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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
My friend and colleague Oliver Wang recently completed a book titled Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area Duke University Press) and it’s based on his many years of ethnographic research on the mobile DJ scene in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s and in particular, the leading role played by Filipino Americans in shaping, defining, and leading that cultural and music scene. The book’s description:
Armed with speakers, turntables, light systems, and records, Filipino American mobile DJ crews, such as Ultimate Creations, Spintronix, and Images, Inc., rocked dance floors throughout the San Francisco Bay Area from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s. In Legions of Boom noted music and pop culture writer and scholar Oliver Wang chronicles this remarkable scene that eventually became the cradle for turntablism. These crews, which were instrumental in helping to create and unify the Bay Area’s Filipino American community, gave young men opportunities to assert their masculinity and gain social status.
While crews regularly spun records for school dances, weddings, birthdays, or garage parties, the scene’s centerpieces were showcases — or multi-crew performances — which drew crowds of hundreds, or even thousands. By the mid-1990s the scene was in decline, as single DJs became popular, recruitment to crews fell off, and aspiring scratch DJs branched off into their own scene. As the training ground for a generation of DJs, including DJ Q-Bert, Shortkut and Mix Master Mike, the mobile scene left an indelible mark on its community that eventually grew to have a global impact.
Oliver Wang is Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach and his research interests center on pop music, culture, and politics. He has also written on Asian Americans and hip-hop, retro soul music, and the critical geography of the Kogi BBQ truck, among other essays. He is the editor of Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide and has written for NPR, Vibe, Wax Poetics, the Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune, and the Village Voice, amongst others.
I asked Oliver the following questions about his work and his new book (I added some links to certain words and terms in his answers to provide readers with more context and information):
How did you first become interested in this particular scene?
I first started reading about the Bay Area’s Filipino American (FA) scratch DJs in local alternative weeklies in the early ’90s. As I was a budding DJ myself, I was intrigued at how all these world class Asian American DJs had emerged out of the Bay. A few years later, as a music journalist, I began interviewing scratch DJs like Q-Bert and Shortkut and discovered that the common link they all had was that their careers all began in the 1980s as a part of mobile DJ crews. I had never heard about that scene and my journalistic and scholarly instincts lit up. At the very least, I felt like there was a good story to be told here.
In what ways are the Filipino American DJs that you focus on unique? How do they assert their own identity onto the DJ scene?
The unique quality of the mobile scene was that it was predominantly Filipino American and it had the right conditions in place for that to be self-sustaining for over a decade. There were other Bay Area mobile scenes, with other ethnic groups, but apparently, none had the same kind of size, longevity, or intensity and as I argue in the book, that’s because the Filipino American community was especially well-organized to help circulate the necessary capital to support a long-term scene of this nature. It’s not because FA DJs were more gifted or somehow more culturally inclined towards DJing; I resist any impulse to culturally pathologize this community. It’s because they have a remarkable social network of family, student/church groups, and community organizations that helped to circulate gigs (and therefore money) amongst the crews.
As for how they asserted their identity, what’s notable is how little my respondents thought their ethnicity had anything to do with the DJ scene. If there were identities being asserted, it had far more to do with what school or neighborhood they were from – as well as their identity as a crew – and on a less self-aware level, their identity as young men. But expressing their “Filipino-ness” wasn’t part of their performance. I think that stands in stark contrast with the generation of hip-hop-influenced DJs that came after them, for whom ethnic identity was far more at the forefront.
The book’s description mentioned that these Filipino Americans used their DJing as opportunities to assert their masculinity. Can you elaborate on this a little bit? How did their idea of being masculine compare to say, conventional notions of White or Black male masculinity?
As I suggested, those assertions of masculinity weren’t necessarily self-aware nor different from what you’d find amongst other young men. The crew structure is very similar to that of other homosocial organizations you find amongst male youth: sports teams, youth gangs, fraternities, etc. Being part of a crew gives them a sense of belonging and purpose and they often spoke of it in gendered language, i.e. “a brotherhood” or the like.
There’s been some debate over the years about whether Filipino Americans consider themselves to be an integral part of the larger Asian American community, or whether they tend to identify more as Hispanic/Latino. Based on this project, how did these Filipino see themselves in relation to the larger Asian American community?
This wasn’t a topic I landed upon with them but I will say that there was no uniform kind of ethnic self-awareness that my respondents expressed. Some of them were confused about their identity growing up but others had a much better sense of themselves as Filipino Americans. It really varied and depended on their family/life experiences. As to the pan-ethnic question, we never got into that but I do think to the extent that there were other scenes, like a Chinese American mobile scene, they did see their scene as being distinct from that as opposed to them all being in some greater “Asian American mobile scene.” The important thing to remember is that while their scene wasn’t exclusively Filipino, all the key parts of the social infrastructure that supported it linked back to Filipino family, religious and community networks. Being Filipino certainly wasn’t incidental even if it wasn’t being actively expressed/performed.
Lately, there’s been more attention paid to Asian Americans using alternative means to express themselves artistically, such as through YouTube and other forms of social media. Do you think Asian Americans on YouTube are content with asserting an alternative, independent cultural identity, or do you think they’re looking to use it as a springboard to get into mainstream media?
I don’t think it’s an either/or, especially as these days, YouTube practically IS mainstream media (though differences still abound, see below).
To me, what I find fascinating about the mobile DJ scene story is that they were inspired to form these crews — as teenagers — because they saw DJs in clubs and thought, “Why can’t we do this back at home?” It’s a simple but profoundly powerful idea to realize one’s own creative/expressive potential using the tools you have around you. In the 1980s, that meant cobbling together a sound system from family stereo systems, before you could invest in professional equipment.
In the 1990s, in the import car scene, you saw middle class youth taking their personal transportation and transforming that into mobile canvases for self and collective expression. In our current age, it’s about using the tools built into digital devices, be they computers or smartphones. I think the vast majority of youth seek to make their voices heard, not necessarily in a self-conscious way to be either alternative or mainstream. It’s only later that people like us (scholars, journalists) try to parse their activities into these kinds of subcultural dichotomies but I don’t think, for example, mobile DJ crews were a subculture. I don’t think they saw themselves as one nor did they function as one (in the strict, Hebdigean definition of subculture).
Based on your academic work and personal observations, are there any emerging artistic or cultural trends within the Asian American community that we should keep an eye out for?
There are at least two areas that I hope scholars will spend time exploring:
1) Social media “stars” who’ve used non-traditional media platforms to produce and distribute their own content. While I do think the distance between mainstream vs. social media is fast collapsing, there is still a traditional media industry in place (i.e. record companies, television networks, movie studios, et. al.) and they still command much power and influence. But what we’ve seen is that Asian Americans have bypassed those institutions to find other ways of getting themselves “out there.” That, to me, is really profound especially compared to how limited things were for the mobile DJs who largely were invisible to anyone outside of their scene or region.
2) Asian Americans involved in the contemporary food scene, whether as chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, etc. This is something I’ve begun to write more about myself and I think we’re only going to see more and more Asian Americans pursuing careers around food and more to the point: food culture.
If I had to pick a third, I think K-pop is going to be a fascinating topic to study. Its popularity, of course, is transnational and transracial but to the extent that most Asian pop musics have never found solid footing in the American pop scene, I think K-pop might be the one to crossover and if so, I imagine that Asian American k-pop fans will be somewhere in that mix. Maybe.
Broadly speaking, I just think Asian American cultural formations, performances and participation is STILL woefully marginal in Asian American Studies. For a variety of reasons, “we” produce a disproportionate amount of scholars who study literature and that’s all fine and good but I feel that Asian American Studies really lags behind other, similar disciplines in our exploration of popular culture as a site for critical examination and discussion. This was certainly the case when I started grad school nearly 20 years ago and it’s not like we’ve seen a sea change since then. I hold out hope that some future generation of scholars will be the ones to turn that particular tide.
2009: Gary Locke and the Future of Asian American Identity As Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke prepares to become the U.S’s new Ambassador to China, I look at how he represents the forging of a new identity for Asian Americans as they contribute to strengthening American society in the 21st century.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.
In addition to mentioning new book releases, I will periodically include links to recent news articles from around the internet that relate to the books’ topic as well, to give readers a wider exposure to the different dynamics involved. This time around, I highlight books and internet links that focus on art and entertainment involving Asians and Asian Americans.
From cuisine and martial arts to sex and self-esteem, East Eats West shines new light on the bridges and crossroads where two hemispheres meld into one worldwide immigrant nation. In this new nation, with its amalgamation of divergent ideas, tastes, and styles, today s bold fusion becomes tomorrow s classic. But while the space between East and West continues to shrink in this age of globalization, some cultural gaps remain.
In this collection of twenty-one personal essays, Andrew Lam, the award-winning author of Perfume Dreams, continues to explore the Vietnamese diaspora, this time concentrating not only on how the East and West have changed, but how they are changing each other. Lively and engaging, East Eats West searches for meaning in nebulous territory charted by very few. Part memoir, part meditations, and part cultural anthropology, East Eats West is about thriving in the West with one foot still in the East.
Yellow Future examines the emergence and popularity of techno-oriental representations in Hollywood cinema since the 1980s, focusing on the ways East Asian peoples and places have become linked with technology to produce a collective fantasy of East Asia as the future. Jane Chi Hyun Park demonstrates how this fantasy is sustained through imagery, iconography, and performance that conflate East Asia with technology, constituting what Park calls “oriental style.”
Park provides a genealogy of oriental style through contextualized readings of popular films-from the multicultural city in Blade Runner and the Japanese American mentor in The Karate Kid to the Afro-Asian reworking of the buddy genre in Rush Hour and the mixed-race hero in The Matrix. Throughout these analyses Park shows how references to the Orient have marked important changes in American popular attitudes toward East Asia in the past thirty years, from abjection to celebration, invisibility to hypervisibility.
Unlike other investigations of racial imagery in Hollywood, Yellow Future centers on how the Asiatic is transformed into and performed as style in the backdrop of these movies and discusses the significance of this conditional visibility for representations of racial difference.
No Safe Spaces looks at one of the most radical and enduring changes introduced during the Civil Rights era — multiracial and cross-racial casting practices in American theater. The move to cast Latino/a, African-American, and Asian-American actors in classic stage works written by and about white Europeans and Americans is viewed as both a social and political gesture and an artistic innovation. Non-traditionally cast productions are shown to have participated in the national dialogue about race relations and ethnic identity and served as a source of renewed creativity for the staging of the canonical repertory.
The book opens with a historical overview of multiracial casting, considering the artistic, political, and pragmatic dimensions of nontraditional approaches to casting. Two subsequent chapters examine non-traditional casting in terms of the relationship between reality and stage representation being assumed by various theatrical genres and in the context of the process of racial formation in the United States. The remaining chapters focus on case studies from the dominant genres of twentieth-century American theater: classical tragedy and drama, modern domestic drama, anti-realist drama, and the Broadway musical.
Since Japanese horror sensations The Ring and Audition first terrified Western audiences at the turn of the millennium, there’s been a growing appreciation of Asia as the hotbed of the world’s best horror movies. Over the last decade, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Hong Kong have all produced a steady stream of stylish supernatural thrillers and psychological chillers that have set new benchmarks for cinematic scares.
Hollywood soon followed suit, producing high-profile remakes of films such as The Ring, Dark Water, The Grudge, and The Eye. With scores of Asian horror films now available to Western audiences, this guide helps viewers navigate the eclectic mix of vengeful spooks, yakuza zombies, feuding warlocks, and devilish dumplings, discussing the grand themes of Asian horror cinema and the distinctive national histories that give the films their special resonance.
Tracing the long and noble tradition of horror stories in eastern cultures, it also delves into some of the folktales that have influenced this latest wave of shockers, paying tribute to classic Asian ghost films throughout the ages.
A Chinese-made production of the story of “Mulan” competes with the Disney version to capture attention, history, and revenue. As the article also notes, “While the Disney film wove comedy into a Disney-esque plot about a young girl breaking out of the confines of tradition to pursue her own destiny, the new Mulan focuses on patriotism, filial piety, romance and the difficulties of war. The formula is part of an evolving mainland genre that has seen filmmakers incorporating more nuanced, entertaining storytelling into patriotic plots.”
The Alma Mater Society of Queens University in Kingston, Canada declares that sumo costumes are offensive and that organizations should stop using them as part of their activities:
“Sumo suits, the plastic novelties that can transform a skinny sports fan into a comically unstable sphere for the delight of a stadium audience, are racist and dehumanizing instruments of oppression, according to the student government of Queen’s University. They “appropriate an aspect of Japanese culture,” turn a racial identity into a “costume,” and “devalue an ancient and respected Japanese sport, which is rich in history and cultural tradition.” They also “fail to capture the deeply embedded histories of violent and subversive oppression that a group has faced.”
Likewise, the owners of the two suits have never imagined they could be considered offensive. “It’s the first time we’ve heard of [the racist aspects],” Mike Grobe, a spokesman for Queen’s Athletics, which uses the suits at football and basketball games for half-time shows, when people run obstacle courses in them. “They’re just big puffy suits. They’re pink… No one’s complained.”
Comprised of four Filipino Americans from San Francisco, Legaci has recently gained fame by performing in support of Justin Bieber. But does their success reinforce the notion that Asian American pop music performers can’t be successful as lead acts?
“Even if most people just know us as Justin Bieber’s Asian backup singers,” [Legaci co-founder] Micah Tolentino said, “we’re proud to be out there, to show the world that Asian-Americans are talented.” While the pop charts are a familiar home to African-Americans and Latino-Americans, they’ve been less hospitable to Asian-Americans in the United States.
“Asian-Americans are locked out,” said Phil Yu, who runs the pop-culture blog angryasianman.com. “There are definitely elements of racism, but it’s also that audiences are not used to seeing Asian faces on the pop charts or on music videos, and record labels won’t take a chance on that.” Legaci can list its fellow travelers on one hand. There’s the Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger (her father is Filipino), the fledgling Filipino pop star Charice (who sings a duet with Iyaz on her first United States single, “Pyramid”) and most famously, Allan Pineda, a k a Apl.de.ap, of the Black Eyed Peas.
Christine Balance, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, points out that while Latin and black music have longstanding currency in the industry, there’s nothing comparable for Asian-Americans. “How do you market an Asian-American star?” she said. “African-Americans are foundational to U.S. popular culture, and for Latinos there’s the adjective ‘Latin’ music that’s used to describe a variety of musical forms. But Asians are still seen as foreign or alien to mainstream America.”
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.
A common theme in many of my posts is how globalized and transnational the world in general and American society in particular have become. Within this evolving process, the lives and identities of Asians and Asian Americans also reflect these cross-national formations. The following new books shed light on some specific examples of how these forms of globalization and transnationalism affect different aspects of American society as they relate to Asians and Asian Americans.
Ends of Empire examines Asian American cultural production and its challenge to the dominant understanding of American imperialism, Cold War dynamics, and race and gender formation.
Jodi Kim demonstrates the degree to which Asian American literature and film critique the record of U.S. imperial violence in Asia and provides a glimpse into the imperial and gendered racial logic of the Cold War. She unfolds this particularly entangled and enduring episode in the history of U.S. global hegemony—one that, contrary to leading interpretations of the Cold War as a simple bipolar rivalry, was significantly triangulated in Asia.
The Asian American works analyzed here constitute a crucial body of what Kim reveals as transnational “Cold War compositions,” which are at once a geopolitical structuring, an ideological writing, and a cultural imagining. Arguing that these works reframe the U.S. Cold War as a project of gendered racial formation and imperialism as well as a production of knowledge, Ends of Empire offers an interdisciplinary investigation into the transnational dimensions of Asian America and its critical relationship to Cold War history.
Claiming Diaspora explores the thriving contemporary musical culture of Asian/Chinese America. Ranging from traditional operas to modern instrumental music, from ethnic media networks to popular music, from Asian American jazz to the work of recent avant-garde composers, author Su Zheng reveals the rich and diverse musical activities among Chinese Americans and tells of the struggles and creative searches by Chinese Americans to gain a foothold in the American cultural terrain.
In doing so, she not only tells their stories, but also examines the transnational and racialized experiences of this musical culture, challenging us to take a fresh look at the increasingly plural and complex nature of American cultural identity. . . . She unveils the fluid and evolving nature of music in Chinese America, discussing current cultural struggles, while acknowledging an unavoidable connection to a history of Asian exclusion in the U.S. . . .
The book delineates the introduction of each music genre from its homeland and its subsequent development in New York, and explains how Chinese Americans express their cultural longings and belongings. Ultimately, Zheng reveals how Chinese American musical activities both reflect and contribute to local, national, and transnational cultural politics.
Examining a variety of intriguing issues, this sociological study analyzes the impact global culture has had on the flora and fauna, people, economies, languages, and cultures of the Pacific for many centuries. The survey draws on findings from a 40-year research partnership, illustrating the effects of globalization from the perspective of a typical Samoan village and documenting the country’s shift from baskets to buckets, from religious authority to a questioning democracy, and from in-kind work to a cash economy.
Delving into questions such as When do Pacific emigrants stop sending money to their home village? Do villagers stop giving away fish when they get a refrigerator? and How do cell phones change villages? this argument contends that contemporary changes are presenting a more profound challenge to Samoan social institutions and society than at any other time in the past. Comprehensive and accessible, this guide is essential for those interested in the way global forces are shaping change in small Pacific nations.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Lai was trained as an engineer but blazed a trail in the field of Asian American studies. Long before the field had any academic standing, he amassed an unparalleled body of source material on Chinese America and drew on his own transnational heritage and Chinese patriotism to explore the global Chinese experience.
In Chinese American Transnational Politics, Lai traces the shadowy history of Chinese leftism and the role of the Kuomintang of China in influencing affairs in America. The result is a nuanced and singular account of how Chinese politics, migration to the United States, and Sino-U.S. relations were shaped by Chinese and Chinese American groups and organizations.