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Asian American pop culture in spotlight

By Jessica Lum

April 9, 2008 9:01 p.m.

In a geographical world that is now converging with the World Wide Web, oceans seem to shrink into a mere data stream. For a specific cultural group, Asian Americans, the effect of new media, particularly in the past 15 years, has catalyzed the formation of a new subcategory of pop culture: Asian American pop culture.

Whether in the form of fusion sushi, anime, underground Asian American hip-hop artists or independent films, Asian American pop culture has gained widespread attention from Asian Americans and non-Asians alike.

In a special panel event, “Subverses 2008,” hosted by the Asian American Studies Graduate Student Association at 7 p.m. in Moore 100, panelists will discuss this complex topic in depth. Panel members include publisher and editor of Giant Robot magazine Eric Nakamura, UCLA faculty member Daniel Lee, acting Executive Director of Visual Communications Jeff Liu, and popular Angry Asian Man blogger Phil Yu.

“It’s a play on the word “˜subversive.’ (It) deals with what isn’t talked about because Asian Americans are mostly marginalized in history and society, politically (and) economically,” said Andrew Jung, an Asian American studies graduate student who helped plan the event with eight other student organizers.

The panel will assess issues such as representation, visibility and perception of the Asian American community, with each panelist presenting a different angle on Asian American pop culture.

“Our magazine and our stores ““everything that we do is instrumental in pop culture and Asian American pop culture,” Nakamura said. “Being Asian American, especially on the West Coast, we’re so influenced by stuff from Asia, even if you don’t speak the language.”

In 1994, after graduating from UCLA with a degree in East Asian Studies, Nakamura launched bare-bones issues of Giant Robot, printed on pieces of photocopied, stapled papers. Currently, the magazine has a circulation of about 58,000, of which half are non-Asian, Nakamura said.

“(Pop culture) is what I write about to a mass audience. … I’m writing to people who buy our magazine in North Carolina at a Borders Books. I’m talking to a macro-audience,” he said.

Nakamura considers himself an editorial pioneer because Giant Robot is the first major Asian American pop culture magazine and has spawned a new kind of subculture.

“We cover Giant Robot life,” he said. “We appeal to different people on different levels. … We like to write things to make them feel like they’re included and part of the culture. The purpose of Giant Robot is to bring Asian pop culture out to everybody.”

Unlike Nakamura, UCLA lecturer Daniel Lee brings macro-issues into the classroom. Lee completed his graduate program at UCLA in Asian American studies in 2002 and continued as a lecturer for the undergraduate program.

Lee was particularly drawn to study Asian American pop culture after moving from the East Coast to Los Angeles. “I noticed a lot of things that (West Coast Asians) might take for granted,” he said.

Lee now focuses his undergrad lectures on the social upbringing of Asian Americans and often explores pop culture. He loosely defines Asian American pop culture as “things that Asian Americans do for fun, how they express themselves, what they do for entertainment.”

Jung said Lee’s Asian American roots and academic background will help connect the discussion of Asian American pop culture to the bigger issues at hand.

“We thought (Lee’s) knowledge of youth culture and ties with pop culture would provide the academic foundations for the panel discussion,” Jung said.

The third panelist, Phil Yu, also combines both entertainment and weightier political and social issues in his blog, Angry Asian Man, which has been running since 2001.

“(His blog) is a place where this guy talks about pop culture, specifically Asian American pop culture and what issues affect our community,” said Mary Keovisai, an Asian American studies grad student and a “Subverses” co-organizer.

Jeff Liu, the fourth panelist, is the acting executive director of Visual Communications, a company that aims to promote and broadcast Asian American media arts. Among other activities, the company organizes the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

“(Liu’s) knowledge would be (helpful) … in terms of film representation (of Asian Americans and) what’s not being represented in a certain way.” Jung said.

Members of the Asian American Studies Graduate Student Association hope that “Subverses” attendees will better understand the history and current status of Asian Americans in pop culture.

“It’s just a way to show people that there are different forms of Asian American pop culture. Culture is formed in many different ways, and it’s not just anime characters or kung fu,” Keovisai said.

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Jessica Lum
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