Asian roles in Hollywood have come a long way since Mickey Rooney played a Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but the dearth of Asian lead characters today suggests that there is still a way to go.
It’s an entirely different story, however, on YouTube, where a young generation of Asian-Americans has found a voice (and millions of eager fans) on the democratized platform.
Of the 20 most-subscribed-to channels on YouTube, which include series like CollegeHumor Originals and Annoying Orange, three belong to Asian-Americans.
Ryan Higa, 21, a Japanese-American comic who lives in Las Vegas, has 4.1 million subscribers to his channel, in which he melds sketch comedy and personal musings. Until recently, he was No. 1 in total subscribers; he is now No. 2.
Michelle Phan, 24, a Vietnamese-American in Los Angeles, has 1.5 million followers, the most-subscribed channel of any woman, Asian or not, on YouTube. Her slickly produced videos offer beauty tips and makeup tutorials. One is inspired by Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Another is by the computer-generated, downloadable, neon-blue-haired Japanese pop icon Hatsune Miku, who has performed onstage as a hologram.
Before her YouTube stardom, she was turned down for a job at a Lancome makeup counter; now she is a company spokeswomen.
“Even among the Asian-American community, we can’t name five real mainstream, say, Asian-American female actors or Asian-American male actors,” said Julie Zhan, an executive producer of the film, which is in production.
On YouTube, she said, “I can name probably 20 off the top of my head.”
Kent Ono, a professor of communications and Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois, said the lack of Asians in mainstream media stems from a misperception “that Asian-American actors are not bankable to audiences.”
Different rules apply online, Ono added.
He pointed to a presentation from the Pew Research Center that found that 87 percent of Asian-Americans used the Internet last year, more than any other major demographic group.
Sites like YouTube also give entertainers more artistic freedom. That was the case for Kevin Wu, a 21-year-old Chinese-American in Los Angeles who started posting videos more than four years ago under the handle KevJumba. He makes humorous skits and music videos on subjects he said are taboo among his parents’ generation, like sex and race. In one video, his father, a Chinese immigrant, dresses in drag and pretends to be his mother.
Wu has 1.8 million followers, making his YouTube channel the 12th-most-subscribed in history.
“I’ll talk about things that Asians don’t like to talk about,” Wu said. “We’re a new breed of Asian-American, and I’m a representative of that.”