Around the end of middle school, I discovered KevJumba‘s channel while surfing YouTube. Kevin Wu, one of the earliest Asian-American adopters of the platform, began posting homemade videos in 2007 for fun, and rapidly gained an unexpected following. At a young age, I barely, if at all, registered the fact that Kevin was Chinese-American like me; his humor and experiences resonated with mine, so I kept watching. Within the safe haven of my room, I especially loved the stints of his dad, whose on-camera exchanges with Kevin caricatured my relationship with my parents. Seeing my cultural struggles reflected on-screen did a lot to validate my difficult-to-navigate experiences.
In high school, my introduction to Wong Fu Productions left me obsessed. From its onset, Wong Fu focused on “using Asian faces to tell an everyday story,” and within their artful and humorous shorts I saw stories of my own. “Yellow Fever,” the 2006 short that launched Wong Fu’s popularity, left me in stitches. “Take it Slow,” a sweetly innocent prom story, reminded me of my big night. “Strangers, Again,” a journey through the stages of a relationship, brought me to tears. Whereas KevJumba ignited my Asian pride, Wong Fu gave me a sense of belonging. Watching them bridged the disparities between my Asian self and non-Asian peers, quieted my fears of being “the other,” and reminded me that I, too, fit within the fabric of the American story.
It never occurred to me that my experience was emblematic of Asian-American youth until I found myself viewing a May 2016 Wong Fu video called “Asian Americans in Hollywood.” As part of a weekly Lunch Break! series, which often stars various Asian-American actors and film artists in a casual lunch setting, the video features Wong Fu co-founders Philip Wang and Wes Chan chatting with their friends and collaborators””””Ki Hong Lee (star of the 2014 movie Maze Runner) and Taylor Chan””””over pizza. In this case, they’re discussing Lee’s acting career. As the conversation unfolds, Lee hits on the common issues associated with the Asian-American presence in mainstream media: There are still very few complex Asian characters, and the Hollywood status quo remains white-dominant among both creators and actors; as a result, whitewashing continues–as does the push for greater representation.
In recent years, the Asian-American community has upped the volume in bringing attention to these issues. Earlier this year, The New York Times published an op-ed and an article highlighting the prolonged invisibility of Asian-Americans in media. The latter hit a nerve among readers and triggered a wave of controversial responses. Around the same time, Asian-Americans stormed the Twittersphere with the hashtag campaign #StarringJohnCho, a witty and fiery movement criticizing the lack of Hollywood diversity. And just this month, Jesse Watter’s anti-Chinese American segment on Fox News ignited an onslaught of enraged and thought-provoking commentary that elevated the discrimination to public officials and mainstream media hosts alike.
“The cool thing is that there’s different ways of changing [the status quo],” Wes said in response to Lee’s commentary. “There’s other platforms. All these new ways that content can get out there are ways that groups like us can change the system.”
Wang agreed. “I think it’s already changing “¦ These digital platforms, these streaming platforms are totally disrupting the system, and that’s where I think the most opportunity is going to come for Asian people if we want to step up into that arena.” In the fight to change the system, Asian-American creators no longer have to wait to produce content with their diverse voices and stories.
The new, vocal Asian-American community has a strengthened sense of identity. Asian-American representation has always been an issue–but it’s YouTube that’s finally fueling the momentum now.
During my own childhood, before YouTube emerged or social networking really took hold, my suburban New Jersey hometown shaped my limited understanding of America. In my eyes, America was 50 percent Christian, 50 percent Jewish, and one percent Asian, a mirror reflection of my fuzzy statistical breakdown of my elementary and middle school classmates. Naively, I held firmly to this belief until I moved for high school, where within the first few weeks of school a classmate scolded me for my obtuse estimation that half of Americans were Jewish.
As a first-generation Chinese American (second-generation immigrant) with few Asian-American peers, I spent the majority of my childhood believing I had two independent cultural identities that certainly did not combine. At home, I was Chinese–I ate egg and tomato stir fry, attended Saturday morning Chinese school, and watched the Chinese epic tale Journey to the West on DVD. At school, I was American–I ate pizza, learned U.S. history, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The few times these identities crossed over, like when my parents sent me to school with Chinese food for lunch, I was horrified at the consequences. Once, a culturally ignorant classmate pushed my rice and bok choy onto the cafeteria floor, repelled by its foreign appearance and smell. That day, I went home hungry and cried for hours to my poor mother, who, unable to relate from her own experiences, could only hold me for comfort.
I had no conception of what it meant to be Asian-American, and slowly learned from the cues of my peers that to fit in–in other words, to be American–meant strictly to be white American. There was no room to deviate; I knew no alternative. I became ashamed of my ethnicity and rejected the cultural influences of my parents. Years later, in an emotional confession, my mom admitted how painful it had been for her to watch me grow up in the absence of cultural support, and distance myself from an unwanted Chinese-American identity.
Without Asian-American faces in mainstream media, I found solace in other immigrant stories. For a long time, my absolute favorite movie was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which tells the love story of a Greek-American woman who struggles to negotiate the differences between her Greek family and American peers. In the end, she falls in love, marries a man who accepts her for her Greek-American identity, and learns to embrace the identity herself. Within her journey, I saw my own search for acceptance, identity, and place in society.
The stark contrast of the before- and after-YouTube eras in my own life mirror the divide in the national conversation on racial representation in the entertainment industry. In the 2012 documentary Uploaded: The Asian American Movement, comedian and founder of Kollaboration Paul Kim explains: “When we talk about Asian-American entertainment, I definitely think we have to talk about pre-YouTube and post-YouTube.”
Both professionals and amateurs flocked to YouTube when it first emerged, not necessarily aware of the implications. For professional actors, actresses, and other entertainers, the platform presented an opportunity to leave behind the limited career options of old media. Filmmaker Freddie Wong, for example, said of his decision: “We were like, alright, let’s focus on doing YouTube because, first of all, the other direction we’re going is not fun. This seems to be way more fun; this let’s us do what we want to do. And at the same time we can be improving our filmmaking skills and be putting something out and hopefully making money off of it.” Now, Wong’s production company RocketJump has close to eight million subscribers.
In comparison, amateur content producers like KevJumba sought YouTube simply for the excitement of connecting with others. They found an eager audience, and for years (before Vevo) Japanese-American Ryan Higa (nigahiga) and Vietnamese-American Michelle Phan topped YouTube’s most-subscribed channels. They still rank in the top 100 today, with over 18 million and 8.5 million subscribers, respectively. A new generation of youth was finally growing up with media icons who looked like and related to them, and who helped them unpack and embrace their Asian-American experience.
YouTube’s effect didn’t stop there. As Twitter, blogs, and other social media joined it in transforming the digital space, a network effect emerged, coalescing diverse voices into one unified front. “Virtual community-building has been key for Asian-Americans because it is a way of mobilizing using a common language,” L.S. Kim, U.C. Santa Cruz professor of Film and Television, told me over the phone. “Racking up views for a popular video made by or featuring Asian-Americans, or visiting and becoming a loyalist for a particular platform or website de facto, gathers numbers together.”
As much as YouTube gave Asian-Americans a chance to converse with one another, it also created an opportunity to engage with non-Asian-American communities. “Not only is it about belonging, it’s also about having facility, having cultural citizenship, being able to play the game,” Kim elaborated. With the democracy of content production, anyone and everyone with internet gained a stake in the representation conversation. This is when Asian-American identity formation truly gained momentum.
Collectively, the virtual community now had the means to articulate new narratives, break worn stereotypes, and react to old media. This last one–the interaction between emerging platforms and old media–is key.
Whereas identity is shaped by the subject it describes, stereotypes are imposed externally. Within the long history of Asian presence in America, only a fraction involves identity formation. In his 1998 edition of Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, ethnic studies expert Ronald Takaki wrote a telling analysis of the Asian-American condition. Although Asian-Americans were the fastest-growing minority of his time–true once again today–”very little is known about Asian-Americans and their history. In fact, stereotypes and myths of Asians as aliens and foreigners are pervasive in American society.” The reason, he identified, was because Asian-Americans had little voice of their own, and the history of America, as told by authors of European descent, gave no mention to the stories of their Eastern counterparts.
Today, the most pervasive perception of Asian-Americans as “the model minority” is still a stereotype not authored by the community it stamps. Coined by a 1966 New York Times article to describe Japanese-American success in the face of deep injustice, the phrase continues to one-dimensionalize the diversity of the Asian-American experience and undermine the conversation of racial discrimination. It also conveniently conceals the string of unkind stereotypes that lurk beneath it.
Without nuanced narratives told by Asian-Americans themselves, mainstream media attempts to create Asian characters with ill-fitted stereotypes instead. As told in Uploaded, Asian women were perpetuated as either the sexually submissive geisha or the fiery-tempered dragon lady; Asian men were limited to the poorly assimilated delivery boy or the mystical martial arts action hero. None of these stereotypes remotely resembled the American aspect of Asian-American life, capitalizing instead on the foreign. Even beyond film, in popular magazines for example, Asian-Americans were delimited to diminishing stereotypes, as with the 1987 Time cover story “Those Asian American Whiz-Kids,” which depicted “textbook-clutching, big-glasses brainiacs.”
Though woefully numbered, there were a few notable breakthroughs up to the early 2000s. In 1982, Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing became the first Asian-American feature narrative to gain recognition outside of Asian-American circles. In 1994, Margaret Cho’s TV series All-American Girl was the first to star an Asian-American family–20 years prior to Fresh Off the Boat. (Sadly, Cho’s show was cancelled after its first season.) And in 2002, Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow truly gathered steam as it became the first Asian-American film to be picked up by the Sundance Film Festival and acquired by MTV. But the dearth of Asian-American stories couldn’t be more apparent, and it wasn’t for want of trying from the community itself. Upon this sparse stage, YouTube changed everything.
Phil Yu never intended to become a cultural figurehead. At 22, fresh out of college as a film major, he started a personal blog to rant about his frustrations with the paucity of Asian media presence. “At the time, no one on TV looked like me,” he explained, “so I began looking for and cataloguing Asian-American representation in media–both good and bad.” Fifteen years later, his blog “Angry Asian Man” has grown a wide-spanning readership, and he has become a well-respected spokesperson for the community, touring around the country to speak about representation issues. Under the Obama administration, he was invited to the White House six times as part of the Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Despite his acclaim, Yu stays incredibly humble. “It’s a privilege and honor for people to come to my site and want to seek out an opinion and a perspective. I’m just writing about what I like and what I find entertaining,” he said.
Through his cultural criticism and commentary on “Angry Asian Man,” Yu is wielding new media to push for change in the mainstream. A recent post, for example, denounced Fox News for airing its “appallingly racist anti-Asian segment,” whereas the post immediately prior celebrated all the Asian faces in the Fall 2016 television season. Yu is not alone. Since actress Constance Wu took on the role as the mother in Fresh Off the Boat, she has leveraged both her mainstream visibility and her personal Twitter account to speak up about whitewashing and demand for change. Her social media campaigns have sparked nuanced internet discussions about Asian-American identity, such as when she skewered Hollywood for casting Matt Damon as the lead in The Great Wall. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only white men can save the world,” she tweeted.
Kim explained why this engagement is so important: “Even though the internet and social media is important and influential, traditional media remains very powerful in circulating ideas, questions, debates,” she said. In other words, the growth of digital representation alone is not enough; television presence is still key. “Therefore internet, social media, new technologies, and television all can work discursively together to challenge and shift ideas.”
There are many other ways new and old media have intertwined. When Asian-American YouTube stars began receiving millions of views, it fundamentally challenged the longstanding belief that Asian actors and actresses aren’t bankable stars. So, CBS took a leap of faith and invited KevJumba and his dad to star in season 17 of The Amazing Race. It subsequently became the most highly rated season in history. The success was impossible to ignore. KevJumba went on to star in several feature films, but more importantly, the stint demanded that old media reconsider its assumptions.
Wong Fu’s sustained success also shook up mainstream discourse. After years of making shorts that predominantly feature Asian faces and have received critical recognition from CNN, NPR, and the Sundance Film Festival, the company amassed an international fan base that crowdfunded its first feature film. Once again starring Asian-American talent front and center–from the actors and actresses on screen to the soundtrack and music production–Everything Before Us premiered at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in 2014 and garnered the attention of Hollywood. To date, Wong Fu has continued to drive forward its mission. It is now producing an original series on YouTube Red called Single by 30, which will challenge representation conversations in mainstream television, the same way Everything Before Us challenged them in film.
Collaborations between digital and traditional entertainers have also strengthened Asian-American visibility. As an early digital adopter, Yu said that at first his self-published blog was just about putting out ideas “without having to wait for the gatekeepers.” But as his online community grew, so did his influence. “I can use my blog to collaborate with and amplify the talent in the community. I see myself as a town crier. I act as a megaphone,” he said. Similarly, Wong Fu’s collaborations with Hollywood actors helped bolster both parties’ success. Whereas Ki Hong Lee (Maze Runner) and Randall Park (Fresh Off the Boat) starred in popular Wong Fu shorts before gaining more substantive roles in Hollywood, already-established celebrity Harry Shum Jr. (Glee) fueled Wong Fu’s virality in return.
The arc of the Asian-American story shows the power that emerging media technology has in empowering minority voices. Though I’ve focused specifically on Asian-American identity formation, this journey is an archetype for all underrepresented groups. YouTube, blogs, social media, and other self-publishing platforms have dramatically shifted the cultural landscape by bringing storytelling into the hands of everyday people.
But, as the Fox News coverage made clear, the journey is not over, and the fight for diverse and empowering representation must continue. For the future, Kim told me both digital and traditional media will each play their role. The former “will remain an effective, productive way to strengthen and evolve Asian-American identities,” and the latter must bear the responsibility for “all viewers and media consumers to see and literally envision Asian-Americans in new and surprising ways.”
In a YouTube video posted on his personal channel, Philip Wang also weighs in. “Be the change that you want to see in the world “¦ If there’s something that you’re so impassioned about, really look inwards and be like, “‘OK, if this upsets me so much, what am I doing to affect it?'” As a longstanding digital content creator, Wang delivers a message that boils down to this: Technology platforms function only in service of the human voices they amplify.
Ultimately, it’s human power, fueled by passion, that will change the world.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Identity section, which looks at how new technologies influence how we understand ourselves. Click the logo to read more.