In the pop culture market, history is packed by decades and consumers by generations, because memory is rife: nostalgia for the old, retro-chic for the young. Aside from Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit, however, Asian Americans have been mostly shut out of this economy.
Or so it seemed. A new book, Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the 90s to Today, insists otherwise. Its authors are staples of the Asian American media scene, who have made a name for themselves in different formats: Jeff Yang ran the glossy paper of the 90s A magazinePhil Yu blogs as Angry Asian Man and Philip Wang co-founded Wong Fu Productions, a digital production company with millions of YouTube subscribers.
Colourful, airy and beautifully designed, To go up is a thick compendium of over 30 years of Asian Americana, comprised of magazine-style lists, infographics, panel interviews and bite-sized comic strips and essays, written by dozens illustrious contributors. It’s serious, enjoyable fun, meant to grab your short attention span and hook you in, with sections for the 90s, 00s and 10s, plus a before and after. Gen X and Gen Y in particular will find something to laugh or cringe in recognition: favorite songs, embarrassing fads, mysterious artifacts from ancient internet subcultures.
But look again and you will see that To go up has more serious ambitions. As Yang explained at the book launch in Los Angeles, it’s a people’s story, not just a pop culture story – the story of Asian America, as we experienced it and we we fight to see it represented on the shattered screens of the American media.
Can nostalgia be a manifesto?
This is where things get complicated. Beneath the decade-by-decade organization of the book lies a historical overview. The Asian America we know is really what I would call “Asian America 2.0” – fundamentally redefined since the 1980s by the children of immigrants, who arrived after the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 ended decades of racist laws aimed at excluding Asians.
The story of the term’s earlier origins has become canon, which To go up dutifully recounts: Invented in the 1960s by Berkeley graduate student activists Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, it named a revolutionary social movement, aligned with black, Latino, indigenous and other “third world” struggles.
While the idea that Americans with ethnic roots across Asia shared experiences, interests, and destinies seems odd, it made more sense for a 1960s population made up of multigenerational Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese communities. -Americans, whose lives in the United States had converged after 30 or 60 or more than 100 years. But in the 1980s, Asian Americans came from a wider range of ethnicities, were more likely to be foreign-born, and ranged from refugees to affluent professionals who came through immigration preferences. for skilled workers.
If “Asian America 1.0” was a name for a radical political identification—“a fight you had with the world,” as Jeff Chang put it—by the 1980s, it had become a polite, standardized racial category. For many immigrants, this felt like an imposition, but when their children came of age and entered white-dominated spaces of social mobility, such as higher education, they found that negotiating shared experiences of being racialized as “Asians” required affirmatively claiming the term, developing strategies for collective support.
Yet this racial identity seemed culturally empty, unlike ethnicity—no less constructed, but grounded in the intergenerational ties and informal institutions and networks that immigrants relied on to survive. “We were the ones tasked with trying to fill the void of what it meant to be Asian American,” Yang asserts in the introduction, “even though we didn’t control the movie studios, television networks, or homes editing.”
To go up, in all its supercharged glory, shows how the blank has been filled: from the serious ambitions of the 90s to the steady but silent growth in visibility through the 2000s, exploding in the mid-10s as American-born artists asian shamelessly exercised control over her own representation. Looking back over three decades, it’s hard not to be impressed.
If you remember being able to keep track of every Asian person who achieved minimal pop culture stardom, then this trip down memory lane is an eye opener. And if you do not remember such a period of lack of representation, To go up is both a history lesson and an archive. Even so, the authors point out, the post-COVID resurgence of unabashed anti-Asian racism is a warning that these triumphs are fragile.
Of course, we all remember the past differently. For me, what stood out about Asian American culture in the 90s was that it was more queer, more feminist, more punk, more brunette, but it’s meaningless to count what’s missing. Even such a big book can’t cover everything, and To go up dutifully accommodates groups often marginalized by Asian American identity. He even acknowledges that “inclusion can turn into erasure,” as a discussion of the relationship between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders puts it. Nevertheless, To go up inevitably favors certain ways of being Asian American that are easy to recognize if you don’t adapt to them.
Whatever frustrations I have with To go up, however, are really with the Asian American cultural politics of the 90s whose promise it tries to fulfill. It was the era of multiculturalism and diversity, whose arc To go up recounts as progressive inclusion, but it was also a neoliberal disappointment with the radical visions that preceded it. This “inclusion,” more additive than transformative, followed lines of privilege in the formation of a class-specific identity—East Asian, American-born (but second-generation), suburban-raised, ethnically educated. elite, professional, cishet, masculine—far less representative of Asian American communities than he claimed.
Yet if the cultural politics of the 90s defined Asian America, for better and for worse, through the entire “2.0” era, something new is happening, beginning in the racial conflicts of the mid-1990s. 10 and igniting after COVID and the Minneapolis uprising. Many young activists identify more with the Asian American revolutionary politics of the 1960s than with the multiculturalism of the 1990s; instead of dreaming of being CEOs of movie studios or TV stations, they dream of bringing down capitalism. Maybe it’s not “Asian America 3.0” – who still uses those kind of numbers? – but it looks like a reboot.
Maybe the way to read To go up is not like a story of triumph, but like a greeting. It will have a place in my library, and I expect to see it pop off many shelves in the years to come, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.