Pornsak Pichetshote is Thai-American who has a left a mark on both the comic and TV landscape. A former editor for Vertigo, Pornsak has since gone on to write Infidel for Image and episodes of Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger, among other acclaimed works. We had the chance to sit down and talk with him about his latest project: The Good Asian.
BlackNerdProblems: I’m really excited to talk about this book. I loved it so much.
Pornsak Pichetshote: Thank you thank you. It means a lot during this time where it hasn’t hit the world yet to hear that feedback. Thanks for being excited and wanting to talk.
BNP: First thing, in six words can you give the most distilled elevator pitch of your new comic, The Good Asian?
PP: Okay, I thought about this. The closest I could get was seven. Chinatown Noir featuring America’s first illegal immigrant. I got to seven. That’s the best I could do.
BNP: Okay, okay. We can work with that. And yeah, Chinatown Noir, all of these very exciting words to me personally. And when this book was first announced, you noted that several years of research went into writing this series. So, how do you start approaching the research? Do you have the idea first and then want to back it up, do you just sort of find something and go “oh, this is a story.” What does that process look like?
PP: It’s a couple things simultaneously…So, I’m ethnically Chinese, but I self-identify as Thai-American and the reason for that is because in my house, whenever my parents argued about politics and my dad was losing, he’d finally give up and be like “this is the problem with Thai people,” and my mother would yell at him like, “You’re Thai! what are you talking about?” “I’m Chinese!” “You don’t speak Chinese. You’ve never been to China. Don’t give me that. You’re Thai.” And so I always self-identified as Thai-American.
And so when my dad passed away, I think part of the process of sort of dealing with that I ended up visiting China because as he got older he got really into China, and it was all he would talk about. So, I started getting more into that after he passed. And interestingly, usually I think people with a story like that, a person learns more about China and Chinese mythology, and I think because my interests are so Americana related, I ended up learning more about Chinese American history and that was the first time I heard about the Chinese Exclusion Act and Immigration Act of 1924
I was kinda ashamed as an Asian, a grown-ass Asian that I didn’t know anything about this.
And that’s so when the spark happened and it kinda combined with my old memories of my old fondness of the Asian detectives of the 30’s. Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Mr. Wong, and I had this idea of an Asian detective that kind of acknowledged the racial history at that moment. Especially considering at the time, the first Asian American police officer didn’t happen until 1956, 1957 and these Chinese detectives were all based off Charlie Chan who was inspired by Chang Apana, a Chinese-Hawaiin detective in Hawaii, and that was the only place you could have been Asian-American detective at the time.
And so, I thought, what if you take all of this and sort of… acknowledge the racial history, acknowledge what it’s like to be Asian with the idea around the same Asian Detectives were so popular while the Chinese Exclusion act was still happening, where Chinese working class could not come into the country.
That’s kind of where the idea sort of happened. And now, it’s funny, someone at some point told me “don’t talk about it too much because someone will steal the idea” and part of me was like:
“God, I hope someone steals this idea. It’s so much work,” and I could be like “someone’s done it. I can move on.”
But after that it became this process. Reading up about Chinese Immigrants, the Chinese Exclusions Act, 1930 culture.
The biggest challenge of this book is that there’s not a lot written about Chinatown in 1930. What I kinda had to do was Tetris information together, use different texts. It took a while to get the book going.
Normally, if I were to write a book, I’d read about it, feel comfortable being in that world, and then start plotting. But here I had to read multiple books and in my head, do the math and see how the stories overlapped and see what didn’t make sense and kinda go from there.
I’ve always been a big believer of why people come to fiction and one of those reasons is they are coming for truth where facts don’t exist. So that’s hopefully one aspect of the book that does it. Where it takes the facts I was able to find and overlays my kind of story map. But the truth of the matter is, there isn’t much written. It’s not about reading one or more books and going. I got about a dozen books I reference if I get stuck.
Thankfully, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need to reference all of the books.
BNP: It sounds like a lot of it was secondary text and just trying to find anything to support the world you wanted to build.
PP: Exactly. It’s weird, because I don’t think a primary source exists, so it’s hard for me to think of those as secondary texts. There were just pieces here and there.
BNP: Was there anything that came easy or was it all piecemeal?
PP: There was the Chop Suey Club Circuit, where were the Chinatown clubs at the time. The first Chinatown club came up in 1936, which is when the book takes place, so we do a fictionalized version of that club. But would happen in the next couple years is that they would become very popular. It was a cotton club scene and come and sort of check out the Chinese performers doing American numbers and kind of admiring their American-ness in a similar manner to what happened in the cotton clubs in Harlem.
Those had nothing to do with immigration, but I looked at books and videos about that club scene mixed in with writing about the Chinatown squad and mixed in with immigration. Those three things together were the foundation.
It took a while to narrow down to those three pieces, and the book doesn’t stop there. It goes wider. Hark is from Hawaii, it was the only place he could exist. So I had to find out what Hawaii was like around that time and that led me to the Massie Trial, a big racial trial that happened in 1932, so four years before the book takes place so that informed a lot of Hark looks at the world and gave us a little bit more of Hark’s origin story and development.
It’s one of the reasons that once we got settled in Chinatown, we tried really hard to keep the story here because I can’t research another place.
BNP: Let’s talk a little more about Hark. 1930’s Chinese-American detective, illegal immigrant. All of that. What are the challenges of writing a character with such a complicated identity, especially in light of the present day context where we are still dealing with issues like immigration bands, police brutality, and Asian-American identity just with a different veneer.
PP: I think, you know…it’s interesting.
I thought the book was going to be timely in one way ended up being timely in another.
The inspiration was that in 1936 you had the first generation of Chinese-Americans and the only thing they knew was this immigration ban, and partly I wanted look at “what does that do, what did that do” to that generation.
Now with the huge spike in anti-Asian crime that is happening all around the country right now and it is being covered, but it’s kind of under reported especially considering how big it is. The book is timely in this other way and one of the things that I very sort of recently realized was that the book comments on that even today, we still don’t talk about working class Asian-Americans at all. Part of it happens in the book is that “the police can get away with that because no one is talking about these people.” In a way, we’re still not talking about these people. It took Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offering big rewards about what happened to Portland. Another story got attention because Olivia Munn shared something on Instagram about what happened to her mother’s friend. It’s weird about how timely the book is now in that way, in this lack of conversation.
As for Hark himself, there was a lot of things I found in my research like being, for all intents and purposes, an Asian adoptee to a white family, about what it’s like to have that sort of disconnect with race with the people who raised you.
One of the reasons the title “The Good Asian” rings to me on many levels is that he’s Asian with privilege, and he is someone who was raised in a white family and he knows he has this opportunities that other Chinese people weren’t given and wants to give back in some way and he feels like the law is the best way to do it. He becomes a police officer.
Going back to the research, what Chang Aparna did as a cop was that he was used against the Chinese community in Hawaii. He’d round up Chinese leapers and deport them off the island. He’d go undercover in opium dens and then come back and say “these are the people you want to get.” And I used a lot of that for Edison’s background. There’s this weird thought that the best thing he could do for his civic-mindedness is to go against his own people, and I think that internalized my questions about my own Asian American narrative, but not necessarily I’m alone in? What constitutes a good Asian, what constitutes a good ally? If you have the privileges of having a platform where people listen or money or whatever the case may be, how engaged you should be in your community culture? Are you required to watch every Asian television show? The constant question is what’s interesting about Hark. He took all of these questions I had and literalized and dramatized that by being a weapon against a community for the “best” reasons especially in the future.
His belief is that we can show we can follow the law, none of these problems will happen to us. And again, what we know now about policing and what police reform looks like and how long it takes to happen, we can now look at it now and question it like “wait a minute.” There’s a lot more conflict one might have thought of the time.
One of the things my research pulled up, if we look at the Chinatown squads, in the 1930’s we’d take one or two sentences that “everyone’s happy” but doing the math, but only a couple years ago, cops were taking axes to homes in Chinatown, tearing down doors to get Tong members. That stuff didn’t go away in less than a generation. It’s not going away in four or five generations.
So, when a historical text says something like “things were quiet”, you gotta call shenanigans and be like “how much of that is that they’re grateful you’re not doing anything to them?” I tried to add to the book where that aggression would come out, but if anything, in the book, I actually underplayed the aggression because I tried to base it on a historical precedence, but it wasn’t explicitly there. … does that answer the question?
BNP: Yes. Yes, it does. Let’s pivot from the context of the book to the process of making the book. So, how did collaboration with Alexandre Tefengki work? Did they get the scripts right away? How much were they involved in the pre and post work?
PP: I give Alex full scripts. I had a full script ready to go. I had to work a little bit ahead since I work in both comics and TV. I need to be ahead of my artist, but I don’t like being too far ahead because I like to see what they’re doing and adjust it.
And then from there, me and Alex tried to talk every two weeks and just catch up, and we became good friends. And so a lot of it is seeing what he likes and seeing the perspective he has on it. We talk about a lot that I’m a little bit more cynical, and Alex is a bit more optimistic. He has a tendency to get stressed out and think too far ahead and actually so do I, but I learned now, since COVID, you can only think a month at time, and we balance each other nicely. Hopefully that happens to on the page.
You can tell that Alex does a lot of things really well and we discovered that he is really good at fight scenes and he didn’t know that either, and I gave him more. The book didn’t have much because noir is a funny thing: is there too many fights or action, it’s more Batman.
BNP: Interesting. What are the challenges of producing a comic as opposed to producing a TV show?
PP: If anything, the challenge is less about making it and more like… if this was a television show, I could probably hire an assistant to help with the research, but since it’s a comic, I’m the only one. I’m writing the notes. It makes for a better process, but I heard of people who can say “just give me the relevant info” and that sounds lovely.
And with TV, there’s also writer’s rooms and the ability to bring in other perspectives and expertise. Comics doesn’t quite have that budget. and the nice thing about that is that the comic is a singular voice. I mention it in the notes in the back of the issue, I do my research and my final line of defense is Grant Din who is my historical consultant.
BNP: What was the most exciting thing to you when you were first scripting the book?
PP: You know, noir has this history of being dark and moving around things that are happening but is still entertaining. And that’s one of the things I love about telling the story. To me all, all of the bits where tried to make it feel … not that you’re reading a novel in comics because that implies a clunky transition, but to get the sensation of reading a pulp novel. Watching the detectives put the clues together. Having Hark just being a detective and doing all of that in the grammar and language of comics.
I worry about being disingenuous when all I do is talk about the research.
Hopefully, it is hand and hand with it being a noir thriller and get all the things I get when I read Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade and Blue Archer.
Even little things like having little page numbers. Because of the way Alex draws, he gives us gutters and lets us do that!
BNP: What do you hope readers will feel after they finish the first issue?
PP: I hope they feel like they want more, and they can’t wait to buy more. For people, for themselves. I then kind of hope that they’re entertained and excited and seeing something that they haven’t seen before.
And finally, when other Asians read the book, I get excited. For Infidel, there are people of color who got things that the white audience didn’t get, but a lot of people of color enjoyed the book. And The Good Asian is a bit more specific, but I hope the same thing happens that you don’t need to be Chinese to enjoy it.
BNP: Well as a Filipino-American, I definitely had the sensations you’re describing, so you’re on the right track as far as I’m concerned. And to cap us off, one of the things I like to ask at the end is that if there is a piece of media that you wish more people knew about?
PP: I’m a broken record when it comes to this, but I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t know every issue of Stray Bullets by heart. I remember when the Magic Banana issue of it came out and I was doing the convention circuit, and I would just stop people and ask “have you read the issue yet” I just wanted to talk with someone. I love it so much. *laughter*
Check out The Good Asian when it comes out in print and digital in early May.