Journalist and music critic Hua Hsu talks to Ashok Kondabolu about the best and worst of his dad’s record collection and how his fascination with rap beef inspired his upcoming book
February 25, 2016
Early this January, I interviewed journalist and soon-to-be author Hua Hsu in Greenpoint. Hua has written for Artforum, The Atlantic, Grantland, Slate, and The Wire and his work has been anthologized in Best Music Writing and Best African American Essays. His 2012 essay on suburban Chinatowns was a finalist for a James Beard Award for food writing. Hua in an AAWW board member and his first book, A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific, will be published by Harvard University Press in June 2016.
We did the entire interview on a bench at the American Playground, one block from the Greenpoint waterfront, which wasn’t as creepy as it sounds because it was freezing cold and nobody who cared about their small children would bring them outdoors to putz around in a park. Hua can count himself among the ranks of newly responsible parents with the recent birth of his first child, his first bequeathal to his newborn being an “I survived the Great Quake of ’89” T-shirt, ironically of course. Apart from dropping science on Aziz Ansari’s new show “Master of None” and comparing notes on our favorite Chinatowns, we also had an in-depth conversation on pitching for the New Yorker and the eccentric etymology of his forthcoming book, A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure across the Pacific—a smattering of fascinating topics touched upon in our icy-cold interview, straight from the streets.
Ashok Kondabolu: All right. Let’s get this show on the road. We’re sitting here at American Playground in Greenpoint. It is very cold. When people ask you “Where are you from?” in the United States, you assume they’re asking “What are you?” My stock answer is always, “I’m from Queens, but my parents are from South India,” because then I answer both questions at once.
Hua Hsu: I don’t answer the second part. I just say “California.”
I used to do that, and then they’d always be like, “You know what I mean.” It’s like they’re saying, “Stop trying to be smart by answering the question properly.” So I just save them the time. But then I don’t know.
So, where are you from?
I’m from California, but my parents are from Taiwan.
Where in California?
The Bay Area. I mostly grew up in Cupertino, which nobody knew about when I was growing up and now everyone knows where that is. People just think it’s like an Apple factory, which it kind of is, but growing up there, nobody gave a shit about Apple.
You’re one of the most robust writers I’ve talked to without a Wikipedia page. Would you ever make your own? Get an intern to make you one? And if you did have a page on Wikipedia, do you think you would go in and correct any inaccuracies?
I actually used to have one. And some—
Somebody deemed you unworthy?
So, a moderator went in and erased it. And I think the person said, “A freelancer—just like all the others.” But my friends who knew about it would go in and edit it, and refer to my monotonous voice, or my sense of humor, or my favorite jacket, things like that. That’s probably why it actually got taken down, because there was no useful information. It was just a site for jokes about me.
You’re about to be a published author, so I think then you’ll be allowed to have a Wikipedia page. Do you think that’s accurate?
Maybe, yeah. You have a Wikipedia page.
Do you know who put it up?
No. It was some fan of Das Racist who made individual ones.
Have you gone in and changed anything?
I did one thing. I hated the photo of myself that was there, and I changed it—this is probably my first time admitting that. But I could not stand the hat I was wearing in the photo. I thought it reflected poorly on me. I couldn’t deal with it.
I feel that. When I had my page up, someone went to a conference I was at and took photos of everyone there and then did the whole creative commons thing where you couldn’t take the photos down. And I guess you could replace it with your own, but—
You can’t kill the photo.
Yeah, I was not into it. So I was kind of glad when they took the page down. I mean, I guess it’ll be cool when I do get the page back. But with Twitter and other networks, people can figure things out about you. They don’t really need that centralized hub anymore. Hopefully there’s not going to be some weird backstory that needs to be explained on my Wikipedia page. You know, like other theories about—
“Why he did that horrible thing.”
Exactly, yeah. Hopefully not.
Are there any Taiwanese or East Asian hair care products—like with South Asians and neem oil and coconut oil—that you’d like to share?
Uh… no. I mean, I don’t really put that much thought into it. The one Taiwanese cosmetic thing people always know about is Darkie. You know what that is?
The toothpaste, right? It’s Darlie now. It had a Sambo drawing on it for many years.
Yeah, it’s Darlie now. But I used to use that as a kid whenever I would go to Taiwan. Each time I would go, the packaging would be less photorealistic. So the first time I saw it, it had one of those Wall Street Journal drawings. It was way too vivid. And now it’s kind of like a silhouette. But other than that, cutting Asian hair, I’m sorry, is something best left in the hands of other Asian people.
I get it. You’re not telling me the secret Taiwanese hair care products. It’s cool.
Best Chinatown in the USA. Is there even a debate that it’s not New York? Should we just immediately talk about the second best? Or is the DC Chinatown that I went to once secretly amazing? Do you know?
Hold on a sec. Which ones have you been to?
San Francisco, New York, DC, Seattle’s—which was just a fucking three block Chinatown that was actually all right. Maybe there are multiple ones, but I went to the one that was The Chinatown. I guess New York has four or more. I’m not sure.
I like the Manhattan Chinatown. It feels like the least changed part of New York since the first time I’ve been here.
And I like the suburban Chinatowns a lot. I grew up in Cupertino, which is like a suburban Chinatown, and I like that spread out, Asian American strip mall feel. I guess as you get older, and you’re more interested in that kind of thing, that holds more appeal?
When people would show me around Seattle, a lot of the smaller ethnic neighborhoods would have that strip mall vibe. There’s something really nice about it. The separation between the commercial and residential stuff is actually what I don’t like about non-cities in general, but it definitely had its own comfortable vibe.
I went to Floral Park to eat, and it was just so different. You would bug out if you saw a Starbucks there because everything else was just for the people who lived there. San Jose is kind of like that. If you wanted to get donuts, you could also get Indian food at the donut shop. I feel like I sympathize with how Chinese restaurants used to also have to serve spaghetti, because there just isn’t that much space.
I was reading an article you had written about your father and his mixtapes and record collections. Of the records he played often, which ones did you hate the most or were the most embarassing to have to listen to?
He went through an ’80s soft pop phase, so he listened to that Chris de Burgh song “The Lady in Red” a lot.
“Lady in Red?”
Yeah, but you know, it’s a good song. It’s well written.
When it plays, it sticks in your head.
Yeah, I mean it’s… God, it’s stuck in my head right now, just saying the title. And then there’s also this song by Paul Young called “Oh, Girl,” which I actually still don’t like. Oh crap, now that song is stuck in my head, too. But usually he’d just be listening to ’60s music. He had this weird Metallica phase, which was very strange.
I don’t think I had the taste to actually dislike anything. I was just like, “Oh, this is just what we’re listening to.” I don’t think I listened to any music at the time. That was what he did. It wasn’t until I started listening to music that I would have my own opinion.
But my dad lived in Taiwan for a bit, so whenever he would come back, he’d set up a VCR and tape like 40 hours of MTV. And when he went back, and he’d have nothing to do because he had no family there, he would just watch MTV. He would edit it down to his favorite songs, and then he’d come back and find them. I think he would just read Rolling Stone or watch MTV, and he would really love a song by an artist, but he would not know anything else about them.
My dad worked at a hospital in Flushing, Queens, and one day he brought home this white cassette tape that had, I think, six or eight songs on it. The only ones I remember are “Lean on Me”—the ’80s “Lean on Me”—and Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” My brother and I would listen to those songs, sometimes 10 times a day, and one day in 1992 or 1993, my brother, who was 10 or 11 at the time, had show-and-tell. So he brought in the tape to play for the kids, and everybody laughed at him because everybody was listening to Kriss Kross at that time. And he was forced to take off Eddie Money “Take Me Home Tonight.” At least I think he told me that happened. I may have made that up. All the kids made fun of him. It was like a vacuum when we were listening to this tape.
Yeah, and your dad didn’t know that he was playing oldies, too. But because my dad was so into music, I didn’t give a shit about music. I just figured that’s what adults were into.
When I was in elementary school, I had this teacher who was really into that Billy Ocean song, “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car”. You know that song? And so she made us, the whole class, sing it as a choir. It wasn’t a choir class. She just wanted us to do it. And so I think that was one of the first pieces of music I bought because I was trying to do well in my work. So I’m like “Oh, we have to go buy this Billy Ocean single.”
So we had Apu, this guy in a Sprint commercial, Indiana Jones monkey brains. A little later, thankfully, we had Ajay Naidu in “Office Space.” And now it’s been immortalized cause of Aziz Ansari—the Aziz episode where, if you’ve seen the show, he talks about “Short Circuit 2.” So who were your guys? I know there’s the “Sixteen Candles” guy who got shit on a lot, but I’ve never actually seen any John Hughes movies.
I hadn’t seen that until, I think, after college. I knew that there was this reference, and that I either made or was victimized by the joke, but I never saw the movie for some reason. Other than that, trying to think—
I’m also drawing a blank. Especially in term of any positive or even neutral references—not that I actively sought out people who looked like me on television or whatever.
But, now I would be able to do it easily.
Now, we have like seven guys.
I know! Now that there are so many, you can deny some of them. You know what I mean, like now—
Yeah, like Mindy Kaling for instance, who I didn’t care for from the start.
Like Dr. Ken… I don’t need to feel in any way about Dr. Ken.
In college someone made this short film that I really hope exists on YouTube. It was basically a supercut—I didn’t know what a supercut was at the time—of every time someone on “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” or other sitcoms would be eating Chinese food out of one of those white boxes or getting delivery. It was the best thing that I’d ever seen. I mean, maybe I dreamed it and it didn’t happen and I hope someone does it, but I feel like the main characters were just the delivery guys.
My friend Ed Park and I briefly had this zine we were making called “Failed Asian American Sitcom Treatments.” It was just jokes and puns involving Asian names. But while I was doing that, I came up with a list of everyone I could think of. So there was Ming-Na Wen.
Yeah, she was in “The Single Guy.”
That’s right. I can’t believe you pulled “Single Guy,” wow. There was an Asian guy on “Barney Miller.” There’s Margaret Cho on her short lived “All American Girl.” I’m sure there’s way more that I’m forgetting, but they’re always just character actors.
Right, nobody that you could remember actively giving a shit about?
Yeah, maybe I was just so beaten down, but I don’t think I even actively sought them out because it just seemed so beyond the pale. I just watched “Master of None.” Did you like it?
I liked it more than I thought I would. But I felt like I didn’t need that show. A lot of people were going gaga over it and saying, “Oh, real insights into the immigrant experience,” and I was like, “This is 101 shit.” I talked about it when I was 11.
Yeah, I thought it was one of those moments, like with “Fresh Off the Boat,” where I watch it and I kind of have my own resolved feelings about this stuff. But it’s really cool that they’re doing it. I mean, you grew up in Queens. And Cupertino is now practically an annex of Asia, so I think we just weren’t confronted with stuff in the same way, or maybe came into thinking about these things at an earlier time.
I was reading an interview with Kelvin Yu, the Taiwanese American actor who plays Aziz’s friend. And he said something like, “Yeah, I was grinding. I was an actor. And then, one day, I saw a poster with Ryan Reynolds in it and I knew they would never put me in that poster.” And I thought to myself, that’s such a banal thing to say, but I totally feel that. It reminded me of how sometimes you just don’t even know to think that something could be possible. It’s weird that Ryan Reynolds sparked that epiphany, but it’s pretty real.
You write for The New Yorker now. Are you The New Yorker’s music critic? Is that your job title? Culture dude? You’re not, you’re not the Sasha Frere-Jones, right?
No, no. There is no Sasha Frere-Jones. I mean, there is, there is a Sasha Frere-Jones. Sasha Frere-Jones exists as a person, but there is no like-for-like replacement. There are just a few of us who are writing music now.
Your shit’s good. I really like it!
Thanks, I appreciate it. Sasha Frere-Jones did a really great job, and I have no idea how one person was able to cover that much stuff. They’re using me and Kelefa Sanneh and Carrie Battan. I think we’re all interested in different things, so it seems to be working out. But I appreciate that they let me write about other stuff, too. That was my main concern. This might sound weird, but I just don’t think I’m into music as much as I’m into the world that produced that music.
Yeah. I know what you mean. I’ve been doing a rap radio show for a bunch of years and Despot, the guy I do the show with, started hosting full time about two years ago. He’s really good at finding music that no one’s heard. And I started to realize that I don’t want to wade through hours of new rap music every week. I don’t have an interest in doing that anymore at this point in my life. And it would be a disservice for me to be lukewarm about doing that.
Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely there too. I’ll see people’s lists of things they liked at the end of the year, or even just a monthly or a weekly list and I’ll think, “Where do you find all this stuff?” I know that sounds like I’m a hundred years old, but in some ways I am.
What are some of the New Yorker stories you’ve pitched that have been rejected?
That’s a good question. Usually when I pitch things I’m more interested in the context or the world that I think it comes out of. One time there was this guy who had read a lot of my stuff and he was like, “I could never tell if you actually like anything or not.” And that’s not intentional, but I think I’m less interested in convincing a reader that something is great or terrible. If I’m writing about it, it’s because I’m interested in why it exists or why it’s important.
I also think it’s just hard writing about music nowadays because it’s hard to write something that doesn’t just make the reader want to stop reading and go listen to an artist or song on Spotify. Oftentimes those things end up becoming web pieces. I wrote about this Taiwanese singer Teresa Tang and there was no actual peg because she died 20 years ago. I just happened to be in Taiwan. I was going to a museum that her brother created in her honor, which was really depressing and sketchy. But I thought it would be cool to write about her because she was one of the most famous Chinese language singers in the world. That was one thing I ended up writing for the web. It’s also just hard to time things, especially with artists. Most of the stuff I’m interested in is usually by an artist who would just drop an album without warning.
Tell me about your upcoming book A Floating Chinaman, and an etymology of the title.
The book merges my interests in… I’m talking really slowly because I’m so cold, but I’m also too cold to move anywhere. The book merges my fascination with China and America with my fascination with rap beef. It’s basically about these different experts who had really strong opinions about China and America’s future. But it’s also about how they would diss each other in their novels or how they would try and one up each other in order to be ‘the single authority’ on the topic. It’s something I started working on in grad school, but at the time it was just a bunch of separate stories about Americans who were writing about China. It wasn’t until I realized that they all secretly hated each other that I became more interested in thinking about it as a book. When I was in grad school it was around the time of the first 50 Cent album. And, you know, at the time, it just seemed like the way you got on was by dissing whoever was in front of you. And I was researching this woman Pearl Buck who wrote The Good Earth. Have you ever read it?
I read it in 1994 in India, weirdly enough. And I remember liking it, but probably a lot of the weird, racist, orientalist parts didn’t hit my nine-year-old brain.
I mean, it was a real crowd pleasing novel. It was huge.
Yeah, that a nine-year-old kid liked it.
That just proves how universally beloved it could be, you know. So when she wrote it, she instantly became America’s Number One expert on all things Chinese. She won a Nobel Prize. She won all sorts of accolades.
She had grown up in China and her parents were there for some reason.
Her parents were missionaries. She grew up there, she could speak the language, and she would also get into arguments with Chinese scholars, so she didn’t defer just because she was white. She definitely felt like she understood China and Chinese people which, you know, it’s sort of arguable, but you can understand why she felt that way.
Wait, like what do you mean?
She spent 40 years there.
It would be like a rejection of her own life experiences if she didn’t.
Yeah, she definitely made an effort to understand everyday life there. I guess all I’m saying is, she wasn’t like a Rachel Dolezal character, you know. But she was so popular in the 1930s. And meanwhile, I’m looking at Jay-Z, Nas, 50 Cent, everyone wanting to be the king of New York. I kept thinking there had to be someone who hated her, right? There had to be another author who thought she was in the way. And it wasn’t until I found that person that the book actually became interesting to me. Because otherwise, it was just a study of Pearl Buck, who I find to be kind of boring as an author.
And you found that—
There was this really strange Chinese grad student who had been a politician in China but had to leave the country because of political turmoil, so he came to America and became a student. His name was H.T. Tsiang and for some reason, his professors in America encouraged him to write. He wrote poetry, he wrote short stories. He was publishing at the same time as Pearl Buck, but no one would publish any of his books. They were all really weird, all kind of avant-garde in their own way.
One of them was this epistolary romance between a woman and a man. The man goes to America to become a student. Sort of like H.T. Tsiang’s own story. And you never really read his side of the story. You just read her side of the story. But all you get out of it is that he’s gone to America, and he’s gone off the deep end and become this radical communist. Not exactly the kind of books that Americans want to read about.
Tsiang wrote the first ever novel about Chinatown by a Chinese American. But throughout the 1930s, no one would ever publish his books and so he started printing the rejection slips as blurbs on the back of books he published. Or he would end up writing himself into the books as a character, as this beat-down author that nobody paid attention to. He was basically trying to sell his books to the characters in his own novels. The characters in one of his books were actually the cousins of the characters in The Good Earth. And he had another book in which these two women were talking about how Pearl Buck was a whore and all these things. He wrote a novel called A Floating Chinaman that was lost. It was a novel he had imagined of his Chinese worker, going from New York, to London, to Bombay, to Moscow.
A worker in what sense?
Like a coolie, someone who’s searching for work, floating around the world—which would be a fucking crazy book if it existed, right? Someone in the 1930s had written an English language novel about a Chinese worker in India, in Russia, in China, in the United States, and in England. But the book doesn’t seem to exist. So I just stole the title. I thought it sounded kind of cool. And I talk a little bit about what it means that he owned his failure and built an aesthetic out of being so unloved and overlooked.
It seems a little ahead of its time. Very meta.
It is very meta. The other funny thing is that Tsiang ended up almost getting deported. He would write letters to people begging them to help him get a book contract because he thought that would somehow help his case. He didn’t get deported, but a guy, thinking that he was helping him, sent all of Tsiang’s books to Pearl Buck because she was married to a publisher. And when Tsiang found out, he started to freak out. He tried to send her copies of the book with certain pages cut out, lines redacted.
That’s so crazy.
Needless to say, he didn’t get a book contract. He ended up moving to Hollywood, actually, and became an actor. He did a one man show that was something like “Hamlet in the Nude”—it was a dinner show where he played Hamlet, and it was set at a nudist colony. He was a really eccentric guy. He had a part in the original Ocean’s Eleven. I don’t think he says anything, but he just shuffles along on his knees the whole time. And—this is just the ultimate punchline—he played a generic Asian fighter pilot in movies that Pearl Buck had written.
He’s a really fascinating guy.
Okay. Changing things up here. What was that Russell Simmons’s hip hop site?
“360 Hip Hop.”
“360 Hip Hop.” I have a couple of “360 Hip Hop” questions. What was the hip hop internet like back during the time of “360 hip hop”? What time frame was this?
I think it was late 90s?
And what was “360 Hip Hop” would you say?
A lot of my friendships are thanks to the fact that “360 Hip Hop” existed, because a lot of people were able to move to New York and work together. I think it was pretty ahead of its time. I guess now you would say that it was kind of like Grantland or Rookie, you know, something that’s very voice-driven. It can be political; it can be serious; it can be funny. But as a website it wasn’t that functional. It wasn’t very well-designed. It was really hard to find articles, as I remember, but when you found stuff, oftentimes it was quite revelatory. Dave Tompkins wrote this crazy piece about Paul C, Jeff Chang covered the elections. It was a really great staff, but I think it was just way too next for 2000. Then I guess around the time of the first dot-com boom it was just a victim of that, even though it was a really great idea. I mean the name in retrospect wasn’t that good either.
You guys were secret pioneers of hip hop blogging.
Did you ever expect to have a child when you were younger?
Now that I think about it, even when I was younger I kept a lot of shit just to have someone to bequeath it all to someday. My parents moved around when I was younger, so their possessions would winnow down from state to state—
And did they pass on things to you?
No, I would just take stuff. And I just wanted more artifacts of their life in America. I thought it would be interesting to have random programs or souvenirs from places they visited. I would take their clothes or their records or their books. So as a kid, I probably was a pack rat in part because I thought for some reason that a future imaginary child would want this museum of my life—that they would someday ironically wear my “I Survived the Great Quake of ‘89” T-shirt.