Wong Fu For Life

Wong Fu For Life June 18, 2013

In a move that will likely annoy Churl to no end, I would like to take a short break from the Chinglican posts on Anglicanism (Part 3 is almost done, actually) and write something a bit more fun. When I first began blogging on A Christian Thing, I saw myself as a sort of Asian American voice on the blog, and it was my original intention to highlight how portions of contemporary Asian American and Asian Canadian arts and culture reflected the theological constitution of the world without the Asian American and Asian Canadian artists even knowing it. It was to that end that my first two posts on the blog were about Lynn Chen and Lisa Lee’s Tumblr blog, Thick Dumpling Skin, as well as on the Linsanity phenomenon in early 2012. At that time, Chinglican wasn’t going to write much about the practice of Anglicanism and about how certain major evangelical players were more ‘catholic’ than they made out to be. If you look carefully at how those posts originated, they were often provoked by some of Churl’s musings, say, about how Churl wished that Mark Driscoll were indeed Roman Catholic (to which I replied that Driscoll was more Irish Catholic than anyone has ever discussed him) while the more recent Anglican series is a reply of sorts to Churl’s desire to jump ship to Rome. I never intended to provide my analysis of the Anglican Communion, never wanted to address the neo-Reformed crew, and never thought that I would be speaking in my own Asian American voice to contest orientalizing voices within American evangelicalism at present. Indeed, I never thought that as Parts 3, 4, and 5 come out of the Anglicanism series, that I’d actually be doing Anglican (or better, ‘Chinglican’) theology on this blog. I suppose I had my own thoughts on these matters that I had personally worked out, but I never thought I’d be writing about them so publicly.

Instead, I was supposed to be the happy voice on this Thing, still ridiculous to be sure, but happily ridiculous, blissfully looking at the most secular of Asian American arts and culture and finding good theological things to celebrate there. It was to that end that I wrote about how Thick Dumpling Skin’s address of body issues might appear overly individualistic, but Lisa Lee’s presumably Christian background (she says that her eating disorders hearken back to church potlucks) and Lynn Chen’s Catholic upbringing make them way too theologically thoughtful to end on an individualist note, even if they claim to be secular right now. On the same token, I also complained that while Jeremy Lin has been celebrated as the person to finally shine the spotlight on Asian American evangelicalism in the public eye, his theological assumptions have not been adequately interrogated, and we would be well-served as the church catholic if Lin were to tell us the painful story of how he was marginalized as an Asian American basketball professional as a theological reflection. For both, I wanted to celebrate the fact that we English-speaking younger generation Asian North American Christians (or at least, those with Christian backgrounds) aren’t simply making an alternative arts scene. We are actually doing theology, and doing an fantastically creative job at it.

It’s in that light that I’d like to celebrate Wong Fu Productions today. Wong Fu Productions is a small start-up film company started by three college friends who attended UC San Diego together, Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu (they have also since added Chris Dinh). Currently based in Los Angeles, they have over one million subscribers on their YouTube channel and a successful business that sells T-shirts and plush toys, while they make film shorts (and aspire to make feature-length films) on YouTube. Over the last weekend, two of the co-founders of Wong Fu, Phil and Wes, visited Vancouver, along with Kaba Modern dance alumna Yuri Tag. Last week (June 8) was also the tenth anniversary of Wong Fu Productions. Because they’ve arrived on my home turf and because it’s time for me to appreciate them anyway, it’s time for an appreciation. (If you want to know what Wong Fu has to do with Yuri Tag, watch the entire series, ‘When It Counts.’ I’ve put the first episode down below.)

The appreciation that took place here in Vancouver treated Phil, Wes, and Yuri a bit like celebrities. Kept at a distance from the fans, the local Asian Canadian YouTube artists who hosted the festivities resorted to tactics that made the event seem quite needlessly formal, complete with raffle ticket draws, very formal and stiff interviews, and games through which the audience would purportedly get to know the Southern Californians. It wasn’t until near the end of the show that Phil broke the ice and reached out to fans, upon which he realized what the crowd control strategies were for, as someone shouted, ‘Will you father my children?’

It wasn’t always like this, though, and this is definitely not how I remember Wong Fu in the past, nor how I feel about them in the present. The Wong Fu guys are a bit older than me, probably by some two or three years. I know that that’s not much now that we’re all adults (but none the more mature, probably!), but in pre-university terms, that’s quite a bit. Not only would they have been seniors when I was a freshman in high school (thinking like that makes them feel old indeed), but in the Chinese church, we would have had to call them gege 哥哥 (older brother) and jiejie 姐姐 (older sister) simply because they were older. I mean, I’m sure that Phil 哥哥, Wes 哥哥, and Ted 哥哥 would chafe under their titles, but in a way, the fact that they have been able to carve out a path in Asian American arts and culture to the point that they’re taken seriously makes the attribution of older sibling ironically appropriate.

Like many, the first short I ever saw of theirs was called ‘Yellow Fever.’ Do yourself a favour and watch it below if you haven’t. The central premise of the short is that while white guys can get Asian girls, Asian guys can’t get white girls. Created prior to YouTube, the short became a hit, downloaded by many of my friends and shown to me at many a party at someone else’s house. We got the sense that these guys were big; they had struck a nerve with all of us relationally challenged, younger, single Asian Americans because they were able to articulate our relational frustrations without actually naming the cause. Instead, they made it funny without explaining anything.

But what really caught my attention was ‘Just A Nice Guy.’ (I’ve put it down below for you.) Again, Wong Fu pinned the relationship challenges of Asian Americans to a particularly corny answer that many Asian American (and arguably non-Asian American) guys give for the reason for the one that got away: ‘I’m just a nice guy.’ (This is why you have to watch ‘When It Counts’ above: Yuri Tag is a ‘nice girl.’ What a spin.) Again, the explanation is just ludicrous to be unbelievable as a non-explanation. Phil plays a ‘nice guy’ seeking the affections of a girl in his study group, but because he is a nice guy, he always gets ‘friend zoned’ by the women to whom he is attracted. It never occurs to him till the end to actually say something about his attractions and affections, which only goes to show that the ‘nice guy’ category is something in which he put himself in the first place. It’s not because he’s Asian that he’s a ‘nice guy.’ It’s not because he’s shy that he’s a nice guy. He’s a nice guy because he said so himself, and that’s what’s keeping him from pursuing relationships.

Since ‘Nice Guy,’ Wong Fu has been making fun of the categories we conservative Asian Americans from the suburbs have set up for ourselves. I say ‘conservative’ and ‘suburban’ as qualifiers because obviously, Asian Americans range the political and geographical spectrum. If you look at the shorts, though, there are a disproportionate amount of suburban scenes (for a new hilarious one, watch ‘Meet the Kayak‘), and the rigidity of stereotypes suggests that while Wong Fu itself is no conservative organization, they may have had fairly socially conservative backgrounds (and they are seeking to transcend it, which means that it’s nice that they got to meet with Barack Obama at the White House). What this means is that Wong Fu doesn’t speak for Asian Americans; how could they? (They certainly don’t represent any of the Asian Americans in poverty or who aren’t privileged enough to get higher education because of fears that they might be deported.) But for those of us suburban Asian Americans who grew up socially conservative (for a great complaint about us, see Glenn Omatsu’s ‘The Four Prisons’ paper), many of us grew up imbibing stereotypes of who we should be as a model minority focused on our own education and careers, and we proceeded to execute that prescription for our lives with rigid timelines and entrenched categories for how our lives should be. As we executed our lives with the instrumental rationality that we lived ever since we learned that we should be a model minority, we applied those same tactics to our personal relationships, leaving emotional carnage in our wake.

Wong Fu is a look in the mirror. One particularly poignant short is ‘Strangers, again’ (see below). If ‘Nice Guy’ is about the hard-and-fast categories in which we place ourselves as conservative suburban Asian Americans, then ‘Strangers, again’ is about the rigid timelines we set for ourselves. On a cursory view of the video–which, unfortunately, is how most viewers saw it–the film seems to be almost hyper-Calvinist in its stripping away of agency from people in a relationship. It’s almost predestined that every relationship will start with some form of excitement, degenerate into apathy, and then disintegrate into a fighting match that ends in two people, once in love, becoming strangers again. But this is not the way that even Wong Fu sees it. Spoiler alert: the final scene has the guy in the relationship (Phil) thinking about if he were to do it again, he’d apologize to his girlfriend (played by the fantastic Cathy Nguyen) halfway into the relationship, cutting off the ‘stages’ right in the middle. Relationships are not predetermined, the film is saying. You can do something about them. (If you want a view of relationships where these stages are but a dream, check out Wes’s Cannes selection, ‘At Musing’s End.’)

Wong Fu also has a variety of comedy sketches that take apart these stereotypes. The ‘Technology Ruins Romance‘ series takes apart the ‘nineteenth century’ notion of long lost love, showing how predetermined conclusions about hopeless romance are simply unrealistic in contemporary everyday lives. There’s also ‘Rick’s Man Tutorials,‘ a parody of Asian American men who attempt to show off their jock sides and look insensitive while falling apart emotionally on the inside. ‘Funemployed‘ delivers a blow to the idea that unemployment is simply failure, while also delivering to us in the midst of the unemployment story a classically creative Wong Fu music hit, the purposefully inane and vapid ‘Dance to This Song‘ that is a parody of every other club song to which to dance.

Put succinctly, Wong Fu Productions demonstrates time and again that the hand-wringing over what constitutes Asian American identity is so painfully silly that it should be laughed at. Instead, life should be lived. This is why they have also produced a variety of music videos for fellow Asian American YouTubers, a task that has culminated in them filming a music video for multiplatinum Taiwanese American artist, Leehom Wang. The music is where you can’t make the stuff up about life and love, where it’s impossible to put everything into a categorical grid or a rigid timeline, where artists must deal with mystery. That’s why Wong Fu now sponsors the International Secret Agents concert series that brings Asian American artists (many of whom are practicing Christians) to the stage to sing not about Asian American love, but their personal experience of love.

In other words, the notion of Asian American identity seems only to be a secondary concern for Wong Fu. If there’s anything to be said about Asian American identity, it’s that if we tell the truth about life and love, we find ourselves constituted not by some category we’ve imposed on ourselves. Instead, we are constituted by the ‘other,’ in that special word in younger Asian American circles called ‘relationships.’ Many of Wong Fu’s videos explore dating relationships in particular, but what’s increasingly striking is the way that their relationships are not merely sexual in nature (some, say, ‘The Last‘ and ‘To Those Nights‘ have slight hints that something subtly sexual might be going on). The overarching framework is not sex, though. It’s friendship.

The sort of friendship that Wong Fu portrays is a desire for deeper knowledge of the other for the other’s sake, to the point of critiquing one’s obsession with one’s own identity. When this is fulfilled–when that longing to know and to be known, to love and to be loved is fulfilled–then that’s what Wong Fu calls ‘home.’ Home is not only a place: it is a place if it’s filled with memories of relationships and times gone by, but it’s not just some physical space devoid of meaning. Home is not only one’s family by blood: it’s not the old stereotypical Asian American argument for traditional family values where the only people you should trust are those with whom you’re related by blood. Home is not even a place where everyone is of the same race; it’s not that Wong Fu is colour-blind (far from it), but race is not a relationship, and there’s no obsession with Asian American identity to make race a deciding factor for social relations. No, home is where your friends are, where the imposed categories and rigid timelines are stripped away and you can simply be with your friends. It’s in this context that we finally find what the Wong Fu holy grail of a dating and marriage relationship is: it’s one where one is loved because one is known and one knows the other. (For Wong Fu’s radical experiment with how far this idea can go, see their short-lived attempt at a television series, Home Is Where the Hans Are.)

Somehow, somewhere, there has to be something theological here.

It’s here that it’s easy to be stumped. After all, what’s so theological about all this? To be honest, there’s nothing really at the surface, although there’s plenty underneath. I mean, I could pin it to my sighting of a cross in an engagement video that Wong Fu did for a couple whose relationship spanned Los Angeles and Taipei, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have mutual friends with Wong Fu who are card-carrying Asian American evangelicals, some of whom were in their very early videos when they were students at UC San Diego. I also happen to remember that on an early version of Phil’s biography on the Wong Fu site, he said that his mom was a deacon in his church in Walnut Creek.

But I won’t go there because the films don’t go there.

You could say that there’s hardly anything worth our theological notice in Wong Fu aside from the occasional YouTuber that Wong Fu works with mentioning ‘God’ (say, Yuri Tag). Other than that, the Wong Fu shorts have really nothing to say about God.

But that’s where you’re wrong.

You see, if we can move this whole discussion to Asian American churches struggling with the ‘silent exodus‘ of their second generation to greener pastures, these shorts are an amazing resource for Asian American English ministries struggling to put their finger on what it is that their people struggle with in their everyday lives. I’m sure this could be said about a variety of non-profits and sundry dedicated to Asian American services. But English-speaking ministries in Asian American churches are notorious for trying to name what it is about Asian Americans in an effort to define their people and then move in to solve their problems in the name of Jesus. You have parents who tell you to be over-achievers. You are over-achievers. You are too much of a good Asian. You need Jesus. Note well: those are already the good ones. Some, of course, are worse, and may be downright racist: We are Asians, and we are superior to white people because we work harder and have stronger family values. So we are better Christians too.

It’s these stereotypes that are currently the plague of Asian American evangelical theology, and Wong Fu shows us another way. Perhaps ‘naming’ something that’s already there is not a defining action.

Maybe it’s a comic action.

It’s comic because once you bring up the categories with which Asian Americans have been defined and have set out to define themselves, they are funny because they sound so ideological that they’re just ludicrous. Why is it really that Asian guys can’t get white girls while white guys get Asian girls? Is there anything more to a ‘nice guy’ and a ‘nice girl’ that makes them so relationally hapless? Does anyone actually go into a relationship looking to become ‘strangers again’? Well, no, and the people who do should be given a sympathetic look in the mirror. This is what you’re doing to yourself, the Wong Fu shorts say. Get over yourself, and live for a change. There is so much more to life than your tidy categories, pressing timelines, and lame excuses for why you’re relationally challenged. Get out there. Live. (And if there are racist people in the way, tell them to get with the program and do something good for a change, like get to know someone personally.)

That’s a remarkable theological service done for Asian American English ministries. In answer to what exactly defines an Asian American that they can be targeted for ministry, Wong Fu wants us to know that we are not merely Asian American. Let’s get our theology right. God is not out to define us because we are not categories. We are not simply made of timelines. We do not exist to be defined for your next pet ministry project, and those of us who fit all of the stereotypes in the shorts are very funny people indeed. We are people, and we have everyday lives, and those lives are worth making fun of and turning into dramas. In fact, even if we defy the notion that our lives are stories lived comically before God, even if we insist that the categories define us and the timelines rule us, even if we purport to be a model minority because we have something about being Asian American to prove (of course, to the chagrin of progressive Asian Americanists), people like Wong Fu can still tell our stories as comedies, sometimes even at our expense. After all, the entire tradition in which we find ourselves is in fact a story, and it is a comic one, one that ends with us coming home to a place we did not expect with friends who have forgiven us for our instrumental rationality, even as we have forgiven them and have been forgiven by God himself.

And so, I’m just going to say it: Wong Fu for Life. Thank you, Phil, Wes, Ted, Chris, and Christine, and everyone else who works at Wong Fu. Your videos really do make my day better. Thanks.

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