4 min

Fresh off the boat

Celebrities' new Asian night sparks controversy

When I first saw the poster for Celebrities’ new Asian-themed party FOB–featuring slogans like Fresh Off the Boat, Eat Rice and $5 Luv U Long Time!–I have to admit I winced a little.

But then I had to laugh at how lame and cheesy these expressions really are. And I enjoyed the idea that other “gay-sian” boys would get the joke and appreciate the sarcasm.

Still, I was skeptical about FOB’s success. Not because of its name (a former slur for immigrants who were “fresh off the boat”), but because Celebrities’ last recurring Asian night was such a failure!

That party, which was also a fundraiser for the Asian Society for the Intervention of Aids (ASIA), yielded little funds and cost the club hundreds of dollars to operate. Despite the city’s large Asian population, Silk N Spice just didn’t seem relevant to Vancouver’s club goers.

Hoping to show my support to Celebrities, to my friend and event-promoter Blue Satittammanoon, and to ASIA, I posted the FOB promo items online. The reaction was quite instant.

“It seems a bit wrong… posting a promotion with 100% racial terms… I’m a bit offended,” wrote one respondent. “If I was you, I’d be offended!” said another.

Interestingly, all of those who wrote to say they took offense were white.

“It would be a lie if I said I didn’t expect any criticism,” says Satittammanoon, a former marketing executive for Sony BMG Thailand who was inspired by Nelly Furtado’s song, “Fresh off the Boat.”

That song “was very popular in Asia,” he notes.

While some people may have painful associations with the word FOB, Satittammanoon’s experience was quite different. “FOB was a popular slang we used among the international students. All in good nature; it was harmless. To be honest, I’ve never seen the term used by white people to insult us.”

Even with Satittammanoon’s explanation, I suddenly found myself questioning the use of these phrases and if they were actually promoting hate and racism.

Amongst each other, queer Asian kids use these expressions with the shared understanding that they are lame and ridiculous. “Luv u long time,” in particular, is used sarcastically as a comment on how far from us these pop culture stereotypes really are.

Obviously, Satittammanoon (a self-proclaimed FOB), Celebrities (with the most diverse staff and patrons of this city’s gay bars), and ASIA (whose mandate is “to raise consciousness on issues related to HIV like homophobia, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination”), wouldn’t intend to spread insult, hate or stereotypes within the very community that they all hope to attract.

It was clear to me that the intent was for those invited to share a laugh in much the same way people of African descent are invited to laugh when Chris Rock uses the “n-word,” and gays are invited to laugh when Scott Thompson says “fag.”

“However, make no mistake, the moment one of those terms is used by somebody OUTSIDE that group, that somebody will find themselves Imus’d right out of a job. Or worse,” warned one message board poster.

While I personally try not to use slurs, I understand that this kind of re-appropriation of stereotypes and language does serve a purpose. When members of oppressed cultures use words normally used against them, like nigga or fag, they are defiantly forcing people to identify with the whole being of those who would be labelled as such, and thereby taking the hateful meanings and stereotypes away from the words–thus expanding their meanings to encompass their own individual personalities.

Some may ask why anyone would want to use such ugly words at all. Why not just avoid the words and hope they disappear? Once a word is created, no matter how much the more evolved try to avoid using it, we can’t un-make it. By allowing only our oppressors to use a word, we give them more power.

It’s like this: when someone would say “you’re a fag” or “you’re gay” in the pre-Will & Grace era, it would be considered derogatory and vicious and cause great pain. However, now that we have so many representations of what gay and fag mean, we are more likely to respond with, “Yes I am, so what?”

It really all comes down to one question: Who is being victimized? Aside from forcing people to read some distasteful slang, the promo materials aren’t actively pigeonholing or stereotyping anyone. They are clearly an open invitation and meant to include people, not exclude them.

When used within the community, these expressions tell of a shared joke. It’s hard to explain, but as distasteful as they are for some, they are hilariously inappropriate to the community that has the strongest relationship with them–the target audience of Asians who have lived with these sayings and popular depictions of themselves in North America.

I view the use of FOB the same way I view the use of the words fag, dyke, tranny and queer in the gay community. When used by our own, we can hopefully make these once-shocking terms seem silly, cheesy and even funny.

“Different people have different tastes and we can’t please them all,” says Satittammanoon. “Great marketing is like walking on a fine line, always trying to push the envelope to create something that will make heads turn.”

Well he succeeded in doing just that; heads turned, fingers glided over keyboards, and voices were raised. The result? FOB was the most successful ASIA party in years with Fabulous Oriental Beings of all sorts coming out and having a great time.

To those who found the promotion offensive, Satittammanoon says, “Please know it means no harm and we don’t have a bad intention. If you still want to come to a great party and support ASIA, I’m sure you can overlook the poster and come out and have fun with us anyway.”

Celebrities is proud to continue hosting FOB on the last Wednesday of every month to spread AIDS awareness and to help queer Asians find community and expand their cultural identity.