Ken Miyoshi Founded Orange County's Import-Car-Show Subculture—And Wants to Refuel It
Photography: Timothy Norris | Design: Dustin Ames
Anaheim, 1997. The convention center was packed with young Asian American men, their hair spiked like Street Fighter characters and clothes spritzed with Cool Water cologne. "C.R.E.A.M." by Wu-Tang Clan blared through the speakers. At every turn, camera flashes popped at girls wearing cleavage-baring minidresses, sky-high heels and colored contact lenses as they posed next to cars that glimmered under display lights. Inside rows of canopy tents, vendors talked about body kits, three-piece wheels and power exhausts that could make any vehicle louder, stronger, faster.
In the middle of the frenzy, Ken Miyoshi stood next to his baby, a 1991 Honda CRX he had been perfecting for months. It was a work of sheer brilliance, a supercar that could fly across a drag-race track and still make it back in time to wash up and win a beauty contest. Showgoers crowded around the customized ride, gawking and snapping photos of its low-slung body, turbocharged V16 engine, candy-coated tail lights, hidden push-button door handles, aluminum tinwork and aqua-blue paint job that sparkled like the sea.
Guys walked up to him, awestruck, and asked what it was like to drive.
Miyoshi recalls his response. "It's better than sex," he had said with a smirk.
The 25-year-old DJ and nightclub promoter had created Import Showoff just three years earlier and beamed at its success. More than a car show, it was the premier gathering place for new-generation Asian Americans—DJs, skaters, rappers and anyone else who wanted to be seen. "It became an outlet for Asians, a place for them to show off their appeal," Miyoshi now says. "'If you want to prove your skills on the turntables, go ahead. If you think you're pretty and want to pose next to cars, go ahead. If you think you're the best dance crew and want to show off, go ahead!"
Nearly two decades later, Miyoshi looks at a photograph of his legendary race car splashed on the cover of an old Turbo Magazine, one he dug out of a dusty cardboard box at a Rancho Dominguez storage unit filled with memories of past events. He glances at the headline in bold block letters: "CR-Xcel: Wicked Power, Wild Looks." Glossed onto the hood of the car is the show's yellow-diamond logo with the motto "The first. The original. The finest. Showoff: Since 1994."
It's a declaration he still clings to. Now 40 and living in Huntington Beach, Miyoshi is the godfather of the import-car-show scene, a Southern California-bred subculture that has sped into the mainstream, spawning films such as the Fast and Furious franchise, the import modeling industry (as depicted in the reality web series Roll Models), a crop of tuning companies and a car-show formula that is still followed today. He also claims he was the one who introduced the motorsport phenomenon known as drifting to the United States. Miyoshi has weathered legions of imitators, rejection, financial hardships and disillusionment to arrive at his latest mission: refueling an era, one he believes is fading away.
This Saturday, he hosts his next show, Nisei Showoff, at which 300 cars will gather in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. But that's only the beginning.
"I'm gonna put this thing back together," he says of his old CRX, now disassembled, with parts scattered throughout the storage unit. "I may not be the fastest, but I'm bringing back history. It'll be like Michael Jordan coming out of retirement."
The endeavor is one of personal redemption. Showoff celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, and Miyoshi is now rallying old-school fans to remember the good ol' days—and keep them going.
He's in the driver's seat once again.
"I'm going back to the roots," he says.
* * *
Compton, early 1990s. Around midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, they'd congregate on Maria Street, a seemingly endless strip of asphalt sandwiched between vacant industrial buildings. Nearly 600 cars from Little Saigon to South Bay to the San Gabriel Valley would roll in with amber lights and tinted windows tattooed with logo decals, ready to hurtle down the makeshift track at heart-stopping rates. Some guys raced for wagers, others for bragging rights. All did it for the love of speed.
Corolla GTSs against Mazda RX-7s. Toyota MR2s battling Nissan 300ZXs. Two vehicles at a time. Machine vs. machine.
From the starting line, they'd zoom into the darkness, their tires squealing and engines buzzing like angry locusts, leaving behind a puff of exhaust and a hollering crowd.
Miyoshi first experienced the insanity as a 15-year-old kid riding shotgun with his older brother, Shige, who drove a Datsun 200SX injected with nitrous oxide (a gaseous liquid that increases horsepower that's also known as "juice," "squeeze," "fast gas," "spray" and NOS). Attendees would stay out until they saw sunshine or sirens—whichever came first. A volunteer holding a CB radio was in charge of looking out for cops and alerting the masses when to escape to nearby Ana Street. "When you'd see one guy scrambling into a car, you'd suddenly see 600 people scrambling into their cars," Miyoshi recalls. "It was crazy. You'd get a natural high just being there."
Young men have been transfixed with tweaking and tuning cars since the days of American Graffiti. And Southern California has long served as the mecca of wheels, its open roads symbolizing a pathway to freedom, sex and glory. But the Asian American guys living in middle-class suburbia never yearned for Chevys and Mustangs or the "bajito y suavecito" lowrider cruisers built by Mexican-Americans in East Los Angeles barrios. Instead, they were souping up Japanese imports—Honda Civics, Acura Integras and Toyota Supras. There was something alluring about the economy sport coupes, once scoffed at by industry professionals as roller skates with engines. They were blank canvases spilling with potential. As one enthusiast on online car forum FT86Club.com wrote, "It was the underdog that the under-the-radar enthusiast would buy because they knew the car had the potential to beat out the supercars at a fraction of the price."
The obsession began in the late 1970s with a clan of Japanese American boys who'd drool over the pages of Option, a Japanese-language car-tuning magazine that could only be found at a few bookstores and markets. "That was the Bible, even though most guys couldn't even read the words," Miyoshi says. They'd follow car-modifying trends in Japan, where hot-rod tribes known as hashiriya roared across highways and expressways. In the States, cars and parts imported from Japan were referred to as JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) or simply imports. Outsiders often called them rice rockets or rice burners, though some JDM fans believed those terms to be derogatory, as "rice" described garish modifications that had nothing to do with actual performance (think coffee-can-sized mufflers and eight fog lights).
Miyoshi—tall and stocky, with a booming voice and laid-back street style—was born in Japan and raised in the Philippines until he was 12 (his father made a living exporting frozen cuttlefish), when his family settled in Cerritos. In junior high, he had a friend whose older brother was a member of Shoreline Racing out of Long Beach, one of the first import-car teams to emerge. Miyoshi would drool over his Toyota Celica. "I idolized him," he says.
At 17, Miyoshi got his first car: a 1984 Mazda RX-7 in gunmetal gray. His parents paid for half, and he scraped up the rest of the money by working as a DJ. He joined a car team called Pacific Power and would spend many nights revving up racers from other parts of town—the Westsiders, which included South Bay groups, and Eastsiders, comprised of guys from San Gabriel Valley—on roads in Terminal Island near Long Beach, Sylmar, Ontario and beyond. "Back then, it was about speed," Miyoshi says. "It was kind of like a car gang, but not in a violent way. Basically, it was about who's faster."
In the early 1990s, the scene accelerated with guys who lived and breathed for their road machines, foregoing prom, parties and sometimes food so they'd have more cash for upgrades. (Miyoshi says he knew of people who only went to college so they could get a loan and use the money to buy more parts.) For many young men, some who had been caught up with drugs and gangs, the passion offered a sense of purpose and, for the first time, an identity.
"It gave the Asian American community credibility and something to brag about," says Eddie Kim, founder and owner of Dynamic Autosports in Santa Ana. "Every culture had its thing—blacks, Hispanics—yet we were always stereotyped as nerds or sushi chefs. Finally, there was an industry where we were the leaders. Other guys looked to us as role models and wanted to get our approval. They'd ask, 'Should I buy this? Is it cool to do this?' It was a turning point."
Kim's shop, which originated in Irvine, was one of the first in Southern California to specialize in aftermarket products for import cars (parts that don't come from the original factory), which previously could only be special-ordered from Japan. Guys from Los Angeles and beyond could stop in to pick up Neuspeed Race springs, GReddy BL exhaust systems, adjustable cam gears and short shifters while, at the same time, have their cars lowered to the ground.
Miyoshi was one of the die-hards, hanging out in garages when he wasn't in class at Cypress College or deejaying events. On Saturday nights, he worked as a promoter for nightclubs such as Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles. Standing in the cool air on the balcony amidst cocktail-fueled flirtations and cigarette smoke, he noticed something happening down in the parking lot. Guys would roll up in their spotless, tuned-up cars and rev their engines until the crowds in line turned their heads. Then they would drive away and return at the end of the night, just as partiers spilled out the doors.
"I would see it every week," Miyoshi says. "I was like, 'Wait a minute. These guys drive by, hang out, try to holler at girls and be in the scene.' I was making money off admission at the door. I wasn't making money off them. So I wondered, 'How can I capitalize on this?'"
That's when he got the idea to put it all under one roof—the guys, the cars, the girls, the swagger. He tossed the concept around with the guys on his car team, who simply shook their heads. "They were like, 'Wait a minute, Ken. So you're gonna charge guys to park their cars inside a building, and then you're gonna charge their friends and their friends' friends to pay to go look at their cars? It's not gonna happen.'"
But Miyoshi pressed on. "I was gonna make it work if it killed me," he says. The event would be called Import Showoff and would be an opportunity for tuners to compete for bragging rights and cash.
For Miyoshi, it was an opportune time. In 1993, while picking up a friend at 24 Hour Fitness in his new Supra, he left his keys in the ignition as he ran to knock on the window. In those few seconds, a man drunk and on drugs jumped into his car and drove it through a wall in front of the Bellflower police station. "My whole world went blank," he says.
After fighting with his insurance company, Miyoshi was granted $12,500 for the loss. He knew what to do with the money. "I was thinking, 'Am I gonna get another Supra and be paranoid, or am I gonna do what I want to do and not ask, 'What if?'"
He decided to put down a deposit at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona, but getting approval for the event was more challenging than he expected. A couple of years earlier, a gang brawl erupted at a lowrider car show there that left one dead and several injured. "Right when I said, 'fixed-up cars,' they shut me down," Miyoshi recalls.
Around the same time, young Asian American men with fixed-up sports cars were being targeted by authorities, particularly in Orange County. According to Dan Tsang, a UC Irvine radio-show host, Fountain Valley police kept a "mug book" filled with names and Polaroids of those whom they suspected of being gang members or "gang associates." Anyone who wore baggy clothes or had a car decked with flashy stickers, clear headlights and other modifications was seen as a threat. "They called it 'vigorous law enforcement,'" Tsang says.
Miyoshi finally got the go-ahead for his event after agreeing to rent metal detectors and let officials prescreen each car submitted. He had about four months to get everything together. For help with promoting the event, he turned to his buddies at Cypress College, a ragtag group of DJs, former gang members and car fanatics who'd often ditch class to play Pusoy Dos, or Filipino Poker, in a spot on campus they called "the pit." He photographed their cars to feature on fliers that he handed out at clubs and placed on cars at a popular drag race called Battle of the Imports in Palmdale. A flood of completed applications arrived in the mail. "I would look at the entries and be like, 'Whoa, this is nice,'" he says. "These were the cars I wanted. I knew I was onto something."
* * *
In March 1995, about 3,500 people and 220 cars showed up for the big event. For car fans, it was the first chance to see the vehicles up close—really see them, rather than watching them pass by on a dark street. Non Fujita's gunmetal RX-7. RJ de Vera's white Integra. An iconic silver Veilside Supra.
"It was like going to a museum and seeing everyone's masterpieces," says Ron Bergenholtz, whose '91 Acura Integra was put on display. "You'd walk around and say, 'Oh, I like how he did his headlights.' It was very much like looking at art."
Dazed and exhausted, Miyoshi stumbled up to the skybox to take a breath, gazing at the cars and crowd down below. "That was the most amazing feeling," he says. "I felt like a pyromaniac at a bonfire."
After it was all over, he was so overwhelmed that he locked himself in his room for three days to decompress. His mom handed him food through the door. Finally, his friends started calling. "So when's the next one?" they'd ask.
Import Showoff snowballed to other locations—Del Mar, Anaheim, Northern California, Chicago, Houston, New Jersey, Honolulu and Vancouver. Every event was more epic than the last, as Miyoshi constantly added more diversions. Skateboarders did ollies on halfpipes, hip-hop crews battled for trophies (UC Irvine's Kaba Modern consistently reigned), and women in neon bikinis strutted across runways in the Miss Showoff pageant. Some shows brought out 14,000 spectators and attracted performers such as Black Eyed Peas, Warren G and Ice T.
Because of the success, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), the aftermarket industry's organization, starting taking notice of Japanese parts and vehicles. Import Tuner Magazine would later call Miyoshi one of the "legends in the game," writing that he "took a hobby, and without knowing it, changed the way America saw Japanese cars, resculpting the automotive aftermarket landscape forever."
Though it wasn't long before Miyoshi started facing competitors—or, as he calls them, "carbon copies." Other import-car shows entered the scene, most notably, Hot Import Nights (HIN) based in Newport Beach. Founded in 1998, HIN was massive, fusing cars, electronic music, videogames and go-go dancers with big-name sponsors such as XM Satelite Radio, Hanes and Rockstar energy drinks. Hundreds of thousands of attendees would flock to sites such as Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine.
HIN representatives gave Miyoshi a proposition. He recalls the conversation: "We met at P.F. Chang's at the Irvine Spectrum, where they sat me down and said, 'We're getting a lot of momentum. We'd like to buy you out, or, if you refuse, we're gonna take you up.' It was the most insulting thing that's ever been said to me."
Miyoshi describes how he sees his event compared with HIN. "It's like if you were to compare soft drinks [such as] Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew," he says. "When you see a Mountain Dew commercial, it's guys with a motorcycle jumping off things and doing crazy stuff, while Coca-Cola is the classic. It doesn't need to be flashy. It's the original. Nobody can take away from the original."
Foot traffic at Import Showoff eventually started dwindling. The core group of fans began graduating from college, entering the 9-to-5 world and starting families, while more car shows popped up across the country. "It was just so saturated," Miyoshi says. "People were like, 'I don't need to go to this car show because there's one next month anyway.'"
He had to come up with a new idea. At the time, he'd been traveling back and forth to Japan. While there, he encountered guys who'd drive out to the open ports or mountains and drift, putting their cars into slides. "I call it automotive ice skating," Miyoshi says. "You're trying to lose control without losing control. You're standing on the guardrails, and cars going 70 mph will come inches away from you. It's crazy."
Back home, while there were guys who would drift illegally on Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica mountains, Miyoshi wanted to turn the motor sport into a real competition. He connected with pro drivers in Japan and brought them over for an event he called Drift Showoff at the Irwindale Speedway. It would be a major departure from Import Showoff, a pure automotive competition. "No booty-shaking, no nothing," Miyoshi says.
That first event in 2003, Miyoshi says, was "mind-blowing." "At first, there was a small line, and then as the competition went on, you could see people calling their friends, saying, 'Hey, you gotta come to Irwindale. You gotta come to Irwindale.' Pretty soon, there was an hour-and-a-half wait to get in." Falken Tire Corp. signed on as the title sponsor. "Everyone said it would be the next NASCAR," Miyoshi says.
But it never was. Troubles unfolded in 2008, when the economy plummeted and Falken pulled its sponsorship. Others did, too. He wasn't sure if Showoff would continue.
"I thought that we were of value, but everyone who wanted to support me just completely turned away," Miyoshi says. "The industry just completely forgot about the grassroots movement." He was annoyed at what the scene had become, claiming everyone was "ready to jump on the next big thing" to make a buck. He was annoyed at the Fast and Furious films, which he says "never portrayed our lifestyle."
"From the get-go, it was distorted," Miyoshi says. "From the legendary orange Supra to the white Jetta—those were cars from our car shows. It was corny. [The actors] were saying, 'Oh, you gotta put nitrous in, and you gotta squeeze.' They tried to use the lingo but some of the lingo was completely off. They were talking about parts off a Nissan when what they were looking at had nothing to do with a Nissan. For the guys who were actually in the scene, I think they would say it was very insulting."
Miyoshi decided to take his family back to Japan and "reset" himself. He and his wife had their first son, and he realized he needed to put family first. "I was the doormat so often that I became numb to it," he says. "I got to the point where I was like, 'Fuck it. Fuck it! I'm just gonna do my thing, and the people who appreciate it can appreciate it.'"
But as he sunk into a shell, he began to have a realization. "The problem was that when I said, 'fuck it,' I turned from the enthusiasts, too," Miyoshi says. "I'm one of the only people who can become the ambassador of the history of the import scene. The new generation doesn't know how it started. And if you don't know your past, you can't know your future."
He decided he would come back, quietly. He started a Facebook page called Showoff94.com (and will soon launch the actual website), on which he posts photos of old magazines, fliers and photos of the scene's early days. There's Miss Import Showoff 1998 Linda O'Neil sitting on a Powerban Integra and the original "swagger wagon," a mustard-yellow Honda Odyssey Turbo by Mommy C of Team Kosoku, a group that's one of the greatest influencers on the JDM car trends seen today.
It seems to be re-sparking a fire. One commenter wrote, "I remember when people actually built their own cars and fabbed [them] personally. Nowadays, [they] just buy one new car and order parts and slap 'em on." Another expressed, "Often Imitated, Never Duplicated. O.G. right there. Thank you for everything you've done for this industry, Ken Miyoshi."
Today, Miyoshi runs Mainstream Productions, which puts on Showoff, and M2 Tuning, a wheel-accessory brand. He calls himself a "car sommelier." What he wishes for is more corporate support and collaboration within the industry. He envisions something like the X Games for drifting and other motor sports. "My ultimate goal is to keep creating," he says. "But I have to start from the bottom up again. I need to create a base. The enthusiasts are still there, and they're who will keep it going."
* * *
West Covina, this summer. On a Saturday evening in a restaurant-plaza parking lot, cars are lined up side-by-side, their engines exposed. Teens and twentysomethings in baseball caps and hoodies, along with families and kids of all ethnicities, peruse the show, which is more like a casual meet-up with food and music. A mix of vehicles line the asphalt—Mercedes, Lamborghinis and Volkswagens.
Miyoshi rolls up in his silver BMW 3 Series M Conversion, fully converted with a supercharger, large wheels and full carbon fiber. It's the first event he's been to in ages. As he steps out of his car, people turn around and yell, "Ken!" He's greeted with handshakes and hugs.
Nestled in the lineup are cars that bring him back to the old days. "That's an '84 Corolla," he says, pointing eagerly. "These were the types of cars that everyone was fixing up—the Celicas, Corollas, Mazdas."
Eddie Kim of Dynamic Autosports says he's seeing a new movement at his Santa Ana shop. The old-school guys who dropped out of the scene to move on with their lives are trading in their Honda Odyssey minivans for something else. "They're building up the cars they would have wanted to build back in the day if they had the money—the old Integras, the Civics, all the stuff from the early '90s," says Kim, who is 42. "It already happened with the muscle-car generation. They're in their 60s and retiring and have money, so they're going to auctions to buy the '50s and '60s hot rods at any price."
For Miyoshi, it feels good to be back. He spots an old friend, Denny Huang, who grew up in the scene. He's now 41 and lives in Long Beach.
"Remember Maria Street?" Miyoshi asks.
Huang nods. "Aww, man, even if you didn't race, it was fun just running away from cops," he says. "Everything was so fast, loud, crazy. I can't believe we did that stuff!"
Miyoshi believes that whatever happens with his future projects, he's simply in it for the love of the wheel. "I'm doing this now because it's 100 percent my passion. The O.G.s are saying, 'Those were the good ol' days,' and it revives them. This is like a big, fun project. And if I can pass it on to my kids, hey, even better."
He looks out at the sea of cars and smiles. "I just wanna roll."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Orange County art and theater scene.