Over the past few years, the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, combined with a global pandemic have made normal, everyday life difficult for the AAPI community. By sharing stories and insights from those in the Chinese American community, Committee of 100 hopes to shed more light on the issue and help celebrate the amazing accomplishments from within the Chinese American and AAPI community to the world at large.
The staff of Committee of 100 sat down with one of our Next Generation Leaders and asked them about their careers, what the past few years has been like and their hopes for the future. Committee of 100’s Next Generation Leaders program focuses on young leaders who are passionate about the organization’s mission to promote the full inclusion of Chinese Americans across society and advance the betterment of U.S.-China relations. The program was first established in 2017.
This month, we spoke with Vera Chow, Film and TV costume designer.
Vera was born in the U.S. and grew up in Hong Kong. Costume and design became Vera’s coping mechanism for severe bullying at a young age. She knew she wanted to pursue that path from the age of thirteen, and she now works on shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and Netflix’s The Brothers Sun.
Vera is based in New York but has worked on projects worldwide, from North America to Asia. She designs for all genres, from zombie apocalypses to romantic comedies.
Connect with Vera on Instagram at @verachowdesigns, or on IMDb here.
Committee of 100: As a Chinese American, what are some of the challenges you have encountered to become a leader in your respective field?
Vera: One of the first challenges I faced starting out was the lack of representation.
Being a costume designer specifically for film and TV is something I knew I wanted — and the only thing I wanted — since I was thirteen, and yet everywhere I looked, there were very few role models. I looked to costume designers like Eiko Ishioka and Tim Yip, but they were only two of so many lauded costume designers in the industry.
Aside from lack of representation, there was a struggle with reconciling my identity as a woman of color who grew up in Asia, and now having to adopt an entirely different language (in every sense of the word) to assimilate.
I once mentioned in a speech for Asia Society that those who have secured their position in the western world have had to become masters of code switching, especially 10, 20, 30 years back. That comes with pretending, adapting, observing, and at times, ignoring our cultural heritage to be able to not be seen as the foreigner, the immigrant, who will never be a leader.
Committee of 100: There are more than 6 million Chinese Americans in the United States today and it is one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. Do you feel that Chinese Americans are well represented in government, business, and other parts of society?
Vera: In the realm I’m most familiar with, I can tell you that almost every single AAPI costume designer who has made a significant mark in Hollywood can be counted on two hands (it used to be one hand!) and we all know each other. Out of hundreds, thousands, of designers in the industry, we all know each other. While that, frankly, is a dismal number, with it comes a wonderful camaraderie. In fact, I’m seeing the East Coast AAPI designers for dinner this Sunday. By that I mean a table of 6. I see this in every department of my industry, be it art, props, cinematography, not just design. I am sure I speak for everyone when we say that the phenomenon is not that different in other areas.
Committee of 100: What do you believe needs to be done so that more Chinese Americans feel empowered to follow their dreams and push forward to create the programs/businesses/positions they want?
Vera: There are a few things.
- We are still seen as the perpetual foreigner. That part has not changed if not actually regressed a bit during Covid and current political tension. Even though I will not say we are completely excluded in various fields, but the opportunity to be on the top remains miniscule in many industries, which does not correspond to the number of Asians and Asian Americans that live in the US, UK, and Canada. The perpetual foreigner is also the perpetual worker, not the leader.
- I’m sure we are all tired of hearing that, culturally, we must learn to speak up more, and adapt to cultural differences over here, or start to encourage the media and the arts more, etc. We’ve all heard that. But one thing I would like to be very frank about is gatekeeping. There is, even in our generation, or the younger generation, still a lot of gatekeeping, however subliminal. The scarcity mindset and one seat at the table belief still stands very strong. Are there really very few seats at the table for some industries? Absolutely. To pretend the subconscious “diversity” pie chart doesn’t exist in a western corporation would be naïve. But it is up to those few who have reached the top, to continue reaching down, reaching up, reaching, left, reaching right.
Committee of 100: For those Chinese Americans and AAPIs who just recently graduated college, what advice would you give to them?
Vera: I’m in no place to give advice! I’d just repeat: reach down, up, left, right. Form the community, not because you can get something out of it, but truly just as kinship. For decades I have avoided that. Moving here, as mentioned above, I had to code switch, to act, to put on a mask, to pretend, to get to this point. Growing pains. Though I did not regret it, as decades ago that was necessary, I truly hope this generation doesn’t feel the need to do that anymore. Recently, the climate has us proclaiming our heritage loud and proud.
But never forget to do it together. Don’t reach up just to find mentorship that leads to job opportunities, don’t reach down just to feel like you can school a newbie, don’t reach left and right just to size up the competition. The opportunities will come. I still see at so many networking events, the undercurrent of what I call the “hunt” — all of my opportunities came from real kinship. Culturally, I hope this is something we can work on improving as years go on.
Committee of 100: What do you most want to be remembered for in terms of making your mark on this world?
Vera: I struggle between wanting to be… not remembered but recognized. (Wishing to be some immortalized legend is too grandiose for me.)
But yes, I struggle between wanting to be recognized for what I have achieved because of/in spite of/due to/thanks to/even though — I was a FOB as they call it. I didn’t even grow up in America.
Or to be recognized for something I have contributed regardless of my cultural background. I suppose ultimately those two things are inseparable.
I don’t want to be the first or the last, I want to be the first batch of many more to come of artists of Asian heritage, western born or not, that are leaders in the entertainment arena. Pioneers, change makers, not just workers. Perhaps being acknowledged as being one of the first wave of AAPI Hollywood leaders to start pulling everyone else in would be great, but I don’t need a medal!
Showbiz and AAPI aside, I just want to be happy. For too long I’ve been raised with one of our most damning cultural beliefs — you MUST be the best, you HAVE to reach for the top or die trying. Not to say that it is synonymous with “be remembered for making your mark” but they do run parallel.
I noticed I have made the most changes in my own life, in my industry, and in my friends’ and colleagues’ lives, when I stopped doing things for that specific goal, and just let it be. My career, my joy, everything, changed — when I did everything because I love it (corny, I know) not because I have to, I must win, I must be the best, I must leave a legacy.