If you get annoyed by orientalist cover art on novels by Asian American writers, if you don’t like the predictable range of roles that Asian actors and actresses are allowed to play, if you think there should be more quality Asian American films (as well as a channel through which you can access a community of moviegoers to share opinions about such films), you might find Jeff Yang’s ideas in the San Francisco Chronicle interesting.
His piece starts out as a review of Hangover 2. Basically, Yang hated the movie (in spite of the fact he found the first one enjoyable) and goes through all the egregious stereotypes in case you missed them: “Thuggish gangsters. Wizened monks. Lascivious ladyboys. Not to mention whiz-kid pre-meds, infinitely forgiving lotus-blossom brides and the Father of All Tiger Dads.” I swear I think even Bradley Cooper was wincing at himself as he delivered the line, “Not big breasts on her but a solid rack for an Asian” (for which — not the sympathetic wincing, but the line – Kate Muir of The Times docked the film a star).
Why can’t talented people like Ken Jeong find work in better films? Yang brings up Ang Lee and Justin Lin as examples of directors who have made profitable Asian American films. But now they direct features geared towards more mainstream audiences. Why? According to certain insiders, the industry’s current situation is such that, from an financial vantage point, you would have to be “retarded” to be making Asian American films.
At the tail end of his very informative rant, Yang calls for action.
We need to give Asian America an extreme makeover — a thorough reboot that preserves the essence of our identity, our heritage and values, while dumping a lot of the baggage that comes with it. We need the kind of transformative rebranding that turned boring Target into sexy Tarjay, launched old-school Old Spice as a new-media sensation, made dead-end Apple magical again.
For some, his approach to Asian America as a “brand” might be cause for alarm (as well as the assumption that Asian America even has what might be called an “essence”) but let us keep in mind that Yang’s day job is to forecast global consumer trends for a market research firm. Here, he is less interested in the historical dimensions of Asian America, and more interested in strategies that will make quality Asian American cultural productions commercially viable. His primary target is college campuses, where there are more than a million Asian American students.
Let’s begin with some industry-standard numbers. A typical hardcover book sells well under 10,000 copies; a book can be quite profitable — certainly making it worthy to continue to develop the author — if it sells 20,000 copies. (If it sells 200,000, that’s an out and out bestseller.)
The economics of traditional filmmaking, meanwhile, are terrible. For an indie filmmaker, you simply can’t make money with theatrical distribution. But if you’re talking a target not of theatrical distribution but direct-to-DVD, a film with a guerrilla $250,000 budget can make back its costs and return a healthy profit if it sells 20,000 units at $20 a pop.
It’s a similar situation with music — though of course, these days, the only way performers are selling CDs is when they hawk them at actual live performances. But selling 20,000 CDs at $15 each is beyond what most indie musicians can imagine.
Now, there are currently more than a million Asian Americans enrolled in college — two-thirds of whom are concentrated in eight states. It would only take two percent of them collectively purchasing a book or DVD or CD to make it solidly profitable — supporting the work of a creative artist, and enabling that creator to continue doing what he or she does, with full freedom to make art that’s appealing and authentic and true to an Asian American experience.
This is the gist of something that, in our conversations, cultural critic and academic Oliver Wang has dubbed The Two Percent Project. Here’s how it might work: Get together a group of smart, influential tastemakers — journalists, critics, student leaders, bloggers. Have them select five indie Asian American creators — writers, filmmakers, musicians — from an open call that includes anyone with a brand-new, brashly different and commercially viable product.
Send these creators on a collective national barnstorming tour of the college campuses with the biggest Asian American student representation — reading, performing, speaking, and showing their work and their potential. The costs of the tour would be covered by student organization funds and corporate sponsors.
Here’s the kicker: Although attendance at these events would be free, every attendee would have to purchase one of the five products these artists are promoting on the spot, while enrolling in an online community that gives the artists long-term engagement with their consumers.
The goal? Constructing an independent audience. Reinventing the Asian American brand. And creating recorded proof that Asian American artists are marketable and that a market exists to sustain them.
Bloggers like Angry Asian Man and bigWOWO have praised the idea. There has also been a healthy show of skepticism in the comment section — especially about the idea of merely replacing non-Asian gatekeepers with Asian ones. Since Asian America is far from being a homogeneous, equally represented, or an organized community, the problems of stereotyping and misrepresentation may persist even if Yang’s ideas pan out.
It might be interesting to think about what implications strategies like this — if it is indeed successful — would have on the literary translation industry.
If you have some time, read Yang’s original four-page article here.