March 2020 marked a crossroad for Asian America, particularly in the pop culture world. Crazy Rich Asians had come out about a year and a half before, and just the previous month, Fresh Off the Boat came to an end after six seasons and Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite won Best Motion Picture at the Academy Awards. But then things came to a halt when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. Some blamed China for the pandemic, and the Asian American community started experiencing a surge of verbal assaults and hate crimes, including deadly attacks. Could this rhetoric erase the progress made in enhancing Asian America’s visibility from the public’s memory?
That question led to the idea of Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now. Co-authored by publisher of the now defunct A. Magazine Jeff Yang, Angry Asian Man blogger (and former CAAM staffer) Phil Yu, and Wong Fu Productions co-founder Philip Wang, the nearly 500-page book explores the impacts of significant cultural moments and occurrences in Asian America from the 1990s, the 2000s, and the 2010s. Encouraged by their agent and other people in the publishing industry that the need for such a book was urgent, it sold on proposal to HarperCollins more quickly than any of them had anticipated.
There’s a reason why the authors specifically wanted to explore the past three decades in particular. Wang pointed out how even with currently existing Asian American studies books, the timeline usually stops in the 1980’s. “That’s the most contemporary thing,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Wait, that’s where the stuff starts getting good.’ It’s a lot of doom and gloom up to that point. Starting around the 80’s and onwards, post-Sixteen Candles, we actually started to get some footing and do some good stuff.”
With three decades and three authors, each was responsible for overseeing one of them: Yang covered the 1990s, Yu the 2000s, and Wang the 2010s. Even though the work was evenly split, it still remained far from a cake walk.
“It ended up being a lot more work than any of us could have imagined because we’ve done a lot,” Wang explained. “Not we, but our community has done a lot, and it’s a lot of stuff that those articles don’t capture that just fast-forward 25 years. So I’m glad that we were able to lead the charge or plant our flag to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to document this, and it’s going to exist forever now.’”
A lot of ground is covered in Rise. It began with writing down what each of the authors could recall from the last 30 years. The benefit to having three authors work on this book is that each of their lived experiences differed from one another.
“Our Asian American identities – the platforms we built our communities on and our content on – they evolved over these three decades,” said Yang. “You can see that in these long essays that we wrote that they were a little more first person and talking about the events that we saw ourselves and were a part of.”
Yang explained how Wang was instrumental as the youngest of the trio in incorporating aspects of Asian American culture that may have otherwise been overlooked, such as AZN and Subtle Asian Traits. On the other hand, Wang learned a lot of cultural moments from Yang and Yu that precede his time, like British techno-pop and Bizarre Love Triangle.
All three authors are experienced writers, from blog posts to screenplays. However, until Rise, only Yang had prior experience with writing books. The pressure to make it as comprehensive as possible was constantly present, especially with the pandemic and other occurrences happening in their personal lives.
That’s why for Yu – who was dealing with a sudden washing machine delivery throughout the interview with CAAM – writing was the easy part of creating the book. As he elaborated, “It’s actually fun to write about the things that you want to. At the end of the day, I’m like, ‘This is awesome that we get to write about this stuff, the stuff that we care so passionately about.’ So that part of it, that was great. The hard part actually was knowing that this was going to be for public consumption. That was kind of stressful, that there’d be a lot of eyes on this, like, ‘Man, we got to get this right.’”
Yu, who has been running Angry Asian Man for over two decades, wasn’t sure why putting it in book form makes it more legit for him. That’s when Wang pointed out to him about the physical nature of a book compared to something digital like a blog, and also the difference in approach.
“Maybe the blog is more of, ‘This is my personal opinion, but now the book, we’re trying to represent people,’” Wang noted.
“Yeah, maybe that’s it,” Yu responded. “There’s a certain level of we’re trying to make this a thing of record, you know what I mean, which may or may not be true, but at least I’m going to treat it as such.”
Even though Rise has three authors, they all knew that as straight, cisgender East Asian men (two of whom have the same first name), they alone couldn’t capture all of what has happened in Asian America over the last three decades. That’s why they brought on over 80 contributors for the book as well.
“We needed to make sure that people, at the very least, felt that they were not ignored by this book,” Wang explained. “If we’re going to come out with a book that has such a heavy weight in the subheading – this represents Asian American culture – we’d better do our best due diligence to try keeping a balance and try to make everyone’s voice feel heard.”
The contributors were selected based on who they’ve worked with previously, whose writing they admired, and a lot of recommendations. They also found it useful that they had laid out a timeline in advance, which gave them anchor points in terms of determining the best people to cover them. An example from the book was Yu reuniting the first wave of Asian American slam poets to do a collective slam poetry piece.
“It was so easy actually [to recruit them],” Yu said. “I thought that people might be like, ‘I’m not really doing that kind of stuff anymore.’ But everyone was like, ‘Yeah.’ Everyone contributed a stanza. It’s like this really cool poetry piece that’s in the book.”
Rise covers a lot of ground, but even still, there was material that didn’t make the final cut. Regarding the possibility of doing a second volume, the authors believe it can be done. After all, they wouldn’t call their book a complete work, nor will they necessarily be the ones writing it and other ones that could follow.
“[Rise is] designed to be a personal set of accounts by a group of people who we think have really fantastic voices,” Yang said. “We also know there are tons of people with equally fantastic voices, contexts, and experiences that we would love to see share their own viewpoints both about the book and about the decades as they read this. I’m sure they will.”
When it comes to what they hope for readers – whether Asian American or not – will take away from reading the book, Yang thinks that Rise is almost like two books in that regard, because there’s both information that non-Asian readers will find interesting and information that Asian Americans will probably remember and immerse themselves in nostalgically.
But in the scheme of what readers will get out of it, as Yu wished, “I just hope people learn something because there’s a lot to learn, because mainstream discussions of history have largely ignored most of this stuff. I really do hope that other Asian Americans read the book and they’re like, ‘Oh, yes. I recognize that. I thought that was just a thing for me or a thing that I experienced. I didn’t know we had a shared experience in that.’ So I hope there’s a recognition in that respect.”
Wang echoed Yu’s sentiment in just learning something from Rise. “There’s a lot of stuff on the political side, on the activist side where we’re not this quiet minority. We have a lot of pride, and we’ve had a lot of progress. Mainstream doesn’t pick up on that,” he elaborated. He hopes non-Asians will read the book and say,“I didn’t know Asians did that. I didn’t know that they were big on that. I didn’t know that they dominated that scene.”
If they can get that kind of reaction, the authors will know they’ve succeeded.
“Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” will be released on March 1, 2022.