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Jolin Kwok

AMST-A350

Karen Inouye

November 11, 2010

iAsian:

A Discourse on Asian American Independent Media Self-Representation

With a history of being advertised by the mainstream media as either soft and submissive

or cold and calculating, recent generations of Asian Americans (AAs) have unexpectedly risen to

reclaim their self-representations. One who is not familiar with the history of Asians and Asian

Americans (AAA) in the dominant media may see efforts to change stereotypes like the Model

Minority Myth—in America, the myth that AAA are higher achieving than other ethnic minority

groups—as inconsequential. Yet, because stereotypes are overgeneralizations that can limit AAA

representations, it is important for AA artists to be the catalyst for change (Ono and Pham 9, 27).

Understanding this, many AA artists have worked to free representations of the AA

community from “mainstream, dominant, corporate, and sometimes capitalist influences” (Ono

and Pham 113). Consequently, in the recent couple of decades we have seen increasing numbers

of images in the dominant media that were produced by those with more accurate knowledge of

the AA experience (Ono and Pham 6). While the kinds of independent (indie) media vary,

experiences from “collective political and cultural struggles” unite AA artists to produce indie art

(Ono and Pham 116). In discussing the origins and purpose of five indie AA media

outlets/artistes in the form of a magazine, a webcomic, the AA indie music scene, a

comedian/actress, and a book-turned-film, as well as one AA theater group, we shall see how

they have endeavored to challenge stereotypes of the AA communities. Yet, although these indie
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media outlets strive to challenge stereotypes by presenting self-representations to their

communities and to the mainstream audiences, they sometimes perpetuate certain stereotypes

about their own community and others as well.

Magazine

I start with a print medium called Hyphen, because Hyphen is an archetype of an indie

medium due to its Do-It-Yourself artistic ethic (Ono and Pham 114). First published in June

2003 and conceived the year before, a small group of AA artists and journalists in their 20s and

30s, wanted a more complex representation of “Asian America” that was non-existent at that

time ("Hyphen"). By doing it and funding it themselves, Hyphen produced cultural artifacts—

from social commentaries to creative prose—that the dominant media would not provide. It goes

beyond discussing ethnic roots and conducting interviews with the few established Asian

Americans with mainstream approval. It aims to cover emerging artists, thinkers, and doers as

well as Asian Americans residing in California and New York and beyond.

With 21 issues and counting, Hyphen strives to investigate serious issues—from cross-

cultural identity to medical health—and non-serious issues—from satirical commentaries on

reality TV shows to speed dating, by addressing these cultural concerns and all that is Asian

American just as they come (like the way life just happens). Furthermore, the magazine wraps its

diverse content with unified themes of singular words such as “Issue 2: Food”, “Issue 4: Art”,

“Issue15: Road Trip”, and so forth. Sprinkled with poignant vignettes on daily life—like

revisiting childhood memories of wanting to be a ninja in “Issue 8: Re-emerge” and techniques

on successfully moving back home with one’s parents in “Issue 17: Family”—not only does

Hyphen ensure a fun, entertaining yet substantial read, its simple approach towards creative
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journalism challenges the stereotype that AA concerns are mainly socio-political and therefore

one-dimensional, giving the community in general a more relatable, humane appeal ("Hyphen").

Web Media/Comic

Similarly, Lela Lee tackles her childhood as an Asian American in print form, but

through a digital medium—a webcomic initially called ‘Angry Little Asian Girl’ (ALAG). It

started while she was studying rhetoric at University of California Berkeley during her

sophomore year in 1994 (Lee). Feeling angry at the “offensive male chauvinistic behavior”

shown at Spike and Mike’s Twisted Animation Festival, Lee “created an ALAG animated short

using a simple video camera” (Ono and Pham 141). Initially Lee felt embarrassed about her

creation, and it was not until 1997 that she showed the video to anyone and it later received “rave

reviews” at the American Cinematheque film festival (Ono and Pham 141). Lee then started

making 300 ALAG t-shirts and the success of the shirts gave her the confidence to launch ALAG

in April 1998, receiving about 800,000 hits per month and much more during the holiday season

(Ono and Pham 141). MTV eventually showed some interest in her “cartoon idea” but then told

her that “there’s just no market for Asians” (Lee). This compelled Lee to expand the cast of

ALAG to include various races, not just Asians, to focus more on general emotions instead of

just racial issues. Finally, the website was renamed Angry Little Girls (ALG) (Ono and Pham

141-2). These comic characters would bring different perspectives and reactions to anger—a

reflection of real life situations. Oftentimes, the interactions in the comic occur to display the

dynamics of adult-children relationships and relationships formed between school children,

usually in the style of social commentary. Being able to relate to a much wider audience, Lee

successfully addressed a niche her critics formerly claimed to not exist. The initial popularity of

Lee’s webcomic is largely credited to her feminist outlook and irreverent reactions toward the
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ignorance of her local community in general, based on her AA childhood experiences. In effect,

her vocal critiques on her own experiences deny the stereotypical depiction of submissive Asian

women (Ono and Pham 142-3).

Consequently, Lee’s webcomic can be viewed to be problematic for these very reasons.

Because of the lack of elaboration on her comic representations of these AA experiences, what

Lee records can be overgeneralized by both AA and non-AA readers to be universal AA

experiences. Moreover, while her AA characters may explicitly challenge stereotypes, her other

characters of marginalized groups such as the African American ‘Wanda’ and the Latin

American ‘Maria’ may arguably build upon stereotypes (Ono and Pham 143-4). Through 12

years of personal maturity and increased public exposure, Lee now considers her audience’s

perspectives and the possibility of educating instead of insulting those who unwittingly

perpetuate stereotypes of AAA. Ultimately, Lee wants her work to be a positive read (Ono and

Pham 145).

Music

While it is hard to locate how Asian Americans got involved with indie music, there is a

distinct voice or sound to their musical sensibilities in countering stereotypes (Wang). Mike Park

is an example of an AA indie musician who aims to put AAA stereotypes in the spotlight.

Motivated by punk philosophy, which highlights values of free thought and anti-

authoritarianism, Park ventured into the music world since the fall of 1985. He created his own

record label Asian Man Records in 1996, hoping to fashion an Eastern counterpart of punk music

on the West Coast (Park). Mike Park’s ska punk groups, The Chinkees and The B. Lee Band

focus on AA themes and social injustice evident in songs like “Asian Prodigy” to challenge the

Model Minority Myth (Ono and Pham 127-8).


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The band name “The Chinkees” is intended to raise awareness and sensitize the public to

the significance of racial stereotypes (Park). We can infer Park’s way of naming his band as a

kind of “reappropriation of a racial ethnic slur, equivalent to feminist reclamations of ‘bitch’ and

LGBT reclamations of ‘queer’” (Ono and Pham 127-128). Yet, the impact of this act is indirect

and therefore may backfire, as the intended reading of the band name requires a more thoughtful

reading than the general public would consider.

A seemingly more effective way to reclaim AAA representation is depicted in the PBS

documentary My America... or Honk If You Love Buddha (1997). In the documentary Psycho

Mike MC made a song called “Just Like Honey”, justifying the sex appeal of the Asian male,

countering the dominant stereotype that Asian men are asexual symbols (Tajima-Pena) or are

“desexualized, and hence…inferior to all other men” regardless of race (Ono and Pham 71). The

lyrics of the song are very simple and direct, hence making the intended message clear to any

listener without requiring in-depth reading, unlike the consideration of Park’s band name. This

shows that one does not have to be politically confrontational in order to successfully challenge

stereotypes. Consequently, with a mix of emotional honesty and purposeful self-representation,

music by indie AA artists can showcase their awareness of the AA experience, attending to

themes of racism, social justice, and growing up AA (Ono and Pham 127).

Theater Group

Through another outlet, AAs are reclaiming their history and culture and debunking

negative stereotypes. East West Players (EWP) is an indie AA theater group located in Little

Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. Since 1965, EWP have actively served the AA community by

performing plays and musicals about the Asian Pacific American experience. To further build

bridges between East and West, EWP have also presented their own interpretations of Western
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plays such as The Tempest and Sweeny Todd. For EWP’ prestigious cross-cultural endeavors

which effectively market themselves even to the non-AAA community, New York Times has

called EWP “the nation’s pre-eminent Asian American theater troupe”. This national recognition

not only fulfills their vision statement, it marks a milestone in their organizational efforts of

bringing the American community together. Moreover, EWP train aspiring and professional

actors of all ages, many of whom have continued to win various world-renowned awards in the

industry of the performing arts. What is most remarkable is that 44% of their audiences are non-

Asian (East West Players).

In the last two decades, we can observe the transformation of the kinds of themes

explored by EWP. The organization started with plays and musicals about historical events, such

as the Japanese-American internment and ancient traditions like Chinese feet-binding.

In the original opening of Miss Saigon on Broadway, a Welsh actor was cast as a Eurasian. Like

many AAs, EWP found this problematic as it is an issue of explicit yellowface—the act of having

“a [non-AAA play] the role of an [AAA]” (Ono and Pham 46). EWP reclaimed AA history in the

play Yellow Face, as the playwright David Henry Hwang juxtaposed his unwitting mistake of

casting a Caucasian actor as an Asian in an earlier Broadway play to his later oppositional stance

against the casting of the Eurasian role in Miss Saigon. This bitingly honest approach in the

revision of his past artistic error showcases the kind of sincerity any audience can relate to, while

also showing us how one addresses stereotypes on a more personal level.

Comedy/TV

On a similar note, a notable screen personality who experienced ethnic yellowface was

Margaret Cho. As opposed to explicit yellowface, ethnic yellowface or implicit yellowface is the

act of an AAA playing the role of an AAA in accordance to dominant media enforced
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stereotypes. Born and raised in San Francisco, Cho began performing stand-up comedy when she

was 16 in a comedy club above a bookstore run by her parents (Cho). In 1994, she starred in a

one-season ABC sitcom called All-American Girl. All-American Girl was supposed to be based

on Cho’s life as a Korean American. Because the sitcom writer was a non-AA writer, All

American Girl became the mainstream media’s portrayal of Asian American experiences, and

essentially an inadequate white-washed version of Cho’s life that made it onto the small-screen

(Ono and Pham 134). Cho was required to perform the mainstream media’s idea of “authentic…

Asianness” and therefore played yellowface implicitly (Ono and Pham 53-4).

5 years later, Cho critiqued her experience with the show and the TV industry in general

in a solo stand-up performance called I’m The One That I Want (ITOTIW). In ITOTIW, Cho

commented on how the producers and managers of All-American Girl kept trying to tell her what

to do for her own show, from forcing her to lose 30lbs in 2 weeks to hiring an Asian consultant

(Cho). Because of the “racially troubling image of Asianness” that resulted from the

manipulation of Cho’s character, All-American Girl received mixed reviews from the AA

community and was not marketable to any community (Ono and Pham 130, 134). Perhaps this is

because there had “never been…an Asian American to star [in] a sitcom before” (Cho).

As Ono and Pham put it, “racial and ethnic ambiguity is economically and politically

efficient” when the media casts roles which imply that all Asians are alike (57). This ambiguity

based upon white-washed portrayals of Asians is supposed to appeal to a broad spectrum

audiences. Yet, one with little or no exposure to the AAA community cannot relate to their

authenticity when realistic depictions of them are lacking (Ono and Pham 60-1). In My

America... or Honk If You Love Buddha, with reference to the 1960s, the narrator notes how

exciting it was for her family to see anyone they presumed to be of Asian heritage on television,
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in spite of their awareness of the explicit yellowface portrayals. Clearly, there is a pressing

demand to witness more AAAs on screen.

After All-American Girl, Cho established herself mainly as a stand-up comedian,

specifically one that did not fit the AA stereotype as molded by the dominant media. Conditioned

to accept yellowface portrayals on screen, when an indie actor like Cho did not fit this AA

stereotype, the discontent of the general public was understandable. This makes it very important

for the public audience to see more indie artists like Cho. Ultimately, her vision of wanting to

speak her truth as an AA creates a big inspirational impact worldwide. Thus, she is a

quintessential role model, even if she did not intend to be one initially (Cho).

Film/Book

In contrast to most other indie media artistes discussed, Chinese American writer Amy

Tan expresses no overt socio-political interest in defining her works. Her works largely

investigate mother-daughter relationships, and like Lela Lee, her intention has always been more

personal than political. Tan expresses that the reason she started writing her first book The Joy

Luck Club (1989) was because she thought her mother was suffering a heart attack so she vowed

she would finally reconnect with her long lost sisters in China. Essentially, the plot explores

Chinese mother-daughter relationships of three generations. Even though some critics argue it

represents stereotypical images of AAs, the story reinforces a sense of belonging among the AA

community by exploring the relationships between the 1st and 2nd generations of Chinese

Americans. By looking at AAs as Asian and American, The Joy Luck Club defies stereotypes of

the AA community as it informs the larger public with complex yet authentic AA voices and

viewpoints.
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The Joy Luck Club was eventually made into a film in 1993 by Wayne Wang, who is

well known for his many successful indie films (Ono and Pham 117). Tan was adamant about

not wanting to reinforce stereotypes through her work. While considering the film adaptation of

The Joy Luck Club, she turned down many offers because she feared that some film producers

would reinforce negative stereotypes of Chinese people (Tan). Upon meeting Wang and the

screenwriter Ron Bass, the three of them agreed to sell the screenplay or rights to the book when

they had found a studio that allowed them complete creative control, something which is not

easily gained in the film industry (Tan). In the end, not only did the film become a staple in

many AA studies courses, the original book itself made it into the required reading list of many

schools over the United States, marking yet another successful endeavor of an AA indie artist in

bringing recognition to a more genuine representation of the AA community.

Conclusion

The AA community has been wanting to voice out their independent opinions for a long

time. Traditionally, they have been portrayed unfairly by the dominant media with stereotypes

they have no say in. Not wanting to be boxed in by the mainstream media, certain individuals

have found appropriate media outlets to get their messages across. While some of their

motivations have been social political—in the case of EWP, Hyphen, and Mike Park—others

have been personal—in the case of Lela Lee, Margaret Cho, and Amy Tan. Ironically, while the

intentions are to debunk stereotypes with genuine self-representations, the results sometimes

reinforce other stereotypes, as in the case of Lela Lee. Some of the approaches of these indie

media outlets—like the name “The Chinkees”—need a more in-depth reading in order to get the

right message across, whereas the intentions of others are more obvious, such as the song “Just

Like Honey”. Nevertheless, what gets across to the audiences often ends up being subjected to
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interpretation and whatever happens is beyond the control of these indie community

spokespeople. Ultimately, through individual perspectives on their relationships with their own

community and with the dominant media, AA indie artists aim to inspire change.
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Works Cited

Cho, Margaret. "BIO << Margaret Cho." Margaret Cho :: Official Site. Margaret Cho, n.d. Web.

20 Oct 2010. <http://www.margaretcho.com/content/bio/>.

Cho, Margaret, Script. I'm the One That I Want. Dir. Lionel Coleman." Perf. Cho, Margaret. Cho

Taussig Productions: 2000, Film.

East West Players. "About EWP." Welcome to East West Players. East West Players, 2010. Web.

20 Oct 2010. <http://www.eastwestplayers.org/about_us/about_us.htm>.

East West Players. "East West Players' Mission Statement and Values." Welcome to East West

Players. East West Players, 2010. Web. 20 Oct 2010.

<http://www.eastwestplayers.org/about_us/mission.htm>.

East West Players. " Production History." Welcome to East West Players. East West Players,

2010. Web. 20 Oct 2010. <http://www.eastwestplayers.org/about_us/mission.htm>.

Lee, Lela. "About Angry Little Girls!." Angry Little Girls! by Lela Lee. Lela Lee, 2009. Web. 20

Oct 2010. <http://www.angrylittlegirls.com/Pages/about.html>.

Ono, Kent A., and Vincent N. Pham. Asian Americans and the Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity P,

2009. Print.

Park, Mike. "about.." Mike Park. Mike Park, 2009. Web. 20 Oct 2010.

<http://www.mikeparkmusic.com/about.php>.

Tajima-Pena, Renee, Dir. My America... or Honk If You Love Buddha. Dir. Renee Tajima-Pena."

Perf. Renee Tajima-Pena, Renee. PBS: 1997, Film.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club -Amy Tan - Book Club - Reading Guides. Intervew by Penguin

Group (USA). Penguin.com (USA). Web. 20 Oct 2010.

<http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/joy_luck_club.html>.
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"The Story of Hyphen." Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics. Hyphen

Magazine, n.d. Web. 20 Oct 2010. <http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/story-hyphen>.

Wang, Oliver. "DeclarAsians of Independence."AsianWeek 17 May 1996: n. pag. Web. 20 Oct

2010. <http://asianweek.com/051796/RockAsians.html>.

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