A short list of Asian women who inspire me

Let’s be honest here: I’m one of the many men who will freely and openly admit that many of my endeavors were all inspired by a girl at some point in time, usually to be in a position where I can impress a girl with what I have, can do, or know. As such, here’s a list of the few most influential women who have inspired me to go from being a quirky high school misfit into who I am today, women who have given me motivation to chase my dreams, and a drive to become cooler so that I can talk to them without feeling like I’m inferior to them. As I’ve gone on my journey, I realize that I don’t need to elevate them, I never did. In fact, we’re all the same, but what’s different now is that we all choose to climb the holy mountain so that we can reach our highest potential. Hit the jump to see who made the top ten.

Janet Choi

My first inspiration. When I was young, a lot of people used to tell me that I was a gifted writer. I didn’t think there was any money in it unless you wrote a bestseller, and I didn’t believe anyone would want to read my writing.

Janet inspired me because while I was flipping through the channels back when MTV used to be cool, I saw her and was instantly smitten by this amazingly pretty girl on the show. Then I realized they were re-runs, and I found that she had gone the route of journalism, which allowed her to travel and write a lot, around the Koreas, the Balkans, and Afghanistan.

So when I found out I could do two things I love, write and travel, I was inspired and decided to write more for my school paper and look for more outlets to express myself. Since the advent of blogging, I’ve discovered that some people actually do want to read what I write, and after 14 months, I have over 6000 views on this blog alone. On top of that, whenever I wrote for the school paper, I was able to use this line: “Hi I’m Peter Parker: take your picture for the school paper?” which allowed me to interview girls, get their pictures, and if I needed to contact them for details, get their number and e-mails too!

True story: I had a folder of e-mail drafts back when people were fighting over Hotmail and Yahoo! for who had a better e-mail service that consisted solely of fan letters and love letters for her. Fortunately, Hotmail had a policy of deleting drafts after 30 days back then, so they all disappeared eventually.

Helen Zia

I could have easily chosen Amy Tan or Jeanne Wakatsuki-Houston for their respective books, The Joy Luck Club and Farewell to Manzanar, but honestly, it was Helen’s book Asian American Dreams that got me the most. Before I discovered what being a Third Culture Kid was, the first group I tried to identify with was the Asian American community. I felt that the whole torn between worlds and cultures was my struggle too, and I didn’t know if I was Asian or American, which she chronicled as the common struggle in her book, much like Ron Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore, but with a stronger personal tone in it that made part of the community’s history hers, and in essence, made it mine, and ours.

Eventually, I realized the people I resonate with better are those who want to do something for the community, who are the activists, writers, artists, and actors who want to integrate the Asian Americans into mainstream American culture, as opposed to the community as a whole. So in a sense, I found a community to belong to, which eventually transcends the ethnic aspect: people who are passionate about giving in order for they and their community to eventually benefit from their hard work and sacrifices.

I met her accidentally during the San Francisco Asian Film Festival when I was watching Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Someone with puffy hair was covering the subtitles and after the film, I saw her face and realized it was Helen with her partner. I didn’t get a chance to say much to her, nor did I want to interrupt her private moment, but she did inspire me to continue writing not just what I loved, but to be one of the people who participates in and helps write the history of our community by doing something to give.

Iris Chang

Author of The Rape of Nanking, her book was what got me into history, politics, human rights, and strengthened my resolve for truth and journalism. Although parts of her book are criticized for some factual errors, ultimately, it was her message and dedication to sharing this event with people that is more important, since it is still used today to raise awareness worldwide and to Japan for the massacre in Nanjing, as well as comfort women and other atrocities that even some Nazis found abhorrent.

In community college back in San Francisco, we had a mock trial for some actors portraying the war criminals of the time, and the audience learned about it while she was one of the people presenting. She encouraged me to pursue my dreams and was interested in working with my father and me on a book about the Bataan Death March, but sadly, she died before anything could come about.

If anyone wonders where I got my drive to research and question reality, this comes from the lovely Iris Chang.

Vienna Teng

Believe it or not, I found her before I listened to Tori Amos, not the other way around when people typically used to call her “Tori Amos-lite”. Her “Warm Strangers” album was what I listened to exclusively my first time on AmTrak riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the first time in 2004, and as I read more about her, I enjoyed her “screw this, I’m leaving” attitude that motivated her to stop working in tech where she was unhappy and do what she loved, which was making music.

I’m even more fond of her now because she’s taken a break and is in graduate school at University of Michigan studying sustainable enterprise, which is also right up there with my interests.

Imagine how tickled I was to discover that she was giving a free concert in San Francisco at Borders’ Books, and when I met her in 2004, just how modest she was, casual, approachable, and kind. I was supposed to interview her for a project that never ended up happening, but she was willing to work with me, which was all sorts of awesome. Here’s the biggest surprise, though: I discovered she actually lived not too far from me in Sunset when I was living in San Francisco.

Here’s her song, a personal favorite of mine, “Gravity”:


Lucy Liu

To be honest, I never got into her with Charlie’s Angels or most of the films I’ve seen her in, but when she made one of my favorite films 3 Needles, I started paying attention. Not only was it because the stories in the film were touching, but she agreed to do the film for lower pay than usual because she believed in its message and wanted to spread more awareness for HIV practices around the world, especially in China and Thailand.

Besides being a talented actress and artist, she has done a lot of amazing philanthropic work that tells me that I can be in the entertainment and arts industries and use them to help put out messages to the world. She was appointed the U.S. Fund for Unicef Ambassador, she is a spokesperson for marriage rights of the gay and lesbian  community, as well as for raising awareness on breast cancer and human trafficking in Asia.

Faye Wong

Let’s set the record straight: I had been exposed to her through my friends long before her song “Eyes on Me” in Final Fantasy VIII got people’s attention to this HK singer and actress. Mainly because one of my favorite childhood movies was Chungking Express which I will still watch again and again when I want to remember the Hong Kong I knew back in the day, and find myself taken away by its story and her memorable character, aptly named Faye. From what I recall, she didn’t play a character–she played herself.

Her independent spirit is extremely attractive, since she can take influence from punk, dream pop, Tori Amos, the Cocteau Twins, and somehow make songs that are so touching that you have to ask why she isn’t big outside of the Chinese and Cantonese world. If Sigur Ros and Rammstein can have an audience outside of their native countries, then why can’t Faye Wong get some love?

If you tell me you love Faye Wong, then you have automatically gained more respect from me. Her album Fable was written and inspired by the mythologies, dreams, and after lives of different cultures and religions, and the lyrics, even in a Google translation, convey images and words that just settle in your heart no matter how you hear it.

Most of all, I love how she can tell her fans she’s not in the mood to sign or mingle because she’s tired, wants to sleep, eat, or go use the toilet. She isn’t being rude or mean, she’s just letting them know that she is a human being and has to live her life outside of being a star.


Nong Toom/Parinya Charoenphol

She inspired me to begin learning Muay Thai the moment I saw her life story in the movie Beautiful Boxer, which had the tagline “He fights like a man…to become a woman.”Again, another person who chose to pursue her dreams and not let anyone define her or hold her back from doing what she wanted or being who she wanted to be. For this very reason, the bigots who say that she’s a ladyboy or a man who lost his junk, I’ll happily ignore them because out of respect, love, and admiration for Parinya, I will call her by her preferred name and recognize her as a woman.

That drive to rise up and fight on is what I carry in me from her story, and from my time fighting with the Philippine team for my one exhibition match. I never was on the competitive team, but I was always a member as they told me for training with them and having one match, I was automatically family. So it was a little surprise when I discovered she trained with some of my coaches on the team, like Billy and my late master, Robert Valdez.

Thanks to her, I won’t let anyone tell me I can’t act, fight, write, or amount to anything successful in life. For that very reason, I am with fewer friends who offer me more encouragement to continue being me rather than a hundred acquaintances who tell me it’s unrealistic to chase a certain actress, because if it weren’t for a few people who believed in Parinya like her mother and coach, she would have had a much more difficult and lonelier path to reach her dreams. Even when her father initially disapproved of her desire to get the sex change, she still used much of her money to support him and the rest of her family from her bouts. She surrounded herself with people who loved her with her plans to get the sex change, and by many more now who see her as she chooses to be, which to me means that I will be with the people who believe in me, my dreams, and goals, not people who tell me it’s unrealistic or I can’t do this or be that.

So now with her love for people and life, her passions, I feel more empowered to not let anyone define me or stop me from being me, because I choose to be who I want to be. Any “friend” who says that his tough love is supposed to inspire me to come back won’t be getting any thanks from me, because if someone insults me or tells me that I can’t fight, it won’t motivate me to be better and thank them, it will motivate me to be better and give them the finger when they expect my appreciation for their insults.


Lynn Chen

Admittedly, when I watched her movie Saving Face, that wasn’t what initially interested me in Lynn or her endeavours–it was actually this year when I discovered that she is blogger too, writing both The Actors Diet and Thick Dumpling Skin, which chronicle what she eats and on maintaining a positive self-image, respectively. These are both very essential as an actor, especially when some roles ask people like Christian Bale to lose so much weight that he risked permanent heart damage in his movie The Machinist or Vincent D’Onofrio gaining 32kg for his role in Full Metal Jacket.

Our bodies are art for filmmakers to use for their vision, but it’s very easy to forget that our bodies are also our temples, and thanks to her blogs, it reminds me to be nice to myself. Likewise, you are what you eat, and you are your thoughts. She has since inspired me to improve my diet and self-image, which ended up being closely tied to one another: eating the right food makes me feel happier (such as super foods like raw cacao beans that contain serotonin, which makes you happy), and even if they didn’t make me look younger or slimmer, I find myself appreciating what I have more than trying to fit into a silly ideal. What I love the most about her is that she is also very approachable and responds to my e-mails, too. She is very much a beautiful person, inside and out.

Karin Anna Cheung

Okay, so if I was strictly following the chronological order of who has inspired me, Karin should have been right after Iris, but she actually fits here because she inspired me than and inspires me even more now. Her movie, Better Luck Tomorrow got me thinking about how she and her fellow cast members all deferred their salaries because they believed in the message of the movie (much like Lucy did for 3 Needles).

I ended up meeting her and a couple of her cast members at a talk a year after the movie was released in Borders Books. She was quite amiable, like everyone on this list has been. Amazingly, this year, seven years later, she actually remembered me when we crossed paths at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. For the three times I ran into her, two times, she approached me and wanted to say hello as opposed to the typical situation of a starstruck fan chasing his favorite celebrities.

This is the type of person I aspire to be: someone who pursues passions, lives by ideals, and even when gifted with success, fame, and admiration, remains humble and kind, friendly, and loving. Karin Anna Cheung is the most beautiful person who exists, period. I have nothing but nice to say about her. The best thing about her, of all her admirable qualities, is not only can I call her a wonderful and beautiful woman, but a friend, which she tries to be for everyone.

Ellen Wong

For my regular readers, I really don’t need to elaborate any more as to why Ellen is on this list. But without getting into any more details, she is hands-down the one woman who ignited my flames of passion to do everything and anything I can to succeed. Yes, she’s my type and embodies everything I look for in a girl, and I’m not going to deny that I would rather be single from having a high standard (namely her) than be in a bad relationship with someone who does not possess the qualities I look for in a girl: pretty, passionate, hard working, intelligent, educated, open, loves trying new food, is modest, interested in martial arts, music, travel, is healthy, kind to people and her family, humble, and wants to be part of the wave of positive role models who are trying to empower the community of Asians in North America. Ellen is all these and more, and for that reason, I’m not afraid to say I’m in love with her.

Even if I never get with her, I will still be eternally grateful for who she is, since I would not have started my journey to turn my life around 180-degrees and do everything I can with my potential if I had not seen her.

And that concludes my short list of awesome Asian women who gave me inspiration to be where I am now. As you can see, these women all have in common that they want to give and make a difference for others by using their individual power and potential, and that is what compels me to follow suit. If any of you are reading this, know that whether or not I have met you, I love you for being you, and for helping to make me who I am now. Thanks for being you, you’re all awesome.

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