Kent A. Ono and Alison Yeh Cheung, University of Utah
(Published December 18, 2018)
In their most popular music video, “Asians Eat Weird Things ft. AJ Rafael,” viewed 2.4 million times on YouTube, David and Andrew Fung introduce a variety of Asian ethnic foods, such as durian (a fruit known for its pungent smell), chicken feet, tripe, and other foods that are considered “exotic.” David raps about this cultural experience:
She said, ‘I liked the weird stuff growing up, but stopped in high school it wasn’t cool enough; cuz you can’t serve blood cubes at prom, and stinky tofu just sounds wrong.’ Stop pretending, you don’t like fermented. I admit, the smell can be offensive, but it tastes so good that you won’t need another man—let the flavors take you back to the motherland.
While recognizing that these foods are unfamiliar or “weird” in the United States, the Fung Brothers demonstrate in the music video how enjoyable they are and how many people like them. The video suggests that viewers should accept and enjoy these "weird" foods by showing a predominantly Asian American crowd enjoying various ethnic foods at a pool party. The Fung Brothers state in the chorus, “We got different social norms than you. Can’t change my culture, it’s just how we do. She told me it looks crazy; I said it’s okay, I’m Asian!” Not only do the Fung Brothers refer specifically to Asians and Asian Americans by discussing familiar Asian foods, but they also address non-Asians/Asian Americans by introducing ethnic foods to those unfamiliar with them. Just as hipsters have been known to reintroduce trends from earlier times and make them popular, in this video (as well as others) the Fung Brothers produce an Asian American hipster rhetoric that introduces or reintroduces traditional Asian foods and attempts to make them hip and cool.
Fig. 1. Thumbnail for Fung Brother’s video, “Asians Eat Weird Things,” 5 July, 2013, https://youtu.be/wFGCr9KsqUA.
In this essay, we explore the notion of Asian American hipster rhetoric through a case study of the Fung Brothers. First, we describe the biography, history, and popular cultural emergence of the Fung Brothers. Then, we theorize Asian American hipster rhetoric and review popular cultural texts that discuss Fung Brothers’ productions. Finally, we provide examples from Fung Brothers’ videos that address three different audiences—1) an Asian American audience; 2) an Asian audience; and 3) a non-Asian and non-Asian American audience—as a way to understand how Fung Brothers’ digital media rhetoric circulates in online spaces. Ultimately, we argue that, with special focus on Asian and Asian American food, travel, parents, and Asian and Asian American culture generally, the Fung Brothers offer a millennial rhetoric specially adapted to both digital media and millennial Asian America.
We attend to a type of vernacular rhetoric that constructs Asian American identity with the modern millennial context. Asian American millennials are culturally savvy, interested in experiencing the unique and exciting parts of Asia and Asian America, and self-aware of identity and the globality of social media. Despite the atomizing function of contemporary digital culture that so many scholars describe, discuss, and often lament, Asian American millennial rhetoric encourages a self-conscious understanding and awareness of audiences, both local and global, who witness, hear, and consume Fung Brothers' videos, making possible a sharing of national and transnational identity and culture. This essay, therefore, elaborates on what constitutes Asian American hipster rhetoric and the ways it functions transnationally within the digital media context of YouTube. As we discuss hipster culture, we address neoliberalism and the relationship between "millennial" and "hipsters."
The Fung Brothers
Hailing from Seattle, David and Andrew Fung first established their presence on YouTube in 2011 as the “Fung Brothers,” after moving to the San Gabriel Valley (SGV), also known by the alias “626” (the SGV area code). Growing up in Seattle, the Chinese American brothers frequently visited their cousins in Monterey Park, CA, and say they were intrigued by the fusion of Asian and American influences that characterize the Valley (Fung & Fung). After initially moving to Los Angeles to pursue careers in entertainment, the duo moved to the SGV ethnoburbs in 2011 and began posting original YouTube videos about the local community (Fung Brothers). Much of the content of their videos centers on Asian American experiences and culture, including music, humor, and food, with the largest subgenre of videos dedicated to reviewing foods and restaurants in New York City. After five years of video production, the Fung Brothers moved to New York in January 2016 to develop new content for their website but relocated back to their hometown of Seattle after six months (Fung Bros, “Leaving New York”).
The Fung Brothers’ interest in Asian American topics began prior to their move to the SGV. In an email interview, the brothers explain that they attribute their awareness of race and intercultural topics to their parents (Fung and Fung). David and Andrew grew up attending a Chinese American church and made frequent trips to China to visit extended family members. Their politically-conscious parents passed down to them the value of being politically engaged, in part by taking the boys with them to civil rights protests to support Asian American communities. These experiences provided the Fung Brothers with opportunities to explore their ethnic identities and to understand the social and political implications of being Asian American.
Another significant dimension of their identity story prior to their emergence as YouTube celebrities is their involvement in hip hop. David (“D-One”) and Andrew (“Inglish”) were part of a rap group called “Model Minority,” along with hip hop and spoken word artist, Jason Chu (“Grand Master”). The group was established prior to the creation of the Fung Brothers’ YouTube channel that would ultimately make them famous. Through their work, Model Minority “shuttle[d] between racially colored humor and politics” (Wang). The group’s lyrics touched upon topics relating to the Asian American experience, accompanied by mainstream hip-hop instrumentals. For instance, in “Asian Food Rap,” which mentions Asian food like Kimchi, Sushi, Pho, Dim Sum, and Pad Thai in the lyrics, the background drum and saxophone samples are definitively hip hop. In another song, “Whitewashed,” which appears on their 18-track mixtape, The Model Minority Report, they address racism and Asian American identity in their hip hop music lyrics. Some tracks also incorporate both English and Chinese vocabularies. Model Minority’s music not only recognizes cultural and linguistic differences, but also foregrounds transnational identities and experiences. For example, they cover the song "Learn Chinese" by fellow Asian American rapper MC Jin and rename the song using a Mandarian translations, "Xue Zhongwen" (Wang). The Fung Brothers attempt to subvert the model minority as an Asian American stereotype through their participation in rap and hip hop. Grand Master explained that the group also relied on mainstream songs, such as Wu Tang Clan’s, “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing Ta Fuck Wit,” and Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” to maintain audience accessibility (Sage).
The Millennial Hipster
In 2013, Tumblr’s number one most posted hashtag under fashion trends was “hipster” (2013inreblogs). The "hipster" has come to characterize not only fashionable trends, but also fashionable people that play a role in popularizing specific artifacts. In his article, “The Hipster in the Mirror,” published in the New York Times, Mark Greif says hipster refers to a fashionable person, someone who wears “skinny jeans and big eyeglasses…[and gathers] in tiny enclaves in big cities, [looking] down on mainstream fashions and ‘tourists.’”1 He also suggests “All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties.”
Parallel to Greif’s description, we suggest that the hipster is recognizable through aesthetic and lifestyle elements like attire and style, yet there are varying views on the required elements of the identity. Historically, the hipster as a rhetorical figure has been fraught with cultural tensions. In his article, “The First Hip White Person,” a book review of Gary Giddins’s Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, James Marcus suggests (quoting Artie Shaw) that Bing Crosby was the “first hip white person born in the United States.” What made him hip, in part, was his attraction to and appropriation of jazz music. Indeed, Crosby appeared in high school and college shows in blackface ala Al Jolson. Marcus says Giddins argues “Crosby was the first white singer truly to absorb these [jazz] innovations.” Thus, black and white racial tensions were key to early hipsterism, as the appropriation of black cultural art forms helped white performers stay relevant.
The hipster figure changed over time. For instance, Maly and Varis describe the hipster identity as polycentric and multilayered, due to the fact that its varied definition depended on context and use. They trace the term to the 1950 and 1960s, where it was “a counterculture of avant-garde values and a style that explicitly distinguished itself from the dominant mainstream (white) culture” (2). Diane Huddleston even argues that the beat generation were hipsters, not beatniks, as they have historically been understood, and that they, too, appropriated black culture, including the culture of jazz musicians. In both Maly and Varis’s and Huddleston’s conception of hipster, the key elements of hipsterism continue to be aesthetic and stylistic, yet an additional dimension of “value” suggests hipsterism relates to morality, ethics, and a socio-cultural political stance of counterculturalism.
The 21st-century hipster continues to proclaim a connection to liberalism and also participates in mainstream consumerism, hence if one were to see this fusion of liberalism and consumerism as a kind of neoliberalism, then the neoliberalism in which hipsterism participates is one in which nostalgic reclamation seamlessly enters into commodity relations and exchange as a natural component of stylistic adjustments to elements of white culture. For example, one particular identifier of the contemporary hipster identity includes vintage or thrift store-inspired (recuperated retro) clothing, an aesthetics that could be said to counter cultural mass production and promote recycling, but such fashion choices have also been co-opted by mainstream corporate manufacturers, such as American Apparel and Urban Outfitters, who produce faux recycled jeans, for instance, as haute couture. Mainstream fashion production choices help make hipsterism a marketable identity. Emphasis on the consumerist and consumptive dimensions of hipsterism, then, leads such scholars as Maly and Varis to argue that the hipster subculture is in fact not a counterculture, but a product of “neoliberal consumer culture and niched mass production” (14).
Adding complexity to this view, however, Deborah Cowen specifically suggests that urban hipsters are not only counter cultural but are also opposed to neoliberal capitalism. In other words, anti-neoliberalism can, itself, participate in style, one that implies a politically self-conscious reflectiveness on the way that one’s fashion sense and consumption enters into and participates in resistive aspects of political economy. As she writes, “In fact, hipsters constitute themselves in contrast to an alternative social and spatial project of neoliberalism” (23). Nevertheless, she sees this anti-neoliberalism as a type of neoliberalism, itself, a self-fashioned, in part individualist, political identity that indulges in an exclusive rhetoric aiming for a “violent peace” (23).
What becomes clear is that there is no easy agreement on what 21st-century hipster culture is or what it stands for. Regardless, marketers have latched onto the concept and used it as a genre in order to target youth as consumers. Hence, there is one sense in which hipster has become interchangeable with Generation Y. Relatedly, media have taken up the label, too. Tom Hawking discusses the relationship between “millennial” and “hipster,” and explains that because hipster culture was the first and most visible culture to emerge visually from millennials, the media began to use the hipster identity as representing millennials generally. Hawking argues that this is problematic because it reduces the generation to a “homogenous, monolithic entity,” when in fact this generation is highly diverse. Furthermore, limiting hipster to a single generation is not the only problem with limited views of hipsterism. Hawking also argues that hipster identity appears to be limited to white people:
The kid whose parents came here as refugees and is working at a 7-Eleven to save money for college? He’s a millennial. The African-American single mother waiting tables for tips? She’s a millennial. The Mexican kid pumping your gas? He’s a millennial. None of these people bear the remotest resemblance to the hipster stereotype, and yet it’s used again and again to describe the entire generation to which they belong.2
In the 1950s, the hipster was a white subcultural figure that desired to “achieve the ‘cool’ knowledge and exoticized energy, lust, and violence of black Americans” (Greif). Hipsterism captured racial stratification by embodying the exploitation of culture. Eventually, this fetishization of blackness transformed into a fetishization of “the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class ‘white trash,’” and the White Hipster came to espouse, and in fact, wear, their economic status (Greif).3 Thus, historically, the hipster was premised on the culture of racial minorities, but racial minorities, themselves, could not embody hipsterism, even if things about them and their culture were hip. Minority culture, then, could be appropriated as “spice” (hooks). As bell hooks writes, “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (21). Our focus on the Asian American hipster not only suggests that such complex racial workings continue to exist but also that the logics of race and class in contemporary U.S. society have changed and are revealing in different ways.
Our move in this article to identify the existence of Asian American hipster rhetoric suggests there is non-equivalence between the present and what the hipster has been historically, on the one hand, and that people of color can occupy the position of the hipster, on the other. So, in contrast to Hawking, who argues that non-white people are both absorbed into the hipster identity without their consent and implies that non-white people are, in fact non hipsters, we argue through our study of Fung Brothers rhetoric that Asians and Asian Americans can, in fact, engage in a kind of hipster rhetoric, one specifically relevant to Asians and Asian Americans. Our conclusion that the Fung Brothers create and perform a unique form of Asian American hipster rhetoric grew organically and inductively, not deductively, from our study of Fung Brothers’ videos and reviews, for it is in the public discourse about the Fung Brothers that the idea of Asian American hipster rhetoric first appears. As for the Fung Brothers themselves, they explain to viewers that they identify with a combination of personalities in their video “15 types of Asian Guys,” one of which is the Asian hipster type. Their hometown, Seattle, was also named the most hipster city in the United States due to the highest concentration of single-location coffee shops (Infogroup). The Fung Brothers’ experience with civil rights protests growing up in Seattle may contribute to our understanding of Asian American rhetoric because of the rich history of Asian American activism in Seattle, spurred on by the founding of the Asian Coalition for Equality (ACE) in 1969 that sought to promote Asian American consciousness (University of Washington). The fact that Seattle is associated with contemporary urban hipsterism, that Asian Americans are a significant racial minority in Seattle with a very long and rich history, that Seattle is a key geographical bridge between Asia and the United States, and that the Fung Brothers hail from that city suggest complex transnational and racial dynamics at work that converge to produce the figure of both the hipster and the Asian American hipster.
As we will explain, the Asian American hipster rhetoric of the Fung Brothers is coincident with but not homological with (mostly white) popular cultural hipsterism you might find on Google images, of white hip men and women, with tattoos, adorned in retro (homestead style) fashion, making hip fashion statements through long beards, dapper ties, and popular, but laid back vests, with markers of transgender identity or androgyny in style and vestment.4 Rather, the key elements of Asian American hipster rhetoric are: (1) the popularization of Asian American culture; (2) the use of video and comedy strategies parallel to Asian American YouTube Stars; and (3) the strategic rhetorical address of three audiences, hence the use of what we call “triple consciousness” rhetorical strategies, a concept that pays homage to W.E.B. Dubois’s term, “double consciousness.”
Like hipsterism, which takes retro cultural trends from earlier eras and makes them popular again, the hipster rhetoric of the Fung Brothers renders Asian American culture cool. Scholars have yet to talk about Asian American hipster rhetoric in depth. After all, the Asian and Asian American cultural nexus they constitute is both hip and cool. It is trending. It is live. And, if we reflect on it a bit, it is attractive and appealing. That is why we write this essay, because the hipster rhetoric they use calls us to describe it, define it, comment on it, and critique it. Definitive of hipsterism generally is the popularization of fashions and culture across time/space. Unique to the Fungs’ hipster rhetoric, however, are also self-conscious media strategies that employ production technique that address, triply, Asian Americans, Asians, and non-Asians and non-Asian Americans. In this way, not only are the Fung Brothers, the food they discuss, and their topics hip, but also their use of language, their video editing strategies, and generally the visual and sonic features of their videos are, too.
We suggest the Fung Brothers utilize a rhetoric founded on triple consciousness. Media scholarship on race has brought W.E.B. Dubois’s notion of “double consciousness” into media studies by suggesting that racialized performances operate at dominant/marginal registers simultaneously, both appealing to whites on the one hand and to minorities on the other, with differential effects. Jonathan P. Rossing, for instance, describes the significance of Black comedians’ use of double conscious humor:
Subordinated groups frequently deploy humor to develop community and cultivate the hope necessary to push forward toward a better future…. In addition, people of color have long used comic misdirection and coded language to ridicule cultural norms that could not be confronted publicly. However, the comic sensibilities that protected insider truths also served to translate the insights of double consciousness to mass audiences. (618-619)
Not unlike comedians such as Dave Chappelle and Trevor Noah, who appeal both to Black audiences and non-Black audiences through the use of humor that can be read complexly as a shuttling between two divergent, but nevertheless, enjoyable and consumable interpretations, Asian Americans have employed “double consciousness” rhetoric, as well.
In that vein, in her book, Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture, Tina Chen studies “the acts of impersonation Asian Americans have enacted in order to perform into existence their identities as Asian Americans” (xvi). She goes on to say that Asian Americans have had to impersonate identities; as well, she says, impersonation is a reading strategy one can employ when seeking to understand texts. We revise Dubois’s double consciousness notion to discuss “triple consciousness,” because Asian American rhetors, like the Fung Brothers, if speaking simultaneously to Asian Americans on the one hand and white dominant culture on another other, might also have as their audience members first generation Asian parents on the one hand or Asians globally on yet another, thus formulating their rhetoric to operate at three different registers. We advance the concept of triple consciousness, because the Fung Brothers’ rhetoric assumes an Asian American audience, a secondary Asian audience, and non-Asian Americans and non-Asians, white dominant audiences, and perhaps other racial minorities, as well. Whether an intentional or self-reflective process or not, their hipster rhetoric cuts across all three audiences and, in fact, their rhetoric operating at this multicultural, transnational mode becomes part of what makes their rhetoric hipster.5
Popularizing Asian and Asian American Culture
To date, the Fung Brothers’ YouTube channel has gained just under 2 million subscribers and has had 340 million views, meaning they rank as the 6,398th highest viewed channel on YouTube (as of September 17, 2018) (Social Blade). The brothers describe their YouTube channel as a place for “advancing the education and discussion of Asian and Asian-American topics for people around the world” (qtd. in T. Lee). Their videos have been recognized by news outlets such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and NPR (Considine; Xia; Chow). Out of their 432 videos, 148 of them mention “Asian” or “Azn” in the title; 145 are food or restaurant reviews; and 15 are dedicated to NBA basketball player, Jeremy Lin. The channel’s most popular videos include “Things Asian Parents Do,” “Things Asian Girls like,” and “15 Types of Asian Guys,” which identify a list of traits they believe make up the experience of those who identify with the respective Asian American identity.
The topic of “Things Asian Parents Do” gained so much popularity that the Fung Brothers created an entire series around the topic of Asian parents. In addition to topical videos about Asian American identity, their channel also includes music videos such as “Asians Eat Weird Things” and “Bobalife,” which capture and celebrate Asian and Asian American food and drink. In their music video “626,” the Fung Brothers introduce audiences to a variety of SGV eateries. This video went viral and became so popular that Monterey Park Mayor Mitchell Ing began showing Fung Brothers’ videos at department head meetings in order to demonstrate how the brothers have successfully promoted local businesses in a way that the City of Monterey Park had not been able to do to that point (Xia).
Another category of Fung Brothers’ videos consists of food reviews primarily focusing on Asian cuisine. The brothers not only review Asian foods and restaurants in the SGV, but also review restaurants in the neighboring Asian ethnoburbs of Los Angeles, such as Rowland Heights. For their reviews, they have even made trips to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Following several multi-million-view videos on their YouTube site, in 2015, they were given a show on A&E Network’s FYI channel called, Broke Bites: What the Fung?, where David and Andrew travel across the United States visiting restaurants with fifty dollars each to spend in each city they visit (“About Broke Bites: What the Fung?!”).
Reception of the Fung Brothers
While the Fung Brothers have made a career of reviewing food, their food reviews have also been reviewed by food review reviewers! In order to get a sense of how online and print news periodicals publicly reviewed the Fung Brothers, we examined reviews of their video food reviews. While a full-scale study of the popular reception of the Fung Brothers is beyond the scope of this article, what becomes clear is that the reviews position the Fung Brothers in a particular way, hence “framing” them in terms of food. This is ironic, since three key ways Asian Americans and Asians have been characterized historically is in accordance with the most iconic of Asian symbols in the United States: Asian restaurants, Asian rugs, and Asian spices. For instance, in the preface to his book, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, Robert G. Lee begins by writing, “‘Orientals are rugs, not people,’ says my student summing up Asian American history” (ix). That is to say, Asian Americans have been “orientalized” according to an ethic and political economy of neocolonial consumption of Asian products, and thus have actively been associated with Asian objects with which non-Asians and non-Asian Americans are familiar, and, in part, because of this, Asians’ and Asian Americans’ own self-defined, self-produced subjectivity in the popular cultural imaginary has been slow coming (Ono & Pham, 2009).
Popular cultural reviews of the Fung Brothers primarily focus on their 2015 TV show, “What the Fung?,” a food show featuring discussions of low priced food. The Hollywood Reporter reviewed the show, comparing it with their YouTube videos and found significant commonalities between the two (Matheson). It also drew attention to the unique “Fungspeak,” which are words the Fung Brothers coin to liven up language, such as “Fung Fact.” The article also notes that their videos review food and restaurants, but the brothers do not make food themselves. And, the article references the brothers’ highly viewed videos. It concludes by noting that their reviews are not “expert” or “well researched” but rather fun.
Another review of their television show discusses their video history in more detail, mentioning the number of views, and also highlighting the importance of them as Asian American YouTube stars (Lanning). This review discusses the TV show in more detail as well, suggesting that the show is premised on finding good, inexpensive food, and adds that the pair has to eat out on only $50.
An interview with the Fung brothers published in LA Weekly refers specifically to their video, 626, which, at the time of the article, had gained 250,000 views (Wei). In addition to providing brief biographical information about the Fungs, the interview refers to their interest in food, the location of the SGV, what non-Asians and non-Asian Americans think about Asian food, their favorite restaurant, what to do if one is new to the 626, and what makes the 626 unique. Ultimately, the article emphasizes Asian food and, itself, functions as a kind of food tourist rhetoric.
One television critic praises the show for drawing attention to good food (Conroy). While the article says the show might make viewers “drool” for half an hour, it nevertheless is quite critical of the Fung Brothers. Tom Conroy suggests they are overly enthusiastic, use street jargon even though they are not street, and have an infantile sense of humor (e.g., flashing the hashtag “#baller” up on the screen after saying the word). In the article, Conroy asks what their use of the term “Gram” means and assumes that refers to Instagram. This presumably white media critic suggests the Fung Brothers’ use of humor is not funny and their street language is trite but suggests viewers might find them “endearing.” By dismissing their generational use of language and their inventive editing techniques, Conroy disregards cultural interactions at play that shape their representation and experience of food. While he credits their choice of food, Conroy nevertheless rejects the way the Fung Brothers interact with viewers.
Fig. 2. David Fung (pictured on the left) and Andrew Fung (pictured on the right) in an interview with NBC News; 14 May, 2015.
NBC News, online, also covered the Fung Brothers move from YouTube to television (Lee, Traci G.; see fig. 2). The article discusses their interest in food, noting their attention to ingredients and process, as well as their biography and, importantly, their political purpose and desire to educate people about Asian and Asian American culture through cuisine. The article reviews their videos, 626 and Fung Bros Food, before discussing their show, “What the Fung?” In their interview with NBC, David mentions that he is happy to be a part of “whatever, Asian, hip-hop, hipster movement - chef - whatever they want to call that, different people have called it different things - I’m happy to be a part of that.” In recognizing that there is an ongoing “movement” for Asian Americans in media, David uses “hipster” to characterize what is happening.
What follows next is our analysis of three Fung Brothers videos through which we examine triple consciousness. To determine which videos to discuss, we surveyed all Fung Brothers videos, categorized them into various subgenres, then chose representative videos that appear to speak to Asian Americans, Asians, and non-Asian Americans and non-Asians. We present an overview of each category using examples from particular videos and provide an analysis of the Fung Brothers’ approach following our observations of the three categories.
Speaking to Asian Americans
The Fung Brothers address three different types of audiences through specific subgenres of their videos: 1) an Asian American audience; 2) an Asian audience; and 3) a non-Asian and non-Asian American audience. Now, of course, videos may address one of these audiences, all of them at the same time, or two of them primarily. We do not suggest that only one category of audience is addressed at a time, but that their videos attend to each of these three audiences through aspects such as genre, video elements, and language.
After noticing the popularity of their video, “Things Asian Parents Do,” the Fung Brothers produced eleven other videos on this topic. This topic showcases differences between first- and second-generation Asian Americans. As in YouTube star KevJumba’s appearance with his father on the TV show American Race 17, humor in “Things Asian Parents Do” is premised on the intergenerational, and hence intercultural, differences between the first-generation parent and their second-generation offspring (Pham and Ono). Other videos similar to this series include “22 Signs You Were Raised by Chinese Immigrants” and “10 Best Things About Being Raised by Immigrant Parents.”
Fig. 3. Thumbnail for Fung Brother’s video, “Things Asian Parents Do,” 27 Mar, 2013, https://youtu.be/eqeiHIl3XY8.
The Fung Brothers create a list and introduce each item on the list with a description and include skits demonstrating the characterization after each description. These videos feature an older Asian woman who plays the role of their “Asian Parent” in skits. She is typically portrayed as a traditional first-generation Chinese American mother with a heavy Chinese accent. Her Americanization shows through her attire and ability to speak English. In each video, the mother is persistent about maintaining her practices. For example, in the first episode of “Things Asian Parents Do,” in order to draw attention to a tendency for Asian parents to prize thriftiness, the Fung Brothers propose that Asian parents will reuse paper towels that are not completely soiled. In the skit, Andrew reaches for a new paper towel after dripping Sriracha sauce on the table, but the mother stops him and insists, “No! Don’t waste – use these paper towels!” (which have already been used to dry someone’s hands). Both brothers play the role of sons in skits, respond to each practice in a hesitant manner, and regard the mother as being “weird.” The Fung Brothers attempt to forge an Asian American identity by distinguishing themselves from the “traditional Asian parent,” and their situational skits juxtapose their bicultural experience with the figure of a first-generation mother. David and Andrew take a hipster stance in promoting a separate, unique second-generation identity by contrasting the two experiences and identifying traditional Asian practices as “weird.” In distinguishing themselves through second-generation sensibilities, they model Asian Americans as culturally savvy in a way that differs from their parents.
Other videos that mention generational differences include college-themed videos and videos aimed at adolescents. The Fung Brothers are both in their twenties and are graduates of the University of Washington. They recognize that they have a variety of viewers, mainly ranging from teens (“Things Asian Teens Love”) to early twenties (“How To Be Cool In Your 20s”). In videos focusing on college students, such as “Asian College Bubble,” “College Freshman Regrets,” and “Things to Know After High School,” they offer advice as older, more experienced figures. The focus on the Asian American experience in U.S. colleges recognizes that there are specific challenges this group faces. For example, the brothers propose hypothetical situations and ask questions such as “How am I going tell my parents I’m not going to become a doctor because I failed Intro to Chem?” and “Should I take the Zantac before I drink so my face doesn’t turn red?” As for adolescent-focused videos, such as “High School to College!” and “Things to Know After High School,” they recognize that they have younger viewers, and act as older brother figures guiding audience members on how to transition through adolescence to adulthood, so they can be successful as Asian Americans. For example, in “Fresh Off the Boat Kids – Azn Experience,” the Fung Brothers spend a day with the Asian American adolescent cast members of the show Fresh Off the Boat and teach them how to do trendy dance moves such as the “whip” and “nae nae,” how to play basketball, and how to trash talk. The Fung Brothers establish a sense of connection with audiences by identifying specific Asian American experiences from a range of ages and providing advice directed toward Asian American youth.
Speaking to Asians
A second audience the Fung Brothers address are Asians. Aside from discussion of immigrant parents, another major subgenre of their videos is an interest in the global. YouTube creators have an option to curate playlists for viewers on their channel that demonstrate the foci of their content. On their YouTube channel, the Fung Brothers offer one curated playlist entitled Fung Bros Travel, which includes videos regarding their travel to Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Japan, and South Korea. While some videos are organized into playlists available on their channel, the brothers offer other videos regarding their experience abroad as well. David and Andrew travel to different countries they say not only to enjoy the local delicacies, but also to explore different types of Asian identities.
In their video “Singaporean Identity w/RyanSylvia, WAHbanana,” the Fung Brothers discuss aspects of Singaporean culture. They feature and interview their local friends in Singapore, some of whom are also YouTube creators. The video begins with David introducing to the camera what conversation they will be having. Despite capturing the content on video, the conversation is not so much directed toward the audience as it is a conversation amongst themselves. The brothers inquire about a cultural topic, introduce their own perspective or ask their friends about the Singaporean perspective on the topic, and then invite responses.
For example, David asks about the differences between American English and Singaporean English, and Singaporean Ryan Sylvia explains that while English is Singaporeans’ first language, they refer to it as Singlish because the sentence structure they use is comprised of many languages, including English, Chinese, Thai, Malay, and Hindi. Andrew responds by stating, “I think it’s funny though, because people don’t know Singapore, they hear Singaporeans speaking English - they might think it’s not your first language.” This response addresses U.S. American perceptions of English language fluency in which vocal accents diverging from a U.S. American English accent are othered and made subordinate in a socially constructed hierarchy (Davé). While their Singaporean friends stand in as representatives of Singaporean culture, the Fung Brothers stand in as representatives of ABC (“American Born Chinese”) culture. Aside from questions about language, David and Andrew also ask about whether young Singaporeans wish Singapore was “more open like America,” whether Singaporean girls prefer to date white guys, what their biggest complaints about Singapore are, and what their favorite things about Singapore are (Fung Bros, “Singaporea”). The video addresses Singaporeans through questions by the Fung Brothers, and becomes an informative conversation through which they learn about their friends’ perspectives about Singapore. As they close the video, Andrew thanks the viewers directly and speaks to their Singaporean fans by giving them a shout out.
In the comment section below the video on YouTube, many commenters identify as Singaporean and offer their thoughts about topics discussed in the video. Several comments respond to the discussion about Singlish by stating that it is one of many ways to speak English in Singapore. For instance, user phxsphenes explains how Singlish resulted due to the many ethnic influences in Singapore and that “Singlish IS our culture” (phxsphenes). By inviting their Singaporean friends and viewers into a conversation about Singaporean culture, the Fung Brothers address an Asian audience, and in this case, a Singaporean audience.
In a similar video to the Singapore video, “Eating at a Secret Night Market in Taiwan,” the Fung Brothers travel to Taiwan to eat at “authentic” establishments. In the video, both English and Chinese characters appear when food is shown on screen. They are accompanied by a Taiwan local who shows them around and also helps to narrate in English by telling the history of places they visit. Their tour guide offers insights about the night market in fluent English, and her English ability is acknowledged in the comment section. It is in the video’s comment section where we see Asian viewers interacting with the video and its content. Several of the commenters identify as Taiwanese, and many comments use Chinese characters either in the user’s name or in the user’s post itself. Comments range from further recommendations about Taiwan from those self-identifying as Taiwanese, to support for Fung Brothers’ exploration of Asian foods. In exploring a local “secret,” the video invites a conversation involving locals and those interested in the cultural experience.
One commenter, Tina Huang, whose name is both in English and Chinese characters, writes “I’m from Taipei City but never heard of Yansan night market,” suggesting that even those from Taiwan are learning things about food in Taiwan from this video (Tina Huang黃郁芹). This is further demonstrated by commenter Lo Janet, who uses only English characters and says, “Wow, these are really authentic Taiwanese food! I don’t live in that area so I’ve never been to that night market, but your video even makes me want to go try out the food! Do you have a list of the names of the restaurants and stalls you’ve visited?” (Lo Janet). Another Taiwanese commenter whose name is in Chinese characters provides comments on the “secret spot” the Fung Brothers feature in the video, stating “Yes it IS a secret spot. So surprised that u guys found it. I hope there won’t be too many tourists after this video, we locals need somewhere for food” (季老闆).
Comments responding to the Fung Brothers’ coverage of the local spot are mostly positive and encourage them to continue or even expand their coverage. For example, 鄭采玥 writes, “I’m from Taiwan! Love every video that you filmed in Taiwan. Hope there is going to be more!!!! I’m looking forward to it. (heart emoji),” while another commenter suggests that they visit the Ningxia Night Market the next time they come to the city (鄭采玥; Elisa Chen). Even when commentators themselves are not Taiwanese or are not in Taiwan, they mention having been there or that they are planning to go. Others ask the Fung Brothers to visit other Asian countries, although it is not always clear whether or not they are from those countries or are people who want to visit there. Some travelers who watch the video identify as being from other Asian countries but are visiting Taiwan. Another commenter named Flyga Twiga actually reports having gone to the Taipei Eats Xinyl Food Tour after watching the Fung Brothers video, and thanks them for having drawn his attention to it (Flyga Twiga).
One critique the video received is by user Gambit, who explains that he was born in Taiwan, implying he is no longer there. The user comments that the Fung Brothers did not include what he considers a famous street food dish in Taiwan—“oyster vermicelli”—and uses Taiwanese words in English language characters to inform them of that type of restaurant. Even with such critique, the commenter applauds the Fung Brothers for piquing his interest again in Taiwanese street food (Gambit). Interactions with the Fung Brothers in the comment section demonstrate not only Asian viewership, but active engagement with the cultural information surrounding food and travel provided in the video. In exploring the night market in their video, the Fung Brothers offer some information about the food market as visitors. And, by doing so, they enter into a conversation with locals familiar with Taiwanese food.
Speaking to non-Asian Americans and non-Asians
Finally, the last audience group that Fung Brothers address is non-Asians and non-Asian Americans. A majority of their own YouTube channel consists of videos focused on food and feature local restaurants and ethnic cuisine. Food-focused videos range from making Asian foods at home to tracing the history of a particular dish that may not be of Asian origin. The Fung Brothers also conduct street interviews, asking people about their favorite and least favorite foods. These types of videos provide visual references and are instructive in nature. For example, “Fung Bros Food: Dim Sum 101,” teaches viewers step by step how to participate in the Chinese dim sum experience. The Fung Brothers translate this cross-cultural experience so that English-speaking viewers are able to follow along. They introduce Cantonese terms for delicacies and teas, explain the billing system, and provide suggestions for specific dishes. The brothers also explain cultural practices, such as flipping the lid of a teapot to its side to signal that tea is running low.
Many videos feature local restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley (and also in New York City after their move). The Fung Brothers present a variety of dishes from each of the restaurants’ menus in order to point out variations within the cuisine. Though located in the United States, these restaurants are introduced as authentic representations of ethnic cuisine. When visiting restaurants, David and Andrew are typically joined by guests. Guests either play the role of a cuisine expert or a novice to it. For example, in “Fung Bros Food: Korean BBQ (KBBQ 101),” their two guests are Jinnyi and Jinnah, both Korean females who are identified by David and Andrew as “Korean experts.” In other videos, guests may not be explicitly identified as experts, but can be assumed to be because they are featured as the Fung Brothers’ ethnic connection to that particular cuisine. Each food-focused video includes a group outing, with the Fung Brothers and guests celebrating what each cuisine has to offer. Guests who play the role of novice stand in for non-Asian audience members who presumably have little to no experience with Asian cuisine. On the other hand, guests who are experts educate viewers who are unfamiliar with Asian cuisine by providing detailed information about the food. They also demonstrate how to interpret the cultural experience by, for example, explaining what is or should be the highlight of the dish.
After the brothers gained experience reviewing food on screen, they collaborated with the channel TheOfficialHungry, on a YouTube series called, The Fung Brothers Mess with Texas. The premise of the show is revealed at the beginning of each video:
We’re the Fung Brothers - we love our country, but not its food. American food is over processed and over priced, so to change our minds, Hungry is sending us to work, play, eat in Te - did you read this? In Texas? I don’t know man, whatever. This is The Fung Brothers Mess with Texas. (TheOfficialHungry)
The Fung Brothers once again take on the role of Asian American experts, but in this case as visitors who are skeptical of non-Asian food and experiences. For example, in the episode “Game Burger and Guns,” the Fung Brothers go to a shooting range, and their instructor recommends that they tape their eyes in order to help them focus on shooting targets more accurately. David says, “For a moment, I thought he was going to tape our eyes to make our eyes look like his… I realize he’s not a racist, he just really wants us to hit the target” (TheOfficialHungry). As an Asian American, he references the Asian/Asian American stereotype that eyes are small, but as the host of a series on a channel aimed toward the general public (as opposed to ethnic specific populations), he clarifies the instructor's intentions as free from ethnic or racial concerns to assure viewers that the instructor is not being racist. While David explains this to a general audience, which includes non-Asians and non-Asian Americans, his clarification also speaks to Asian American and Asian concerns of stereotypes as well. In 2015, the Fung Brothers received their own cable television show on the FYI Network entitled What The Fung?, where David and Andrew visit eateries across the United States given' a “fresh, multicultural take on food in America” (“About Broke Bites: What the Fung?!”). In order to appeal to a more general audience, the Fung Brothers take a “multicultural” approach that seems to promote cultural diversity while subscribing to a single national identity. They address a non-Asian audience by playing the role of skeptics toward “American food,” which is more likely to be familiar to non-Asian audiences than Asian food.
In contrast to the standard (white) notion of hipster, we suggest that the Fung Brothers create a unique Asian American hipster rhetoric. In addition to making Asian American and Asian things cool and using video strategies that innovate the way visual and aural information is conveyed in their rhetoric, the Fung Brothers use of triple consciousness—the tripartite address of Asian Americans, Asians, and non-Asian and non-Asian American audiences—renders their rhetoric hipster. Triple consciousness recuperates immigrant identities, shuttles back and forth transnationally between Asianness and Asian Americanness and uses a pedagogical approach that works to help code Asian and Asian American things as popular and hip. Fung Brothers’ interest in Asian topics is significant, since a certain Asian American mode of being can include a distancing of Asian American identity from “Asian things” (Hunt). The brothers’ very first video (“Don’t Hate Fobs”) even discussed this very topic, explaining that Asian Americans have been ashamed of Asian culture. David and Andrew uphold their value of celebrating both their Asian and Asian American heritages, in part by showcasing Asian elements throughout their videos. In videos focusing on specific types of ethnic cuisines, they address an Asian audience by focusing on Asian foods, while also addressing an Asian American audience, hence appealing to a bicultural experience. Their focus on Asian foods as artifacts also address non-Asian Americans and non-Asians who are not familiar with these types of foods. While ethnic food and restaurants are an overly stereotyped dimension of Asians and Asian Americans, the recuperation of “bizarre” and “weird” Asian food functions along with the recuperation of “FOB” (“Fresh off the Boat,” or in other words, an immigrant) identity to make Asian and Asian American things cool, hence hip, reflecting the hipster tendency to find interest in “retro” things. Indeed, part of what may make the Fung Brothers appealing and hip is that apparent ability to make things cool before they become cool. As Greif has suggested, “pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world.”
The Fung Brothers also address these three groups in their entertaining, yet informative, videos regarding Asian American experiences as they demonstrate distinctions between different Asian cultures. They address each audience group by first attending to Asian Americans in making distinctions between first-generation and second-generation characters; second, invoking Asians in their discussion of culture with those from specific Asian cultures; and third, speaking to non-Asian Americans and non-Asians by informing them of these distinctions and experiences by taking a multicultural approach to appeal to a more general audience. Critical to their rhetoric is education and cultural relations. All of their strategies—making Asian and Asian American things cool, using interesting video strategies, and addressing three audiences—seek to help those unfamiliar with whatever food culture they are discussing to understand it, feel comfortable with it, and ultimately, want to try it.
On the other hand, one could argue critically that the Fung Brothers engage in the act of commodifying identity and culture, a feature of hipsterism that has been critiqued generally. Nevertheless, despite their making a profit from YouTube through the advertisements and product placements such as Fung Brother tee-shirts that appear in their successful videos, the main focus of their videos is on popularizing Asia and Asian America and reintroducing what has been configured as not appealing as hip. As a result, while certainly in a dialogue with consumerism, and despite working with capitalism rather than against it, the cultural and racial work the Fung Brothers do through their videos, nevertheless, is not primarily focused on profit, but rather on repositioning racialized dimensions of Asians and Asian Americans to be accepted and appreciated, rather than reviled. This is especially significant as Asian American subculture continues to develop on platforms like digital media (Lopez). As they continue to share and express Asian American experiences, Asian American productions must attend to a triple consciousness through awareness of Asian American, Asian, and non-Asian and non-Asian American audiences. Asian American vernacular rhetoric is complex, and research on how it operates to address multiple audiences through a multi-cultural mode will offer further insights on Asian and Asian American identity and culture.
- 1. For more on Greif’s research on hipster culture, see What Was the Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation.
- 2. This mention here of, for instance, the “Mexican kid pumping your gas” is highly problematic, implying fixed racial, cultural, and economic relations, and reducing a culture to an already well-entrenched conception of who a whole people are and what their role is and should be in society.
- 3. Obviously, this problematic assumption about who black people are and what they do, e.g., the assumption of defacto violence, is not only racially problematic but participates in a politics of anti-blackness.
- 4. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of research on hipster culture does not conceive of a particular variant of hipsterism associated with African Americans. That is, many scholars say white hipsters have appropriated black culture, which in part makes white appropriators hipsters and has done so over time, but they do not refer to a particular culture of black hipsterism as meaningful, compelling, historically significant, and intellectually fascinating—in other words, “hip,” —on its own. For more on black hipsterism, see Robin D.G. Kelley.
- 5. Asian American hipster rhetoric promises entertainment for both Asian American and Asian American-conscious audiences, as well as non-Asian Americans, including those who have stereotypical views of Asian Americans.
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---. “Eating At A Secret Night Market In Taiwan // Fung Bros World Tour.” YouTube, 8 Feb. 2018, http://youtube.com/watch?v=0IlmDkkLfEE&t=67s
---. “Leaving New York, Moving Back Home!” YouTube, 28 June 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmyGEsNA-yA
---. “Fresh Off the Boat Kids - Azn Experience.” YouTube, 27 Nov. 2015, http://youtube.com/watch?v=zaQuN3GRglw
---. “10 Best Things About Being Raised by Immigrant Parents.” YouTube, 2 Feb. 2015, http://youtube.com/watch?v=cId7F4dXIt8
---. “How to Eat Korean BBQ (KBBQ 101)! - Fung Bros Food” YouTube, 19 June 2014, http://youtube.com/watch?v=s3cqvHUXByc&t=26s
---. “Things to Know After High School.” YouTube, 16 June 2014, http://youtube.com/watch?v=HmZWFn3_tOE
---. “22 Signs You Were Raised by Chinese Immigrants.” YouTube, 14 Mar. 2014, http://youtube.com/watch?v=-BQN5CZdTnI
---. “How to Be Cool (In Your 20s).” YouTube, 4 Dec. 2013, http://youtube.com/watch?v=05lVyx3BlOw
---. “College Freshman Regrets.” YouTube, 14 Nov. 2013, http://youtube.com/watch?v=XoOEhoBSX2c
---. “Asian College Bubble” YouTube, 14 Aug. 2013, http://youtube.com/watch?v=bvYPDsGVGqo
---. “Asians Eat Weird Things Ft. AJ Rafael (MUSIC VIDEO) - Fung Brothers.” YouTube, 5 Jul. 2013. http://youtube.com/watch?v=wFGCr9KsqUA
---. “Things Asian Parents Do.” YouTube, 27 Mar. 2013, http://youtube.com/watch?v=eqeiHIl3XY8
---. “Bobalife (Music Video) - Fung Brothers ft. Kevin Lien, Priska, Aileen Xu” YouTube, 20 Feb. 2013, http://youtube.com/watch?v=zccNQPH7Xe0
---. “626 (Music Video) - Fung Brothers ft. Jason Chen.” YouTube, 19 Feb. 2012, http://youtube.com/watch?v=3n3HQ9uge0g
---. “Things Asian Teens Love.” YouTube, 24 May 2012, http://youtube.com/watch?v=GBivwYWoXaI
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