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Eternal DragonzImage courtesy of Eternal Dragonz

The Asian art collective celebrating self-love

Eternal Dragonz are a collective of Western-based, Asian-descended musicians and visual artists channelling their ‘AZN pride’

While the portrayal of eastern and southeastern Asian people in Western media has always been rife with racial stereotyping, the arrival of the internet brought with it the means to develop a more nuanced depiction of Asian identity – something that was captured in its own way by ‘AZN Pride’. AZN Pride was an internet phenomenon that spread during the late 1990s and early 00s defined by flashy, .gif-heavy pages on Xanga, communications on using toggled capitalisation (sample greeting: “wAzZuP bB aNgEl”), and hi-tech trance music usually listened to in kitted-out Subaru Imprezas.

Like any cultural phenomenon, AZN Pride eventually fizzled out, but its aesthetic stuck with Jason Wong, an L.A.-based artist involved in the city’s underground club scene through his work with Fade to Mind, the forward-thinking party/record label that has nurtured talents like R&B singer Kelela and DJ Total Freedom. As a middle schooler in the early 2000s, Wong had designed Angelfire pages to display personal photos and sparkly .gifs, listened to legendary Asian-descended Eurotrance producer DJ Mystik, and laughed knowingly at the viral “Got Rice?” image. Using AZN Pride as a starting point, he gathered other like-minded artists of Asian descent to form a collective to promote Asian creativity.

The result is Eternal Dragonz, or ‘EDZ’, a group of pan-Asian musicians, DJs, vocalists, visual artists, and writers mostly based in the West. Joining Wong in the collective are New York-based Eric Hu (who, like Wong, grew up in the heavily Chinese-populated San Gabriel Valley suburb of L.A.), Jenny Yoo (who grew up in Koreatown), Lucy Chinen (a writer and editor from South Pasadena), and Justin Tam (a producer and publicist from Sydney, Australia). Their latest release – by Kuala Lumpur-based producer Moslem Priest – is a good indicator of the EDZ sound: dank and clubby, with hints of pop music pouring through.

“Eternal Dragonz is about that element of discovery,” Wong says when we meet up with the L.A.-based members of Eternal Dragonz for tacos in L.A.’s Echo Park. “Whether or not we adapted it as part of our identity when we were younger or not, we understood or were aware of this digital diaspora community that celebrated ‘Asian-ness’ and Asian self-love.”

Eternal Dragonz’ earliest days can be traced back to when Wong met Yoo at a Fade to Mind party. The two started to notice the influence of AZN Pride in unexpected places: the BBC AZN Network show on the internet station Radar Radio in London, Raymond Tseng’s 2005 photobook I See the Future in My Past covering Asian gangs in the San Gabriel Valley; and the music of V Kim, an Australian-Asian producer that dabbles in K-pop edits and NYC ballroom beats. Wong and Yoo began to reach out to creative people who they identified as having a connection to AZN Pride. They messaged Justin Tam (aka V Kim), who had simultaneously been putting together a collective of producers and DJs of Asian descent. The trio immediately bonded, and soon the connection blossomed into discussions to create an international collective of Asian artists.

Eternal Dragonz aren’t so much resurrecting AZN Pride but using it as a beacon. Hu and Chinen both grew up with AZN Pride as a part of their identity, and were drawn to EDZ through this connection. In fact, Hu – today a faculty member at New York’s School of Visual Arts – got his start through AZN Pride, designing a primitive website called ‘AZN Concepts’. “That was the thing: you had all these crazy names that were meaningless in context, but they sounded authoritative,” he says over Skype from New York, “And it was just animated .gifs of Japanese import cars, a shitty animated .gif graphic of a DJ scratching, shitty review writing, techno aesthetics. I was so proud of it.”

But Chinen, who along with Yoo is preparing a publication based around Asian-American aesthetics (the first issue being ‘internet-archaeological’ themed) remembers a problematic subculture. For one, AZN Pride aesthetics had been co-opted by Asian gangs in Southern California – one gang was even called Asian Pride. And there were accusations of cultural appropriation from black culture – everything from wearing baggy jeans and other hip hop-derived clothing to rampant use of the N-word on AZN Pride internet poetry and songs. Moreover, Chinen says AZN Pride felt like a dam in her personal flow towards assimilation. “Looking back at it now, I remember at a certain point thinking that it was stupid,” she says, biting into a taco as her pet chihuahua looks on, “And combined with that thinking it was uncultured, and not educated, and too Asian. When you have immigrant parents, and you decide to become a creative person at a certain age, you inadvertently also decide to be ‘more American’, and AZN Pride was a super gangster-y identity. So looking at it now is looking back at that experience of trying to be ‘less Asian.’”

These struggles with AZN Pride’s place in history is one reason that Eternal Dragonz aren’t interested in dredging up the past so much as it is using it as a guide. “We’re not trying to resurrect AZN Pride,” says Tam. “It’s a code. For example, Lawrence Lek, a graphic designer from London, just reached out on Twitter like, ‘I understand what you’re doing.’ But of course we’re getting people the other way saying, ‘This is embarrassing. We should never bring it up again.’”

“Looking at (AZN Pride) now is looking back at that experience of trying to be ‘less Asian’” — Lucy Chinen, Eternal Dragonz

Hu agrees that, at its best, the 90s movement merely works as a marketing strategy for the collective – a way to begin a discussion that can be steered towards more serious consideration of an Asian creative identity. “When we mention the words ‘AZN Pride’, that should stop anyone who was a part of that movement in its tracks, and it would conjure up these strong feelings,” he says. “Some people might be like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so funny,’ or some people might be like, ‘Dude are you kidding?’ We’re not recreating AZN Pride, but we’re putting up a flag, and if this speaks to you in any way, this flag is asking you to come closer and to engage with us.”

The dragon imagery was important to Wong, who felt it necessary to reclaim some of the appropriated images that were being disseminated via white artists and designers. The group had noticed a trend in appropriated ‘Asian’ aesthetics in underground music and art scenes – health goth fashion labels, for instance, would put Japanese text on anything, while K-pop’s dazzling sound and music videos were finding an audience in Western countries. “Our racial background gives us certain liberties to investigate,” Wong says. “I also feel like it’s important to re-appropriate certain things, because the internet has brought forth things like vaporwave and seapunk. This internet futurism fetishizes the austere Asian mystique, the mystique of the Orient, Asian women as avatars. We don’t really have the answers of if it’s acceptable or okay to use certain things yet, but as a collective we’re trying to investigate those components and output something that feels right to us on our own terms.”

That output will range from the aforementioned publication to art exhibitions to a perfume and fashion to a series of mixes and music releases curated by Tam. Eternal Dragonz’ first release dropped in February: Karaoke Vol. 1, a four-track mix featuring Strict Face from Australia, Organ Tapes from the U.K., and Moslem Priest and Mysteriz from Malaysia. And they just dropped a brilliant mix during a takeover of Fade to Mind’s show on London radio station Rinse FM. Tam refers to NON Records, who are working with African diasporic music producers, and N.A.A.F.I., a collective focusing on Mexican and Latin American dance music, as groups who are similarly capturing the music of a certain diaspora. “We’re also like (pan-cultural DJ collective) Future Brown in a way as well, capturing those cultural moments that are spread out,” Tam says.

“This internet futurism fetishizes the austere Asian mystique, the mystique of the Orient, Asian women as avatars” — Jason Wong, Eternal Dragonz

Tam says that by allowing the artists to flourish under the Eternal Dragonz umbrella, it takes away some of the pressure of being an Asian-American, Asian-Australian, or Asian-British artist working within a music industry structured against people of Asian descent. “I take the A&R lead in Eternal Dragonz,” says Tam. “I’m trying to find musicians like scintii. Or Stella Chung – she worked for (London-based record label) Young Turks. She’s a Taiwanese native, but her music ended up sounding a lot like FKA twigs. Moslem Priest from Malaysia sounds a lot like the Night Slugs guys. There’s always a kind of Western sound that we’re trying to emulate. I guess my role is to bring these artists back and say, ‘Well, you could try and compete against these Western artists, but you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re playing in a game and a world that you don’t exist in.’ In the same way that a Western artist might try to make K-pop, they may or may not succeed.”

Where Eternal Dragonz becomes most critical is when it’s pointing out the nuances in the discussion of Asian identity, and opening up space for a pan-Asian creative to work in a safe space, built to fight against any sort of preconception or stereotyping beyond the artwork itself. As evidenced by the ruthlessly crass jokes told multiple times at the expense of Asian-Americans at year’s Academy Awards, Asian-Americans still find themselves at the butt of the joke. “I felt like the Oscars was definitely a loss in the dialogue that they generated about equality and representation,” says Wong, “It reinforced the argument of: ‘We’re not offending you, because we’re only saying good qualities.’ Well, a model minority stereotype is just as detrimental as something that is overtly offensive as well. It’s subtler, and it brings about this concept that is really troubling: that we’re just seen as this diligent, uncreative, robotic people. Maybe we don’t have enough representation so we can’t vocalize it as excessively as most other races can.”

“The Oscars was definitely a loss in the dialogue that they generated about equality and representation... a model minority stereotype is just as detrimental as something that is overtly offensive” — Jason Wong, Eternal Dragonz

Beyond being simply a space, Eternal Dragonz’ real strength is that each of the members is acutely talented in their respective fields. “There are some outlets for the creative Asian community to showcase their stuff, but for some reason I still couldn’t connect to them,” says Yoo, an artist who has worked at K-pop conglomerate SM Entertainment, and currently holds a creative position at LINE, a Korean-owned messaging app popular in Japan. “I almost had to leave the Asian community to find people I could relate to.”

To stand up and represent under the aegis of a collective is both a dangerous and exhilarating thing, and that is not lost on Eternal Dragonz. Though they tarry between sanctioning AZN Pride as an influence and merely adopting it as a mascot, the idea of vastness is shared between the group and its predecessor. AZN Pride was a massive wave of Asian connectedness, a community that stood for itself. Taking it one step further, and putting these creative endeavors into the global marketplace, Eternal Dragonz becomes an inclusively consumable concept, but it’s also tied to something inherently Asian. These ideas and strategies are far too few in the Asian communities of Western countries, making Eternal Dragonz as much a necessity as it is an exciting venture.