It was a year of firsts for the Unforgettable Gala. From the award categories going international to being broadcast for the first time — the beloved gala saw an unprecedented level of growth.
Presented by Lexus, the premier Asian and Pacific Islander awards ceremony took place at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Saturday, Dec. 16, marking the 21st anniversary of the gala. While there was no official theme for the festivities, it was evident that the API community was celebrating the continuous waves of success they found in the arts, entertainment and culture. There is no stopping the rise of API entertainment, and this year’s UNFO followed suit. The awards ceremony was broadcast for the first time ever on the AAPI-focused entertainment television network ChimeTV with reruns airing on the channel after its premiere on Dec. 18. The program is also available on-demand on ChimeTV+ and Golden TV for further viewing. The gala itself, could not have been possible without the help of our generous sponsors: Lexus, Joseon Empire, Society 1, Pechanga Resort Casino, Amazon MGM Studios, Genesis One Foundation, D’USSÉ, Laurel Glen Vineyard, Apple TV+, and Netflix. This was also the first time UNFO expanded to include two international award winners with the help from AsiaLab, a global entertainment and production company.
As over 700 guests arrived at the Beverly Hilton, API stars such as Auli’i Cravalho, Eugene Lee Yang and Jamie Chung graced the red carpet before heading inside for the ceremony. Attendees made their way into the ballroom, where they were treated to a three-course dinner and, of course, beverages from D’usse and Laurel Glen — which were the perfect accompaniments to cheer on all the successes the community achieved this year. While guests finished up their meals, Character Media publisher and founder James Ryu went on stage to offer opening remarks. “For the past six months, we didn’t know if we would even have an Unforgettable Gala this year. It was really, really, dicey,” he said, before continuing, “But in the end, we did it. Because we are resilient and we are unforgettable.” He then went on to thank the staff who made this event possible and did a special shout-out to the owner of Character Media’s parent company, Imperial Family Companies: “King Andrew Lee, who has supported Character Media and our mission for so long. He has given me complete support and freedom to elevate the Unforgettable Gala to what it is today.”
The Unforgettable Gala selection committee co-chairs, Lisa Ling and Destin Daniel Cretton. (Photo by Daniel Byun.)
Soon before the ceremony officially began, keynote speakers and Unforgettable Gala selection committee co-chairs Lisa Ling and Destin Daniel Cretton took the stage to impart some heartfelt words as they looked back at the past year. “2023 was a year where the very act of maintaining art seemed to be under threat,” Ling said. “But there is one thing that brings me hope despite all of the hardship, and that is seeing all of us band together and work towards a better future.”
After that touching speech, second-time UNFO host and our favorite Ken, Simu Liu officially started the awards show. He cheekily called out how he was responsible for 100% of the Asian representation in “Barbenheimer,” while also recounting the various films and TV shows the API community was featured in this year — calling out “Past Lives” and “BEEF” in particular for their critical acclaim. He also shouted out A24, noting how the studio has platformed so many of the most popular Asian films in the past few years, joking, “Did no one else realize that A24 stood for Asian 24?”
The first performance of the night soon started, with Broadway actors Jennifer Paz, Deedee Magno Hall and Joan Almedilla celebrating API Tony winners with a medley arranged by the music director Troy Laureta. Then it was time for the first award of the night; comedian Atsuko Okatsuka and actor Karen Fukuhara took the stage to not only present Global Groundbreaker for One Asia to Japanese actor Mackenyu but to also tell audiences that all three knew each other during their childhood. Soon after, Daniel Dae Kim came on stage to present Steven Yeun with the Actor in TV Award for his portrayal as Danny Cho in the series “BEEF.”
Mackenyu accepting his award for Global Groundbreaker for One Asia. (Photo by Daniel Byun.) Steven Yeun accepting his award for Actor in TV. (Photo by Daniel Byun.) Charles Melton accepting his award for Actor in Film. (Photo by Daniel Byun.)
The next award winner was Charles Melton (Breakout in Film) — who took the time to thank those in the API community who inspired him including names like Daniel Dae Kim, Steven Yeun, John Cho, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh and Sandra Oh. “All these people that I watched growing up and seeing a piece of my own humanity on screen.” He said before ending the speech, “I honor the paths that were paved for me so that maybe I can pave a path for future generations in storytelling.”
Previous Digital Influencer Award recipient Jason Y. Lee and Watcher Entertainment co-founder Ryan Bergara took the stage to present the Digital Influencer Award to Steven Lim. Other award winners of the night included Sung Jin Lee (Writer), Alison Lee (Pechanga Athlete on Another Level), Byeong Kyu Cho (Global Breakout for One Asia), and Adele Lim (Director.)
Joseph Lee and Sung Jin Lee presenting Young Mazino his award for Breakout in TV. (Photo by Daniel Byun.) Greta Lee accepting her award for Breakout in Film. (Photo by Daniel Byun.) Steven Lim accepting his award for Digitial Influencer of the Year. (Photo by Daniel Byun.) Byeong Kyu Cho accepting his award for Global Breakout for One Asia. (Photo by Daniel Byun.)
The Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” was awarded 2023’s Vanguard Award and received a touching tribute from Joya Kazi Entertainment to celebrate the series ending, as the group used various scenes and dialogue from the show in their performance. Presented by Lana Condor and Ross Butler, the award was accepted by cast members Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani, Ranjita Chakravarty, Ramona Young, and Lee Rodriguez. “’Never Have I Ever’ was a mirror of our teenage years, our joy, our grief, our family,” Jagannathan said. “What was happening in front of the camera was also happening behind. [It] was also a story of a female-led set, that was Asian as f**k. And it was something that we had not a part of [before]. It was truly a vanguard moment for us.”
This year’s Lexus Legacy honored the late Bruce Lee, granting a donation to the Bruce Lee Foundation. Shannon Lee, Lee’s only daughter and head of the foundation, received the honor on his behalf and took a moment to acknowledge her father’s impact since his passing 50 years ago. “I’m just so thrilled that we’re taking a moment for what he did, for a time where there was no internet, no social media, he somehow managed through the sheer force … of his beautiful will to impact the entire world, exactly how all of you are doing now.”
Joya Kazi Entertainment performing their tribute to “Never Have I Ever.” (Photo by Daniel Byun.) The cast of “Never Have I Ever” receiving their Vanguard Award. L to R: Ranjita Chakravarty, Richa Moorjani, Poorna Jagannathan, Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez. (Photo by Daniel Byun.) Shannon Lee on stage accepting the Lexus Legacy Award on behalf of her late father, Bruce Lee. (Photo by Daniel Byun.)
Outside of the awards, other performances took to the stage, including a touching performance by the first Pacific Islander winner of “American Idol,” Iam Tongi, singer-songwriter, Joyce Wrice, who brought everyone to their feet with her songs, and lastly, the band Common Kings, who brought the house down with an electric act that had the audience swaying throughout the ballroom.
Attendees were also able to go to the first ever UNFO Gifting Suite — which offered goodies like vouchers from Bliss Point Larchmont, candles from Choice By Joseon, bottles of wine from Laurel Glen Wine, skincare from Fairche, hair styling tools from InStyler, and perfume from Maison de L’asie.
And as always, the party didn’t end with the ceremony as guests were encouraged to celebrate and dance the night away with performances from Kevin Chung, Kiyomi, Paravi, Mallory Low, Kiyoné and Ylona Garcia with welcome party crashers, Common Kings and Iam Tongi, surprising the crowd with an impromptu set as well.
For more highlights from the night, make sure to catch the ceremony on ChimeTV, our upcoming video coverage and read our full list of awards winners below!
We would like to give a very special thanks to our sponsors: Lexus, Joseon Empire, Society 1, Pechanga Resort Casino, Amazon MGM Studios, Genesis One Foundation, D’USSÉ, Laurel Glen Vineyard, Apple TV+, Netflix, Chubby Group, Juvis Diet/Hollywood Wellness Med Spa, Ten Advertising, Robin Hwajin Yoon Kim Foundation, Story Mining & Supply, Warner Bros. Discovery, Amazon Music, Ciel Creative Space, Deep C Digital, IW Group, Gold House, Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles and Tremendous.