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Asian-Americans Buck Stereotypes, Find Fame on YouTube

The next Legaci or Apl.de.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas is probably out there—uploading videos of themselves on YouTube.

YouTube stars like Ryan Higa, David Choi, Kevin Wu (KevJumba), or Clara Chung (Clara C) may not be household names yet, but their popularity is serving as an inspiration for other young Asian-Americans.

Caught between parents pushing traditional careers and a relatively disinterested mainstream entertainment industry, many young Asian-Americans are turning to YouTube to express themselves artistically, break down stereotypes and change the way they’re seen by the wider culture.

“There’s the stereotype that we’re supposed to be doctors and lawyers, but YouTube is a place where you can show you can do other things in the arts,” said David Choi, a laid back, self-deprecating Korean-American singer/songwriter who has over 900,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, placing him near the top of all YouTube musicians.

For Asian-Americans, it’s liberating to see someone breaking those stereotypes, said Alexander Cho, a PhD in Media Studies at the University of Texas’ Department of Radio-Television-Film.  “The mere appearance of a face that looks like that is compelling to watch.”

Cho added that these YouTubers are navigating between the pressures of being the “model minority,” hard working, overachieving but lacking creativity, and being seen as perpetually foreign and never able to blend in.

Cho said another challenge is the entertainment industry’s reluctance to tap Asian-American talent.

“The entertainment industry is averse to taking risks with faces and bodies they’re not used to seeing,” he said.  “If there’s a face that brings in audiences, they tend to replicate that.”

Breaking barriers

But the YouTubers are going at it on their own, and some are even making a living at it.

Choi, who is from California, started posting his acoustic pop creations on YouTube in 2006, but first gained notoriety in 2004, when he won the grand prize of musician David Bowie’s Mash-Up Contest. Shortly after, Choi nabbed USA Weekend Magazine’s John Lennon Songwriting Contest for teens and appeared in USA Weekend Magazine with recording artist Usher.

Choi, 25, admitted he wasn’t forthcoming about his dreams with his parents, saying they first heard of his YouTube exploits at their church where several people told them, “Oh, your son’s on YouTube.”

He said his parents, despite owning a music store and making Choi take piano and violin lessons as a kid, weren’t exactly encouraging, but they were more receptive than some, especially after seeing an article about him in a Korean-American newspaper.

“My mom said, ‘If you become a musician, you’re going to be poor,’” he said. “That sort of stuck with me, but this is something I wanted to do. I chose it and worked really hard trying to get to where I can support myself.”

He worked for a while as a songwriter/producer for Warner/Chappel music but then struck out on his own. His music has been played on VH1, MTV, A&E, E!, Travel Channel, Style, PBS, Food Network, Disney and others, according to his website. He has also worked with companies such as Kelloggs, Starburst, Samsung, GE and JC Penney.

But Choi is hardly an anomaly.

Up-and-coming Korean-American singer/songwriter Clara C said she was discouraged from pursuing music by friends who told her it was impossible to make it. And even if she did, they said there was no money in it.

The 23-year-old is proving them wrong. Chung got her start on YouTube, but really saw her popularity rise after she won several musical competitions. She performed her self-described “synergy of folk/pop/rock” at a White House-sponsored Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) event at the Department of Education in Washington, and the Hollywood Bowl and the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, according to her website.

The California resident said her parents are very supportive and come to see her perform live. She laughed, saying that her choice to attend culinary school earlier in life “broke them in” to the idea that “this one’s not normal.” Chung, who is down-to-earth and laser-focused on her art, is striving to break out of the “Asian YouTuber” genre through collaborations with non-Asian artists.

Going mainstream

Both Choi and Chung have gone beyond YouTube and perform live both nationwide and around the world, particularly in Asia.

Choi, who says his Korean is about a first-grade level, jokes that when he tours Korea, he might be seen as a comedy act.

The momentum for Asian-American musicians is growing. In 2010, the group Far East Movement became the first Asian-American musical act to crack the Billboard Top 10 with the song “Like a G6.”

But the YouTube phenomenon is not just for musicians.

Ryan Higa, who until recently had the most subscribed-to YouTube channel, with over four million subscribers, does comedy. KevJumba strives to take a lighthearted look at Asian-American issues like relationships with parents. He has over one million.

All of this, Chung said, could be just the beginning.

“They’re doing what they want, are inspiring to other Asian-American kids, and it’s snowballing,” she said.

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