‘Eastern Standard Time’ explores Asian pop influence

Who coined the term “electronic superhighway?” Why did Filipinos invent yo-yos? Did I.M. Pei know his Steely Dan from his Steppenwolf when planners asked him to design Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum? Which edematous brain leads the Sanrio animal kingdom?

“Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture From Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism” gives both the questions and answers. It delves beyond listing influences by giving cursory history lessons and outlining the original phenomena that spawned their derivative culture stateside. The sterner stuff of architecture, literature and art makes an appearance, but “EST” mainly grounds cultural influence in the pop realm: Five pages sum up fundamental tenets of Eastern thought, Confucianism, Taoism and Hinduism, while Japanese anime takes 12 eye-popping pages.

Magazine publisher Jeff Yang, along with Dina Gan, Terry Hong and the staff of the New York-based national publication by Asian Americans for Asian Americans, authored this A-Z book in response to queries on underground movements like Hong Kong cinema that were bubbling up to the mainstream. The pop emphasis comes from their bias as young people.

“I think one of the meta-phenomena is that youth cultures _ things that young people do and embrace _ are converging, just like in a lot of ways, communities and identities are converging,” says Yang. “Young people in Tokyo and Taipei are getting wired into what young people in Los Angeles and New York are doing. What’s hot in Hong Kong will be big in San Francisco. Look at the most recent phenomenon, Tamagotchi,” the battery-powered pet-on-a-rope.

The formidable guide works as a valuable reference, though naturally such ventures tend to be both laudable and risky. Aside from plain errors (the printer omitted the table of contents from early copies) or carelessness (the dim sum “cheung fun” is erroneously called “haw fun,” the wide rice noodles), “EST” makes judgment calls that won’t sit well with all readers. It falls into the Western misconception of pigeonholing martial arts under “games and leisure” despite its medical, philosophical and military role in history. Cinema before 1980 gets passed over. The Cantopop music section profiles pivotal singers but neglects its own citation of the Father of Cantopop, who also helped to resuscitate Hong Kong cinema.

It also avoids the downside, mostly due to space limits. The Hello Kitty feminist theory had to be cut (mouthless female Sanrio characters symbolize women should have no say). The lengthy anime overview omits a word on disturbing graphic violence towards women and occasional pedophilia.

The unfettered smart-aleckiness that works in a disposable magazine needs restraint here and there, like the comments on daruma, the Japanese good luck charm (“fortune and happiness have been staked on stupider things in the past”) and on fans (the Chinese accepted the Japanese variations “with a certain amount of disgruntlement at having been outdone by their island cousins yet again”).

An us/them mentality sometimes creeps in this guide meant for Asians and non- Asians, like the remark that most Westerners would be surprised to hear China believed itself to be the center of the cosmos since “that’s a position Westerners tend to reserve for themselves.” Come on, jingoism of all different colors vies for center stage. The smugness needs at least more subtlety.

The crowded layout and color backgrounds make for strained reading, as does its confusing organization. Still, the authors have mapped out a fascinating, entertaining territory where the cultural boundaries are constantly shifting.

“Our intent was never to create a canon, that this is the authoritative guide to everything Asian,” Yang points out. “We didn’t say this is a comprehensive guide because it can’t be. It’s organic.” Check this organism out, which also has another life force growing on the web at www.channela.com/a&e/EST.

(c) 1997, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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