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.

Virtuosic Virtuality

However, I now want to turn to certain formal qualities present in videos produced by Wong Fu and their affiliates, and to what they might have to say about a new youth understanding of what it means to be Asian American and of how race functions for Asian Americans in our digital, Web 2.0 age.

Despite the strikingly unprogressive content of the work being produced, I am fascinated by the way in which it is delivered. In particular, these videos could be read as having interesting resonances with Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura and Paolo Virno’s consideration of “general intellect,” “idle talk,” and “curiosity.” Many of the videos that the Wong Fu network has created—either individually or in collaboration—make great use of parody and artifice. The very first videos Wong Fu produced were clips of Wang lip-synching to pop songs in an exaggerated manner. KevJumba’s first videos as an opinionated vlogger always began with Kevin dancing and lip-synching to his introduction music at his bedroom desk in front of his laptop. NigaHiga has moved from his wildly popular tutorials on how to be “gangster,” “emo,” and “ninja,” to pop culture parodies, the subject of which range from reality TV shows, to blockbuster movies, to satirical infomercials.

Undoubtedly this trend is informed by the use of YouTube as a primary medium. Parodying popular culture helps generate hits from users searching for the original work, while the length restrictions of the video-clip format and the short attention spans of Internet browsers almost necessitate the exaggerated performance qualities so prevalent among Asian American YouTube stars. YouTube also functions as an audition stage for young, undiscovered talent trying to cross over to the mainstream. But the limitations and functions of the format notwithstanding, where else might the impulse towards playful parody, exaggeration, and mimesis come from?

Alexander Weheliye has argued that “because New World black subjects were denied access to the position of humanity for so long, ‘humanity’ refuses to signify any ontological primacy within Afro-diasporic discourses.”[13] This relationship to liberal humanism, Weheliye suggests, has in turn informed the increased virtuality of black music. I am interested in applying a reading similar in structure to Weheliye’s to the peculiar virtuality of the YouTube videos discussed. Just as black hip hop and R&B artists might sample, scratch, or use a vocoder in their music, “persistently emphasiz[ing] the virtuality of any form of recorded music”—and thus its lack of concern with authenticity—Asian American YouTube filmmakers deploy highly visible editing techniques (fast cuts, exaggerated lighting, text captions) and sample, parody, and reinterpret popular cultural touchstones in ways that highlight the virtuality of the resulting video. I would also like to suggest that the virtuality of such YouTube filmmaking—the lack of investment in producing “authentic” media—is tied to the particularities of the racial positions that young Asian Americans occupy within the United States. The term “Asian American” was coined relatively recently—along with ethnic studies in the 1960s—and the definition of who is included within this term has fluctuated and expanded since then. In comparison with other racial groups in the United States, Asian Americans are consistently ranked as the most heterogeneous by most demographic measurements—from country of origin to class or political views.

That the racial category of Asian American has no ontological primacy is, I believe, quite apparent to many of those who fall within its boundaries, including young Asian Americans who have taken up the term. Members of Wong Fu have said in interviews that others applied the term Asian American to their work after the fact (Yellow Fever never uses the term), and that the identification of their work with a burgeoning Asian American youth consciousness was unintended—although they have since taken it in stride. (Although there is certainly an argument to be made that this is a marketing strategy rather than the development of race consciousness, Wong Fu’s promotion of itself as part of the new vanguard of Asian American filmmakers through press, college tours, and their own videos has introduced many young people to the term and its concept of community.)

Given the “virtuality” of the category of Asian American itself, I would like to read YouTube virtuality in the context of Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the loss of “aura” in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Specifically, how might the recognition of the virtuality of Asian American result in the loss of a certain “racial aura?” That is, when Asian American YouTube personalities mechanically reproduce racial stereotypes, is there actually room for the reconceptualization of such stereotypes for the purposes of political mobilization along racial and ethnic lines, just as Benjamin envisioned along lines of class? When KevJumba makes yet another video mock complaining about his Chinese-immigrant father’s obsession with his grades, does the play of self-parody actually provide a fruitful confusion and distance, a recognition of race as performance?

To be clear, KevJumba’s videos are not the radically subversive acts themselves. Just as Benjamin criticized the fascist aestheticization of war as an example of the dangerous turn mechanical reproduction could induce, I am wary of the aestheticization of racism that Wu and others sometimes appear to set forth. As Benjamin made clear, the mass-market films of his time were revolutionary only in their critique of traditional notions of art; this current crop of YouTube stars make films that are more notable for the representation they give to Asian Americans in the entertainment industry than for any political, antiracist content. I am, however, trying to point out sites of potentiality that might help reconfigure a more dynamic Asian American political coalition. Of course, keeping Puar and Rai’s critique in mind, if mechanical reproduction can harness the power of a collectivity to mobilize politically, it must not be in terms of equation and resemblance, but communication of difference, singularities.

To that end, I would like to introduce Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude, and how reading Asian American virtuality might open up new configurations with which to answer Puar and Rai. If the general intellect—however much a manifestation of the ever-growing pervasiveness of capital in the post-Fordist era—signifies a breaking down of public and private, individual and communal, might there be some room for communication of singularity? The virtuality of Asian American YouTube productions might productively facilitate foundationless idle talk—what Virno calls “communication, [which] instead of reflecting and transmitting that which exists, itself produces the states of things, unedited experiences, new facts.”[14] Similarly Asian American virtuality might produce sites of distracted curiosity, “a certain level of dispersion and inconstancy.”[15] This dispersion and inconstancy means not simply a passive consumption of what is being presented, but a certain distracted dynamism that neither claims to wholly know or master anything nor makes any claims to the real and authentic.

What has seemed, for many readers, so terrifying and severe about Virno’s account is, of course, that virtuosity—that activity “which finds it own fulfillment … without objectifying itself into an end product” and which also “requires the presence of others”[16] —is no longer an activity reserved for the culture industry, but is instead emblematic of the social organization of labor in the post-Fordist era as a whole. Capitalism no longer simply demands our labor for nine hours behind the retail counter or office desk but now commands our language, imaginations, and dreams. We no longer have to make physical objects in order to provide value for capital. Virno’s breathless treatise has limits, certainly, especially—given this paper’s subject matter—that he takes as his subject only capitalism, and not other forms of power more broadly. If we think about racism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy—none of which are reducible to being functions of capitalism—perhaps imagining that racism has infiltrated our imaginations and dreams, that colonialism has exploited our language in order to further itself, and that power co-opts are not such startling concepts. Nonetheless Virno can provide us with the conceptual tools to understand how political economy comes into the lives of our YouTubers and us: the audience, the multitude. When NigaHiga makes a video and we watch it, we are all laboring in the service of power. We consume the advertisements that play before his videos and provide revenue and personal data for YouTube. NigaHiga bears the costs of production himself; his pay is pegged to how much of our attention and data he can provide for YouTube. But YouTube labor is more than just productive labor. It is surplus-value labor; it is virtuosic. As Virno reminds us, it is not that in the post-Fordist era workers no longer make car dashboards, but that they make immaterial products in the process as well. Thus NigaHiga does not simply make videos, but produces an entire way of communication for his audience, which is indicative of the post-Fordist “industry of the means of communication.”[17]

Asians in the Library

But what does this communication look like? If YouTube stars are virtuosic in their production of the techniques and procedures of understanding and discussing race through the register of virtuality, what are the implications of such virtuosic virtuality? This isn’t postracial thinking or the corruption of social constructivism that claims that race, because it is socially constructed, simply does not matter. These YouTubers are still very much acknowledging and trafficking in stereotypes, and are also explicitly identifying themselves as Asian and Asian American. Nonetheless, YouTube stars often present racism as simply being comprised of misguided stereotypes that just need to be played around with on a performative level. Asian American YouTube video responses to Alexandra Wallace’s infamous “Asians in the Library” video provide a fertile ground on which to explore this further.

The treatment of social difference and how it functions in society—in terms of race, especially, but also implicitly gender, sexuality, class, nation, and high-school clique—in these videos is often dealt with in terms of stereotypes. Again, the way this often works, through parody and humor, is not to subvert stereotypes by posing a more real or authentic Asian or Asian American self, but merely to kind of laugh at how stupid yet funny stereotypes are. In the video above, we see Justin Chon facetiously purporting to present the “facts” about Asian Americans, but what follows is not a presentation of authenticity but a silly dance performance and enactment of cultural stereotypes, framed against the backdrop of an the American flag while stereotypically Oriental music plays in the background. The short is a delightfully subversive and silly response that mocks both Wallace and community responses to racism, which often debunk racist caricaturing by invoking authenticity and a true cultural heritage, either rooted in an authentic understanding of Asia or in a patriotic claim to incorporation within the United States citizenry. In doing so, the video seems to gesture toward the potential withering of the racial aura through YouTube; the mechanical reproduction of Asian stereotypes moving toward “the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.”[18] And in doing so, this “idle talk” may in itself produce new facts or states and relationships of being.

But many of the videos that were posted in response to Wallace’s were much more problematic than “UCLA Girl PSA,” and were emblematic of how the understanding of race as virtual is not in itself antiracist or antioppressive. In his response video to “Asians in the Library,” Traphik says, “This bitch is not racist, she’s just stupid … it’s our duty to educate people,” and that the kind of people who make these kinds of videos were probably never hugged as babies or were molested as children, and thus have all of this pent-up anger. “In terms of Alexandra Wallace,” he says, “I feel like we just really need to like not punch her but maybe like punch her in the vagina one time, shake her real quick, and then be like, ‘Ay bitch, stop being stupid!’ And then educate her, love her.” In this quote, we see violent, misogynistic, rape-culture language used to express outrage at the video, but at the same time we see a disavowal of structural racism that seems quite indicative of many of the most popular responses made by Asian Americans on YouTube, which largely came from East and Southeast Asian American men. Just as instructive is the moment at the end of the video, when Traphik makes a qualifying statement by saying “If you’re calling me a cocky, conceited asshole right now, realize that I’m just playin’ around.”

The virtuality of Traphik’s performance—in treating Wallace herself as a stereotypical, dumb, white bitch, and playing up his Asian gangsta persona—provides him with an excuse for his misogynistic language. The idea that he is just ranting on the Internet further removes his responsibility for violence: it is not as if he is physically harming Wallace. The damage—from both Traphik and Wallace’s comments—is all virtual, and thus, something to be laughed off.

The degradation of the racial aura thus does not necessarily result in a democratic space for antiracist activity and performance. These videos demonstrate how virtuosic virtuality labors in the service of power. The workers’ knowledge that these YouTubers have developed—the ability to make short videos quickly using parody, stereotype subversion, song, and camera confessionals—is still co-opted as productive post-Fordist labor. Again, if we apprehend post-Fordist labor as a form of labor that services capitalism as well as racism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy, Traphik’s video comes into clearer focus as performing the hidden yet productive labor of not just putting Alexandra Wallace in her place, but also putting his young Asian American audience in their place. Asian American videos must necessarily make use of misogyny in their parody, and the parody must neither be too serious nor dampen the lighthearted, virtual mood.

Section V

I am the political chair of an Asian American student group at my university, which is the only explicitly Asian American club on campus. It does not function as a cultural group, but as a political one. The board membership is heavily made up of members of East Asian descent. A few days before the UCLA video went viral, I sent out an email to the board, which consists of about 20 members, with a link to a news article about the shooting of Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal, two elderly Sikh American men who were shot—Singh fatally—while taking a walk in their Sacramento neighborhood, in an apparent hate crime.[19] Atwal later died of his injuries.[20] Singh and Atwal were both wearing dastars; racist attacks on Sikh men wearing “turbans” and thus read as terrorists has been a fact of post-9/11 American life. Not a single board member responded to my email. A few days later, my Gmail inbox, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr feeds were full of discussion, in many cases led by Asian American Alliance board members, about Wallace’s video—calling our her blatant racism, and posting response videos.

What I am left wondering is what is the process by which this hate crime—someone’s death—is rendered less important than an amateur YouTube vlog? If Islamophobia in post-9/11 America is an expression of racism against Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, and those read as Muslim, has the definition and popular understanding of Asian American expanded to adequately accommodate this emergent racialization? While common YouTube presentations do not always lay out strict definitions of who is included in the term Asian American and who is not, if we look at the ethnic and regional heritages of the most popular YouTube stars, at the stereotypes they claim are particular to Asian Americans, and at the events they respond to, it is quite apparent that South Asians are not part of their intended audience. To be fair, it is not necessarily the case that many young Desi Americans desire this inclusion or themselves identify as Asian American. I would argue that the new virtuality of race and the eternal question of “who counts” as understood by young people through the visual register of YouTube videos is becoming increasingly codified with every upload, view, and subscription. While the racialization of brown skin and dress bring up real, material concerns of life and death for Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, the emergence of East Asian American YouTubers suggests to me an understanding of anti-Asian racism as a racialization of yellow that despite sounding legibly and familiarly racist, operates on a virtual level and is thus ill-equipped to deal with the material weight of assault and murder.

More recently, the complete lack of popular YouTube videos made about the inquiry into Private Danny Chen’s suicide further underscores the limitations of Asian American YouTube presence and popularity in addressing the racist treatment and death of a man who in another uniform might have passed for an Asian American YouTube star himself.[21] While Singh and Atwal, both Sikh, elderly, and first-generation, may have fallen outside the popular understanding of who belongs to the Asian American community, Chen, a young, second-generation Chinese American, certainly does not. The story of Chen’s treatment at an Afghan military base has been widely publicized as an indication of ongoing racism in the military ranks and of the particular struggles and oppressions that Asian American soldiers face. The names that Danny Chen was called in the weeks before his death—chink, gook, dragon lady[22] —should ostensibly be legible as racism to all those who responded to Alexandra Wallace. But if the “Asians in the Library” video was received with outrage and YouTube responses in large part because Wallace’s rant seemed outlandish for a platform where race seems virtual, Chen’s death serves as a reminder of how stereotypes and words function as racist, and of the horrible weight that gives slurs their force, under which the transformative potential of our virtual stars threatens to collapse.

Under the post-Fordist regime of virtuosic labor, the current virtualization of the racial aura aestheticizes difference but not the power that produces difference. As Virno describes Benjamin, “the media trains the senses … to distinguish ‘an enormous and sudden margin of freedom’ even in the most trite and repetitive aspects of daily life.” This is the most cynical interpretation of what these YouTube stars represent: although they have attracted a wide following by seemingly demonstrating that the YouTube platform provides freedom from the stereotyping and discrimination in the entertainment industry, in actuality, YouTube ghettoizes Asian American entertainment production and profits from the unpaid labor of YouTube stars with zero risk. And even further, their labor produces not just the videos, but an entire code of understanding and communicating about racism and other forms of power and their articulations, limiting the language and media we have to talk about Singh, Atwal, and Chen. While some videos might gesture toward YouTube as a platform of radical play, distraction, and invention, without a Benjaminian politicization of art, Asian American YouTube videos can only make incremental gains toward a kind of democratic progress. And in exchange for that progress, we will continue to pay dearly.

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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]
  13. Alexander G. Weheliye, “‘Feenin:’ Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music,” Social Text 20.2 71 (2002): 27. [Return to text]
  14. Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2003) 90. [Return to text]
  15. Virno 93. [Return to text]
  16. Virno 52. [Return to text]
  17. Virno 61. [Return to text]
  18. Benjamin 221. [Return to text]
  19. Julianne Hing, “Deadly Shooting of Sikh Men Rocks Calif. Community,” Colorlines, 9 Mar. 2011, 27 Jan. 2012. [Return to text]
  20. Julianne Hing, “Second Sikh Man Dies After Suspected Hate Crime Attack,” Colorlines, 19 Apr. 2011, 27 Jan. 2012. [Return to text]
  21. The New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a strong advocate for Chen’s family, released a YouTube video entitled, “What Happened to Private Danny Chen?” that was linked and referred to by several news outlets, but not by any Asian American YouTube stars. As of January 16, 2012 it has received a modest 37,000 views, many of which can be attributed to the publication of a feature article about Chen in New York magazine. [Return to text]
  22. Amy Goodman, “Death of Private Danny Chen: Military Admits Chen Was Target of Race-Based Hazing on Daily Basis,” Democracy Now! 9 Jan. 2012. [Return to text]