Phil Yu’s relaxed smile is practically audible throughout our conversation. His laid-back contentment permeates his sentences, immediately making anyone he talks to feel like they’re catching up with an old friend at brunch.
That’s what’s most amusing about the Bay Area native. Yu is a pioneer. An “angry” one.
Over the course of almost two decades, Yu has built up a reputable brand as the blogger Angry Asian Man. Today, he’s considered one of the most powerful voices on social media, sounding the alarm when it comes to injustices affecting the Asian community.
The coexistence of Yu’s fire with his chilled-out attitude reflects the point he’s been making for years. It’s an idea that’s just assumed for white people, but not for individuals of color: that Asian Americans and other underrepresented are multidimensional, complex, unique individuals, even when they’re rarely portrayed that way.
“There is no one way to be Asian American. People try to put you in a box ... and unfortunately, the way that that plays out is a lot of us are silenced or made to feel that we need to shut up,” he says.
“It’s OK to speak up and have a voice and say something, even when it goes against the grain and when people tell you to sit down and shut up,” Yu adds. “The other side of that is that you don’t have to wait for permission to tell your story, and don’t let anyone else tell your story.”
“You don’t have to wait for permission to tell your story, and don’t let anyone else tell your story.”
Countless new blogs and outlets have sprouted from the seeds Yu, and the rare few like him, planted on the internet. While he’s frequently asked to speak to students or provide commentary on issues that disproportionately affect Asian Americans, his own authority and influence haven’t even hit him.
“It’s still weird,” Yu says with a laugh. “I’ve never been comfortable with the idea I’m representing or have the burden of speaking for our community. All I can say is I’m speaking from my little vantage point of running the site.”
But Yu’s impact on Asian American media is indisputable. Back before Twitter campaigns like #StarringJohnCho actually effected change, when Jackie Chan’s character in a comically wacky film like “Rush Hour 2” colored the dominant American perception of Asians, Yu started to call shit out.
He looked to independent media as inspiration, drawing from Asian American film festivals or magazines like Asian American pop culture magazine Giant Robot and A. Magazine. And it was through those mediums, he says, that he learned it was possible and necessary to carve out his own space.
As sociologist Anthony Ocampo put it to HuffPost, Yu’s blog was “undoubtedly revolutionary,” providing a take on everything from pop culture to politics to music to academia through an Asian American lens.
“This is so important because those respective industries don’t bother elevating Asian American perspectives on anything,” Ocampo, an assistant professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona, told HuffPost.
Ocampo described the blog as a “catalyst,” emboldening other Asian Americans to be “unapologetic about centering themselves, to never get comfortable existing in the margins.”
“Yu's blog emboldened other Asian Americans to be 'unapologetic about centering themselves, to never get comfortable existing in the margins.'”
Concluding his earliest posts with an authoritative “That’s racist!” Yu’s blog told members of a group perceived as “quiet, meek and subservient” that they had the agency to be angry.
The blog was, surprisingly, born out of a time of confusion in 2001, he told HuffPost. Like many people in their early 20s, Yu wasn’t quite sure how to land on his feet, and “blogger” wasn’t exactly on his list of career options. But the passion he felt for his Asian American identity, energized by what he had learned about the community during his undergraduate years at Northwestern University, ultimately overrode any desire to enter a conventional field.
“The weird thing about ‘Angry Asian Man’ is that it was started during a time when I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’” He told HuffPost. “I’m looking for a job, I don’t know exactly what I want to do but I know what I don’t want to do ... I just knew, ‘Here are things I care about. Here are things that I like writing about. So let’s see what happens.’”
As he grappled with his own future, Yu says, he noticed his following start to take off. And when he successfully mobilized people to take action against Abercrombie & Fitch back in 2002 (after the clothing company released T-shirts featuring racist caricatures of Asian people with slanted eyes and rice picker hats and text that said things like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service ― Two Wongs Can Make It White”), he felt the blog had a defined purpose.
“Blogs were talking about this way before any media outlets were covering this controversy. This sounds so cute, considering now you can just tweet at a brand with, ‘Fuck you!’” Yu reflected. “But back then, being able to post Abercrombie & Fitch’s corporate contact information and direct people to write letters or call them and then people did it ― that was a powerful illustration of what the blog could be or what my voice could be. It sort of changed the direction of the blog.”
As Yu tells it, he felt the blog took on a more productive function ― now it wasn’t solely criticism; there were actions, follow-through.
Since then, the blog has helped propel social media campaigns, spotlight Asian Americans who are helping the community and uplift other forces in media by frequently highlighting some “must-reads.” With the impact he’s made, Yu gets most excited about the idea that his blog has connected Asian readers who once felt isolated with a world they could actually relate to.
“As time has gone on, other really wonderful, great voices, outlets and causes have jumped up and made this pool a lot wider and deeper ... It’s great.”
“After doing this for a little while, I started meeting folks who said stuff like, ‘I found your blog when I was in junior high and it became a daily destination for me. I was the only Asian kid in my school, but it made me feel really connected to a larger community that was geographically closed off but I feel like it was part of something,’” he recalls. “The realization that if you do this long enough, you’ll have that kind of impact is kinda striking.”
The internet has evolved since the days Yu was still pondering his life’s direction. He’s dipped into different projects, with his current labor of love being the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” which he co-hosts with writer Jeff Yang. And he’s excited about the emergence of other Asian Americans who share the passion he has for the community. He says the burden of “jumping into every controversy” is not so heavy.
“As time has gone on, other really wonderful, great voices, outlets and causes have jumped up and made this pool a lot wider and deeper ... It’s great,” he says.
Yu’s work has influence beyond the blogosphere and interwebs. Mary Yu Danico, another professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona and director of the Asian American Transnational Research Initiative, told HuffPost that academics teach Yu’s work.
“I think Phil has inspired generations to think about what social justice means to them. I know that many began to think about public acts of disobedience, protesting on the streets, and challenging our political representatives to actually lead and represent,” she said by email. “Others thought about the way they framed their own narratives in acting, artwork, music, etc. To be our true complex selves is something that Phil sparked in all of us.”
Even though the chorus of voices speaking out in the Asian community has expanded, mainstream media has been slow to understand how to report on Asian Americans in a responsible way or even recognize the issues that are worthy of coverage. And that’s possibly why Yu’s remained a steadfast champion for the community online.
A study from the Knight Foundation found that while readers didn’t pinpoint specific news outlets as trustworthy in writing about Asian Americans, they looked toward specific journalists for responsible takes. The majority of study participants said they trusted people of Asian descent most to write accurate stories about Asians — and found pieces by non-Asians, specifically white reporters, to be the least accurate.
Just last year, The New York Times published a much-derided story titled “Canal Street Cleans Up Nice,” celebrating Manhattan Chinatown’s “high-fashion makeover” while ignoring how gentrification was pushing out Chinese people.
“Diversify your newsrooms. Or else you’re just gonna have the same problems over and over again. You’re going to cover the same shit the wrong way.”
“Mainstream journalism operates from a space that heavily defaults to white issues,” one participant in the study said. “How do I trust this perspective when they don’t make the assumption that ‘people’ includes non-white people?”
Yu shares this frustration.
“When it comes to covering Asian Americans, most mainstream outlets are stumbling, tripping over themselves and not really getting it,” he says. “Everyone talks about this, but we’re not seeing it implemented as quickly as it needs to be.”
“Diversify your newsrooms,” he adds. “Or else, you’re just gonna have the same problems over and over again. You’re going to cover the same shit the wrong way. It’s ... covering food or art or politics or community issues.”
Nowadays, Yu says he’s working on a few projects. Without offering up too much information, he hints that he’s got something brewing in the film and television world. But he says “Angry Asian Man” will always exist in some form.
We Asian Americans will never forget the beginning, though.
“He started to share his insights, his observation, his point of view and his plentitude of narratives with a social justice and intellectual bend,” Danico wrote.
She concluded: “It was refreshing but it was raw, real, and true.”