Asian reality TV: What do ‘Bling Empire’ and ‘House of Ho’ mean for representation?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennet Purser

(L-R) Kane Lim, Jaime Xie and Kevin Kreider in “Bling Empire” season one. Photo courtesy of Netflix © 2021.

New reality TV shows appear to be modeling themselves after “Crazy Rich Asians,” which was released in 2018 as the first major studio film with an all-Asian cast in more than 20 years. Director Jon M. Chu’s film was a critical and financial success. 

Now “Bling Empire” (Netflix) and “House of Ho” (HBO Max) both follow lavish parties, vacations, drama and petty behavior. They’ve led to think pieces and debates on social media about whether this type of representation is good for Asian Americans.

Inkoo Kang, TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter, calls this representational trash. She says she coined the term to describe a TV niche that she’s inexorably drawn to but feels guilty about. 

“Bling Empire” — mostly spectacle 

This series is about rich Asians and Asian Americans in LA. 

“I think even by reality show standards, it’s a pretty bad show. … If you watch ‘Bling Empire’ to the very end, you can tell based on how many times the group takes a trip to a shaman or a palm reader or a fortune teller or whatever, that they sort of just ran out of storylines. And so they sort of have to create these spectacles in order to fill out the runtime,” says Kang. 

She says the show is less interested in Asians and Asian Americans — and more interested in gawking at them. 

The show seems to be for a white gaze because the characters are shallow, and the most interesting thing about them is their wealth and how they strangely spend their money, Kang says. 

What’s also disappointing is the characters’ constant reference to ‘Asian culture,’ she says. 

“As an Asian, if I'm talking among other Asian friends who are not of the same ethnicity … we tend to sort of parse out like … ‘Is this a thing that we have in common? Or is this something more specifically Korean or something more specifically Chinese?’ And there isn't really that differentiation [in the show]. It's always just like Asia as a monolith, but that monolith represents more than a billion people.” 

In contrast, she says “Crazy Rich Asians” was exciting because it took place in a specific country (Singapore), and it was about a Chinese American woman colliding with a different culture. 

“That cultural specificity that gave ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ a heart, despite all of the opulence and all of the spectacle, it's not here.” 

“House of Ho” — a more familiar family story 

This series is about Judy Ho, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, and her family in Houston, Texas.

Kang says she likes this show much better than “Bling Empire,” and it’s a type of Asian American story that’s familiar to many people. 

“The sexism of the story basically destroys the self esteem of the daughter in the family. And it's not only coming from the father and the mother, but also the siblings as well. ‘House of Ho’ is basically about how there are these adult siblings who are around 40 and … Judy is constantly overlooked because the parents so overtly prefer the firstborn son in the family.” 

Kang says viewers can see traditional gender roles weighing down Judy and affecting each family member, even the father who enforces these traditions. “He has clearly made his own life harder because of his own sexism.”

Judy is also going through a divorce. “They're Catholic, and so divorce is always going to be disapproved. I think there's an Asian factor there. And then there's also other factors like religion and geography.”

The show is also about freeing oneself. “For Judy, she's really spent all of her life suppressing that desire for independence. … There's something, of course, a little bit sad about the fact that she's waited until her 40th birthday in order to assert her independence. But that says so much about the family dynamics … that she has felt like she has had to wait until age 40 in order to assert her independence.” 

Hope and Awkwafina 

Looking at the entire landscape of TV — including reality series and fictional dramas and comedies — Kang says she sees a lot of hope. 

“What I really want is to see a fuller spectrum of humanity out of these Asian American television shows and movies.”

She says she loves “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens” on Comedy Central. 

“If you had told me five years ago that on a mainstream cable network, you were going to have an Asian American star starring as a stoner, who is constantly bumbling around from gig to gig — and by the way, she lives with her dad and her grandmother, and they never have any conversations about how she has to go to law school or how she has to earn lots of money — it’s so refreshing.”

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