Exploring social and racial issues through the latest Wong Fu series Yappie
For over a decade, Wong Fu Productions have been producing Asian American content that has filled the gap in Asian representation present within mainstream media. With over 3.1 million viewers on YouTube, fans in North America, Asia and the rest of the world, audiences around the world have become familiar with the Wong Fu trio: Philip Wang, Wesley Chan and Ted Fu.
In their latest summer series Yappie (a title which refers to the lives of Young Asian Professionals who live the “yuppie lifestyle”), Wong Fu travelled on tour around 9 cities in North America to promote their new series. The series follows Phil Wang, who plays the series main character, Andrew, who must juggle his job, his friends, and his personal journey toward self-fulfillment.
During their Vancouver stop, Justin Kwan, Digital Content Editor at VAFF sat down with Phil Wang to ask him a few questions about the meaning behind Yappie and what plans the group has in store next. The following is an except of the interview:
Justin Kwan (JK): Phil, thanks for joining me here today. Welcome to Vancouver, I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay here so far.
Phil Wang (PW): I’ve been here for a whole three hours, but it’s been great so far!
JK: Well, welcome back! We’re here today to celebrate your new series Yappie.
PW: That’s right, we’re having a screen of the first season here and we have over 100 people that came out, waiting in line to come watch, so we’re really grateful for the support in Vancouver.
JK: So I have a few questions I’d like to ask you today, the first question very broadly touching upon your new series. Yappie is an online series about Young Asian Professionals and some of the stereotypes that they face, especially as a model minority. What inspired you to create this series and does this draw upon any of your own personal experiences?
PW: There’s so many inspirations and so many reasons as to why I wanted to make this. I think, first of all, Wong Fu, I feel has always made content that is just us – like it wasn’t us trying to make a statement. It had Asians because that’s just who I am. And so I felt my story and the things I went through in life, it wasn’t that different [from other Asian Americans].
But I realized working more in this industry that the world does see us differently. We do go through a variety of issues and struggles and I realized – hey you know what, we should start speaking out about this. I just wanted to people to see what normal Asian people go through: what we talk about when we’re late night drinking or at a friends house, or with our family. That’s kind of the very base of what I wanted to do with it, but then, there are other shows out there, like Insecure, Atlanta, or Master of None, for example. I felt like with Master of None, they only just scratched the surface of what Asian Americans of East Asian [descent] go through, and I wanted to open up a lot of these conversations a little deeper.
But one reason why I wanted to specifically surround the story around Yappies, is because I feel like 99.9% of Asians Canadians and Asian Americans are just this model minority that grew up thinking that all we can be are these five jobs that our parents wanted for us. And I completely understand why that’s the way it is. A lot of us come from immigrant family backgrounds, and hard work and security are things we are taught to have from the beginning. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but one thing that I want to encourage people is that, hey, once you’ve achieved that lifestyle, once you reach that level, have you ever thought about what you wanted to do with it? How can you impact the world in a greater way – not even in a “go quit your job” kind of thing, but its like help out an artist or out in your community somewhere. I think a lot of shows are about Asian actors or something in the entertainment industry, but I feel like most people can relate to when its just an engineer, or a doctor or a pharmacist.
JK: That’s interesting, so like all of your other series, there’s a powerful message behind all of your videos. For me, watching Yappie was great because I saw lots of different messages, like what is the impact of K-pop on Asian stereotypes, racial dating preferences, or even some more intense debates between different minority groups towards the end of the series. So, after viewing this series, what are some of the key takeaway messages you hope Asian Americans and Asian Canadians take away after watching Yappie?
PW: I think, like I said before, I don’t want to be so bold to say that everyone should quit their job, or that this show is about you not doing enough with your life. It’s not about that. I just want Asians to be introspective a little bit and think, can I do more, can I be more. I’ve made my own circle and bubble – great if I’m a Yappie, but how can we go just one more degree out. And also for them to look back into their own upbringing and history, and think oh I never thought that the way I was brought up has brought me down this path. Like I didn’t even know that I had a choice to go down this path. I think once you have that self-awareness and that self-reflection, it’s not like this is a bad thing, but you can adjust and try some new things. So, it’s really just about making Asian people more aware where we are in society, and just care. At the end of it, I just want Asians to care about our own issues and our own community, and try to make progress for us all together.
JK: Well, that’s great. Thinking back to when I first started watching some of your videos, this was back around 2003 –
PW: Yeah, I’m old!
JK: Well, I’ve grown up with all of your videos as well! I feel like I’ve progressed through them as well. But it’s been it’s been about 15 years since your first videos came out. How has the industry changed over the years?
PW: I think overall, there has been a lot of positive change, from when we first started. I think a big reason why in those early years Wong Fu became a thing in the beginning because seeing Asians at all on any screen was just cool. So it was on this fringe website of online video, and then slowly we got this Asian dance team that’s winning contests, K-pop is getting bigger, and now Fresh off the Boat. Now we even have Crazy Rich Asians. So, in these 15 years, I want to be positive and say that there has been a lot of great change. At the same time, I don’t want us to settle, and feel like “we won” – that we got what we want and that we can relax. Now that we got our foot in the door, we got the creek open, and we got to bust through now. I hope that this inspires more people to either become creators themselves, or go seek out content that reflects them and go support with their dollar or with their attendance, because that’s just as important as those people entering the industry – that’s like Hollywood mainstream.
On the YouTube or the digital side, everything’s changed. When we first started, there was no Twitter or Instagram. Actually, when we first started, there was no YouTube. The rise of a lot of content creators that are using social media to gain huge followings and have influence on the next generation or on a community, that’s something that I think has exploded. And that’s so great because now younger kids are growing up, not how we grew up when there was just Jackie Chan and Michelle Kwan as people we can look up to, they can look at a number of YouTubers and a number of Instagrammers. And to them, that’s their mainstream. Hollywood, and what’s on YouTube is the same to them. So, I think that’s really powerful and I just hope that, as creators are entering the social media space, that they’ll still focus on developing their talent, that they’re doing it for the right reasons and not just to be a viral hit. We need good quality content out there to show that there is talent in our community.
JK: Yeah, exactly! So what else can audiences look forward to from Wong Fu? Maybe a Season 2 for Yappie?
PW: We’re at a really interesting time for Wong Fu. We were kinda making a joke in there that, Wong Fu is 15 years old. It’s basically like an adolescent going through puberty. We are kind of having to need to enter into this new phase of what we want do next. Obviously, the industry, like I had mentioned, has changed now too, so we have different options as to what we can do as well. With our fan base, and as growing creators ourselves, I have different desires about what I want to do too, as a director or as a filmmaker, or a writer – whatever you wanna call it. We know the channel will always be important to us, that’s where our core fanbase is and that’s where we know people can always come back to, if you’re nostalgic or feel encouraged by whatever we’re doing, so we definitely always want to make content for our channel.
But at the same time, we don’t want it to detract from some bigger fish that we also watch to catch. We’ve already made an independent feature film, Everything Before Us, a few years ago. We had an original series on YouTube called Originals, and Single by 30 two years ago. So, I think we want to continue pushing forward for those more elevated projects as well. But the truth is, on YouTube we’re one thing and have subscribers. But out in Hollywood, we’re still trying to prove ourselves. I think a lot of people look at us and are like “dude, you guys are it!” or “you guys have made it” but no. I’m literally going into companies that have Will Smith pitch to them too – it’s like, that’s not fair, you know? Hollywood is still a tough game, granted we do have a little bit of – not an “advantage”, but we are able to say that we have a following and audience. But at the end of the day, it’s got to be good content, and it’s got to be a producer or a company that believes in our story, and the Asian American community. So, it’s still an upward battle.
JK: It’s great you mentioned Crazy Rich Asians, because this summer seems to be an increasingly important time to talk about Asians in film. And with Yappie as well, this summer has been really big about having this conversation. What can audiences (both Asian and non-Asian) do to help positively shape how the Asian community is portrayed in film?
PW: Well first step is that we just need things to be made. Right now, mentioning Crazy Rich Asians, I know a lot of people are like, “oh I don’t wanna go watch that – it’s not really my story”, but what would you rather have? Literally, the cards are stacked so high against us in Hollywood. I’ve seen it, it’s real. The fact that this even made it through, is kind of an anomaly. And obviously it is because it has been 25 years since the last major studio made an Asian American led film.
So, the fact is, we finally won the lottery, and we have a film that’s coming out, and if our own community doesn’t exploit this, and support it, then sadly, Hollywood only speaks in dollars and they are going to say, “oh, your own community doesn’t want this, so why are we going to stick our neck out for you guys – we’re going to stop making these.” It is really unfair because how many films with white and black leads can fail – there will never be a shortage of those movies being made. But will people will definitely point to this one Asian movie if it fails, and then think: “I don’t think we should make anymore.” And that’s so unfair, but that’s just how it is.
With that being the situation, we have to go support it, so that it can open the doors to production companies and Hollywood in general to be like, “oh I guess there’s money to be made here”, because that’s all that they care about. We need people showing up as consumers, but we also need more people that are unafraid to write their stories, and go to make them, and to go enter the entertainment industry or creative fields. Hollywood is also a volume game where you need more stuff so that one thing can rise. And if we have 100 actors or directors that are out there doing stuff, compared, to maybe 10,000 white directors that are out there doing stuff, then they are going to have percentage wise, or ratio wise more that rises to the top. We just need more of that too. Its people recognizing what piece you want to play. Are you going to be an active consumer that cares about the community or are you going to be someone that’s on the ground as a creator that’s going to go out and try to make things happen. So that’s how what I see we kind of need.
JK: Even in conversations with my friends, we discuss how there’s so much expectation for this one film. If we had multiple films, we wouldn’t have this pressure for this one film to do so well. And so, all of our cards are being dealt into this one hand.
PW: And we even felt the same about Yappie. We got criticism too with people who say that “this isn’t my story” or “I don’t like that portrayal of Asians”. That’s fine if you don’t, but that doesn’t mean that my story doesn’t exist, my voice doesn’t exist and that people don’t relate to it. But let that happen so that we can do more. Because right now we don’t have a choice, because there aren’t a lot of choices. We want more of that but it has to start somewhere.
JK: One thing that we do here at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival is that we celebrate diversity in film. This year, our 2018 annual theme is called INFUSIAN and it spotlights the varied influences people bring into their work. Can you tell us about the inspirations that led you to start Wong Fu, to start making films, and what continues to drive and inform your work?
PW: Well, there was never this moment that we said “we’re going to start Wong Fu”. It happened so gradually, and it’s definitely when you look at it now, it’s like – oh yeah people start YouTube channels, people start production companies. But back then, there was no precedent. Literally, we had no model to go off of, there was no path to say, “oh we’re going to be like that.” There was Justin Lin and other Asian directors but they went the more traditional route. We were on YouTube, we were on our website, we were just trying to figure out how to keep it going. So, it really came down to us wanting to tell stories.
We enjoyed the medium of film and filmmaking, and having actors and writing scripts. That’s all it really was. These days, what keeps us going is honestly is events like this. We see the desire for it, we see the comments we get and we hear the personal stories of how we’ve impacted lives, saved lives, brought people together to get married. We’ve heard so many things, and we look left and right, and say, after doing this for so long, there actually aren’t a lot of groups like ours, so we have to keep this going, or we have to figure out a way to make this last. So, a lot of this is a responsibility to the community to keep doing this. Of course, it’s also an honour. But I would also like to uplift other creators so that we can share this responsibility. And I know there are other filmmakers too but I guess we have a platform. And I don’t think we are the best filmmakers, writers or directors out there, and so that’s another part of our evolution as Wong Fu these days. I think it’s time for us to start sharing these things with people.
JK: One of the activities that we host here at VAFF is our Mighty Asian Moviemaking Marathon (MAMM), which is our annual short filmmaking contest for young and aspiring filmmakers. We were wondering, do you have any advice for emerging Asian North American filmmakers out there who looking to start YouTube channels and are trying to tell underrepresented stories that are not visible in mainstream media?
PW: The first thing I always say when people ask for advice is that I want them to recognize how much technology has made filmmaking a lot easier. I know people personally who come out of film school, and say I can’t make a short film unless I have $30,000. And that’s so false –Your iPhone shoots as well as some of those cameras that Justin Lin or I started on. You just need to start.
You can always make excuses, like “I don’t have enough money” or “I can’t find enough people.” If you can’t find enough people, make it a narration, and just go get some cool shots. If you don’t have enough resources, borrow things. There are always people who have things. So get rid of excuses and if there are things that are limitations, then you have to change your project a little bit. You have to write to what you have available. I have never written a helicopter shot, and I’m ok with that for now. So, I’m not going to be like, “oh, if I can’t get this shot, I can’t do this one thing.” But I think a lot of people have these big obstacles that make them think that they can’t do it. So get rid of that, or adjust your project. After that, take away the expectation that this one thing is supposed to be it. Learn from it. As long as you get something made and you learn from it, and you’re open to critique and to getting better, think about the next thing you are going to make. You always have to be thinking about what else you want to do. Filmmaking shouldn’t be about this one thing that you do, and then that’s it.
Lastly, find people that you gel with, and be a person that’s easy to gel with as well. Don’t be an asshole. There’s a lot of egos that can get involved. Filmmaking is such a collaborative process. Be easy to work with and find people that similar, and hopefully you can become friends with the people that you work with.
JK: Finally, is there anything else that you would like to say to all your Canadian fans?
PW: I think that there’s so much power and potential up here. Obviously, the film industry knows it, there are so many things that are shot here. There’s a lot of actors, creators, directors that come out here and I feel that among the Asians, most of the Asian Canadians here are from immigrant families. So, a lot of us are first and second generation for a variety of reasons, but don’t be afraid to break out of your bubble. Even if you want to keep your job, you can still get a hobby as well. You never know how much that hobby can turn into something else if you become really passionate about it and take time to get better at it. Don’t be complacent with what you are doing. I encourage, whether you want to become a creator yourself or if you have a friend that wants to be a creator, be encouraging of that. It’s all about community. You guys have such a huge [Asian Canadian] population up here. Honestly, we should be coming up here yearly to see you guys. It’s great. It’s wonderful here and if you can get people here galvanized, there’s a lot of potential to do stuff here.
JK: Well Phil, thanks for coming, and we hope you come to Vancouver again soon. And thanks again for spending time here with us.
PW: Thank you! Great questions!
Justin Kwan is a Digital Content Editor at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. A Torontonian turned Vancouverite, Justin graduated with degrees in the areas of political science and Asian studies and frequently writes on contemporary Asian politics, culture and current affairs. In his role at VAFF, Justin explores a variety of digital tools and communication strategies to further promote the festival and its message of diversity in film.
This article is part of a series of INFUSIAN News Spotlight Articles: vlog posts, interviews, and articles exploring VAFF’s 2018 season theme of INFUSIAN, which features individuals and organizations who are pushing the boundaries, creating not only film, but art, culture, and change by infusing their work with a diverse mix of traditional and contemporary influences. Over the course of 2018, we’ll be profiling artists, filmmakers, musicians, thinkers, and agitators are changing the world in which we live by bringing a unique perspective based on their lived and cultural experiences. It is through this act of enrichment that they are renewing society with fresh and interesting ideas, and new and unexpected takes on ancient traditions. We encourage you to stay tuned and join us on this fantastic journey!