“Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” is the first textbook on recent Asian American history, which tracks how Asian American culture and identity grew from when the term was coined by University of California, Berkeley, grad students in 1968 to now, a time where people of all races in America watch “Crazy Rich Asians,” listen to BTS on the radio, have a favorite boba order, and eat xiao long bao. But the book is also a multimedia celebration of the people and moments in Asian America who’ve gone under-the-radar, the many small, unrecognized steps that forged the Asian American identity and brought the culture to mainstream acceptance, with poems, essays, mini graphic novels on historical moments, Q&As with actors like Randall Park and Ken Jeong, and hilarious jabs at anti-Asian racism in mini articles like “How to Yellow Face.”
The three authors each became adults, and became prominent figures in Asian American media, in each of the three past decades: Jeff Yang, as a journalist who launched the national Asian American publication A. Magazine in the late ’90s; Phil Yu, by starting the popular blog Angry Asian Man in the early 2000s; and Philip Wang, with Wong Fu Productions, whose YouTube videos about Asian American life garnered millions of views in the 2010s. Yang and Yu talked with The Seattle Times about their book, learning to be uncompromisingly Asian American in their creative work and the future of Asian America ahead of the authors’ book-tour stop at Town Hall Seattle’s Great Hall on March 22.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Seattle Times: What were your motivations for writing this book?
Phil Yu: One of the big, hallmark moments of the last couple years was the release of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which everyone kind of attributes to being a game changer in terms of representation for Asians on screen. People were like, “This is a big deal because there hasn’t been a movie like this in the last 25 years since ‘Joy Luck Club.'” And that’s true and worth celebrating. But it’s not like “Joy Luck Club” happened, and then nothing happened, and then it was “Crazy Rich Asians.” There were actually decades of culture-making and things to celebrate along the way that didn’t rise above mainstream notice but nevertheless were important milestones in representation for our community.
Jeff Yang: It’s sometimes hard to tell that history is happening while you’re living it. But history was happening. And these three decades in particular ended up being so critical to the way that Asian America developed and emerged. But each of us [authors] were part of the first generations who kind of had to figure out what that term meant, and there’s a reason for that: the term was invented in 1968. I was born in 1968, so I was the first native-born Asian American, if you will. By 1972, the term was widely being used in places as far removed as academic research and in legislation, all the way through to culture — there were people talking about Asian American literature, drama, film and television. When we got to college, we were, for the first time, really confronted with those boxes and asked to check them off, and the box that said “Asian American” felt so much more empty than those that pointed them in other directions. We could check them off, but what the hell did it mean? Back in 1990, there was nothing that we could actually point to and say, “Oh, everybody knows that this is an Asian American thing.” Now people kind of do.
In the book, you write about being the generation defining what it means to be Asian American, often being forced to compromise your creative work to appeal to the white gaze in the process. How did you overcome that pressure in your creative endeavors?
Yang: When I was coming into the adult world in the ’90s, it was really uncomfortable to be Asian American. It felt like if you said you were Asian American publicly in a professional setting, you’d be given a one-way ticket for a trip to irrelevance. I was a journalist, and you could maybe cover Balinese puppet theater or Asian American indie films which no one really watched except for maybe a handful of other Asian Americans and their white spouses and partners. You could not be part of the mainstream. And if you’re going to actually say that being Asian American is something you have to suppress to be employable, then you’re saying that I have to adapt and assimilate and approximate whiteness in order to simply exist in this world. And I can’t take up my own [expletive] space. In some ways, Phil’s blog became so successful, because the phrase “Angry Asian Man” is like a stake in the ground for being defiantly Asian American in a way that the bulk of Asian America in the ’90s was largely loath to do.
What’s a fact about Asian American history in Seattle people don’t know but need to know?
Yu: I mean everyone knows this, but Bruce Lee has his most important American roots in Seattle. One of the pieces of the book that I’m proud of is a thing called the Asian American atlas, which maps out historically significant places in the United States [for Asian Americans]. One of them is the site of Bruce Lee’s first gung fu studio in Seattle, which in the beginning, was just a parking garage in the Chinatown International District. I’ve also personally visited Bruce Lee’s gravesite in Seattle a couple of times.
Yang: Phil and I actually do a podcast together called “They Call Us Bruce.” Bruce Lee consistently is the only Asian American that people can remember and name. But a lot of those people don’t even know that he was born in America, and that he had to go to Hong Kong to find his fortune and be recognized and seen because Hollywood rejected him as a protagonist.
Can you explain your dedication of the book to “the ones who come next”?
Yang: Each of us has kids. Philip had his son at the tail end of writing this book. Phil, meanwhile, has a daughter who’s in between the ages of Philip’s son, a baby, and my relatively grown boys, one of whom [Hudson Yang] plays a big role in this book. When we say this is for those who are next, it’s a reflection on the fact that as much as Gen Z, this rising wave of Asian Americans, have such a different perspective on what it means to be Asian in America — they’re so much more comfortable in their skin — they take more things for granted, perhaps, that we really had to grind through. But they’re also the hope not just to be satisfied with being recognized and represented and accepted but to formally shape the culture. I look at my sons and they’re so much more in tune with the world, so much more proactive about wanting to change it and lead it than I ever was at their age.