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‘No longer completely invisible’: New book explores Asian American pop history from '90s till today

The almost 500-page collage of comics, essays and interviews pays homage to the moments in sports, politics and entertainment that came to define Asian American culture.
Image: Phil Yu, Jeff Yang and Philip Wang.
Phil Yu, Jeff Yang and Philip Wang.Molly Pan Photography

In the half century since the passage of the 1965 Hart–Celler Act, Asians have become the fastest-growing racial group in the United States.

Explosive population growth ushered in a dizzying level of representation in pop culture, from the global craze over boba and gochujang to Kamala Harris becoming the first Black and Asian American vice president. 

How did this all happen? How did this new generation of Asian Americans put themselves on the map? And how has this increased visibility in mainstream culture changed their sense of identity?

Image: "Rise."

These are the questions that Jeff Yang, Phil Yu and Philip Wang set out to answer in their new book, “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now,” which hit the shelves Tuesday. A nearly 500-page collage of comics, essays and interviews, “RISE” is a homage to the seminal moments in sports, politics and entertainment that came to define contemporary Asian American culture.

A buffet of offerings awaits the reader, from memorable character sketches of dot-com-era tech titans to an illustrated record of “yellowface” in films. Dozens of spreads on music track the rise of Asian Americans in rap, electronic dance music and hip-hop. Interspersed among them are sobering history pieces, such as an eyewitness account of Koreatown’s destruction during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Later chapters document the emergence of boba shops and viral meme groups like Subtle Asian Traits. 

The three authors each curated content for the decade they grew up in. Yang, a prolific columnist who launched the pioneering Asian American periodical A. Magazine, oversaw coverage of the 1990s. Yu, who helped steer the rise of Asian American blogs as the voice behind Angry Asian Man, put together the 2000s chapters. And Wang, a founding member of the filmmaking group Wong Fu Productions, capped off the 2010s. 

They also enlisted the help of more than 80 contributors, including Jeremy Lin, who reminisced about the legacy of “Linsanity,” and Jon M. Chu, who discussed the making of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Yang and Yu spoke with NBC Asian America about what their community has achieved in the past 30 years, and why it should be celebrated in these tumultuous times. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NBC Asian America: “RISE” is described as a “scrapbook of voices, emotions, and memories from an era in which our culture was forged.” How did you come up with this idea?

Yang: We started talking about the book in December 2019, when the very first signs were emerging that something bad was happening in the world. We recognized that something momentous and terrible was in danger of rolling back a lot of the incredible progress that we’ve made over the decades. In 2018, we were just coming off the triumph of "Crazy Rich Asians" that led us to believe a turning point had occurred in the pop culture firmament. And all of that felt very precarious. We realized that we needed to retrace our steps and create a blueprint for how we got here — to this point where Asian Americans are all of a sudden no longer completely invisible and finally able to tell our own stories. 

Nico Santos as Oliver and Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor in "Crazy Rich Asians."
Nico Santos as Oliver and Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor in "Crazy Rich Asians."Sanja Bucko / Warner Bros. Pictures

Why focus on the last 30 years in the long arc of Asian American history?

Yu: When "Crazy Rich Asians" came out in 2018, every article written about it had to mention the fact that it was the first major motion picture starring all Asian Americans in 25 years since "Joy Luck Club." While that’s true, there was a lot of culture making that happened in between that set the stage for all this. (They weren’t “watershed” moments in the mainstream, but they were little things that we clung onto — Dante Bosco as Rufio in “Hook,” was such an important character for a whole generation of Asian Americans.) We thought it would be fun to look back and be nostalgic about all this stuff that made up our culture and our community.

Yang: When we use “pop” in the title, we really mean a “popular” history of Asian America, in the sense that it’s about how we lived, how we made community with one another, how we created a culture. The very term “Asian American” was popularized in 1968, when Asian American students chose to march in support of Black Panther Huey Newton under a banner that said “Asian America.” So those of us who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s and 2010s — we were the first generation to grow up with that term thrown at us all the time — and as a result, we had to find answers. What does it mean to be Asian American? Where are you really from?

Why tell this story in such a visual format?

Yu: From the outset, we were definitely interested in a multigenre book. It’s a more effective way of telling the story. It also allowed us to involve a lot of people in the making process, which is important because Jeff and Phillip and I are all East Asian, hetero men of a certain age. We understood we represent just one perspective under the very large, very diverse multiethnic umbrella term of “Asian American.” We wanted to make sure we covered more bases than what just these three guys could tell. 

You had to stop writing last November to meet print deadlines. Which intervening cultural moments would you have wanted to include in the book?

Yang: I wish we had a chance to talk about Nathan Chen and Chloe Kim crushing it at the Olympics, and the conversations about identity that came out of it: “Can you be Asian American and ski for China without having to be called out and attacked with racist language?” There’s a lot of stuff that we had to leave out, but it makes us proud because it means there’s so much more story to tell, and our fears about being crushed under the weight of the pandemic and anti-Asian racism proved to not be true. We are a resilient and resourceful group and I think the future is still way ahead of us.

The book opens with a dedication “to the ones who come next.” What do you hope younger readers will take away from “RISE”?

Yang: There’s a section early on in the book that I put together with Shing Yin Khor, who’s a fantastic cartoonist. It’s a double-page spread simply called “Stuff Asians Like.” We literally just crowdsourced answers to this prompt: name something that’s not actually Asian but that Asians seem to gravitate toward and embrace. The answers we got were so hilarious and awesome. We got Hennessy and Ferrero Rocher, Kenny G and Celine Dion. McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. And it shows that joining together in America and experiencing America together, in some ways, helps make us who we are as Asian Americans. This ongoing conversation about shared experiences — that is at the core of what it means to be Asian American.

Yu: The punchline that holds “Stuff Asians Like” together actually is when someone reads it and goes, “Yes, Costco! That’s me.” That recognition is something that’s so important to the core of the book itself. I hope that other Asian Americans read this, see a piece and think, “Oh, my God, I thought this was just a thing for me and my friends.” My hope is that this book canonizes some of that stuff and makes it legit, like, “Guess what, your Asian American experiences are worth documenting, canonizing and putting in a book.”