In the summer of 2010, Andrew and David Fung, two brothers from Seattle, came down to Monterey Park to visit their cousin. Here, in the San Gabriel Valley (SGV), they discovered what they've termed the "626 Lifestyle," a nod to their area code, aka the "Boba Life," referring to that milk tea and tapioca ball concoction served out of countless SGV mini-malls. It was a bit of revelation for the Fungs: "it was really unique," says David, 25. "People spent 7-8 hours at these cafes and did the same thing again the next day. That was unbelievable. In Seattle, there are definitely Asians but we had to eat happy hour at Applebee's like everyone else."
Thusly inspired, the brothers ended up recording a tribute rap song that summer: "J.J. Hong Kong Cafe," named after the popular, late-night Garvey Ave. eatery. Set over the track of Jay-Z's "Run This Town," Andrew and David rain praises on the ethnic and culinary mix of the region: "you can eat tortas, or you can get ramen/sushi, hot pot, Shakas for Hawaiian." The video went viral through food-crazed social media channels, giving these aspiring entertainers a boost in visibility. They were already considering careers in comedy; as Andrew, age 23, jokes, "we would make for some lousy doctors, lawyers and accountants." In the spring of 2011, they left Seattle and moved down to L.A., eventually settling (where else?) in Monterey Park.
The San Gabriel Valley has likely never seen boosters this publicly impassioned for the region.1 Last summer, they created two more tribute videos: "Summertime in the SGV," and "Colima Road," the latter of which focuses on eastern SGV cities like Rowland Heights. Pulling it all together is the recently released "626." It's partially a sequel to "J.J. Hong Kong Cafe" (but with higher production values), but like their earlier songs, "626" is the latest of the Fung Bros.' clarion calls designed to inspire pride in a region that hasn't always mapped onto the cultural landscape of "important" L.A. neighborhoods. Andrew reveals a little of this chip on his shoulder when he rhymes in the song: "Hollywood doesn't even know we exist/like it's a mystical land/full of immigrants."
Ironically, as someone who grew up in the 626 in the 1980s - except then, it was still 818 area code territory - me and my friends' idea of a fun excursion meant driving out to Hollywood and cruising Sunset. It's not that we were embarrassed to be from the SGV but we also didn't associate living here with anything resembling a "lifestyle," let alone something worthy making viral rap videos about (not that we had those back in the '80s anyway). Our corner of L.A. never felt on par with the prominence of other neighborhoods, be they good (beach-blessed Santa Monica), bad (vilified South Central) or ugly (the entire San Fernando Valley). Living in the "other Valley" meant dwelling on the fringe of mainstream awareness and it's hard not to correlate that with the historical marginalization of the thousands of Chinese and other Asian Americans who've settled here.
Perhaps it helps that the Fung Bros., as out-of-towners, didn't grow up with this local baggage and instead, could recognize the uniqueness of the local culture. David points to the phenomenon of, "kids running around with DSLR [cameras], snapping shots of Chinese sausage rice. I didn't create that lifestyle; I just gave them a push to own it." To wit, a few graduates of Alhambra's Mark Keppel High School created a tumblr page - fuckyeah626.tumblr.com - that uses the Fung Bros.' "626" as their background music and fill the site with photos of drinks and food taken from across the region.
If there really is a "626 movement" afoot, then this is precisely how it would have to happen: a pair of entertainers, using hip-hop as their lingua franca, make use of digital production and distribution tools to create songs and videos celebrating their neighborhood. In turn, others in that neighborhood are picking up the baton and running with it, also via digital social media. The do-it-yourself element is key, especially in a part of town that doesn't enjoy anywhere near the kind of media industry saturation as Mid-City or the Westside. And while the SGV draws its share of the creative class, especially because of its strong school districts, it still doesn't compare to the San Fernando Valley as the traditional home of media elite or their work force.
Digital tools can't instantly level the playing field; the SGV won't attain the iconic status of a Venice or Beverly Hills just because a video goes viral. But what the region has often lacked in the past is what social scientists would call "cultural capital" which, in this context, is a fancier way of saying a "cool factor." As the Fung Bros. would stress, they're not trying to make the 626 cool; they're merely highlighting and bringing attention to what's already cool about it: namely its food/drink scene.
It's not a coincidence that this has been the focal point of their songs so far: we're likely living through a golden age where food knowledge has become valuable cultural capital. Knowing where to find a great hole-in-the-wall dish has become as impressive as bragging about a $500 tasting menu, maybe even more so. Sites like Chowhound and Yelp, to say nothing about the countless Tumblr and Facebook posts devoted to eating, are now part of how we break our daily bread (amongt other dishes). David Fung thinks that Asian Americans, especially, are well-positioned to capitalize on this trend given how their attitude toward food is partially inherited: "my parents could probably about food for an hour. The way to diss each other in their church group is to diss each other's cooking."
However, the most important point comes back to how the generation of Asian Americans that the Fung Bros. come out of - and are seeking to locally represent - are hungry for a stake in a changing cultural order. "You gotta be proud of who you are," says David. "That's why I so deeply identify with the struggle to find something in your culture that is pop culturally relevant in America." It's notable, for example, that "626" opens with a dedication to the Knicks breakout point guard this season, Jeremy Lin for, "[empowering] us to keep following our dreams." The Fung Bros. shot the video weeks before "Linsanity" but by coincidence, "626" was completed mere days after Lin's rise to national fame and if ever there were a potent symbol of Chinese/Taiwanese pride this year, it'd be Lin.
However, Lin plays for New York and is from the Bay Area; if the Fungs had a more local symbol to champion, it'd probably be the humble boba - we are talking about tapioca balls, remember. The "boba life" was part of their initial inspiration and as tea lounges continue to spread across the SGV, the Fung Bros. are happy to help lead the boba brigade in calling attention to this unique slice of Southern California living.
They aren't alone either. David insists that a local tea lounge chain, Half and Half, is on the verge of becoming the next big thing and he shares, "there's this new class of girls and guys who are boba connoisseurs, all they do is go to these places and analyze their boba and Half and Half is their favorite." Ah, only in the 626.
The Fung Bros. Top 5 SGV Cheap Eats
1The one exception would likely be restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, originally of the LA Weekly, now at the Los Angeles Times. Gold was likely the first mainstream critic in America to champion the hole-in-the-wall eateries of the SGV and for many younger food fanatics, Gold's Counter Intelligence column has been the Bible to finding places to eat in the area.