What's the Story Behind All Those Asians in the Import Scene?
The Import Racing Phenomenon in the Epicenter of California, USA

It 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? 

This 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 
"Import Showoff," the original Import car show, traces the history of modifying Japanese cars to the early 1970s. According to James Romero in The Los Angeles Times, it was also in 1970 that young Latino males did the "unthinkable" by modifying Japanese cars, which were considered "utilitarian at best." He notes it was not until early 1990s that observers saw Asian American youths visibly "cutting down their Imports as much for lowriding as for ground hugging performance."

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 Compact Car. 

The influence 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. Yet, there are explicit ways in which Asianness is asserted in the Import scene. Most evident is the conscious choice to purchase and soup up Japanese cars. The act of owning and buying a Japanese car is an act against the dominant white American ideology and patriotism. The slogans "Buy American" and "Made in America" are still strong today. Furthermore, buying a Japanese car [in 1980s] was considered downright unpatriotic by those sympathetic to the American auto industry; by the early 1990s however, polls showed that most American consumers believed Japanese cars are better engineered and more reliable than American cars.

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, nonetheless. 

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. He said: 

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 Import scene acts to unite many Asian American males in an activity that promotes a different image of Asian American youths than "smart" or "nerds." 

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. 

Essay by Susan Kwon for Racingmix, January 13, 1999
Published online by: Racingmix, January 13, 1999