By Ligaya Mishan
Photographs by Collier Schorr
Styled by Matt Holmes
In the West, Asian musicians have long been marginalized. Now, though, a new generation of women are transforming their respective genres.
IN THE FALL of 1959 — 14 years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and released Japanese Americans from its domestic internment camps; 13 years after the American territory of the Philippines gained independence; six years after the end of the Korean War; and two months after American soldiers were killed by the Viet Cong just north of Saigon, among the first U.S. casualties in Vietnam — three young women from Seoul appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS. The show was an institution, a live cabaret every Sunday night that reached more than a quarter of all American households with a TV set. The women called themselves the Kim Sisters — evoking the beloved Andrews Sisters from Minnesota, who sold 50 million records in the 1930s and ’40s — but were in fact a cousin, Min Ja (Anglicized as Mia), 17, and two sisters, Sook Ja (later Sue), 21, and Ai-Ja, 18.
Sue, coached by her mother, started out performing on American military bases during the war. She sang “Candy and Cake” — in English, a language she didn’t speak — for G.I.s in tents thick with the black smoke of oil stoves, earning her first chocolate bars and Coca-Colas, along with whiskey that her mother traded for essentials on the black market. Only 14 at the time, she was too young to be allowed in venues with beer bottles toppling off tables, but the bookers turned a blind eye. Soon, Sue joined forces with her younger sister and cousin and pragmatically began wearing form-fitting dresses slit to midthigh. They learned to tap dance; they stopped going hungry.
When they got a chance to come to the United States in 1959 — just the three of them, since visas for Asians were limited — their mother told them to steer clear of boys and not to return “until you have become a success,” Sarah Gerdes recounts in a 2016 biography of Sue. They arrived in Las Vegas that winter, penniless, unable to read enough English to tell shampoo from Mr. Clean (with disastrous results) and relying on the kindness of their white male handlers. They gamely mounted the stage at the Thunderbird Hotel as part of the China Doll Revue, one of a number of Orientalist nightclub shows in big American cities stocked with supposedly foreign women (many actually American-born) in slinky cheongsams, twirling parasols and fans.
But the Kim Sisters, although relegated to the same costumes and accessories, somehow stood apart. Was it because they fit what would become the paradigm of the Asian in America, displaying a model minority’s work ethic by mastering more than a dozen instruments, including the saxophone, bagpipes and upright bass, along with tortuous choreography in high heels; or because they both exploited and resisted the hypersexualization of Asian women, opening sets wearing traditional Korean hanbok and then shucking them off to reveal floofy little polka-dot dresses, all the while assuring interviewers that they didn’t drink or date, making themselves unthreatening to their white female rivals; or because their isolation and seeming innocence suggested helplessness, inspiring the same protective impulse that led white Americans to adopt thousands of Korean children over the next decade; or because they had the savvy to cover contemporary hits like Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” (first recorded in 1957) and borrow the bobby socks and perkiness of ponytailed American teens, displaying both a willingness to assimilate and a tacit acknowledgment of the imagined superior appeal of Western culture; or because, as one critic wrote approvingly, they proved that, surprise, surprise, Asians could “have swing”?
That fall, when they greeted America on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” they might have been the first Koreans — the first Asians — whom Americans could accept as pop stars, and even want to claim as their own. They went on to perform for Sullivan 22 times, received spreads in Newsweek and Life and released an English-language album through Monument Records. They became American citizens in 1968, when more than half a million American troops were deployed in Vietnam. Then their style of music fell out of favor, and they disappeared from sight.
My mother is from the Philippines; I was born in Los Angeles. For years I have combed American history for Asian women ascendant, maybe out of desire for an ancestor, however distant, or to discover if such public recognition were possible, or to take comfort that in my muddled, uncertain ambitions I was not alone. I had never heard of the Kim Sisters.
IN THE WINTER of 2021 — a year into a pandemic whose origins in China spurred verbal and then physical attacks against people of Asian descent in the United States, and a few months before six ethnically Korean and Chinese women spa workers in Georgia would be shot by a white evangelical man who allegedly told the police that he wanted to eliminate sources of sexual temptation — everyone, or at least much of the measurable globe, was listening to the Filipino American singer Olivia Rodrigo, who turned 18 in February. Her first single, the fragile yet anthemic ballad “Driver’s License,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and clung there for eight weeks while racking up No. 1s from Belgium to New Zealand. By summer, shortly after the release of her first album, she’d surpassed Ariana Grande in a feat of ubiquity, landing the most songs (four) on the Billboard Global 200 at once, and she’d been recruited by the White House to urge young people to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
While Rodrigo had already proved herself as the lead in a Disney+ musical TV series, her fellow Filipino American Bella Poarch wasn’t known as a singer. She nevertheless dropped her own single in mid-May, the tinkly, nursery rhyme-like “Build a Bitch,” whose Barbie-meets-Frankenstein video was reported to have racked up 10 million views on YouTube in its first 24 hours. In the video, Poarch (who has not disclosed her age but appears to be in her early 20s) is explicitly framed as a product: just a head perched on an assembly line, missing everything from the neck down, until plucked by robot hands and locked onto shoulders to make a living doll for men to purchase. This initial disembodiment is slyly self-referential, as Poarch’s head is arguably what catapulted her to fame, bobbing and nodding in a TikTok clip from last year that shows a few seconds of her in close-up, lip-syncing a rap with a twisty mouth, a faux sunburn across her cheeks and dark wings of lashes. Thanks in part to this mesmerically innocuous performance, as of July, Poarch had the fourth largest following on TikTok, around 76 million fans, enough to make up the 20th most populous country on earth.
By these metrics, Poarch and Rodrigo are among the most watched and listened to Asian women in the Western world. Certainly they are the first Asian American pop stars to ever command such audiences. Yet their ancestry has gone unremarked upon by the media, beyond cursory biographical references. Instead, Poarch in particular has been whitewashed by critics who dismiss her success as a matter of “conventional attractiveness” and her being “extremely pretty in a very social media-specific way,” arguing that her popularity is the result of an algorithm that rewards the utterly generic. But in a Western context, there’s nothing conventional about Poarch’s appearance. She doesn’t physically resemble the white girls next door who rank above her in the TikTok hierarchy, nor does she share their experience: She is an immigrant who came to the U.S. as an adolescent and has spoken in interviews about how she was bullied for the way she looks. Asian faces vary greatly, but there are certain features that I always seek out when I scan a crowd, as if hoping to find myself, and I see them in Poarch: the petal-shaped, shallow-set eyes so brown they’re almost black; the flat brow; the faint duskiness that, as the historian Michael Keevak has noted, the 18th-century Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus classified first as “fuscus,” “dark,” and later “luridus” — “ghastly; yellow.”
(Pictured above: Four of the many Asian American women who are at the vanguard of pop, including, from left, Audrey Nuna, Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast and Ruby Ibarra.)
Hers is the kind of face that was historically excluded from Western pantheons of beauty, with the few exceptions explicitly framed as exotic and essentially unknowable. The first Chinese woman on record as an official visitor to the United States, Afong Moy, arrived in New York in 1834 at age 19 as part of an exhibition of Chinese goods arranged by American merchants, in which she sat silently on a throne and displayed her bound feet for gawkers who paid 50 cents each. One commentator labeled her “a perfect little vixen.” Nearly a century later, in 1932, the Hollywood fan magazine Picture Play ascribed a “fatalistic acquiescence” to Anna May Wong, the first and for many years only Asian American female movie star, routinely confined to dragon-lady or slave-girl roles: “Animation scarcely ever ruffles the tranquillity of her round face.” To Western audiences of the time, the unfamiliarity of Asian features made them almost illegible, part of a psychological phenomenon called “own-race bias,” in which members of one race have trouble distinguishing among members of another, leading to the false notion that all Asians look — and are — alike. (As the Korean American singer Audrey Nuna raps on her new album, “Never seen a face like mine in the cockpit.”)
If others couldn’t read us, it had to be our fault for denying them access to our inner selves, and so we’ve been cast as inscrutable, withholding, even devious. To this day, the image persists in the West of Asians as ciphers who are adept at calculating and competing but lack the emotional complexity and vulnerability of our white counterparts; who are, in other words, not fully human. I remember in 2004 watching the reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model” and feeling my insides knot as one of its first Asian contestants, April Wilkner, got axed after judges described her as “mechanical” and said, “She thinks too much.” A lawsuit filed in 2014 against Harvard University — which was decided in Harvard’s favor and is now awaiting consideration for review by the Supreme Court — alleged discrimination in the admissions process and presented evidence that Asian applicants were consistently given lower ratings on character traits such as “likability,” “kindness” and “integrity.” When we achieve, it’s often discounted as rote proficiency instead of innate talent — rigor and mimicry, at the expense of heart and soul.
In “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America From the Nineties to Now,” by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu and Philip Wang, forthcoming in January, the authors keep a running tally of “Undercover Asians”: artists and public figures whose Asian heritage was once intentionally, desperately hidden, as with the Depression-era actress Merle Oberon (whose mother was later revealed to be of South Asian and Maori descent), or mostly passed over in silence, as with the guitarist Eddie Van Halen (whose mother was Indonesian). It’s a parlor game, the writers acknowledge, “grasping at rumors” to see ourselves reflected in pop’s mirror, to find “some kind of connection to celebrity” and thus — belonging?
We scoff at the logic and still we do it, thrilling at the triumphs of those we imagine are our compatriots and most gleeful when they demolish the stereotype of Asians as quiet and accommodating, from the holy wildness of the Korean American singer Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the insurrectionist chants of the British Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., among the earliest Asian women to break through to the musical mainstream in the West, less than two decades ago. We do it even though we know that representation is the lowest-hanging fruit, the bare minimum we should expect, and that these anomalies are largely irrelevant to the mundanity of most Asian lives, even more so to the struggles of the many Asians in America who are isolated by limited English and access to education (the high school dropout rate for some Southeast Asian groups is as high as 40 percent), subject to job discrimination and invisibly subsisting at the poverty line, the model minority myth notwithstanding — or those who have been assaulted in the recent spike of anti-Asian violence. As the 30-year-old Filipino American rapper Ruby Ibarra told me, “We have K-pop on the radio and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in the theaters, but Asians are still being attacked.”
Read the full piece here.
By Ligaya Mishan for the New York Times