Asian Americans on YouTube (Blog Series Part 3 – Final)
In my previous blog post, I wanted to highlight the agency of the “YouTube generation” of the API community. Using the power they have as consumers of online media, this population of internet-adept Asian Americans has created a change in the way that they are represented in media. Left out of traditional mainstream media, an increasing number of Asian Americans artists have taken advantage of new, online media to exhibit their talents. And in return, an eager audience of Asian Americans has enthusiastically shown their support.
Today I’d like to concentrate more on the content created by Asian American talents that is generating so much buzz. What are these artists creating? What is it about? Is it any good?
The prevalence of Asian American musicians probably trumps the number of Asian American filmmakers on YouTube, but due to this class’ focus on films, I will focus on those artists who post short films/skits (and also generate a large viewership). These include the works of Wong Fu Productions and Ryan Higa (aka Nigahiga).
The founders of Wong Fu Productions came into online fame during their college years, through short films such as this one, titled “Yellow Fever.”
The film is a 15 minute film that revolves around an Asian American male college student’s question: “Why are all the white guys taking our girls?” The view count (at the time that I accessed the site) is 218,653. If you count the 300,000+ views on the video of bloopers made during Yellow Fever’s creation (uploaded onto Phil Wang’s personal YouTube channel, “pwangs”), this film has gained the attention of over half a million viewers.
The film was shot using simple digital camcorders (according to their website: a Sony Handycam and Canon ZR 10). They enlisted the help of their college friends for actors. The script is amusing and easy to follow – it is what one would expect to see from a group of college students untrained in writing, directing, and acting.
How did this short, casual film arouse so much interest? According to the CNN report that was embedded in the previous post, these stories appeal to the Asian American youth that compose their audience – “young Asian Americans who can’t find depictions of themselves in mainstream media.” Janice Jann, one of Wong Fu’s fans, explains in her CNN interview: “Wong Fu’s stories are things that happen to you and me, kind of; it’s not like kung fu all the time.”
Wong Fu has progressed greatly from their college campus, Sony Handycam days. Their works’ production values are visibly upgraded. They still have short, fun skits, but their repertoire has grown to include more artistic works.
This video was a part of a series they called “Technology Ruins Romance.” The quality, as you can see, has improved greatly from their “Yellow Fever” and “Just a Nice Guy” days.
This short, called “The Spare”, was featured in Visual Communication’s 2008 film festival and the 2008 San Francisco’s International Asian American film festival. Their artistic exploration is really interesting to see, and a refreshing change from their comedic skits.
This is their latest release on YouTube. Another one of their comical, short films – a collaboration with YouTube comedian Nigahiga who will be mentioned below. I wanted to point out this short as an example of the amount of support/popularity these filmmakers have attained. I first accessed this video on the 25th of November – 2 days after it had been released onto YouTube. At that time, the viewership numbered well above 2 MILLION already. [Side note: If you speed up to 23:10, you will be able to see their use of the “racking focus” technique to emphasize the intensity/threat in the scene. I was extremely amused to find this. The shift from the background to the barbed wire is a sequence I remember noting during Robert Nakamura’s Mazanar (1972).]
The reporter in the CNN new report describes Wong Fu’s works as “use of new media to tell their community’s stories.” But do these short films/skits created by Asian American YouTube stars really reflect the stories in their community? From the works that I’ve seen so far, I would say that the stories that they tell are really limited to their own experiences as young Asian American males. In personal conversations with friends (who identify as Asian Americans), we have noticed that there is a clear trend of heteronormativity in their storylines.
YouTube has also seen a large increase in Asian American amateur comedians – two of the most viewed being Kevjumba (Kevin Wu) and Nigahiga (Ryan Higa). Kevjumba has taken advantage of his online popularity and starred on CBS’s Amazing Race. Nigahiga has the most subscribers (close to 3 million) on YouTube. The following clips show some of their initial videos that gained attention from YouTube audiences.
This commentary by Kevjumba talking about his high school life gained more than a million views. His other early videos that won him many fans/views are also amusing observations he makes on learning how to drive, preparing for the SATs, playing video games, and girls. Watching them now, I found them mildly entertaining. But I could understand a fellow high school student supporting and relating to his antics.
A lot of the videos on Kevjumba’s channel revolve around his Asian American identity. This can be increasingly found as his YouTube career advances and he becomes older. In the following videos, I was surprised to see him addressing stereotypes and unfair media representations of Asians.
Sure, he uses the “Chinese accent” as a source of humor a bit too much, and his following attempt to discourage the negative use of the word “gay” ended up sounding like a homophobic self-defense, asserting his heterosexuality…
… but at least he tries(?). Yet my problems with watching his content is nothing compared to our next YouTube celebrity: Nigahiga.
This video (one of a series of “how to be…” videos) with glaringly problematic content represents the initial work of Nigahiga. I could blame these offensive, homophobic, racist, stereotypical “jokes” on the fact that these are his beginning videos and he was still in high school when he uploaded them. But I cannot bring myself to excuse such offensive content – especially knowing that it garnered over 25 MILLION views. It’s literally painful to watch as Nigahiga and his friend try an abhorrent “imitation” of what they believe to be homosexual, while using a pejorative, extremely homophobic slur at (3:05) – all intended to evoke laughter from the audience.
What infuriates/saddens me more is the response of the audience – pages and pages of comments applauding his jokes, and not a single comment pointing out the obvious problems with his material. It was even deemed “a YouTube classic” by numerous users. And these comments aren’t made back in 2007 when he created his video. The same feedback was being posted just hours before I accessed the video.
Who are these viewers? Are they the same Asian American youth interviewed by CNN, supporting Nigahiga for “telling their community’s stories”? It makes me wonder what audience finds his videos appealing. Is their lack of critical consciousness a reflection of the entire “YouTube generation” that I, only one blog post ago, declared to be “agents of change”? This makes me quite worried and sad.
My tone and goal shifted entirely during this process of writing and researching for the blog. What I originally saw as a “revolution,” a “phenomenon,” I now see as something that needs more evaluation. Before I thought that the mere existence of a strong Asian American presence on YouTube was a political act in itself. But can this change be considered progressive if those at the forefront rarely upload content that challenges mainstream’s ignorance of issues of identity – such as gender and sexuality? The only two API women who maintained channels on YouTube with considerable viewership – and who are not musicians or “beauty gurus” – paled in comparison to the amount of support that the men were gathering.
YouTube is a great resource for Asian American artists and has great potential. But instead of jumping to declaring it a revolutionary, new form of media that is the antithesis of traditional mainstream media – as I did – we must analyze it more critically and see what images/representations are really being produced and propagated.
Posted by Jasmine Kim
Entry filed under: Uncategorized.