Image: Pahole Sookkasikon
Ben Margot  /  AP file
Pahole Sookkasikon, an American-born graduate student of Thai descent, is the winner of the "Mr. Hyphen" contest, a San Francisco Bay-area event aimed at redefining the image of Asian-American men.
updated 12/1/2009 6:00:14 PM ET 2009-12-01T23:00:14

The six men on stage included a poet, a break dancer and a filmmaker. They pounded rhythms on the dhol drum, modeled fresh fashions, slathered whipped cream on bare skin and discussed their passion for community service.

This is the "Mr. Hyphen" contest, a faux pageant in the San Francisco Bay area aimed at redefining the image of Asian-American men beyond nerdy, sexless stereotypes.

Conspicuously absent from the stage were computer experts, doctors, lawyers or dry cleaners. There were, however, martial arts — with a twist.

Pahole Sookkasikon, an American-born graduate student partial to drawing, cooking, and "flirting for free drinks at the bar," knew that his hobbies would not translate well to the talent portion of the show.

So he fell back on something he learned in childhood cultural immersion classes: traditional Thai stick-fighting. Only his version featured three attractive women dancing backup while "Tardy for the Party," a song from the reality show "Real Housewives of Atlanta," blasted over the speakers.

"It was a transnational hybrid kind of U.S.-Thai mix-match of talent," Sookkasikon, 25, said in a November interview after winning the Mr. Hyphen crown. "It was a hot mess, man. But it was funny."

Much more serious is Sookkasikon's work to help southeast Asian ethnic groups such as the Thai, Hmong, Laotians, Cham and Mien, and his advocacy for organizations seeking more Asian participation in the national bone-marrow donor registry. The contest donated $1,000 to the winner's charity of choice; Sookkasikon chose the Thai-American Scholarship Fund and the Asian American Donor Program.

His total package exemplifies what one contest judge, the activist and writer Helen Zia, called the growing "Asian-American renaissance."

"It really is taking a page out of what W.E.B. DuBois and the African-American leaders of that period were talking about: culture," Zia said. "This is about changing the view in the American mind and the American culture about what is the Asian-American man."

The contest was established in 2006 by Hyphen magazine, an all-volunteer publication dedicated to covering Asians in America in all their complexity.

"The contest is a lot like the publication itself: Fun, tongue-in-cheek, kind of campy, but there's a serious message," said Melissa Hung, the magazine's founding editor. "Asian men don't get a lot of love in the mainstream media."

Zia said the earliest American images of Asians depicted them as a subhuman, invading, vermin-like population, then as servile, emasculated and asexual. Modern stereotypes focus on "model minority" smart students, Fu Manchu villains and kung-fu action heroes.

Said Hung: "There is still this perception that Asian-Americans are foreign, not quote-unquote real Americans, whatever that means. A lot of us grew up here, or our parents did. (But) it's not seen that way at all."

Sookkasikon's immigrant parents opened a Thai restaurant in the Bay Area and helped establish a Thai Buddhist temple in Berkeley, Calif., where a young Sookkasikon befriended a girl named Michelle Maykin.

Years later, Maykin was diagnosed with leukemia and needed a bone-marrow transplant to survive. Her "Project Michelle" highlighted the shortage of Asian-American donors, a crucial issue since patients have the best chance of finding a match from someone of the same racial background.

"Asian-Americans only have a 30 percent chance of finding a match, whereas whites have a 70 percent chance," Sookkasikon said.

Project Michelle drew the support of Sookkasikon and hundreds of others nationwide. They registered 18,157 potential donors — but none that could save Maykin's life. She died last July.

"I'm used to seeing some pretty disheartening kind of things happening in our world," Sookkasikon said. "There are times when I feel like we will and can lose, as a community or as individuals. But there are times that I remedy it. Working hard, keeping optimistic, not necessarily being angry all the time. Saying, how can we change this? How can we promote this cause? We don't have to lose."

Now he is supporting Janet Liang, a leukemia patient whose Helping Janet organization has registered more than 1,200 potential donors.

Even before they announced Sookkasikon was Mr. Hyphen, "once I got on that stage and said their names, the scholarship fund and Janet and Michelle, we had already won."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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