Issue 10.3 | Summer 2012 / Guest edited by Jonathan Beller

The Virtuosic Virtuality of Asian American YouTube Stars

The Rise of the Asian American YouTube Star

Wong Fu Productions’ breakout short film Yellow Fever revolves around a single question, posed in the film’s beginning minutes by actor/producer/director Philip Wang: “Man, why are all the white guys taking our girls?”[1] The fifteen-minute clip, produced in 2005 while the three members of Wong Fu were still undergraduates at University of California, San Diego, and released in January of 2006, takes a satirical if problematic look at the significantly higher rates of interracial couples on their campus involving white men and Asian women than couples with Asian men and white women. In his quest to understand why it is that he can’t seem to get white or Asian girls, the Chinese American Phil seeks advice from three men: East Asian American Chris, who explains that Asian men aren’t considered as masculine as their white counterparts; his white roommate Andrew, who is oblivious to the discrepancy and stunned by the fact that his pickup methods don’t work for Phil (in this scene, Phil brings home two East Asian American girls and they become entranced with Andrew who is making a peanut butter sandwich and the scene turns into a fantasy sequence where Andrew starts suggestively touching himself while a generic electric-guitar solo plays); and Indian American Richard, who cheers Phil up by reminding him that, “Indian guys have it the worst … there are always people who can have it worse.” Richard’s monologue, delivered in what Shilpa Davé has termed “brown voice,”[2] stresses that Asian men fail to attract white and Asian women because they are too “pansy,” lacking the “assertiveness and confidence” that white men have in spades. “You sit around and blame the white people,” Richard says, “when you were really too chicken to do anything about it yourself!”

In the film’s final scene, Phil and an unnamed black friend are setting up for poker night in Phil’s apartment when Andrew brings home an East Asian American girl. This friend is the only male character without a name in the entire short. Upon seeing the black friend making a sandwich in the kitchen, Andrew’s date stands mesmerized in the hallway, as generic R&B music plays over a montage of the black man suggestively eating peanut butter and running his hands over his body, hearkening back to that earlier scene with Andrew. The scene ends with Andrew stammering in disbelief and Phil grinning and pointing at the camera. The closing shot is a pan out from the apartment’s front door as Andrew can be heard screaming “Noooooo!” in the background. When viewed on YouTube, a text bubble pops up at this time, pointing to the rating function and reading, “5 Stars for Andrew getting what he deserves!!”

Though Wong Fu Productions—comprised of Chinese Americans Wang and Wesley Chan and Taiwanese American Ted Fu—began informally in 2003, before the advent and rise of YouTube, it has since come to represent the burgeoning, loosely affiliated community of Asian American YouTube personalities who today occupy top spots in many of YouTube’s subscriber and page-view rankings. Buoyed by the support for their early films Yellow Fever, A Moment With You (2006), and Just a Nice Guy (2007), Wong Fu has parlayed its relative recognition within a certain Asian American youth demographic to open a production company that collaborates and oversees projects with individually successful YouTube vlogger/comedians like Ryan Higa (NigaHiga) and Kevin Wu (KevJumba); musicians like David Choi, Chester See, and Far East Movement; and to a lesser extent, hip hop dance crews such as Quest Crew and Poreotics. Though each of these personalities and artists initially developed his or her work independently, collaboration has enabled these particular personalities to dominate the Asian American popular culture landscape, efficiently producing a steady flow of videos similar in content and form. And though there are certainly other Asian American YouTube channel producers that enjoy significant followings, their production largely follows the standards for success set forth by Wong Fu, Higa, and Wu—perhaps hoping to follow their success.[3] 2010’s Agents of Secret Stuff, their 35-minute short-film collaboration with Higa, earned them an invitation to a Sundance Film Festival panel on digital media and independent film.[4] Higa has also appeared as a guest star on a Nickelodeon television episode, while Wu was a contestant on reality game show The Amazing Race and currently serves as a host on the Cartoon Network.

The phenomenon of Asian American YouTube channels has attracted the attention of both the mainstream and ethnic press, with the New York Times[5] and NPR[6] as well as Asian American blogs and publications like Hyphen Magazine and Angry Asian Man reporting on the trend. The New York Times piece, entitled, “For Asian-American Stars, Many Web Fans,” credits the “democratized platform of YouTube” for providing a space where “a young generation of Asian-Americans has found a voice.” This voice is presented as distinct from an older Asian generation, and the piece concludes with a quote from Wu saying, “I’ll talk about things that Asians don’t like to talk about. We’re a new breed of Asian-American, and I’m a representative of that.” In an interview about her upcoming documentary, Uploaded: The Asian American Movement, co-producer Julie Zhan breathlessly proclaims, “Our ultimate goal for Uploaded is to record a very important point in Asian American history. Never before have we had a platform where artists can freely express themselves, with content readily viewable by the world. We want to break stereotypes, that Asians don’t just make good lawyers, doctors, or engineers, but they can make equally good comedians, dancers, singers, rappers, filmmakers.”[7]

Democratic for Whom?

Viewing Yellow Fever should dismantle any suggestion that the Internet is a utopian, democratic space or that the embodiment of users in real life and the presence of hegemonic structures that divide along lines of social difference are not borne out into cyberspace and the cultural production located therein. In the film, female characters are either white or of East Asian background, and are uniformly thin with long, straight black hair. Asian women are depicted either as objects of male desire or as passively and unquestioningly desiring whichever man presented before them is most “masculine.” The sexualized role Asian women occupy in Yellow Fever recalls familiar Orientalist “lotus blossom” and “dragon lady” stereotypes and fantasies, and also undergirds the heteronormativity of the plot.[8] The film’s attempts to address the asexualization of Asian men by comparison with white and black men reaffirm stereotypes of male sexualization and proper forms of masculine behavior based on race—Asian is asexual and meek, black is hypersexual and threatening, and white is just right—while also asserting that such stereotypes are not evidence of structural inequalities, and that taking such stereotypes too seriously is an individual failing. The scene with Indian American Richard, who in the film is not included within the definition of Asian, reaffirms the dominance of East Asians and exclusion of South Asians from the categories of Asian and Asian American. Further, the coded accent of “brown voice” in his monologue makes the Indian American more alien, unlike Phil and his East Asian American friends who speak unaccented American English. And the near absence of black, Latino/a, and Native characters in the film (save the unnamed black male character at the film’s close) furthers the absence of these groups from discussions on beauty and sexuality (Phil never agonizes over, or even mentions not being able to date black, Latina, or Native women) and any connections they might have with Asians as people of color.

The film and its subsequent popularity also trouble the idea that “the Internet’s ability to hide or anonymize race [is] its best and most socially valuable feature.”[9] Yellow Fever and other films made by Asian American YouTube stars self-consciously discuss and promote Asian American racial identity. As Lisa Nakamura contends, the rise of the Internet “has resulted in a variety of media practices that instantiate race in the visual images that these new subjects of interactivity choose, construct, and consume.[10] Furthermore, the highly problematic representations of race, gender, and sexuality present in Yellow Fever—which was produced specifically for an Internet audience—nonetheless contributed to the film’s notoriety and online dissemination. In fact, I would also suggest that the relative success that Wong Fu enjoyed after the release of Yellow Fever helped these problematic representations become somewhat codified, providing a general outline for many to follow in order to garner hits and attention.

Wong Fu’s problematic characterization of black masculinity is echoed in NigaHiga’s most-viewed video to date, “How To Be Gangster,” in which Ryan Higa and then collaborator Sean Fujiyoshi enact black gangbanger stereotypes. The very moniker NigaHiga (pronounced NEE-ga HEE-ga) is, of course, derived from its proximity to the n-word. Popular Thai American vlogger and comedian Timothy Delaghetto, who raps under the moniker Traphik, also produces comedy out of stereotypes of hip hop culture and the perceived incongruousness of his friendships with large black men. Asian American depictions and enactments of black racial caricatures have the ability to attract a large audience of young people who grew up absorbing mainstream hip hop stereotypes and music videos; the jokes land because they are embedded in the histories of anti-black racism in entertainment and American society.

The racial politics encoded in these videos also signify the continuing necessity for Asian American studies and Asian American activism to move beyond a theoretical framework identifying cycles of oppression and resistance and the confusion of what Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai term “practical solidarity” with “the facile invocation of a false unity.”[11] In their discussion of “singularities and solidarities” in multiracial, multiethnic, antiwar coalitions, Puar and Rai question the equation of the criminalization of African Americans with the targeting of poor working Latinos through immigration policy; the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; or the “apparatus of surveillance, detentions, and deportations now being created to ‘fight terrorism’ in Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities.”[12] The prevalence of the flattening of difference in the name of a synthesizable solidarity within ethnic studies—and specifically Asian American studies—is implicit in their argument.

For Asian American studies in particular, the challenge of demonstrating a cohesive, consistent oppression and responsive resistance among the vastly different populations included in its scope has resulted in the effacement of countless singularities. While the term Asian American has come—at least on paper—to encompass a heterogeneous mix of peoples and communities that do not necessarily share similar cultural values, phenotypes, or even racializations; in practice, it is clear that groups like South Asians and first-generation Asian immigrants have a highly fraught relationship to the term. This tension is hardly a new one. Consider the infamous case of Chinese American Vincent Chin, whose murder by white men who mistook him for Japanese is often cited as the informal beginning of activism under the banner of “Asian American.” However, this community activist work was constituted by the fact that different East Asian ethnic groups united under a case of mistaken identity, a similar phenotype, and the presentation of Chin as a model-minority citizen—a hardworking professional and college graduate murdered on the eve of his wedding. In defining Asian American and its constituents, these definitions often promote upwardly mobile, English-speaking, second-generation, straight, able-bodied, and cisgendered East Asian Americans at the exclusion of essentially all others. This is what leads to the comedic ending to “Ninja Say What?!”—the question of “who counts?”

To that end, the problematic racial (and implicit gender, sexuality, class, etc.) politics of Yellow Fever and “How To Be Gangster”—videos created by Asian Americans living in Southern California and Hawaii respectively, areas with large Asian American communities and strong Asian American studies programming—make very clear the work left undone by a visible Asian American community largely represented by straight, college-educated, East Asian American men. In a time when the YouTube generation is helping spread usage and identification with the term Asian American on a wider scale than any academic program could, it has never been more necessary to examine what the community being created looks like. In a time with such an outpouring of Asian American cultural production, it has never been more necessary to move beyond merely appreciating that it exists in order to really carefully critique what is being produced and the conditions of its production.

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  1. Wong Fu Productions, “‘Yellow Fever’ 4 years later,” Wong Fu Productions 28 Jan 2010, 16 Jan. 2012. [Return to text]
  2. Shilpa Davé, “‘Apu’s Brown Voice:’ Cultural Inflection and South Asian Accents,” East Main Street: Asian
    American Popular Culture
    , eds. Shilpa Davé, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha Oren (New York: New York UP, 2005). [Return to text]
  3. This paper limits its focus to Wong Fu, NigaHiga, KevJumba, and their associated acts because of their popularity and their production of original comedic content that explicitly references race and ethnicity. For that reason I do not examine Vietnamese American makeup artist Michelle Pham, the most subscribed-to woman on YouTube, or musicians like Legaci, the Filipino American R&B group plucked from YouTube to serve as backup singers for Justin Bieber. Furthermore, given my interest in Asian American heteromasculinity, I consciously do not include discussion of Filipino American Christine Gambito, who has retired from YouTube filmmaking and whose channel HappySlip is no longer active. [Return to text]
  4. Wong Fu Productions, “‘Killer Hope’ interview at Sundance,” Wong Fu Productions 31 Jan. 2011, 16 Jan. 2012. [Return to text]
  5. Austin Considine, “For Asian-American Stars, Many Web Fans,” New York Times 31 Jul. 2011: ST6. [Return to text]
  6. Corey Takahashi, “In a Small Corner of YouTube, a Web Star is Born,” All Things Considered, Natl. Public Radio, 26 Jan. 2011. [Return to text]
  7. Nina Udomsak,.“The Asian Net: We Takin’ Over,” Hardboiled, 15.1 (2011): 10. [Return to text]
  8. Renee E. Tajima, “Lotus Blossoms Don’t Bleed: Images of Asian Women,” Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women, ed. Asian Women United of California (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989): 308-317. [Return to text]
  9. Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race, Visual Cultures of the Internet (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008) 208. [Return to text]
  10. Nakamura 35. [Return to text]
  11. Jasbir K. Puar and Amit Rai, “The Remaking of a Model Minority: Perverse Projectiles Under The Specter of (Counter)Terrorism,” Social Text 22.3 80 (2004): 85. [Return to text]
  12. Puar and Rai. [Return to text]