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Asian-American YouTube celebrities aim to change perceptions, break into Hollywood

by James Kim and Cameron Kell | The Frame

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Eugene Lee Yang is a video producer at Buzzfeed that is quickly rising in the internet world. Buzzfeed

A recent study on diversity by GLAAD found that, of all the main characters in the 2013-2014 broadcast TV season, only 4 percent were Asian. That percentage is actually lower than the previous year, when Asian actors comprised 6 percent of main character roles.

And while that report was published before the debut of "Fresh Off the Boat" — the first TV show to center on an Asian-American family in over 20 years — it's safe to say that Asians are overlooked in television. There is, however, one outlet where the community is thriving.

But let's back up a little bit. Phil Yu is the creator of the popular news and culture blog Angry Asian Man, which he started in 2001 to voice his opinions about the lack of Asians in film and TV. As he puts it, "When I was a kid, honestly, I didn't see anyone that looked like me."

Things have changed since 2001, but not entirely for the best. Yu argues that, while the opportunities for Asian-American actors have increased slightly, "When you look at the way Asians are portrayed, it's largely really terrible or just invisible. And in this culture, not being there almost means that you just don't count, that you really don't matter."

Although mainstream media still has a long way to go, Yu says that there's one outlet where the community is finding its voice: YouTube. "If you look at what the kids are watching, it's YouTube," he says. "We've seen the rise of the Asian-American YouTube star."

Awkafina's "My Vag"

Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina, released "My Vag" in October 2012, and the song went viral within a couple weeks. While growing up, she remembers the only comedian she emulated was Margaret Cho. "She was literally the only one," she says.

"She has a bit where she's talking about when she was growing up and she was saying, 'When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute on 'MASH.' Those were the only plausible parts she could play if she went into the entertainment industry."

But Lum, who has million of hits on YouTube, actually attributes much of her success to her ethnicity: "I think that's why I was able to do well in the beginning, because it was such a foreign thing. People frame it in a negative way, like, 'For Asian-Americans there's no one out there, so that must be really bad for you.' No, I benefited from it."

Eugene Lee Yang is another popular Asian personality on the Internet, though you might know him as BuzzFeed Asian Guy. He was originally a video producer behind the camera, but when BuzzFeed wanted to diversify the people in their videos, Yang demanded that they use the only Asian-American on their production staff — him. And then he became internet famous.

If Asians said the stuff white people say

He describes his big break as, "Simply a series of scenes of myself and the comedian Jenny Yang speaking to white people with the language turned around on them." But the effects of the hit video, which has more than 8.5 million views, weren't so simple for Yang, who found himself under vastly increased scrutiny.

"That was the first time I was really, heavily seen and circulated in terms of the viral share, and my reaction at first was a bit bashful," he confesses. "It's weird having people talk immediately [about you], like, Five seconds ago someone just posted their thoughts about how you look, which is usually the first thing people notice."

"But all of those comments are important," Yang notes. "Just by someone saying, 'Oh, this Asian guy's blank,' they're recognizing that it's an Asian guy they're watching and commenting on and responding to. That alone served as a turning point for me to say, 'It's really important for me to be on camera.'"

Yang saw this as the perfect way to represent a community that has largely been ignored in other outlets. He says that, "People would be surprised at how much impact we have, especially as a community, online. There was a joke that Asian-Americans are just more tech-savvy in general, so we're all online and we're all very vocal, but it's one of the places that we can really vent our frustrations with the way that we're portrayed."

Ask An Asian

But even as he was connecting with millions of people online, others still resorted to the same old stereotypes. Yang points to a recent BuzzFeed post on Facebook, "Where we asked the audience to give questions for a segment called 'Ask an Asian.' The top comments with the most likes were all flagrant, racist questions that were the most inane, basic things you could ask. Like, 'Why do you eat dogs?'"

So how do you combat these stereotypes? Yang argues that it's really simple: more representation in film. "That is still where a lot of the power lies, in my opinion," he says. Of course, it can never just be that simple.

"My big problem with the fact that Asians are not represented well enough in movies and in TV," he says, "is that there's someone still controlling the idea that we are not worth a ticket, or we're not worth seeing because you have to pay to see [us]."

She has a boyfriend video

Wong Fu Productions might just be the ones to make that leap from the Internet to Hollywood. They have over 2 million subscribers on YouTube, but its not your standard viral fare. Rather than dank memes or adorable cats, their videos are more like indie shorts, which feature primarily Asian casts.

Wesley Chan of Wong Fu Productions says that was the plan from the outset: "That's where we've always stood with Wong Fu Productions — using Asian faces to tell an everyday story. The point is to show that it exists."

The success of their videos lead to some notable "real world" results — they got to meet President Obama a few years back — and it's also positioned them as representatives of the Asian-American community, which wasn't part of the plan at the beginning. But now that they're here, Chan recognizes it's a chance, "to represent, and instead of continuing to say, 'No no no, that's not us,' we'd better just own up to it and start making some moves with it."

Wong Fu movie teaser for Everything Before Us

And it seems like those moves will finally involve jumping from YouTube to the big screen. Wong Fu crowdfunded their first feature film and raised almost double the $200,000 goal, and with that money they made the indie-romance "Everything Before Us," which screened at the Los Angeles Pacific Asian Film Festival.

Philip Wang, a co-founder of Wong Fu, hopes their achievement proves to Hollywood studios that Asian-Americans are worth something. As he says, "We were able to show them that we're not just some kids with a video camera, but we're storytellers, we're filmmakers, and we want to make a difference."

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