J. KEMPER CAMPBELL Star Tribune
“Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu and Philip Wang, Mariner Books, 484 pages, $28.99.
“Rise,” by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, and Philip Wang is the most physically unique book of 2022 and would have to be experienced in the hardcover version to be fully appreciated.
Beginning with its undersized, folded over cover showcasing a slew of Asian faces, the book would make an interesting “coffee table” display. The interior, with several smooth fold-out pages, colorful comic book-style panels and clever captions, grabs the reader’s immediate attention.
Like a bee drawn to the flower, any reader will become aware of the serious nature of the book’s message as the pages turn. An important segment of our polyglot nation, the Asian American population, has been undervalued, reviled, and stereotyped for most of our country’s history. The forced internment camps of Japanese Americans during World War II were addressed in the review of “Facing the Mountain” (June 17) in this space. Most Asian immigration was against the law until 1965. South Asian Americans were often ridiculed like Apu, the Indian trader from “The Simpsons” TV show.
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This book is an attempt by the authors to trace the “rise” of Asian American representation in our pop culture over the past three decades. Remarkably, the general tone of the book is decidedly optimistic and comedic rather than bitter, despite the injustice often shown towards these citizens.
By mixing entertainment, fashion, music and cuisine with politics, the authors highlight the contributions made to American society by Asian Americans. As the recipient of a compassionate and expert Chinese-American radiation oncologist, the reviewer certainly agrees.
Hollywood, the acknowledged purveyor of American cultural acceptance, has regularly cast Caucasian actors in Asian roles. Mickey Rooney’s grotesque Japanese neighbor to Audrey Hepburn in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and John Wayne’s 1959 portrayal of a cowboy “Genghis Khan” are ridiculous examples of the “yellowface” involved. The more recent successes of films featuring Asian American actors such as “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Life of Pi”, “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Parasite” demonstrate the original misperception of the film industry.
Since the Census Bureau lists 21 different Asian American ethnic groups, noteworthy individual examples may be overlooked. The reviewer was disappointed that Andrew Lam, MD, a Massachusetts retinal surgeon whose historical novels have been featured in this space, and prolific Lincoln author Tosca Lee were not mentioned.
Baseball star Shohei Ohtani and Nebraska volleyball All-American Lexi Sun were also not selected. However, one of the critic’s favorite TV sitcoms, “Fresh Off the Boat,” deserved a feature, perhaps because author Yang’s son was a cast member.
Fortunately, due to the plethora of voices and topics introduced, the creative structure of the book encourages episodic reading. Readers, upon completion, should be able to hope that as the 21st century progresses, this subset of our country’s population will be known simply as “Americans” in the future.
J. Kemper Campbell, MD, is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who has a Korean-born daughter and two grandchildren.