From Wong Fu to ur mom ashley: What two generations of Asian American creators learned about embracing their identity
"By the end of the 2000s, YouTube had begun to completely shift the terrain of media. There was no way to easily categorize what was happening, but in the decade that followed, what was once a chaotic Wild West of content began to take shape as a legitimate and lucrative platform. The term “new media” was coined. Networks were formed. Advertising dollars began pouring in, and Asian content creators began to learn how to succeed in a brand-new system."
— A snippet from “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now”
Asian Americans have long been a fabric of American culture — but you wouldn’t necessarily know it if you only followed pop culture headlines in recent years. That’s at least how Phil Wang sees it. As part of Wong Fu Productions and co-author of “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now,” his new book aims to showcase the visibility Asian Americans have had all along — and how YouTube was one of the first places where the community was heavily represented.
Phil dedicates the book to the future generation, so we paired him up with Ashley Alexander of ur mom ashley to share and reflect on their experiences as Asian American creators and what the future holds for their careers.
Rise is such an important book that tells the less-told story of the impact Asian Americans have had in the media. Why tell this story now?
Phil: The idea for us wanting to make a book started actually around 2018 when "Crazy Rich Asians" came out. It was like this landmark moment for representation in Hollywood — there were all these headlines that were saying it was the first movie in 25 years with an all-Asian cast since "Joy Luck Club." And I was always bothered by those mainstream headlines because it made us sound like we didn't do anything for 25 years and just sat around just waiting for Hollywood to give us the next chance.
But that’s not true — there were tons of people and movements and creators who were doing impactful things for the community! The YouTube movement that started in the late 2000s and really bubbled in the 2010s was a very formative several years where YouTube was the only place people could see Asian faces and it was on the computer screen.
What was it about the media world that inspired you to showcase who you, and in a way, your community, was about?
Phil: I'll be totally honest, it wasn't that deliberate. And I think that's what was so unique about the early YouTube days is that you had a lot of accidental creators that didn't start with the intention of becoming big or building a brand, because let's be honest — back then, there was no roadmap.
We were three dimensional. We were goofy. We were falling in love. We could be serious. We could be nerdy, we could also be hot, we could be all these things.” Phil Wang
Putting our Asian faces out there was more out of just natural convenience. We felt very comfortable in who we were thankfully. I think that's what people gravitated towards because we were just being unapologetically ourselves. We weren't being any type of stereotype or any type of weird character. We were three dimensional. We were goofy. We were falling in love. We could be serious. We could be nerdy, we could also be hot, we could be all these things.
Ashley: Similarly, I had always just loved making videos, but growing up and seeing people like Phil or other Asian YouTubers pave the way definitely made me feel much more comfortable being a creator and going for it. I imagine for you it could have been harder to get started without seeing similar representation.
Phil: I actually think us not having any expectations and a little bit of that naiveté made it easier. Whereas I feel like your generation now, it's almost a mind game before you even start and you have massive expectations or it's harder to break through because there is more noise!
As prominent Asian American creators, how has the rise in Anti-Asian sentiment across the country affected you creatively?
Ashley: It put me in a very bad slump because I just felt the pain of just seeing my own people go through something like that. It was hard for me to put out YouTube videos cause I'm supposed to be happy in all my videos. But at the same time, for those Asian American viewers that both Phil and I have, just putting out our normal, funny, happy content helps keep people happy and uplifted. So that kind of helped me get back into the process of creating.
I definitely felt a lot of personal burden — almost of a responsibility — to share my experience since I am lucky enough to have a platform. I have plenty of viewers that aren't Asian that tell me, “Oh, that really opened up my eyes to what's going on.”
Phil: For me and at Wong Fu, I think a lot of people were looking towards us as this brand or channel that has a very large network and a lot of peers. So our main goal was to show solidarity, but also what are some tips or advice on how to get through this? It really does feel like sometimes that nothing else matters except what's going on in the world, which then brings in a different element of your own mental health and trying to keep yourself sane and productive because not everyone deals with trauma and pain the same way.
The discussion around mental health has evolved over the past few years. What is your process of recognizing and prioritizing your own mental health?
Phil: Mental health was not even something that I ever heard of until a few years ago. Before then if things were rough with either school or as it pertains to the channel, I would just power through it. And now that it is a more acceptable thing, the way it has helped me the most is actually understanding the people I work with. Now, when I communicate with the people I work with, I can sympathize with them — they're putting a word to the feeling that I have felt before so I'm going to be sensitive of that and try to help them get through it. I can even identify when someone is not admitting that they're struggling and check in.
If I have issues, I feel totally comfortable just saying them. I'm taking my first week-long break in probably two years and people are actually happy for me.” Ashley Alexander
Ashley: For people of my generation, discussions around mental health are very widely accepted. If I have issues, I feel totally comfortable just saying them to my audience and people are very receptive to it. Even this week, I'm taking my first week-long break in probably two years. I told my audience and people are actually happy for me. I'll even have people DM me, “Hey, Ashley, I saw you post an extra video this week, we liked it, but you should take a rest if you need it.”
Phil: I think sometimes people will say, oh, this new, younger generation, they throw around this mental health word and it makes them soft or whatever. But I think in many ways, the reason why I think it became such a hot topic is because the amount of expectations for creators is actually quite different from what I went through just not too long ago. And just the fact that creators are making videos every day, every week, that's going to create the need to talk about the strain that you're having. Growing up in a time with this hyper-visibility where everything is public you have this infinite accessibility to people that you can build a brand and a company around, but you also have people who are going to constantly be sharing their opinions and critique. It's just a different world.
To you, what is the future of Asian American visibility in media?
Ashley: As a YouTuber, I don't feel me being Asian necessarily defines me as a person. I don't think people would look at me and say she's an Asian YouTuber, but oh, she's a YouTuber. People are seeing people as creators and not necessarily by race — though I still think it is good to have things culturally that people relate to. I always try to tap into my Korean side if I can.
Phil: I think what's great about this decade that we're in right now and what the 2010s has led up to is that now we are in an era where we have a lot more choice, and creators being Asian is not the crux of the reason why people are going to them. I think the novelty of seeing Asian faces on YouTube is not as strong and it is a step in the right direction. We need to get to a place where not the entire community and the reputation and the stereotypes of a community rest on a single movie or a single YouTube channel or single YouTube video.
From Millennial to Gen Z and vice versa, what advice do you have for each other as you both continue forward in your career?
Ashley: I think you have to be very willing to evolve even though it's kind of painful. Even for me, it was painful to learn how to make vertical content! But times are changing and if you want to stay relevant, you’ve got to be willing to evolve and learn and open to new things.
What's great about this decade is that we have a lot more choice, and creators being Asian is not the crux of the reason why people are going to them.” Phil Wang
Phil: My advice for you is that you're going to meet so many great people through your YouTube channel. Always keep tabs on when someone is doing something really interesting and cool. The book Rise was a result of meeting my co-authors over 10 years ago and we always saw each other at events. And then it kind of came together.
Another thing is you have time. You have so much time! Imagine doing exactly what you're doing for like 10 years — you'll still only be 32, which I promise you, is very, very young. Later on you might have a new passion emerge, or you might meet someone who you want to partner with on a big project — you just never know, you just never know. You’ve got a long way and I'm excited for you.