Finals week at Cal is rolling along slowly, and I’m just all about ready for summer! I’ve got a checklist of things-to-buy do that I’m really excited about, and hopefully you do, too.
Schoolwork aside, I decided to follow up on one of my poster’s suggestions and try to interview the Asian American Pop Culture Mag Giant Robot! They were a pleasure to talk to, and I got the chance to ask some really great questions about their mag and their own perspective on the developing Asian American social identity.
Would you mind telling us a brief history of Giant Robot and how it came be?
I met Eric through mutual friends after I graduated from UCLA and right when he had just transferred there. Eric and I were into punk rock, which was still kind of underground in the early ’90s, and we both contributed to stapled-and-folded music ‘zines.
One day in 1994, he mentioned that he wanted to make a ‘zine about Asian culture. There was a ton of stuff going on back then— HK movies were hot, the Japanese die-cast and vinyl toy scene hadn’t been corrupted by eBay, Fil-Am turntablism was rising, there was a lot of interesting bands coming out of Asia, etc. – and no one was writing about it. I told him that I wanted to do that, too, and about a month later, it was done.
We started out with our magazine being really low-tech – literally made with glue sticks, scissors, and copy machines – but we took the writing part pretty seriously.
Since then, Eric has grown GR to include shops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. He comes from an entrepreneurial family, and really helped establish GR and diversify it so it can grow and last. Meanwhile, I stick to the magazine side.
Asian American pop culture is a very strong and collective term—I feel like it can mean different things to different. What is your conception of the term and what it represents?
Culture from Asians in America is different from Asian pop culture, but there’s a lot of overlap. We cover both and don’t worry too much about differentiating them. By default, anything we write about becomes Asian American because that’s what we are. One thing about Asian American pop culture is that it’s very Pan Asian. By the time second and third generations evolve, the original languages and nuances don’t seem so important…I think distinctions between nationalities become less important for a lot of Asian Americans after leaving college, too. Without groups to cluster around, you realize that non-Asians see us as all the same, so you may as well band together!
When it comes to source material, what type of stories does Giant Robot look for?
I think one difference between GR and a lot of other Asian American mags (past and present) is that we feel no obligation to cover anyone just because he or she is Asian.
Let’s say there are Asians on a reality show or a new romantic comedy. Chances are that we won’t cover that person – no matter how huge the show is – just because we’re really not into that mainstream stuff. Most of it really sucks! But we are more than happy to dedicate pages to arty, indie, or important stuff that most people don’t know about. In the end, we just cover stuff we like.
Also, if you look at a typical TOC (table of contents), Eric and I write about 75 percent of each issue. Probably more. Most founders of magazines retreat behind some big desk by the time 15 years rolls around, but we truly enjoy the culture we write about. And that’s the fun part, so why give it up?
As an Asian-American, I really appreciate the resources and information you guys put out on a regular basis. I think the community really benefits from the exposure. In your opinion, have you seen any changes in how we are viewed in the United States since GR’s inception?
I think Asians are slightly less marginalized in mainstream American popular culture. Manga is pretty much mainstream. Asians are on TV shows like Lost and Heroes. Asian food is more common. Asian people might even be considered somewhat cool thanks to Hong Kong action movies, MMA (mixed martial arts), or anime. But in the end, I don’t know if Asian females have a less “exotic” image or Asian American men are seen as less dorky to the average dude in the Midwest. I don’t feel any hotter!
We’ve seen instances in the past when mainstream media co-opted aspects of Asian culture and refit them to suit a more general taste of public opinion. What are your thoughts on the role and influence of Asian-American pop culture in current society?
I think the popularity of anime, designer toys, sneaker culture, or anything else with Asian or Asian American roots gets blown out just like any other type of culture. But the genuine goods, the ones made with craft and heart, will survive and last. I think we do a good job with our bullshit detectors and associate ourselves with authentic participants and contributors to culture–and not just trendy parasites.
I noticed that Giant Robot places a strong emphasis on the arts, something that Asian-Americans are assumed to not be predisposed to. While this mindset is slowly being overturned in recent years, I do want to ask you: what are your thoughts on how we can be relevant as artists?
I think that “low” culture is becoming closer to “high” culture by the minute. Look at what Takashi Murakami did, bringing mainstream anime artists and high fashion into a serious visual retrospective. This, combined with the globalization of awareness and communication between cultural peers around the world, give indie artists more influence than ever before.
The second part is that people are really trying. Years of little acceptance creates a drive and will to succeed. Hopefully, that includes our editorial work and writing. (I’ve been trying hard to reduce typos, which were really prominent for a couple issues.)
On that note, do you think that our collective stories are becoming more pertinent to the greater society? I’d like to think that America places some level of relevance in our community and not just which country Angelina Jolie is getting her new child from…
We’ve always been pertinent! But as there are more us doing interesting things, stereotypes are slowly dissolving and we are gaining attention for our contributions to creative culture and making the world a more interesting – and in my opinion, cooler – place.
Martin, what were, in your opinion, some of the more memorable stories that Giant Robot chronicled in its 15-year history? Are there any topics that are relevant to our community that you would like to tackle but have not?
To answer the first question, after I got laid off from my last “real” job in 2001, I bought a plane ticket to HK and stayed with my friend and GR contributor Daniel Wu. I cranked out about five or six articles from that one-week stay, going to Michael Lau’s studio/apartment, visiting the LMF studio/hangout pad, checking out designer Wing Shya’s office, and having dinner with the likes of Shu Qi and Willie Chan. Sadly, that’s the first, last, and only time I really traveled and wrote stories. You’d think I’d travel a lot, but I really can’t afford it.
As for the second part… I think the best part about editing your own mag is that I get to choose my own articles. Hopefully, you see the magazine topics grow as my interests grow and the culture evolves. For example, in film, we’ve seen the HK industry implode, Japanese cinema come back, and movies from Thailand and Korea take off, not to mention the rise of Pan-Asian projects. If you look over the issues, you’ll also see the rise and fall of designer toys, the introduction of Super Flat art, bubbling up of street art, and rise of indie art. And more recently, you even see some politics. One key to the longevity of GR is our staying curious and excited about new developments in the world. Yes, everyone says the world is going to hell, but we’re always finding new things to follow and get excited about, and hopefully that comes through our words.
If this topic interests you, please give a shout out in the comments section of https://nojuanhere.wordpress.com and tell me what you think.