Asian in Media: Mr. Huynh – demeaning stereotype or source of comfort?

Mr. Hyunh was a character on the hugely popular "Hey Arnold!". Despite the ambiguous spelling of his last name, Mr. Hyunh was introduced as a Vietnamese immigrant in the show. Is his character a demeaning stereotype or a sign of increased prominence of Asians in media?


source: Wikimedia Commons by Aaron Escobar on Flickr

When I was in elementary school, a playground squabble with a non-Vietnamese classmate left me consciously suppressing my Vietnamese identity thereafter.  I was just a kid then, so when said classmate threw a petty racial slur at me, it was really unsettling, and a sort of ethnic chagrin stayed with me.

But, when you’re growing up in a Vietnamese family, eating Vietnamese food daily, and even taking Vietnamese language lessons every Saturday because your parents are absolutely convinced that’s how elementary school-aged kids want to spend their weekends, it becomes impossible to eschew something so patently part of you.  So, even though I outwardly tried to distance myself from my Vietnamese-ness, inwardly I still longed for a way to reconcile with my ethnic identity.  Being a kid and a bit of TV junkie, I looked to Vietnamese on television for solace.  (Adolescent me reasoned that if you appeared on TV without an embarrassing mug shot or a Jerry Springer-type headline under your name, you were someone to take note of.)

One of the figures I found solace in was a 2D man, a 2D man by the name of Mr. Hyunh (A mispelling of the common Vietnamese last name Huynh).

A Childish Need and a Crude Asian Man?

For those of you not familiar with him, Mr. Hyunh was a character on the hugely popular Hey Arnold!, a cartoon created by producer Craig Bartlett and broadcasted on Nickelodeon from 1996 – 2001.  Despite the ambiguous spelling of his last name, Mr. Hyunh was introduced as a Vietnamese immigrant living at the Sunset Arms, a boarding house owned and managed by the title character’s grandparents.

Mr. Hyunh, in boxer shorts and bunny slippers, brandishes a rotting fish in an attempt to appease what he believes is a spirit haunting the boarding house in the episode "Four-Eyed Jack." Is this an example of stereotyping Asians? (Hey Arnold! and Mr. Hyunh are the property of Viacom International Inc.)

Now at first glance, Mr. Hyunh doesn’t seem like one to take much pride in.  In fact, it’d be easy to tack on him a big, bold “STEREOTYPE” or “TOKEN ASIAN” label.  He’s loud and uncouth with a malt-thick accent.  He’s overly fastidious when it comes to laundry, and he’s known to be a bit on the hooky-kooky side.  Especially with his conspicuous mustache, Mr. Hyunh bares a dangerous resemblance to the sinister Fu Manchu, the fictitious embodiment of Yellow Peril from the early 20th century.

However, there have been plenty of moments on Hey Arnold! wherein the producers have approached Mr. Hyunh with a true cultural sensitivity.  The mere fact that Craig Bartlett even specified Mr. Hyunh as Vietnamese is enough to raise both an eyebrow in wonder and a hand in applause.  It goes without saying that Asians are sorely missing from mainstream American media, and even when included, “Asian” usually translates to Chinese, Japanese, or sometimes Korean.

Actor Dustin Nguyen played Chinese and Japanese characters early in his career. (Source: Wikimedia Commons by Wisekwai)

Consider this: the only other Vietnamese embraced by mainstream television I can think of in the 80s and 90s were actors Thuy Trang and Dustin Nguyen.  Trang played the yellow ranger Trini Kwan on Power Rangers, a Chinese character.  Nguyen played Steven Ioki on 21 Jump Street (a long-running detective show with Johnny Depp) and Steven Loh on V.I.P (another detective show, but with Pamela Anderson).  Nguyen played Japanese and Chinese characters, respectively.*

So, given the paltry number of Vietnamese on television, the very existence of a distinctly Vietnamese character on American TV—on a kid’s show no less—is really quite something to marvel at.  But that’s not all.  As crass as he might’ve been, Mr. Hyunh was a multi-layered character, and I daresay that Mr. Hyunh’s presence played an integral part in creating the show’s legacy.

Mr. Hyunh, Vietnamese Idol?

Some of the most beloved episodes of Hey Arnold! figure Mr. Hyunh prominently.  For instance, in the episode “Mr. Hyunh Goes Country,” it’s revealed that Mr. Hyunh has one of the sweetest-sounding, country-singing voices you’ll ever hear, and he is even given the chance to become a chart-topping country super star.  But Mr. Hyunh rejects riches and fame because he prefers a simple life—a life with close friends and a humble job.

Now I’m not sure this goes along with the emerging Vietnamese-American ethos of make-lots-of-$$$-and-all-the-prestige-you-can-garner-along-the-way, but I certainly feel like his rejection of the celebrity life for a simple life speaks volumes to the resilient spirit of Vietnam itself.  Vietnam is very much a country still in the process of recovering from suffering in one form or another, and Mr. Hyunh’s actions reflect Vietnam’s desire to find stability and tranquility again.  It’s admirable.  If you want to get academic, you can even say that Mr. Hyunh’s actions represent a rejection of the yellow peril myth: Asians aren’t out to take over every part of your world; they just want to find peace with themselves. (A bit of a stretch, I know.)

Also, the Hey Arnold! Christmas special “Arnold’s Christmas”—one of my personal favorites—is a poignant episode that revolves around none other than Mr. Hyunh.  In this episode, we learn about Mr. Hyunh’s back-story.  He’s not just any Vietnamese immigrant.  He came to America with a specific purpose: to find his long-lost daughter, Mai Hyunh.  In this episode, it is revealed that in the early 1970s, when Vietnam was at one of the most tumultuous points in its history, Mr. Hyunh had to hand off his daughter to an American G.I. in a helicopter so that she might have a better life.  Mr. Hyunh’s life is shown in flash blacks that allow unembellished glimpses into Vietnam’s history.  No casting of judgment, no pandering to sentimentality—just an unadulterated look at an all too sad, all too true, and surprisingly not infrequent story of one Vietnamese man’s past.  At the end of the episode (spoiler alert!), Mr. Hyunh does reunite with Mai, and they embrace in Vietnamese.  I’m willing to bet a C-note that this is the only time you will ever hear perfect Vietnamese spoken on an American kids’ cartoon.  I know my heart leaped a bit when I heard it.

Mr. Hyunh strums his guitar and sings about giving up the celebrity life for the simple life in "Mr. Hyunh Goes Country." (Hey Arnold! and Mr. Hyunh are the property of Viacom International Inc.)

So yeah, he may have just been a cartoon character, but Mr. Hyunh had a profound impact on me as child.  To be honest, Mr. Hyunh was also one of the first exposures to Vietnam’s past.  As a kid, my parents never talked about their life back in Vietnam, and you certainly don’t learn much about Vietnam in elementary social studies.  Mr. Hyunh’s admirable presence made me proud to be Vietnamese again, and he reminded me that the Vietnamese are a humble, resilient breed, doing our best to survive in a world that has been too cruel (to just about everyone, actually, not just Vietnamese). Through Mr. Hyunh, kids across America actually had an honest exposure to Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese history.  When I think about this, that accent of Mr. Hyunh doesn’t sound too bad after all…it’s actually quite endearing now.  And you know what? At least it’s a real Vietnamese guy doing his voice, not someone imitating an accent (think Apu on Simpsons—voice actor is not Indian).

If you ever watched Hey Arnold! as a kid, do you agree with my analysis of him?  Or can you think of any other instances of American cartoons acknowledging Vietnamese people?  Alternatively, did you have any Vietnamese people in the media that you looked up to when growing up?

*To 21 Jump Street’s credit though, there is an episode wherein Nguyen’s character Ioki reveals that he’s actually a Vietnamese man who has to adopt a Japanese identity to avoid complications with the INS.  But that’s a different issue all together.

Mr. Huynh in action – a country star is born!


  • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=22 OneVietnam Network

    Also, on 30 Rock last week, Tina Fey mentioned a "Vietnamese size 2" in regards to her dress!

  • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=1044167571 Mic Võ

    I remember watching the Hey Arnold Christmas Episode when I was young. I was extremely surprised that they focused that episode on Mr Hyunh's daughter. It's actually the only episode that I remember from Hey Arnold.Great post!!!

  • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=1439010127 Trâm Anh L?i

    hey me too

  • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=1662200606 Kerryanne O’Reilly

    Great article

  • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=783902588 Tiffany Tran

    I really loved this article. Thanks for the great read. Now, I gotta find this episode!

  • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=1003442288 Minh Huynh

    That's rad.

  • James Bao

    This is a great article. Though I don’t remember much about Mr. Hyunh (Hey Arnold was a long time ago), you’ve convinced me he represents progress, not stereotype.

  • Quyen Ngo

    I have to say, this is a wonderful article, and I agree completely. One of the reasons I really was drawn into Hey Arnold (aside from the hilarity that is Helga and her obsession for the titular character), was the surprising amount of sensitivity given to many topics that aren’t even handled as carefully today.

    You can easily lump in Mr. Hyunh as one of the crazy boarders, but the Christmas episode demonstrated that there was much more to the character than just his quirks. Not going to lie, I teared up when I heard the dialogue spoken in perfect Vietnamese, even if Grandpa Phil had to talk over part of it.

    I like that you managed to make me re-think my opinion of the ‘Mr. Hyunh goes Country’ episode. I usually skipped over that one, but I realize your point and have to re-evaluate that now.

    But damn you, now you’ve gone and made me determined to add the Hey Arnold! box sets to my dvd collection–as if I don’t have enough things to pay for!

    ;D

  • Kay Rivera

    Very happy to read a positive article on Mr Hyunh. Sorry that I don’t know how to spell it correctly–various sources say Hyunh, others say Huynh. I always loved Hey Arnold! and I loved the character, so I’m pleased that some Vietnamese are pleased.

  • http://nicholasweiss.com Nick

    That was beautiful

  • Huynh

    As someone with the same last name it personally makes me upset that they got his name wrong
    although i do not mind his accent and the way he looks
    i love his accent and lol my dad has the same moustache
    i just wish they can correct his name just switch two letters! Ahhh
    and it further upsets me to find out that a vietnamese man voiced it and did not notice the mistake
    btw i loveeeeeee hey arnold! !!!!!

    • Martin

      They spelt his name wrong on purpose.

  • Craig Bartlett

    Thanks for this! A friend linked me to your article.
    When we cast “Hey Arnold!” we wanted the boarders to be eccentric and kooky, but with Baoan Coleman as Mr. Hyunh (yes, intentionally misspelled), it went into very unpredictable territory. Baoan was great: his Mr. Hyunh is kind of blunt, but very soulful. So it was easy to write episodes like the Christmas show and “Mr. Hyunh Goes Country,” because we knew he would take those stories to a very different place. And even though he’s funny, I think Mr. Hyunh is a great guy. I cried when he and his long-lost daughter broke into Vietnamese, too. I love those episodes; they’re two of my favorites. And I’m glad Mr. Hyunh had that effect on you growing up. It makes me happy.
    Craig Bartlett

    • Selene

      First off, I want to say that I really liked this article. I never thought of Mr. Hyunh as embodying many of Vietnam’s cultural values, and now I want to re-watch the Country episode to see that connection. Because I grew up in Venezuela with the Spanish dub of the show, I never realized Mr. Hyunh’s strong Vietnamese accent, and I don’t really know if I realized he was Vietnamese (or Asian) until the Christmas episode. However, I am sort of glad that they didn’t try to translate the accent, as most probably it would have been overly-exaggerated and very fake-sounding.

      I also wanted to say: Mr. Bartlett, thank you for creating such a wonderful cartoon! What I loved about your cartoon, and was just thinking about when I watched the youtube clip featured in this article, is that it had a lot of heart; Mr. Hyunh wasn’t just a token Asian guy, but an actual character, with a real personality. And that is true for all of the characters. My favorite characters are Helga and Arnold, but all of them were wonderful and unique.

      Anyways, thanks again. Your cartoon was present during all of my childhood, and it helped me get through many rough times… and I always wished that I had friends like those. I really wish it hadn’t been canceled.

    • Luis

      sr barlett, gracias por haber hecho hey arnold, en serio, muchas gracias. 

    • Peter Ngo

      Amazing article, Ahn Ton! I’m glad I stumbled into this. I’m Chinese with a Vietnamese last name, and parents who grew up in Vietnam.

      Wow, even Craig Bartlett replied to this! Thanks for an incredible series with great character, and characters with character. I miss it as a dear part of my childhood.

  • luis

     no hablo ingles, pero traduje esto, y es realmente increible, soy de ecuador, y creci viendo arnold, el señor hyunh es uno de mis personajes favoritos, realmente, hey arnold fue una verdadera obra de television, nada igualara un dibujo animado como este, algo tan profundo.

  • h.navalo

    =’) beautiful. and all true…but there was another… Tina from a show called ghost writer that used to come on in the mornings on pbs. then later on nickelodeon. Mr hyunh, was my fav character besides Helga, because I like loud strange accents…since I have one myself,lol.Im not Asian though, Im half Dominican half Panamanian. as a Panamanian, I never had any other Panamanians in the media to look up to and all the Dominicans in media were drug dealers. like the guy from shaft(who was not played by a real Dominican). I’ve always loved Asians! idk why, lol maybe because they are one of the only true minorities(native american, asians, middleeasters/native israelis) I would really love to see more Asians in media because I feel that as Americans it is our duty to make all our people feel at home, I mean its not lkike we are going anywhere, lol.

  • h.navalo

    =’) beautiful. and all true…but there was another… Tina from a show called ghost writer that used to come on in the mornings on pbs. then later on nickelodeon. Mr hyunh, was my fav character besides Helga, because I like loud strange accents…since I have one myself,lol.Im not Asian though, Im half Dominican half Panamanian. as a Panamanian, I never had any other Panamanians in the media to look up to and all the Dominicans in media were drug dealers. like the guy from shaft(who was not played by a real Dominican). I’ve always loved Asians! idk why, lol maybe because they are one of the only true minorities(native american, asians, middleeasters/native israelis) I would really love to see more Asians in media because I feel that as Americans it is our duty to make all our people feel at home, I mean its not lkike we are going anywhere, lol.

  • Jen

    Don’t forget, the amazing show Nikita stars a Vietnamese woman

  • Chris Pare

    I am an American born Canadian, so I have no Vietnamese influence in me whatsoever. I have watched the “Arnold’s Christmas” a couple times in the past; and even as a child, it made me tear up. I always loved Hey Arnold!, and now that I am 29, I can see why I do. You never see a children’s cartoon any more that displays true hardships or even sorrow that people go through. This is such a great episode (Arnold’s Christmas) and I still tear up today. I am glad that you found solice in your ethnicity from Hey Arnold!. This enforces the differences in cartoons of that time-span compared to today. It is sad how a child’s words can be so hurtful to people; yet, we all should look in the mirror with pride of who we are and where we come from. Thank you for this article. I don’t feel so alone now when I can relate to an animated character. Also, thank you Mr. Bartlett for such a great show. I will always look back at Hey Arnold! as one of the greatest shows in my childhood.

  • gi

    I’m not even asian but I remember always crying when watching that Christmas episode of Hey Arnold. One of the few times a cartoon has ever moved me to tears