Comedian. Actor. Cat mom.
Esther Chen learned English from watching the Sound of Music because her parents were cheap. She is a stand-up comedian, actor, and host from Taiwan. In addition to being seen on HBO, Hulu, Amazon, FX, Buzzfeed, and MTV, she was nominated for the best-supporting actress at Planet Connections Festivities. She is a true trilingual between Mandarin Chinese, English, and Taiwanese. She is also the dialect coach for Mr. Robot Seasons 2&3 and contributed to the translations on the show. Most recently, Esther shot a promo for Jerry Seinfeld’s newest Netflix special “23 Hours to Kill.” She also co-produced “Asians Strike Back: a Coronavirus Comedy + Science Show,” which got featured on New York Times, CBS, and TimeOut. She is the proud creator of Weekly Takeout: an Asian American late-night show on IG, the award-winning pilot Wide Open and Chinese podcast 好戲開場. She appears regularly at comedy clubs in NY and all over Taiwan.
How does being Taiwanese/Taiwanese American and/or community ally play a role in your life?
Being Taiwanese plays a role in every aspect from “What kind of Asians are you?” to when casting rolls camera for a slate and says, “Please tell me your name, height, and if you are Chinese.”
I grew up in Taiwan and went to boarding school in NY when I was 16. When I first became an actor, all my auditions required fluent Mandarin–sex trafficking victim in procedurals, communist solider, Chinese refugee fresh off the boat, nail salon lady, Chinese restaurant worker, you name it, I’ve gone for it. I’ve never had a Chinese accent, but I quickly realized that I had to learn one, and it had to be a Cantonese one because that’s what’s considered “a real Chinese accent.” I’ve never heard a Cantonese English accent in Taiwan, but I noticed it was an unspoken required skill on the resume of any Asian actor.
Audition after audition, I would never book any of these roles, even though I was often the only native Mandarin speaker in the room. I was told that I didn’t look “Chinese enough”–my eyes were too big, my cheekbones too high, I looked too Peruvian. Years later I noticed another pattern–whenever the waiting room had all colors, sizes, and styles, I knew I had a good chance of getting the job, and I often did. From the past 10 years of acting in NYC, I still haven’t come across a part that requires specifically Taiwanese talent to portray an in-depth, 3-dimensional Taiwanese role.
On the comedy side of things, I could never fully discuss the intricate political situation that Taiwan is in. First of all, many don’t know where Taiwan is, and to explain its relationship with China would make most of the set an educational lesson rather than a comedic performance.
I’m still trying to make these political jokes work. They’re challenging to write. But I do wonder, when is America going to see Taiwan and Taiwanese culture for what it is rather than meshing its identity into the pot of generic Asian culture?
For the past decade in NY, I always told people, “don’t ask me where in America I’m from. Read my lips. I’m from Taiwan.” In early March of 2020, I escaped NYC for Taiwan, and it’s been almost a year. Being in Taiwan, I can’t believe how American I’ve become. For one, my humor only works in English. At the end of one of my Chinese comedy shows, an audience member came up to me and said, “I think you’re 10 times funnier in English.” To which I thought, well, it’ too late now! I crave the occasional burger and a good authentic eggs benedict (I haven’t found a good one yet,) and I find it hard to now live in a society that doesn’t fully embrace the concept of racism, feminism, and spectrums of sexuality and gender.
On the acting side of things in Taiwan, I’m now being told that I don’t look Taiwanese. I’m too ABC and not “regular/average” enough. People tell me that they smell America from me the moment I walk in the room. I’m too outspoken, too direct, too tan, too large, and the list goes on.
So yes, I’m Taiwanese in America, and I’m an American in Taiwan. Is there a category for that?
watch our conversation with esther!
If you could teach future generations 1 thing about being Taiwanese/Taiwanese American or Taiwan, what would it be?
Can someone write a good script about Taiwan so people will stop telling me about their spring break in Thailand.
Favorite memory of Taiwan/Taiwanese America?
Attended my first gay wedding at Ximen’s Red House when I was 11. One of the grooms was Taiwanese. Another was American. They met at my mother’s company. I’m pretty sure she was asked to make a speech since technically speaking she was the matchmaker. For me, this experience says so much about Taiwan – traditional, more open-minded than many other countries, and always filled with hospitality.
Favorite Taiwanese food?
Yakult. I can’t eat a bento box without chasing it with 養樂多. It’s a habit from public school. They get you hooked at a young age.