Asian-American Garrett Wang says he didn’t face much discrimination during his time portraying Ensign Harry Kim, a crew member on Star Trek: Voyager — not because the public was accepting of his race, but because fans were up in arms about the first woman portraying the captain of a ship as a lead character in the Star Trek universe.
Wang, who is in Victoria this weekend for the Capital City Comic Con, which runs until Sunday at the Victoria Conference Centre, says he was no stranger to racism while growing up, but didn’t get much hate mail when he played a character from Korea in the television series, which began in 1995 and ran for seven seasons.
It was Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Kathryn Janeway, who got the brunt of Star Trek fans’ displeasure. “She would get hate mail, with some even threatening to come to town and kill the cast and crew,” says Wang, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 1960s. “I hardly got any attention, showing me that gender bias is even more ingrained than racial bias.”
Born in California in 1968, Wang moved a number of times when he was young. From Grade 8 to when he graduated from high school, he and his sister were the only Asians attending his school in Memphis, Tennessee. “That was one of the reasons I got into acting — to chip away at racism and to be a role model for other Asian-Americans wanting to get into the entertainment industry,” says Wang, who took electives in theatre at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He says that, until the last decade or so, you would see only one major Asian role a decade in Hollywood. George Takai, who is Japanese-American and played the helmsman on the original Star Trek series in the 1960s, was one of the first.
“When Voyager aired in the ’90s, it was the only series on television to have an Asian as part of the regular cast. It was a huge thing for me to represent all Asians,” says Wang. “You get a sense of wellbeing to see someone who looks like you on screen. It’s empowering.”
But people’s ignorance of differences between Asian cultures came as a surprise. At one point, he was encouraging a studio executive to include a Chinese character in an upcoming show. “But we have you,” the executive said.
Wang had to explain that Kim is a Korean, not Chinese, name. For six seasons, all the producers and writers for the series were under the impression that they had a Chinese character, but had never consulted with anybody Asian on the differences between Japanese, Korean and Chinese cultures, let alone other Asian-Pacific cultures.
“I was aghast that such intelligent people were so ignorant about simple geography,” Wang says.
After Star Trek: Voyager, Wang travelled extensively for five years and played golf for four. During his last visit to Victoria — also for the Capital City Comic Con — he met a producer in the green room of the Victoria Conference Centre who offered to represent him if he ever decided to return to acting.
He says he still enjoys meeting fans at conventions.
Other Star Trek franchise alumni make a decent living just appearing at conventions. Wang says he has heard that the captains on the different shows — such as William Shatner, captain of the USS Enterprise — get around $20,000 US per appearance. He has been known to attend three conventions in three major cities in one weekend.
These days, Wang is back auditioning for roles, something he says is all done electronically now. “It just opens the field. While it means I am competing against perhaps hundreds of actors from around the world, it also means that a young actor living in a remote location has an opportunity to get discovered. That’s progress.”
Fans can meet Wang at the Capital City Comic Con all day today and Sunday.
For more information, go to capitalcitycomiccon.ca.