Thursday, April 22, 2004


Fed up by all these hysterical William Hung haters, I had to bark back finally. Consider the smack hand delivered.
    No False Idol (from the April 21st issue of the S.F. Bay Guardian)

    LAST TUESDAY A friend boldly predicted, "William Hung is going to outsell Dilated Peoples." Five days later the numbers told different stories. In Hung's backyard, Berkeley's Amoeba Music had only sold 2 copies of his Inspiration, compared with 16 of Dilated's Neighborhood Watch. On though, presumably more representative of American consumer tastes, Inspiration ranked an astounding 8th, while Neighborhood Watch was far lower, at 2,421st. No matter how you feel about Hung or his album, it's undeniable his 15 minutes have lasted a good half hour longer than anyone could have predicted.

    In the last two weeks he's had his CD come out, appeared on The Today Show, and done halftime for the Warriors. He has become, in the words of the Village Voice's Daniel Ng, "the most famous Asian American in the world right now." He's also become a flash point, the icon some love and others love to hate. Ng describes Hung as "not a man, but a walking grotesque and a self-parody," while columnist Emil Guillermo remarks, "The joke has gone on too long." Even my Asian American students at UC Berkeley, some of them Hung's classmates and dorm mates, view him with derision, wary he's the unwitting butt of a national punch line, dragging the rest of Asian male-dom down with him.

    Because of his accented English, bad teeth, and questionable fashion, critics decry Hung as the living manifestation of Gedde Watanabe's Long Duc Dong (Sixteen Candles) or Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yonioshi (Breakfast at Tiffany's), i.e., the latest humiliating caricature of Asian masculinity. Even though Hung isn't some actor FOBing it up, his critics pervert this too, accusing Hung of conspiring in the racial slandering of his brethren whether he's aware of it or not.

    I'm instantly reminded of a headline in the Onion in 2000: "Chinese Laundry Owner Blasted for Reinforcing Negative Ethnic Stereotypes." An excerpt from that brilliantly prescient story, once meant purely as hyperbole, is now indistinguishable from the hysteria around Hung: "this man is a degrading anachronism that has no place in a supposedly enlightened society like ours."

    OK, it is impossible to fully separate Hung's popularity from the specter of racist love. On The Today Show, white teens were shown holding Hung face masks before them, holes cut out so their blue eyes could replace Hung's brown. The image was amusing yet bizarre, unintentionally reminiscent of Hollywood's yellow-face tradition, when white actors would tape their eyes and insert buckteeth to "play Oriental." But racism alone cannot explain the Hung phenomenon.

    In recent video footage from San Diego, Hung performed at Westfield Shoppingtown and was surrounded by thousands, some waving "It's good to be Hung" posters, their screams drowning out his singing (probably a good thing). Burgeoning crowds do not create fire hazards at malls just to mock someone. To believe otherwise betrays a deep, myopic cynicism. Hung is not the disgraced nerd being held up for ridicule – he's the revenge of the nerd, and that's what explains his appeal.

    People flock to Hung precisely because he is awkward, can't sing, and can't dance. We admire him with a mix of sympathy and awe (described by the San Jose Metro's Sharon Mizota as "the Awwww factor") because he's so convincingly "real" and not some parody created by soulless executives to profit off of (though no doubt they have and will). Hung strikes a chord because his persona – in interviews and performances – appears entirely sincere. His now infamous American Idol comment was "I have no regrets," and that simple statement of self-confidence is what earned everyone's interest. Take that away and he's just another joke contestant, but leave it in and you realize Hung has heart, and that makes all the difference.

    The protests against him can be so overstated – one pundit called him an Asian Sambo – you have to wonder if some male critics aren't dealing with their own self-image issues, ironic given that Hung seems so unburdened by his own. Far from the simpering, passive stereotype of Asian masculinity he's supposed to represent, Hung has shown little fear in boldly taking to the stage, and not as some shuckin' and jivin' act.

    He enters the media spotlight and lets it all hang out. His earnestness, call it naïveté if you insist, can be painful to watch, but it's also what Hung contributes. Far from the one-dimensional cartoon his critics paint him as, Hung comes off instead as vulnerable, confused, optimistic, and joyful, all at once. "It's good to be Hung," because to be Hung means admitting to your limitations, knowing that some will laugh at you, but boldly striding onto the stage anyway. It's as complex and inspiring a portrait of humanity as one could hope for, and truly, when was the last time we've seen that in any American idol, Asian or otherwise?

THE CONVO CONTINUES.... was kind enough to mention my essay, but strangely, he ends up repeating the same basic argument that I've been trying to counter:
    But is William popular/funny to America because he's Asian? You bet your ass. It's America that's racist. I really hope William understands that a significant factor in his popularity is his goofy Asian-ness—and people are laughing at him. From there, he can decide screw them, because all he really wants to do is sing, to all and any who will listen. Hate the game, not the player.
Again, I acknowledge that racism explains SOME of his popularity, but not the bulk of it. If Hung was merely the object of ridicule, his 15 minutes would have ended 16 minutes ago. The fact that he's managed to sustain this level of popularity (his album sold 40,000 copies. FORTY THOUSAND COPIES. In a week) says to me that he's far more than just an object of racist ridicule but that people, white, Asian, whatever, are genuinly attracted to him as crazy as that may sound.

I think that by insisting that Hung's popularity is solely based in racism reflects a cyncism that itself is born from racism, i.e. that the only way a dorky Asian guy can get any love is because of racism. It fundamentally rejects the idea that maybe, just maybe, he offers something more than just a cartoonish representation of Asian masculinity. I'm not trying to run a liberal humanist line here, I just wish people could be open to the idea that Hung is hot for reasons other than just race. Goddamn, I'm getting sentimental in my aging days.

  • I'd post something up about Emil Guillermo's latest hate-fest on William Hung but frankly, I tire of Emil's tirades. He's like a neo-con in liberal humanist clothing but moreover, just not that interesting to read. Oh hell, ok fine, Here it is.

  • I mentioned a few weeks ago about how the women of Spelman College told Nelly to take a hike when he wanted to bring his bone marrow drive to campus. Professor Mark Anthony Neal (who I had the pleasure of hanging out with at EMP) has just written a longer essay on the controversy for
    (credit: SF/J)

  • "Subway systems of the world, presented on the same scale". Surprisingly fascinating. Here's Tokyo:


  • DJ Danger Mouse is doing columns for the N.Y. Times? Will the Gray Lady tap William Hung next?
    (credit: Cocaine Blunts)

  • Virtual bubblewarp. My friend Cat out in Houston sent this link to me. It's funny but really, it's not the sound of popping bubblewrap that's fun but the feeling of the "pop" beneath your fingers or feet.

  • Men are now officially irrelevant: "Fatherless mice created without sperm."

  • You still think Nader doesn't matter? According to these polls, he's taking up 6% of the vote and I'm pretty damn sure he's not taking it from Bush. Be afraid. Be VERY afraid.