Culture feat. Adrian Yu: A Story from the 626

COOLS: Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Adrian Yu:  I’m a Chinese-American director & creative director – so I split my time on commercial, fashion, and music videos and creative directing for brands, including my own creative agency Offline Projects which focuses on new media art and experimental music.

COOLS: You grew up with creative parents and I feel like according to the stereotype attached to Asian Americans, that’s often a rare experience. I’m wondering how fruitful that was for you and how it helped set you up to be able to start your own company, Offline Projects, at the age of 24-25 basically?

Adrian Yu: They’ve always supported me since I was starting off, as a kid and everything. It’s almost against the stereotype of having Asian parents and they are very strict in a way. I’m full chinese, my parents grew up in Hong Kong and they have that sort of thing where you have to number one. My dad always tells me, “you can’t just be good, you have to be great.” For better or for worse, I’ve internalized that and it’s both helped and hurt me.

For example, when I was 8 I had this science report and you had to make those three panel boards for science fair or whatever. I made it and the content was great, fine, whatever, and my dad was like, “Adrian you gotta redo it, those headlines, the kerning is all wrong.” I’m like, “what are you talking about?” I’m like 8 and like, what is a kerning? [laughs] He was like, “no, you gotta redo it, it looks terrible.”

It’s a really unique thing for Asian Americans to have both parents be artists or creative types. Most of my friends who are Asian are a bit more logical and it comes with the culture too. With Asian cultures we tend to reward and treasure more logical and pragmatic things and I think it’s rethinking what is pragmatic in today’s culture.

Photo courtesy of Adrian Yu

COOLS: My natural response wants to be like they came here from Hong Kong and those jobs that can provide security are indeed the most pragmatic. There is such a huge stereotype around the Asian American experience and for you, to what extent do you think you’ve lived that stereotype if at all?

Adrian Yu: That stereotype is interesting because at my previous agency, it’s all these microaggressions. I’ve kind of experienced that when a creative director, who I really respect, was talking to someone else and that someone else was like, “why do you hire so many Asians on your team?” He was like, “yeah they’re great workers and they’re diligent.” It’s a good stereotype. 

COOLS: But it’s super two-dimensional

Adrian Yu: Yeah and if you want to hire someone because they’re diligent but they’re in a box, that’s also strange. There’s this impression that we’re always hard working and we want to push ourselves but then that allows us to be taken advantage of sometimes. The stereotype holds that Asian men are really hardworking but emasculated and Asian women are hyper-sexualized, obedient and reserved. My personal goal is to become a really great Asian male role model because I feel like as an Asian male, there’s different issues and challenges that we face than an Asian female would.

Growing up in LA, my neighborhood was predominantly Asian. I don’t know if it’s just my particular area of 626 but basically there are two types of groups there, there were the Asians who are more nationalistic, who go to the Asian restaurants and do the things that are perceived to be Asian, like going to boba tea places; and then you have this other group, which was my group of friends, where we want to be more white, more americanized. We would try to dress differently, avoid speaking cantonese and go to American restaurants and do white things.

There was always this presumption that a lot of people of color are where they’re situated because the white man is pushing us down but a lot of the time it’s really just our own peers and people within our communities who want to be more of “the other” or “the norm”. They put this pressure on to become less othered and so that’s what I felt.

COOLS: Yeah and the easy way to feel accepted is to do this other thing, be this other thing

Adrian Yu: Yeah it’s acceptance by a certain type of person. I didn’t want to hang out with kids that I saw as “too Asian” and it’s weird because I didn’t have that many white friends but there were groups that felt white.

COOLS: Right and I was doing a bit of reading about the “Asian American Experience” and one of the things that came up was an article on the “Asian American Awakening” which basically was the moment you’d realize that you weren’t white. I found that very intriguing and also then began to think about how Asians are portrayed in the media, or for a lack of a better way to put it, how we’re not portrayed in the media

Adrian Yu: I think Asians as a whole should step up and in the past 30-40 years, we came onto this situation. Right before WW2, they repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and yellow peril was a real thing and as a product of that, they had all these films where they painted Asians as villains or as emasculated versions of ourselves. Being Asian became a parody of who we really are and it’s like we’ve been okay with it?

COOLS: Why do you think we’ve let ourselves be parodied and haven’t taken more control over these narratives?

Adrian Yu:  There’s a really great article from Atlas Obscura about this Japanese actor in the 1920s who was this dashing, Japanese man who played leading roles as handsome seductive men. But as the World War Two came along, he was reduced to supporting roles or losing them to yellowfaced actors in an sociocultural effort to emasculate East Asian men.

I think it’s kind of a product of acceptance, it’s a product of our culture and traditionally the saying is that: the nail that sticks up gets slammed down. We don’t want to stick out and we want to be accepted and the stereotypes on a surface level aren’t bad, it’s like you’re the wealthy immigrant class, funny, hard working.Then over time we realize that these stereotypes really affect how we think about ourselves and others. I think it’s also a product of society not sympathizing or empathizing about our plight and it’s kind of written out in the history books, none of the stuff we went through like the internment camps or the exclusion act, is talked about. I always see things on social media and it’s always some kind of off handed Asian joke and most of the comments are like: “haha” and it’s like one guy who’s like:“no, this is bad.”

COOLS: For me, my experiences where I’ve actually felt like an Asian American and have been aware of the fact that the situation was altered because of my racial profile are coming to a climax. For you, when was that moment that you realized you were Asian and had your own “Asian-American awakening”, owning up to who you were?

Adrian Yu: I think the realization came pretty late to me like in college. Up until then I was so ashamed of being Asian and then it become obvious that I could see these things; you know how in the last couple years people are just way more sensitive about this stuff? — which is great and it seemed like as a whole, Asians started talking about this and having a dialogue and I heard it. I think it’s been a big wake up call for everyone.

I think the sensitivity is great and furthers the dialogue, but then hypersensitivity isn’t great because we’re losing sight of the big goal which is equality. It’s great we talk about these things but it’s causing the people who are in power to become weary of this conversation and then they don’t want to hear about it.

Photo courtesy of Adrian Yu

COOLS: Yeah and you mentioned that at Offline everyone is of a diverse culture or race and if you can kind of talk about how diversity breeds a better work environment or better work in general?

Adrian Yu: If you’re working in a very diverse environment, people call you out on things and in general you’re not just talking to a wall. It produces better work that is more sensitive, for example with the whole Kendall Jenner/Pepsi thing, they did it from their internal agency and didn’t have another agency to bounce the idea off of. The people in power were all white and no one was like that’s a little weird. In working with Offline, we generally want to book artists that are of different backgrounds

COOLS: Right and that’s another thing I wanted to touch on is whether or not those decisions you make are always conscious? At Offline, you’re creating experiences but it’s also more like you’re telling a story in a shared space

Adrian Yu: There’s a huge conversation right now within the music industry especially in the electronic world where a lot of dj’s are saying there aren’t enough women being booked, there aren’t enough POC’s being booked and you see so many white men doing these shows and parties and it’s boring. Everyone at Offline is super vocal and for example, we were going to book this party and the talent was comprised of POC’s but they were all men and Sienna, one of my partners, was like, “maybe we need some ladies in there?” And we were like, “you’re probably right.” A lot of people are only concerned with if the party will sell and they don’t think about who’s behind the desk and performing. Diversity isn’t just great on a moral level, it’s also great for business because when you book an artist, you bring the people who enjoy that artist. In mixing diverse cultures and worlds, we find that our crowds are in turn so diverse.

There’s a barrier within the underground scene and it kind of sucks because a lot of people who can pay for these parties and spaces, a lot of them are going to be white, and that’s a product of their well being. We’re trying to figure out ways to keep the barrier low and to book dj’s who respect the diversity and who speak inclusivity. It’s one thing to be like, “we have a black model as our poster girl” but if you think about the social economic scale of it, a lot of people who are marginalized can’t afford these things

Photo courtesy of Adrian Yu

COOLS: Is that what you guys are really trying to do and provide at Offline, an opportunity to get in on the ground level and learn about the underground music scenes and new media art or whatever it is? I know you mentioned you folks are moving towards more of a path of social justice and educational route

Adrian Yu: Yeah we’ve done a lot of that stuff before and we’ve done a lot of free parties, like the ones that are benefits and this past summer we got a grant from the city to do this series of LGBTQ workshops for youth and it was called, Interlude. It was a six week program and every Saturday we had pretty big artists come in and teach the kids things within art and music and they’re all pretty interactive with really unique takes and spins. We had Dev Hynes come in and he did a workshop on dance and happiness and it was entirely free. Everyone there was aged 13-24 and a lot of them were a part of the center.

These workshops are hands on and with Dev, we designed the space to feel inviting and open, there weren’t seats and no barrier between the artist and the audience. We bought a ton of astroturf and the kids were laying down and listening to him talk and it was inspiring to hear them have this intimate conversation with him, talking about what their own ambitions are and how they’re taking steps to surviving as a queer artists

COOLS: What does cross cultural appropriation and appreciation looks ideally like?

Adrian Yu: You need appropriation for culture to spread. We’re afraid to talk about culture and the origins of culture because cultural appropriation isn’t necessarily an evil, but it becomes an evil when the entity that is borrowing is creating oppressive situations for the ones that they’re borrowing from. Yet when there’s a mutual appreciation and respect and they both benefit, then it’s great.

COOLS: And appreciation and appropriation become oddly one in the same

Adrian Yu: Yeah I think it’s going to take a while, it should be that and respect and appropriation shouldn’t be two unrelated things.

COOLS: Right and it’s like knowing what each ethnicity can bring to the table in terms of inspiration or architectural styles or whatever it is. Do you feel more responsible to put on for your people especially now that you’ve owned your identity as a POC that gears you towards activism?

Adrian Yu: It’s definitely like now that I’ve become aware, I definitely am much more responsible or I try to act how I’m supposed to act. 

COOLS: Right and there’s a vein of pain where this conversation comes from because it’s like I wasn’t okay with who I was and that’s not an easy conversation to have

Adrian Yu: Going back to the thing with my dad, he’s like one of the few Asian Americans within Hollywood that does what he does and at that level too. He’s a motion graphic designer and it’s interesting because when I go with him to these meetings and seeing the respect he gets is really inspiring and really beautiful.

For me, my idea of responsibility is what he was saying before you know like you don’t have to be good, you have to be great; and for me greatness isn’t just like me, myself being great, but as a collective, as a whole, as a culture, we should all be great. Through doing more work in this field, even if it’s not directly tied to some Asian American or POC empowerment, but doing something that is respected and gets my work out there that’s by an Asian American, that’s empowering. I think within in the next twenty years, Asians and POC’s in general will be in a way better place. 

Photo courtesy of Adrian Yu

COOLS: Geremy expressed a similar narrative but he was saying that he always needed to be great just to be the white man’s average, was that a part of what you’re thinking too or not necessarily?

Adrian Yu: Not necessarily, I think before when I was younger I was like I wanted to be great in their eyes, whatever that meant, but now in my work and everything I do, you can see the Asian influence. Doing great things is always going to be the move, I really don’t need the affirmation from the white man.

COOLS: Do you think the key or solution to misrepresentation for you and POC’s like you is to take more ownership of that narrative instead instead of having an archetype slapped on you?

Adrian Yu: Yeah I think it’s just taking the experiences of you and your own culture and creating good work out of it. An artist I really respect is Andrew Thomas Huang. He’s a director that did a lot of Bjork stuff and most of the new album covers and videos were done by him, that new Kelela video was him too. In his work you can kind of see hints and elements of his Taiwanese or Chinese culture, he’s Asian and queer and the colors and the overall opulence and elegance in his work are subtle. These cultural references don’t have to be super obvious but you’re still able to have people identify that as his work and his work is part of his culture

COOLS: Right and it’s like you yourself were able to see those references in his work because you are a part of that culture making it so much more meaningful to you. For you, where does your culture come through in your work?

Adrian Yu: I used to do a lot more installation work and it all had to do with water. It’s a really high level thing but feng shui means wind water. It’s proven that we’re attracted to water and our inner wind flows towards water. I worked on this installation at Pier57 with projection mapping on cargo crates, and we found that when we opened up the back gates to reveal the Hudson River, our foot traffic increased with more people flowing in. I have this other piece from a while ago where I had this metal frame filled it with water and I projected onto it with this looping video of a little girl in a desert, staring at a black cloaked figure across from her. The water would distort the image and create prisms with the light as a suggestion of the fluidity of life, death, and overall existence.

Photo courtesy of Adrian Yu

COOLS: How do you identify and differentiate between identity and culture?

Adrian Yu: I think that with identity and how it shapes culture is creating who you are and understanding where you fit in within the bigger picture. Culture is a collective identity and includes the compounding history of all these identities, it’s asking yourself how do I use myself to shape that macro narrative within my own micro narrative and as a whole I think it’s just stepping up.

COOLS: How do you think life and your understanding of identity and culture would’ve been different if you had grown up in the majority like Geremy?

Adrian Yu: I believe childhood environments shape exactly the man or woman you’ll become, and your outlook of the world around you. If I’d grown up in a different headspace, I wouldn’t have been as aware of my current place in culture – and what I’d need to do to make the changes I’d like to see. Judging myself based on “how yellow I am” via the lens of a self-imposed Western apparatus, I feel that if I’d not become aware of this prior to coming of age in my late young adulthood – I wouldn’t have began taking steps to rectify it. A person of color shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are or who they’ve become; rather, they should embrace what has shaped them and use it to push & evolve their own culture forward.

COOLS: Are you a proud Asian now?

Adrian Yu: Yeah [laughs] def a proud Asian now. 

Photo courtesy of Adrian Yu


No more articles