A few weeks ago, I was asked by my friend James Chu to do a talk for the Art Center Branding Atelier. I don’t speak much about my years at Giant Robot magazine these days and branding isn’t exactly my specialty. But how could I say no? It was an honor to be asked and it would be both fun and interesting to discuss about the old days with new perspective.
Well, fun for me anyway. Why would a generation of students that has never read or even heard of the publication I helped make care? And what’s the big deal about a magazine that promotes indie, arty, and underground Pan Asian and Asian American culture? Today, Asian influences are not only part of the mainstream but are seen as powers in business, drivers of taste, and arbiters of cool.
I started off the talk by informing the audience that it wasn’t always cool to be Asian in America. When I was growing up, Asian culture was only present in popular culture through dubbed or knock-off versions of kung fu movies, lame commercials, and horrible stereotypes in TV programs. Asian athletes in the public eye were limited to ice skaters–although I remember Duk Koo Kim being pummeled by Ray Mancini on broadcast TV–and Yoko Ono was the only musician in the spotlight. And she was hated. There was no foodie scene yet, either, although sushi was “exotic.” By the time I got out of college, Asian American magazines seemed to just celebrate car models and actors on lousy shows. In other words, the brand of Asian popular culture was lousy.
But Eric Nakamura and I had no interest in the tiny sliver of the mainstream occupied by Asian Americans. We became friends by going to the same punk rock shows and contributing to the same zine, Fear of Grown Ups. We were part of the same DIY culture but appreciated the underrated aspects of Asian American culture. Although we grew up in different parts of Southern California, we were both obsessed with stuff like punk and noise music, Hong Kong action movies, underground cinema, Japanese robot toys, Asian candies, and Asian skateboarders and other underdogs that no one was writing about. So we made our own magazine. Looking back, we were sharing a lifestyle, and effortlessly so–unlike shoe companies or auto manufacturers who spend millions to position themselves that way.
As the magazine grew glossier and popular, so did our interests. We made a road trip to rice fields and took skateboards to Manzanar. I remember Margaret Cho describing our take on the concentration camp for Japanese Americans during WWII as “punk rock,” saying that we were reclaiming history. Writing the Yellow Power collection of articles was another significant moment for Eric and me. To this date, I don’t know if there’s ever been a more comprehensive collection of interviews with Asian Americans who fought alongside the Black Panthers and others in the racial equality movement. The spirit of protest continued in later articles about Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and The Cove.
To mix social, ecological, and political commentary with bands, films, and art wasn’t an obvious move but it worked for us because we simply wrote about what we wanted to. Some of it was on the verge of becoming very popular and cool–the Japanese artists who took part in Takashi Murakami’s Superflat show at MOCA, for example–but we still uncovered a lot of uncharted terrain before the Internet provided instant access to everything. Early Chinese-Jamaican producers of reggae, the cybertecture of James Law, and tricked-out semis in Japan–our magazine mixed high and low, old and new, East and West, sometimes in one article.
Of course, we didn’t invent awesome Asian popular culture and it inevitably gained a media presence outside of our pages. I used to watch Stephen Chow movies at Chinese movie theaters in the San Gabriel Valley, but when Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle came out, they were handled by mainstream distributors. The benefit was that we provided easy access to filmmakers like him for press purposes, and even got to present a preview of CJ7 complete with a Q&A when it came out. However, it also meant that our role as sharers, facilitators, and builders of culture was being diminished. A lot of what was uniquely in Giant Robot–cool movies, rad music, new art, designer toys–was being covered elsewhere. (Without our superior curation or genuine tone, of course.)
There are a lot of reasons why the magazine ran its course after 16 years, but I didn’t really dwell on them during the talk. Eric can provide a better view of the very real business concerns, including the dearth of advertising, costs of printing and shipping, and rise of digital media. And perhaps the independent spirit that made our magazine personal and unique also kept us from gaining mass appeal and reaching our business potential. But I can’t complain since I made and kept so many friends through GR and am proud of all 68 issues. It was so hard to let go at the time, but now I realize that projects come and go–and it’s not always anyone’s fault because there are economic, cultural, and other forces beyond our control–and you have to appreciate them for what they are.
Then I shared how it’s fitting that I would write for interTrend nowadays. I think the Asian advertising company perfectly handles Asian culture in the post-Giant Robot America. They work with Fortune 500 clients such as Toyota and State Farm, but use hardcore pop culture references like Hatsune Miku and Ultraman in their campaigns instead of just replacing white actors with Asian ones. And to be involved with Imprint Culture Lab has been perfect, too. Promoting and growing interesting culture (Asian or not) is something I’ll never stop doing.
During the final seconds of the Art Center talk, I brought up the Save Music in Chinatown series of benefit concerts that my wife and I have started. As great as it was to share ideas on paper or via the Internet, to create something in real life is special. And for Wendy and me to help the kids in the neighborhood where my immigrant grandparents and in-laws have spent time (and now our daughter) is even more awesome. What I wanted to convey to students is that you never know where your creative endeavors will take you, or how you might be able to help others.
A week after the event, it’s hard for me to recall all the details about the talk. It was based on the slides you see but was largely improvised–and a lot more funny–but the general point was that we are all our own brands. And if we live and work with honesty and passion, we will present ourselves well, gain satisfaction, and be respected. For an Art Center student, I don’t know if my spiel was as professionally applicable as Alyssa Tryon’s talk about maintaining standards at Disney or inspiring as Oliver Seil’s description of how Belkin was saved by design. But hopefully I conveyed the pure joy of working with friends (not only Eric but also Wendy, Pryor, Kiyoshi, Margaux, Cate, and so many others) on something you love.
Thanks to James and Vincent at Art Center for having me. Thanks to Alyssa and Oliver for allowing me to share the stage with them and try my best to talk about a topic that they actually know about. And thanks for everyone who came and listened–especially Nicole who identified herself as a hardcore Giant Robot reader and fan. With the magazine being out of circulation for four years now, that was pretty cool.
To this day, Eric runs the Giant Robot gallery and a shop in West L.A., providing a crucial hub for indie and international artists and crafty people. Get the scoop at giantrobot.com. And please follow Imprint Culture Lab via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, too.