Asian American representation in traditional forms of entertainment has been sparse. If you ask a stranger on the street to name an Asian American actor or musician, the same names keep popping up: Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, maybe John Cho or Lucy Liu. This is how Uploaded: The Asian American Movement begins. Uploaded and Grace Wang’s A Love Song to YouTube both explore the embrace of new media, like YouTube, by Asian American artists in order to gain visibility and create a community of support. Interestingly, the rise of new media has also changed the way that mainstream success is defined, weakening the tie between success and traditional media.
One of the artists interviewed in Uploaded is Mike Song, a well-known dancer and choreographer. Song recalled the beginning of his dance career before YouTube and remarked on the rarity of a community that allowed Asian American artists to meet and perform for other Asian Americans. With YouTube, artists could connect with each other and reach wider audiences. For example, comedians Ryan Higa and Kevin Wu were able to connect with musician Chester See to write and produce “Nice Guys”, a wildly popular comedic song. The community created online extends beyond the internet, leading to meetups, concerts, and music festivals. In Love Song, Wang specifically mentions a sold-out summer concert in Monterey Park, CA, featuring popular YouTube musicians like AJ Rafael, Jennifer Chung, and Joseph Vincent (Wang 115). Southern California has become the de facto Mecca of Asian American YouTube creators.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of YouTube and new media is the intimacy and immediacy of fan interactions. Wang provides the example of David Choi performing and filming “YouTube (A Love Song)” in his bedroom and highlights the personal connection that the audience feels from seeing elements of Choi’s private life (Wang 102). Wang also uses the example of Joseph Vincent to illustrate the reciprocal nature of social media, meaning that artists have to “accept the grind involved in keeping up with their social media channels as part of their daily labor” but in return get quick feedback to see “what people are interested in” (Wang 123).
Freddie Wong and Kevin Wu echo these sentiments in Uploaded. Wong contrasts the quick feedback that YouTube audiences can give with the slow feedback process of traditional TV or movies. With such quick feedback, Wong can experiment to find what his audience wants to see and doesn’t want to see. Kevin Wu, like David Choi, began by making videos in his bedroom and thus created an intimate rapport with his viewers. He also experienced the demanding nature of his fans and, in one of his videos, called them vicious like piranha when he fails to upload.
The combined effects that new media has had on community building and fan interactions have helped Asian American redefine and achieve success. With new media, Asian American artists can find or create their own markets. In Uploaded, Wong Fu Productions sells their own merchandise and advertise in their own videos. Doing so has allowed them to achieve relative financial freedom to focus on producing content. Wang mentions a remark by Jennifer Chung, saying, “Mainstream media doesn’t think that there’s really a market there [for Asian American performers], but obviously there is” (Wang 120). After watching the ascension of so many Asian American YouTubers, mainstream media has taken note and has begun trying to capitalize on their success. When Kevin Wu and his father competed on The Amazing Race, CBS gained millions of viewers.
Recently, the encroachment of mainstream media into new media spaces has left the futures of many Asian American artists uncertain. YouTubers like Megan Lee are relocating to Asian countries like Korea to break into their markets (Wang 141). Asian American artists may soon need an alternative to YouTube to continuing building upon their success.
Diep, K. (Director). (2016, July 6). Uploaded: The Asian American Movement [Video file]. Retrieved May 28, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fOwijRIVqM
Wang, G. (2015). A Love Song to YouTube. In Soundtracks of Asian America: navigating race through musical performance (pp. 101-142). Durham: Duke University Press.