Emily Ryan is an artist/actress/DJ/musician who, in 1994, formed possibly the first all female Asian American rock group, Emily’s Sassy Lime, with sisters Amy and Wendy Yao. In 2002, she played James Duval‘s girlfriend in Jon Moritsugu‘s underground classic Scumrock.
Eric Brightwell: Question 1: what other all Asian-American rock bands were there before Emily’s Sassy Lime?
Emily Ryan: J Church, Seam, aMiniature, Slint… I suggest you peep the (seminal) Ear of the Dragon comp… Versus… no all girl ones however! They would sprinkle in one here or there…Skankin’ Pickle.
EB: I had no idea that half of those bands were comprised of Asians! They weren’t really getting a lot of play on Friday Night Videos.
ER: Exactly. I’ll correct myself; those groups were LED by Asian Americans… as in “not just the bassist.” I want to say that I recently met the drummer from an old Matador band, Chavez – James Lo…Tae from Kicking Giant…Steve Gamboa from Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club, and Make-Up.
EB: Ha! When I asked a co-worker we came up with James Iha, Joey Santiago and Soundgarden because of Hiro Yamamoto and Kim Thayil.
ER: These are the solid names; Kim Thayil is a great one. I’m coming distinctly from the indie underground. Robynn Iwata from Cub (Canada), who is now in Iamspoonbender… Rop Vazquez from the PeeChees and Rice. During the pre-internet days, I didn’t know that Pete Tong (BBC) or David Yow (Scratch Acid/Jesus Lizard) were not Asian.
EB: Oh, and then I got Shonen Knife… which I thought illustrates something about the persistent difficulty with distinguishing Asian Asians and Asian Americans in a way that people don’t have with blacks or whites. I took this test and it said I was subconsciously slightly biased toward viewing Asians as foreign, which made me pissed!
EB: Well, the first year I was trying to get the store to recognize the month, people were giving me all of these suggestions for Asian-American actors and they were all Chinese, you know. And the films they were suggesting were like Old Boy. But once you emphasize Asian-American you get the same suggestion 95% of the time. Guess!
ER: Wayne Wang, Eat a Bowl of Tea?
EB: Joy Luck Club. What’s the deal with that movie? (I’ve never seen it.)
ER: Harsh, thin Asian women — a dated concept.
EB: It just looks well-meaning but prohibitively cheesy… but for some reason, it is the go-to Asian American film for most people.
ER: Well, I’d say you haven’t lived until you’ve watched Wayne Wang‘s Chan Is Missing.
ER: I love it. Watch it and we’ll talk! Some Ang Lee isn’t bad, but relies too much on indulgent Americana.
EB: That’s [Chan Is Missing] pretty much the film, as far as I can tell, that ended the long silence in Asian-American Cinema. After the silent era, it doesn’t seem like there was anything made by Asians for Asians until that.
ER: What a voice — I love that movie, [and] all of Jon Moritsugu‘s films, starting with the short ones he did while still at Brown — Der Elvis, Sleazy Rider, Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain? Also very important are all of V. Vale’s Re/Search books — my favorites are the ones on experimental film and pranks.
EB: It seems like there has been an explosion of Asian-American films recently. A lot play a few festivals and then are on DVD… or they play at a theatre like the horridly named ImaginAsian Theater. That name just makes me cringe. I think it may have something to do with a distaste for portmanteaus.
ER: As in AMOEBLOG?
EB: Oh yeah, and infotainment. There’s something instantly dated about portmanteaus. Remember when people thought, “If I put ‘2k’ at the end of the title, it will sound so cool!” …advertainment, blogebrity! …It’s like the screenplay to Juno 2. Did you hear about Kal Penn being appointed as cultural liaison to Asian-Americans or whatever?
ER: Yeah, he’s ok. I don’t like the layers of meaning to his role on 24, though.
EB: I thought Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle was kind of culturally important because it had two male Asian leads and they weren’t even heavily-accented nerds. Why do you think it’s such a given that Black History Month is going to be a big deal at every business but when you bring up APAH Month people are like *eye rolling* “where does it end?!” Personally, I think Black History Month is an assuagement of white guilt and a thank you for providing us with most of our notions of what’s cool…
ER: And also maybe I need to get past myself and talk up the Hmong and Cambodians oppressed by me.
EB: Yeah, I feel like, everybody’s people have oppressed and been oppressed at some point. I personally don’t even feel guilty for my parents’ actions, much less certain unrelated members of my race hundreds of years ago.
ER: Also there are more people from the past in underrepresented fields… I think the first wave of immigrants from 1975 have children in my age range and through the ’90s I have seen a wide spectrum of Asian-Americans on both sides of the media — reporters and artists, increasing visibility from SuChin Pak on MTV to Theme Magazine in Brooklyn and even a Vietnamese-American artist named Mylinh Trieu sounds familiar to folks nowadays. In 1990? It was Margaret Cho and that was it.
EB: Even as a kid I thought it was weird how Black History Month is like some kind of mundane trivial pursuit where you learn about who invented the traffic light. But they never really address what people are going through now. It reduces inequality to an historical and academic matter.
ER: Well, how about this, it matters to your environment. On a civic level, there should always be _____ history month, but on the commerce level, it gets too one-dimensional.
EB: True. It always seems tacky how big corporations like McDonald’s, Wal-mart and Coca-Cola are the biggest supporters of Black History Month… which they mark by making a commercial with an entirely black cast. Way to go! But I do think that these month-long observances are good opportunities to recognize what makes us different and what we-that-are-alive-now go through due to wrongly assumed differences, etc.
EB: Did Emily’s Sassy Lime encounter certain expectations because of your race or was the scene a little more open minded?
ER: Well, mind you, we were from southern California; we bullied kids at our schools, we were conscious about race. For example, one of the things that was always top of mind was Asian home-based karaoke culture and Asian racer and parachute kid culture …those “GQ Asians,” so it was definitely part of our identity and then we would get offended and mad when this zine came out called Emily’s Sassy Lime Get Eaten by Wolves where we were drawn as stick figure slit eyes playing on stage and getting chased off and eaten by wolves. But we were loud and brassy and we would be lecturing everyone on how bad that was that a zine like that was allowed to be circulated, you know what I mean? So we were sort of like, “nothing gets past us” in terms of racism. Remember, we had to deal with sexism so we sort of battled both with big mouths.
EB: Well, if you were men and you make a big deal out of something, you’re strong. If you’re a woman and you do the same thing, you’re a whiny bitch.
ER: “Annoying” was the word. Cos we happened to be sneaky and well educated, so it doesn’t go down well when you are in the underground. Michelle Carr from Jabberjaw is putting out a book and I contributed some memories and she told me, “You remembered the most amazing things.” That was because at the same time I was remembering the mundane details of my high school obsessions, I did that for underground music too.
EB: Do you feel like representations of and attitudes toward Asians are improving or changing at all?
ER: Our coming of age is still in process.
EB: I feel like Asian women, especially, are sometimes treated like fashion accessories. Asian men, on the other hand, are usually belittled for comedic value, like William Hung. But if someone thinks an Asian guy is hot, they make sure to let you know, to prove how open minded they are… like the guy on Lost.
ER: I was ushered backstage one time at Webster Hall with this guy Peter Kim, accompanied by the acknowledgment, “It’s Margaret Cho and the guy from Lost!”
EB: That’s not so bad; when I was watching Gran Torino this black guy asked me if I was Ryan Reynolds and I said, “That’s so racist!” And he was like, “Oh, you’re his brother?” I said, “No, we all look the same.” …Did you know Emily’s Sassy Lime is on Pandora?
ER: Actually, funny you say that, I just got a royalty statement today $20 in the past month! At $100 they cut me a check…
ER: Ha ha, more now than ever. Ok, I have to leave soon for Bánh mì sliders.
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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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