Category Archives: Prose

On Asian Americans In Hip Hop Dance

“Where Did All The Asians Come From?”: On Hip Hop Dance and Asian Identity

After stepping into the audition room for PhiNix Dance Crew, a college hip hop group in Chicago, my first thought was, “Where did all these Asians come from?” Growing up in the suburbs and attending a White prep school, I had little exposure to other young Asian Americans, let alone hip hop culture. The large number of Asian American dancers popping, breaking, waacking, and moving in a diverse array of styles astonished me. After joining PhiNix, I’ve had the chance to explore both hip hop dance, and the construction of identity through that dance.

Ever since the visible breakthroughs of crews such as the Jabbawockeez and Kaba Modern on America’s Best Dance Crew, Asian Americans have become a mainstream establishment in the world of hip-hop dance. The history began with Arnel Calvario’s founding of Kaba Modern at UC Irvine in the early 1990s after performing a hip hop choreography at a Filipino Cultural Night. Other Asian American urban dance groups in California soon popped up. And with the advent of video-sharing websites says Calvario, “Visibility and networking between Asian American dancers exploded not only nationally, but internationally.” Indeed, South Korean and Japanese break dance crews have become some of the best in the world.

Why are Asian dancers so good? Mike Song, a well-known choreographer and member of Kaba Modern, has a theory. In an interview with Audrey Magazine, he explains, “There are so many Asians who are forced to play instruments, so many, its so common, so part of our culture.” The practice of learning to read music “ties into our style… I feel Asian are so precise, and it goes along with the music training,” which “subliminally affects the way we approach dance, with so much precision.”

How does Asian American engagement with street-dance and hip hop shape racial and cultural identity? For one, urban dance challenges the stereotype of Asian Americans as merely passive and intelligent academic overachievers. Hip hop began as a subculture among marginalized black and Latino youth in the 1970s. Its dance forms are now used as an expression in opposition to the “model minority” myth, which functions to make invisible and exclude Asian Americans from mainstream American social life. As a community, Asian American dancers create their own artistic identities outside of dominant norms.

However, Asian American’s preeminence in urban dance is not without controversy. In the same manner as White Americans, Asian Americans have been criticized for appropriating hip hop from Black culture. Within the framing of historic racism and appropriation of black artistry, I believe the critique has merit. I personally cannot identify with “real” hip hop culture. I do not wear hip hop fashion, or pretend to be hard core. To do so would be inauthentic.

Yet my experience in PhiNix Dance Crew has shown me that hip hop eliminates boundaries and hierarchy much more than it creates them. It is inclusive and composed of a spectrum of diverse races and experiences, creating connection between individuals, other dance crews, and the larger community. Hence, for me, dance is a harbor and vehicle for individual expression. My body becomes understood and respected by others for its movement, liberated from its color.

Originally Published at The Wang PostI’ve been contributing weekly content for them, which has been a great experience. This topic of hip hop and Asians is so interesting that you can take college classes about it! More stuff on Asian American culture and identity coming soon. 

Gender, Performativity, and Long Hair


David Chiang, model

(Hair) Growth

In how many ways can a man grow in one year? I wish to be a mutant of growth; body and soul seeping in all different directions like tendrils of smoke. Unexpected developments in familiar places, reaching outward and spiraling inward. A second puberty: anxious and awkward, though without self-loathing. Confidence in self-consciousness, which if you strip away the denotation of insecurity, just means self-aware.

Speaking with a long-haired outreach worker earlier this year (written about in The Fun House), I made the conscious decision to let my hair free for a year. Thousands of strands rooted at my head — timelines marking growth and memory.

Why? For one, I’ve never done it before, and the thing about doing new things is that you learn new things. For another, my twenties are going to be the most practical (i.e. socially acceptable) time to grow my hair out. Lastly, because it seems like every male man, dwarf, elf, or wizard (hobbits have hockey hair) in the Lord of the Rings movies have long hair. And their braids and ponytail rings are just awesome.

On Gender, and a postmodern aside

Though this experiment is simple, what does it mean? Treatment of the body and its hair brings up firstly questions of gender and performativity, so let’s begin there. What is gender?

To quote Butler, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” Gender is formed by performative acts such as in mannerisms and stylizations, rather than by an internal or biological fact. One understands gender through socially constructed codes and signifiers — there is no reality of gender underneath.

Though writing from a very different philosophical position, Camus writes that even if there exists a Truth behind the actions of another person, we cannot know it. In The Myth of Sisyphus, he says that we do not know anything about an actor’s personality by watching him act. However, if we make a list of 100 characters the actor has been, it is true that we learn a little more about him upon hearing the 100th name. Thus, “a man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses.”

We are all actors to the extent that we all perform. When in contact with others, we consciously change our habits and behaviors to manage impressions and avoid embarrassment. Using the lens of theater and dramaturgy, Erving Goffman wrote about the sociology of face-to-face interaction in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Each individual can choose their costumes and their props, in addition to the way they choose to present themselves to others. I haven’t read the book, but the Wikipedia article is great. The point is that there’s a substantial portion of social life which is regulated by appearances, and those appearances carry social meaning.

I’ve been having fun screwing with gender norms by wearing skirts. I am cismale, and straight. Mostly. And while men of all sorts (gladiators, monks, Irish dancers) have worn skirts for thousands of years, this culture has designated skirts as a clothing for women. My dip into transvestism probably has something to do with both gender and fashion. So too is the decision to grow out head hair. “Long hair is feminine,” says heteronormativity. We’ll rebut this soon, but my initial reaction is, “Excellent – this should be fun.”

Regarding the ‘meaning of gender,’ I find interesting the tension between gender roles as a social constructs, and the individual’s agency to perform the signs that determine their own gender. Think again to clothing. In modern terms, the clothes that we wear are signs that refer to an underlying meaning, most obvious that of socioeconomic status. There is a social meaning between signifier and signified. So too are certain gendered roles that one ‘puts on,’ expressing through action some type of truth about identity.

But if we think in post-modern terms, then the images and signifiers that one wears have no referents, and the way that one chooses to dress is an act of self-identification and self-production on the level of signifier to signifier. There is no unified or stable truth, and ambiguity reigns. At this point, to say I am male is empty of meaning. To quote Camus again, “Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’ This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers.” So what is the postmodern identity? I’m afraid I can’t answer that question at this time, though it’s a question on my mind.

Recognizing that within me there are competing and complementing aspects of both femininity and masculinity, I seek to find out how each of them express themselves. Recognize that like a table of contents and the word ‘natural’, these categorizations and labels are both useful and misleading.

feminine : masculine ::

baking dessert : baking bread

unicycling : running

dancing with hips : dancing with legs

washing dishes : walking Scamper

“Long Hair is Feminine”


Matsuda Shoda, actor

Let’s go back and add color and complexity to that statement, “Long hair is feminine.”

I read an essay titled “The Significance of Male Hair: Its Presence and Removal,” in which author Raj Singh inverts the dominant understanding of the femininity of long hair as it pertains to men. Some sharp prongs of his argument:

( 1 ) Demonstrated in its extreme in military regimes and prisons, and in its everydayness in employment expectations, the social expectation of men to cut their hair is a “token of submission” and reminder that “you are not a free person and cannot do as you please with your own body.”

( 2 ) Forcing or coercing men to cut their hair is emasculating. On the level of appearance, shaving has the effect of making a person look younger, “mimic[ing] the surface quality of the pre-pubertal face,” which may have the effect of changing the shaved man’s self-perception to that of a child. On the symbolic level, removing cranial hair has a clear meaning: castration.

( 3 ) To the extent that men are perceived as dominant, willful, and aggressive by nature (hence dysfunctional as a potential employee), the clipping of hair demonstrates “the best of both genders in that…he communicates to the employer that he intends to be as docile and obedient as would a female be presumed to be.”

Another interesting thing that Singh analyzes are the linguistic biases that we have against cranial hair, which reveal certain assumptions about our modes of thinking. The very phrase “clean shaven” creates the oppositional “dirty bearded,” and if one is “clean cut,” then the implication is clear that one who does not shave is unclean. Another interesting one is the phrase “grow a beard”:

Do we say that a man can make an affirmative decision to “grow a beard,” much as the expert, dedicated horticulturist can grow petunias in the desert? Or do we say that male facial hair growth is the default category and acknowledge that men can only become and remain bare faced when they “scrape off their faces with a piece of steel” on a daily basis?

Singh concludes by placing cranial shaving on a similar level of cultural rituals such as breast enhancement, liposuction, and genital mutilation. He argues that men who let their hair free are “relatively masterful of their own lives and valued as such,” recapturing their manhood and their personal autonomy.

I wasn’t expecting this argument. To be honest, I see pictures of men with long hair looking like women, and relish that prospect for myself*. But I am fond of these associations, and the tension between a feminine, physical appearance and masculine, symbolic demonstration is one that I’m pleased with.

I’m at two months without a cut. I’d normally be getting a haircut in a week or two, which means that I’m about to enter the awkward stage. I’ll look silly, but I see then I see the pony-tailed men at retail stores and the gym, and look forward to each day of growth.


This is gorgeous. Chiang again.

— — —

*Not of small import is the Asian racial identity of these models as well as myself. The discussion of intersectionality as pertains to sex and race deserves note. In the essay Looking For My Penis (1991), artist and postcolonial theorist Richard Fung investigates dominant (white) cultural representations of Asian sexuality. In these representations, while Asian women are fetishized

Asian men, however—at least since Sessue Hayakawa, who made a Hollywood career in the 1920s of representing the Asian man as sexual threat —have been consigned to one of two categories: the egghead/wimp, or—in what may be analogous to the lotus blossom-dragon lady dichotomy—the kung fu master/ninja/samurai. He is sometimes dangerous, sometimes friendly, but almost always characterized by a desexualized Zen asceticism. So whereas, as Fanon tells us, ‘the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis,’ the Asian man is defined by a striking absence down there.

All Asian men who have ever been the victim of a small-penis joke should immediately understand how culture has made its mark upon their sexuality. I conjecture that a substantial portion of sexual frustration and anxiety in Asian-American males today can be attributed to these dominant understandings.

Further Reading

“Are Subcultures Conformist or Libertine?” An essay about postmodernism, hipsters, and appearance.

“Jean Baudrillard” An encyclopedia article about Baudrillard’s understanding of dress and fashion, and how their meanings have changed as pre-modern, modern, and postmodern societies have developed. 


Asian Guys with Long Hair.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1990.

Fung, Richard. Looking For My Penis. 1991.

Singh, Raj. The significance of male hair: its presence and removal. 1997.