Posted on November 29, 2013
Fueled by a desire to connect with and share their culture, Asian Americans have taken to the Internet, using tools like YouTube to tell their stories and, in some cases, launch successful business ventures.
Jay Kim, managing director of AAAZA (Asian American A-to-Z Agency), calls the generation that has embraced these newer platforms “Gen 1.5.” This generation is halfway between those that first moved the States and the second generation that was born-and-raised here. “Gen 1.5” possesses the unique ability to blend components of both cultures.
A Korean American, Kim says he and others in this category tend to embrace both the traditions of their culture and new platforms that allow them to express themselves “outside the box.”
And, in many cases, that means outside the TV box.
“A lot of small companies can now take a YouTube show and make content and share the Asian American life in a way they couldn’t before,” says Kim.
The Internet is rife with examples of Asian Americans who have found not only increasing comfort expressing themselves in these platforms but also business success.
Cassey Ho, the Chinese-Vietnamese founder of Blogilates, is a poster child for this trend.
As a part-time Pilates instructor (she had a degree in biology and was destined for medical school), Ho began posting videos of her “POP Pilates” workouts when she moved from the West Coast to the East Coast in an effort to stay connected with her students.
A little over a year later, her YouTube channel and retail line of yoga bags took off and she quit her full-time job as a fashion buyer.
“It became this whole community and quote, un-quote empire,” she said over the phone. “I never expected this to happen.”
Ho said the reality of her new career — which includes feeding her audience and 1 million YouTube subscribers fresh workout videos, fitness gear and healthful recipes — was hard for her traditional Asian parents to accept at first.
“In the Asian culture, if you’re not a lawyer or a doctor it’s hard to find respect in a career,” Ho said in an interview with New Media Rockstars.
Ho’s parents soon came on board with the idea and her mother now helps with overseas shipments and her father with logistics.
Her fitness DVD will soon be sold at Target stores in the U.S., where she’ll be the only Asian fitness instructor represented in the aisles. But she’s not the only one finding a following online.
Kim says YouTube channels like Ho’s have become an outlet for talented Asian Americans, some of whom feel underrepresented on traditional cable television channels or shows.
Wong Fu Productions, for example, has 2 million subscribers that regularly tune in for its short films starring mostly Asian characters. One of its most popular comedic videos, “Kung Fooled,” has garnered almost 10 million views.
In some cases, YouTube has served as the jumping off point for Asian artists to break into more traditional media. Vietnamese YouTube rapper Phong Le was recruited to rap about DirectTV in a commercial that promoted the satellite provider’s additional Vietnamese and Asian culture channels and shows.
Ho said she also has found a community not only among her subscribers on YouTube but also with other contributors to the platform, many of whom are based in LA, where she now lives. She first connected with those behind Beauty Buzz (“Hong Kong’s Beauty Bible”) at a dinner, where she met several other Asians who are excelling in the YouTube platform.
“It’s a really great way for a minority to showcase their talent when Hollywood wouldn’t recognize them,” she said.
Kim adds that young Asian Americans have long been comfortable with new-media outlets like YouTube — the Gangnam Style video’s 17 million hits over the past year is a case in point — but now, they’re beginning to use that comfort to better express their culture.
Connecting with culture
Gerrard Panahon joined YouTube in early 2012 after his parents, who raised him in LA, moved back to the Philippines to retire.
“I went through an identity crisis. I look Latino in Los Angeles and people would just start talking to me in Spanish,” said Panahon, who flavors his Filipino Food Fridays YouTube show with a sense of humor. “I knew that by cooking I’d be able to get closer to my culture.”
Panahon’s videos feature him learning from family members or friends how to cook traditional Filipino dishes like mung beans with shrimp or puto. Panahon is open about — and often makes a joke out of — his mistakes, reminding his more than 2,500 subscribers that he’s “just learning.”
He says one of the ways he knows he’s creating an online community is when the commenters aren’t afraid to correct him. When he forgot the cheese in a Filipino spaghetti recipe (or, rather, left it off to save calories) the commenters reminded him en masse.
About 70 percent of his viewers are in the United States, but Panahon estimates many of them have a Filipino background. He alternates between the Filipino language of Tagalog and English throughout the videos, often punctuating his jokes with words only Filipinos would understand.
“I think that second generation [Filipinos], like myself, will find that humorous. It’s kind of exclusionary, but I’m OK with that,” Panahon said. “I just want to cook and eat, and I’m glad these folks are along for the ride.”
Panahon said he’s not making any money from the YouTube shows or advertising at this point, but he is open to the possibility of creating a cookbook in the future.
Four months into his online venture, Panahon was nominated by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to compete in a YouTube cooking contest that pits popular cooking shows against one another. After singing some arm hair in his contest video while making a Filipino dessert — and making a joke out of it — Panahon won the competition.
As to his Youtube success Panahon said, “I couldn’t predict what this has become. I’ll do this as long as I’m having fun and folks are appreciating it, but mainly because I want to get in touch with my culture.”