By Mikayla Kwan
Brenda Song is an Asian-American actress of Thai and Hmong descent, born and raised in California. She is best known for her work on Disney Channel.
For any Asian kid who grew up watching all the Disney Channel shows and Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs), Brenda Song is an icon. (She was even named “Queen of Disney” in 2006 by CosmoGirl, so really she was just everyone’s icon, Asian or not.) Best known for playing the rich and classically “dumb blonde” role of London Tipton in The Suite Life of Zack & Cody from 2005-2008 and The Suite Life on Deck from 2008-2011. London Tipton was the opposite of everything that is stereotypically Asian. She was also technically mixed. We see her father (played by John Michael Higgins) as being white in the episode “Twister, Part 3” of Suite Life on Deck, and her mother’s side is Thai, as seen and explained in the episode “Family Thais” of Suite Life on Deck. Anyway, we had this girly, “dumb blonde”, rich girl type of character that was very visibly Asian, and her foil was the regular, smart, not-wealthy, Maddie Fitzpatrick played by Ashley Tisdale. Maddie was the literal blonde, while London was the theoretical blonde. This dynamic flipped the smart/dumb, nerdy Asian/dumb blonde trope on its head.
Looking back, growing up being a young Chinese-Canadian girl watching Asian-American actress Brenda Song on this show was huge and impactful for me (although I didn’t fully realize it at the time). London was silly and fun and fashionable and girly. I just loved her. Although the character of London is technically mixed, she is very visibly Asian and in reality Brenda Song is full Asian. (As a kid, I didn’t realize London was supposed to be mixed anyway.) Maybe it was because she was full Asian/very Asian looking and looked like me, or maybe it was just because I loved pink and these girly girl characters Either way, she related to me on some level. (Not so much the lack of intelligence, but in other ways.) Also looking back on this, mostly just from my memory, she wasn’t “aggressively Asian”, meaning the core of her character and her relationships to others weren’t in comparison to her Asianness and their whiteness. It was more just about her social position and her wealth. We got her character development through the family dynamics they presented, like the fact that she hardly ever saw her father, her mother and father couldn’t even be in the same room together (see: “Not So Suite 16” episode from Suite Life of Zack & Cody), she had a revolving door of stepmothers, she was more or less raised by Mr Mosby, and she was basically just given money to do whatever she wanted.
Then, on the other hand, Brenda Song played the role of Wendy Wu in Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, a movie that focused more on Chinese culture but combined it with the American life of a later generation (2nd or 3rd generation?) Asian American. By doing this movie, Brenda Song acknowledges and validates Asianness and its representation. Honestly, and relatably to
myself, when you’re full Asian, there is no way to hide your Asianness anyway, so why not embrace it. This movie feeds right into that whole side of coming of age and understanding your heritage. Wendy Wu was also a girly, “all-American” character. I remember her being obsessed with becoming homecoming queen. This character was more similar to London Tipton than not. She was your classic popular girl, but then was tasked with fighting evil. This movie was great with its use of Terracotta Warriors, integration of Chinese culture and martial arts. I remember when it first came out, I was a bit too young at the time so it scared me and I had to go upstairs to my brother’s room while my parents watched the movie. A few years later, I watched it in its entirety and loved it. Although, it isn’t often something right at the top of my DCOM re-watch list (that is taken over by High School Musical and Camp Rock), the concept and the existence of it has always stuck with me. This movie was, and still is, huge for Asian representation on Disney Channel. I don’t think there has been another movie in a similar vein to that either.