Nothing's Sacred

By Carolyn Jung

Imagine an Asian "Saturday Night Live," where stereotypes, customs and taboos are chopped up, doused in silly sarcasm and stir fried into a dish of delectable -- burp -- indigestion.

Step into the irreverent world of the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, and prepare to be assaulted. Nothing is sacred to the Bay Area's only Asian-American skit comedy troupe. Amy Tan, lactose intolerance, mah-jongg and internment camps all get skewered here.

They call it humor from a "golden brown perspective."

You've never heard a rendition of "Dueling Banjos" quite like this, not when the "instruments" are the portly bellies and behinds of bikini-clad Asian men.

Or seen a culinary show to rival "Bruce Can Cook," a take-off on a popular PBS series "Yan Can Cook" -- only this time witha Bruce Lee actor applying martial arts to the culinary arts.

The kung-fu legend, who cooks shirtless, whips his lightning-fast hands into a frenzy and tells his TV audience, "Aiiiiiiiie! You will learn to debone chicken with an economy of moves."

And why is that so useful?

"Wasted motion means wasted time. Wasted time means you have no time to make desert."

When it comes to the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, they are far better at comedy than they are at counting. There aren't 18 of them; only 14. And no, they're not realted to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, who aren't nearly as warped.

Instead, the San Francisco-based group, named after an ancient Chinese fable and performing at San Francisco State this weekend and next, is made up of first- and second-generation, 20- and 30-somethings of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Filipino descent.

Fed up with the usual theatrical roles offered to Asian-Americans, they went out and created their own.

"The stereotype is that Asians are good only for playing restaurant owners, gangsters and hookers," says performer, Isaac Ho, 29. "Very rarely do we get to take the lead in anything and show what we're capable of doing."

The Warriors, who have amassed a repertoire of 225 skits, write all their own stuff. They believe it's the best ticket to success. It's a lesson learned from watching Korean-American comic Margaret Cho, whose own stand-up routines won raves but whose TV series, "All American Girl," bombed because the writing was done by others.

Paying the audience

The Warriors, who boast they're "cailable to perform at events, circuses and caged death matches," have given shows at universities across the country, as well as venues in Hong Kong. Their crowds are predominantly Asian. And for a lark on some opening nights, they've gone so far as to give audience members $1 just for showing up. Pretty generous for a troupe that subsists on donated props and a $10,000 budget.

When they're not on stage, they're office clerks, grade-school teachers, accountants, video-game graphics designers, senior-center workers and techies at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic.

Only one is a full-time actor -- Greg Watanabe, who claims he'll stoop to just about anything for cash. Watanabe, 28, formed the group whe he and others were volunteers at San Francisco's Asian American Theater. But just try telling him that.

"Yeah, Greg founded the group; but he doesn't remember it," deadpans writer/performer Michael Chih Ming Hornbuckle, 34. "Greg was in a drunken stupor when he did it."

Members say the troupe evolved in the past year and a half. "Oh, we've come a ways in terms of acting abilities and writing," says performer Linda Chuan, 31.

"Yeah, we actually rewrite now," says actor Yato Yoshida, 24.

"We're less poo-poo caca," says performer Michael Premsrirat, 24.

"Yah, now it's more stools and urine," Chuan says.

Whatever the subject, audience members come up after shows to tell the performers that they've never seen Asian-Americans do anything like this.

"We want to be seen as comedic innovators," Hornbuckle says. "We want to pave the way for Asians in non-traditional venues. We want to say Asian-Americans can be anything they want to be."

At times though, their biting humor rubs some audience members the wrong way. They've been criticized for tackling subjects that some consider too personal or too painful ever to mock.

That happened with "The Angel Island Game," a skit where three immigrants try to win their way off Angel Island, the San Francisco Bay immigration center where, for years, the majority of people processed, detained or refused entry were Asians.

"Some people were very offended by that," says performer/writer Harold Byun, 25. "But the reality is that it happened, that it was messed up."

Conscious of the sensitivity of such material, the group often ends up in deep discussions as it fashions skits from ideas rooted in literature, history, current events and personal experiences.

But the Warriors pull no punches.

"We pick on everyone," Chuan says. "We don't intend to offend. We intend to provoke people to think."

Take the wacky "Chinese Women's Swim Team," where steroid-enhanced athletes (male actors flexing in bikinis), tout the plastic surgery services of "Dr. Lynette Bruce's Healthy, Hard Body Clinic." There you can get "big round eyes at special price, $3,999.95. No money down. No interest down. You ask how much money you need? You're Asian -- you can do the math."

It's goofy; it's bizarre. But members say it's also a sad commentary on how many Asians want epicanthic folds (eyelid creases) and other cosmetic surgical enhancements to look more western.

The there's "Blaine Asakawa's Self-Defense Class," based on the real-life shooting death of a Japanese exchange student in Louisiana who was trying to find his way to a Halloween party.

In this skit, a street-wise Japanese-American instructor teaches a befuddled group of Japanese toursists phrases that portend danger in the United States: "I'm going to get you, sucka;" "Damn Japanese taking all our jobs. I'll kill you!" and "White women aren't as understanding as Oriental women. Would you like to go out on a date?"

Role-playing as a hold up

As they role-play a hold-up, one Japanese tourist has trouble getting scared. So, he asks the gun-holding instructor to make it more realistic by pretending he's black. The teacher sighs, "I'll pretend I'm Vietnamese. That's as far as I'll go."

Many would cringe at that. But the Warriors say it's their way of showing how much racism hurts everyone.

Last week, the Warriors were busy rehearsing their show, "Sex, Guns and Hello Kitty: What A Hell Did I Got In America?" The production features 13 new skits, as well as their signature hit -- a "John Woo Fourth of July Family Barbecue," which dramatizes what it might be like sharing a typical meal with the Hong Kong director of the most stylishly bloody flicks around.

Running amok in a San Francisco University psychology classroom strewed with wigs, rubber chickens and dim-sum streamers, the actors and actresses talked about what they hope audience members come away with.

"We want them to leave laughing so hard that they want to cry," Chuan said.

"And have stomach cramps," said actor Peter Wong, 28.

"And think about the point we're trying to make," Hornbuckle said.

And two hours later, to be hungry again for more.

[ From the June 21, 1996 issue of San Jose Mercury News EYE ]