Asian American Media and Consciousness: History and Evolution (Part 3)

The sea was shimmering gold in the late August sun as a long stream of fine cars turned off Pacific Coast Highway and onto the lush driveway of the Malibu Riding and Tennis Club. Never before had so many Asian Americans converged there.

That Transpacific summer bash was a party with a cause — the 1994 Golden Image Awards, recognizing five achievers for burnishing the image of Asians in America: Bugle Boy founder Bill Mow, actor George Takei, artist Ting Shao Kuang, architect Suh Park and Sandra Nakata, a school teacher from Beaumont, Texas who had been mounting what would ultimately be a decade-long crusade to get stubborn Jefferson County to change “Jap Road” to something less wildly offensive.

On the main deck of the big swimming pool publisher Tom Kagy introduced the recipients to a crowd that included investors, advertisers, longtime subscribers, prominent Asians and cover models like actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Miss Illinois Susie Park and Kelly Hu, herself a Miss Hawaii. The gathering reflected Kagy’s vision of Asian America as a population of individualistic achievers, or to quote Transpacific’s subscription promos, “billionaires and beauties, braniacs and badboys…”

The row of golden abstract figurines mounted on dark wood waiting to be presented reflected that crowd’s mindset. The shared Asian American hue is golden, Kagy had insisted over the years in Transpacific, not “yellow” as commonly assigned us by the American racial color code. As Kagy was finishing up presentation of the awards, he handed a $750 check to Sandra Nakata, a personal donation he hoped would be matched by others in the crowd with far more money than him. From excruciating experience Kagy knew how costly and draining personal crusades could be and he was hoping to send Nakata home with more than a piece of fireplace adornment.

That summer bash came at a turning point for Kagy. Having finally freed himself from the need to continue practicing law to make ends meet, he had already begun to set his sights on ultimately migrating from magazines with their byzantine, shamefully wasteful and corrupt distribution system to digital publishing directly to the entire Asian American population. He was convinced that the best answer to the prayers of all independent publishers was the emerging internet.

I was one of those Asian Americans who looked to the internet to liberate us from the often infuriatingly euro-centric perspectives of American mass media and give each of us the freedom to choose from a world wide web of content. That was the shining hope. In reality the internet proved to be a monumental runaround during much of its excruciating first decade as an emerging popular medium.

During the mid-1990s millions of early adapters were pulling out their spiked hair trying to get online via dialup accounts. They unplugged their phones, plugged in their modems and dialed an access number which — after some suspenseful static — would have their computers talking to the internet — if they were lucky. Most ended up spending more time trying to get a reliable connection than surfing the web. The connection procedures most ISPs provided required users to deal with IT jargon like “PPP” and “dynamic IP address”.

But the internet was hyped so fiercely that its call was impossible to ignore. Otherwise intelligent people devoted evenings and weekends to the holy grail of beating the Joneses online. Every internet service providers (ISPs) and IT worker dreamed of devising some novel way to tap the net’s promise to justify a billion-dollar IPO. Lost in the chaos of the internet’s wild-west land-grab days was the traditional media function of publishing and consuming content.

It was a dream scenario for Steve Case and his hyper-aggressive America On-Line. AOL flooded American mailboxes with signup CDs. Once the AOL browser was installed and launched, it displayed a navigation interface that funneled users to AOL’s own array of forums and proprietary content, most of it created by copying and mirroring the content of other internet sites, including the one launched in September 1995 to display content from Transpacific and Face magazines. It was like shunting everyone who came to California into Disneyland — and keeping them inside.

I finally managed to get online, hoping to share in something like real time my experiences of being Asian in America. It soon became apparent that even this modest goal was unrealistic. I found myself shunted to AOL’s Asian American forums. They were led and monitored by unpaid AOL minions, but the results weren’t pretty. Many posters seemed bent on provoking others with offensive statements. Others were hotheads incapable of calm discussion or were proselytizers for extreme agendas. A few were racists spewing stereotypes and hate.

The resulting friction inevitably ignited flame wars. Participants became bent on mocking and distorting one another’s posts or making clever ad hominem attacks. These digital barroom brawls and catfights were briefly amusing but ultimately tedious and repetitive. Posters like me who didn’t want to be drawn into these interminable wars began lurking, then casting around for better places to point their browsers. Unfortunately, AOL didn’t make it easy to navigate out of its walls. One hurdle was the lack of a resource providing worthwhile URLs.

Enter Jerry Yang and Yahoo.

By now many Asian Americans know that Yahoo began as the personal page of a Stanford engineering grad student from Taiwan named Jerry Yang. Along with his name in Mandarin, a few bits of personal data and his golf scores, Yang posted links to his favorite sites. Back in 1994 that short links list was the closest thing to an internet directory. Yang’s page became a favorite destination for those seeking life on the internet outside AOL. Spotting a business opportunity, Yang and roommate David Filo conceived a hierarchical directory of websites to organize sites by categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories.

No matter how deeply you dug down through Yahoo’s hierarchy you couldn’t find sites with substantial Asian American content. Kagy longed to fill that void but hesitated to put himself yet again on the bleeding edge just as his magazines were finally enjoying some financial stability. Even as the dot-com boom was turning into an epic bubble, the siren song of digital riches was directed mostly at programmers with novel ways to automate processes like online sales or matchmaking, not at publishers seeking an efficient new outlet for content. There was virtually no paid advertising on the web. Most ad banners were run as exchanges that merely let sites cross-promote or under “affiliate” agreements in which sites were promised (but rarely paid) a percentage of online sales they generated.

In the absence of a rational internet business model Kagy kept his main focus on print publishing, while uploading a few articles from past issues of Transpacific and Face as a form of subscription promotion. But the hunger for quality Asian American online content was so great that, with virtually no promotion, tens of thousands of visitors found their way to those Transpacific and Face articles.

Asian Americans were a disproportionate share of the internet’s early settlers. By the latter half of the 1990s Asian techies with programming and graphics skills were launching eye-popping websites ranging from virtual malls to classified ad services, banner exchange networks and matchmaking sites. One of the earliest, most ambitious Asian American online ventures was started out of a New York apartment in July of 1997 by a group of young Chinese American professionals with a knack for sensational promotional schemes. By early 1998 was drawing 50,000 monthly unique visitors with a mix of forums, chatrooms, singles matchmaking and online events. By August of 2000 the site reached a peak of 70,000 monthly uniques.

Today Asian Avenue (now is an Asian singles site. As the dot-com boom was heating up it emerged in New York as the first major effort at creating an Asian American portal. It was later sold to the owner of to form part of an ethnic media conglomerate called Community Connect in preparation for an IPO.

AsianAvenue quickly became a magnet for those afflicted with “yellow fever”, older non-Asian men trolling for Asian teens. It was a problem that plagued many forum-based Asian sites, and it tended to alienate Asian Americans hoping to share experiences with others like themselves. Much to their disgust and annoyance, the online yellow fever triggered an explosion of sites promoting Asian porn. Those problems were compounded by the rapid spread of robot-generated spam. By the early 2000s AsianAvenue became riddled with links to porn, escorts and phone sex and were increasingly colonized by a small army of yellow-fever trolls.

Quality advertisers stayed away, understandably skittish about having their brands associated with user-generated content rife with controversial viewpoints, expressions of hate, scatology, and porn. With no other options for generating revenues, AsianAvenue evolved into a controlled dating site. It invited members with easy access to photos and vital stats, then charged them for contact information.

Ultimately AsianAvenue merged into Community Connect, Inc., a firm founded by a German Jew named Omar Wasow to operate the African American portal In a bid to build a digital interactive media conglomerate, Wasow added a Hispanic site and took Community Connect public just before the dot-com bubble popped. When it did, the company’s shares plummeted. It was taken private at pennies on the dollar and bought out in 2008 by an African American radio station operator.

Today Click2Asia is an Asian dating. In 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, founder Pierre Wuu and partners had raised $15 million with the aim of turning it into the internet’s leading Asian American site. It also bought and sought to incorporate Jeff Yang’s struggling A Magazine.

The second major Asian American web publishing venture seeking to tap the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s was Click2Asia. One of its founders was Pierre Wuu, a young Chinese American who had done some spot magazine distribution in the Midwest for Kagy’s Transpacific several years earlier as an intern. Wuu and partners collectively raised a reported $15 mil. in venture capital to launch in 1999. It used the money to lease offices in a mid-Wilshire highrise and buy billboards along the sections of I-405 and I-10 most heavily traveled by Los Angeles-area Asians and put up flashy graphics promising a hip, upscale, all-in-one Asian American portal. It threw parties in trendy Asian clubs. It bought out what remained of Jeff Yang’s A Magazine, which had paused print publication, presumably as a resource for its contemplated content offerings.

By early 2000 Click2Asia had Asian Americans abuzz. Many were betting that Tom Kagy’s, launched 18 months earlier, would soon be roadkill.

Part 4 will discuss how the concept of Asian American media evolved as the dot-com boom went bust, Yahoo gave way to Google, and the Pacific Ocean shrank virtually overnight into a pond. Next

Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4