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Inspired by Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), my video essay, Chinatown Plays an Idea attempts to look at Hollywood’s portrayal of Chinatown. The films featured span from Hollywood’s silent era to its current 21st century and include Chinatowns from London, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Despite almost a hundred years of film presence and Chinatown’s inhabitation of different cities, Chinatown has been largely represented in three main ways: criminal, mystical, and Other. This filmic characterization has deep roots in the conception of the Orient. Edward Said in Orientalism credits the construction of the Orient as margin to the Occident is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). Orientalism is a political tool of domination, power, and hegemony. It is something to identify what the West is not and to retain imperial superiority. Today’s repercussions of Orientalism are many, but one can be illustrated in the representation of Asian Americans in media. Sax Rohmer’s early creation of Fu Manchu in the 1910s was born of this imagination, one in which Orientalism had a large role. Today’s analysis of Asians and Asian Americans in media reveals only a slight diversification of roles and personas that have deviated from Yellow Peril, an Asian stereotype Fu Manchu pioneers.
Indeed, the larger repercussions of this has been on Asian bodies, particularly Asian immigrants to the United States. Racism and Orientalism necessitated Chinatowns where these community boundaries were simultaneously reassuring and frightening (Haenmi 26). In my video, I link Yellow Peril to Chinatown in that it has been projected onto a physical and imagined space on American soil. Whereas before the connection were people of Yellow Peril to different countries, Chinatown is viewed as extensions of Asian countries rather than American; Chinatown is unAmerican. The filmic persona of Chinatown has extended a real connotation to a physical space. Borrowing the concept of city as character, Chinatown as a character is criminal, supernaturally dangerous, and outside of understanding. In other words, the negatively imagined space of Chinatown on screen threatens the physical space in metropolises. This is particularly of interest as the imagined space of Chinatown in cinema is continually portrayed in the same way despite changes to the physical landscapes of Chinatown. For example, Los Angeles’ Chinatown is not populated by the bustling, middle class, and assimilated folk within Flower Drum Song (1961) directed by Henry Koster. The tendency to glamorize this ethnic enclave masks issues such as its status out of 272 neighborhoods as the one with the third lowest average income in Los Angeles county, and as shown towards the end of my video, quite deserted (Los Angeles Times). Most of the local Chinese community is actually in Alhambra. Currently, Chinatown faces gentrification–recent years have seen the addition of a Starbucks, Walmart, and several art galleries and offices. This is a danger that not only threatens space but the people living within the space as well.
All the films except Broken Blossoms feature a scene of a Chinese restaurant, reinforcing Chinatown as a place of consumption not only in food, but in sights, culture, and people. Tourism has had a long stint in Chinatown history. Haenmi has discussed early films, tourism, and early depictions of Chinatown as modes to “reinforce racial distinctions and maintain the status quo” specifically to benefit the middle class (22-23). While Chinese food is a modern popular cuisine, the detail only hints at the amount of power and privilege that Western culture has exercised in consuming Chinese culture and people. In Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1985), Tracy Tzu follows a number of Asian characters in media before her when she “falls in love” with Stanley White, a Caucasian cop dedicated to stopping organized crime in Chinatown. Herbert, a Chinese cop-in-training, is another character that is used by Stanley to grave consequences. Both suffer for aiding White in his mission for justice; Tracy is raped and Herbert is murdered. This power dynamic of Chinese subordination and sacrifice to White power affirms expendability of Asian bodies. The commodification of Chinatown is a recurring media portrayal that invents “subjects that could pleasurably experience a new kind of ‘White’ hegemony, and by assigning the Chinese to a limited and constrained space” (Haenmi 25). Most films that include Chinatown not only assign a rigid role to Asian-ness, but more so broadens what Whiteness is in opposition to it.
Chinatown Plays an Idea questions the importance of the media portrayal of ethnic enclaves, particularly one so well-known as Chinatown. What goes on in Chinatown? Who lives in Chinatown? What kinds of places are in Chinatown? How do people in Chinatown live? While the representation of Asians and Asian Americans in the media is often analyzed, the places they populate is not so much explored. Thus far, Chinatown has been included in Hollywood as a setting but as a specific character that supports White supremacy. As Hollywood slowly tries to diversify and expand its racial inclusion, we must continue to critique not only the film industry’s illustration of racialized bodies, but racialized spaces like Chinatown as well.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Haenmi, Sabine . “Filming ‘Chinatown’: Fake Visions, Bodily
Transformations.” Screening Asian Americans. Ed. Peter X. Feng.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
“Median Income Ranking.” Los Angeles Times. 16 December 2015. <http://maps.latimes.com/neighborhoods/income/median/neighborhood/list/>.
Big Trouble in Little China. Dir. John Carpenter. Twentieth Century Fox
Film Corporation, 1986. Film.
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros, 1982.
Broken Blossoms. Dir. D.W. Griffith. United Artists, 1919. Film.
Chan is Missing. Dir. Wayne Wang. New Yorker Films, 1982. Film.
Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Film.
Flower Drum Song. Dir. Henry Koster. Universal Pictures, 1961. Film.
Freaky Friday. Dir. Mark Waters. Buena Vista Pictures, 2003. Film.
Los Angeles Play Itself. Dir. Thom Andersen. Submarine Entertainment,
Men in Black III. Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld. Columbia Pictures, 2012. Film.
Rush Hour. Dir. Brett Ratner. New Line Cinema, 1998. Film.
Year of the Dragon. Dir. Michael Cimino. MGM/UA Entertainment
Company, 1985. Film.
This post is 4 of 4 in a series of posts on female Asian American YouTubers for my final.
YouTube content creating can be a liberating source of self-expression for Asian American women, but it can also reinforces stereotypes. YouTube is one of the only media forms where the creator has complete control over how their content is created and shown, but the medium itself is still able to reinforce the same problems that female Asian Americans face in their everyday lives. While this is true, Michelle Phan also points out that YouTube is still unique in its positioning for these women: “Nowhere else in the media, other than the Internet, are there ‘really strong Asian roles.’” The women in the previous blog posts have been able to create career paths that were not possible prior to YouTube. They have become huge influencers by getting millions and millions of subscribers and viewers each month. YouTube has created the possibility for these women to have voices and represent themselves.
This post is 3 of 4 in a series of posts on female Asian American YouTubers for my final.
Wendy Nguyen, the founder of Wendy’s Lookbook, is constantly putting out videos. Although her focus is mostly on fashion, she occasionally strays in order to makes videos on trips and other more lifestyle topics. Her fashion videos are always creative and fresh in both format and content. She has over 640,000 followers.
An example of her creative works is 10 Essential Closet Items with Magic!, which uniquely describes her closet staples. While YouTubers usually talk through these items, occasionally wearing the items shown in a spilt screen, she takes a different approach by showing instead of explaining. Nguyen does not fit into any Asian American stereotype prescribed by Gou and Harlow because she is so unique as the most common stereotypes like as a “model minority” or a “perpetual foreigner.”
Because Wendy is her own model in her videos, she is able to sidestep more conventional model looks, which is tall, thin, and white. While there are definitely Asian American female models who have been successful, the overwhelming majority of professional models are still white and thin women in the industry. But Wendy has been able to sidestep this by creating her own content- and she has been incredibly successful at it. Wendy has even been able to speak out about the subject on being different- well kind of. In 2012, Wendy’s Lookbook came out with the video “Be Your Shoeself,” which was about a flat shoe wanting to be a heel, but finally realizing that it was happy just the way it was. Heels are the more desired shoe for women, while flats are practical and therefore less desirable. The video was a hit, to the point where “teachers and parents us[ed] the film as a social-educational piece.” While maybe not the most political or direct video dealing with self-acceptance for Asian Americans, or really anyone who feels like they do not fit in, it still helps to bring attention to the issue. She is able to talk about it, but not actually bring it up, allowing it to be for anyone who feels like he/she does not fit into. Additionally it is interesting to note that Wendy is a rags to riches story; she grew up in the foster system, but later made all of money and success through with her blog and YouTube channel. And to this day she volunteers in the Los Angeles area helping incarcerated and troubled teens who had grown up in similar living situation as herself. So it is evident that Wendy has worked hard to get where she is today, because she truly started from nothing.
Michelle Phan is one of the most popular and famous YouTubers ever; she is the original “beauty guru.” Being a “beauty guru” means that she creates beauty videos, like tutorials on how to look like famous characters to how to have red lipstick last through out the day, and has a huge following. She currently has a little over 8.1 million subscribers. As Phan has grown as a YouTuber, her tutorials have become more complex. For instance, in the intro of her video on creating the make up look for Daenerys Targaryen, she looks just like the character by not only wearing the make up and wig, but by creating an accurate costume and setting- a lot of effort for a 20 second intro to a seven and a half minute video. In addition she also had a musical score, costume and CGI baby dragon specifically created for the tutorial. With all of the resources put into the video, it could be just like a short film.
Phan has been incredibly successful in her career as a YouTube “beauty guru” by not only have a successful channel, but also from many other ventures, like a separate YouTube channel, Fawn, a contract with Lancôme, and her own make up line named em. But even with her tremendous success, she has never been perceived as a yellow peril type figure. She is not treated as a threat towards other (white) women in the business.
While Phan has been incredibly successful in her work as, she is still limited in what she is produces. Her most popular videos are make up videos of her portraying white characters, like Barbie, and Zombie Barbie. Only one of those women she dresses up as are real, Lady Gaga, and yet even then her videos are creating caricatures that follow white standards of beauty. In fact the first ever video she did on emulating a celebrities make up look was Lady Gaga in Poker Face. And with her video on Daenerys Targaryen, Phan does not even look Asian anymore. Although maybe a powerful statement to her abilities as a make up artist, Phan completely changes herself in order to follow a specific white beauty standard. While as a business figure, Phan is very inspiring, she still follows white beauty standards- something that is kind of odd considering how powerful she is as a YouTube star.
Amy Lee, of Vagabond Youth, is the youngest in this grouping, at just 21 years old and already has 211,000 YouTube followers. While she is still young, Amy been able to create an influential following that did not exist for someone like her before: “ [now] decentralized citizens control as opposed to hierarchal, elite control” (Meraz). Lee is just one example of an ordinary teen have the power to create content that has become very far reaching. Lee has been able to create a platform without the help of managers or editors that exist in other, older forms of media and entertainment. She is a typical female vlogger in that she regularly posts hauls- where the creator shows off recent items they have bought with their audience- make up tutorials, lookbooks, and the like, but she is usually pretty creative in how she forms the videos. She has a youthful, edgy vibe to her videos that is not present in the two vlogger’s videos above. While a bit more typical in her content than Wendy, Amy has a unique twist with her video style and is always up to date on trends. She creates interesting transitions where they are not usually present. She also uses popular music in her videos. On camera Amy does not seem to fit any particular Asian American stereotype, instead she wants to be more rebellious and creative with her content.
Lee has also made content that specifically pertains to her being Korean American. Although not directly addressing her race, she has made videos about how she does her eye make up with monolids. The tutorials end up being more complex than the typical cat eye make up look. She also regularly uses Korean beauty products, which she recently made a video about. While Michelle Phan also uses Korean, or Korean inspired, skincare products, she also regularly makes videos that do not pertain to Asian culture. Lee is not exclusive in her videos, anyone can do the make up looks, but she still creates videos specifically for Asian American women who might be interested in style and beauty.
On the surface, Amy still fits into the model minority category, not so much for her video content, but because of her background. She is incredibly smart and hard working (both at school and on her videos) and is attending UCLA studying communications. She creates these videos on the side in order to partially pay for her college tuition. But her school work does not define her, at least on YouTube, where she has the power to show multiple sides of her personality. Amy does not fit into any one stereotype perfectly, and is able to create a nuanced online persona.
This post is 2 of 4 in a series of posts on female Asian American YouTubers for my final.
Cassey Ho is the peppy Pilates instructor behind Blogilates. With over 2.5 million followers, she has created a dedicated channel and blog that gives out free monthly work out and meal plans. She also creates new workout videos every work, which are usually around the 10-minute mark and focus on Pilates moves that work on a specific part of the body. She has become famous for her use of pop songs in her videos as well. She has created such an intense following that she also offers a wide variety of merchandise like t-shirts, water bottles, and yoga mats. With such so much power, Ho now has a very influential voice. She is athletic in a way that isn’t typically associated with Asian Americans like martial arts; although, to be clear Pilates is a mix of both Eastern and Western practices created by a German man and is thought of as a more feminine form of working out. In general there is a perception that “Asian-Americans are less involved in sports than others in this country,” so for Ho to be able to have a growing fitness empire that focuses on users getting in shape- no matter who they are- is atypical, at least when examining stereotypes.
Ho has had such a successful career in creating work out videos, but her most popular video is instead about body acceptance. In this video, called The “Perfect” Body, she physically transforms her body into a body that has been deemed perfect by random Instagram commenters. As she looks into a mirror she changes the proportions of her body, adding and taking away fat. She even changes the color of her eyes to be a lighter brown. But in the end she finds that she is not happy trying to fit into other people’s standards. Ho has the power to not only influence women to loose weight and make healthier lifestyle choices, but also in how they view themselves and to love themselves the way they are. Her power reaches beyond exterior happiness and into something more psychological and troubling for many women.
ItsJudysLife chronicles the lives of a young family of five in Seattle, Washington as they quite literally go about their everyday lives; it captures the everyday moments of the family every single day of the year. With 1.2 million subscribers, the Travis are one of the most popular vloggers, but what makes them different from of the rest of the families that vlog is their Asian American background. Judy, the matriarch of the family, comes from a strong Filipino background and for a time her mother, also Filipino, lived with their young family. Judy and her husband Benji still have strong ties to Asia, even though both of them were born in the US; for instance in the video above, they only eat at Asian restaurants. And Judy has an additional channel, named Belleza Con Judy, which is entirely in Spanish. It has the same videos she posts on her English channel, but dubbed in Spanish. But, they are still assimilated, looking like any other American family. While she does not actually speak Spanish in her videos, it ties back to Filipino heritage.
Besides the novel idea of creating videos that capture every single day of their lives, and the challenge that comes along with that task, the family is not innovative in video production. The editing is simple and to the point, cutting between Judy and Benji’s different perspectives, with a brief clip of the two youngest daughters taken by their Grandmother. And because Judy and Benji do not explain where they are and why, the viewer would have needed to watch previous blogs to understand the context. Their videos are reality television in the truest sense and there is no fakeness to their lives. There is a huge emphasis on the happy moments, so they rarely film when their daughters fight with each other (although it is present in the above video). Basically the family is able to control everything that ends up on their channels because they are the ones who film and edit the videos. While it is amazing that they are then able to create their own representation of their family, instead of another producer or director’s opinion, they still constrict themselves in how they portray themselves, sometimes not always in a positive way.
In OOPS! I Ate All Your Halloween Candy the emphasis is on the content and not the formatting. The main attraction of the vlog is filming one of the girl’s cute reactions to Judy telling her that she ate all of her daughter’s candy. While the child is sad the main point is her cute reaction to her not wanting her mother to get sick and instead share. The vloggers capitalize on the cuteness of their three daughters, who are usually the focus of the videos. With examples like this, the show is really about normal family life. The Travis live in a nice suburban home where they regularly shop at Costco and Target and are not political- at least on video. They are not trying to disrupt anything or change perspectives. They just want to entertain millions of people with their family’s antics. In many ways they are just like any other family.
This post is 1 of 4 in a series of posts on female Asian American YouTubers for my final.
YouTube is in many ways a space of empowerment and creativity for a multitude of people. It has become a popular space for almost anyone to create entertaining videos about anything- no matter how mundane. Although it could be a site for political demonstration, YouTube has ultimately been a space for something else: “YouTube users [are] interested in producing entertaining content to attract viewers—and thus advertisers—making YouTube ‘a location for fun, not for political dialogues’” (Guo Harlow 285). This means that many of its users can make full time careers out of what was originally seen as a hobby because of the site’s increasing focus on a space for entertainment. Five Asian American women have been able to capitalize on this new forum by creating lucrative careers on different subjects, and because they are usually the creators and producers of their content, these women have been able to create videos that reflect their own beliefs and interests. In the following blog posts, these women will be analyzed to see whether their ability to create their own videos has affected how Asian American women have been able to be projected as. While YouTube content creating can be a liberating source of self-expression for Asian American women, it also reinforces stereotypes and creates negative misconceptions.
Guo, Lei, and Summer Harlow. “User-Generated Racism: An Analysis Of Stereotypes Of African Americans, Latinos, And Asians In Youtube Videos.” Howard Journal Of Communications 25.3 (2014): 281-302. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
There are a lot of well known beauty bloggers in the US, but very few Asian American beauty bloggers that have gained a huge following and turned their blogging into a career. Many of the beauty bloggers that I have followed are white, blonde or brunette, that come from a wealthy background, such as TheLondoner or The Blonde Salad or SomethingNavy. My favorite blogger is actually an Asian American blogger–Wendy Nguyen from Wendy’s Lookbook.
I admire Wendy Nguyen because of how she has come from nothing and built her brand on her own. She went through the foster care system, which didn’t let that stop her from becoming successful within her education and fashion. I think that she is someone to admire because she uses her power and her success to give back to marginalized communities, such as providing mental health services to the homeless community and educates students in the foster care system. I think this is an interesting thing to look at because in my presentation on Asian American vloggers, we thought about how these bloggers that are successful can use their success to their advantage and call out how the Asian American community is continuously marginalized. Although Wendy volunteers and “gives back,” she still does what she is passionate about, which is beauty, fashion and D.I.Y. I think that she is the perfect blend of blogger of passions and uses her success to provide for these marginalized communities that would have otherwise not been helped in the ways that she is helping them.