By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
When photographer Alex Tsway, 26, watched the Oscars last year, Chris Rock’s joke about the three little Asian kids left a bad taste in his mouth.
“People were angry and ranting online. I felt the same way, but didn’t want to spread that message around. I thought about how to promote a more powerful and empowering message for Asians,” Tsway said.
He had an idea to photograph Asian women as the subjects in Hollywood movie posters, replacing the original actresses that portrayed the fictional characters.
He started his photography project by focusing on women first.
“It would’ve been more powerful to find female characters who carry the movie. That way, we can focus on promoting the significance of women and Asians,” he said.
Tsway’s personal favorite is the Kill Bill poster.
For his projects, the models have been his friends, but in real life, he’d like to see more Asian Americans like Lucy Liu, Zhang Ziyi, and Constance Wu on the big screen. Having big names like these would help the message go further.
In addition to shooting for this Asians Parody Hollywood project, Tsway enjoys shooting portraits and magical realism. He’s inspired by photography greats like Robert Mapplethorpe and Sally Mann.
For Tsway, art was just something he pursued on the side. He never took it seriously until an eye-opening visit to an art collector in Atlanta with his father.
“That experience opened my eyes to the possibilities to selling photography, and pursuing it seriously was actually worthwhile and that there was a market for art,” he said.
Tsway’s father is one of his main inspirations.
Hailing from Beijing, China, Tsway’s parents both graduated from top Chinese universities with linguistic degrees and immigrated to the United States for better job opportunities.
Despite growing up in the greater Seattle area, Tsway described his childhood as the standard Asian person’s childhood, with their family owning their own food business and selling Asian food to Americans. His parents moved from Spokane to Issaquah shortly after Tsway was born because the concession food scene was bigger in the Seattle area. They often sold food at large festivals and fairs like Bumbershoot, Folklife, and Salmon Days.
“When I was working in the fairs, I was always surrounded by different ethnicities — German food, Korean food, African food. All these different cultures were around and that seeped into my mentality and into my body,” he said.
From working in the food stalls in America to primetime TV in China, Tsway’s father is setting himself up to be the Jay Leno of China. His father goes by Brother Tsway and is a well-known comedian who often talks about the hardships of working in America.
“We grew up farthest away from art and social justice by selling food and only focusing on food and surviving in America, but my dad constantly on the sideline would be writing articles and thinking about different ways to approach topics that are interesting when it comes to immigration and other challenges Chinese people face in America,” he said.
Next, Tsway is contemplating a photography series for Asian male roles.
“I want people to share this [Asians Parody Hollywood] project, but mainly for the fact that we need more eyeballs on this message so we can one day get our own ‘Black Panther’ movie,” he said.
Tsway was taking photos at this year’s Academy Awards when he realized that it would be impossible to see more Asians on the big screen, unless there’s a whole revamp of how Hollywood works in terms of casting and roles written for Asians.
“Our image of Asians in entertainment is much more valuable to us than just being some sort of action hero or superhero on TV screen. It’s something the younger generations can aspire to and visualize themselves and reach for greater goals,” he said.
To see more of Tsway’s work, follow him on Instagram @iamtsway.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.