As an Asian American, I rarely get to see reflections of myself in popular media. When I'm lucky enough to spot a face similar to mine in a movie or a magazine, they're often relegated to stereotypical characterizations like the mathlete or the martial artist. However, two fashion insiders are working hard to change that with a new magazine called Banana that highlights the duality of experience that comes with being of Asian descent and growing up in America.
Kathleen Tso and Vicki Ho started working on Banana in 2014. The name is a sardonic nod to a term used to describe the new generation of Asians in the United States who've assimilated to American culture. One of the key inspiration for the magazine came from Eddie Huang's memoir and recent television show, Fresh Off the Boat,which has helped broaden the representation of Asians in media beyond karate chops and Uncle Chans. Although Tso was raised in Texas and Ho grew up in New York, they both related to Huang's stories of having immigrant parents and developing an identity born out of his American and Asian experiences.
Tso and Ho called on their friends to help put together the publication that would take the fight Huang is waging on prime-time TV to the realm of fashion and culture magazines. They hosted monthly meet ups over dim sum with their friends and colleagues, where they would throw around ideas and concepts. Ultimately, they came up with a sharp mix of fashion editorials, recipes, personal essays, and features showcasing the lives of Asian American cool kids.
Designed by the founders, the debut issue's shiny purple cover and elegant editorial pages are something that anyone would be proud to have on their coffee table. But, most importantly, it's a stepping stone towards the duo's goal of building a community around their content. The inaugural issue boasts stories on the hypersexualization of kawaii culture, Ramen recipes, and a photo essay on how to go blonde when you're Asian.
I recently sat down with Ho and Tso to find out more about Banana and how it's creating an outlet for young Asians to express themselves and tell their stories.
VICE: What inspired you to start Banana?
Kathleen Tso: Basically, we had this huge community of creative Asians who were just friends, and that lead to us noticing a lack of a greater community or even a platform for all of us to really showcase us. So we brought everyone together to develop a platform [we could use to] celebrate [the Asian American experience] and work with our friends.
How did you choose what to include in the first issue?
Tso: For the first issue, we were relying a lot on our own inner community that we had in New York. So a lot of it was friends and friends of friends. We held these dim sum meetings where we invited a few of our friends that we admired and picked their brains on whether the magazine was something they wanted to see exist and also the kind of content that could shape it. Basically, it became kind of word of mouth. It became all of our homies writing for us and taking pictures for us.
Why did you choose the name Banana?
Tso: We came up with the idea before we came up with name. I was just chatting with my sister one day and I told her we didn't know what to name it. She jokingly said, "Why don't you name it Banana?" That was something that my parents called us growing up because they raised us in an all white suburban town. She suggested it and I ended up loving it.
How did you develop the magazine's sleek design?
Tso: Initially, we just thought about what magazines we really liked the look and feel of. I gravitated to these skate culture magazines that were just our tipping off point. But, the imagery was really important to us, so that dictated how we designed it, which was pretty simple.
Do you have a favorite story in this issue?
Ho: The first story we did was "Bottle Blondes," which is what really drove us to follow through with this idea. It had the most people involved and we shot so many different models. Their support and opinions that we should keep going with the magazine was a catalyst for us.
Tso: I think another one that we love is the little vignette of growing up with a Taiwanese grandmother in a suburban city. Growing up can be very alienating when you have such a different household than all of your friends at school, so that one was really powerful.
You mentioned your Asian American families, how did they respond to your idea?
Ho: For me, my parents were always very strict, but they were very liberal when it came to what I wanted to do with my career. I feel like they never saw me as really appreciating my culture. Every Asian family who has immigrated here has such a strong, and often sad and hardworking way of how they got to America. I feel like they didn't know how much I appreciated them for it and the culture they grew up in until they saw the magazine.
Tso: I think with me, in terms of my immediate family, it was hard because I grew up in an all white city. I think it scared my dad growing up that I wouldn't identify with Chinese or Taiwanese culture, and that I was trying to shed it. Maybe at a point, I was, because it's so hard when you are a kid because you don't want to be different. I think finally with this product and me reflecting and celebrating my heritage, he finally understood that I actually cared.
What role did Eddie Huang's work play in developing the concept?
Ho: We recently read his book Fresh Off the Boat. Everything he speaks about is very aligned with our beliefs and Asian American culture and this new wave of creative Asians. He is the prime example of going outside of the regular boundaries and doing your own thing on your own terms.
Tso: There was a quote I heard from him, where he said something like "during the time I was growing up there was never anything made specifically for who I am, an Asian American." I feel like with him and his book, it showed people that we are coming to place where there are things made for Asian Americans. Hopefully with Banana, we are adding to that list.
Visit the Banana magazine's website for stockists.
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