Year of the Tiger

More than 2 billion people celebrate the Lunar New Year. This month marks the beginning of the new Chinese Zodiac, the year of the tiger. The timing is impeccable.

Tigers are synonymous with strength, grace, and ferocity all at once. The animal also became something of a symbol of the rapid growth of certain countries in the 20th century. Economists and historians often refer to that time as the period of the Rise of the (Southeast) Asian Tigers.

In the world of pop culture, Asian faces have become more visible than ever. Just one generation ago, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who could name an Asian celebrity other than Jackie Chan. Today, we are almost oversaturated with Asian celebrities.

BTS, Blackpink, Joji, Rich Brian, Squid Game, Crazy Rich Asians, Marvel’s Shang Chi, Star Wars characters, Awkwafina, beabadoobee, Mitski, Olivia Rodrigo, The Linda Lindas, Ronnie Chieng, Ali Wong, Steven Yeun, Parasite…Asians have finally made some major headway in the entertainment world.

Paradoxically, this happened during a time of increased racism and hate crimes against East Asians due to the misguided fears and anger of citizens during COVID-19. While we’ve been able to celebrate huge successes, we’ve also recoiled in horror at footage of senior citizens and innocents being mindlessly attacked, and in the worst cases, even killed.

While we cheer at Tony Leung finally getting mainstream Hollywood recognition for the badass he is, we still have to live with the fact that a movement like #StopAsianHate has to exist…

We live in a global community, and some amazing cross-pollination is happening between subcultures. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.

For instance, Kpop is now a widely accepted phenomenon, but it is not without its faults. Accusations of hip-hop cultural appropriation have ranged from the aesthetic to the use of rap lyrics. Even Blackpink’s Lisa’s use of the AAVE “finna” has come under fire.

(Hilariously, and I’m not sure whether it’s a joke or not, but the Korean word 니가 read as “Ni-ga” often comes under fire for its closeness to the actual N word in English)

It can go both ways though. One of Nicki Minaj’s most loved hits is named after Street Fighter character “Chun-Li”, and she was garbed head to toe in Chinese costume during its cycle. Kendrick Lamar adopted Chinese dress as part of his Kung Fu Kenny persona. Even Ariana Grande has been recently accused of Asianfishing in the wake of the Korean wave of popularity.

Where was the public outcry then? Do we dare cancel Kendrick Lamar? Is something as innocuous as fox-eye make-up really a symbol of white supremacist imperialism?

Rather than focus on these negatives, let’s look at the beauty of mixing cultures together to create something new. We can still respect where we’ve come from as separates, but coalescing for a new purpose.

The relationship between Asian popular culture and hip-hop in particular has a contentious history. The rise of the Asian Tigers in the 2020s marks a new beginning for artists and fans alike. There is a beautiful relationship that could blossom between East and West, and vice versa.

For me, this moment could be best encapsulated by the interaction between RZA of The Wu-Tang Clan, and Rich Brian during the recording of his debut album, The Sailor in 2019.

The Asian culture that was spreading throughout New York City
Started to spread inside my house
And I took that energy
And I turned it into my music
Witness, 360 degrees
Of Shaolin being born into a new age
The modern day kung fu
The modern day kung fu
Performed out of the vocal booth
Witness, witness, and absorb.


Year of The Tiger Playlist

A selection of some of the best Asian artists out at the moment. Also, songs loosely related to celebrating Lunar New Year.

This post was published as part of deadset’s weekly newsletter via Substack. Click here to read more and subscribe for regular pop culture wisdom in your inbox!

Published by Kevin Loo

Live, laugh, stare into the existential void, love

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