Banana Magazine was started by Kathleen Tso and Vicki Ho in 2014. Both women work in media and aimed for the print-only magazine to be a place the Asian community could explore what that means in America today. Past issues have explored New York’s Chinatown through the eyes of locals, kawaii lifestyle for Asian men, and examined the sociology and psychology behind why Asian Americans have long taken up the bleach bottle to achieve blonde.
We caught up with Tso and Ho to talk about Banana Magazine and their latest feature, “The Next Generation of Baesians,” which unpacks the current landscape of Asian representation in Hollywood with rising stars Michele Selene Ang from 13 Reasons Why and Daniel Isaac Kim from Billions.
What is Banana Magazine?
Vicki Ho: "It’s rooted in storytelling of today’s contemporary Asian culture. It’s really our way to create a physical platform for Asians — specifically in the creative space — to find an outlet to come together, have a community, and to really use it as a way to tell our story of today’s Asian experience."
Why did you start Banana Magazine?
Kathleen Tso: "We decided to create Banana Magazine when we were looking around us and saw that just in our own network of friends in NYC, we had so many amazingly creative writers, photogs, illustrators, and that there wasn’t a singular place for them. There wasn’t really a strong community either. We were looking at Street Etiquette, who is based out in NYC and really rally the Black creative community together, and we thought Asian Americans on the East Coast were participating in that because they didn’t really have a place to go. So we were truly inspired by them, and wanted to make sure that Asian creatives had something similar where we had a platform to showcase these voices, as well as something where we can host them and feel some sort of community — whether it’s through an event or some storytelling."
Those in the Asian American community know what the term “banana” means. But who is allowed to use that term?
KT: "Banana is an insider term within the East Asian community. We like it because it is insider, and there is some sentimental value to that with both of us: We were both called it by our parents. I personally was never truly offended by it. When my parents called me that, it felt the same as being called an ABC, which stands for 'American-born Chinese.' I was called both of those things. I personally think that the term “banana” should only be used by the insider community, I don’t know if it’s super appropriate for someone outside of our community to call someone a 'banana,' because I don’t think they truly understand it."
VH: "I was also called a 'banana' by peers and family members growing up. For me, it was cool that even anyone noticed me and had a term that wasn’t as negative as some other terms. We’ve had a lot of back and forth with the name in terms of the perception of it, especially knowing that it is mostly an East Asian term. However, we interpret the term 'banana' as the fact that all of us collectively are living in both an Eastern culture and a Western culture. 'Banana' — being yellow on the outside and white on the inside — is to reflect that duality and not specifically about skin colour."
What are you hoping to contribute to Asian identity with the magazine?
KT: "We just wanted to put it down on paper. Having a platform that we can curate all Asian creative contributors and the people we are featuring is step one. It’s physically recorded in this time in history and to have a conversation, too."
VH: "I think it’s really just to open up any kind of dialogue through our platform — whether it’s through the magazine or through our newsletter or through our Instagram. Those are just all ways for people to collectively be able to find a place to identify as Asian or Asian American."
"For us, anyone who is Asian is a baesian."
It seems that a lot of Asians who write about their experience are coming from the perspective that they’re one of the only Asians in their town or community, but that’s not the case for everyone.
VH: "A lot of our contributors have that shared experience in growing up as the only Asian in their neighbourhood or in their school. For me, it was definitely the opposite in that I grew up in a heavily Asian-oriented community, and my high school was mostly of Asian decent as well.
"However, when it comes to your overall experience in America, you are still seen and treated differently as an Asian whether you grew up in a Asian-dominant neighbourhood or not. So it’s really more about our shared experience going through a Western culture and how that affects you as someone of Asian heritage. So for me, because of how I physically looked and how I was perceived because of that, a lot of my experiences were actually shared experiences with Kathleen, even though she grew up in a mostly white town."
What is a “baesian”? Do you think owning this term is helping to break stereotypes, or is it just becoming another stereotype?
VH: "The literal term of it is the combination of two words: 'bae' plus 'Asian,' which equals 'baesian.' We started using that term [around] two years ago. It was something that we really liked just because it was playful. More and more as we started using that term within our print issue, on Instagram, and how we talk to our supporters and people who contribute to the magazine. It turned into a word that was really used for people to feel empowered, for people to be Asian in today’s contemporary world. The way we like to use 'baesian' is completely the same as the word 'Asian' or 'azn,' but it’s our way in today’s world to identify with and a way of empowerment and inclusiveness. For us, anyone who is Asian is a baesian."
KT: "For me, it’s just a word used for empowerment. It’s not a specific thing you can point to in which other stereotypes of Asians are. I don’t know if an 'ABG' (Asian Baby Girl) is a stereotype because it’s a specific type of characteristic that somebody can hold, whereas 'baesian' is a term of endearment and empowerment. Hopefully, any sort of celebration of our heritage as a whole is breaking stereotypes because we’re being more vocal. We’re putting more people in the limelight that are three-dimensional and have different characteristics than what you might have seen in the past, and that can help to chip away at stereotypes. I don’t know if it’s a groundbreaking thing where we’re gonna see results immediately, but just the conversation of it all helps."
Why did you decide to feature Michele Selene Ang and Daniel K. Isaac for “The Next Generation of Baesians” shoot?
KT: "We sat down over dim sum between all of the contributors on the story and bounced around different names of Asian heritage actors and actresses that we were admiring at the moment. Unfortunately, the list was short because we realised the number of people of Asian descent in Hollywood is very few and far between. When there is, it’s like “that one Asian guy in that one show.” Michele and Daniel were both brought up by our two major contributors on that story: Diana Tsui, who styled the shoots, and An Rong Xu, who was the photographer, and that’s how we came to those two and they are both New York-based."
Both Michele and Daniel play roles that were not originally written for Asian characters. Do you think that their roles and success within Hollywood should be deemed as progress?
KT: "We went back and forth about that, because in one way, it is progress because we see a role that [had] an open casting to all races, we saw a person of Asian decent land the role which is really great. That is progress in the sense that her talent showed and they were open to different races playing that character. When Michele was cast, the writers started to craft a larger backstory for her to fit her race and to bring dimensionality to her background, which is great. So there were starting to bring dimensionality to her background.
"But we think that there should be more Asian-specific stories being written to tell the vast number of stories of our background and our history. I think both need to happen in some way for us to continually get cast, to show that talent but also for specifically Asian stories to be told. Michele and Daniel were both saying that this needs to happen in industry, so it can’t just be actors. We need more Asian directors, Asian writers, just [more] Asian people in the industry in general, so these stories can come [about] a little easier."
This interview has been edited for length and style.