"Bring some hustle and run": parody, Asianness, and Bakhtinian carnival in Chinatown Hustler.
Parody in all its contentious forms resounds in the music and videos of Notorious MSG, the self-proclaimed, "original Chinatown bad boys" from New York City's "East Side Chinatown. "The group members are serious musicians whose on-stage and online presence is based in caricature and humor. As part of their act, they work at a Chinese restaurant, cooking and delivering fast food all over New York City and, at the same time, educating the world about Chinatown ghettos (see www.notoriousmsg.com and www.facebook.com/notoriousmsg). Notorious MSG's music and performances create dialog between and among Asian and Asian American communities. Their work is positioned in negotiated spaces between their construction of self-identity as both Asian and Asian American with dominant culture's construction of them as racially Asian. Though those living in South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong have distinct and unique cultures, language, and identities, once these individuals step into the United States, their ascribed identity blends into one--Asian (Espiritu, 1992). This results in a complicated pan-Asian identity (Espiritu, 1992; Sandel, Wong Lowe, & Chao, 2012) in which formerly separate individuals are constructed as indistinguishable from another in popular media (Parrenas Shimizu, 2007). Not only are many distinguishable ethnicities characterized as one in the United States, recent immigrants to the United States (Asians) are often confused and blended with Asian Americans, who have lived in the United States for multiple generations. (We use "Asian American" when discussing the specific experiences of those raised in the United States, and later we will use the term "Asian/American" to refer to dominant culture's confounding of Asians and Asian Americans as the same.) Notorious MSG's humor is an interactive, musical dialog among Asian/Americans--a space to question pan-Asian identities and ascriptions.
In this work, we trace the connections between hustler and Asianness in Notorious MSG's music video Chinatown Hustler. The parody of hustler in the dialogic frame of the music video evokes the grotesque and ambivalent in Bakhtin's carnival laughter, countering hegemonic Asian tropes while simultaneously reifying them. We first discuss the music video within the context of Notorious MSG's comedy, the relationship between Bakhtin's carnival and its main elements, and then analyze the parodies of the FOB (Fresh Off the Boat), model minority via the hustler, and the (de)masculinized Asian/American male.
Who Is Notorious MSG?
In their interview in the Asian American magazine, Hyphen, Notorious MSG explains that it started as an "inside joke" among Asian Americans (those born and/or raised in the United States), their target audience (Brothers, 2011). The name, Notorious MSG, does not have just one meaning. It plays on recognition of the rapper, Notorious B.I.G., popular during the 1990s in the United States; the acronym MSG brings to mind monosodium glutamate, which is a food additive in many processed foods, and was derisively attributed to Chinese restaurant food in the 1980s and 1990s (Geiling, 2013). In all their interviews, however, the group never mentions its connection to monosodium glutamate. Instead, the group said MSG stood for Moo Shu Guys because they "Moo Shu Porked" racist customers ("Profile," 2004), or that MSG represented Mandarin Sex Gang (Brothers, 2011). The group intentionally took on the racist assumptions of a food additive while subverting its meanings.
Members Hong Kong Fever and Down Lo-Mein are mainstays in the trio. For their first release, Die Hungry (2004), the third member was Funky Buddha, who was later replaced by Hunan Bomb in Lunch Money (2009) and Heavy Ghetto (2011). In addition to their music, they rely on wit, toilet humor, and persona during interviews and online replies to posts on their website. Interviewers say members stay in character during their live performances and in their interviews, maintaining overdrawn Chinese accents in videos (e.g., "Booklin" for Brooklyn in the Heavy Ghetto teaser trailer www.youtube.com/watch?v=glzu0zUM1ug). Notorious MSG's music and interviews are humorous musical cultural artifacts, representing dialog among Asian/Americans. The group is an interesting site of study as they project and magnify stereotypes of immigrant Asians, often referred to as FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) within Asian American communities. Their music is eclectic in its willingness to move between genres, simultaneously an act of racial complexity and transgression. For example, their music includes hip-hop (e.g., album Lunch Money), popular boy band music (as demonstrated in their song, "Dim Sum Girl"), and a mixture of disco, go-go, heavy metal, and rap (e.g., album Heavy Ghetto).
The lyrics of Notorious MSG's songs, however, draw largely from modern day commercial rap: Aggression, authenticity, territoriality of their Chinatown neighborhood, sex, love, and anger. Their use of Chinese buffet items, propensity to make references to genitalia, remarkably heavy rapping accents, and attire make them a racially complex farce and force. When describing their sexual appetites, they rap in their song, "Straight Out of Canton": "I like the ladies with the big won-tons!" and in "Yello Fever": "Ask her how she got so sweet, cause I like a little shugah[sugar] on my yellow meat." In promotional campaign for their September 2007 shows, they announced on their website, "LADIES: The MSG will be looking to lasso-up some poon-tang [derogatory vernacular term for women's genitalia] after the show so be ready."
Notorious MSG's parodies contest racial and ethnic identities. Of specific interest is the track, "Chinatown Hustler," from Lunch Money (2009). The music video directed by Ken Lin and Robert Samala was released in 2010 through the band's website, YouTube, and social networking sites. Through a heavy reliance on incongruity in their racial-ethnic performance, the music video plays on contrasting stereotypes and connections that simultaneously counter and reify racial-ethnic tropes. By appropriating African American mediated hip-hop culture, Notorious MSG aligns Asianness with the Black body vis-a-vis the hustler.
We analyzed the music video Chinatown Hustler through our standpoints as second generation Asian Americans. One author is a Chinese American, who approached the music video as a critically interpretive scholar of Asian American identities situated in White-dominant contexts. The second author is a Korean American, who analyzed the video as a critical scholar of Asian and Asian American representation in dominant media. Through our combined theoretical commitments, we analyzed the music video through related but different lenses to provide a fuller understanding of its relation to competing and complementary discourses. Our procedure was an inductive, iterative process of examining different meanings expressed through visuals, lyrics, sound, and language. We draw from Hall's (1997) understanding that representation is a signifying practice that reifies meanings within a contested ideological terrain; our goal was to examine the parody of Notorious MSG's image of the hustler. Of particular interest are the obvious personas and parodies of the musical group and the orientation toward the parodic twin. Through bringing to light underlying cultural codes and subtle or overt references to ideological meaning, we can view the carnival.
Bakhtinian Carnival, Laughter, and Hustling in Chinatown
During the Middle Ages carnivals were unsanctioned celebrations in the marketplace and streets where anonymous masses laughed, joked, and played in revelry. They were neither holidays nor explicitly promoted by the restrictive religious or tyrannical powers of the day. Bakhtin (1984) in Rabelais and His World lifts the carnival into an ideal representation of the folk culture in which Rabelais' work is situated. During Bakhtin's lifetime Stalinist policies and ideology permeated. Thus, Bakhtin indicates that the carnival of today is not carnival at all--it is only a ghost--a mere performance of the carnival of the Middle Ages. The carnival was subjugated to a theatrical presentation rather than a holistic unifying experience. The sanitization of carnival created a reduced form of laughter and will be explained below.
The Bakhtinian carnival of the Middle Ages, however, is not simply an unofficial event. The foundations of carnival are the folk (the "common man [sic]"), who are "blasphemous rather than adoring, cunning rather than intelligent; they are coarse, dirty, and rampantly physical, reveling in oceans of strong drink, poods of sausage, and endless coupling of bodies" (Holquist, 1984, p. xix). The folk and their culture are domains of the common people, who act freely and apart from the critical eye of the government or religious officials of their day. Carnival is also a revolution--"not only an impediment to revolutionary change, it is revolution itself," (Holquist, 1984, p. xviii). Bakhtin read Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel and observed the ways Rabelais turned the establishment on its head. Along with revolution, carnival is about freedom--"the courage needed to establish it, the cunning required to maintain it, and--above all--the horrific ease with which it can be lost" (Holquist, 1984, p. xxi). Yet carnival is not a complete mystical display of ecstasy of Dionysian proportions (Lachman, 19881989); nor is freedom an unleashing of primal, material qualities or unbridled anarchy. Rather, freedom is reformation, renewal, and rebirth. Bakhtin argues that folk culture, particularly carnival, sheds sanitized views of the material body, language, and form.
The folk, revolution, and freedom are the defining antecedents of carnival laughter. Laughter in this form is not merely humor, but a communal spirit of the cycle of renewal and rebirth. This laughter transforms the communal material body of the folk and presents a different outlook of the world. Bakhtin (1984) asserts that carnival laughter represents interconnected parts of the universal, communal festivity, ambivalence, and grotesque realism. First, carnival laughter is universal in that humor is "directed at all and everyone, including the carnival's participants. The entire world is seen in its droll aspect, in its gay relativity" (p.11). Carnival laughter is not an object one can just observe as a spectator, or as something separate from the actor: All are included in the laugh. It is an active event "because its very idea embraces all the people" (p. 7). Second, carnival laughter is festive and communal in that "it is not an individual reaction to some isolated 'comic' event" (p. 11). Carnival is not only universally directed, it relieves the selfishness and restrictiveness of the individual. Participants are neither the joker nor the joked--they are one in festivity. Third, carnival laughter is ambivalent in that it is simultaneously happy and mocking, "It asserts and denies, it buries and revives" (p. 12).
Bakhtin (1984) asserts that carnival laughter concentrates on the imagery of the grotesque. Carnival laughter "which characterized all the forms of grotesque realism from immemorial times was linked with the bodily lower stratum. Laughter degrades and materializes" (p. 20). Imagery of the lower stratum includes farting, drinking, sex, and digestion. The grotesque degrades and materializes because to "degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better" (p. 21). The grotesque is marginalized and celebrated, and then cyclically reborn. The productive organs are placed next to the defecating ones, the symbolically beautiful contrasted with the ugly. Thus, "[degradation digs bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one" (p. 21). All people participate in these bodily functions, which is neither good nor bad. In this way, the grotesque is not individual and private; it is public and universal to folk culture. Salvation does not occur when one leaves the body in death but in the grotesque body (Lachmann, 1988-1989).
A key indication of carnival laughter is its rejection of the negative.
The satirist whose laughter is negative places himself above the object of his mockery, he is opposed to it. The wholeness of the world's comic aspect is destroyed, and that which appears comic becomes a private reaction. The people's ambivalent laughter, on the other hand, expresses the point of view of the whole world; he who is laughing also belongs to it. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 12).
Therefore, if ridicule is negative and debases an object or person, then that act is not a function of carnival laughter. The parody is when the humorous object is uplifted or turned on its head.
In contrast, Freud (1960) presents humor as either innocent or hostile/obscene. Innocent joking merely provides pleasure whereas hostile/obscene jokes are intentionally humorous to one person but not another (called ridicule), wherein this logic implies humor is irrational. Freud's analysis accords too much power to the joker--in which the joker chooses an object of ridicule. The joke teller has an audience like an actor on a stage, along with the object of the joke (either through innocent or hostile joking). For our analysis, we agree with Bishop (1990) on the difference between Freud's joke and Bakhtin's carnival laughter. Whereas Freudian ridicule denotes a "butt of a joke" or a third party that is the object of the speech act, carnival laughter repels the negative of the joke and denies the powerlessness of the "butt." The performer and audience are the same: There is not a third party to assume the ridicule.
Laughter through parody furthers the carnival. All aspects of carnival laughter such as grotesqueness and ambivalence distinguish themselves from other forms of laughter through their dual natures. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Souter notes that parody's "art lies in the tension between a known original and its parodic twin. When parody takes aim at a particular original work, the parody must be able to 'conjure up' at least enough of that original to make the object of its critical wit recognizable" (as cited in Burr, 1996, p. 69). Parody's complexity is such that:
[the] parodic image evokes a cultural image already available to an audience, but signifies through its difference from the original its otherness from the dominant codes. This difference creates a narrative of critique, one that accounts for the known original and resistance to that original generated by the parodic image. (Claycomb, 2007, p. 106)
Thus, the nature of parody meshes well within the carnival framework.
Throughout the parody in Chinatown Hustler, Notorious MSG uses the image of the hustler as a vehicle to interrogate and play with assertions of Asianness. By converting Chinatown from a noun into an adjective, the music video indicates that the subject, the hustler in, from, and of Chinatown provides the context for the hustling job's definition. Chinatowns are places of racial isolation, a symbol of exclusion from dominant society, a taboo place of fascination and inscrutable mystery, and home for Chinese Americans (Chang, 2003). In the film, Year of the Dragon, Chinatown represents violence, desire, and mystery (Lee, 1999). The film opens with vibrantly colored images of a lunar festival and lion dance. Underneath this facade lurks a grittier side of crime as the film unfolds. A Chinatown kingpin, Jackie Wong, is murdered in a Chinatown restaurant. Though the representation of Chinatown can be portrayed as a twisted interaction between White bodies and Asian/American ones (Lee, 1999), the Chinatown in Notorious MSG's music video is dark in the camera light and a play on realism.
By situating Chinatown as the context of the hustler, Notorious MSG displaces racialized meanings in rap to specifically Chinese American spaces. The hustler conducts business transactions through illegal and/or questionable ethics--whether by choice or to survive in less desirable circumstances. Supplemental income can include swindling, drug dealing, violence, and pimping. Venkatesh (2002) reinforces that hustling is not only a "survival strategy" but an identity. Within hip-hop, the hustler is racialized in the Black narrative; its narrative is the social capital of the Black young male. The hustler sits deeply in its racialized body, spaces, and ideology. Who, what, and where the hustler is, ties implicitly with the choices of its propagator. As a common theme in the lyrics of rappers in hip-hop, hustling is not only a way of living, it is a racialized identity. In hip-hop music (especially gangsta rap, see Kubrin, 2005), hustling embodies the Black body in the lyrics, music, and stereotypical lifestyle (Kitwana, 2003; Kubrin, 2005; Rose, 2008; Spence, 2011; Watkins, 2006). Though the hustler may not work in conventional areas, for example, as an insurance salesperson, bank teller, he (always gendered male) is not "one who shirks work," but is "one who is constantly working, constantly reading the needs of consumers and constantly producing either to meet these needs or even to generate them" (Spence, 2011, p. 38). By meeting the needs of the consumer, the hustler will sell anything and everything including drugs, violence, protection, and sex. In short, the hustler is an entrepreneur.
As a common theme in hip-hop, the stereotype of the hustler is commodified and transformed (intentionally and unintentionally) into an object. Hustlers have created a product to sell--their image--and this image is available for appropriation. As the popularity of hip-hop music and culture grew in the global music industry, other bodies appropriated this image (e.g., Terkourafi, 2010). For instance, Eminem, a commercially successful White rap artist, is a contested representative of hip-hop because despite his personal identification with hip-hop culture, he is marked by his White body (Boyd, 2003; Hickey-Moody, 2009; Stadler, 2011). The prevalent image of the racialized material body often overrides the self-identification and cultural background of the rapper. In performing hip-hop hustling, if one does not fit a certain racial-ethnic and socioeconomic background, one's authenticity is questioned.
The racial-ethnic images such as the hustler or the immigrant Asian are masks that are blended together by Notorious MSG to ultimately create a new one. Bakhtin (1984) considers the mask as "the most complex theme of folk culture" because the mask is related to transition, metamorphoses, the violation of natural boundaries, to mockery and familiar nicknames. It contains the playful element of life; it is based on a peculiar interrelation of reality and image, characteristic of the most ancient rituals and spectacles.... It reveals the essence of the grotesque." (p. 39-40) Parody is one derivative of the mask.
Laughing Carnival into Asianness
In the parody of Chinatown Hustler, the hustler's Black body shifts onto a Yellow one, competing with the dual images of both bodies. Ringleader Hong Kong Fever sports a bowl-cut--a haircut mockingly associated with young Asian immigrants; Down Lo-Mein entertains a jheri-curl and a higher pitched voice, and Hunan Bomb's stringy hair is reminiscent of an "Afro" (see photos available on their official website, http://notoriousmsg.com/). Their accents include confusions between /r/ and /l/ sounds (Paolillo, 1995), substitution of [f] for TH sounds, rhythm and sentence stress (Deterding, Wong, & Kirkpatrick, 2008), and elongation or shortening of vowels (Deterding, 2006). Hong Kong Fever's accent, as his stage name suggests, is more distinguishably Cantonese. He omits the final consonants of certain words such as "Chinatown" and "genuine" (Deterding et al., 2008). However, the accents are inconsistent in their album--notably in Chinatown Hustler. The group acts out the stereotype of Chinese accents as opposed to actual accents common among Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean immigrants when speaking English (see Qu, 2009 for an example of stereotypical Chinese accents in US television). Their bodies, language, and accents indicate that they perform immigrant Asians, who embrace the seedy underworld of hustling in a Black script. Black and Asian bodies are masks because neither Asian nor Black makes sense in one body. Notorious MSG's collective image of the immigrant Asian and the hustler is unsettling because it plays on three tropes:a) the FOB, b) the model minority vis-a-vis the hustler, and c) Asian (de)masculinity.
The Harlequin in FOB-ulous
Notorious MSG describes their group as "FOBulous" ("Profile," 2004). FOB, short for "Fresh Off the Boat," is a colloquial term utilized by groups such as Asian Americans to distinguish themselves from recent immigrants, who have retained unique stylized linguistic, aesthetic, and value preferences of their homeland (Wong Lowe, 2009). The term was originally applied to European immigrants, who came to the United States on boats, and subsequently transferred to Asians as they immigrated to the United States. FOB is a term deeply embedded in the Asian American vernacular with various meanings from person to person and group to group. Unlike the stereotypes of "model minority" and "yellow peril" that are widely recognizable, FOB is an inside joke specific to Asian American "folk culture." 'Depending on the context--be it in the proverbial marketplace or street--FOB exists outside the official context of racialized discourses and bodies and, instead, within ethnic discourses that reflect Asian American groups themselves (Kibria, 2000). Pyke and Dang (2003) found that among second generation Asian Americans, the terms "FOB" and "whitewashed" sat on opposite points of a continuum. Participants mock co-ethnics, who have recently immigrated to North America as FOBs, whereas FOBs deride those who have acculturated as "whitewashed."
Notorious MSG portrays the FOB in Chinatown Hustler through specific, recognizable signifiers. They work at a Chinese food restaurant in the context of Chinatown, a space of racial isolation and "home" to Chinese Americans. The space of Chinatown is reimagined as a place of violence but one that is subverted through the self-reflexive juxtaposition of incongruent elements. During the first verse of the song, Hong Kong Fever raps:
Lyrical Ginsu cutting off your nut sack. I feel no pain. I'm insane. Smoke your ass and eat a bowl of chow mein (Hong Kong Fever, 2007, Chinatown Hustler)
Their use of technically correct but crude and defamatory references is similar to recent immigrants, who try to use cliches and metaphors that do not quite fit into American dominant culture. They are grotesquely aggressive in the creativity of their rhymes, equating their sharpness in wit to a type of "Japanese" knife that is so sharp it can remove male genitalia--so powerful that their words alone can de-masculinize any male. The mention of "Ginsu" is appropriate here: Popular infomercials during the 1970s advertised a product appropriating stereotypical Asian themes, even fabricating a "Japanese sounding" name for the product. Those that created the Ginsu advertising concept exoticized and commodified the Orient. Through this lyric, Notorious MSG hustlers can beat up or shoot someone, and then immediately eat fried noodles, which is also a distinctly Chinese American creation (Chang, 2003). The use of these cliches is reminiscent of 1980s portrayals of foreign exchange students from the East in popular media (e.g., Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles).
The FOB mask in this context is a clown. During the Middle Ages the clown was the "constant, accredited representatives of the carnival spirit in everyday life out of carnival season" (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 8). Even though they may play a harlequin for the governing elite, the clowns of the medieval carnival were clowns all day everywhere, never taking off the mask. The medieval clown invited those around them to laugh, and during the carnival, clowns themselves in turn laughed, participating in festively communal carnival laughter. Clowns "stood on the borderline between life and art ... they were neither eccentrics nor dolts, neither were they comic actors" (p. 8). Notorious MSG is strategically essentializing (McRobbie, 1985) racialized bodies in the FOB. Racialized bodies become a costume through which Asianness is viewed by dominant culture. They are "unable" to change out of the costume. This costume is further complicated by the hustler parody.
Hustling the Hustle in the Model Minority
The hustler contrasts with the model minority stereotype implicit in the racial-ethnic markers in the rappers' aesthetic, lyrics, and camera scenes. The model minority stereotype problematically represents Asian/Americans as hard-working and intelligent. Though it sounds favorable, it masks racial oppression and fears of Asian/Americans as a social and economic threat (Kawai, 2005). Their success is supposedly due to their intrinsic hard-work-ethic, desire for economic attainment through conventional means, an uncomplaining attitude, and humble working conditions in blue-collar legal businesses, i.e., dry cleaners, Chinese restaurants, nail salons (Chou & Feagin, 2008; Wu, 2002; Zia, 2000). The model minority stereotype is not politically innocent, but it is juxtaposed with African Americans as a means of racial disciplining. Journalists marked Asian/Americans--formerly branded as reprehensible--as the "model" racial-ethnic group, and in contrast with protesting African Americans of the Civil Rights Movement (Wu, 2002; & Zia, 2000). The rhetoric of that time compared Asian/Americans' ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in spite of legal restrictions in employment and education, again contrasting with the complaints of African Americans.
Hong Kong Fever (2007) continues to rap before the first chorus:
A new day, a new game Sell you baking soda and say it's cocaine-- Chinawhite, bitch I'm a pimp Never slip. Pick my nose with a pair of chopsticks I'm runnin' them hoes just to pay the rent I'll turn out your girl for a dolla fifty cent.
Playing on the stereotype of "suitable employment option" for Chinese Americans, in the music video the trio works at a Chinese food restaurant during the day. When the restaurant closes, the real work begins. This reinforces the image that the hustler is constantly working (Spence, 2011). In contrast to the humble, lawful businesses of the model minority, the Chinatown hustler has a legal business, but it provides only partial income and is a front for their "real" jobs. With "never slip / pick my nose with a pair of chopsticks," Hong Kong Fever shows he is a responsible businessman, who does not use his products: He does not use the drugs he is dealing. He hustles the hustle by selling baking soda as "China white," vernacular for high-quality heroine. This defiance acts to humorously subvert dominant cultural expectations of the Chinatown gangster and to implicate White customers as dupes. The observer would note this deception outside the Notorious MSG world, though creative, would not be a stable source of income. The group would lose their customers in short order through word-of-mouth warning. Hong Kong Fever's hustle choice is ambivalent, mocking while triumphant. These absurdities turn the hustle on its head, creating a new world, parodying another life, or as Bakhtin (1984) notes, "a 'world inside out'" (p. 11).
Hong Kong Fever furthers his definition of his hustling activities to include pimping. In this shot, two long-haired Asian women dressed in satin lingerie and torn fish-net stockings walk into the frame as the camera centers on their rears. The shot's emphasis on the lower stratum of women emphasizes the grotesque. Women, in particular, have often been objectified through the body (Langton, 2009) and have been represented as being in dialectic opposition to men. Women are the opposing and ambivalent feature of male genitalia and, thus, need to be controlled. With the women at his side, Hong Kong Fever struts down the sidewalk wearing a 1970s-style disco dress: a white suit jacket and matching bell-bottoms, and an open wide-collared shirt. This pimp is a flamboyant dresser and confident in his theatrics yet raps that the women charge only $1.50 per trick. Thus, the portrayal of cheap and affordable prostitution plays on the trope of the cheap "made-in-China" product. This scene links to the "pimp and ho's" dynamic in hip-hop that demeans Black women (Sharpley-Whiting, 2007). The parody of the pimp parallels the parody of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women. Asian women are often attributed characteristics of meekness, subservience, and sexual prowess, and thus are often objects of desire in the media (e.g., Prasso,2005). The women signify the pimp's power through his ability to dominate and control. He sets their worth, their means, and in the scene micromanages their efforts. Even though he is in power, the relationship between the women and lone man is grotesquely ambivalent. The phallic-vagina symbolism is inherently grotesque in its celebration of the material body, and the flamboyant and over-the-top mannerism of Hong Kong Fever pushes the seriousness and degradation of the "pimp and ho's" dynamic into the public realm of carnival laughter.
In this sense, Notorious MSG is not necessarily negating the model minority stereotype; they are redefining the view of "model" in their inventive yet unsanctioned behavior. It takes the seriousness of the hustler in hip-hop music from fear or terror to gaiety. The grotesque would view hustling as necessary for survival: Its actions are relegated to the lower stratum of society. Bakhtin argues that during another restrictive time period, Romanticism, grotesque was reduced because it was "'something hostile, alien, and inhuman'" (Kayser of the Romantic period as cited in Bakhtin, 1984, p. 47). Grotesque then was viewed as seriousness. Carnival laughter of the Middle Ages, however, reveals that the world is not hostile or alienated. The world is not filled with terror. Instead, it is full of life. This is not to say that the world does not allow for strife, only that it is not always grieving. "The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity" (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 49). Therefore, humor in the blended masks of model minority and the hustler reveals that the world is not always as serious as what it seems. In Chinatown Hustler, the jovial via the serious wrap around the (de)masculinization of the Asian/American male.
The Grotesque and Masculinity
While seeming to point the message away from the model minority stereotype toward the hip-hop hustler, Notorious MSG simultaneously "asserts and denies" the stereotype in a Bakhtinian world--ambivalent not in just their portrayal but in the context of themselves. They do the same in their "mocking and yet triumphant" portrayal of Asian masculinity. Instead of ridiculing themselves as racially gendered bodies, they provide a vehicle for festive and communal laughter. They do this by providing a "common man" reinterpretation of an underground street fighter, and offering a parody of the feminized Asian (male) kingpin.
Popular United States media and the overall social milieu feminize the sign of the Asian/American male. The Asian/American male is emasculated as weak, nerdy, and small, although he may have unusually skillful talents in Kung Fu on screen (Espiritu, 2004; Lee, 1999; Prasso, 2005). Even with Asian/American villains' greater numbers and expertise in martial arts, they are frequently defeated by White heroes (Eng, 2001; Ono & Pham, 2009). Though there are a few notable exceptions (e.g., Bruce Lee's defeat of Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon and Jackie Chan's Rush Hour movies), the exceptions demonstrate the norm. More typically, White heroes learn Asian martial arts within a short time frame through their "supraethnic viability," which allows them to single-handedly defeat scores of Asian/American villains (Tierney, 2006). Even in the Rush Hour movies when Jackie Chan's character, Lee, and Chris Tucker's character, Carter, defeat the White villains, they are paired to defeat elderly European men, not powerful or skilled martial artists (Oh, 2012). The emasculation of Asian/American men is not only represented in their physical weakness but also in their lack of sexual appeal. Though there have been some important contemporary exceptions (e.g., The Walking Dead and Lost), Asian/American men have generally been portrayed as unattractive to the opposite sex because of their lack of masculine vigor (Han, 2006, 2008). The association of Asian men with female traits, especially in limited portrayals on TV leaves them "racially castrated" (Eng, 2001).
In the United States, this is partially explained through the history of Chinese American immigration. Most immigrants from China to the United States during the 1800s and early 1900s were men (Daniels, 1988). Because Chinese wives were generally barred entry, restrictive interracial marriage laws, and White men's confiscation of "manly" Chinese labor (e.g., taking away land rights when gold was discovered), many immigrant Chinese men took jobs deemed as "women's work," including tailoring, laundering, cooking, and other domestic services (Chang, 2003; Daniels, 1988; Lee, 1999). The members of Notorious MSG are seen in a familiar "immigrant" role working at a Chinese food restaurant and stereotyped as weak. Though Hong Kong Fever sharpens a meat cleaver, the elderly patriarch, Uncle Wong (see music video introduction publicly available on the Notorious MSG YouTube channel: https://www.voutube.com/watch?v=tSYLMxi63mI). cleans the stove and Down Lo-Mein and Hunan Bomb clean the front dining area.
At midnight, all members transition from a domesticated posture when they mentally "clock out" to prepare for their hustling job. Uncle Wong remains at the restaurant while the others walk outside and get into their low-rider (a customized car associated with a Chicano, masculine identity, see Bright, 1998). As soon as they step out the door, the camera angles low, ascribing power and authority to the individuals within the frame. At the same time, the instrumental introduction ends, the rappers give voice to their hustle, and the Chinatown hustlers drop the feminine role in the kitchen for a masculine one, and the low-rider transports them separately to their hustling jobs of choice. After Hong Kong Fever presents his exploits as a pimp and drug dealer, Down Lo-Mein roughs up a cheating gambler, taking the spoils of the game.
During the third verse of the song, Hunan Bomb steps into an underground fight club, populated by a multi-racial, predominantly non-White crowd of observers and participants. He tears off his ragged white "wife-beater" tank top to reveal his pale, unchiseled torso. His opponent, sweeping off his hoodie, reveals himself to be a tall, muscular African American man ready to fight against Hunan Bomb. Instead of utilizing advanced martial arts, Hunan Bomb knocks his opponent to the ground with one wild haymaker. Hunan Bomb walks up the stairs back to the streets, carrying a wad of cash. He emcees,
Fight to live, live to fight Gotta break some bones when the money's right Doing my thing just to get a meal 145 pounds of Chinatown steel (Keep it real) In the flesh I'm a killa Packin' more heat than the Godzilla (Hong Kong Fever, 2007, Chinatown Hustler, Verse 3)
Even though he wins, it is neither through a masculinized body nor sophisticated martial arts. His unimposing physique implies the role of underdog, so he comically represents himself as menacing by ripping off his shirt, a la Hulk Hogan, a professional wrestler. Hunan Bomb raps that he is as naturally and intrinsically powerful as Godzilla, another reference to Japan. The innate voracious power that can scare countless of people is in his body, his "flesh." The irony is that his frame is devoid of muscle. Hunan Bomb's body is that of the "common man," who may not spend much time (if any) and energy building his body in a gym. However, Hunan Bomb parodies the knock-out punch of the White protagonist from Kung Fu movies.
This duality is important to note when discussing the (de)masculinization of Asian/American men. The Bakhtinian carnival emphasizes a dual nature or doubleness. Parody folds into grotesque realism, because parody itself has a parodic twin. Duality is in the cycle of death and birth. Bakhtin (1984), for instance, uses an example of Kerch terracotta collection figures of "senile pregnant hags," who are laughing as the archetype of the grotesque. The withering skin of the elderly woman against her pregnancy is grotesquely ambivalent (or ambivalently grotesque) because it is "pregnant death, a death that gives birth" (p. 25). Furthermore, "[l]ife is shown in its two-fold contradictory process; it is the epitome of incompleteness" (p. 26). Even in dying (or death), one can transform and give birth to the new. The new lives within the dying, and vice versa, when the cycle is repeated. The masculine and feminine arguably sit together in the cycle of death and birth. To give birth, the masculine and feminine must copulate, and from copulation, they create a transformation of themselves, a child, who grows up to repeat the cycle.
The process moves one-step further:
[The grotesque] is not separated from the rest of the world ... it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 26)
The Asian/American male body is open to the outside world where that body is scripted as feminine (a dual nature of male body and feminine features). However, in order to successfully copulate, it needs to genuinely be male. Hunan Bomb's flabby torso is common and bland, undeniably male. His one punch not only parodies the Asian martial art trope held against a weakling, Hunan Bomb also activates the meme of genuine male aggression.
The dual nature of the grotesque is observed in the parody of Uncle Wong. Uncle Wong's elderly looking skin juxtaposed with the youthful looking skin of Hong Kong Fever, Down Lo-Mein, and Hunan Bomb further accentuates the duality of birth and death. We meet Uncle Wong as he stands in the kitchen cleaning a stove. He wears a stained white shirt, sunglasses, a long white wait apron, and a black leather hat with a faux cop emblem on the front. While he takes a break sitting within the pink-walled restaurant, Uncle Wong, speaking in Mandarin Chinese, commands the three younger men: "Kill them all." The command reveals that Wong is not only the owner of the restaurant; he is also the kingpin of the younger men's activities. In a YouTube clip released with the music video, "Angus Wong speaks," Uncle Wong is identified as the godfather of Chinatown. Uncle Wong is reintroduced to the audience during the music video's bridge in which he sings:
Life is a struggle my son Got to bring the hustle and run Living in the ghetto no fun Gotta hustle in the midnight sun (Hong Kong Fever, 2007, Chinatown Hustler, Bridge)
While he sings, Uncle Wong shifts his head awkwardly to the beat of the bridge. The Confucius-like, paternal advice in this lyric is reminiscent of the intelligent, but humble detective Charlie Chan of the novels and films of the early-to mid-1900s (Hamamoto, 1994; Ono & Pham, 2009). Uncle Wong's faux cop hat contradicts his kingpin status, and overtly points to a queer sexuality. His virility and credibility is questioned. The contradiction eschews the power inherent in being the "godfather" of Chinatown. He has lived his life in the ghetto, a place where one should always "struggle" and "hustle." That the power of Chinatown belongs to this lone man, who sways awkwardly during the song with stoic facial expressions, provides comedic timing that negates any fear.
Within the figure of Uncle Wong, grotesque realism is in the uneasy juxtaposition of terror and frailty, fear and levity. Medieval folk culture "was familiar with the element of terror only as represented by comic monsters, who were defeated by laughter. Terror was turned into something gay and comic" (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 39). The comic monster in this case is Uncle Wong--the kingpin who could be vicious, violent, and altogether hungry for money or power of the hip-hop aesthetic. His parodic twin is the godfather of mobster films within the Charlie Chan mirror. What makes him the comic monster is the unimposing dress. The faux leather cap with a cop insignia is an additional element reminding the audience of the Village People disco group of the 1970s known for their remarkable homosexual persona and iconic fashion.
In the Chinese experience in the United States, racial logics transform ethnically specific Chinese communities into racially ambiguous Asian, but this transformation is incomplete. It is a negotiation of Chinese Americans' wrestling with transnational connections to their "homeland" and their localized experience of marginalization as racialized others in their "home country." Notorious MSG, a Chinese American and Asian/American hybrid rap group, participate in this discursive formation of meanings of Chinese and Asian Americanness by appropriating dominant racial stereotypes and mocking it through humor.
In Notorious MSG's Chinatown Hustler, laughter arises in derision and the dichotomous pull of the Chinese immigrant body, hustling, Blackness, and second-generation Asianness. The mask that can be never be truly taken off by Notorious MSG members communicates perceptions of the fantasized homeland and its diasporic space in New York Chinatowns. The humor is not one directional; it includes the participants in its "droll aspect, in its gay relativity" (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 11). Carnival laughter plays on ideas of Asian/American identity through parody--embracing both the filth and the pleasure of modern interpretations of the material body. The racially ascribed body is marginalized, but--in this medium--is cyclically reborn.
In our analysis, the Black body via the hustler is an especially complex projection. A hustler is not just a profession but a racialized identity. When placed within Asian/American bodies in the space of Chinatown, they combine to create masks with many faces. Members, Hong Kong Fever, Down-Lo-Mein and Hunan Bomb, stay within character on and off stage. They neither take off their mask during interviews, performances, and even during personal communication. Their lives outside Notorious MSG are unknown.
Even though Chinatown Hustler can be read as an accusation against dominant culture in its portrayal of racial-ethnic bodies, Notorious MSG instead brings common folk into a shared understanding of the "grotesque" features of our lives. They focus on the gendered body of the Asian/American male and female, with emphasis on the masculine. The masculine Asian/American is fraught with competing representations. They are removed from the masculine by hegemonic characterizations in dominant culture and media in the United States. However, Notorious MSG reasserts these markers with their power over women (i.e., pimps), physical ability over other men (i.e., underground street fighters), and their controlling leadership (i.e., kingpins).
The use of the FOB indicates the consistent dialog between Asians and Asian Americans. The act of placing the mask of FOB and hustler into one body is in itself a questioning between the many aspects of those images. They signify a turn--acknowledgement that the other exists. Through the acknowledgement, one can begin to question, converse, and parody those images. The masks are humorous, but they neither state whether the FOB or hustler (i.e., the stereotypes of the immigrant or Black characterization) is desirable or undesirable. It just is. Regardless of its existence, they play a role in the social milieu of everyday constructions and restrictions of our modern times. These are not "sanctioned" festivities in which one debases, ridicules the self. This is a time of wonderment, questioning, and rebirth. As Asian/Americans, this means that the ascription of complex masks of Asian/American, FOB, harlequin, and hustler can be a point of laughter for our growth.
Hong Kong Fever, Down Lo-Mein, Hunan Bomb, and Uncle Wongmay briefly play harlequins, but their essence cannot be shed after the carnival. They are in full scripted dress and thus they take with them their masks and thrust renewal from seriousness. Through the lyrics, images, and music of Chinatown Hustler, Notorious MSG comments on the "common man" in its masculine detail, and the transformation and freedom of their laughter of the parody and themselves. We participate with them in carnival laughter.
The authors thank Todd Sandel and Aimee Dawis for their insightful suggestions during the editorial process.
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Anna Wong Lowe, Oklahoma Baptist University
David C. Oh, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Anna Wong Lowe, Ph.D.
Department of Communication Arts Oklahoma Baptist University 500 West University, Shawnee, OK 74804
David C. Oh, Ph.D.
Communication Arts Ramapo College of New Jersey
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|Author:||Lowe, Anna Wong; Oh, David C.|
|Publication:||China Media Research|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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