What's the Story Behind All Those Asians in the Import Scene?
By Susan Kwon
started as a joke, to write a research paper on "rice rockets" for my graduate
seminar class while I was at Stanford. I mean why not? My professor was so old, he couldn't care less what we
wrote about. I've seen the Asian guys and girls hanging out at AMC Mercado Movie
Theaters in Sunnyvale and In-N-Out Burgers in Milpitas with their souped up
Honda's and Integra's. Being from
LA, I knew something about "Imports" but never did I imagine that the Import
scene could be so deep. So what
started as a joke developed into my master's thesis.
Who would have ever thought that you could get away with writing about
Import cars for your master's thesis at Stanford?
article is a small part of my thesis. I present the Import scene as
a unique Asian American youth subculture.
I bring out the ways in which "Asianness" is asserted-a
claim to Asian influence and origin of the Import subculture. My interpretation
of the Import scene comes from hanging out with a specific car team
in the Bay Area, which I will keep anonymous. I also attended many
of the Import car shows in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area and visited
many of the related websites.
It is important to look at the Import subculture, made
up predominantly of Asian American (including Pacific Islander) males from 16-25
year of age in a larger context of youth culture in the United States. The act
of modifying the look and performance of the car has a long history in American
culture. You have your white males and their "hot rodders," who modify, race
and drive American cars (or "muscle cars") such as Mustangs, Chevrolets, and
Impalas. You also have Latino males with their "low riders." This Import subculture
shared among many Asian American youths may be viewed as an extension of a larger,
male dominated, car-based cultural phenomenon. Yet,
the members of the Import scene will argue that it is uniquely Asian
in its origin and influence.
The history of the Import scene is not one uniform story,
yet most concede that its genesis is in Los Angeles. Ken Miyoshi, one of founding
members of the Import scene and of
Contradictory to Romero's history, Miyoshi notes that
it was mainly third generation, Sansei, Japanese Americans in the Los Angeles
area who started fixing up their Japanese cars. In the 1980s, groups called
Shoreline and Paradise made up of Japanese American males from Gardena, a city
in the Los Angeles area, modified their Toyota Corollas or "paradise cruisers."
They followed the style of "souping" up cars in Japan by referring to Japanese
car magazines and ordering car parts from Japan to modify their cars.
The Import scene gained a wider audience and recognition in 1988 when
the first Import car was featured in a popular car magazine, Sport
of Japan upon the Import scene is a huge component of the construction
of this subculture. Miyoshi
said "Japan sets the trend for the current Import scene."
He described how Asian American youths in Los Angeles, who cannot
read Japanese, will actively seek out places that sells Japanese magazines
so that they can look at the features of Import cars and gather ideas.
Hence, just as the first group of Asian American males looked to Japan
for ideas and parts, the new generation of youth is doing the same.
According to Miyoshi, there are racing subcultures in Japan
that is similar to the Import scene here.
He states that hashiriya most closely resembles the lifestyle of the Import car subculture
here in California. The
members of hashiriya lifestyles
includes "souping" up their cars and engaging in street
races on one particular main highway in Tokyo.
It is arguable that the Import scene is Asian in origin and influence although
many members do not share an Asian American background. The Import scene is
not limited to California, rather it has spread nationwide with large followings
in the East Coast and Midwest.
Another manner in which Asianness is asserted is the conscious
choice by members of Import car teams to have an Asian name (usually written
in Chinese) or to make it sound Asian.
For example, some notable team names in the Bay Area are Z. Team Yossi,
Team Hokori, Jetspeed, and Gridline.
The stylization of the Roman alphabet to resemble Chinese characters are evident
in Import car magazines and fliers
for Import events. The Import subculture
also shares the sexist overtones of other car cultures with female models posing
on top of cars in magazines and at car shows. Notable however is the use of mainly Asian American models and not white
models that dominate our media today. These examples are explicit displays of
Asian characteristics in the construction of the Import subculture.
One explanation for an obvious assertion of an "Asian" identity is the
formation of a pan-Asian American ethnic identity in the presence of racism
towards minority groups in the United States, especially those of Asian origin. Discrimination against people of Asian descent has historical roots dating
back to the mid nineteenth century when Chinese males came to act as dispensable
laborers for the emerging capitalistic ventures in the United States. Despite
the heterogeneous population and history of Asians and Asian Americans in the
Untied States, we are continually racialized as one homogeneous ethnic group. The
"model minority" myth equates the success of some Asian American
communities to all people of Asian descent as having achieved equal class and
social standing in the United States, masking the inequalities that remain.
The persistence of institutional discrimination and the act of lumping all Asians
together make it difficult to contest the perception of Asian Americans as one
happily assimilated population in mainstream American society.
Although many people of Asian descent who were born and raised in the
United States do not identify with their Asian heritage and consider themselves
to be American, they are racialized by the larger dominant society as Asian,
A pan-Asian American ethnic identity is evident at different
levels. One is within the smaller
showcase and racing crews, organizations made up of mostly Asian American males
who form a social peer group based on common interests. Some teams are specifically
formed on the basis of ethnic groups, such as all Filipino, Chinese or Vietnamese
car teams. Participation in activities
that make up the Import subculture, such as attending Import car shows, entering
your car as a member of a car team, racing in drag races, and interacting with
other Asian American youths with souped up Import cars, helps to construct and
affirm a sense of a pan-Asian American ethnic identity.
Asian American youth may be drawn to this subculture to
bond with others of Asian descent and to contest dominant society's image of
what it means to be an Asian American youth. I interviewed David (not his real name), the president of a car team
in the Bay Area who was drawn to the Import scene because it rejected common
notions of all Asian American youths as smart and successful.
I know a lot of Asian
kids that play [tennis]. But you
know what I'm saying, they are always stereotyped, Asian people, to be smart
geeks, with glasses, tennis and piano, that is kind of like, it's not really cool. You know what I mean?
That is why the Import scene was something cool that everyone could do.
That's like a main thing. Like I said when I first started off, it was
like, a lot of Asians are into it, it's fun.
This is in direct opposition
to myth of Asians as the "model minority."
David's conscious decision to create an Import racing crew and partake
as a member of the Import scene is a radical break from dominant characteristics
that are attached to Asian American youth identity.
The ways in which a united pan-Asian American identity is utilized is a complicated issue, for on one hand, (as seen by David's comments) being part of an Asian American Import subculture is an act of defiance against dominant perceptions of Asian American groups. On the other hand, conceiving the Import subculture as one bounded group that reflects Asian American youth identity is misleading. Anyone who has been to an Import car show, drag race or been on the streets knows that the Import subculture is not made up of only Asian Americans. Rather it includes people of all races. Furthermore, we know that there are many different types of racing crews and teams. There is also the emerging presence of female (or "girl racers") members in the subculture. There are inevitable conflicts and contradictions among racial, class and gender lines, which I do not have adequate space to explore here. Hopefully this article stated the importance of the Import scene as a meaningful American cultural phenomenon that consumes the time of many youths.
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