Over a decade in the making, my book Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan is now available from Edinburgh University Press. The book examines the role that cinema played in imagining Hong Kong and Taiwan’s place in the world from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Here’s the official book jacket description:
How does cinema imagine our place in the world? This book looks at the studios, films and policies that charted the transnational vision of Hong Kong and Taiwan, two places with an uneasy relationship to the idea of nationhood.
Examining the cultural, political and industrial overlaps between these cinemas – as well as the areas where they uniquely parallel each other – author Brian Hu brings together perspectives from cinema studies, Chinese studies and Asian American studies to show how culture is produced in the spaces between empires. With case studies of popular stars like Linda Lin Dai and Edison Chen, and spectacular genres like the Shaolin Temple cycle of martial arts films and the romantic melodramas of 1970s Taiwan, this book explores what it meant to be both cosmopolitan and Chinese in the second half of the twentieth century.
The greatest joy of writing the book was the archival research — delving into the dusty movie magazines at the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, watching VCDs of old melodramas and Shaolin films, re-discovering two generations of pop music — and discovering how outwardly thinking Hong Kong and Taiwan popular culture has always been. My argument that cosmopolitanism has been a dominant structure of feeling in Hong Kong and Taiwan during these decades breaks from other studies that have highlighted their local uniqueness and sovereignty, positions that are essential, especially given the specter of China. But what if we looked at Hong Kong and Taiwan together, separately from China in the usual “three Chinas” configuration of transnational Chinese cinema? What might we gather from the Sinophone sentiments of worldly desires that captured the imagination of post-war generations and those of their children?
Writing this book became, inevitably, a personal journey, one that maps my own family’s trajectory from Taiwan to America to something slipperier altogether, but held together by aspirations, anxieties, romances, awkwardness, and an excitement over the unknown.
Please tell your local library to order a copy! U.S. libraries can order from Oxford University Press. Non-U.S. libraries and universities can go directly to Edinburgh University Press. Or find it at Amazon. The book is currently only available in hardback and electronic editions.
During Fresh Off the Boat‘s first season, I was asked by the now-defunct KoreAm Magazine to write on the ABC sitcom from the perspective of a seasoned observer. By this point though, enough ink had already been spilled on the show, with takes ranging from the disappointed to the celebratory, and every wonderful nuance in between. Not feeling like I had a ton to add to the chorus, I decided to use the opportunity to write about the show in the context of Asian American independent cinema.
Picture this: a Taiwanese American kid with oversized clothes and a hip-hop vocab. Unlike his cuter, more “decent” brethren, he just can’t make proper friends, let alone attract girls, and he certainly can’t impress his Mandarin-speaking parents whose immigrant entrepreneurism doesn’t gel with his half-baked street knowledge.
That’s the premise behind Jessica Yu’s 2007 family comedy Ping Pong Playa, a hit on the Asian American film festival circuit that was adapted from the parody video stylings of funnyman Jimmy Tsai. That it resembles in theme and genre ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, adapted from Eddie Huang’s memoir, has been completely unacknowledged, though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.
Instead, Fresh Off the Boat has been discussed in terms of its newness and novelty, as bearing the once-in-a-generation status as the lone representative of Asian Americans on television. The online conversation among Asian American commentators since the show’s February primetime debut has been formidable and significant. But that conversation has been limited by the anxiety of representation, as if Fresh Off the Boat was not just the only Asian American network show, but the only Asian American narrative, of the past 20 years.
The anxiety stems from two sources. First, there’s the pressure to support Asian American media, because if Asian Americans can’t support their own stories, then who will? This rests upon the assumption that nobody else is watching, so collectively, Asian Americans must. Second, there’s the opposing anxiety that since everyone else indeed is watching, we better be represented well.
Those anxieties have led to a number of articles about supporting-despite-not-liking, or enjoying-despite-the-stereotypes Fresh Off the Boat, and other responses trying to simultaneously make sense of a national history of racial baggage and one’s own personal, stubborn waverings of televisual pleasure. It’s an unwieldy task.
Yet that task has hijacked the conversation around the show, diverting attention away from issues of comedy, family and community, and instead on ratings and representation—two concepts that couldn’t be further removed from the creative impulse. Sure, certain stereotypes, like “ching-chong” accents or tiger moms, do matter and they can certainly be perpetuated. But we’re talking mainstream network television here: it’s doomed to compromise, and to obsess over those details is to miss the opportunity for other kinds of conversations.
The articles about Fresh Off the Boat I find the most meaningful have been personal accounts about how the show has brought Asian American families together or inspired individuals to think about identity in fresh ways. In other words, the most productive articles have been about recognition, not misrecognition.
Parallel Asian American works such as Ping Pong Playa have been generating these other possible conversations for decades. Watching Yu’s comedy again post-Fresh, I’m struck not just by the similarities in characterizations and themes, but by how liberating it is to enjoy the film without worrying how much my eyes are worth to a network, or how others’ eyes are watching the film. I’m free to enjoy it on its own terms and dig further into questions of Asian American masculinity and blackness, ethnic comedy, racial pride or parent-mocking.
Such questions arise because they constitute the joy of figuring out what the Asian American community can be for me. I can laugh and identify with smack-talking hoopster C-Dub’s on-and-off-court banter with his black friend JP Money without worrying about how white or black audiences might misread such scenes. I can nervously chortle at the film’s gag about getting a Ph.D. in Asian American studies without wondering how it perpetuates stereotypes of Asian militancy or Asian geekdom.
As a viewer, I’m emboldened by the semi-public space of Asian American independent media, where creativity is celebrated and audiences can be inquisitive about form, narrative and representation in ways they can’t when they’re worried foremost about what other audiences are thinking. A network show like Fresh Off the Boat is a lot easier to stomach when you know not everything is on the line because there are alternative forums for self-expression, like the Asian American film festival circuit.
For instance, the issue of accents sported by young Eddie’s immigrant parents is one of the most vexing and controversial aspects of Fresh Off the Boat that has drawn Asian American ire. But here’s the thing: Unrealistic, even minstrel-ish Asian accents are a feature of indie Asian American cinema, too—only, in that space, there is frank conversation about the context of production: a limited acting pool (especially for older characters) or intra-Asian (mis-)casting.
The result has been feature after feature where parents speak in wonky accents and children talk back in offbalanced English that awkwardly attempts to capture the linguistic code-switching of the Asian immigrant household. I call these the “1.5 generation Asian American films,” a reflection of the fact that Asian American cinema has arrived but not quite emerged on the wider film stage. Like 1.5 generation immigrants, these films don’t seem fully Americanized because of circumstance—but we get and accept it because, as members of the community, we understand that assimilation is a luxury that not everyone has access to. This is a type of cinema that’s accented in ways that are sometimes indecipherable to both earlier or later generations of Asian Americans, but that represents a fuzziness of identity that we should be proud to embrace.
If we’re simply drawing a line from Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which aired in 1994, to Fresh Off the Boat, these broad-brush representations of Asian American cultures and families on network television can be maddening. But if we draw the line from Ping Pong Playa (or Sarba Das’ Karma Calling, Chris Chan Lee’s Yellow, Kevin Wu’s KevJumba, or Leslie Tai’s Superior Life Classroom, all indie productions) to Fresh Off the Boat, the sitcom is liberated from the “rep sweats.” That’s because the show can be appreciated as just one of many cultural accents dotting a history of self-representation.
Fresh Off the Boat is hardly alone if we look beyond the mainstream—if it sinks, we’re buoyed by the sea of stories from independent media makers just below the surface.
In 2015, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, I curated a retrospective of films directed by Vietnamese Americans. The hope was to steer commemorations away from narratives of American military heroism and toward the experiences of those who experienced, critiqued, and remembered the event and its after-effects as refugees in the United States. The package, entitled Cinema Little Saigon, included feature films, experimental work, documentaries, and short films. After premiering at the SDAFF Spring Showcase in April 2015, the retrospective traveled to the Houston APA Film Festival (June 2015) and the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (Nov. 2015). To supplement and enhance the Cinema Little Saigon film series, I also compiled a list of feature films directed by Vietnamese Americans, as well as a bibliography of suggested readings about Vietnamese American cinema.
The following is the introductory essay for the series.
For the refugee, anniversaries are just numbers.
For governments – whether of the southern Republic of Vietnam which lost, the northern Socialist Republic of Vietnam which took control, or the United States which retreated – the Fall of Saigon was a pivotal day and this year’s 40th anniversary a moment of reflection, celebration, or commemoration. There will be tributes to heroes, living and fallen, and flashbacks to the critical events of April 30, 1975.
But the refugee knows that there were pivotal moments that preceded that day, and the refugee knows that turmoil did not end with the capture of Saigon. Wars within families continued to rage even when the bombing ended – some in prison camps, some on U.S. military bases, some in the Little Saigons all over the world. For the refugee, 40 years is not as significant as time measured in months held in detention centers, weeks stranded on boats, hours spent in English classes, or those critical seconds that replay over and over in the mind – seconds that made the difference of family unity or survival itself. For the refugee, the 40th anniversary is but one of many anniversaries that dot a life thrust onto multiple continents: birthdays that mark endurance, graduations that certify achievement, and moments of silence that bear witness to the private grief of the living.
This year, flags will be hoisted as they have been on every anniversary. The victors will celebrate, the anti-communists will mourn, and the U.S. will continue to remember their humanitarian efforts in “saving” refugees. But these events must also remind us of the narratives that go silent, namely those of refugees who are now Vietnamese Americans, participants in civic culture and neighbors in areas like San Diego’s City Heights. Their narratives draw attention to the lived and ongoing experience of displacement, narratives that represent Vietnamese Americans as lively, desiring, and imaginative, and not simply as collateral damage or as confirmations of the American dream.
As is expected whenever trauma is so near, much of this silence has been self-imposed. Refugees often want to move on and not dwell on a tortured past. So it has been the 1.5 and 2nd generation Vietnamese Americans who have started interrogating family silence or America’s version of events. This generation includes documentarians like Doan Hoang, who turned her camera on her parents, asking questions about unspoken extended family. Her resulting documentary OH, SAIGON is a powerful first-person account of her U.S. family and its relationship to home.
This generation also includes director Ham Tran, who, after completing a number of acclaimed short films at UCLA, brought together Vietnamese American artists, financiers, and community members who wanted their story finally told on screen. The resulting feature JOURNEY FROM THE FALL is an epic patched together from dozens of family stories – the sort of stories usually only half-told and half-remembered, now made permanent on celluloid for the entire community.
That imperative to tell one’s story, to gain command of film style, and to produce films that bring people together has made Vietnamese filmmakers some of the most visible and accomplished of all Asian American storytellers. Their films have played around the world, collecting film festival prizes and impressing audiences from Sundance to Berlin. Many of these filmmakers, especially those hailing from Orange County, have banded together as regular collaborators. They work on each other’s films, they help get the word out, and through the support of estimable organizations like the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA), they have created a network to nurture new voices and further conversations about film and community.
So this year, Pacific Arts Movement highlights the so-called “Viet Wave” with “Cinema Little Saigon,” a film retrospective that celebrates the cinematic achievements of Vietnamese American filmmakers, in particular those whose films complicate the usual narrative of refugee rescue and the great success of a model minority. In film after film, history refuses to close its doors. In CATFISH AND BLACK BEAN SAUCE, JOURNEY FROM THE FALL, and OH, SAIGON, reunion only unearths ripples in ingrained notions of family and home. The U.S. is not represented as merely a refuge, but also a space of further obstacles, rejection, and alienation. Culture in the diasporic sense is revealed in all of its mythic strangeness, as in Nguyen Tan Hoang’s COVER GIRL. Nearly all of the films consider the Vietnamese American experience cross-racially; for instance, Adele Pham’s #NAILEDIT explores the phenomenon of Vietnamese nail salons as they exploded with the help of African American partners and clientele.
Despite these common thematic threads, what makes the Vietnamese American film scene such a dynamic one is how diverse and adaptable its voices are. These films refract memory and experience through a number of creative modes and genres: cross-cultural comedy, historical epic, intimate drama, first-person documentary, experimental video. Spatially, they follow footsteps unencumbered by circumstance – across continents, from private into public spheres, from ethnic enclaves into the mainstream and back again. This is well-exemplified thematically in many of the independent films, but also on an industrial level with “Viet Kieu films,” productions helmed by Vietnamese Americans but produced in and for Vietnam. The Viet Kieu films represent a new cosmopolitanism enabled by the normalization of US-Vietnamese relations in the 1990s and the coming-of-age of a generation once-removed from the thorny politics of war. Films like the Dostoevsky adaptation GENTLE, directed by Le-Van Kiet and starring Dustin Nguyen, boldly imagine haunting, death, and memory in Vietnam through a diasporic lens and via a parable of world literature.
Inspired by the pioneering new scholarship of Yen Le Espiritu and the continued cultural work of VAALA, this retrospective draws attention not only to the classics of Vietnamese American cinema, but to the cities and neighborhoods that have inspired these works, places like City Heights in San Diego, where Vietnamese Americans now share spaces with newer refugees from Africa to the Middle East. Hence “Cinema Little Saigon”: like “Chinatown” as much a frame of mind as it is a geographic designation, as much a well of cinematic creativity and aspiration as it is a megaplex or community theater. Whatever the anniversary, this cinema measures its vitality through the communities it’s bridged, the audiences it’s awakened, and the artists it continues to inspire.
This post was written partly to put YOMYOMF on blast. But above all it was a reaction to the sheer lack of media criticism in the Asian American YouTube space. New media, especially with an Asian American face, was riding a wave of momentum when the YOMYOMF channel debuted in 2012, and the idea of democratic access to production and distribution was romanticized by makers like the boys behind YOMYOMF and of course by platforms like YouTube that cashed in on diversity.
I wasn’t as enthusiastic. Justin Lin’s original YOMYOMF trailer, entitled “Bananapocalypse” had high production values but also high tolerance for casual misogyny, and the videos that followed left me wondering what exactly was worth celebrating. But nobody seemed interested in denouncing the serious shortcomings of “underdog” Asian American creatives. And so I decided to do what nobody else wanted to do with Asian American media content: review it as I would a film or TV pilot, complete with the sort of tongue-in-cheek posturing of a weekly film critic, and with some letter grades for good measure. Needless to say, there was not a Week 2 recap.
They called it the Bananapocalypse, which could refer to some kind of yellow-faced take-down of the internet-as-we-know-it, a changing of the (racial) guard, or perhaps the fact that Hollywood is willing to get their hands dirty playing in the same sandpit as the YouTubers. But having now seen every second of new YouTube channel YOMYOMF Week One, I think the Bananapocalypse might actually be the fact that 350,000 subscribers (the “big story” of the week!) clicked “like” on explosions and b-list stars and somehow we’re now writing epitaphs for Long Duk Dong.
Yeah it’s just week one, but this banana-flavored Kool-aid is getting to people’s heads, and in a few months, those subscribers risk looking like the Mayans after week one of 2013.
Here’s all you need to know.
Love the trailers, until…
You know those hilarious fake trailers before Tropic Thunder? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we got some of the brightest young Asian American faces and let them go nuts and pitch the most ridonkulous ideas in trailer form? Sung Kang as a crime-fighting acting teacher! Ryan Higa as a judge on an American Idol-ripoff contest for aspiring YouTube stars! Co-starring Al from Step-By-Step!
Ah, good laughs and high-fives all around, fellas.
Well, you know what’s next. Those ain’t fake trailers. That’s the content. Sorry subscribers, you just slipped on the bananapocalypse: the joke’s on you.
The YOMYOMF channel takes YouTube very seriously…
That shouldn’t be surprising because YouTube is YOMYOMF’s major partner and YouTube has long been something of a utopia for young aspiring Asian American artists. And YOMYOMF is a mutually-beneficial project that allows YouTube to domesticate those vloggers and short filmmakers and “raise” them to the level of mainstream pop, for better or worse.
Check out Internet Icon, Ryan Higa’s talent competition that turned out to be real. One of YouTube’s major impediments to being taken seriously is that there are so few good critics who can raise the bar. (Well, KIDS REACT is pretty great.) So the idea of a competition show that creates some kind of critical self-reflexivity seems like a very good thing.
But Internet Icon is not so interested in criticism. The clips presented to the judges are heavily abridged (into 2- to 10-second snippets) so that we can’t judge them, and the criticisms are so hackneyed (“I love his personality!”) that it makes me wonder if Ryan Higa even knows why he’s so popular. Meanwhile, the judges agree on everything (at least in episode one) and seem to have the exact same taste, so what’s being proposed isn’t criticism so much as doctrine. Because what we want on YouTube is more of the same.
Speaking of which…
I guess it’s funny, but that’s the same joke…
You know the one. Two men walk into a bar and we watch them squirm as they get accidentally homoerotic. There might be a glimmer of this in some of the male-male duos in Internet Icon, but I’m too scared to click refresh to find out. But certainly in episode one of Acting for Action w/ Sung Kang, the joke, which runs for about five minutes (plus outtakes) of the six-minute episode, is that Sung Kang, Ryan Higa, and co-star Antonio Alvarez find ways to groom, fondle, and kiss each other in different positions.
And then there’s Blueberry, the 2008 short film to inaugurate Anderson Le’s The Short List show. It features the ever-out-of-water Randall Park discovering that his $73 hooker looks like Chris Kattan. On their own, Acting for Action and Blueberry are funny in a five-minute viral video sort of way. But as the sole jokes of two of YOMYOMF’s five series premieres, they make that “Asian guys can be funny too!” rhetoric look kind of flaccid.
It should be noted that one of the other five premieres, Mandarin Time, pins its comedic hopes on the assumption that misogyny is funnier when it is in another language and when it’s done by puppets.
You offend us and our family. We get it. It’s just strange to see mild homophobia and misogyny be the jokes of choice from a blog that consistently finds the most clever, informed, and convincing ways to dissect race while being attuned to the interests of artists and industries. The YOMYOMF blog features some of the sharpest and funniest commentary on subjects in and around Asian America. It’s depressing that the site of Philip, Beverly, Elaine, Roger, and mutha-fuckin’ David Henry Hwang has no bite behind the camera.
“Not trying” is bad SAT advice, but…
Leave it to KevJumba to make the best episode of the week, simply by making a KevJumba video. The Bananapocalypse trailer featured special effects, Hollywood celebrities, costumes, and color, and YOMYOMF Week One delivered with CGI (Drone), talking puppets (Mandarin Time), and prime-time lighting and wind machines (Internet Icon).
Kevjumba’s video, “KevJumba Takes the SAT w/Felicia Day” does feature an internet star guest, but its real bursts of joy come from the simple pleasures of documentary realism and celebrities doing mundane things. As the title suggests, the video follows KevJumba and Felicia Day to an SAT prep class where they face off in three rounds of a mock SAT.
It’s got a single hook just like Mandarin Time and Acting for Action, but it’s not built around a single joke. As the situation plays out, with genuinely unpredictable results, we take joy watching them confront anxieties about their own abilities, the standards by which we measure ourselves, and how we’re defined. It’s six minutes of light, spirited fun, and is even anarchic enough to fit the You-Offend-Me brand.
And it’s all so effortless, like just another day for KevJumba. In other words, it’s what’s made Kevin Wu such an infectious online sensation: intimate, self-deprecating, adorable, and even bold.
“Acting for Action w/Sung Kang trailer”
Moderately weird, and silly Sung is better than furious Sung.
“Internet Icon Trailer”
A- (when I thought it was fake)
D (when I realized it was real)
Smells awfully like a female, more renegade version of Better Luck Tomorrow. I’ll give it a chance when it’s out.
“Internet Icon Ep 1 – The Search” (in two parts)
The whole thing just strikes me as wrong. Mimicking TV (with all of its glittery clichés) to validate YouTube? Internet artists seeking Internet Icon status from anybody other than their users? Doesn’t this kind of celebrity-endowed validation go against the idea of the internet as being democratic? Or maybe this is a tongue-in-cheek critique of the corporatization of YouTube?
“DRONE Teaser Trailer”
I’m not the target demographic, so don’t mind me when I say I wanted to laugh repeatedly.
“Acting for Action w/Sung Kang – Lesson 1”
“KevJumba Takes the SAT w/ Felicia day”
“Blueberry (YOMYOMF Short List)”
B- (for the film)
A (for the concept of the series)
I love that they’re carving out a space for short films. Programming shorts for the internet isn’t the same as programming for a festival, but there are few people I trust more for the task than Anderson Le.
When I first went on staff at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, then-marketing director Dan Matthews had me blogging about my festival travels as well as short essays on filmmakers. For one Asian Pacific American Heritage Month spotlight, I wrote on the one-and-only Curtis Choy. It originally appeared on the old SDAFF blogspot.
Directors and actors get all the credit in Asian American cinema. We rarely think about the talent it takes to shoot, assemble, promote, and disseminate films. And given how small the Asian American film world is, it’s even more important to consider all of the pieces in this guerrilla workshop. There should be no hierarchies, only partners in crime trying to carve out a piece of the pie for the community.
There is one filmmaker who has been there from the very beginning, and remains active to this day. To call him an unsung hero is not exactly correct: everyone in the Asian American film world acknowledges his skill and stature. He worked on Wayne Wang’s seminal Chan is Missing (1982), Arthur Dong’s award-winning Forbidden City U.S.A. (1989), Wang’s breakthrough The Joy Luck Club (1993), Chris Chan Lee’s beloved Yellow (1998), Tony Bui’s international hit Three Seasons (1999), Gene Cajayon’s immortal The Debut (2000), and of course Justin Lin’s game-changing Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). He’s Curtis Choy, sound recordist and sound mixer. And he’s got the most impressive resume in all of Asian American cinema. He’s our Edith Head.
Considering Curtis Choy as an Asian American filmmaker also invites us to think about the question of Asian American aesthetics altogether. Why do filmmakers keep going to Choy? And why are so many of the community’s best films recorded and mixed by him? Is it simply that he is the most respected game in town, or is his art of sound somehow conducive to something we might call an “Asian American aesthetic?” Has he tapped into a soundscape the community can hear itself in and appreciate? These are tough enough questions when we deal with more graspable elements like narrative, acting, or costume. But sound? How do we analyze that? How can our ears hear our community?
I’m no expert at sound design so I can’t say. I couldn’t close my eyes during a movie and tell you if it is a Choy soundtrack. But I can say this: looking at Choy’s filmography, we can definitely glean a few things about the sonic world he’s so good at creating. Namely that Choy is a film artist that’s always had his ear to the streets. Chan is Missing is celebrated for its black and white aesthetic and free-flowing storytelling. But it’s also been celebrated for its sense of improvisation, and so much of that comes from the sound. The sound of the Chinatown traffic, shops, and homes. The dialects, as spoken by actual people. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Choy is also great at documentary sound; he recorded Terry Zwigoff’s modern classic Crumb (1994).
Choy’s films also know how we listen to music and how music drives young peoples’ spirits. Think of the memorable slow-motion, John Woo-esque restaurant scene in Yellow. The music makes it. Or the party atmosphere of The Debut: Dante Basco and Joy Bisco flirted and danced to sounds Choy assembled. And in this year’s documentary-esque Surrogate Valentine (Dave Boyle), reality and romantic fantasy converge in the sounds of the road, as well as in Goh Nakamura’s “sad sack” music.
To top it off, Curtis Choy is a terrific director in his own right. His documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel (1976) is as seminal as any of the films he’s mixed. That it’s a technical marvel (especially given that it’s 35 years old) is a no-brainer; that it’s politically and emotionally impassioned is what makes it a masterpiece. As director, Choy also confronted fellow rabble-rouser Frank Chin with the 2005 documentary What’s Wrong with Frank Chin?, followed Lt. Ehren Watada in the 2007 Watada, Register, and explored the work of poet Al Robles in Manilatown is in the Heart (2008). In his choice of subjects and his scrappy approach to capturing their worlds, Choy is clearly an old-school Asian American filmmaker. But don’t be deceived. His weirdly awesome website Chonk Moonhunter may be embarrassingly web 1.0, but there’s a self-consciousness there that shows he’s hip to what it means to be an old soul. It shouldn’t be surprising that Choy did the sound on the retro-cool Kung Phooey! (2003) and Finishing the Game (2007).
Any period, any genre, any sensibility. Curtis Choy has made it sonically click with the Asian American experience.