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Awkwafina Has Her Moment In 'Crazy Rich Asians' -- She Told Us How She Started On YouTube

Awkwafina attends Crazy Rich Asians' Atlanta Red Carpet Screening at Regal Atlantic Station on Aug. 2, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Warner Bros.)
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A recent study by USC found that only 4.8 percent of Asians had speaking roles in film. That percentage is actually lower than the previous year, when Asian actors had 5.6 percent of speaking roles.

While that report was published before the debut of Crazy Rich Asians -- the first studio film to feature an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago -- it's safe to say that Asians are overlooked at the movies. But there's one outlet where the community is thriving: YouTube.

Nora Lum, who goes by Awkwafina, started to gain a fanbase on YouTube a few years ago before landing a role in Crazy Rich Asians and starring alongside Rihanna and Sandra Bullock in Ocean's Eight.

"I was able to do well in the beginning because it was such a foreign thing to see someone that's out there who's being relatable, and the Asian American isn't a selling point of the brand," Awkwafina said. "People frame it in a negative way, like 'Asian Americans, there's no one really out there. That must be really bad for you.' It's like, 'No, I benefited from it.'"

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Awkwafina went viral when she released her music video "My Vag" in 2012. It has almost 3 million views now. She wrote the comedy rap song when she was 19, sent the track to friends, and initially forgot about it.

Her friend, director Court Dunn, stumbled on it years later and wanted to make a music video of the song.

"I was kind of reluctant because I worked in an office, I was a publicist," Awkwafina said. "So it wasn't a good place to do a song as ballsy as that."

She eventually made it and told her boss about the video, "And almost immediately she emailed me back and was like, 'Can you not 'cause it's gonna embarrass the company and it's gonna be bad,'" Awkwafina said. She left her job -- and the video took off.

While the online community was supporting her art, her family wasn't on the same page. "[My dad] just wanted me to be stable, and he really didn't believe that I was doing well," Awkwafina said. He eventually came around when he saw that his daughter was on the front page of New York Magazine's website. "And since that day, when he saw that article, he's left it alone. Now he's like the manager I never asked for."

While growing up, she remembers the only Asian comedian she emulated was Margaret Cho (who she later did a music video with in 2016).

"She was literally the only one," Awkwafina said."She has a bit where she's talking about when she was growing up and she was saying, 'When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute on MASH.' Those were the only plausible parts she could play if she went into the entertainment industry."

While her music may not contain the most serious lyrics, she feels like it's important for her to put out her work and to be seen.

"There's tons of Asian kids that come up to me all the time and say, 'It's so cool that you're out,'" Awkwafina said.

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Eugene Lee Yang also saw a rise in his career after making YouTube videos at Buzzfeed. He and his team are now operating the popular digital series "The Try Guys" -- which has more than 3 million YouTube subscribers -- independently.

He was originally a video producer behind the camera, but when BuzzFeed wanted to diversify the people in their videos, Eugene demanded that they use the only Asian-American on their production staff -- him. And then he became Internet Famous.

He described his big break as, "Simply a series of scenes of myself and the comedian Jenny Yang speaking to white people with the language turned around on them." But the effects of the hit video, which has more than 13 million views, weren't so simple for Eugene, who found himself under vastly increased scrutiny.

"That was the first time I was really, heavily seen and circulated in terms of the viral share, and my reaction at first was a bit bashful," he confessed. "It's weird having people talk immediately [about you], like, Five seconds ago someone just posted their thoughts about how you look, which is usually the first thing people notice."

"But all of those comments are important," Eugene noted. "Just by someone saying, 'Oh, this Asian guy's blank,' they're recognizing that it's an Asian guy they're watching and commenting on and responding to. That alone served as a turning point for me to say, 'It's really important for me to be on camera.'"

Eugene saw this as the perfect way to represent a community that has largely been ignored in other outlets.

"People would be surprised at how much impact we have, especially as a community, online," Eugene said. "There was a joke that Asian-Americans are just more tech-savvy in general, so we're all online and we're all very vocal, but it's one of the places that we can really vent our frustrations with the way that we're portrayed."

But even as he was connecting with millions of people online, others still resorted to the same old stereotypes. Eugene pointed to a BuzzFeed post on Facebook, "Where we asked the audience to give questions for a segment called 'Ask an Asian.' The top comments with the most likes were all flagrant, racist questions that were the most inane, basic things you could ask. Like, 'Why do you eat dogs?'"

So how do you combat these stereotypes? Eugene argues that it's really simple: more representation in film. "That is still where a lot of the power lies, in my opinion," he said. Of course, it can never just be that simple.

"My big problem with the fact that Asians are not represented well enough in movies and in TV is that there's someone still controlling the idea that we are not worth a ticket, or we're not worth seeing because you have to pay to see [us]."

Wong Fu Productions might be among those making that leap from the Internet to Hollywood. They have more than 3 million subscribers on YouTube, but its not your standard viral fare. Rather than dank memes or adorable cats, their videos are more like indie shorts -- featuring primarily Asian casts.

Wesley Chan of Wong Fu Productions said that was the plan from the outset: "That's where we've always stood with Wong Fu Productions -- using Asian faces to tell an everyday story. The point is to show that it exists."

The success of their videos lead to some notable "real world" results -- they got to meet President Obama a few years back -- and it's also positioned them as representatives of the Asian-American community, which wasn't part of the plan at the beginning. But now that they're here, Chan recognizes it's a chance, "to represent, and instead of continuing to say, 'No no no, that's not us,' we'd better just own up to it and start making some moves with it."

And it seems like those moves will finally involve jumping from YouTube to the big screen. Wong Fu crowdfunded their first feature film and raised almost double the $200,000 goal, and with that money they made the indie-romance Everything Before Us. And Awkwafina will be starring in two more films after Crazy Rich Asians in 2019.

Awkwafina said that she hopes that there's more opportunities for Asian Americans to be seen on-screen and to be portrayed as individuals. "I want to see Asian Americans portrayed as their own quirky identities, and not just of an American identity. Not just the bookish neighbor. They should be quirky in their own right. They should have their own personalities."

A version of this story originally appeared on KPCC's site in 2015.

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