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With last week's release of his debut album, Inspiration, American Idol's most celebrated first-round reject, William Hung, received yet another reprieve from the pop culture career-mulcher, proving (as have Paris and Tammy Faye) that these days fame has no expiration date. Inspiration includes Hung's now legendary interpretation of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" as well as similarly off-key versions of "Shake Your Bon-Bon" and Enrique Iglesias's "Bailamos." (Going by this month's Details, Hung surely has more than just a musical interest in these Latin stallions—as of course do most Asian males. But we'll get to that later.)
I don't joke when I say William Hung is the most famous Asian American in the world right now. Beyond his innumerable talk show and halftime performances, Hung's primary vehicle of notoriety remains the Internet, where MP3 remixes of his infamous prime-time audition proliferate alongside improbable duet fusions like "Can't Get Will Out of My Head." You can download your very own William Hung AIM buddy icon. And you can purchase your own Hung T-shirt on eBay, emblazoned with his ™-ready rebuke to Simon Cowell: "I already gave my best. I have no regrets at all."
Thus appropriated by pop bricoleurs around the world, H2theG has assumed a persona far removed from the painfully geeky wannabe we met in January. As his album title informs us, he's an inspiration, an unlikely success story that flies in the face of the show's soul-crushing bitchiness. But that's a partial description at best. Indeed, far more plucky (and lovably talentless) caterwaulers have come and gone, no $25,000 recording contracts awaiting their signatures.
For American pop fans, the prospect of a linguistically challenged Oriental belting out the latest hits has served as a fail-safe source of entertainment for years. In the late '90s, there was the much circulated rendition of Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5" sung by a Chinese deliveryman. In the '60s, there were the Kim Sisters, a Korean-born trio who crooned accented versions of American chestnuts on The Ed Sullivan Show. How far we've come!
Attempts to label the Hung phenomenon as thinly veiled racist mockery inevitably come up against one incontrovertible fact: many of Hung's fans are Asian American. Williamhung.net, probably the most widely visited of Hung's fan sites, is run by one Don Chin, who claims his site celebrates "William's true talent and comical ability." At UC Berkeley, where the 21-year-old Hung is a student (and now a party circuit staple), former Daily Californian editor in chief Ron Lin likewise applauds Hung's gumption. "Will Hung is a scrappy underdog, unashamed to go onstage and pursue his dream," Lin wrote. To say his performance resembles a negative stereotype is "like saying any Asian American who does well in a math class also perpetuates existing stereotypes."
Are Asian Americans too sensitive when it comes to less-than-flattering mass-media representations? "That's a sensitive question itself," says Lin. "It's really difficult for Asian American males to break through and [Hung] may not be the most appealing example." In the not so distant past, watchdog groups like the Media Action Network for Asian Americans eagerly protested the likes of MADtv's Asian manicurist Ms. Swan, as well as Mr. Wong, the animated web series from the now defunct icebox.com, in which the titular houseboy was repeatedly goaded by his blonde boss into pronouncing words like cotillion. As an erstwhile fan of both caricatures, I find it strange that these groups have remained silent with regard to Hung, who, unlike Swan or Wong, is a real person, and whose cultural impact will be more lasting and potentially harmful.
Call it selective advocacy. Or falling asleep at the wheel. When MANAA sticks its head up its own ass, it effectively gives the public permission to mock away. Silence as a form of complicity is nothing new. But for Asian Americans, it often seizes us at the worst possible moments.
Most people know or have met a William Hung, and I met mine while I was interning at a multinational investment bank as a computer programmer. His name was Clark, also a programmer, but assigned to a different division. Our paths crossed frequently, however, and we interacted with many of the same people.
Clark was a smart coder but a horrible dresser, and few failed to notice either trait. Clark also spoke in an impenetrable pidgin that rendered most oral communication futile, so his success at the bank was limited from day one. Still, he worked hard, almost monastically, and as far as I know, never once missed a deadline.
Investment banks, being what they are, compel after-hours socialization, and it was in these settings that the extent of Clark's outsiderness came to the fore. Fair-headed bankers would sidle up next to him at the bar, throw an arm around his pencil neck, and bellow, apropos of nothing, "Clark, you are the man!" Much smirking and swigging would ensue, and then they would turn to me, flash a smile, and wink. Not knowing how to react, I would smile back.
The ambiguously racist overtones that marked those barside interactions—and that mark America's current obsession with William Hung—come with at least one clear-cut take-away: Clark/William is not a man, but a walking grotesque and a self-parody. (Which is what makes attempts at satirical imitation, like Jimmy Fallon's on SNL, both lame and redundant. Hung requires no further comic elaboration.)
"Okay, so I'm not famous for the right reasons," Hung admitted in Rolling Stone. "I'm infamous, a joke." Then why does he continue performing in public, bovinely accepting one invitation after another? Whether he's hoping to score lasting fame, wealth, or to just plain score, he won't succeed. When a squad of halter-topped dancers gyrate around him on national television, the resounding implication of course is that the object of their "lust" is anything but sexy and desirable.
The Hung craze has arrived on the heels of a cinematic season seemingly devoted to emasculating Asian males. Lost in Translation's epicene game-show host assails Bill Murray with his flailing wrists and lisping diction. (Of the meager handful of Japanese actors in Sofia Coppola's film, this fop has the largest speaking role.) In the Australian movie Japanese Story, the same message is acted out in a bizarre sex scene: Toni Collette's geologist pauses mid-seduction to don her Japanese lover's trousers. She then mounts and fucks him, the trousers serving as outback-ready chaps, the better to control and dominate her supine conquest.
Which finally brings us to hipster mag Details and Whitney McNally's column, "Gay or . . . ?" in which a different demographic is visually dissected for its crypto-homo traits. This month's category is "Asian," and the sacrificial specimen is a young urban male, his appearance deconstructed with such double entendres as "Delicate features: Refreshed by a cup of hot tea or a hot night of teabagging?" and "Evisu Jeans . . . A bonsai ass requires delicate tending." It's not clear what the writer is saying (that all Asians dress gay? That all Asians are gay?). What is clear is that her cooler-than-thou attitude masks a pernicious and unexamined xenophobia. (Next month's column: "Racist Bitch or Whitney McNally?") Asian groups can object all they want (and they are), but for most people, it's merely more evidence that Asians are P.C. killjoys unable to withstand a good-natured jab. (Admittedly, most Asian groups are pretty humorless, though it seems to be more out of exasperation than self-righteousness.)
The upshot is that when it comes to virility, Asian men rank somewhere below white women, and for FOBs ("fresh off the boat," not friends of the ex-president) like William Hung, the reality is much, much lower. At the end of the day, Hung makes us all feel better about ourselves: men can feel more manly and women are free to act like sluts. For Asian Americans, Hung represents everything we don't want to be seen as (foreign, nerdish, a joke), and thus his oddball fame reinforces our own happily assimilated identities.
"We're approaching this record with a lot of respect," says Hung's producer Alan Grunblatt. He's right if he means respect for the bottom line. There's something oddly comforting about the way Inspirationwas rushed to stores. In a sense, the producers' unapologetic treatment of Hung as a rapidly devaluing cash cow verges on a kind of brutal honesty. The same can't be said for his fans, whose gushing adoration suggests insincerity and worse, a cluelessness to their exploitative sense of fun. With Mr. Wong recently released on DVD, and Ms. Swan given eternal life via Comedy Central, Hung is riding the crest of an unstoppable wave. Indeed, when faced with such insatiable public demand, what are Asian Americans to do except to keep smiling and take it like a man? After all, we're used to it.
David Ng has sworn never to work at another investment bank.