For 14 years, dedicated readers of the popular Angry Asian Man blog have delighted as Phil Yu, a 36-year-old Korean American from Los Angeles, mercilessly skewered mainstream media stereotypes of Asian Americans as the model minority — bookish, quiet and submissive.
Last week, Yu proved his point in a bluntly personal manner when he posted on his Web site a detailed account of his nasty nine-month legal dispute with another trailblazing Asian American activist — Lela Lee, 40, the creator two decades ago of the Angry Little Asian Girl comics and merchandise line that explores similar themes.
In a lengthy post, Yu defended himself against charges from Lee that he had appropriated her material — including signing merchandise “stay angry” and featuring an “angry reader of the week.” The public spat had roots in Yu’s attempt last year to trademark his Angry Asian Man brand — only to be rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on grounds that it was too similar to Lee’s trademark from 1999.
“You have been skating, riding off my work. You took my ideas and pretend like they are yours. STOP IT,” Lee wrote in a series of e-mails between them that Yu posted online. Both sides quickly “lawyered up,” as Yu put it.
So much drama. So much anger.
For a pair of advocates who had struck a nerve by satirizing racial tropes, the raw emotion shocked their readers even as it inadvertently validated their work: Asian Americans can, like all other racial groups, get truly angry in an ugly and embarrassing fashion — even though it distracted, in this case, from their common agenda.
Other influential commentators worried the fight could tarnish the reputations of two of the leading voices of a community often relegated to the sidelines of public discourse. Both are attempting to expand their cultural criticism to a larger, crossover audience beyond the nation’s 19 million Asian Americans.
“What saddens me is that two titans of Asian America have come to blows over who has exclusive rights to call themselves an ‘Angry Asian,’ ” said Jenn Fang, who runs the social commentary blog Reappropriate.
Their online followers quickly took sides between the former compatriots. Yu and Lee had occasionally teamed up for workshops, and Yu has acknowledged that Lee once served as an inspiration for him. Like Yu, Lee’s parents are immigrants from South Korea.
“I’m really upset by it,” Lee said tearfully of the public reaction, during a phone interview last week from her home in Los Angeles. She had faced the brunt of public criticism on Twitter and Reddit. “It was really brutal. I work in my garage, by myself. I don’t interact with the public all the time.”
Yu said in an interview that he had considered the legal dispute a private matter until Lee mentioned it on her blog two weeks ago. He was shocked because she had been supportive of his work, including a handwritten note in 2005 saying: “I guess there are a lot of us who are angry. Keep up the fight!”
Now, Yu said, Lee was “saying things that were just not true. She was trying to create a different narrative and attacked my character.”
“I honestly did not want to do this,” he said of posting a self-defense. “I didn’t feel good about it.”
The squabble comes at an auspicious moment for angry Asian American voices.
This month, ABC debuted “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first Asian-American-centered sitcom on network television since Margaret Cho’s short-lived “All-American Girl” two decades ago. It is based on the eponymous book by restaurateur Eddie Huang describing the burning racial self-doubt he felt while growing up in suburban Orlando with immigrant parents from Taiwan.
Huang’s appropriation of urban hip-hop culture as a way of fitting in, to the bewilderment of his clueless parents, serves as the comic relief of a show rooted in the same sense of being an “outsider” that has driven Lee and Yu.
To Jeff Yang, former publisher of the defunct Asian American periodical A. Magazine, Huang’s breakthrough — along with other recent markers of success such as author Amy Chua’s 2011 “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” — signifies a new era in the community’s struggle for equality.
If racial politics in the 1970s focused on cultural nationalism and separation and in the ’80s and ’90s on multiculturalism and inclusion, Yang said, the nation is now at a point where rebellious outside voices can sell their message to the mainstream while remaining distinct from it. In her e-mails, Lee suggested that Yu rebrand himself under his own name, in the model of the MSNBC host Touré, an African American cultural critic.
“I look at the fight over the word ‘angry’ as being almost a collateral effect as we are nearing another tipping point of disruption,” said Yang, whose son, Hudson, plays the role of 11-year-old Eddie Huang on “Fresh Off the Boat.”
“This is the era of crossover, but on our terms,” Yang continued. “We’re finally strong enough, finally have a big enough creative and consumer footprint, to carve out voices like Lela and Eddie and Amy.”
Angry Little Asian Girl is grounded in what Lee called her own “swirling cauldron of frustration” growing up in San Dimas, Calif., as the youngest of four girls whose strict Korean parents were disappointed to never have had a son. In her e-mails to Yu, Lee wrote that her parents “hated me and told me I was worthless,” and she accused him of being a “Korean boy prince who was probably doted on.”
In the interview, she regretted having personally attacked him, but added: “My life would have been different if I were a boy. I think it’s really unfair. I’m getting a lot of flak for saying that. . . . I guess I shouldn’t say all the things that are on my mind.”
Kim, the heroine of her comic, is a 6-year-old Korean American who speaks her mind to combat the daily indignities of race and gender stereotypes — as well as a lack of affirmation she feels from her parents. The strip is also laced with self-effacing humor at the internal anger that Lee has transferred to Kim.
“What are you looking at?!!” Kim asks a group of white and black girls staring at her.
“We’ve never met anyone like you before,” one responds.
“You’ve never met an Asian person before?”
“No, we’ve never met anyone so psychotic.”
Lee honed her drawing skills while working in her mother’s dry-cleaning shop. After her comic debuted in 1998 as a short film similar to “South Park,” Lee began selling merchandise to fans from her apartment, before moving her growing business online a year later. She trademarked her brand and expanded it to Angry Little Girls, which includes black, white and Hispanic characters, to broaden the appeal after a TV executive told her there was no market for Asian characters.
Though she maintains a blog, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers, Lee considers herself an artist (and part-time actress), not a media commentator. She published compilation books in the mid-2000s, but her influence has waned in the social-media era as the ease of publication and distribution have created more competition.
To that extent, Yu has better leveraged the new technologies to grow his site — which he launched in 2001 after graduating from Northwestern University with a film degree — and expand his influence.
A prolific Twitter user with 33,000 followers, he was recently featured in a White House Twitter campaign for health care, and he attended a holiday party with President Obama in December. In a recent blog post, he embarrassed Bloomingdale’s into apologizing for featuring store mannequins wearing rice paddy hats in celebration of the Lunar New Year.
After losing his job as a content producer at Yahoo Movies in 2013, Yu decided to try his hand as a full-time blogger and discovered someone else was using the domain name “Angry Asian Man” on Tumblr. That’s when he applied for the trademark.
He was rejected last May, and he wrote a lighthearted e-mail to Lee informing her that he planned to appeal, which sparked their feud. Lee was incensed to learn Yu had met with Mnet America, a subsidiary of a South Korean cable entertainment company, with which she has also had discussions. She told him her lawyers were prepared to sue Mnet if they went forward on a production deal.
Lee also suggested that Yu change his blog’s name to “Mad Asian Dude” (MAD) — an idea Yu deemed “terrible.” “I never saw us in competition,” Yu said. “I don’t make all that much money to begin with. It was never about a grab for cash.”
At its core, the conflict reflects the tension between blogging as a social movement vs. blogging as a brand-marketing form of business.
Like Yu, Lee hopes to expand into television, but she acknowledged being worried that the dispute would alienate her fan base. In a blog post, Yang argued that Lee has positioned herself as the establishment — “the Man” — against the underdog Yu.
Over the weekend, acknowledging she felt chastened, Lee began discussing a potential settlement with Yu centered on him changing his brand to “Angry Asian America.”
They took down their warring blog posts as a gesture of goodwill.