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I Like the Nightlife, Bebe

[whitespace] Club Vertigo Light Up My Life: Young Asian Americans regularly pack San Jose's Club Vertigo, where club-goers mingle and dance to house music and hip-hop and occasionally step outside for a smoke.

Christopher Gardner

Asians gather together at night to (gasp!) party and (believe it!) get laid

By Ami Chen Mills

I'm starting to think this whole idea is stupid. I'm already 30, imagining I'm somewhat mature by now--maybe even a bit sophisticated.

Now, flash on this: I'm, one, in a bathroom at the Sound Factory in San Francisco on a Friday night when the production company Abzolut runs its mostly Asian dance party called K2. The bathroom is full of smoke because this is where all the girls come now to smoke, and this one girl is throwing up in the corner while her friends alternate between patting her on the back and leaning against the sinks to smoke, tossing half-hearted words of encouragement over their shoulders. All the smoke can't be helping the poor girl, who looks about 18, but she's gotta be over 21 because they are carding at the door. Who really knows? I'm just glad I got away from the punk in the "red room" outside who almost threw out a shoulder attempting a heavy-petting session with me on the dance floor.

Now I'm, two, sitting alone at a cocktail table at Club Vertigo in downtown San Jose on a Thursday night, the new "Asian" night here. Two or three people were going to meet me and nobody has, but that's all right, because it looks like there's going to be some kind of a show. There's a guy with a mic out on the dance floor cracking jokes, and the next thing I know, another very tan guy with shiny, curly, glorious jet black hair streaming from his head like a mane comes galloping out on the dance floor wearing white cowboy boots, a white cowboy hat, kneepads and a bright orange thong.

For a while, I watch "Ali" undulate like waves on the ocean--doing things with his pectoral muscles I didn't know could be done. But it's when the emcee, later introduced as Wild Bill Delany, approaches my lonely table (I'm scribbling notes, trying to look busy) and asks me over the sound system if I can spell "Bill" that I decide I'm too old for this kind of thing.

Asians of Change

THE WHOLE IDEA of a dance scene geared primarily to ABCs like me (American-Born Chinese) was new to me before I showed up at K2. But the fact is, young Asian Americans have planted a nightlife scene here in the Bay Area that is now spreading roots, encroaching on clubs and bars that once were predominately white or more mixed territory, like the Sound Factory and Big Heart City in San Francisco, Club Vertigo in San Jose and The Edge in Palo Alto. According to Rudy Bacardi, manager at Vertigo, Asians started showing up in serious numbers about a year ago. But only about five months ago did the scene get organized, with a Vietnamese producer booking specific dance nights for Asian crowds.

At the K2 party on Friday nights at the Sound Factory, there's nothing particularly "Asian" about the scene, except that it's full of Asians. A lot of the Chinese here don't even speak Chinese--that's how Americanized they are--and yet there's a draw to hang out with other Asians. Aaron Wong, 27, one of the organizers of K2, does not speak Chinese. "My second language is French. I grew up in Alameda, speaking French," he says. Wong, like a lot of the ABCs who party at K2, grew up in a predominately white area, assimilated and then went to a school like Berkeley and found out there were others. Asian studies classes compelled many to take pride in a background they had mostly kept to themselves in high school. Shared family experiences with Asian brethren became the bond for fast friendships.

For other Asians and more recent immigrants who grew up in mostly Asian neighborhoods, hanging with kinfolk is just natural. "You kind of want to segregate yourself. If you grow up in an Asian neighborhood, you just feel more comfortable in an Asian scene. At least I do," says Michael Chang, 27, who has been to most of the Asian clubs in the city and up and down the Peninsula. "It's the way our parents raised us--like, to play an instrument."

Chang refers to the often maniacal desire on the part of Chinese parents for their children to play a musical instrument. Preferably something classical, like piano. God forbid, not jazz. Chang's girlfriend, Jean Wang, 21, echoes his sentiments. "You feel closer to people here, safer. There are certain things you just click with. If I say that my parents were really strict, the people here understand that. Even though I went to high school in Oregon, where it was mostly white, I just feel more comfortable with other Asians."

Vietnamese and Filipinos at Club Vertigo on a Thursday night offer similar motives for hanging with their own kind. At Vertigo, enclaves of Vietnamese, mostly FOB (Foreign Born or, less politely, Fresh Off the Boat), gather in the upper levels of the bar or out on the back patio under heat lamps, smoking, drinking, talking on cell phones. Sonny Tran, 25, says he's here "mostly to drink and just kick back with my friends. I just feel more comfortable here. Sometimes I go to Club Lido or The Edge. ... My parents? My parents don't approve, I assume."

Alora Gonzalez, 23, Filipino, is sitting nearby with her sister, her brother and a friend. "We come here because there's a lot of Asians, and also it's a diverse crowd. But mostly I come just to get with my friends."


The stealth Asian shall inherit the earth.


Taiwan On

AT VERTIGO, after both male and female strippers have put their clothes back on and newly agitated audiences of men and women are released to each other, the crowd becomes more densely Asian. But a surprising number of blacks show up at these venues, and a few whites. Nights vary. Friday nights at Vertigo used to be more Asian than this, I've heard. Other clubs in the Bay Area cater to Koreans or FOB Vietnamese or Chinese almost exclusively--often the crowds are older, and each club creates a climate specific to its Asian clientele.

Still, there's a remarkable amount of cultural crossover among the younger Asian set. At Club Bien Bien in San Francisco, private karaoke rooms offer sing-along opportunities in six languages, and a lower-level dance floor attracts first-generation Asians from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, or those of the "1.5" generation, who've been around for years but still get homesick.

Bien Bien is very different from K2, having what I call the nonaesthetic of a Taiwan disco. Windowless, dark, cheaply adorned, with grungy walls and crowded, smoke-filled rooms, Bien Bien is all about technology. The elaborate, computerized karaoke system was designed by engineers who worked on the Batman movies, according to co-owner Anton Qiu. Bien Bien, Qiu says, reflects the atmosphere of clubs he visited during his own travels in Asia.

"I felt a need for a different kind of club, a multidimensional entertainment concept. Deep down, all of us have this natural desire to sing--maybe in the shower and whatnot. It's a form of release--from studies, from business or finals or whatnot." FOB Asians have a curious penchant for karaoke that most "bananas" or "Twinkies" (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) like me do not share. Patrons here pay up to $288 (drinks included) to rent one of the theme rooms with a private karaoke system. They choose from the Harley Room, the Egyptian Room, the Hollywood Room or the Sports Room and retreat into these closed spaces with friends and platters of sliced fruit. They are still strangers in a strange land, and a club like this--pretty alien to me--feels like home to them.

Race Cooker

THE QUESTION FOR ME IS, Why do assimilated Asians and Asian Americans feel the need to flock to these places? My escort to K2, Michael Chang, has a lot to say about why Asians stick together at clubs and in Asian professional and social clubs like M Society West. "We have common experiences in dealing with white people. There's the Asian glass ceiling. [According to studies, Asians still make less than whites, on average, in the same positions and are promoted less.]

"Among Asian males, there's a lot of resentment, especially around the perception that Asian women tend to be more docile. White guys will come up to us and say, 'Oh, my Asian girlfriend is so great, she gives me back rubs all the time.' That's rare, but because of things like that, a lot of Asians have a bond."

There may be no hotter topic around the young, single Asian American scene: white men dating Asian women, or Asian women dating white men. First, Asian men appear to agree with some white men that Asian women--or a type of Asian woman--are hootchy. "A lot more hootchy," Chang says. "They pluck their eyebrows more. They wear brown lipstick and brown nail polish and a lot of Bebe clothes, a lot of black and white." (My own shirt, Chang tells me, "isn't tight enough" for this scene.) The somewhat--ahem--patronizing protectionism toward Asian women can run to blows. At a scene at the former Club Touché in the city, which attracted a younger, more hard-core Asian crowd, a white guy picking up on an Asian gal might get jumped. But K2 is more banana, more American, really. White guys will show up and pick up on Asian women at a place like the Sound Factory without hassle, but that doesn't mean the Asian guys here don't simmer in their own rancid stew. There's a Chinese word for these men: ku gua, bitter melons.

"We are the bitter melons, man," interrupts Chang's friend "Brad," who (wisely, I'd say) doesn't want his real name used. "It runs so deep and so strong, most Asian girls don't even know. That's why the Asian guys are here. At white clubs, the Asian girls are always with the white guys. Where the fuck are we gonna go? Fuck Whitey, you know? ... It's all about getting laid. Asian networking? My ass. All I wanna do is look at the ladies, man. I mean, you're a guy and shit."

Apparently this whole Asian scene, this hot new trend, boils down to sex. Again, what's new?

women Strike a Pose: "Among Asian males," one patron says, "there's a lot of resentment around the perception that Asian women tend to be more docile."

Christopher Gardner

Sacred Asian Men

BRAD'S PROBLEM--and that of some other Asian men, as they see it--is that Asian women date white guys and other men, but Asian men don't date white women or women of other ethnicities all that much. Brad's got his own theories, having been "brainwashed," as he puts it, in Asian American studies classes at Berkeley. ("That doesn't breed anything nice. I used to be even worse about all this," he asides.) "It's pretty clear that some white guys have an Asian fetish. But, I mean, how many white girls have an Asian fetish? There was one [white] girl I knew who was dating a friend of mine. She fucking wanted it. I thought she was the queerest girl, though. White women just don't desire the Asian man." Why not? I ask. " 'Cause we're geeky, man! We're a bunch of geeks. I'm a geek. I don't give a fuck. I do geeky Chinese stuff like play video games. But obviously there's a stereotype. Did you see Sixteen Candles? Remember Long Duck Dong? He's your typical FOB, nerdy Chinese guy. The shit was funny. I mean, I thought it was funny, but that was also fucked up. You ask me what I think and I'll tell you. Everybody knows I'm angry Chinese boy."

Chang holds forth further: "Asian women tend to assimilate faster than Asian men. When I lived in Illinois, it was a lot harder to find a date. The real problem is Hollywood and the way they portray Asian men. Frankly, they don't portray Asian women that well either.

"Look at The Joy Luck Club. Every Asian man in that movie was an asshole. Asian men hate Amy Tan. Amy Tan married a white guy. They hate Connie Chung, too. They hate Connie Chung; they hate Amy Tan. Like, I really hate her."

Brad seconds the emotion. "All these people are in the limelight, and they're like going out with Maury Povich and shit. I'm looking for women who are down. We call girls who are with our program down."

Brad claims he couldn't date a white woman now. "I don't want to have to explain what tofu is or get all the questions about food and shit. All that fascination with our culture. I want a woman with a Chinese family, too. So I don't think I could date someone not Asian, on a subconscious level." But Brad's proposed solution to the Asian mating quandary would include some interracial mixing: "Black women and Chinese guys should get together. We share similar experiences. They bitch about their men, we bitch about our women."

Despite the apparent vitriol, Brad and Chang seem to be in good spirits. Chang, for one, is here with his very attractive Asian girlfriend, and Brad actually did date a white woman in college for a while. Maybe this is all just male bonding, bitching over beer. Other Asian men have far less attitude about the whole thing. Like Roger Chan, who also rediscovered his roots at Berkeley and now serves as corporate sponsorship chair for M Society West. "All that stuff is just kind of stupid. I don't care. Whatever they [the women] want to do is fine. If they only date white guys, then that's kind of funky. But they're leading their own lives," he says with a shrug. "Sometimes Asian guys are just shorter."

Yin Crowd

IT'S OBVIOUSLY TIME TO TALK to an Asian woman. Chang has told me, "If you're here and you're an Asian woman, you're probably down for the Asian scene." And that's true of his girlfriend at least.

But Vivian Lee, a 22-year-old Korean student, dances to the beat of her own multicultural drummer. She's here with her new boyfriend, a Chinese fellow. They're both up from Stanford, where they're undergrads. "But we're not nerds," Lee observes without irony.

While her boyfriend says he prefers to date Asian women exclusively, Lee explains: "I don't have any color lines. White, black, Asian--I'm an equal opportunity employer. My parents are very traditional. My cousins have a liquor store in South Central L.A., and, like, it's very Korean to have a liquor store. So they deal with the poorest of the poor. And that's how they see black people. For my parents, Chinese are OK; Koreans are better, of course. Whites are worst, and blacks are unthinkable. My father told me that if I ever even thought of dating a black man, he would disown me. So of course I did."

It's not that Lee doesn't feel for Asian men. She does. "I feel bad for them. Girls talk about a lot of different kinds of guys they like, but they never say Asians. I think Asian guys are cute, but they're not the only ones." Then, with aplomb, Lee adds: "If you're fine, you're fine."

I've got to add my own two cents (I mean besides: You goddamn go, girl!), because Asian men and white women like Joan Walsh, who wrote a piece on the apparent docility and "exotic" appeal of Asian women for the San Francisco Examiner magazine (then called Image) back in 1990, have been talking about Asian women like we were some kind of aquatic specimen for at least a decade.

Fingering Asian women exclusively as somehow more docile or domestic smacks of a certain extra added "foreign" or "otherness" taint that's been going on for Asian Americans since World War II, and before that. As has the charge that Asian women are threatening to white women because they're more exotic. How come French women aren't more exotic because of those sexy accents? As for men with a penchant for Asian chicks, Lee confesses, "I don't know what they're thinking--if we're spicy, exotic or whatever. But we are loving life, let me tell you. The market is in our favor." It's when men make unfounded assumptions about us--be they Asian men, white men or whoever--that I walk.

As for dating Asian men, I'll confess I've never been that attracted to Asian men for some of the stereotypical reasons that my brothers have explicated so artfully above. But that changed during the course of this story. I questioned myself. Asian men can be studs. They can also be, of course, arrogant, or as Lee puts it: "They have issues. They think they're the shit when they're not. They call me a sellout, and I tell them, 'You're just not good enough for me, so you're forcing me out of the color pool.' For me, it's the whole kwan, you know, like in Jerry Maguire."

Like all club scenes, the Asian club scene comes with its own hefty share of posers, which Lee is willing to admit includes Asian women as well as men. "I go because the beat is better at Asian clubs. But the girls at those clubs can be pretty wenchy. They can be mean. They have to wear black pants and baby-doll Ts, like Bebe or DKNY. They're walking brand names. I find the whole thing pretty entertaining. Plus, that whole Asian-male thing with the cars." (The souped-up high-status Asian ride is a Honda Civic or an Acura Integra, lowered, with fat rims, fog lights, clear corners--everything.)

nightclub scene Asian Experience: The Asian nightclub scene is catching on because, as one club patron put it, "I don't want to have to explain what tofu is or get all the questions about food and shit. I want a woman with a Chinese family, too."

Christopher Gardner

Mellow Yellow

WHAT'S BEAUTIFUL about the "Asian nightlife" scene, as just one marker of what appears to be an increasingly strong undercurrent among Asians and Asian Americans in the Bay Area and (less so) in the national media and in zines like Giant Robot (see "The Joy Suck Club" sidebar), is that Asians are learning how not to be afraid of their own culture anymore. Not what they eat or what they wear or the fact that they lobby the president with the sleaziest of white corporate bigwigs, eat snakes and frogs sold live in Chinatown, drink green tea or sock their money away like bandits. Why the hell not?

People like Roger Chan, who once dated only white women, discovered at UC-Berkeley that they "didn't necessarily want to be white anymore just to fit in." Chan adds, "I started asking questions more. I appreciated my own culture more." He now hangs at all kinds of clubs in the city--and at K2 on Friday nights. "Now the Asians I hang out with are older, and more happy to claim some part of their culture. Like, maybe they know how to make kimchee now, or something."

Giant Robot features stories about choking on rice, articles on Asian action-movie star Chow Yun-Fat before he starred in The Replacement Killers, stories about "yellow" activists in the Black Panther movement and articles on Ping-Pong. GR displays pictures of naked women sitting in bathtubs full of ramen noodles, and readers dig it.

"We write about what we think is cool. That's all. And half our readership is white," notes publisher Eric Nakamura, who says he's also been consulting on hot "Asian stuff" for MTV lately. "I don't care who wants to read the magazine. It's just 'Here's what we like.' "

Similarly, Asians who stake out their own territory in which to party are merely claiming space in the larger American cultural arena. And it's happening intensely here in California, in the Bay Area, where roughly every seventh person is of Asian descent.

As angry Chinese boy "Brad" explains: "We haven't always had a strong cultural backbone. We assimilate so quickly and lose everything, like, in one generation. I live in San Francisco because that's more what I think American culture could and should be."

At K2 and at Club Vertigo and at Bien Bien, despite the sometimes messy, unsavory, socialite aspects of youth and its aspirations, I saw Asians with rhythm, hootchy women and women in torn jeans and wire-rim glasses, dudes with cell phones, whatever. They were up on the stages and on platforms, hips grinding, flirting, full of rice, feeling fine. And there were blacks there, as well as whites, as well as Jewish and Latino boys and girls. And that seemed to be cool, too.

It was like Asians were finally saying, Hey, this is our party, and you're welcome to party with us. But if you don't, we're just going to keep on having our own damn party--until we get enough, until the break of dawn, until we get laid--whatever, we'll party on.

Thanks and a fat bowl of noodles to staff writer Todd Inoue, who contributed to this report.

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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