ROLE MODEL: Yul Kwon of San Mateo won Survivor and is using his high profile to help change the way Asian Americans are depicted. -(MATHEW SUMNER
ROLE MODEL: Yul Kwon of San Mateo won Survivor and is using his high profile to help change the way Asian Americans are depicted. -(MATHEW SUMNER Staff)
IN THE BLAZING Fiji sun, "Survivor" contestant Yau-Man Chan stood spread eagle on pegs attached to boards. As the time passed, the pegs became tinier and tinier.

Gripping with their fingertips and toes, Chan and the other contestants struggled to stay on to avoid elimination. And at the end, the 54-year-old Martinez man triumphed over his younger - and seemingly stronger - competitors.

Chan says he received e-mails wondering if he was using some sort of kung fu strength, Eastern mysticism or meditation to get him through.

"No, I was just thinking about the pain," Chan, 54, says with a laugh. "I was just an older guy wondering how I was going to hang on long enough to win."

In the past nine months, four Bay Area Asian American men have jumped to prominence because of their roles on reality shows. Although none thought in the beginning about smashing stereotypes, that's exactly what ended up happening.

San Mateo's Yul Kwon, 32, last fall became the first Asian American in "Survivor's" 14 cycles to win the popular series - and afterward was named one of People magazine's Sexiest Men for 2006. Brothers Erwin Cho, 32, of Berkeley and Godwin Cho, 29, of San Francisco spent last fall on "The Amazing Race," coming in fifth out of 12 teams. And Chan recently placed third of 19 contestants on the latest installment of "Survivor."

Chan and Kwon were recruited by "Survivor" in an attempt to bring more diversity to the show, while the Chos applied to be on "Amazing Race.


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Godwin Cho says he has had friends who have submitted applications to be on reality shows like "The Amazing Race," but they have not been chosen.

"In large part, (producers) are looking for specific types and often times, Asian Americans don't fit into the casting prerequisites," he says. "They are looking for people who are outspoken and outrageous and I think culturally, and I'm not speaking for the total community, but generally it is desirous (for Asians) to be somewhat humble and to present oneself very inconspicuously."

That's something, Cho says, that reality shows don't want.

"You could see with Yul and Yau-Man that they had interesting personalities," Cho says. "Yau-Man had a likability and Yul exemplified a character that plays well on 'Survivor': very articulate and very fit. He provided the narration for that season."

Producers learned about Chan, a Chinese-American who spent the first 17 years of his life living in Malaysia Borneo, because of his prowess in table tennis.

When he went in for the psych review, he says "Survivor" creator and producer Mark Burnett commented on the fact that he scored very high in shyness.

"He said 'We don't get very many Asian applicants and you don't look like the type to apply,' " Chan says. " I told him that I didn't apply, I was recruited."

Chan says he received e-mails wondering if he was using some sort of kung fu strength, Eastern mysticism or meditation to get him through.

"No, I was just thinking about the pain," Chan, 54, says with a laugh. "I was just an older guy wondering how I was going to hang on long enough to win."

In the past nine months, four Bay Area Asian American men have jumped to prominence because of their roles on reality shows. Although none thought in the beginning about smashing stereotypes, that's exactly what ended up happening.

San Mateo's Yul Kwon, 32, last fall became the first Asian American in "Survivor's" 14 cycles to win the popular series — and afterward was named one of People magazine's Sexiest Men for 2006. Brothers Erwin Cho, 32, of Berkeley and Godwin Cho, 29, of San Francisco spent last fall on "The Amazing Race," coming in fifth out of 12 teams. And Chan recently placed third of 19 contestants on the latest installment of "Survivor."

Chan and Kwon were recruited by "Survivor" in an attempt to bring more diversity to the show, while the Chos applied to be on "Amazing Race."

Godwin Cho says he has had friends who have submitted applications to be on reality shows like "The Amazing Race," but they have not been chosen.

"In large part, (producers) are looking for specific types and often times, Asian Americans don't fit into the casting prerequisites," he says. "They are looking for people who are outspoken and outrageous and I think culturally, and I'm not speaking for the total community, but generally it is desirous (for Asians) to be somewhat humble and to present oneself very inconspicuously."

That's something, Cho says, that reality shows don't want.

"You could see with Yul and Yau-Man that they had interesting personalities," Cho says. "Yau-Man had a likability and Yul exemplified a character that plays well on 'Survivor': very articulate and very fit. He provided the narration for that season."

Producers learned about Chan, a Chinese-American who spent the first 17 years of his life living in Malaysia Borneo, because of his prowess in table tennis.

When he went in for the psych review, he says "Survivor" creator and producer Mark Burnett commented on the fact that he scored very high in shyness.

"He said 'We don't get very many Asian applicants and you don't look like the type to apply,'" Chan says. " I told him that I didn't apply, I was recruited." The slightly built Chan has an impish grin and speaks honestly about why he decided to go on the show.

"I did it to win a million bucks," he says. "Being on TV, well, in China the acting profession is frowned upon. (Actors) make a living with their body, which has the social status of a prostitute. It's just not done. Now, you see a slight shift, but that stigma is still around. If you don't make a living with your brains, you are nobody."

Kwon, whose parents immigrated from South Korea, says he knows exactly what Chan means. After graduating from Yale Law School, Kwon told his parents that he wanted to go into politics.

"The only thing worse in Korea than politics is acting," Kwon says. "Politicians are very lazy and corrupt in many Asian countries, so you don't want your children going into that. Then, when I decided to go on 'Survivor,' I think they thought 'You went to Stanford. You went to Yale law. Why would you do this to us?' I didn't just do one, I did both politics and TV."

Kwon says he hopes that Asian-Americans become more broad-minded when it comes to alternative careers.

"I think it's true in a lot of immigrant families that you are pressured into going into professions like being a doctor or lawyer and there's nothing wrong with that," Kwon says. "But we need more people in politics and the media to speak on behalf of the community and change what we see in media today."

Chan says he feels it's time for members of the Asian-American community to become more active.

"My feeling is the problem with the Asian community is that we are so introverted in comparison to the rest of the country. We don't reach out and because we don't reach out, we don't correct misunderstandings," Chan says. "All you have to do is read the letters to the editor page in the newspaper and you won't see Asian names in there. You can't sit around and complain, you have to participate. If you don't participate, then you don't have a right to complain about how you are represented. We need to encourage our children to run for office, to go into journalism and other fields that we haven't traditionally supported."

Kwon had no idea that his cycle of "Survivor" would become marked by controversy. After committing to the show, he learned it would be built around dividing the tribes by ethnic groups: one black, one white, one Asian and one Latino. Kwon then feared the worse would be brought out and racial stereotypes would be reinforced.

"I thought this could go wrong in so many ways, but the great thing about reality shows is that they can be contrived, but they are not scripted. I'm sure I was cast as the overachieving Asian nerd, but just because I was cast that way doesn't mean I have to be that," Kwon says. " You can work out like Janet Jackson weeks before the show is taped (as Kwon did) and get ripped."

Critics have generally agreed that Kwon was one of the best players ever on "Survivor." He used his considerable physical abilities, mental capabilities and social skills to take home the million-dollar prize. In the process, he become a role model not only for Asian Americans but for the mainstream as well. It's that kind of cross-over that helps change perspectives, the men all say.

Chan became a textbook case for integrity on the show. He will go down in "Survivor" history as the contestant who gave away a $50,000 truck and only got betrayal in return. Chan won the truck in a challenge, a truck that his fellow team member Dreamz wanted badly. So Chan made a spontaneous offer to exchange the truck for a promise from Dreamz that if he won immunity in the finals, he would give that immunity to Chan.

Chan gave Dreamz the truck. Dreamz ultimately backed out on his promise. Yet Chan kept his word, gave away the truck and didn't hold a grudge.

It earned Chan worldwide respect.

"When I told people I was going to be on the show, the older members of the Asian community were quite worried and wanted to make sure I didn't do anything to embarrass the Asian community," Chan says. "They were so conscious of how Asians are portrayed, and they didn't want the stereotypes of portraying Asians as sly, cunning, inscrutable and shrewd being reinforced."

Kwon says that he also heard from people in the Asian community and family members who feared how Asians would be portrayed.

Even Kwon admits he was a little nervous when he saw that Chan — who is the Director of Information Systems for the College of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, speaks with an accent and appeared to be athletically challenged — had been chosen for "Survivor."

"I thought they were going for the nerdy geek again, but Yau has such a warm personality and he was tough on challenges," Kwon says. "When people look at him, they learned not to jump to conclusions but say 'Hey, he's an amazing guy.'"

Chan's daughter Penelope, 19, says she was proud of her father. Her non-Asian friends, she says, were amazed at how well her father did in the physical challenges.

"I always knew he was a cool guy, but even I didn't know how capable he was," Penelope Chan says. "A few of my non-Asian friends said, 'That little Asian guy can really play.' What I didn't say, but some of my Asian friends said, was 'Yeah, Chinese players can really kick.'"

Chan formed his alliance with an African-American named Earl. The two of them bonded almost immediately, says Chan.

"Everyone thought I would be in this Asian alliance with the other Asian Americans in the group, but I didn't have anything in common with them," Chan says.

Kwon says that although he and Becky, who is Korean-American too, bonded, it wasn't because of their common ethnic background.

"We bonded because we had similar values and had grown up the same way," Kwon says. "On the other hand, I didn't get along with Cao Boi at all because we were so different in terms that were not superficial. It was not surprising to me that Yau-Man bonded with Earl rather than other Asian-Americans on the show because once you got beyond the superficial skin color, in a lot of ways they were similar people."

Being on a reality show, Godwin Cho says, is not like being on a sitcom or drama series.

"(In a scripted show), you know someone wrote it to make a point, and you know how the story will develop," Godwin Cho says. "There may be some manipulation on a reality show, but there is no script."

The Cho brothers earned a reputation during their stint on "The Amazing Race" for helping out two less skilled teams, including the Kentucky couple, Mary and David. The couple had never been far from their poor Kentucky roots and seemed ill-equipped to handle an international race that required navigating through several continents.

"There was something very real about David and Mary. My brother and I came from humble beginnings, so it was easy for us to see things from their perspective. We felt close to this hard-working blue-collar couple, but people look at us now as (college educated professionals), but it wasn't that far of a stretch, given where we both came from," Godwin Cho says. "The bonding came not from race, but common life experiences."

The reality show experience allows viewers to see how people from different ethnic groups interact with each other in a non-scripted manner, Cho says.

"I think what people should take away, is that Asian Americans aren't that different from any other Americans with or without hyphened names," Cho says. "While Hollywood may try and pigeon-hole different ethnic groups, no matter what our skin type, we're all Americans who are much more similar than dissimilar from each other. You connect with people not just because they share a cultural heritage, but because of life experiences that give you a commonality."

Contact Susan Young at (925) 416-4820, send a letter to 4770 Willow Road, Pleasanton CA 94588 or e-mail syoung@angnewspapers.com or chat on the blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/unscripted or http://www.insidebayarea.com/TV.