The Jay Kim Show #46: Phil Yu (Transcript)
This episode is slightly different from the ones you’re all used to hearing on my show. But our guest touches upon a lot of relevant issues that are getting in the mainstream media these days. So I thought it’d be a good opportunity to have him on.
Today’s show guest is Phil Yu, who is the founder of the blog, “Angry Asian Man.” Phil created Angry Asian Man back in 2001 as a personal blog for him to write about the facets of the Asian-American community that interested him. Fast forward sixteen years later, Phil’s site is now one of the most popular Asian-American blogs on the web. Covering news, pop culture, and media. Angry Asian Man has won numerous awards in new media and is even required reading for some college courses on Asian-American studies.
Phil’s actually not that angry. He’s a really nice guy. And he’s just passionate. Really passionate about highlighting the issues and lives of a community that’s often ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream media. I’m interested to hear your thoughts after this episode, so please e-mail me or hit me up on Twitter and let me know what you think. All right, let’s get on to the show.
Jay: Hi Phil, thanks so much for coming on The Jay Kim Show. We’re excited to speak to you today. For our audience listening that might not have heard of you, maybe you can give us a quick introduction. Who’s Phil Yu and tell us what you do.
Phil: First of all, thanks for having me on. My name is Phil Yu. I am the founder and editor of Angry Asian Man. Which is a blog covering the Asian-American community. I like to say it is the longest running and most widely read independent blog covering the Asian-American community. I started it in 2001. So I’ve been running it for sixteen years.
Phil: And you know, it covers everything from politics, pop culture, current events, you know news commentary. Kind of just all around encompassing the Asian-American experience. Written from the perspective of one person, myself. And, yeah. It’s just, you know it’s a … it’s kind like I guess I’m a professional angry Asian man. Is how I like to say it.
Jay: Yeah. I think, well first of all I love the title because I think it’s fitting to sort of what you’re trying to accomplish there. But, so 2001 … I mean back then there weren’t really many blogs. So I’m interested to hear sort of your experience why you decided to start it in the first place. And writing a blog consistently is … even now in this day and age where blogs are very prevalent is not easy. So I’m interested to hear you know, how you were motivated to keep going for sixteen years.
Phil: Yeah. You definitely have to approach it … you know asking about the origins of the blog you definitely have to approach it from a 2001 perspective.
Phil: Because you know there were not a lot of blogs back then. And in fact, when I started it, I didn’t even know what I was doing was referred to as blogging.
Jay: Yeah I don’t think people called it that. It was like journaling or something like that.
Phil: Yeah I think that the term was out there, but you know it hadn’t really reached you know like popular understanding of that that was a thing. So yeah, when I started it I think honestly … to be honest I did not know I was starting something. It really was just an effort to kind of create a space for myself just to express myself. Really. I was just out of college and I had taken a lot of Asian-American studies courses, and so I was kind of on this track really thinking about my Asian-American identity and community and just the things I was seeing in the media and wanted a place to kind of just sound off. And so a lot of it was just ranting or raving or just discuss it. I mean just talking about things I was thinking about, seeing on TV or something like that. And you know I didn’t … I did not expect anyone to read it. If …. I mean if you look at those first couple of entries it really was just like-just a dashing off a sentence about like, “Did you see this? It sucks.” And then … or like sharing a link. And I’ve said this a lot but I think this is totally true that it … like back then you know Facebook and Twitter and all these other you know social media platforms, they did not exist back then.
Phil: But if they had, that’s probably where I would have just channeled all of this energy into. Right? Like … because that’s kind of what people do on Facebook, right? They just share links and you know they rant about something they saw, or whatever. So yeah, if I had been signed up for one of those services back then, there probably would be no blog. There’d probably be no Angry Asian Man. But as it would, there were no platforms and so I had to kind of create one. And I had like picked up a couple of really just basic HTML coding skills and so.
Jay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Phil: I launched this website and kind of took it on. And you know I did not expect anyone to read it. Didn’t you know … maybe some family and friends and casual you know, internet stumblers. But-
Phil: What ended up happening is that kinda it did grow … like people … like I started hearing from people I did not know. And saw that traffic on the sight kind of slowly start to tick up. And it was a really gradual process, but you know, even that those initial followers and that traffic, I mean that really emboldened me to keep going. And encouraged me to keep writing. And honestly when people ask me like, “Awe man how have you kept it up this long?” The short answer is just like, “Well, I just wrote.” And the next day I wrote again, and then after that I wrote more. And that was kind of … I mean you just build upon it more and more. And you know just kinda doing it because I liked it, you know. I think having zero expectations going into it you know not having a grand design to build this site that was going to reach all these people. Like I had no designs on that, so that actually allowed me to just kind of create something and let it be you know, and enjoy it.
Jay: Yeah, I think that’s a good point, Phil. Because especially nowadays, people jump into … everyone tries to be an entrepreneur or jump in, “I’m starting a blog!” And the real reason that they’re probably doing it because they want to somehow monetize off it quickly or flip it. Or I feel like a lot of times nowadays when people start stuff up they don’t really think it through, right? So back then when blogging didn’t really even exist and it was kind of at the end of Web 1.0 and entering this kind of new phase, but blogging was definitely not common place. And you know, I guess it’s pretty cool because it was just an outlet for you. And I think that there’s you know a lot of crossover with what you were doing earlier back then and an entrepreneur’s journey because … you know it’s like you say you were just doing it because you loved doing it and every once in a while you get a comment and I think that … you know there must have been many times where you were just like, “Mm, Okay. I’m just doing this, but you know maybe I’ll stop one day. Or maybe today I don’t feel like writing so I’m just not going to put anything up.” Right? But then you’ll get a comment. So it’s like the little wins, the little victories that kind of keep you going. Right? Day after day.
Phil: Yeah for sure. I mean it was … cause really, honestly like back then, like what was I really in it for? You know, the feedback loop was pretty … it was pretty shallow. So like I didn’t have … you know there was no … like I said no grand design, no master plan. So like what was I really blogging for? You know, I mean it wasn’t like I was building towards something. So they day-in and day-out of it was kind of like, you know doin my thing. And then, it’s only when you look at it through the lens of time and where I’ve come from now is it like, “Whoa,” that like really was like something happening. And you know, maybe yes, a couple years into it I was kind of like, “This is becoming something.”
Phil: But at least in the beginning, you know … and I hope that I still maintain that same spirit of just wanting a place to express myself and talk it out and have my little … carve out my little place in the internet, you know.
Phil: That’s kind of what … I hope that’s still … I’m doing this in the spirit event.
Jay: That’s awesome. So let’s take like a little step back, so you grew up in, on the West Coast.
Jay: Your parents were probably first generation immigrants to the US, which is a very common story. My parents where the same. And I was originally from the Bay Area as well, so.
Phil: Uh-huh, where are you from?
Jay: Walnut Creek.
Jay: So just outside of San Fran.
Jay: Yeah, my dad used to work for Levi Strauss, so you know … big [inaudible 00:09:27].
Phil: Oh okay, well.
Jay: But we moved around a bit. So I think my experience was a little different. And I spent a lot of time on the East Coast. So I didn’t really have sort of an Asian community to hang out with. You know, and the first time I kind of hung out with Asians was in high school. You know we were definitely a minority in the school. And then I went to college on the East Coast as well and then I moved to Hong Kong. You know I spent a couple years in New York and then I moved to Hong Kong. So I’ve kind of been out of touch with a lot of what’s going on in the Asian community in the States. But having said that, I do remember … I think I first heard about you … so there was like a … I think it was early 2000s, there was something with Abercrombie, right? There was an event and I think that’s where I first-
Phil: Uh-huh, yeah.
Jay: saw … that might have been the first data point where … that put your blog on the map, because I think that’s where I saw you. But then I kinda … I didn’t follow you consistently after that. But maybe you can talk about what happened there.
Phil: Yeah. Well I think that sounds about right. Because that incident was kind of the first … was kind of a turning point for my blog. But it was also, yeah for a lot of people it was the first time they’d ever seen the blog and got exposure to it. So this was back in … it was like 2002, I think? And Abercrombie & Fitch, right, the clothing company, they released this line of t-shirts with Asian-themed designs and I think people could look at them and say they were pretty racist, actually. The one that everyone remembers is advertising a fake laundry service called, “The Long Brothers.” And then it had this, you know, this caricature, stereotypical caricature of like Asian guy with buck-teeth, slanted eyes, and those like comical Asian hats, you know. And the slogan said, “Two Wongs can make it white.” And yeah. They sold these shirts on … at Abercrombie. And the movement to sort of protest these shirts and speak out against them, it really started with college students.
Phil: Cause you know, that’s kind of Abercrombie’s like you know key demographic, you know. But I got wind of it through some student groups, Asian-American student groups and I wrote a post about it. You know I put up images of all the shirts and then at the end of the post, almost kind of as an afterthought, I wrote … I put up a, the corporate contact information for Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s just you know, it was readily available on the website. And I just put it up and said, you know, “If you feel the same way I do about these shirts, like let Abercrombie know. And you know what, give them hell.” It became a whole thing. And I was certainly not the only blogger who covered … like there were plenty of people online who were talking about this, but you know it grew to a movement where like, largely lead by Asian-American student groups. There were like physical protests outside Abercrombie & Fitch stores. And Abercrombie eventually … they pulled the shirts from shelves. And they released kind of this really stupid press release which they said, and I quote, they said, “We thought that Asians would love these shirts.” And it was definitely like a moment where … I suddenly did get a lot of traffic to the site, because people were sharing the link you know like … and this is before you know social media really took off.
Phil: So there was no way to share other than e-mail.
Jay: E-mail, right.
Phil: So people were e-mailing the link to my blog, because that’s where the image of all the shirts were, you know. And so people were just sharing stuff like, “Hey check out this is whack.” You know and then they would share the link. So I got a lot of traffic. But it was also like a really important moment for me in the life of the site. Like I had only really been doing the blog for about a year, year and a half maybe. But it was the first time I really, I had written anything that had kind of … you know that illustrated to me like whoa, I can actually write something and move people to action, you know because of it. You know, it wasn’t … you know up to then I think largely had been me just kinda like from my perch, like you know ranting or raving or celebrating something. But it was really just like throwing stones from my vantage point, but I think it was the first time I was like, “Whoa. I’m part of this larger community. They’re reading this blog. And I can move people to action through the things I’m saying through this blog. And so it was actually a really powerful illustration of … and kind of a … something that sent the blog in a different direction from there on. Like I was really seeing it as more of a space where I could do something for a larger community, you know?
Jay: Yeah, so it’s like proof of concept, which is great. And it must have made you feel really really good about what you had started. And then also, sort of proving the power of the internet at a very very early and pre-social media power of the internet. Right, so.
Jay: I think that’s a pretty cool story. You know this is interesting because, you know Phil, being Asian-American I think that my personal experience growing up, you know in the States and you know, my parents, they weren’t … they were always like, “Okay we’re immigrants in this country so you, just keep your head down. Like don’t make a, you know …don’t make a big stink. Just don’t get in to trouble. You know. Do, just try to fit in.” You know the usual like, “Oh you have to work twice as hard, because you’re a minority, blah blah blah. So it’s almost like, and I think this is quite common with people in our generation, you know we’re around the same age. I think that you know, for the first generation immigrants our parents that came to the States, it was all about survival. Right? And they were just like whatever we have to do to survive. You know and that’s funny, they all, that generation you know, they didn’t call it entrepreneurship, even though they were all entrepreneurs. It’s like entrepreneurship’s this funny term that everyone likes to throw around and it’s cool, you know. You know, I mean that was like survival. But they were all small business owners.
Phil: Right, right.
Jay: And accomplished much, much more than many of have in this day. But yeah, I think it’s kind of funny because glamorize entrepreneurship now, but back then-
Phil: Right, it’s just immigrant hustle, right?
Jay: Yeah, exactly. It was just life, right? Survival, so.
Jay: Was there a point where, you know I’m curious to hear what you’re upbringing was and if you’re … if it was similar to mine and there was a you know, where your parents supportive of what you were doing. You know, cause I think my parents would have been like, “You know, shut the site down. Keep your head down. What are you doing?” You know like, “Don’t cause waves. Get back to working in your corporate job.”
Phil: Well the story of that, I mean my parents attitude towards the work I do and then my upbringing, that’s just like kind of two different things. So I mean, I totally understand what you’re saying in terms of like the attitude of you know first generation Americans. When they’re immigrants they come and I mean they have that attitude of keeping your head down, just doing the work, and just grind it out. You know, and I see that and I’m like, “Well can you blame them?” I mean I totally understand that right. It’s like what do you say about survival mode for so many people … yeah, like why would you do something to stick your neck out and … because like there’s so many things stacked against you, you know? You’re kind of getting to the game like really late.
Phil: You know in terms of like you know … and then … and not … and often time it’s … there’s language barriers. There’s just like you know, you’re just not … you’re coming from a different place and for sure, to provide for your family. It’s easiest to take the path that has you know, sort of the most things laid out for you, right. Like go to school, get a job, do this … like why would you do something that has so many unknowns, you know. And so for sure. Like a traditional career path for me would’ve made everybody so much more happy in my life. But that’s not to say my parents weren’t supportive of the things I do. Because to be honest they were … they’ve always been super … like even if they didn’t understand, they’ve always been really supportive of the things that I was pursuing and was passionate about.
Jay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Phil: And they knew that like, I was pursuing things that would make me happy. And I do, I think that just hearing stories from friends and stuff about their Asian-American parents, I think my parents were a little bit out of the ordinary in that sense. You know they let me go to a private institution out of state to study radio-TV-film. Of all things, you know they must’ve been like, “We are out of our minds, like I can’t believe we’re letting him do this.” But they were so supportive and I have to give them all the credit for that. You know and my parents were entrepreneurs. You know they owned stores, they owned shops.
Phil: You know and businesses and stuff like that and they did that. They did their own version of the immigrant hustle.
Jay: Yeah, Yeah.
Phil: But you know if you think about it like, if you look at the immigrant story in general like that takes so much more risk than any of things that we could do here … like a quote, un-quote, “risky career path.” Like dropping everything in your home country, the country you were born in. Leaving all your friends behind to go some place where you don’t know that many people. You can barely speak the language. And you know and then start from scratch. I’m like that is so much more risky and brave than anything I could have really done, you know.
Phil: And in the sheltered like path of school, growing up here, and whatever, you know. Yeah. I always would’ve probably landed on my feet somewhere along the way. That for them I think that’s nuclear risk, you know.
Jay: Oh yeah.
Phil: So all the immigrants who come do that. I mean that’s so gangster, you know it’s like. If you look at it that way, I’m like, “Well, I’m kind of going in the spirit of what you guys did.” You know within my own path right.
Jay: Yeah, I mean it’s all about perspective, right.
Phil: Right, right.
Jay: I don’t know, this is risky, should I start a blog, I don’t know? Right. It’s like come on, like just type the damn blog, right.
Phil: And the other thing is so, in terms of what they think about what I do and their approval of that. I wasn’t pursing it as my career. You know it was just kind of this thing I was doing for fun and then when it really started to take off and become an actual like, a personal and professional pursuit, like something I was very passionate about and I started getting a reputation for it, that’s when they kind of found out … like for the longest time I actually kept it … didn’t really tell them about it. Not that I was like trying to hide it from them, but honestly I was … I thought, I was like, “They’re not going to get it.” Like why spend the energy trying to explain this thing I’m doing on the computer.
Jay: Yeah, exactly.
Phil: But when they did find out about it, it was because I got some press in the Washington Post and they saw the article and they were like, “Oh, this sounds … this sounds interesting.” Like you know they were like, “Oh, Angry Asian Man. Okay.” And they were like … they didn’t disapprove, they were just like, “Oh that’s cool. Okay.” Years later, like a couple years back actually, I got an article written about me though in the Korea Daily.
Jay: Oh, yikes.
Phil: Which was like … that was it, you know what I mean? Like the Washington Post, that’s nothing.
Phil: The Korea Daily. That was kind of the apex of like achievement for me. I mean cause you know I got written about in a newspaper that they read and that their peers read. In the language … in their first language, you know. And then finally they could explain to their friends what I actually did for a living. You know, like all that kind of lined up and that was legit. Right?
Jay: No, exactly. Exactly, because it’s like for them, and I was laughing because when you were saying like, “Oh my parents let me go a non-traditional route.” I was like God, I can’t imagine how they must have felt at their get togethers with their peers. You know that’s like a beauty contest, right. “Oh my son goes to Harvard.” “My daughter does this.” “My son’s a doctor.” Blah blah blah, you know. “My son, started a blog called Angry Asian Man.” So yeah, you finally arrived man. That was your point. That was your moment.
Phil: Yeah, I think up to then they probably spoke about my work in very vague terms. Like he does internet stuff. Or something.
Jay: That’s awesome.
Phil: Super, super vague.
Jay: Brilliant, okay. So thanks for sharing that story, Phil. That’s awesome. So fast forward now, I mean sixteen years later. Blog’s going strong, you’re obviously … have a very strong social media following, and I think the issues that you talk about are becoming more and more relevant, especially in this day and age. I mean that data point of the Abercrombie & Fitch snafu, you know that sort of thing you would think would never … could never happen in this day and age and yet we still see things like that happening. So two things, first of all I know you just started a podcast yourself, so congratulations. And maybe we can talk about that a little bit. And I’m a podcaster, so.
Jay: So I’m excited when I see new podcasts coming up and I listened to a couple episodes of your podcast called, “They call us Bruce.”
Jay: So first of all, what is the name? Why that name? Obviously I think it’s Bruce Lee reference. And what do you talk about on your show?
Phil: First of all, it’s called, “They call us Bruce,” which is a reference to an old obscure eighties cult movie called, “They call me Bruce.”
Jay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Phil: A lot of people don’t know about this, but in the ’80s there was a Korean-American comedian named Johnny Yune who … he made this comedy, it’s kind of a really broad comedy but it was about him like always being mistaken for Bruce Lee. And then him sort of turning us on his head and he would like try and convince people that he knew martial arts so they wouldn’t mess with him. There’s a lot of stuff about … you know it’s about like Asian identity and stereotypes and race. It’s all boiled down in this like really broad kind of dumb comedy. And so, yeah when we were thinking of names for this podcast we thought, “They Call us Bruce” would be great.
So I co-host this with my good friend, writer and columnist, Jeff Yang. Who’s long been in sort of covering the Asian-American and Asian-American pop-culture beef for even longer than I have. And he’s … you know over the years we’ve become very good friends. And one thing that happens between us is that when we get together, because both of us are so steeped in this and so interested in talking about Asian America, and particularly Asian-American pop-culture, media, entertainment. Is that when we get together we always have these really long conversations. Sometimes very nerdy, very deep dive between us and I thought you know, I love podcasts and I love listening to podcasts and I just thought … I’ve been meaning to one, like start something up like a podcast and two, like wanting to work with Jeff, just as a friend.
We’ve actually never formally worked together so. I thought like, “Wow, why don’t we just have some conversations where we record it?” You know, we’ll record it … basically that’s it and keep it free and start it up. And we’ve been talking about it for the longest time and it kind of came to the point where we needed to stop talking about it and stop thinking about it and actually do it. So it came together actually rather haphazardly, because in recent weeks as of this recording like we … a lot of things have kind of popped up that we wanted to talk about and so we just kind of like, “Hey what are you doing this Saturday? Like I’ll bring my mic over, let’s talk.” So the first couple episodes are reflective of that, because they sound terrible.
Jay: Ha ha, yeah.
Phil: But you know, we are very passionate but the actual sound quality is just really garbage. But you know we kind of just decided we need to just start it cause doing so and putting the episode out at least those first episodes out there, it would actually hold us to doing it, you know.
Jay: That’s right.
Phil: You know and kind of make us start something and be very public about it. And then between my following and Jeff’s following, which largely overlapped too, I think we were able to sort of like, you know, create something and start something up. Like kind of relatively quickly. Even though, like say the technical aspects weren’t there, but at least the social aspects were there. And the content surely I hope was the most important part, was there. So yeah, we’re recording this hour our third episode has come out and you know I’ve actually really enjoyed doing it. So hopefully we’ll keep it goin.
Jay: Yeah, I love the format. Like you said, it’s literally, it’s just two buddies sitting around, talking, as if you’re just having an everyday conversation in your living room.
Phil: Yeah, yeah.
Jay: So I love the casual format of it. And for my listeners listening in, they just did a pretty evocative episode on number three, which is called, ‘Ghost in the Shell.’
Jay: So there’s a lot of issues out there that you’ve probably heard about, read about regarding the scene in Asian representation in Hollywood films. There was “The Great Wall,” which was that film with Matt Damon that came out and then also “Ghost in the Shell,” which is the big buzz right now. So if you want to hear Phil’s views, the Angry Asian Man’s views, then check out his new podcast, “They Call us Bruce.” I’ll definitely be subscribing and following you, Phil. I think it’s-
Phil: Thank you!
Jay: Great what you’re doing. Well Phil, thanks for coming on the show, we have to look to wrap up. Just a couple more questions for you before we go. The first is, in addition to the podcasts that you launched and you know the work that you’re continuing to do … the great work that you’re doing on Angry Asian Man, what are some of the other things you’re working on or goals that you have for 2017 and into the future? You know I mean, maybe this is a broad-based question of what your ultimate goal is for Angry Asian Man and the work that you do. Maybe you can just talk about how you see this whole thing playing out. What’s your ideal end game, or you know metric of success for the blog?
Phil: Yeah, well honestly I’d like to just keep doing what I’m doing and do it better and just keep going with the blog. I mean there’s no shortage of things that need to be covered and get people you know aware of and spread the word about stuff happening with the community. So I mean, Asian America will always be here and keep evolving, so I’d love to be a facilitator that keeps people sort of aware, and keeps it going. I think that in terms of other things that I’d like to keep going, do well the podcast was a big step of just branching out and trying other media. You know it’d be great to branch out to say video or something like that on YouTube. You know honestly I would love to write a book. Like that would be … it would be a great way of sort of like summing up a lot of things that I’ve talked about and experienced and sharing some of that. But the big thing is like, time totally … I’m so busy and I don’t like … I barely … like launching the podcast on top of what I already was doing was like … was a crazy endeavor. And you know it, somehow you just gotta find the way and make some time.
Jay: Yeah, it’s one of those things where … well you were talkin about the podcast, I had the same experience. It’s like, there’s this whole thing of jumping first or leaping first or, it’s like in Jeopardy where you press the button before you even know the answer and then you kinda have to come up with it, you know in the process. So it does hold you accountable though, so I think it’s great that you’re doing that.
Well yeah, I mean last question is obviously where can people find you, follow you, and connect with you if they want to learn a little bit more about the Angry Asian Man, who’s actually a nice guy. Not that angry.
Phil: Thank you. Yeah, you can find me at angryasianman.com that’s where the bulk of the work kind of goes into. You can find me on most of the social media platforms at ‘angry asian man.’ So that’s primarily Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Jay: Okay, awesome. Well great, thanks Phil, thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate having you on the show and best of luck with everything that you’re doin.
Phil: Oh, it was a pleasure, thanks for having me.
Jay: All right, take care.
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