Since before this column started in 1992, well before the formation of Media Action Network for Asian Americans — pretty much since the earliest days of modern mass media in America — there has been a problem in this country with how Asian Americans and Asians have been depicted and portrayed (and covered in the news).
While the reasons are manifold, maybe the main reason was the almost complete lack of participation in the making of those images and descriptions by anyone of Asian heritage.
Would the Hearst papers have been able to stir up Yellow Peril paranoia if there were Asian American journalists on those newspaper staffs?
Would director Blake Edwards have been compelled to let Mickey Rooney do a disgusting Yellowface Mr. Yuniyoshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” if there had been some Asian Americans in the cast or crew?
Would Bruce Lee have had to go to Hong Kong to follow his muse because no one in Hollywood would let him be the star of a TV series or movie if there had been some Asian Americans in the Hollywood hierarchy willing to give him a greater chance here? I’d like to hope that the answer to all of the preceding would be “no.”
For years, American tastemakers and gatekeepers didn’t have to worry about offending Asians in America. Why not? Instead of trying to counteract nonsensical stereotypes, immigrant Asians of yesteryear had bigger concerns like making a living and providing for their families, especially during times when there was so much institutional racism and occasional hostility toward anyone who wasn’t White and all right. Whether the earlier Asian immigrants knew it or not, the payoff would come later.
Thanks to the efforts of earlier generations of Asian Americans, it’s different now. Thanks to those who came before, Asian Americans as a group have more numbers, affluence, education and political muscle than ever.
While some in positions of influence seemingly have yet to get the memo (e.g., clueless executives at movie studios that in recent years greenlighted movies that race-changed from Asian to White the protagonists in stories based on real events), Asian Americans as a group simply aren’t going to put up with being treated like second-class citizens any longer. And that includes how we get portrayed.
Younger Asian Americans are fortunate to live in this era of the intersection of inexpensive, high-quality tools to produce their own media with the greatest means ever devised for distributing that content massively, globally and instantaneously. I’m talking about computers, software, digital video cameras and the like to make movies, TV shows, podcasts, books, magazines, blogs, comics and more, coupled with high-speed Internet. It’s simply an astounding sea change that has been occurring over the last few years.
One of the most prominent signs of this change is the YOMYOMF Network. Pronounced “Yom-Yom-Eff,” the letters stand for You Offend Me, You Offend My Family. It has its roots as an Internet blog (YOMYOMF.com) with a decidedly Asian American emphasis, led by movie director Justin Lin.
Last year, Google-owned YouTube decided to commit $100 million to fund and launch a number of networks to build audiences, create content, make some money and also take a shot across the bow of the traditional TV business. One of those approached was Lin, who with several others, decided to take up YouTube’s offer and create the YOMYOMF Network.
YouTube is, of course, one of the Web’s genuine success stories of the last few years. Nowadays, two of YouTube’s most well-know names are KevJumba (Kevin Wu) and Ryan Higa, both Asian American. (One of YouTube’s co-founders, it should be noted, was also Asian American, Steve Chen.)
Now, via YouTube and YOMYOMF, a younger, impudent, irreverent strain of Asian American creativity can bypass the gatekeepers of network TV and Hollywood movies, and without permission from studios, suits, agents, marketing consultants or executives, celebrate themselves. They are putting the “You” in YouTube.
From a business perspective, what YouTube is attempting is a real break from how TV normally conducts business. If successful, YouTube’s initiative could be the most innovative trend to affect TV since the remote control. Asian Americans, it turns out, happen to be at the right time and the right place in this scenario.
Why? I spoke with one of YOMYOMF’s principals, Phil Chung to get his take. According to Chung, Asian Americans are not only one of the most Internet-savvy demographics, Asian Americans as a group are one of YouTube’s largest audiences. In other words, the participation rate of Asian Americans in creating and consuming Web content is far greater than the proportion of Asian Americans to the total U.S. population.
(Full disclosure: While I have nothing to do with YOMYOMF, I’ve known Chung for several years, going back to the early days of the aforementioned MANAA and the long-defunct Yolk Magazine, where we both served as editors at different times.)
On Monday, YOMYOMF made a splash with a promotional video on YouTube titled “Bananapocalypse” to promote the launch of its network. With a run time of just under five and a half minutes, the video is co-directed by Line and is a silly, crazed, ribald, over-the-top and funny smorgasbord featuring KevJumba, Higa, and such guest stars as Masi Oka, Jessica Alba and Wayne Brady. (FYI, you probably shouldn’t view it if you’re under 17.)
Chung, who is overseeing all the creative content for YOMYOMF Network, took some time to chat with me about the video and what has been going on with YOMYOMF and what the future might bring.
Chung said the team has been working on the network since late fall of 2011. They decided to shoot the promo video around Easter and were fortunate in that the budget was small (low four figures, according to Chung, thanks to lots of donated talent). They are planning to have original content three-days a week initially, with a fourth-day using library content of short films they didn’t make but really like.
While there won’t be an “Angry Asian Man” show just yet, Chung said next week YOMYOMF will launch a show titled “Internet Icon” (with Higa serving as a judge), sort of a YouTube version of “American Idol,” produced by film director Andy Fickman. There will also be a show titled “KevJumba Takes All,” where he challenges celebrities to different contests.
“I think in the first episode he’s going to challenge Felicia Day of (Web series) ‘The Guild’ to take the SATs,” Chung said. Although he didn’t confirm it, there might even be a show with a breakout NBA star who plays for a team somewhere in the East Coast.
According to Chung, YOMYOMF Network is Justin Lin’s creative vision, that he was who set the mandate. Frankly, I’m really heartened to hear that Lin is in the director’s chair on this enterprise. He’s smart, talented and aware of how much this means.
“His philosophy is, we want to bring on writers, directors actors, producers, whoever that we really love, that we think is interesting and who has ideas that in some cases they can’t do anywhere else,” Chung said of Lin. While being Asian American isn’t a requirement, YOMYOMF Network really is an interesting, experimental laboratory that Asian Americans have wanted and needed for a long time.
I for one can’t wait to see what develops.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.