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Asian singers see cultural divide

No Asian-American has broken through on the pop charts, though William Hung, of American Idol infamy, has found a following.

By Mireya Navarro
Published April 1, 2007



As a child of Detroit, Harlemm Lee says soulful music runs through his veins. Lee has sung in R&B in talent shows, in musicals at Disney World and even on an album he recorded in the 1980s as he pursued a music career after high school.

Then in 2003 he won the NBC reality show Fame, gaining national attention and a record contract. Lee thought it was his big break, but he is about to turn 40 and is still working as a secretary, still waiting to make it as a singer.

Of all the factors that have shaped his career in a fickle industry, Lee said he is sure about the one that has hurt him most: looking Chinese.

"In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor," said Lee, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent. "You don't fit."

There are Asian-American stars in sports, movies, television and classical music. But the "Asian thing" is what Lee and many other aspiring Asian-American singers say largely accounts for the lack of Asian-American pop stars. People in the music industry, including some executives, have no ready explanation, but Asian-American artists and scholars argue that the racial stereotypes that hobble them as a group - the image of the studious geek, the perception that someone who looks Asian must be a foreigner - clash with the coolness and born-in-the-U.S.A. authenticity required for American pop stardom.

The issue came to the fore most recently on American Idol, where a Korean-American contestant, Paul Kim, 24, said he was giving music one last shot after many disappointments.

Kim, who sang ballads for the show, was praised by the judges for his range and tonal quality, but was among the first four contestants to be voted off by viewers after the first round. While he was still on the show, Kim wrote on his page that "I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren't for me being Asian, I would've been signed yesterday."

Some in the music industry note that there is no dearth of Asian-Americans or Asians of mixed race in the ranks of successful record producers, rock bands and pop and hip-hop groups, and musicians in general. But where is the Asian-American Justin Timberlake, Prince or Christina Aguilera?

A different approach

Asked to name the most recognizable Asian-American pop solo singer today, older generations might say the Hawaiian singer Don Ho, but younger Asian-American artists agreed on one person: William Hung, the American Idol castoff who became an overnight sensation in 2004 for his off-key rendition of Ricky Martin's She Bangs.

"By and large the music industry hasn't done a great job cultivating Asian-American talent," said Jon Caramanica, music editor at Vibe magazine.

Scores of young Asian-American singers are trying to become that artist. Like aspiring musicians of all stripes, they have created their own parallel universe, and many are writing songs and putting out music on the Internet, playing shows in small clubs and Asian festivals and sometimes starting their own labels. Some get play for their songs and videos on niche cable television channels and a few are even performing abroad and recording in Asian languages. In fact, some South Korean entertainment companies regularly hold auditions in cities like Los Angeles to scout for Asian-American talent.

In this parallel universe, there is even an Asian-American Idol contest in the San Francisco area, which has a large Asian population. The contest has been held by Element, an event production company, for as many seasons as the national show has run on Fox.

Getting closer

Some artists say so much is percolating in the underground that more Asian-American talent is bound to start bubbling up.

Natalise, a 22-year-old pop singer of Burmese and Chinese descent whose single Love Goes On was a San Francisco radio hit in 2002 while she attended Stanford University, has been able to parlay her forays into YouTube, MySpace and her own Web site ( into bigger exposure. She has had some of her songs, which she also writes, featured on commercial radio and MTV shows like Next and My Super Sweet 16.

"I feel that we're on the brink of something huge and it's just a matter of time and effort," said Natalise, who lives in Los Angeles and is recording her third album on her own label.

Natalise's manager, Andy Goldmark, said that Asian-Americans have lagged not because of discrimination but because they have yet to create their own popular music sound the way African-Americans and Latinos have.

But Asian-American artists face other challenges. Making up only 4 percent of the country's population, they are too small a market, and too fragmented in language and nationalities, to offer a solid springboard for its aspiring stars the way other ethnic groups have done, said Oliver Wang, a music journalist who teaches about race and popular culture at California State University at Long Beach.

Similarly, there are limited marketing mechanisms at their disposal. "We don't have BET," said Michael Hong, founder and chief executive of ImaginAsian Entertainment, a multimedia company that features Asian-American artists.

That is why the case of William Hung stings, some artists admitted. Of all the Asian-American singers trying to make it, the one who seemed to have no trouble finding the limelight was a comic figure. "For Asian-Americans it was a collective cringe," said L.S. Kim, a professor of film and television studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

But Hung, 24, a Hong Kong native and an only child who lives with his parents in the Los Angeles area, takes exception to those who think he is a joke. And if he is a joke, he is at least a profitable one.

Since his brush with American Idol, he has put his engineering studies on hold to record three albums (with sales of 200,000, 35,000 and 7,000 units respectively) and perform at concerts, events and private and corporate parties. "I think I represent a symbol of hope," Hung said in a telephone interview, explaining his appeal. "I tell people all the time to never give up and keep trying until they succeed."

Lee, who has found success elusive for more than 20 years even though he won Fame, is also hopeful. He still gets fan mail and takes dance classes three hours a day. "I'm just one story," he said. "We need to keep knocking on those doors."

[Last modified March 29, 2007, 13:04:44]

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