Wearing Asian American Culture On Our (Short-) Sleeves

Ryan Suda, owner of Torrance-based Asian American t-shirt company Blacklava. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

"I SPEAK ENGLISH."

"GOOD ASIAN DRIVER."

"I SUCK AT MATH."

"I WILL NOT LOVE YOU LONG TIME."

These are all satirical phrases boldly emblazoned on t-shirts made by Torrance-based clothing company Blacklava, popular in the community for its designs -- be they social-conscience heavy or light-hearted alike -- which convey a decidedly Asian American perspective.

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The shirts debunk stereotypes, respond to incidents of racism, celebrate Asian American icons, and parody contemporary corporate imagery with ethnic-specific references -- sometimes all on the same shirt. And people of Asian descent (even those of non-Asian descent as well) -- generally teens to fortysomethings -- wear Blacklava gear as a form of cultural expression and pride.

The company's owner, Ryan Suda, originally founded the company 20 years ago as a Hawaiian-inspired (hence the name) surfwear company which he describes as having "failed miserably." But Suda, an L.A.-born, Torrance-bred Japanese American who majored in Business Finance at Cal State Fullerton at the time, eventually had a life-changing experience that also took his apparel business to a new direction.

"I took an Asian American studies class -- the first one offered at Cal State Fullerton. I learned more about the way people were treated," said Suda. "We were shown a poem called 'Asian Is Not Oriental'...Someone suggested to me, 'You should put that on a shirt.'"

The poem, written anonymously by a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student in the early 1990s, resonated with Suda, who agreed with the poem's sentiment that the term "Oriental" -- which was coined by white culture -- was somehow offensive.

"'Oriental' is either a type of food or a rug," said Suda.

Suda, 41, released his "Asian Is Not Oriental" shirt in 1996, a time when the Internet was still in its mainstream infancy, and social media had not yet existed. But he serendipitiously found a way to sell them.

He was also a member of Hereandnow, an Asian American theatre company that toured around the country and performed primarily on college campuses. Suda wore his shirt onstage and was hounded with inquiries about the shirt at the end of the night. He later sold them at the shows.

"There was no need to make the surf-related shirts anymore after that," Suda added.

Blacklava found its niche, and soon embarked on additional designs, done by either himself or by friends, that referenced issues such as stereotyping and racial categorization. Suda also sold them at various cultural festivals.

In 2002, when clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch sold shirts in their stores that blatantly depicted stereotypical Asian imagery much to the displeasure of the Asian American community, Suda responded with a shirt that parodied the A&F brand logo ("Artful bigotry & Kitsch"). By then, virtual word-of-mouth and websites such as the Angry Asian Man blog, spread word of Blacklava's response design. It was a big hit.

A few years later, Blacklava's "I Will Not Love You Long Time" design, a response to the Vietnamese prostitute's line in the film "Full Metal Jacket" (subsequently sampled by rap group 2 Live Crew in their 1989 song, "Me So Horny") also became a best-seller, particularly by Asian American females expressing their disdain for media-perpetuated sexual stereotypes traditionally pinned on Asian women. A picture of the shirt was the most visited link for a time on the website Digg.com, under the heading, "The Best Asian Girl T-shirt Ever."

"People either get it, or don't get it," Suda said of the messages in his t-shirt designs. "Many times, they just validate people's feelings. When I hear their stories about why they wear the shirts, it reinforces the reason why I do what I do."

And, at times, the shirts provide a forum for social dialogue. One shirt that simply reads, "V. CHIN, (6-19-82)," references Vincent Chin, the Chinese American who was beaten to death 30 years ago by two white men during an anti-Japanese hate incident in Detroit.

"It opens the door to tell the story about Vincent Chin. There's usually no other situation that can create that opportunity."

There are other shirts in the line that aren't nearly as heavy. Icons such as Bruce Lee and Jeremy Lin are celebrated. Cartoonish ninjas and the "Secret Asian Man" make frequent screenprint appearances. And there's a "Got Rice?" shirt that parodies the "Got Milk?" campaign, correct font intact.

The Blacklava shirts have even made their way outside of North America. Suda said he's fulfilled orders from Europe, Australia, and even Asia. When "Glee" star Darren Criss (of mixed Filipino and Irish heritage) was recently spotted wearing Blacklava's "Hapa" t-shirt, it became a must-have item for a number of the TV show's fans in Japan.

"People interpret the shirts based on their experiences. The context of the shirt depends on who is wearing it," Suda said. He recalled one instance of a white person buying an "I Speak English" t-shirt, who elaborated that he advocated an English-only America.

"That's not quite why I designed it like that, but who was I to not to sell him a t-shirt? He's the one accountable for the message on his shirt."

Two decades after starting his company, after being inspired by academia, Suda is frequently invited to do college lectures or gets interviewed for someone's thesis. And though there are myriad t-shirt businesses that do similar shirts for ethnicity-specific markets, there hasn't been any direct competitor when it comes to general Asian American issues and themes.

"There is no competition. But at the same time, I ask myself, 'Why don't I have any competition?'" Suda laughed.

He expressed a desire to eventually go beyond the Asian American theme and employ the Blacklava style towards other issues. Ultimately, Suda said that he wants to create understanding and bring people together through his product.

"It's an artist's intention to create music, make drawings, to express passion, and show what's going on," he said. "T-shirts are my instrument."

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Filipino kid who grew up listening to black music in an Armenian neighborhood where people spoke Spanish and ate Thai food.
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