Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Another view of the Asian American

The two pieces we watched for this week were "weird" to say the least. First, we have a transgendered pop star's pornographic music video in addition to an independent film focused on a Japanese American family scattered with aliens, burning crosses, and cheerleaders.

Further reading informed me that JJ Chinois is actually Lynne Chan, a transgendered woman who uses this persona to convey messages about Asian America. Chan uses the analogy of his transition as a queer individual from the suburbs to New York City with his parents migration to the United states from Hong Kong.

Throughout the video, the parallel clips between JJ Chinois and Bruce Lee often confused and disoriented me. What was Chan trying to convey with these images? Scenes of the female jumping rope seemed almost pornagraphic to me, and the first question the leaped to my mind was, who is the audience of this piece? Does Chan want us to assume the male gaze? However, a better understanding for Chan's alter ego comes from the readings. To know that there is a representation for the spectrum of Asian American male bodies, not just the two extremes, comforts me. However, the fact that it takes a transgendered pop star to make this point, seems a little uneasy to me.

I agree with the idea that Terminal USA was more of a performative piece than a commentary on Asian American families, however, many issues about Asian Americans do arise throughout the movie. For instance, the father gets upset by the fact he is called a chink, when rather he is Japanese. The racial slur does not bother him, rather it seems the confusion of Asian Americans is upsetting to him. There is also the sexualization of the Asian American females. The daughter is a hypersexual cheerleader, submissive to her "lawyer" by performing fellatio. Although the film seemed to engage us visually, it nonetheless provided a satire on the Asian American family, a family who tries to assimilate into the normal American family stereotype. However, it quickly becomes evident that this "perfect American family" mold is nonrealistic and, in actually, dysfunctional.

These pieces are important because they show the diversity of Asian American media. Unfortunately, because of the nature and audiences of these pieces, its message reaches few. How can the images of Asian Americans be changed when the very few are getting the message? Instead, the same Asian American stereotypes are conveyed, restricting us to the "dragon lady" and "Bruce Lee" characters. When is it that we will finally get another view of the Asian American?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Terminal USA & JJ Chinois

First off, does anyone know where I can get the music from JJ Chinois's music video? Many of the posters already hit on many of the points I had in mind; one thing that just kept sticking out to me was this idea of how a certain method of performance can greatly affect how we as the viewers interpret a concept. Alien Encounters addressed the issue of remodeling an old icon into something completely new; Mimi Nguyen mentioned how JJ Chinois was able to take a relatively subdued aspect of Bruce Lee's persona- his sexual identity- and craft it into something that not only could be recognized as " hey that's Bruce Lee!" but also something incredibly new. Given that we were assigned Terminal USA along with the music video, I wonder if this idea of performance found in JJ Chinois's work can be applied to Terminal USA. Is the film saying anything by adding an over-the-top element to the Asian stereotypes? Does it remodel the old or rather just mock the stereotypes given? I agree with Alexa that these two films share a similar theme with the other assigned films in that they too try to go against the tropes that around socially bound to "Asian American." However, I suppose the main point of contrast lies in the focus of the films. The past films we saw dealt with how individuals who interact in a functional society deal with the dichotic concepts of heritage and assimilation. In these two films, it is as though this social interaction is filtered through and all that is left are the concepts to be molded. It is an interesting strategy and I hope to be able to see more Asian American underground films in the future.

Response to Underground Films

Today in class, I was really surprised to see such adverse reactions to this week's films. An argument that came up numerous times today was that both films were performative rather than provide commentary on the Asian American experience. While I would agree the films may have been a little difficult to watch due to their lack of a conventional narrative structure, I liked the fact that the films were so over-the-top. I don't see why performativity and commentary have to be mutually exclusive. I felt like these films were no different from Better Luck Tomorrow, Mississippi Masala, Wedding Banquet, etc in that complicated my notions of what it means to be Asian American by complicating (and perhaps destroying) the model minority figure. I really enjoyed Terminal U.S.A. in particular, in that it presented us with such extreme forms of Asian stereotypes (the studious brother, the cheerleader sister, the Japanese punk, etc) they could only be interpreted as artifice. Last semester I took a class on the films of Andy Warhol and within the class we read an article where Warhol says something the the effect that he enjoys using drag queens within his films because they are "more real". By looking at them you know exactly what they are: they are not pretending to be a woman, but simply a man who dresses like a woman. This is the same type of strange logic which lead Warhol to embrace camp, especially with his use of bad actors because simply they are "more real" in that you know that they are acting. I think this could be applied to Terminal U.S.A. the performances within the film are so terrible that they come off as fictional constructions, which in turn can be read that these stereotypes of Asian Americans are also merely social constructions. This is why I feel like the film is no different from all of the other films we have seen in this class which challenge notions of Asian American identity. Similar to the other films these underground films can also be read as a refusal of the model minority identity, they just do so in a different matter.

Under Construction

"JJ Chinois" explores the notion of identity as something we construct—both consciously and unconsciously. Both films derive their shock value, I think, by confronting the audience with characters’ whose identities violate or challenge the categories with which we are most comfortable or have been lead to believe are most “normal.” We not only construct our own sense of self but we project identities upon others. For example, we might fit people into categories based on notions of race, gender, or class; or we might project our fantasies onto others we barely know by imagining what their lives and personalities must be like.

In the film, Lynne Chan explores the process of constructing an identity for herself that frees her from gender norms but at the same time is based on appropriation of an iconic identity, the screen performances of Bruce Lee. JJ Chinois is, perhaps, the ultimate identity in that he is completely a fabrication. We try to “know” him by piecing together the visual clues Chan gives us and the factoids that she supplies both in the film and one the Web site, but in the end, anything we learn is less about JJ Chinois and more about who we are and what sort of preconceptions we hold about Asians, gender, stardom, queer identities, etc. I think both film makers want to underscore the fact that individuals, such as gays and Asians in the US, who don’t fit into the rigid categories imposed by the dominant society have the challenge of trying an identity that feels authentic while knowing that their very existence will be perceived by others as a challenge or violation of “norms.”

This brings me back to my thoughts about “Better Luck Tomorrow” in which each character is struggling to create a sense of self that feels authentic.

That was really weird...

I’m not sure what to make of the two films we watched this week. JJ Chinois and Terminal USA were probably two of the weirder films I have seen in a very long time. Something that struck me the most while watching Terminal USA was the portrayal of Marvin, the nerdy brother who secretly enjoyed erotic Skinhead male pornography. When Marvin is caught masturbating to male porn by his father, his father does not receive the news very well. He makes some comment that Marvin has become the “pervert in the back room” and that Marvin is now even stranger than Kazumi. The mother and father can accept Kazumi’s bizarre behavior and his unusual girlfriend Eight Ball much more readily than they can accept Marvin’s homosexuality. The parents’ reactions to Marvin’s sexual orientation is not surprising based on what we have previously learned about how Asians view homosexuality. Interestingly, in the film, Marvin’s sexual desire is a Skinhead, which is the epitome of anti-minority, white supremacy.

The parents’ reactions to Marvin’s sexuality remind me a lot of the film The Wedding Banquet that we watched earlier in the semester. Again when the Asian male character finally reveals that he is gay, the parents are quick to judge him and automatically want to know if this inclination could be reversed quickly.

P.S.- I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking on IMDB, it says that the same person played both Kazumi and Marvin. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I totally did not make this connection during the film.

Two "Bad Asian" filmmakers

After watching the JJ Chinois video a few times and reading Nguyen’s analysis, I think that Lynne Chan was aiming to reappropriate the construction of Bruce Lee’s masculinity and forefront his “ambi-sexuality.” In spite of all the fun facts we are given about the JJ Chinois (e.g. he’s a Taurus and puts ketchup on everything), there is actually very little we know about Chan’s celebrity creation. By the superimposed shot of a hand playing a keyboard and overall use of a rock star image and associated objects (the floating circle containing glove, sunglasses, underwear, cock ring, etc.), I assumed that he was some sort of musician. The way that Chan cuts between the Bruce Lee I Love You video and JJ Chinois’ makes apparent that she is trying to draw a parallel between the two personas; she often cuts to JJ Chinois in the same posture as the actor playing Bruce Lee in the previous video. However, there is also a marked difference between the highly sexual nature of the Bruce Lee I Love You video and JJ Chinois’ persona in Chan’s video. In fact, because Bruce Lee was always portrayed in his movies as “puritan,” ascetic, and asexual, the BLILY video demonstrates that his sexuality, masculinity, and desirability was created by his fans and viewers rather than by any inherent portrayal of these attributes. In addition, the ambiguity of many of the animated texts such as “I sure feel unconformable being in this situation with you.” And “Please make me clean.” questions the presence (or absence) of sexual undertones that might be interpreted from the images presented by Chan’s video.

As for the Terminal USA, I just had this revelation about the title which probably refers to the grandfather's terminal illness, which is being protracted by what seemed like a life-support device. I agree with everyone else that this is one of the most bizarre (and genious) films I have ever watched. I agree with Kenji that this film reminded me of American Beauty, with regard to its dysfunctional characters placed into a stereotypical suburban family situation, but of course Terminal USA took this to the extreme, portraying every kind of dysfunctional and magnifying it to the nth degree. In an interview with Moritsugu, the interviewer mentioned that he had been labeled as a "transgressive" filmmaker, making me wonder what exactly makes Terminal USA transgressive? I think that beyond the breakdown perfect American family facade, the casting of Asian Americans (who are, importantly, the "model minority") into these roles forces the audience the racialized terms in which we understand what is or is not transgressive.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Terminal, USA & JJ Chinois

After watching JJ Chinois and Terminal, USA, I was as weirded out as everyone else who posted before me was. I actually had absolutely no idea what went on in JJ Chinois until I did more research on his (her) character. Completely ignoring the fact that the video was incoherent to me, watching it did get me thinking "who would watch something like this?" The same question I think also applied to Terminal, USA. Who is the audience for these types of media, and perhaps more importantly, what is the filmmaker trying to say through the films?

After reading various articles and websites on the character Lynne Chan portrays, I can see some how her character is a commentary on many things, including Asian American identity, transgender identity, as well as suburban vs. urban environments and attitudes towards the former. Many people on the blog commented on Chan's use of Bruce Lee clips and images of herself to sexualize the Asian American male body, as well as to mainstream the image of a transgender person, specifically an Asian transgender individual. However, what end is she attempting to achieve through this short clip? In all of the articles and research that I read about JJ Chinois, it never came across clearly what her intentions are. Specifically regarding Asian American identity, I felt like she used her ethnic connection to Bruce Lee to push her portrayal of transgenders in the media.

I found Terminal, USA extremely interesting and coherent, as opposed to JJ Chinois. While I was completely weirded out while watching the movie, in retrospect I see that it was able to critique the concept of a perfect nuclear family and the concept of the Asian model minority through its absurdness. While the movie took the breakdown of these ideas to the extreme, it also showed viewers that there is no such thing as a perfect nuclear family or a true model minority. Ignoring the absurdity of the sons and daughters of the family being either crazy druggies, sluts, or closeted fetish homosexuals, the very process of growing up as a teenager is riddled with change and experimentation, very much in contrast to the static image of perfection that both the nuclear family and model minority ideal tend to portray.

My new favorite Brown alum: Jon Moritsugu

Wow...what the fuck did I just watch? JJ Chinois is gonna have to wait, because “Terminal USA” was one of the most bizarre movies I have ever seen in my life. It seemed like a mix between a twisted Asian American Sitcom and a cheesy zombie movie with all of the fake blood. I would love to meet Jon Moritsugu’s family when he was younger or to read his family’s reaction to this film. Moritsugu is certainly one of Brunonia’s gems.

The characters of the film made it so interesting and twisted. Moritsugu did an excellent job of developing such strange and unique characters that viewer attempts to follow throughout the film. As I took notes during the film, I found myself creating profiles for all of the different characters in an attempt to follow everything that was happening. Underneath the characters, there was some very interesting social commentary. Using the classic nuclear family American sitcom for the film, it offered a scathing satire of model family structures and interactions. In that sense the film reminded me a lot of the popular film “American Beauty” (1999), which also critiqued the model nuclear family.

There were some interesting race relations in the film. In one of the first scenes the father comes home from work complaining about death threats towards him because of his race (“I am not a chink, I’m a Jap”), which can be read as response to the killing of Vincent Chin and animosity towards Asian Americans in the workplace. The two skin heads in the film are also racist towards Kazumi. This film came out following the Rodney King riots when Asian/Asian American race relations were tense. It wasn’t a coincidence that an Asian male in the film shot one the white skin heads out of self-defense.

It was comical to watch the father in “Terminal USA” struggle to “spend time with his kids” only to be increasingly shocked that none of his kids were meeting his expectations. Kazumi is a drugged out teenager (“a real blooming freak”), who lets himself bleed to death in film. Marvin is a sexually-suppressed homosexual (“the pervert in the backroom”), who spends all his time in front of his computer. And Holly, a sex crazed cheerleader, who runs off with a pedophilic lawyer/producer of childhood pornography. The characters were hard to wrap my head around. After consulting IMDb, apparently both Marvin and Kazumi were played by Moritsugu (perhaps, the characters he most identified with at Brown).

P.S. Did anyone notice that the character “Fag-Toast” was wearing a Catholic priest’s outfit? The father made lots of references to the Apocalypse and Judgment Day throughout as well...

P.P.S. Check out:

Weird is right: JJ Chinois and Terminal USA

So, I also agree with everyone that both JJ Chinois and Terminal USA are weird and difficult to discuss simply because there was just so much going on and nothing seemed very coherent…. I mentioned JJ Chinois in class last time because I seriously thought that that film was a real music video and didn’t know how to fit it into the Asian-American music category. After watching the video for a second time, reading his/her wikipedia profile more closely, going onto his/her website, and reading the article Bruce Lee I Love You, I’m just starting to have an inkling of understanding about what the heck is going on. Only after reading Nguyen’s article did I see that JJ Chinois (rather ambiguously) sexualizes the Asian masculine body, which historically had been “soft” (think Broken Blossoms) or “hard” (Bruce Lee) but sexually impotent and chaste in either case. This, in turn, reconstructs the Asian male body as a more subversive but comprehensive/complete masculine body. I guess what is “subversive” about the sexualized Asian male body is that, according to Nguyen, the “Bad Asians” reclaimed parts of pop culture (again, the soft or hard but still irregular Asian body) by forging a “perverse identification and relationship with pop culture that uncover … and play with the racialized fantasies, fears, and representations that make culture popular.” Umm, I *think* that means that Chan and others who work underground to recreate Asian-America do so by working within the confines of popular culture because pop culture is shaped largely by mainstream American audience’s subconscious fears and fantasies, and so pop culture offers many opportunities with which artists can twist and pervert it and thereby change Asian-American representation.

If this were the case, then I guess it sort of makes sense why the director of Terminal USA chose to use the family sitcom genre to explore issues of stereotypes and sexuality, etc. Working within pop culture domains allowed him to present seemingly familiar yet horribly different and perverse characters who seem even more dangerous or crazy or kooky because the white American audience’s subconscious fear of the Asian-American – of “the other” – being exactly like that. Maybe the super studious Asian nerd at your school actually is a closeted homosexual and has violent sexual fantasies about leather-clad men – how would you know? Maybe the “problem kid” in that nice Asian-American family down the street is actually dating an alien – how would you know? The film may be disturbing for more than just its bad acting and terrible special effects because, as JennAhn said in her blog, like American Beauty it forces the audience to rethink how it has previously perceived Asian Americans by using cues and settings that people are already very familiar with from pop culture.


modern political heroes: jj and kazumi (?)

i have to agree with everyone that these films were, well.. interesting to watch. i didnt know that jj chinois was bruce lee imagery either until i did the reading and terminal usa felt like such a postmodernist parody of ..well, suburbia? asian stereotypes? modern parodies?

jj chinois really required a lot of background information (which is still hard to find) to understand even slightly. it was interesting what the text said about the re-masculination or using bruce lee's body for the other extreme. by this i mean instead of viewing bruce lee's as having a zero sex rating and representing a "puritan" moral cleanliness, using his body to present the other extreme of desire, physical manliness, etc. it is also interesting how this 'manliness' is represented through a transgender individual and what statement jj chinois is making by ultimately 'performing' this piece. is jj chinois saying that all manliness is performance or 'fan labor' as nguyen suggests?

i felt nguyen's final statment was most provocative when she stated:

"this is an important part of the utopian impulse...the desire to transform popular culture into a counterpublic for a radically different imaginary. because popular culture is imagined as a shared cultural resource with access to an audience of millions, we might wonder whether desire for the star's body--especiallyone like jj chiois;s--can deliver a ground on which to do politics" (297). [emphasis mine]

we've been talking about the importance of popular culture all semester long and i feel these lines pretty much summed up the reason, especially when counterculture becomes that pop phenomenon.

as for terminal usa, it was just so many different themes packed into that hour-long film and i really dont know where to start. what resonated most within me after watching the (sorry) creepiness in that film was that most all roles in life was a performance. i especially felt this way when i realized that the only "normal" depiction or close-to-life depiction of anyone was the drag queen who picked up the like when marvin call a phone sex service. it seemed to make that contrast that not only is drag queen-ism a performance, but everything else in life is, so why the hate?
it's also interesting that the movie is called terminal usa, which seems to mean that the 'terminal' to the united states for the alien girlfriend 8-ball was this suburban japanese american family. i just cant really make much more out of that right now ^^;; to be discussed in class......

weeeeird: JJ Chinois and Terminal USA

Both of these films were really interesting and thought-provoking. However, I feel like whatever message each one was trying to convey was so out there and so complex that I'm afraid it's reserved for a very small group of people (MCM concentrators?). With JJ Chinois, for example, I didn't even know that the imagery used was supposed to be Bruce Lee, or any impersonation of him, until I read the reading by Nguyen. After reading her analysis, I think JJ Chinois made a little more sense as to its purpose, but I still have a hard time grasping it.

Terminal USA was similarly confusing. Given the cheesy "Brady Bunch"-like music in many of the family scenes, it seems to be some sort of satire of the American sitcom family. I found it kind of annoying that not one character could get through one line of dialogue without sounding really weird. But I think what that manages to do is make it very clear that these stereotypes (both the Asian one of the nerd and the traditionally non-Asian one of the drug addict and pregnant teenager) are being performed. So I guess it exposes stereotypes as a performance and disassociates them from their racial associations...or something like that.

What is Asian American Music?

I found a very interesting article on JSTOR that grapples with the question of what is Asian American music. 

It's called "Between Notes: Finding Asian America in Popular Culture" by Oliver Wang, published in American Music, Vol 19. No. 4, (2001), pp 439-465. 
You can find the article on JSTOR (I've tried to copy and paste the link but failed)

The author talks about a musicologist named Joseph Lam, who says, "Asian American music is not dependent on the text (e.g., lyrics, images, even melody, timbre, rhythm) or even a tradition of musical practice. Instead, Asian American music is so designated based on the context of production (who makes the music and why? as well as reception (how is the music used, how is it understood)." 

So according to him, it is the combination of production and consumption that makes music Asian. 

The author comments that Lam's definition aims to "establish a point of common reference that future discussions can work from--even if it is to deconstruct Lam's own theories," as supposed to serving as the canonical definition of what Asian American music is.

This definition and the article pretty much refute the argument I made in my previous blog because I placed the emphasis on the musical text rather than the people who perform and listen to the music. So, is Yo-Yo Ma's music Asian American? I still want to say no. He is Asian American but his music does not really have any race categories because it doesn't really belong to any race. 

I still have the desire to stand by what I've said, but it is interesting to read a counter argument. 

Terminal USA and JJ Chinois: "over-assimilation"?

I too, am a bit confused about the direction JJ Chinois was trying to take with the music video, but I do see that it goes hand in hand with Terminal USA in the shock value that it generates. It was confusing (and still kind of is) until I did some research on JJ Chinois, which unfortunately there isn’t much of, and realized the music video was about transgender roles in the media. Nevertheless, I think that it does spark the necessary curiosity for one to go out there and do the research to ultimately create more awareness about the taboo topic.

Taboo does seem to be the theme of this week’s videos as Terminal USA pretty much brought every ludicrous social “stigma” to the table, Asian American or not. I think it was interesting to shed light on such issues that are expressed as stigmas today. As they are generally discussed, one would say that homosexuality, drug abuse, and sex are not “wrong” per se, but rather quite natural and recurring themes of growing up, and in the case of homosexuality, merely one’s sexual preference. They do however create shame and disgrace in a more closed-minded model community, and I think that the sheer chaos and exaggeration in Terminal USA create a good contrast to the absurd expectations that people have of model citizens, or model minorities in this case. I found it interesting that the father alone, rather than both parents, played the role of the “perfect TV dad” as a NY times review puts it, and it added to the degeneracy of the family as a whole. Even as far as appearances and wardrobes go, the grandfather on his deathbed was the only character who did not have an exaggerated costume. That is to say he looked the most “normal” in everyday conventions.

On one hand, I see in Terminal USA the American Beauty appeal, of a seemingly normal family suburban family riddled with problems underneath it all. On the other hand, I think this film takes on the lens of a first generation Asian American parent, the grandfather in this case, mourning the corruption that the subsequent generations’ “American-ness” has created. Even the title of the film, Terminal USA and Kazumi’s girlfriend, who turns out to be an alien, imply that this family is a true representation of a suburban American family gone wrong. Yet there are many references to the family being Japanese, and it is even apparent in the names of some of the characters like Kazumi. There are a lot of issues to fork through in both the film and the music video, and it’s not as simple as an Asian American family struggling to assimilate anymore. Perhaps now we are dealing with Asian Americans who are “over-assimilated” that must reconcile their ethnic differences with the classically “American” problems they are dealing with.

thoughts on Terminal USA

I found Terminal USA to be one of the most disturbing (yet fascinating and thought-provoking) films I have ever seen. I didn’t find any of it funny and I thought it was visually (and auditorily) frightening. Like Keiko, I also found it slightly offensive that these bizarre portrayals were projected onto an Asian American family. I thought that the film was making a number of critiques on racism, suburbia, Asian American stereotypes, nuclear family, etc. but throughout watching, I felt like I was undergoing a similar feeling of the typical horror movie experience.

The two characters I thought were found particularly interesting were the parents. Over the course of the film, the father went more-and-more insane over protecting the “purity” of his family, especially the sexual purity of his daughter, Holly, and son, Marvin, and found himself disappointed/shamed by their "impurity" (Holly having sex with the lawyer and Marvin masturbating to gay pornography). At the end of the movie, the father had completely lost it. His attempt to kill his already dying father-in-law and the klan members and rhetoric about an apocalypse showed his progression of "losing it". Was this supposed to be a critique of the unspoken, insanity of patriarchal, nuclear suburbia?
The mother, on the other hand, was a drug addict yet, still trying to take care of her father, husband and children and sex and sexuality came a lot with her (the scene with the pizza man and her comment to her father with not being satisfied with her husband sexually).
I liked that this film was one of the only ones that we have watched (besides Flower Drum Song) that centered around the parents as well as the children.

There were a number of motifs I noticed in the film like the cowboy theme(Holy in cowgirl costume, the father and the scene with the gun), eyeballs, and telephones. I also thought the camera angles and strategic use of music were two techniques that particularly stood out to me.

The Model Family - Terminal USA

At first I thought that the film was too strange and stretched time in areas that did not fit. But Terminal USA interestingly looks at stereotypes through exaggeration. The film attempts to ridicule preconceived notions of Asian-American identity, but this can be taken the wrong way by the audience. The focus of the film could be misunderstood as illustrating the deceitfulness of Asians. Holy, the over-sexualized Asian female outside of school and the model student at school, represents the polarity of Asian identity. The film does not isolate her from either of her identities, but demonstrates how both are equally important to her. She tries to protect both identities through lying and she even says, “I am good at lying.” Instead of feeling that the film debunked the stereotypes surrounding the Asian female identity, I felt disappointed that the film did not give Holy a bit more development. I don’t know much about Holy except that she has a high GPA, on the Pep Squad, and sleeps around. In addition, Marvin and Kazumi are played by one actor. Kazumi is addicted to drugs. Marvin is a computer nerd that secretly fantasizes about men in uniforms. Marvin is deemed “The pervert in the back bedroom”.
The boys are very different even though they are twins. I am not sure if this is supposed to illustrate the polar identity of the Asian male. In the end, Marvin succumbs to his brother’s drugs. This could be understood by the audience to mean the submission of a good identity to one that is bad.

Should there be two extremes to the identity for both males and females? At times, I am not sure if the film is making fun of this question or emphasizing the question. But when I see Fagtoast, I am reminded that the film is making fun of everything, including religion.

I am confused about Kazumi’s girlfriend – Eightball. Did Eightball’s alien identity represent issues surrounding Japanese-American citizenship? The drug hustlers’ decision to “have their own Pearl Harbor” was quite inappropriate. The filmmakers were unsuccessful in delivering their negative opinions about war and violence in general.

All in all, I liked this film, but I wished that this film was a bit more thought provoking and did not rely so heavily on visual effects.

In Media Res

This week, In Media Res is having an Asian American media-themed week. Check it out if you get a chance:

About In Media Res:
Daily, a different media scholar will present a 30-second to 3-minute clip accompanied by a 100-150-word impressionistic response. The goal is to promote an online dialogue amongst media scholars and the public about contemporary media scholarship through clips chosen for either their typicality or atypicality in demonstrating narrative strategies, genre formulations, aesthetic choices, representational practices, institutional approaches, fan engagements, etc.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Terminal USA & JJ Chinois

As everyone else has said, Terminal USA and JJ Chinois's music video were some of the strangest videos I've ever seen. I'm not quite sure what to make of JJ Chinois portrayal of Asian transgender sexuality so I'll talk a little about Terminal USA.

I have to admit that Terminal USA was so bizarre and out there that I couldn't help but laugh at everything. It made it very hard for me to take seriously, which I think was the point. One thing I was curious about was whether we were supposed to assume that these extreme characters are only inherent in Asian American families or if this could be applied to any average American family. I don't watch a whole lot of TV sitcoms, but as far as I can tell there has yet to be a child with an alien for a girlfriend/boyfriend. Reflecting on the movie, I am actually a little offended that these crazy portrayals were projected onto an Asian American family. In some ways, if this movie were to become more popular and viewed, it may work to further alienate Asian Americans from the rest of society. These characters are not ones that the typical viewer can identify with at all. The family is seen as one in its own world and does not help others to understand some of the common struggles Asian Americans face.

One interesting thing I noticed was how Kazumi, the only family member with a Japanese name, was portrayed as the outcast of the family from the beginning. Holly and Marvin, perhaps because of their American names and more conventional lifestyles, are the golden children of the family. Throughout the film though, the viewers realize that the rest of the family has their own set of issues as well and that maybe Kazumi is not that different afterall.

Response: Terminal USA and JJ Chinois

I have to agree with what many of the other students have already said: I'm just not sure what we're meant to take from Terminal USA. While I appreciate the way it both attacks the model minority myth and other stereotypes about Asian Americans, as well as the way it lampooons suburban American life and the nuclear American family as a whole, it was so strange and over-the-top that I found it hard to take seriously as a social commentary and easy to cast aside as just some weird indie movie.

As for JJ Chinois, I found the whole concept very interesting. The video (along with the accompanying website) gave a queer perspective on Asian American masculinity (and also femininity) that you don't often see. The idea of embodying Bruce Lee, and very literally reforming his image and what it meant struck me as quite clever. Yet, I would have liked to have seen more. Is the character of JJ Chinois a one-hit wonder. Has he been in any other videos or media? How was this video distributed, anyway? Was it an online phenomenon or did it go to film festivals or something? Are there future plans for JJ Chinois? All of this remained unclear to me, even after having read the accompanying article and website. I'd be curious to learn more in class and to see what others thought.

The Issue of Race in Terminal USA

I found Terminal USA very bizarre yet fascinating, although I didn't necessarily understand many things. I wanted to point out the fact that the family does not talk about race unless there is an external force--for example, the father bringing home from work a note with racial slurs on them--that initiates the conversation about the ethnicity of the family. Although there are stereotypical Asian images throughout the movie, like the Asian female in porn and the computer nerd, the issue of race gets buried underneath other non-race specific problems such as drugs and sex , two issues that appear on typical nuclear family sitcoms. Terminal USA, however, takes the issue of drugs and sex to an extreme, releasing all the repressed feelings out of many characters. For example, the repressed homosexuality of Marvin, sex-addiction of Holly, frustration of the father over his ailing father-in-law all come to full manifestation by the end of the movie. The other two members of the family, Kazumi and Ma do not express their frustrations as much because they are constantly in and out of drugs. The issues of typical nuclear families are vastly exaggerated for the effect of emphasis in the movie, and I wonder if this falls under the category of the "exploitation film." 

The strangest part of the film is when Fagtoast, who is wearing priest-like garment, comes into kill Kazumi and Eightball and then starts praying (?). He says, "the pleasure must stop! the pleasure must stop!" Is he repressing his desire to kill? I didn't really understand that part at all (as well as the black liquid that Kazumi drinks then spits out).

Terminal USA response

I found both JJ Chinois and Terminal USA really creepy. I’ve never been able to appreciate or understand art so I was very confused by both videos. Watching both videos put me in a very weird, surreal mood that made me just want to go home and hug my parents. I cant believe that Terminal USA was made for PBS because I have always associated PBS with Sesame Street and stimulating intellectual documentaries. The amount of blood and sex in the movie made me cringe and I found myself unable to watch some of the gory parts. I did not laugh or crack a smile once, even though I guess this movie was supposed to be funny. Overall, it was very hard for me to watch the videos and I have no idea what the messages were in the movies. The one thing that I did take away from the videos was that Asian-American filmmakers can be creative and “artsy” like anyone else and that they are able to leave the conservative, boring stereotype. I do appreciate that these filmmakers were not afraid to address stereotypes and willing to shock audiences.

I found some symbolism in Terminal USA pretty interesting. The grandfather lying on a pillow of the Japanese flag seemed to symbolize him as the family’s Japanese background and their neglect and mistreatment of him seemed to reflect their dismissal of their heritage. Maybe the father wanted to kill the grandfather because he resents his Asian background and the trouble it gets him at work. I also found it interesting that the drug addict son was able to get himself a hot, Caucasian girlfriend who, of course, had to end up being an alien because a normal Caucasian girl probably wouldn’t go for him. There were also many cowboy outfits and actions in the movie that seemed to reflect the families’ desire to be westernized. I think Jon Moritsugu created a film that portrayed exactly what he wanted to show the audiences. He covered almost all the Asian stereotypes (Asian-male impotency, Asian-women fetishes, studious sons, promiscuous daughters, and so on) in a crass but memorable manner that probably warranted the exact response that he wanted.

Asian American Musicians, American Music, and JJ Chinois

I didn't post a blog last week because, well...I simply didn't know what to say. But after watching/listening to JJ Chinois, I've realized why I couldn't say much last week. Aside from Norah Jones, none of the artists mentioned last week were familiar to me, and when I did attempted to seek out Asian American musicians I found myself browsing through countless youtube videos that contained music that were, in my personal opinion, simply bad. The vast majority of these artists and their music belonged to niche markets, and perhaps that's why I didn't know any of them. And at the same time, I didn't really want to listen to them, not because they were not mainstream but because there was a good reason why they couldn't achieve "crossover" success.

The word "crossover" denotes a process in which music belonging to a niche market becomes part of mainstream culture. Music critics first used this term to describe what was happening with African American music--Rhythm and Blues, which had been dismissed as "race music" for a very long time, became popular with the national audience regardless of color in the late 50s. In fact, the Billboards integrated "R&B" into the "Pop" category in 1963, when a 13 year old Motown product named Stevie Wonder reached #1 in both charts. It was an astonishing milestone for  African American artists, and at the same time it was an important moment for African American music. The music dissolved the barrier between white and black audiences across the nation, and for the first time, black musicians could stand on a national TV stage performing their songs. Before then, black music only could become popular when it was covered or reinterpreted by white artists like Elvis Presley. But it is important to realize that black music like R&B became part of the mainstream in the late 50s and 60s, not because the performers were black but because their music was simply good.

I bring up this topic of "crossover" success because I think it is relevant to the Asian American musicians that we have discussed for this class. The musicians belonging to niche markets have not reached the mainstream simply because their music isn't very good and therefore not appealing to many people. I do admit I'm being very harsh, but the niche market music, separate from its performers, simply does not have the strength to compete with some of the best music that's out there in the market. Of course there are many songs that are popular within niche markets (the so called "indie" music scene) that demonstrate great musical values, but I am a firm believer in the idea that if the music is truly great, eventually it will be picked up by a much wider audience, just as R&B music became mainstream in the 60s. I don't mean to offend those who are fans of K-Pop and J-Pop, but they don't exactly have the same musical power that R&B does. Norah Jones is probably the most successful musician among the Asian American artist discussed in this blog, and for a very good reason. Her music is simply better than the others'. 

But at the same time, I wonder how much emphasis should be placed on the fact that she is half Asian. She is Asian American, however, her music (in my personal opinion) has nothing to do with the fact that she is half Asian. She is a very good jazz pianist and is a wonderful blues/pop/jazz singer. Listening to her music, I can't really find elements that make her songs distinctively Asian American. What I want to say is that, music has a life of its own, separate from its performer, although it might take its origin from the artist's ethnic background. And the foremost reason why the national audience listens is that the music appeals to them, not necessarily how the performer appeals to them. Although we are at the age of youtube and visual emphasis at music concerts, I believe that music's foremost appeal is auditory. Music, by definition, is a combination of vocal and instrumental sounds that produce harmony, melody, and expressive content. If the music isn't good, I really don't care how great/interesting the performer is. (Think about how many times the so-called great musicians disappoint us with horrible new albums)

Now let's take a look at JJ Chinois. After reading Mimi Ngyen's essay, I do realize that he is a transgendered persona of a New York filmmaker and artist named Lynn Chan. But since we watched his music video I want to point out why his music doesn't appeal to me very much (and it seems like it doesn't really appeal to others either). First of all, I think JJ Chinois does a lot of things for the sake of becoming a star, not necessarily because he is so "talented," as he claims himself to be. Ngyen talks about how JJ Chinois, like Bruce Lee, attempts to create a new image of an Asian male body, but I think there is a huge difference between the two people. Bruce Lee's masculine image is a byproduct of his spectacular martial arts skills, as supposed to JJ Chinois's image that seeks to draw attention to itself so he can become a star. In other words, I don't think Bruce Lee created his image because he wanted to become a famous star, as much as he felt very passionate about martial arts, and during this pursuit of his passion he acquired the masculine image. It's the same case with true musicians: most of them simply pursue what they feel passionate about--making music--and then become nationally famous musicians. JJ Chinois, on the other hand, makes music and films because he simply wants to be famous. (If you take a look at his website, you can see how much attention he wants) In fact, his being Asian or transgender doesn't really make his music special at all. The song is only creepy and repetitive. I just don't think his music has enough appeal.

This is a very lengthy post, but I thought it was necessary to share what I think about Asian American music and address these questions:
How much emphasis should we place on the artist when we gauge the value of his/her music?
Does the fact that an Asian American performed the music render it Asian? Doesn't the reason why many Asian American musicians fail to achieve mainstream success point at the fact their music is simply not as good as what's out there in the mainstream? Should music be categorized with race? Doesn't that contradict with what Motown and R&B accomplished during the civil rights era?

As a serious musician, I can't really appreciate the Asian American music that's popular in the niche market. I'm sure there are some really good ones that I haven't been able to find yet, and maybe I should look harder to find something that appeals to me in that small market. But at the same time, do I really need to seek out specifically for Asian American musicians, when I just want to listen to some good music? I do realize that we are paying attention to race for the purpose of this class and we should do so. But at the same time paying our primary attention to the Asian American musicians, rather than the music itself, prevents us from appreciating the auditory art.

JJ Chinois and Terminal USA

The short JJ Chinois segment and the underground film Terminal USA were probably the two weirdest films I have ever seen. It is really hard for me to comment on either because I do not understand what point the producers were trying to make. The reading helped clarify the 5 min JJ Chinois clip. I had no idea what most of the random subtitles and text referred to. In the end, though, I am unsure of what this is supposed to say about being Asian and transsexual. Meanwhile, Terminal USA has been well received, as it has been chosen to appear in multiple film festivals and was selected to air on PBS in 150+ markets. However, the film was too ridiculous to me to take seriously, and I found myself getting annoyed more than anything. A lot of reviews and advertisements I found online call it hilarious and a great comedy, but I guess it just did not strike me in the same way. I found some of the absurdity refreshing and thought the whole bit on Kazumi getting accepted to his ‘dream community college’ was comical. The use of music stood out to me in the film, as well. Every time a scene transitioned to Marvin, a nerdy type of sci-fi music came on. I thought that was clever and enhanced the portrayal of Marvin.

As I am sure everyone realizes, the film is an extreme portrayal of Asian American stereotypes. I think the director made that clear in the first 5 minutes of the film by showing Kazumi looking stoned out of his mind, the oblivious mother and dying grandfather, Holly’s cheerleader attire, and having Marvin first introduced with his big glasses and a protractor. I would answer yes to Allison’s question about the producer’s creative notion to then weave in other taboo characteristics into the lives of the different characters. By giving the characters multiple identities, it makes everything seem even more extreme than it already is. The different attributes/storylines associated with each character makes the film become more than just a 1D look at different types of Asian American personalities and how they are received in the community/family. Ultimately, though, there were simply too many radical ideas going on at once.

It seems like I, along with everyone else who has posted so far, am interested to hear what these films are supposed to say about being Asian American.

JJ Chinois and Terminal USA Response

I actually haven’t seen any underground films until now, and was very surprised by both JJ Chinois and Terminal USA. I watched JJ Chinois before reading the essay in Alien Encounters with a few friends, and I’m pretty sure none of us caught the fact that JJ Chinois is played by a woman. It wasn’t until I read the essay and then watched it again that I was able to see the significance of the scenes from the Bruce Lee movie to JJ Chinois’s masculinity. This brought up quite a few questions – how much does Lynne Chan expect the average viewer to know about Bruce Lee? I personally didn’t know that the scenes with the random subtitles were clips from a movie about Bruce Lee until I read Alien Encounters. Perhaps the fact that I would have never guessed that the male character was supposed to be Bruce Lee goes to show how I (and maybe the general public) would not associate this sexualized image of an Asian American male with the stoic image of Bruce Lee portrayed in his movies. Would the only people who would understand the significance of these scenes be then people who have seen Bruce Lee I Love You before (who may be Bruce Lee fans)?

Terminal USA was a lot easier to follow in terms of plot, but I am still confused about the meaning of everything. In the beginning of Terminal USA, the scene opens with Kazumi doing pseudo-martial arts moves around his room, yelling like one might see in a typical martial arts movie. He tries to yell like this in the following scene when the two druggies confront him, but is quickly pushed down to the ground while one of them yells in a deeper voice. Is this meant to emphasize the ridiculousness of trying to emulate martial arts masters in the “real world”? I got the feeling that the filmmaker introduces the viewer to an over exaggerated stereotype of martial arts to show how overly exaggerated Kazumi (and the rest of the characters) are in this film. Also, one aspect of the film that stood out to me was the clothes the characters were wearing. They were obviously meant to emphasize the stereotypical role each had in the family (Marvin being the studious geek, Kazumi being the rebel, and Holly being the perfect cheerleader). Was it to serve as a contrast to the secrets each child was trying to hide from the parents?

Friday, April 25, 2008

JJ Chinois and Terminal USA

JJ Chinois and Terminal USA were probably the two strangest films I've watched for this class -- I felt like I was in HA89 (Contemporary Art) all over again. These are definitely "underground" films -- interesting cinematic and subject choices, and the exploration of Asian sexuality was pretty fascinating. At a few points I found myself asking, "What is going on?!?", because seriously, many of the events in Terminal USA were bizarre and disturbing (Kazumi's leg injury, the dying grandfather, etc).

After reading more about JJ Chinois, I feel that I understand at least that film a little more. But Terminal USA -- huh? The characters are obviously meant to be very extreme, almost caricatures, and I see that there's clearly a spoof of American soap operas/pop culture/B-movies. The dialogue and delivery is all rather strange; I'm interested in finding out what Terminal USA is meant to be saying about Asian America.

How comfortable are you watching JJ Chinois?

I haven’t had very much exposure to “underground” productions, and I definitely wasn’t prepared for the content or presentation of Terminal USA or JJ Chinois.

It’s actually very funny that I was so surprised, because I thought I knew exactly what JJ Chinois would be about after Prof. Lee’s references to its transsexual themes. I’ve attended a couple of fashion shows/beauty pageants featuring transgendered individuals in San Francisco, and a disproportionate number of the contestants were Asian, so I thought “JJ Chinois” might be a look into this potentially “underground” culture.

I suppose I was wrong to think that there is just one narrative that includes being Asian and being transsexual, but I am really interested in the links nonetheless. As I watched JJ Chinois, I wondered about the male Asian body and sexuality. How does the average viewer feel about the homosexual Asian male, considering that the Asian male is generally emasculated in media portrayals? Is there a different charge associated with the Asian homosexual male vs. that surrounding the white homosexual male?

And how does this relate to the large percentage of trangendered individuals who were Asian in the shows? Is it just because I was in San Francisco, home to a fairly large number of Asians/Asian Americans, that the proportion was so great? Or is there something about Asian culture that lends to making the surgical switch with less difficulty?

So I left more questions than answers here. About Terminal USA—I found an interview with the filmmaker, who was funded by PBS to make this segment as part of an “American Families” series. I’m not sure how it made it into the mainstream (any portion of the movie, really) or if the satire was clear enough to be educational. I look forward to hearing other peoples’ thoughts on this as well.

Here's the interview with Jon Moritsugu:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Arizona Proposal Would Prohibit Race-Based Student Groups

Coming down the modelminority grapevine:

Arizona Proposal Would Prohibit Race-Based Student Groups

An Arizona legislative committee has passed an amendment to a routine homeland-security bill that would prohibit students at the state’s public universities and community colleges from organizing groups based on race. The amendment was approved by the Arizona House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. It still awaits a vote by the state’s full House and Senate.

The amendment, introduced by State Rep. Russell K. Pearce, a Republican, would also allow state officials to withhold funds from public schools sponsoring activities that “denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization.” The proposal was added to Senate Bill 1108, a measure that has nothing to do with education but was intended to allow designees of mayors and police chiefs to serve on homeland-security advisory councils.

“This bill basically says, ‘You’re here. Adopt American values,’” State Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican, told The Arizona Republic. “‘If you want a different culture, then fine, go back to that culture,’” he said. —JJ Hermes

Bok Choy Boys

The Bok Choy Boys was formed by members of Lapu the Coyote that Cares (LCC)Theatre at UCLA. The students performing in the video are part of a larger theatre company that was established in 1995 on the university campus. LCC aspires to promote a voice for Asian American creative expression. By increasing the visibility of Asian Americans through improv, music, videos, and various forms of media, the larger LCC group ridicules stereotypes that could harm the community.
In the Bok Choy Boys videos, the characters exaggerates the stereotypes behind Asian and Asian cuisine. "Fry, Fry, Fry" and "I Want My Chow Mein" borrows music from popular American boy bands and adds a bit more flavor. In doing so, the performers challenges you to think about the connection between food and identity. These videos definitely made me question the culture behind food. Although certain dishes are more closely associated with Asian identity than others, they are not necessarily the Asian family favorites. Thus, the cuisine that is connected to the Asian identity is one that is universally palatable, such as sweet and sour dishes. This reduces all Asian cuisine to Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Chow Mein, and Boba. The Bok Choy Boys do a great job at criticizing stereotypes surrounding Asian food and identity through their humor.

Bok Choy Boy website:

Bok Choy Boys - I Want My Chow Mein

Bok Choy Boys - Fry, Fry, Fry

LCC Theatre website:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mixed Race Asian America....

something that I've definitely noticed in a number of blogs and what I belive someone pointed out in class today was that many of the artists that were brought up are bi/or-multiracial. From artist like Norah Jones to r&b star Amerie to Linkin Park's front man, Mike Shinoda, where do mixed race individuals fit in within Asian America? (within the categories of race more broadly?)

As a mixed-race identified filipina/black American, I often wonder this myself. I strongly identified with Amerie's interview and issues she raised being korean/black. I think race in America, especially within Asian American communities, are looking much more mixed than ever. This isn't to say race in America will one day be non-existant or that colorblindness is ok (not true and it's not), it's just that I've often heard from individuals that mixed race folks will one day be the "solution" to racial problems in the U.S. I find this extremely troubling that people who think that the day everyone is mixed, racial hierarchies will disappear.

Wang Lee Hom

Over winter break, I picked my brother up from the train station after a Wang Lee-Hom concert and asked him about it, with no previous knowledge of the artist. He said it was “Amazing!” (as could be expected), but also “Kind of embarrassing at some parts.” Hmm…

Apparently, Wang Lee-Hom came out in a red robe (with a dragon embroidered on the back, if I recall correctly) and busted it open to reveal his outfit underneath. He shouted into the microphone: “Wo shuo ‘Merry’, ni shuo ‘Christmas’!” (“When I say ‘Merry’, you say ‘Christmas’!”) to which the crowd responded as expected.

George (my brother) was really uncomfortable. He’s learning Mandarin at Berkeley, so it wasn’t a lack of language comprehension. It was just the cheesiness of it all, maybe the even “Fob-iness”? I asked more about Wang Lee-Hom and was surprised to find that he wasn’t born in the China or Taiwan like Jay Chou (this comparison of their music could be an ignorant one). On the contrary, Wang Lee-Hom was born in Rochester, NY and received his undergraduate degree in Music and Asian Studies at the liberal arts school Williams College in New England. After that, he spent a semester at Berklee School of Music, concentrating on his vocal abilities. Wang Lee-Hom only began learning Mandarin Chinese at age 18 – now he writes songs in the language that are popular internationally.

Wang Lee-Hom's mySpace bio emphasizes "rebel" aspects of his personality, displayed in his choice to pursue music over medicine (the path most of his family members took). Here's a direct passage:
"Lee-Hom's family, besides his mother, were against him making music his lifetime career. Being academically capable, Lee-Hom's father hoped that Lee-Hom, like his brother, would go into medicine in college, due to LeeHom's academic achievements good enough for major universities such as Princeton and Yale, but Lee-hom opted for music instead when it came to choosing his career. His father, naturally, was very unhappy, but accepted his son's choice. In college, Lee-Hom chose Music Composition as his major." (

Another interesting bit I ran across was Lee-Hom's new, personally-coined musical style called "chinked-out". He claims to have repossessed the derogatory slur to describe a kind of music that is international, and at the same time, Chinese. ( I've noticed a theme of rebelling against political correctness in a lot of these other Asian/Asian-American artists, but I suppose Lee-Hom here is trying to do something entirely different. This song comes from his "Shangri-La" album, created in the "chinked-out" style:

Anyway, the Wang Lee-Hom followers I know are all Asian American, born in the U.S. and educated here, often born to Chinese-speaking parents. They listen to American hip-hop, pop and even a bit of indie rock, but all have an earnest appreciation of artists like Wang Lee-Hom and Jay Chou. I wonder what their interest in Chinese music stems from—I know that for me, it is the excitement of utilizing the Chinese skills I was not raised with (but learned in class painstakingly since middle school). For many of my multilingual peers, this isn’t the case. Perhaps it is the stereotypical Chinese American upbringing (and expectations) Wang Lee-Hom experienced that draws so many Asian American youths to his music now. Any other ideas?

Death Angel

I don't know how many of you are fans of metal, but back in the day (in the glorious 80s), there emerged a Filipino-American thrash metal band in the Bay Area scene. They were well known for being a family operation of sorts--the original members Rob Cavestany (lead guitar), Dennis Pepa (Bass guitar, vox) and Gus Pepa (Rhythm Guitar), and Andy Galeon are all cousins. Mark Osegueda, who became their vocalist in 1984, was also a cousin. They were also known being something of a prodigy band. These guys not yet out of their teens when they released their first studio album, The Ultra-Violence in 1987. This was quickly followed by Frolic Through the Park (1988) and Act III (1990), the latter being considered by many to be the most representative of their sound, which was a base of classic thrash infused with elements of funk. I've always liked them, though my favorite band from the Bay Area has to be Testament.

Sadly, their promising career hit a roadblock in 1990 following an accident in which Andy Galeon was critically injured, and the resulting fallout caused the breakup of the band. Some remaining members reorganized as "The Organization," though it was clear that they were no longer as successful as they once ad been. In 2001, however, for a cancer benefit show for Testament frontman Chuck Billy, they reunited. Since then, they've had 2 studio albums, and The Art of Dying (2004) and The Killing Season (2008). They've also recently completed their first tour in the Philippines, in the spring of 2007.

"Seemingly Endless Time" from Act III

"A Room with a View" from Act III

"Thicker than Blood" from The Art of Dying

Rob Cavestany talks about the band's first tour in the Philippines

Tai Mai Shu

I'm sure many of you have heard of Tai Mai Shu. Unfortunately I couldn't find any information on who created this character and the songs and what the motivation was behind it all, but it is seems these songs were made really just for the sake of comedy. In the end, it still embodies many of the stereotypes and racist remarks made about Asian Americans. Take a look at some of these videos:

One other interesting and related show I saw the other day was MTV's True Life: I'm the Black Sheep. Shawn, one of the kids filmed for the show, is Indian and wants to pursue a music career in the hip-hop industry. Initially, his parents, who are very academically oriented, are strictly opposed to his dreams and would rather he focus on his SATs and college applications. After he is let down by a disappointing gig the night before his SATs, he starts to think that maybe his parents are right. However, his heart is still set on getting a record deal and when his parents see all the hard work he put into it, they come to respect his ambitions. In the end, Shawn and his parents come to understand each other and respect each others wishes. It's a very interesting show and unconventionally Asian. Check it out if you get a chance.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Notorious MSG

... I think that photo pretty much sums up what Notorious MSG is. If it doesn't, try Wikipedia's description: "Notorious MSG is a performing trio of Chinese gangsta rappers founded in Chinatown, New York City who sing about their rise to fame and fortune, survival on the streets. Their songs feature boasting innuendos regarding women and Chinese food."

They have such hits as Straight out of Canton and, my personal favorite, Dim Sum Girl (there's no video of this, but you can hear it on their official website).

Okay, I hate to kill a good parody with analysis, but here are some thoughts on my mind: They really purposely kick up the Asian stereotypes to the max, so it really makes you wonder WHAT people are finding so amusing about them. They've made up these elaborate FOB Asian chef identities, when they're probably REALLY well-educated, middle-class Asian-Americans... so what exactly are they trying to do here? And is it anything like me trying to fake a good "FOB accent"?


I had a hard time coming up with Asian American musicians. While, I am sure there are a ton out there the only ones that kept coming to mind were William Hung and Wing, and since someone previously mentioned Hung on American Idol, I would like to post on Wing.

Wing is a Chinese musician from New Zealand. Similar to Hung, she has become somewhat of a parody of herself and of Asian Americans. I stumbled across her many years ago when I was doing an internet search of cover songs for a project concerning appropriation. If you are not familiar with Wing, you should definitely check out her website:

It is here you can find 30 second clips from any of her 14 albums, which range from ABBA covers to covers of AC/DC. You may know her from a South Park, where she played herself in an episode where she was brought to America by the Chinese mafia.

What I find interesting both about Wing and Hung is despite the fact they are consistently mocked and humiliated, they continue to perform because of their "pure joy of singing". I have ambivalent feelings towards Wing: she promotes a terrible stereotype, but she really seems incredibly sincere in what she is doing, and she is okay with it. She had no qualms when the creators of South Park asked if they could use her in their episode. Her only request was that she had to approve her depiction. As Trey Parker and Matt Stone discussed their use of Wing within their episode, they discussed how Wing would either be "a super sweet joke" or "a super sweet not joke". Similar to the our discussion of Tila Tequila's music videos, could one argue that since ridiculed Asian Americans performers (like Wing and William Hung), acknowledge that they are objectified jokes, as a result are the ones with power? Perhaps these performers are not the ones being ridiculed and maybe the joke is on us.
Check out the videos of her live performances:

Searching for my Asian American pop star

First things first, I need to get this off my chest and admit my own up to my pop culture transgression: I’m not a big music person. I love to rock out to the radio when driving my car or dance it out at a frat party, but don’t ask me for a song recommendation or to be an iPod DJ at your party. I don’t really have a group of favorite artists or favorite songs; I belong to the minority of Brown students who don’t even own an iPod. This is the reason why I love Pandora; it does all of the music selection for me.

Pandora is where my search began. I started looking for a genre of Asian American artists. I found plenty of Latin; I found Jazz and R&B; I found Rock and Country, but nothing mildly relating to Asian music artists. I scoured the classical section for some Yo-Yo Ma. I tried looking for some sort of Asian folk music with a Mandolin, but I could find nothing. Stumped, my mind fell back onto the stereotypes of Asian Americans and music and the first thing that popped into my head was a Japanese businessman singing karaoke in Tokyo. I looked a little closer at the stereotype and realized that he was singing American music in chopped English. Where has all of the Asian music gone?

My next stop was a Google search for Asian American music artists and several sites, like, which had a comprehensive list of every Asian American music artist. It seemed like the site was created for people just like me, people who had recently lost faith in Asian American music. I thought I would peruse this list to find out of maybe I had been listening to Asian American music all along and just hadn’t realized it. After looking through a list of 200-300 artists, the artists I had hear of were CoCo Lee, Jin, Linkin’ Park, N.E.R.D., and Yo-Yo Ma.

With strengthening Asian economies, the market for Asian American music is available, but where are the artists to meet the demand? Do all Asian American pop stars have to be like William Hung, who was as much of a joke as an American idol? I guess my laid back attitude towards music never made me realize the dearth of Asian music. Maybe I should pay more attention to what music I’m listening to. Maybe Asian Americans need to create a genre of their own to distinguish their music, a genre that hasn’t already been dominated by another ethnic group. I’m crossing my fingers that the new Playstation/Xbox hit “Rock Band” (the newest manifestation of Dance Dance Revolution) will start the ball rolling for a new breed of Asian American music artists.

What is an Asian American Musician, Really?

In trying to complete this assignment, I came to the realization that though there are some famous Asian American figures in American music, they have, for the most part, not made their name as "Asian" music genre singers. There are musicians and singers such as Sanjaya Malakar, William Hung, Yo Yo Ma, Tila Tequila and Mike Shinoda, who we might say are the more visible faces of Asian American musicians, but they are for the most part, not famous for their "Asian" music, but rather for being musicians and singers that happen to also be Asian American. That is not to say that the music that they create is not "Asian American." Rather, it is just that it is in contrast to Hispanic and African American rhythms, which have been incorporated into the genres of rap, R&B, reggae, and other popular genres. However, the same cannot be said for Asian American musicians and Asian rhythms/melodies. It is true that Hispanic and African musical undertones have persisted in American music for far longer, partially explaining their strong influence on American music, but the surprising lack of an "Asian American" brand of music with influences of Asian rhythms/melodies begs the question, why is this so?

I think that the lack of Asian music in the mainstream follows the trend of American perceptions of Asians still as somewhat alien in American culture. Take movies for example. Many a movie can start with a rap or R&B song, and that conveys a type of American feeling to the film, but if a movie begins with an Asian melody, one is compelled to think that the film is exotic and perhaps foreign in some way. Even as an Asian American myself, I feel that way when I hear Asian melodies and rhythms, as opposed to the feeling of contemporary American which arises when I hear rhythms and sounds in rap or R&B which originated in African music. Perhaps part of the lack of use of Asian musical themes by Asian American musicians represents their aversion to seeming foreign to a mainstream audience.

To this end, I found myself looking for Asian American musicians who are not just musicians that happen to be Asian American. On the recommendation of a friend, I encountered upon Vietnamese American singer Kristine Sa (see She is currently "living out of her suitcase," touring around North America performing, and she has recorded an anime remix CD in Japanese. I found her to represent the type of Asian American musician that I would like to see more of. She is distinctly American through her use of the thoroughly American journey/roadtrip, but she also incorporates Asian undertones into her music. She also writes her own songs and plays the piano as well. I feel that in her expression of herself, she creates music that is distinctly Asian and American at the same time, a type of music that I hope one day in the mainstream as the African and Hispanic undertones of rap, reggae, and the like.


Tila Tequila

2007: "I Love U"

2007: "Stripper Friends"

2008: "Paralyze"

This above song was released just a few weeks ago on April 8.

Tila Tequila is a fascinating pop culture figure to me not particularly because of the image she has cultivated for herself, but because of how she has taken advantage the most fruitful tools of youth cultural commodification, i.e. MTV, myspace, itunes, reality TV. The story of her ascendance to fame is a kind of perverted rags-to-riches tale: her family emigrated from Vietnam, moved to Houston, she joined gangs in high school, ran off to Queens at the age of 16, returned to Texas and was picked up by a Playboy scout, jumpstarting her career in modeling. However, most of her fame is due to her prolific and astute use of MySpace, garnering 2 million MySpace friends. She was the star of the MTV reality show, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila and most of her song releases have been through iTunes.

Leaving her willingness to fetishize her body and image aside (all of which I find problematic and controversial), I wonder if the skillful way in which she used Web 2.0 will set a precedent for other Asian-Americans to enter the cultural industry. With sites such as YouTube and MySpace, the possibility of becoming an overnight star (with some self-promotion, of course) is not an unrealistic dream. Record companies are constantly scouting MySpace for the "next new hit" but does ethnicity become less or more of an issue on online settings?

I was also interested by the progression of the content of her songs/music videos from explicitly sexual to more "innocent" and "pop-like." This is the opposite of the traditional tendancy for female pop artist like Christina Aguilera or Pink to start off with more mainstream pop records and create more edgy second albums.

se7en in the U.S.

Widely successful throughout Asia, Korean pop/R&B singer Se7en is one of a few South Korean artists who have made plans to release a debut album in the United States. Our assignment was to find an Asian American pop artist, and though Se7en may not technically qualify, I think his potential influence on the popular view of Asians and Asian Americans in pop music is worth thinking about.

Se7en is praised for his image and his exceptional singing and dancing. Is it enough to impress mainstream America? It's hard to say. American producers are still hesitant to cultivate Asian talent so if there are any out there with enough talent, they hardly get any exposure. Japanese singer Hiraku Utada was not widely received with her 2004 debut U.S. album, and Korean singer Bi(Rain) was similarly received when he performed at Madison Square Garden in February.

But given that Se7en is working with supposedly big name American producers, I am interested to see how he will be accepted. I was unable to find any information about his new album or a debut schedule, but it might be interesting to look at some of his Korean songs and think about what kinds of things Americans would or would not find appealing:


se7en and justin timberlake


Thought Asian chicks couldn't rock out?

Experimental pop musician Jihae (a 1.5 generation Korean-American currently living and working in Manhattan) released her debut album My Heart is an Elephant in December 2007.  Though she may be relatively new to the scene, Jihae's work has garnered so much attention among the New York art crowd that the album features cameos by both filmmaker (and drummer) Michel Gondry and Lenny Kravitz.  It was also produced by Patrick McCarthy, best known for his production work with REM.

Jihae's vocals are delicate and breathy but never overly sentimental (think a depressed version of Feist), and usually set up against a backdrop of low-res electronic washes, creating a sort of disillusioned, urban beauty.  Every moment of the album seems devoted to artistry and experimentalism, and her website displays a fascination with the relationship between audio and video. Though her lyrics contain very few references to her ethnicity, the music creates a feeling of being lost within a dreary, industrial reality, and this effect, I think, speaks for itself.

Below is an excerpt from the documentary "Chorus," featuring Jihae. After so little mention of her heritage on the album, it's interesting to hear her talking about her mother and grandmother.

And here's another clip of Jihae performing a cover of Nina Simone's "Do I Move You."

Another one of my favorite independent Asian-American musicians is Vietnamese guitarist Carol Bui, who I first found out about after she performed in the AIR (Asians in Rock) Tour a few years ago. The girl can definitely rock out, and songs like "Hyphen-American" and "Bangkok" directly address her Vietnamese-American heritage.

Unfortunately, she still only plays small venues, and there are only a few grainy videos on YouTube. I have to admit, her music's not always as melodic as I usually like, but I think the overall effect is fantastic.  Here's the title track from her 2004 album "This is How I Recover."

Doing a Flip Reverse on what is Asian American music

The first musical selection questions (or rather brings back into discussion) the definition of Asian American. The artist, Thao Nguyen, is Asian American, but does her music qualify as Asian American? As a contrast let us use another artist. Using the recent musical artist at Spring Weekend, Vampire Weekend, would their music be considered African just because they use (Steal? Expoit?) African styles and rhythms (ex. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”). Furthermore, her popularity and musical style falls under the indie (indie-pop? indie-rock?) genre. What is the relationship of her being Asian American and the indie genre, a genre that is dominated by white males (ex. Vampire Weekend).

The second (and third) musical selection takes us for a moment outside of the US to the UK and Korea. The group Blazin’ Squad several years ago released the track “Flip Reverse” which was covered by the Korean artist Jang Woo Hyuk. The song brings up ideas of “credibility” (itself, tied to ideas of “authenticity” already discussed in class). Does a group of white (except one), British males have the right to perform (faux?) hip hop? Should a Korean artist cover a track from this group? Admittedly, the song is unintentionally funny (try to guess what the song is about; the video after the two music videos will give you a bit of a laugh). But it does raise questions of credibility and authenticity.

Lastly, I wanted to bring to the table an article from the New York Times several years ago about Asian American artists.

. It puts an interesting take on the popularity of Thao Nguyen being an indie (rather than mainstream) artist.

-Christopher Huynh

Tai Mai Shu - Chinese Freestyle Rap

I'm sure many of you have heard of Tai Mai Shu. Unfortunately I couldn't find any information on who created this character and the songs and what the motivation was behind it all, but it is seems these songs were made really just for the sake of comedy. In the end, it still embodies many of the stereotypes and racist remarks made about Asian Americans. Take a look at some of these videos:

One other interesting and related show I saw the other day was MTV's True Life: I'm the Black Sheep. Shawn, one of the kids filmed for the show, is Indian and wants to pursue a music career in the hip-hop industry. Initially, his parents, who are very academically oriented, are strictly opposed to his dreams and would rather he focus on his SATs and college applications. After he is let down by a disappointing gig the night before his SATs, he starts to think that maybe his parents are right. However, his heart is still set on getting a record deal and when his parents see all the hard work he put into it, they come to respect his ambitions. In the end, Shawn and his parents come to understand each other and respect each others wishes. It's a very interesting show and unconventionally Asian. Check it out if you get a chance.