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In the wedding scene in Crazy Rich Asians, a misty-eyed Constance Wu looks over at Henry Golding as a guitar melody strums in the background. The camera cuts to Kina Grannis as she begins to sing the words to “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” For most audience members, Grannis was just the wedding singer. But for Asian-American viewers who grew up with YouTube, the singer-songwriter’s cameo symbolized something more significant: it was an homage to a generation that had to seek out and create their own representation on the internet when there was little of it in Hollywood. Seeing Grannis in the most successful romantic comedy of the past decade signified a moment of visibility for a generation cultivated by YouTube.
There’s no doubt that Crazy Rich Asians’s 2018 success helped turn the tide. In the year since the romantic comedy stole the hearts of people of all walks of life and established that Asian representation is not only essential but profitable, there have been a number of wins for the community. While a 2018 report from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found no meaningful change occurred in the percentage of Asians on screen between 2007 and 2017, the past two years have shown great promise beyond CRA. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a sincere film starring Awkwafina that explores topics such as being first-generation and the cultural clash between the West and East, dethroned Avengers: Endgame for 2019's biggest per-theater average. At San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel announced that Kim’s Convenience actor Simu Liu will star as in the titular superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Even before it hit theaters, Crazy Rich Asians was praised for being the first big-budget Hollywood studio film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years since The Joy Luck Club. During this quarter-century gap, a generation of Asian-Americans grew up with minimal mainstream representation. But as the internet grew, YouTube channels such as Wong Fu Productions, Michelle Phan, NigaHiga, and KevJumba emerged. These Asian-Americans mobilized and took advantage of their creative liberty on the video-sharing social network.
Asian-American narratives and representation have been evolving and existing for years ahead of Crazy Rich Asians and today’s slate of films featuring Asian stories and actors — YouTube allowed creators the creative freedom to authentically and unabashedly share their own experiences. What we’re seeing in today’s landscape of big-screen movies is years of work on smaller screens. An entire world of Asian creators paved the way to better representation on YouTube.
ASIAN-AMERICAN YOUTUBE PIONEERS
Founded by Wesley Chan, Ted Fu, and Philip Wang, who met at the University of California, San Diego, Wong Fu Productions has been making short films for 16 years but began uploading their videos onto YouTube in 2007. As of today, their channel has 3.2 million subscribers and more than 552 million views. The Asian-American filmmaking group has worked with talent including Liu, Fresh Off the Boat’s Randall Park, The Maze Runner’s Ki Hong Lee, and more. The channel ranges from sketches about being Asian-American to short films on relationships and heartbreak.
“Filmmaking was never really a dream that I was chasing, but through pursuing it I found what I was chasing,” Wang tells Teen Vogue. “I didn’t go to film school to learn the craft, but I had all these experiences and stories I wanted to tell.”
Their videos often explored the nuance of these sorts of experiences and stories, along with touching on topics that weren’t really being talked about at the time. Their 2006 short film Yellow Fever satirized interracial dating between Asian-Americans and white people and especially the fetishization of Asian women, bringing Wong Fu major recognition. And while it was exciting to be able to make art about something such as Yellow Fever, the trio knew that there were still limits on the narratives they were capable of telling.
“We always felt pressure to represent all types of Asian experiences, but that’s just not possible,” Wang says. “The experience of a Chinese immigrant living in southern California is going to be different from a trans Hmong-American in St. Paul. But that’s why we want more people to share their stories.”
Wong Fu’s recent web series “Yappie” brings even more important topics to the forefront. Nominated for two Streamy Awards, the five-episode series explores themes like interracial dating, anti-blackness in Asian communities, and the model minority myth. There’s also “Asian Bachelorette”, which uses satire to interrogate the emasculation of Asian men.
Comedian and actress Christine Gambito, known as HappySlip on YouTube, is someone who helped fill that space of other stories that the Wong Fu Productions guys wouldn’t have been as adept to make films about. Before uploading her first video in 2006, Gambito was pursuing her dream as an actor in New York City. Despite having an agent, she felt unsatisfied from only booking commercials.
“It wasn’t fulfilling because I couldn’t use my full talent. I went to my agent and told them I wanted to leave it all behind,” Gambito says, but her agent tried to convince her to stay. Feeling like she couldn’t get submitted for other projects, she eventually packed up her things and left New York City.
A few years later, Gambito started her YouTube channel HappySlip. The comedian’s sketches showcase her parodying different Filipino characters from her personal life, such as her mother and aunt. Memorable sketches poke fun at the generational differences and language barrier between her and her mother.
“I was nervous that people would think I was making fun of my Filipino-American community in a disrespectful way,” Gambito says. “But being on YouTube, I wasn’t trying to fit into a mold. This was my world, and I could do anything I wanted.”
MORE THAN ONE WAY TO MEASURE SUCCESS
For many Asian-Americans and first-generation students, pursuing the arts let along growing a YouTube channel is a pipe dream. Creative fields such as filmmaking and comedy don’t fit the career path that Asian people often feel expected to follow.
Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and sociologist Min Zhou found in their 2008 study that as highly educated immigrants, Chinese parents define success narrowly. Based on their interviews with children of Chinese immigrants, Lee and Zhou also discovered that these parents saw careers in industries such as art, acting, writing, and fashion as riskier because measuring their success involves “subjective evaluation.” Meanwhile, jobs in medicine, engineering, or law typically require objective sanctions such as higher credentials and advanced degrees.
So, understandably, taking a leap of faith in order to pursue a YouTube career like the Wong Fu guys or Gambito did was almost unheard of at the time. But along with being a place where stories about the Asian experience could simply exist, YouTube has also served as a venue demonstrating that Asian-American YouTubers can find success even while exploring creative ventures.
Prior to appearing in Crazy Rich Asians as the wedding singer, Kina Grannis already had an established online presence. Grannis started her channel in 2007 as the girl with the guitar and dulcet tones. Her acoustic covers of top 40 hits and original love songs not only made her a well-known Asian-American musician but one of the most successful musicians on YouTube. In addition to Grannis, other Asian YouTube musicians such as AJ Rafael, Cathy Nguyen, and Sam Tsui created an online music subculture. They weren’t being played on mainstream radio stations or charting on Billboard, but their millions of viewers and subscribers were indicative of their success — they had legions of fans that loved their work. Their covers and original songs became the soundtrack for many young Asian-Americans before the Snapchat era. These covers ranged from Rihanna songs to originals that were used for the likes of Wong Fu short films.
Beyond the performing arts, YouTube allowed Asians to find success in a variety of fields, showing that they can tell their stories in other creative ways, and simply exist as symbols of representation.
The year is 2007. A young Vietnamese-American girl sits in a living room and smiles at the camera. It’s a bit grainy, but the natural light illuminates her face. “Be sure your face has been cleaned, toned, and moisturized…” she begins. “You get better natural-looking results when applying makeup on a clean face.” Michelle Phan, an art student at the time, shares her natural makeup tutorial. What she doesn’t know is that less than a decade later, she will have her own $500 million beauty empire.
As one of the first beauty gurus on YouTube, Phan gained notoriety for her natural skincare regimens and themed makeup tutorials. After reaching immense success, she decided to leave the platform in 2016 for a much needed social media detox. In her last video, “Why I Left.”, she states, “The early days of YouTube were magical. No one was really making videos for money, but once it was possible for creators to monetize their videos, I was able to leave my part-time job and turn this little hobby into a thriving career.” As one of the most successful YouTube beauty gurus, Phan launched a makeup line, a beauty subscription service called Ipsy, and even wrote a book. Her impressive resume and ability to transform her YouTube channel into a multi-million dollar empire does not sound like the stereotypical Asian story. But at its core, her journey is an empowering narrative displaying that Asian women have the ability to forge their own paths toward success.
PAYING IT FORWARD
In addition to exploring their identities, YouTubers have also had to learn about filmmaking through trial and error. “When Wong Fu first started out on YouTube, there weren’t Asian YouTubers that came before us to pave the way,” Wang tells Teen Vogue. “So we did what we knew best, and that was to tell our own experiences.”
Providing guidance and knowledge is something Wong Fu has been focusing on in recent years with “Wong Fu Presents.” This initiative grants an opportunity to aspiring filmmakers and actors to create their own short films, with the guidance of Wong Fu, to be featured on the official Wong Fu channel.
Even Awkwafina, who has essentially become a household name through films such as Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, flexed her dramatic chops in The Farewell, and will be in a number of other several major studio films including the upcoming live-action Little Mermaid, has roots in YouTube. Her rap track “My Vag” went viral on YouTube, which eventually lead to a number of other music videos, including one with Margaret Cho for the song “Green Tea.” Awkwafina is living proof that you can go from rapping on YouTube to being part of Hollywood’s biggest films.
Although it appears that Hollywood is finally beginning to take notice of the capital success of Asian-Americans, Wang believes that the need for YouTube will never go away. It will forever be a home for the sorts of stories that they have been dedicated to telling years before major studios took an interest.
“My hope is to see other Wong Fus and KevJumbas in the next few years,” he says. “We paved the way for their generation, and now it’s time for them to tell their stories in whatever ways they choose to.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue