How magazines made Asian America

July 9, 2019
A past cover of Banana magazine. Courtesy photo.

One day in the summer of 2001, when I was fifteen, I sat at the kitchen counter of my family’s home, flipping through magazines. If my parents had been subscribers to Vanity Fair, Glamour, or GQ, I would have seen profiles of Jennifer Lopez, Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Heath Ledger. But I held in my hands A Magazine, which advertised itself as going “Inside Asian America.” It was glossy, with a cover featuring Kimora Lee Simmons, the creator of the fashion line Baby Phat. She wore a pink top and matching lip gloss; she posed with a seductive smirk. There was nothing exceptional about the issue, except, perhaps, that it was one of A Magazine’s last.

This is a memory of a banal teen moment. Yet it has remained a piece of the narrative of my childhood. Kimora Lee appeared alongside a package on hapas, a Hawaiian word for a person of mixed-ethnic, often Asian, heritage. I was intrigued by this word as an alternative formulation of what I would have called “half-Asian,” but which conjured a whole identity rather than two incomplete parts. Afterward, with equal measures naivety and pride, I took to calling myself “hapa” at school.  

Recently, I looked up back issues of A Magazine and found the issue I had seen. The cover lines, arranged to frame Kimora Lee’s perfectly lined cat eyes, advertise “Sizzling Summer Fashion” and a feature on “Car Culture: Hot Rods and Cool Chicks.” There is a puzzling gesture at political content: “Does America Hate Asians?” immediately followed by “How to Make Pearl Tea.” The magazine wouldn’t interest me much now; it was filled with typical aspirational lifestyle content, distinctive only for the Asian faces. But it was my first initiation to media written by and for Asian Americans. Though A Magazine wasn’t the only outlet for Asian-American readership when I was a teenager, it was one of the largest and most influential—the only one, in any case, whose subscription offer reached my parents’ address, in central Illinois. 

A Magazine folded the following winter. (“But we paid for the whole year!” my mother complained, and accused the company of scamming her—a penny-pinching immigrant to the last.) One by one, during the first decade of the millennium, as the media industry’s shift to digital publishing made the cost of printing too high for small, independent magazines, other Asian American titles put out their final issues. It was the end of a scene, a slow fade for an informal group of magazines that had responded to the emerging idea of whatever Asian America might be. Their names signaled a crisis of identity, a need to either defiantly proclaim “Asianness” or self-consciously carve out a space between Asian and American life: in addition to A, there was Bridge, TransPacific, Yolk, Rice, Jade, Monolid, Hyphen, KoreAm, Giant Robot, and others. 

And yet Asian-American media continues to reinvent itself. One of the newest and most exciting iterations is Banana Magazine, created five years ago out of Chinatown in New York, by Vicki Ho and Kathleen Tso. The two women met while working in the fashion industry and bonded over conversations about their Chinese immigrant parents. They decided to publish an annual magazine for people like them: young Asian Americans who are the makers of style and culture. Since its launch, Banana has covered Asian heritage with a playful aesthetic. (Its tagline, “All things AZN,” is light and buzzy.) The first issue shared family recipes, profiled local business owners, and offered tips for dyeing dark hair platinum. Issue 3 featured a fashion spread, “Asian Glow,” for which models downed shots and flaunted the red flush that resulted. Banana’s latest issue includes a story on Asian Americans in the cannabis industry and an ASMR-inspired photoshoot of shaved ice.

Banana is part of a 50-year lineage of publications aimed at Asian Americans: those of us who are English-speaking, often American-born, and comfortable inhabiting mainstream culture. The visibility of these publications within the larger media is slight—Ho and Tso tell me that many of their readers are thrilled to discover that an Asian-American magazine exists at all. Neither had read one before doing market research for Banana. But the influence of Asian-American media resides in the arrival at something like a coherent identity at all. Asian-American magazines were actively involved in the creation of Asian-American identity since the very first usage of the term. Before Asian-American magazines, there was no Asian America. 

The term “Asian American” was devised in the late 1960s by students at the University of California, Berkeley, as a way to harness collective action against the chauvinist racism of the Vietnam War and express solidarity with other racial groups. Inspired by the Black Power movement, students of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean heritage who had previously thought of themselves as distinct communities imagined a pan-ethnic collective defined from within. “Asian American” would be a rallying cry. It would be a way to reverse the dehumanizing stereotypes contained in the colonialist term “Oriental.”

It is the social movement that launched Gidra, the first Asian-American publication. Founded in 1969 by four Japanese-American students at UCLA, it was unapologetically radical, with a streak of comic irreverence—the name “Gidra” was taken from Japanese monster movies, and the mascot was a slanty-eyed caterpillar carrying a samurai sword and wearing a conical hat. It ran political cartoons that ridiculed ethnic stereotypes (“one Korean is an orphan, two Koreans is a border struggle, three Koreans is a kim chee factory”) and fought to dismantle the perception of Asian Americans as “taciturn, unfeeling, and unresponsive”—a view still perniciously in place today. Gidra was run by a staff of students who were enormously productive, publishing sixty issues over five years to a monthly circulation of 3,000. Karen Ishizuka, a historian who wrote her PhD thesis at UCLA on Gidra, remembers picking up free copies of the paper on campus. “As Asian Americans, we knew we were people of color but we didn’t have a firm identity as empowered people,” she says. “We were under the rubric of Orientals. We were un-American. Gidra was a way to talk about ourselves. It was a space, before the internet, where we all came to figure things out.”

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By the eighties, the term “Asian American” had entered wider culture, losing its political meaning and coming instead to signal a racial category. This was in part a result of changing demographics: in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act ended quotas limiting Asian immigration and provided for the active recruitment of professionals and students from East Asia. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the United States resettled more than half a million refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. These new arrivals diversified the communities established by Japanese and Chinese families that had come generations earlier. Over just a few decades, the number of immigrants from Asia dramatically increased: Asian Americans made up just half a percent of the US population in 1970, compared to about four percent in 2000, and more than five percent today. Today, the demographics continue to change; there are now more immigrants to the US from Asia than any other ethnic group.

The Asian-American magazines that launched in the late eighties and early nineties reflected the increased visibility of Asian Americans in the culture at large. A Magazine was foremost among them. Started in 1989 by Jeff Yang, who had recently graduated from Harvard, and three of his friends, out of Yang’s apartment, in Brooklyn, A built an ethos out of Asian-American excellence. It ran an annual ranking of top Asian-American professionals and influencers called the A List, and dedicated an issue to speculating about which politicians could be the first Asian American president. A proposed that Asian-American achievement could and did look like any other American success story. 

That seemed to be the case for A, anyway, which held swanky fundraisers and moved into a new office space, in Manhattan. For its covers, it courted rising stars (Lucy Liu, Michelle Kwan, Margaret Cho, Jackie Chan, Joan Chen). Sometimes, the magazine went beyond celebrity worship, especially in the early days: its premiere issue marked the first anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, called for Asian American-Pacific Islander demographic unity in census counts, and reported on hate crimes against Asian Americans in the years since the murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two white autoworkers in Detroit, in 1982. A later issue profiled political activist and performance artist Kathy Change, who staged a self-immolation at Penn State, in 1996. The magazine was vigilant about confronting racism, especially damaging portrayals of Asian Americans in entertainment: a front-of-book column called Media Watch monitored insults such as a Time magazine story on Asian Americans in California that was headlined “Strangers in Paradise” and Andrew Dice Clay, a comedian, cracking jokes about “Japs.” “We didn’t just want to celebrate success,” Yang tells me. “We wanted to interrogate and challenge people’s definitions of who we were.” But by the end of the magazine’s run, in 2002, the Media Watch column and any overt political consciousness had fallen off, in favor of a list of the fifty best colleges for Asian Americans and a celebration of Michelle Yeoh’s entry into the Bond Girl canon.

When A ceased publishing, Bernice Yeung and Melissa Hung, two early-career reporters in San Francisco, were devastated. “If you were an Asian-American journalist and you were interested in Asian-American issues, A Magazine was about it,” Hung recalls. They decided to fill the gap with their own magazine, Hyphen. For early meetings, they squatted in a conference room of the Mother Jones offices after hours. At first, only a handful of people showed up. But word of the project spread, and soon the group grew to thirty and more. By this time, the idea of Asian America was well-established, and the editors imagined a different magazine than A. Much of the coverage of Asian Americans at the time felt “very 101,” says Hung. She was tired of reading celebratory first-person essays about identity. “Now that you’ve found your identity and are proud of your heritage, what next?” she wondered. 

Todd Inoue, Hyphen’s music editor, didn’t want “the 2,000th story on James Iha and how Smashing Pumpkins has an Asian guitarist” but one that went beyond “just having an Asian face in a band.” Another editor asked, “With respect, how many times can you do an anniversary story on the LA riots?” Instead, Hyphen advanced an awareness of racial injustice with humor, putting on an annual male beauty pageant that undermined America’s cultural emasculation of Asian men (Ali Wong was an early host). The magazine covered pop culture, publishing a culinary defense of MSG and investigating why Asians of a certain age all loved the song “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order. It also pursued serious reporting, exemplified by a story about undocumented Asian Americans that challenged the model minority myth. 

Hyphen was the first Asian-American publication to which I subscribed, and I loved its sensibility, one that celebrated Asian culture without cheerleading. Issues of Hyphen were filled with nudges and winks, too: the culture section was called “Gifted and Talented,” and donor-contribution tiers started at “Piano Recital Winners” and ended at “MDs.” “We weren’t trying to be an Asian-American magazine for all Asian Americans,” Bernice Yeung says. “It was almost like outsiders within outsiders.”

“Outsiders within outsiders” could have also described Giant Robot, which, for many editors, writers, and readers I’ve talked to, was the standout Asian-American magazine—the one that wasn’t invested in crafting a thesis of what “Asian American” should mean but was just a cool thing to read. Even the name “Giant Robot” broke the mold of overly self-aware titles. “We just liked big robots,” Eric Nakamura, the founder, tells me by way of explanation, before launching into an analysis of why the large, autonomous robots of Japanese pop culture were superior to the subservient machines in Star Wars and The Jetsons. Nakamura co-founded Giant Robot with Martin Wong, a friend with a background in publishing, in 1994. They ran it out of Nakamura’s garage, in LA, under the shade of an avocado tree. Nakamura and Wong would watch Dodgers games on TV while producing issues, paying friends who came by to help in pizza or ramen. 

Nakamura created Giant Robot in direct reaction—retaliation, really—to the other Asian-American magazines in circulation at the time. A, Yolk, and TransPacific were attempting to speak for the totality of Asian America, Nakamura sensed, using buzzwords like “GenerAsian.” He didn’t feel that they spoke to him, however; he had studied Asian-American history but he also skateboarded and listened to metal and punk rock. “The content felt forced,” he recalls. “Things were promoted because they were Asian American. But were they good? I would look at it and be a bit bummed.” Giant Robot purposefully eschewed a mission statement. “It was just everything that I liked,” Nakamura says. Whereas A’s tagline was “Inside Asian America” and Rice’s was “The Magazine of Asian American Influence” and Monolid’s was (prepare to cringe) “The Asian American Magazine for Those Who Aren’t Blinking,” Giant Robot declared itself “The Magazine for You.” 

Hua Hsu, a staff writer at The New Yorker, recalls the appeal of reading Giant Robot in the nineties. “Even though at the time I really wanted to be told the parameters of my identity, it was liberating that they could care less,” he says. “With other publications there was a sense that we all had to rally around certain people or things or ideas. I had no issue with that, but it felt like we were just replicating a model for identity that wasn’t faithful to how weird and eclectic being Asian American could be.”

That A and Giant Robot turned out so differently is a more productive lesson than either could offer on its own: they were two competing possibilities of what Asian America could be. From my vantage point, in 2019, where A and Giant Robot diverged most was on the question of whether and how to invest in the project of representation. A tapped into mainstream consumer tastes, and was able to build what was likely the largest subscriber base of any Asian-American magazine (at its peak, it claimed to print 60,000 copies with a North American readership of 200,000, though these numbers have been disputed; the circulation was never audited). A was also successful in that the idea of Asian-American identity advanced by Yang and his staff took root. In the early years, he recalls, when A solicited celebrities to be cover models they would refuse. (“I’m an actor who happens to be Asian American,” they would say. “I don’t think of myself as Asian.”) By the end of the magazine’s run, though, actors and models would pitch themselves.

As I talked to Asian-American writers and editors, it was clear to me that there had been a need for something like A; many told me that it was their first awareness of Asian-American media. Otherwise, most people who identified as Asian American found stories of people like themselves only in ethnic-language papers like Hokudai Naichi, books by Frank Chin, Ronald Takaki, and Maxine Hong Kingston—or, more commonly, nothing at all. “If I ever saw an Asian on TV, on a commercial, I would get really excited,” said Melissa Hung, the co-founder of Hyphen. “I even identified a bit with the dark-haired Powerpuff Girl. She was kind of angry—she was the closest representation that I had.”

Representation is still very much in demand. In mainstream media, Asian American editors and writers who might bring stories reflective of their communities make up only a small fraction of editorial staff. (The American Society of Magazine Editors doesn’t keep a racial breakdown of industry workers, but the mastheads reveal few Asian Americans or other people of color.) Indie ethnic publications made space for Asians to tell their own stories, but these magazines stayed small, and without the opportunity to reach a larger audience the conversations they started couldn’t gather enough momentum to endure. The result is that each generation has taken up the same questions as the last. “It’s sobering to see that the things I talked about in the mid-nineties are the same things we talk about now,” Hua Hsu says. “But it continues to be a conversation that is meaningful.”

Still, in aiming for representation, the risk is a subservience to the mainstream that, in an effort to reach everyone, touches no one. It’s easy to see the hollowness of some of A’s gestures at progress, like when it put Fa Mulan, the historical figure who provided the source for the 1998 Disney film, at the top of its “A List.” (And as a friend of mine said after seeing Crazy Rich Asians, “Is more hot Asians on screen really what we need?”) For me, the magazine with the greater potential to speak to readers was Giant Robot, whose pages still contain original discoveries of niche culture and whose voice still feels fresh and authentic.

Of course, it’s easy to decry representation when you already have it, or at least some of it. Bernice Yeung, the co-founder of Hyphen, wonders if we need an Asian-American publication at all in today’s media landscape, where more Asian-American writers are publishing in mainstream outlets. “I’m seeing stories in the New Yorker that are exactly the kinds of stories that Hyphen would publish,” she says, referring to an article by Hua Hsu last year on Harvard admissions and affirmative action. And the opportunities for Asian-American writers and journalists to speak to the community are growing through other media, especially podcasts. Almost two decades after A, Jeff Yang now runs the They Call Us Bruce with Phil Yu, who created the Angry Asian Man blog. And though it’s not focused on Asian Americans, Yo, Is This Racist?, created by Andrew Ti, calls for more conversation around casual racism. As the media landscape has evolved into a panoply of niche editorial voices, the ability of a handful of larger publications to adequately represent a group as large as “everyone” seems impossible. Smaller and more specific outlets can get around all the contradictions and blind spots of appealing to a pan-Asian audience. Yeung asks, “The magazine that I had in mind when I started Hyphen—does that magazine need to exist now?”

I’m not sure if a magazine with those same ambitions needs to exist now. But I remember my excitement when I discovered Hyphen, and I suspect that readers of Banana must feel that same flutter of recognition. Through those pages I could sense that I was part of a community of readers who were all invested in testing the definitions of Asian America and figuring out how to move forward. Soon after Hyphen stopped printing, I moved from Illinois to New York City to pursue an editorial career in (mainstream) magazines. I knew exactly one person in the city. One day, while I was waiting for my train, a man my age approached me and pointed to the T-shirt I was wearing: it was purple, with a design of a video-game console turning into a Transformer-style robot. “You read Hyphen!?” he asked. We’re still friends.

In January, I attended an event hosted by Banana at the Flatiron location of The Wing, a coworking space for women. Ho and Tso had organized a panel on “Asian dominatrixes” comprising participants in their fourth issue’s package on gender and identity. More than a hundred people showed up, including sex workers, taking seats on soft pink couches and standing beside color-organized bookshelves. The panel included Dia Dynasty and Lucy Sweetkill, two professional dominatrices working out of Chinatown, along with Tiffany Tso, a writer, and Yin Q., a sex activist and filmmaker of the Margaret Cho-produced web series Mercy Mistress. Dia and Lucy spoke of their work as a kind of activism, turning the trope of the submissive Asian woman on its head. “I have a love-hate relationship with the Asian fetish,” Lucy said, and described sex work as a way for her to take ownership of how her body is perceived. Being a dominatrix, she explained, has certain advantages: clients wish to please her, and she has their undivided attention, which she uses to educate. (One client liked to role-play scenes from Bond movies, always casting himself as Bond and the dames as devious vixens; Dia and Lucy sent him to a workshop to rethink his assumptions about women.)

The conversation turned to federal legislation passed last year that took away legal safe spaces for sex workers to book clients, and then the group talked about the planning of a vigil for a local massage parlor worker who had recently died in a police raid. Yin lamented the lack of sex workers’ voices in the media, urging those in the audience to tell their stories. “I don’t want to just see Crazy Rich Asians,” she said. “I want to see Crazy Rich Asian Hos. I want to see us get a Golden Globe.” Questions from the audience continued—“How can sex workers safely navigate the internet now?”; “How did you talk to your families about sex work?”; “How can the Black community support the Asian community?”—until Banana’s allotted time was up, and afterward Ho and Tso were overtaken with admirers of the magazine.

With events such as this, Banana is already a prominent voice in New York’s Asian-American community. But it doesn’t claim to represent the voice of Asian America—its focus is narrowly on style and culture, and its print run is 1,500 copies per year. Ho and Tso didn’t create the magazine to follow in footsteps of Hyphen or Giant Robot; instead they looked to Vice, Dazed, and ID as models. From the first issue, they realized they were filling a need. (A woman wrote in from Kansas: “It’s the most raw thing I’ve seen.”) 

Though Banana is small, the popularity of their events suggests that Ho and Tso are responding to a call for ways to talk about being Asian American. It also means their strategies are working. As two creative marketers, the way they’ve sought to change the wider perception of Asian Americans is through a kind of rebranding: Banana sells caps stamped “Baesian” and totes that say “Blazin’ Asian,” it throws “Asian Glow” Halloween parties, it hosts talks and film screenings. The underlying tone is one of celebration, pride, and community building. “I didn’t think about my heritage a lot growing up in Texas, apart from when I felt negative about it,” Tso says. With Banana, she hopes to offer a space for young Asian Americans to be seen and validated. “There’s so many more voices coming out there,” Tso tells me. “It’s a larger movement than just us. We’re just a little piece.”

Camille Bromley was previously a story editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. She is now an editor at Wired.