Chris Pang started working out for a pretty common reason: to get the girl.
“All of the Caucasian kids in my class were generally larger than me. They had their growth spurts earlier,” Pang, 33, tells MensHealth.com. “I was a small kid. When it came time to meet girls and stuff, I felt like a boy, rather than a man.”
Insecure about his body, Pang started hitting the gym. And it paid off — both personally and in his professional life. Pang is now starring in this summer’s highly anticipated movie Crazy Rich Asians, out August 15. In the movie, which is the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast, Pang plays Colin Khoo, the best friend of the main character Nick (Henry Golding), the scion of a wealthy Singapore family.
As Colin, Pang had to put the fitness tips he gained in his personal life to good use. In the movie, he and Golding take off their shirts — a lot. And that's very much intentional, according to Adele Lim, one of the co-screenwriters of Crazy Rich Asians.
"I think it's important for Asian men to get portrayed that way," she told MensHealth.com.
In Crazy Rich Asians, Lim and co-writer Peter Chiarelli deliberately set out to depict Asian men as sexy and masculine. The movie seeks to accomplish this not by delving into serious subject matter like The Joy Luck Club (the last mainstream Hollywood movie to feature a mostly Asian cast), but by emphasizing the joy of being Asian — and, in the case of Pang and Golding, the joy of being an attractive, fit Asian man.
“[The movie shows] Asian men and the masculinity of Asian men, without needing to overdo it or overcompensating, without being heavy-handed,” says Ronnie Chieng, who plays one of the film’s antagonists, Edison Cheng.
This portrayal was, in part, inspired by the original book by author Kevin Kwan, which plays up many of the characters' masculine traits.
“[Kwan] was describing the character of Michael, the husband of Astrid [Nick’s cousin], that he was in the military. Part of why she was drawn to him was this raw sort of masculinity and sexuality,” Lim explains. “And we thought, ‘Oh my Gosh! It’s so great that that’s in the book. Let’s do it not just with his character, but with other characters as well.’"
“In one of my first drafts of the movie, there were a lot more overt, sensual interactions,” she says, explaining that the director Jon M. Chu even made fun of her for how many sexually charged scenes she wrote. “Even if it wasn’t sex itself, it was these sexually loaded physical interactions, because I think it’s important Asian men get portrayed that way.”
Showing a bunch of good-looking guys with their shirts off might not sound revolutionary. But in Hollywood, which has historically almost exclusively cast Caucasian actors in romantic leading man roles, it definitely is. Further, pop culture is full of racist depictions of “emasculated” Asian men, from Mickey Rooney’s yellowface caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the perpetually horny Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.
“When I was growing up, the Asian stereotype was you’re either a martial artist who could kick ass, but never got the girl, or you were some nerdy math genius who played Ping-Pong."
Even when they aren’t portrayed as dorky or buffoonish, Asian male characters are typically still portrayed in movies and TV as totally asexual. Even though Jet Li was cast as the romantic lead opposite the magnetic Aaliyah in 2000’s Romeo Must Die, he still doesn’t get the opportunity to kiss her at the end. And this message translates to dating IRL: according to a 2014 OkCupid survey, Asian men are considered less desirable than other men on the site.
When he watched movies or TV growing up, Pang failed to see an Asian man who he could look up to, someone who was fit and kicked ass and was sexually attractive to women. So he decided to work out in part as a way to become that man himself.
“When I was growing up, the Asian stereotype was you’re either a martial artist who could kick ass but never got the girl, or you were some nerdy math genius who played Ping-Pong," he says. “As a kid, you feel second-rate and you feel lesser about yourself. You have a complex about your self-image, because of what you’re taught in the media.
It was initially difficult for Pang to achieve his fitness goals. Because he has an ectomorph body type — which means that he has trouble adding muscle to his lean, lanky frame — it was tough for him to put on weight. As a result, his workout routine is entirely geared towards building muscle: he barely does cardio, and he eats as many complex carbohydrates as possible to bulk up.
Because Pang travels constantly, he tries to concentrate on specific muscle groups to keep track of his progress. “I can’t always make it to the gym consistently, so to keep track, I tell myself that the next time I go to the gym it'll be Leg Day,” he says.
Pang doesn’t want to isolate his muscles too much, though. So he favors free weights over machines, which he says don’t engage as much with the smaller muscles that help with movement. He starts out with compound exercises before concentrating on a specific muscle group, which, for a workout focused on the lower body, might mean deadlifts followed by squats. On chest days, Pang starts with the standard bench press, before moving onto more targeted variations of the movement with an incline or decline.
Sometimes Pang flips his focus and does workouts filled with eccentric reps, which emphasize the part of an exercise that lengthens the muscle movement (like when you lower yourself down in a squat, or lower the weight in a curl).
Pang's efforts are paying off: if you look at photos of him on Instagram, the results speak for themselves. But his workout routine isn’t the only thing that has made him more comfortable with his masculinity. “It all amounts to your confidence and attitude, and the working out had a positive effect on that,” he says.
Now, when Pang thinks about how he felt small, scrawny, asexual, and "pathetic," he's saddened by his younger self's attitude.
“I want to have pride in the way that I look and the way that I stand,” he says. “You know, I used to hunch a lot. My dad used to always walk past me and push my shoulders back to straighten my back. And I think going to the gym not only strengthened the muscles to help me with my posture, but also gave me the confidence to stand tall.”
"I hope [the audience] takes away that Asian men can be as hot as all get-out."
When Crazy Rich Asians is released on August 15, the film's producers have high hopes for the movie’s cultural impact.
“I’ve worked in TV for a long time and you begin to understand that if you see something about a certain group of people often enough, it becomes the truth,” Lim says. And this, in turn, affects how parts like romantic lead roles, which are so often written and cast exclusively for white actors, are written and cast. “The representation of the Asian male as sexually attractive and assertive is so important," she says.
Fortunately, Pang and the Crazy Rich Asians production team aren't the only ones actively fighting stereotypes surrounding Asian men. On social media, Asian heartthrobs like Daniel Dae Kim and John Cho have garnered tremendous followings (in fact, there was a viral Twitter campaign, #StarringJohnCho, to cast Cho as the romantic male lead in mainstream movies.) There’s also a growing community of Asian bodybuilders on Instagram, who are asserting their masculinity through weightlifting.
Pang says the impact of all this representation can’t be underestimated. “If just one person like me when I was growing up saw that movie and felt like they were more accepted, I feel like that’s a win and it’s already changing the landscape,” he says.
Lim agrees. When asked about what she hopes audiences take away from the film about Asian men, she says with a laugh: “I hope that they take away that Asian men can be hot as all get out!”
This article originally appeared in Men's Health US.
Image Source: Official account of Crazy Rich Asians