The YouTubers who were making Asian-American films long before Crazy Rich Asians
- Launched in 2003, Wong Fu Productions creates hugely popular YouTube features about Asian-American lives
- Once rejected by Hollywood, they’re now taking another shot
Crazy Rich Asians, this year’s romantic comedy blockbuster based on the book by Kevin Kwan, was an undoubted sensation.
The film’s success has raised hopes for a new era of Asian representation in film and television, and that Asian-American cinema is on the cusp of a golden age. For the many Asian-Americans who have struggled for years to have their performances seen, and voices heard, by an entertainment industry that had routinely showed no interest in them, it is an especially exciting time.
For the co-founders of Wong Fu Productions, a digital production company based in Pasadena, that optimism is tempered by caution.
“I think this moment is very significant, but we try not to get too caught up because we’ve heard this all before,” says Wesley Chan, one of the company’s co-founders. “Anyway, we’ve been doing what Crazy Rich is doing for years now, just on the digital front.”
Wong Fu launched in 2003 and its work has become hugely popular, particularly among Asian-American college students. Its YouTube channel has racked up more than 500 million views and boasts more than three million subscribers. The first episode of its most ambitious series to date, Yappie, has been watched more than 700,000 times.
Wong Fu is the brainchild of Chan and fellow co-founders Philip Wang and Ted Fu, who met when they were students at the University of California in San Diego.
“We were literally just posting skits about being in college and silly lip-sync videos,” Wang recalls. Still, he adds, “people started following us”.
What started as a bit of fun quickly became a passion. The trio spent so much time on their extracurricular filming that two of them had to attend summer school to graduate.
Their most popular video from that time was a comedic short on interracial dating called Yellow Fever. It resonated on college campuses, its success giving the trio the confidence they needed to dedicate themselves more seriously to making movies. They even decided to take a year off after school and tour with their student film, A Moment with You.
Not knowing how to get started, they reached out to colleges, offering to screen the film for students. The results were overwhelming.
“This was in the early 2000s. There were no TV shows or movies with Asian people,” Wang recalls. “We went to 30 or 40 schools and we realised the community we were building was really special.
“We realised we had come across a real fan base, and no one else was really doing this. We thought we have to keep this going.”
With the number of people watching their videos swelling and the reaction from college campuses continuing to grow, the three friends took the next obvious step: they moved to Los Angeles.
But the reaction from early 2000s Hollywood executives was a far cry from that of their peers in university.
“We’d write scripts and shop them around in the very traditional way,” Wang says. “All the meetings just went nowhere. We had people straight up say, ‘If you want Asian leads we can’t do it. No one’s going to buy it.’
“It left such a bad taste in our mouths that we actually turned around and doubled down on YouTube. That’s when we got more aggressive and more excited … It was a reality check for us, especially coming right out of college. So we started reaching out to other YouTubers who were Asian, and doing more Asian-American-centred events, and we kept that going.”
Their timing couldn’t have been better. As they decided to commit Wong Fu Productions to online entertainment, the platform was exploding in popularity.
“It was exciting to see how the medium started to mature around us,” Wang says. “YouTube was starting to put ads on, ad agencies were coming in and trying to sponsor content and we were getting offered brand deals. All these things that are super normal now, we had a front-row seat for it. We were able to do an original YouTube show, and to raise US$360,000 crowdfunding for our first official feature film, Everything Before Us.”
The content kept coming, each project more professional than the last. Wong Fu rolled out feature films and romantic comedy series such as Single by 30, all produced for YouTube Red, the video-sharing website’s paid subscription service (now YouTube Premium).
They also made short dramatic films, including Strangers, Again (19 million views) and comedy shorts such as My Hot Ghost (10 million views).
Their most recent series, Yappie – which stands for Young Asian Professional Yuppie – stars Wang as Andrew, a “normal” guy who “begins questioning his identity and how race has played a role in his upbringing, and therefore his career, relationships and goals”. It has been so successful that they are about to start work on a second season.
Now the team at Wong Fu are focused on keeping the brand relevant to their core audience of young viewers, while expanding their scope to feature more stories from the diverse Asian-American community.
Watch: parody of TV show The Bachelorette by Wong Fu Productions
“I want to start bringing people up,” Wang says. “The Asian-American experience is extremely nuanced, even just among East Asians. People even criticise us for being too Californian Asian, or too Southern Californian Asian. We have people watching us who were literally the only Asian kids in their districts in Nebraska, and their stories are important too. So, I want to help find and encourage other creators. We just need more. No one film is going to capture everything.”
Increasingly the trio see Wong Fu as a conduit, a way to give young filmmakers a voice and a platform. That includes filmmakers like Taylor Chan, who started as an intern with the company out of college. He had been a fan of Wong Fu films since high school, and now works as a senior writer and editor.
“I’m from LA, and in the Asian community I was hanging out with in high school, everybody was talking about Wong Fu,” Taylor Chan recalls. “They really were the only people with my face I could watch on any platform. It was so cool watching them talking about love and being awkward and funny. It was something I could relate to.”
All along Wong Fu has continued an annual tour of college campuses, listening to what young people are going through and keeping their content relevant with new projects such as the upcoming Taylor-helmed short Vantage Point, about the Asian LGBTQ+ community.
Over time they have noticed a profound change in the ambitions of young Asian-Americans.
“I think when we first started going on tour in 2006 or 2007, people were just watching our work because they had never seen content like ours,” Wesley Chan says. “They weren’t asking themselves, ‘How do I get there?’ I think now what I’m seeing is that a lot of the focus and attention is on [questions such as] how do I create like Wong Fu while still satisfying the goals that my parents want me to pursue?
“We’re less of a show and more an inspiring voice. I think the people who are graduating now are really going to be the people who take the reins of Asian-American media. I think we’ve been a catalyst for it; now we’re going to do our best to inspire other people.”
Wong Fu is also trying again to find a foothold in the so-called mainstream. Wang has been setting up meetings again, pitching ideas and shopping scripts. If it is true that a new day is dawning for Asian-Americans in Hollywood, it is harder to imagine a group of people better positioned to take advantage.
“Today with Wong Fu, traditional media is open to us in a way it wasn’t before,” Wang says. “It’s not like there are green lights everywhere, but we are getting into the room and people are starting to think, ‘We should take a meeting with these guys. We should take this seriously.’”
The signs are hopeful, but whatever happens, Wong Fu and its millions of fans aren’t going anywhere. Why would they? They have been here all along.
“I think people see Wong Fu nowadays kind of as this model for representation of Western Asians,” Wang says. “But when we first started, we didn’t really know what the issues were or what our identity really meant. We were coming at it from a very natural place. We were just being ourselves.”