. One conversation can lead to another, which can end up on a TV show, where millions can become aware that it’s happening and maybe do something to stop it.

“These are important conversations to have,” said Kim. “If we approach this the right way, we can really build something better for the future. Because this is about humanity and recognizing the humanity of ALL Americans.”

“New Amsterdam” airs Tuesdays (10 p.m. EDT/9 p.m. CDT) on NBC.

To report a hate incident, against Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, visit https://stopaapihate.org.

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