In the marketplace of pop culture, history is packaged by decades, and consumers by generations, because memory is currency: nostalgia for the olds, retro-chic for the young. Apart from Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit, though, Asian Americans have mostly been excluded from this economy.
Or so it seemed. A new book, Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now, insists otherwise. Its authors are fixtures on the Asian American media scene, who made their reputations in different formats: Jeff Yang ran the ’90s glossy A Magazine, Phil Yu blogs as Angry Asian Man, and Philip Wang cofounded Wong Fu Productions, a digital production company with millions of YouTube subscribers.
Colorful, breezy, and handsomely designed, Rise is a thick compendium of 30-plus years of Asian Americana, made up of magazine-style lists, infographics, group interviews, and bite-sized comics and essays, written by scores of illustrious contributors. It’s feel-good, earnest fun, meant to grab your short attention span and hang on tight, with sections for the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s, plus a before and after. Gen Xers and Millennials in particular will find plenty to laugh or cringe at in recognition—favorite songs, embarrassing fashions, mysterious artifacts of ancient internet subcultures.
But look again, and you’ll see that Rise has more serious ambitions. As Yang explained at the L.A. book launch, it’s a popular history, not just a history of pop culture—the story of Asian America, as we lived it and fought to see it represented on the splintered screens of U.S. media.
Can nostalgia be a manifesto?
Here’s where things get complicated. Underneath the book’s decade-by-decade organization is a historical insight. The Asian America we know is really what I’d call “Asian America 2.0”—fundamentally redefined since the ’80s by the children of immigrants, who arrived after the 1965 Hart-Celler Act ended decades of racist laws designed to exclude Asians.
The story of the term’s earlier origins has become canon, which Rise dutifully relates: coined in the ’60s by Berkeley grad-student activists Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, it named a revolutionary social movement, aligned with Black, Latinx, indigenous, and other “Third World” struggles.
Though the idea that Americans with ethnic roots across Asia had shared experiences, interests, and destinies seems strange, it made more sense to a ’60s population of multigenerational Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese American communities, whose lives in the U.S. had been converging after 30 or 60 or a 100-plus years. But by the ’80s, Asian Americans came from a wider range of ethnicities, were more likely to be foreign-born, and ranged from refugees to affluent professionals who came over through immigration preferences for skilled workers.
If “Asian America 1.0” named a radical political identification—“a fight you were picking with the world,” as Jeff Chang has put it—by the ’80s, it had become a polite, standardized racial category. To many immigrants, it felt like an imposition, but when their children came of age and entered white-dominated spaces of social mobility, like higher ed, they found that negotiating shared experiences of being racialized as “Asians” required affirmatively claiming the term, to develop strategies of collective support.
Still, this racial identity felt culturally empty, by contrast with ethnicity—no less constructed, but grounded in intergenerational ties and the institutions and informal networks that immigrants relied on to survive. “We were the ones given the job of trying to fill in the blank of what it meant to be Asian American,” Yang asserts in the introduction, “even though we didn’t control movie studios or television networks or publishing companies.”
Rise, in all its overstuffed glory, shows how the blank got filled in: from the earnest ambitions of the ’90s, to the steady but quiet growth of visibility through the ’00s, exploding in the mid-’10s as Asian American artists achieved unapologetic control over their own representation. Looking back over the three decades, it’s hard not to be impressed.
If you can recall being able to keep track of every Asian person who achieved minimal pop-cultural celebrity, then this trip down memory lane is a revelation. And if you can’t remember a time of such representational scarcity, Rise is both history lesson and archive. Even so, the authors point out, the post-COVID resurgence of unapologetic anti-Asian racism is a warning that these triumphs are fragile.
Of course, we all remember the past differently. For me, what stood out about ’90s Asian American culture was that it was more queer, more feminist, more punk, more brown—but it feels petty to tally what’s missing. Even a book this big can’t cover everything, and Rise conscientiously makes room for groups often marginalized by Asian American identity. It even acknowledges that “inclusion can turn into erasure,” as a discussion of Asian American/Pacific Islander relations puts it. Nonetheless, Rise inevitably privileges certain ways of being Asian American, which are easy to recognize if you don’t fit them.
Whatever frustrations I have with Rise, though, are really with the ’90s Asian American cultural politics whose promise it tries to realize. This was the age of multiculturalism and diversity, whose arc Rise narrates as one of gradual inclusion, but it was also one of neoliberal letdown from the radical visions that preceded it. This “inclusion,” more additive than transformative, followed lines of privilege in shaping a class-specific identity—East Asian, US-born (but second-generation), suburban-raised, elite-educated, professional, cishet, male—far less representative of Asian American communities than it claimed.
Yet if ’90s cultural politics defined Asian America, for better and for worse, across the whole “2.0” era, something new is happening, beginning in the racial conflicts of the mid-’10s and bursting into flame after COVID and the Minneapolis uprising. Many younger activists identify more with the revolutionary Asian American politics of the ’60s than with ’90s multiculturalism; instead of dreaming about being CEOs of movie studios or television networks, they dream about bringing down capitalism. It may not be “Asian America 3.0”—who still uses those kinds of numbers?—but it does feel like a reboot.
Perhaps the way to read Rise is not as a story of triumph, but as a valediction. It will have a place in my library, and I expect to see it peeking out of a lot of bookshelves in the coming years, but I really can’t wait to see what’s happening next.