Representation in the media has long been an issue for Asian Americans. Growing up, many would pay special attention to the TV any time an Asian Pacific Islander (API) guest star was on a sitcom or an episode was set in Chinatown. Such finds were usually quite random, but today, thanks to social and technological developments, one can find notice of upcoming appearances by APIs in the media, clips of the show itself, and analysis of its racial content on the Internet. And, for many, the blog Angry Asian Man, run by Philip Yu, has become the one stop shop for all those things listed above and more.
“AAM is a clearinghouse for all things Asian America, from pop culture to immigration policy,” Carmen Van Kerckhove — who co-runs the blog Racialicious and has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, USA Today, and The New York Times — said. “He’s a real inspiration to me.”
As an aggregator of API pop culture news, Angry has few peers. In a given week, if there is an API candidate in a mayoral race, an Asian actor in a new Hollywood blockbuster, or a public figure who made a fool of them with a racist remark, you can find out about it on Angry Asian Man.
“I’ve always been impressed by how much he was able to cover in a given day,” music journalist and sociology professor Oliver Wang said. “As someone who worked at community-based organizations for years, I know how tough it is trying to stay on top of this stuff, how exhausting it is.”
When Nichi Bei Weekly caught up with Yu during a phone interview, he remained humble about the blog’s scope, calling it his “primary passion,” but noting that he still holds a nine to five job.
“I have come to view it as a responsibility to try and cover everything related to Asian Americans. If anything big happens and I don’t post something on it I feel remiss.”
Angry Asian Man’s rise to blogosphere prominence, he says, was never part of a master plan.
“In the beginning, I wanted a place to self publish what I was thinking in terms of Asian American issues, things I saw in the media and politics, wanting to riff on those things,” Yu explained. “I had opinions and I wanted to express myself.”
This desire for self-expression came from a new awareness Yu attained in college. He had grown up in Sunnyvale in Northern California’s Silicon Valley, at a time when the area’s Asian population was not as large as it is today, but still quite diverse. When he left home to go to Northwestern University in Chicago, however, he was almost exclusively surrounded by Caucasians for the first time in his life. His understanding of his identity started to change as he took ethnic studies classes, in particular, a course called “Asian Americans in the Media,” taught by visiting professor L.S. Kim, currently of the University of California Santa Cruz.
“The course changed my life, it’s a huge part of what I am today,” explains Yu, who is of Korean descent. “It exposed me to a lot of Asian American films, experimental Asian American films… It was a big deal in terms of identity formation.”
Over the course of the class, a certain name came up over and over: NAATA, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, (known today as Center for Asian American Media). Many of the films that captivated Yu were distributed or funded by NAATA, so when he returned to the Bay Area for summer vacation he immediately sought an internship there and when he graduated, he landed a job working on their Website.
“I was surrounded by people who were passionate about Asian American media and understood it not just as entertainment, but as a political act.”
In 2001, shortly after starting work at NAATA, Yu created Angry Asian Man. Today, tools that allow the average person to blog easily are available. But at the time, running such a site required some degree of expert programming knowledge, making Yu a pioneer. As Van Kerchcove puts it, “Phil’s been blogging since before we even started calling it blogging.” Yu’s site utilizes technology inaccessible to previous generations of Asian Americans, but it also reflects a new generation of activist’s sensibility. In contrast to deadly serious and joyless activist Websites, the blog’s name and tone are playful and self-aware. “Quick Kick,” an Asian American martial artist character from the vintage G.I. Joe cartoons, can be seen on the site’s banner — in all his campy glory — and Yu ends many posts with his signature exclamation, “that’s racist!” — indicating, sarcastically, shock, and, not sarcastically, outrage.
“One of the things I admire most about Phil is that despite the name of his site, he’s not actually that ‘angry,’” Wang adds. “He’ll bring the righteous ‘that’s racist!’ fury when the occasion calls for it but he doesn’t truck in screeds. I’ve certainly run into enough angry Asian men to have seen the latter in spades and it’s like a fountain of bitterness.”
The site grew gradually and experienced sort of a snowball effect, when readers started sending Yu links to stories they wanted to see covered on the site.
“It grew really organically,” Yu says. “People come looking for Asian American news, and I aggregate content from the New York Times and CNN, but, thanks to my readers, also from a lot of regional media. Readers send me things going on in their area, which I never would have known about and the rest of the readership never would have known about otherwise.”
Though it was a steady growth, there was one event that raised Angry’s profile. Yu publicized a group of API student activists’ boycott of Abercrombie & Fitch’s line of T-shirts featuring racist imagery.
“The story definitely started getting traction, even in the mainstream media,” Yu explained. “I get a lot of my content from traditional media sources, but also, I’ll do a post on something the traditional media hasn’t jumped on, it spreads through the blogosphere and then the mainstream media picks it up.”
In this way, AAM has become a community-oriented site, a new channel for sharing news and organizing. It publicizes up-and-coming API entertainment talent and gives exposure to community causes like bone-marrow registry drives, fundraisers and boycotts.
“What makes Angry Asian Man different is that he’s very incisive, unfailingly generous and at heart,” Wang says. “He’s a supporter of community issues rather than any kind of demagogue.”
Evidence of Angry Asian Man’s importance came near the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, when Konrad Ng, the president’s brother-in-law, contacted Yu.
“He sent an e-mail wanting to see who I was leaning towards voting for, expressing interest in the blog and just saying ‘hello,’” Yu said. “It was definitely very surreal.”
In fact, everything related to running Angry has been surreal for Yu, as his virtual life and outside life didn’t often intersect.
“I read his blog daily without knowing that it was being written by the guy down the hall in my own office,” said Taro Goto, who worked with Yu at NAATA. The Shin-nisei film producer didn’t find out until the Opening Night Gala for the 2002 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, when Parry Shen, star of the film “Better Luck Tomorrow,” recognized Yu’s name and asked him if he was “Angry Asian Man.”
“Phil just gave a shy shrug,” Goto reminisces. “That’s when I first found out. He’s the last person I would’ve imagined being ‘Angry Asian Man,’ because Phil is one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet.”
A person’s writing personality doesn’t necessarily translate into real life,” Yu explains. “I think people who meet me expecting the blog are going to be disappointed.”
However, in recent years Yu has been meeting a lot of blog readers. He gets booked for speaking engagements and panel discussions and the meetings don’t end in disappointment for either party.
“It wasn’t even on my radar as something that was possible when I started the blog,” Yu said. “And I was shy and nervous doing it at first. But as I’ve grown more comfortable, it’s become really rewarding…. most of he time it’s students who are readers who are developing their identities and deciding what to do with their lives… I see a lot of myself in them.”
Apparently, the feeling is mutual, many of Yu’s readers say that they go to the site because it gives them a sense of connection, both to the author and to the community at large.
“I’m a big fan of Angry Asian Man, and wish that I was able to access something like it when I was growing up,” Yul Kwon, entrepreneur, philanthropist, “Survivor” reality-TV-show-winner and Deputy Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I think it would have helped me feel a sense of connectedness with other Asian Americans and more pride in my own identity and cultural heritage. And maybe even cool.”