The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
It’s a beautiful day—sixty eight, sunny, and even though I’ve been in Los Angeles for just over three months, the fact that winter looks this good is astounding. A band of midday sun slices through the smart shades, right over my eyes. I’m stressing about the details, mostly because in ten minutes, I’ll be interviewing reps from one of the most iconic Asian-American YouTube channels. It feels surreal, like I’m actually meeting a piece of my childhood, but the two gentlemen I’m sitting down with today—senior editor/writer-director Taylor Chan and producer/AD Benson Quach—assure me that this is a completely normal reaction to Wong Fu.
Originally founded in 2003 as the brainchild of three UC San Diego students—Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu—Wong Fu started out completely casual with a repertoire of Justin Timberlake lip sync videos and bite-sized skits, the seriousness of which Taylor describes akin to TikTok. Back in the day, when the concept of YouTube was in its infancy and the idea of YouTube monetization would’ve been laughable, they were experimenting. But as their videos blew up, as their fanship swelled and they expanded their brand outside of the USA, Wong Fu cemented itself as a staple of the Asian-American youth.
Taylor and Benson both grew up watching Wong Fu and joined the channel a few years apart through the internship program. Taylor, who majored in communications at UCSD, was always interested in film and felt, like so many of us in the AAPI community, that there just wasn’t much good Asian-American representation out there. After meeting the founders at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, on the tenth anniversary of Wong Fu’s founding, he began his journey as an editing intern. Benson, who hails from San Diego, came to Wong Fu in a way that most film students would probably recognize—film school undergrad at Cal State Northridge, freelancing on a wide variety of sets, then working his way up from editing intern.
They came into the Los Angeles scene like so many young ASAM filmmakers: young, ambitious, hungry to express. Asian in a highly reticent America. And in this channel, they found a home. Because, as much as Wong Fu loves a good laugh, they’ve also come to be known as something of a wellspring for Asian creatives.
From early collabs and skits with other ASAM YouTube pioneers, like Ryan Higa (Nigahiga) or Kevin Wu (KevJumba), to long form web shows with actors like Simu Liu, Daniel Dae Kim, Randall Park (just as a start!), the Wong Fu brand has long carried the reputation of making bold, beautifully shot meaningful work and also seemingly finding the X Factor in future Asian stars. I ask if there’s something in the water at Wong Fu.
The pair exchange a slightly sheepish look, tinged with a hint of pride. To this, Taylor answers:
“It’s not that we set out wanting to work with A-list celebrities, a lot of it was just very humble…we met them very early in their careers. And because of our long history of making stuff, they understood what we were doing, and the content we were making and the mission that we had, and just wanted to collaborate…I think a big core mission of Wong Fu is being being able to showcase Asian talent on screen and behind the camera, as well, and creating opportunity for that. And so whenever we see a friend of ours, in front or behind the camera, kind of getting more and more opportunity and finding success through us, or along the way, it means a lot.”
“It drives us to work harder, drives them to work harder,” Benson adds. “And then you know, even me, coming from a freelance background, oftentimes being the only Asian person behind the camera or on set, like as a PA or even grip and lighting, coming into Wong Fu and being able to provide a place for, you know, crew members to get some hours into it, it’s been really great to build and kind of cultivate that community.”
And a community this channel is. For its nearly two-decade run, Wong Fu has become such an integral part of Asian-American media, reaching a diverse array of both watchers and creators. With everything from satire shorts to features and limited web series, there’s always something new, fun, astute and acerbic, just around the corner for the channel’s more than 3.5 million subscribers.
As a relatively small-town film student, I can’t help but poke a little more into how they maneuver through the twinkling, vast wasteland that constitutes Los Angeles. The pair readily acknowledge that it can feel like a city of transplants, especially in the film industry. But due in large part to the scale, the finding of the Asian population pockets, and opportunity to work with so many young Asian professionals can help soften the sepsis of cultural shock. Benson compares working at Wong Fu, and the Asian side of the Los Angeles creative scene in general, to college. “Wong Fu is essentially that college Asian Org, outside of college. It’s home for everybody, and everybody’s welcome. And even non-Asians, you know, there’s always those non-Asians in those college clubs, so it’s like, you know, everybody’s welcome, come and enjoy the content. The food. There’s a lot to share.”
The two recently collaborated on a short called Little Tiger, a Lunar New Year-themed short film, produced in partnership with Venmo. The plot centers around Chinese-American young professional Chloe, with core traditions of family, tradition, and hope. The short opens with Chloe receiving a virtual red envelope, the traditional Lunar New Year money gift, from her father. A yearly tradition for many families, Chloe reflects on the many envelopes she’s received and the many changes she’s experienced over the years—from little kid running through her parent’s restaurant, to middle class teenager, afraid to leave home and abandon her family, to successful adult living in the big city, always receiving warmth and support from her loved ones. At the climax, during a flashback, she nearly gives up admission to her dream school for fear of abandoning her parents and the life they’ve built for her, but her father reminds her that they’ve worked so hard in order to help her on her path, and that ultimately, she’s brave enough to take on the world, and should not feel bad for spreading her proverbial wings. In the present day, adult Chloe sends her father back an envelope of his own, and the two call to catch up, all under the loving gaze of her stuffed little tiger.
For Taylor, who wrote, directed, and edited the short, it represented “a gateway for people that might not be of Chinese or Asian descent to kind of have a general understanding of traditions, and the core values of, like, family…generosity and stuff like that…I think there’s a lot of depiction of Tiger Parents in media, so it was really fun and feels like a nice opportunity to portray a parent in a different light than we have maybe ever seen.”
To have not only a film celebrating such a ubiquitous Asian holiday but to also provide an honest snapshot about growing up Asian in America is something very special. It is also a case study for much of the argumentation surrounding the modern portrayal of Asian-Americans. Life isn’t always intergenerational trauma, in the same way that it isn’t a daytime TV drama, and oftentimes, it can feel difficult to find those all-too important instances of authenticity in modern media. The sweetness and honesty of the short, and the constant need and evolution of authenticity is something that really makes Wong Fu shine—even in their most hyperbolic work, like the Asian Bachelorette series, there always has to be an undercurrent of realism. Within their works, Asians are allowed to be smart, dumb, ditzy, mean, loving, strict, funny, and plumb so many other depths that the biggest studios in modern Hollywood don’t often portray.
Finding common threads that can unite viewers—Asian and non-Asian alike—is something that creatives at Wong Fu often inject into their work, but it’s a unique value proposition, even as a primarily Asian-staffed and Asian-content company. As Benson points out, the Asian-American experience is so vastly different, even over something as small as state lines, which makes finding and weaving together those common threads that much more difficult—and important. For him, “creating a sense of belonging, around a universal experience, when it comes to, you know, our identity, or our community, or our heritage, is really empowering.”
Belonging. It’s a difficult proposition, when Asian Americans continually feel marginalized, when the yoke of the perpetual foreigner role settles around the neck. Especially within the last few years, the historical ambivalence, if not outright malice, towards the AAPI community has reached a painful and glaring head. But with that pain and public exposure, time and time again, there’s also a silver lining, especially now, especially for creators. With the growing market for more diverse content, the growing awareness of the discrepancies within the workplace, there’s hope, and that is what the Wong Fu mission is all about. Through their work, they hope to show people that no matter where you’re from, who you are, you matter.
As we wrap up the interview, I ask them, a little melodramatically, if they might have some words of wisdom. For the kid who’s sad at the movies because they don’t see themselves on screen, for the kid bathed in the glow of the living room TV and dreaming of making movies one day but who’s too scared to take the risk and let their voice be heard.
“Everybody has a story to tell, and everybody has a right to tell that story. Like, all this, all the content that you see these days, it all started as an idea. So you know what? There’s no reason it can’t be your idea. So I think it’s just like, if you’re going to do it, be dedicated. It’s going to be hard. But don’t let that discourage you. And, yeah, one day, hopefully, you can make something that you’re proud of…at the end of the day, you can make millions of dollars, it can make one dollar, it can make negative dollars, but as long as you’re proud of it, that’s the big thing.”
Or, in other words: “You belong, you matter. Don’t let anyone tell yourself differently.”