Historian James Truslow speaks of the American Dream as one that recognised merit instead of race or social class. In his 1931 book “The Epic of America”, he describes the ideal as “that dream in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement”.
For those coming from a far-off land, the shores of the United States presented them with the promise of life opportunities which may not have been available to them in their homeland. Photographer Andrew Kung’s parents held this in their hearts too. For them, the American dream was returning home from a stable job, putting food on the table, in a home that they owned. “Ultimately, it was to create a better future for me,” Kung said with gratitude, engulfed in the spirit of filial piety.
“While my parents struggled to establish a foundation in a new country, I had the privilege of chasing self-actualization.” As a first-generation Chinese American, Kung is fluent in English and had access to the resources, communities and opportunities that were not available to his parents. This meant that he could dare to dream to be a basketball player following his admiration for Kobe Bryant. Growing up, Kung’s definition of being American was about “fitting in with my peers by inhabiting all elements of American culture: from food to sports to mannerisms”. This meant the other facet of his identity — being Asian American — took a step back in the process. The dichotomy of existing within the Western world and holding on to his Eastern roots was a journey that he had to go through.
In 2017, he was exposed to a different Asian American experience. In the Mississippi Delta lay a small Chinese community. Kung saw a bond within them, a kinship that spoke to him, of home and San Francisco. “They reminded me of my own family – except that everyone had Southern accents.”
A curiosity to explore his own identity as an Asian American man sparked within him and ignited his desire to explore an underrepresented side of the All-American man. The Asian American population amounts for approximately 20 million people in the United States. At 5.6% of the total population, they are a minority. But a minority which grew by 72% between 2000 and 2015, according to the World Population Review.
2018 was a ground-breaking year in Hollywood for the Asian American. In the film Crazy Rich Asians, Singaporean actor Pierre Png showed off his chiselled abs in a steamy shower scene. His shirtless body was sexually objectified, far from the usual fare served of the Asian Man. Historically, Asian men in Hollywood have often been reduced to a comical gag. Take Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mr Yunioshi, portrayed in yellow-face by Mickey Rooney. We are introduced to a taped eyelid, bucktooth, small-statured Mr Yunioshi who fumbles around his apartment without his glasses, eventually finding them only to run into a large lamp. These were deliberate character writing and casting decisions. As Kung explains, American men at the time felt threatened that Asian immigrants would rob them of their American Dream. Representation becomes important because so much of how we take in the world is through visual language. Everyone deserves to see a face like their own in media.
Additionally, Hollywood had a moral censor code, the Hays Code, which prevented nudity, profanity and interracial romance. So, when Paul Muni, an Austro-Hungarian born American was cast as Chinese farmer Wang Lung in 1937’s The Good Earth, the farmer’s wife O-Lan, could not have gone to Anna May Wong, a Chinese American actress more than well qualified for the role. In Romeo Must Die, the closing kiss shared between Jet Li and Aaliyah was cut out of the movie for fears of offending mainstream America.
Until this decade, the portrayal of Asian Men in popular media has been disproportionately unflattering. To say that the media has a powerful effect on culture is an understatement. It affects how we behave. Perhaps it’s a matter of survival but minorities are forced to be aware of “American” culture to assimilate.
The thing is, there isn’t just one fixed definition of what it means to be American. Andrew Kung’s photobook opens the eyes of a traditionalist to the unknown, that the All-American is Asian.
How would you define masculinity?
To me, it is a celebration of the entire spectrum of how a man is represented — across all sexualities, ethnicities and identities. I would shy away from defining masculinity as many people define the word: built, brawny, athletic, straight, and white.
Does “toxic masculinity” affect Asian men?
When Asian men first started coming to the United States, many white Americans felt threatened. They feared that Asian men would steal their jobs, women, and pollute their Western values. To counter this, Asian men were portrayed as immoral, undesirable and asexual. These stereotypes of Asian men carried over to the big screens, where early movies either refused to cast Asian men or when they did, painted them as desexualised and emasculated caricatures. As a result, men who exhibit toxic masculinity often shame Asian American men for not being “manly enough” or not fitting into what a stereotypical man should look or act like.
Besides film, another industry which lacks the portrayal of Asian men is fashion. In “the All-American”, you featured Asian designers, as well. How did you meet your stylist and the designers to collaborate with?
I met my stylist Carolyn Son through a mutual friend. I approached her with my vision and it instantly resonated with her, being a fellow Asian American. She was already connected with a handful of Asian designers and suggested that the project would be much stronger if we created another lane of representation by celebrating and showcasing only Asian designers in the book.
With your photobook, you wanted to celebrate the “beauty, intimacy, and tenderness” of Asian American men. Why did you want to highlight these traits specifically?
The common stereotype of Asian American men is that they are weak, passive, desexualized and emasculated. I wanted to turn this idea on its head and instead, celebrate the wide range of all ethnicities and sexualities of Asian American men through a new lens of masculinity. The beauty, intimacy, and tenderness is a lens which most Americans would not see Asian American men through.
The subjects featured in your photobook mostly consisted of friends. It must have been quite an intimate experience having them on the other end of your camera. Were the shoots more seamless as a result?
There was already his level of trust between us that made the shoots seamless. We would have conversations about our experiences as Asian American men and sharing these stories helped them bring a more personal perspective to whichever scene or narrative I was trying to portray. But of course, they required a bit more direction than professional models because they’re not used to posing and understanding the best angles for their profile.
You’ve mentioned that you’re inspired by Larry Sultan, whose work can be described as staged yet documentative. Your work also echoes a similar narrative. Why was this an element that you brought into “the All-American”?
I wanted to recreate the physical spaces in which Asian American men have felt invisible and other-ed; I wanted to bring people into these spaces and create a mood and atmosphere that represented the feelings and emotions of Asian American men when they inhabited these spaces. To fully sculpt the narrative and scenes that I wanted to portray, I knew I had to stage the environments with props and symbols that would visually translate to viewers.
Tell us about your first creative outlet.
My mum is a piano teacher and comes from a musically inclined family. Naturally, I started to pick up classical music. I played the piano and cello. I started in middle school and played for 5 and 4 years, respectively. To this day, I’m confident that my early music interests helped shape my artistic intuition today.
You’ve also worked in Silicon Valley. How has that contributed to the photographer you are now?
It forced me to be a structured thinker in solving complex problems. I’ve used similar frameworks and productivity techniques that have helped me realize that being a photographer is much greater than simply creating amazing art. You’re an entrepreneur like any other tech company start-up founder, except the product that you’re developing are images instead of software or a physical consumer product. The elements of being a successful photographer are rooted in the key pillars of any business: development, building network, refining your product and branding yourself as an artist.
Your work has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue Italia, Paper Magazine, i-D, Dazed and more, whilst working with clients ranging from Google to Beats by Dre. How did you get started in your photographic journey?
Instagram. A friend told me to follow a handful of landscape photographers in San Francisco. And, I began going to the same places they went. Taking similar landscape images. This was the last semester of my senior year in college. So, during weekends or on school breaks, I would wander to San Francisco with my iPhone in hand and explore places in my hometown that I never knew existed.
At the time, your iPhone was your only camera. Have smartphones added or subtracted to the art of photography?
Smartphones have made photography accessible to the masses. I think it’s both good and bad. While more people can take high-quality images and appreciate the beauty of photography, the low barrier to call oneself a photographer and the ease of smartphone photography have diminished the role and power of a photographer beyond clicking a shutter. Despite the sheer number of photographers, I’m a firm believer that if you make great images, your work will cut through the noise.
The saying goes that a picture paints a thousand words. What do you think makes powerful imagery?
It evokes a visceral emotion from the viewer — whether it be the visual mood and atmosphere that the photo creates — or a more narrative element of the photo that helps build empathy in the viewer.
Is there a work of art that continues to inspire you?
Moonlight by Barry Jenkins. The film showcases both the power of visuals, through cinematography, lighting and mood, and narrative storytelling which explores topics of sexuality, family, identity and a coming of age story. This combination is an experience that deeply resonates with me.
Growing up and even now, Asian Americans deal with “microaggressions”. What were some that you’ve personally seen?
Fellow Asian Americans would always talk about the lunch box experience — where kids would be shamed for the food they’re eating because of how it smelled or looked. Kids would be told to go back to China or were painted as martial arts caricatures. We’d be asked where we’re really from as to imply that we’re not from America and that we never will be because of how we looked.
How did your parents keep you in touch with your roots?
As new immigrants to the United States, my parents didn’t have much time to instil Chinese cultural values in me. The only extent would be celebrating holidays, eating Chinese food and embracing certain superstitions that surrounded our culture. I didn’t feel in touch with my roots until I became more curious about my Asian American identity. I started reading novels, asking my parents about their immigrant experience and building a community with fellow Asian Americans.
A turning point for your personal journey in your Asian American identity was meeting the Chinese community living in the Mississippi Delta. Were there similarities between your experiences and theirs?
They were also always labelled as “other”. They weren’t necessarily accepted by either black communities or white communities. They lived at this interesting intersection of two races and had to endure racism and a sense of not belonging ever since they first arrived in the United States.
To end, describe your work in three adjectives.
Intimate, narrative and bold.
You find more about Andrew and his work here.