This month, Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Christopher Woon’s kinetic and revealing breakdancing documentary, “Among B-Boys,” an exploration of the role of hip-hop culture in the creation of identity in the Hmong-American community. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival describes “Among B-Boys” as;
“A counterstory to fictional Hmong American narratives like Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino“…which explores the intersection of rugged urban b-boyin’; (breakdancing) and the traditional roots of Hmong culture. But instead of the usual generational conflict, “Among B-Boys” unveils a story of the modern and the traditional actually affirming each other, visually weaving between the older generation’s memory of ethnicity and war and the younger generation’s toprocks, footwork, freezes and power-moves. Woon focuses on three breakers – Mpact and Villn of Underground Flow, and Sukie of Velocity/Soul Rivals Crewmdash; who reveal the path towards b-boy cultural citizenship in America, but continually steer us back to their families, history and community. Produced as a short in 2004 and originally focused on the California Central Valley, the feature film follows the expansion of the Hmong community into the Midwest, with its main protagonists now in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Woon took a break from production on his latest documentary, also an exploration of Asian American hip hop culture to discuss the making of “Among B-Boys.”
What brought you to this story? An interest in hip hop, the Hmong community, Asian American stories – or perhaps all of these?
CW: It was all of those things, really. I always loved hip hop growing up, but I always had the burning question: as a 1990’s Asian American kid growing up in the suburbs, can I do hip hop? Hip hop is rooted unquestionably in the Bronx’s Black and Latino communities. I think we all take it for granted these days. It all started to come together when I was getting my undergraduate degree in Asian American studies and wanted to find stories of early unmediated, authentic experiences in hip hop with Asian American communities. I got to learn about the large amounts of Hmong breaking crews in the California Central Valley from my roommates during my fourth year at school. Those roommates were active participants in the hip hop activities of their hometown of Fresno, CA, a city known as one of the largest Hmong communities in the United States. I was looking for stories that no one had ever heard of before, and before starting the film knew very little about the Hmong community. The film took seven years to complete the film from the time I started the initial short film version and needless to say, that seven years was spent learning about their Hmong American hip hop experiences.
“Among B-Boys” has its origins in a short film of the same name, which focused on the Hmong community in California’s Central Valley. Your feature version expanded to include subjects in Oklahoma – how did you research and find your dancers?
CW: Researching and finding my dancers came mostly through a little bit of luck and a lot of persistence. My first contact in the Hmong B-Boy community came from an internet message board where I pretty much asked, “Are there any Hmong B-Boys out there who would be interested in being interviewed for a short documentary film?” I got one reply. But from that one reply I met a B-Boy named Paulny who was on the verge of stopping dancing to work full time. Through following up with Paulny and going with him to B-Boy events, or “jams” as they are known, I was able to meet my main subject Shoua Lee a.k.a. B-Boy Sukie. The more I followed around Sukie at these B-Boy jams, the more I would meet others in the scene.
As for Oklahoma, it was Sukie and his family who decided to move out to Oklahoma in search of work and a lower cost of living. At the time I was debating whether it was feasible for me to continue his story in Oklahoma. In the end I decided to just make that leap of faith, and that really helped propel the overall story arc of the film. That and a whole lot of insistence and support from co-Producer/Director of Photography R.J. Lozada who I constantly bounced story arcs and ideas off of.
But overall the B-Boy community is a lot smaller than you think. To get to know these B-Boys and B-Girls you just have to consistently show up to their events. And it also helps to dance a little, too.
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Much of your film explores the idea of how community is created through hip hop and subculture. This is something which has been an integral part of the history of hip hop; how young folk find identity and bonds through dance, music and graffiti. What did you find as special and particular to the Hmong American community in this respect?
CW: What I found that was special and particular to the Hmong community was that they were the single largest Asian Pacific American group outside of the Filipino American community to my knowledge, to really embrace breaking en masse. This is going to get a little academic sounding, but with the Hmong community I never heard any cultural similarity arguments for why hip hop or performance arts make sense to the Hmong community, at least not in the way that I’ve heard made for the Filipino American community and why it “made sense” or it was “natural” for them to be into breaking. An argument of “authenticity” and ties to the ideas of “blackness” for Filipino Americans in hip hop if you will.
With the Hmong community, I never heard anyone try to make a claim to authenticity in hip hop in my experience, they just did it. They were breaking because it was fun, they were good at it (excelling in “power moves”) and they were breaking for no more reasons than it was what they wanted to do. That was both refreshing and inspiring to hear. And that was one of the biggest things that attracted me to this story and complete this documentary, the lack of pretense in their participation. Many of those early Hmong breakers weren’t really into hip hop culture as a whole (that would come later), but they were into breaking, and that was one positive way they interacted with their peers.
Concurrently there was a lot of gang activity that overlapped with some of the Hmong breakers in the early ’90s, however that was something that was more alluded to than explored in my film.
Many are familiar with the Hmong American community through Clint Eastwood’s film “Gran Torino.” What was the community’s (and your) response to this film, and how can we see your film in relation to it?
CW: The biggest reactions I got from people about Gran Torino were about misrepresentation of culture. There were a lot of things problematic with the story and characters, ranging from Clint Eastwood’s character’s “savior/martyr complex” to the portrayals of masculinity in the Hmong male characters. But the number one voiced concern that stuck in my head was inaccuracy of cultural customs and practices. I would hear “oh we don’t do that…” because I think the number one fear was being misrepresented for someone else in a film about Hmong people. They had a fear of being culturally cleansed and blended into a general “Asian American” representation. Things like bringing food to Clint Eastwood’s character in thanks. To have to hear things all the time like “what’s Hmong” and then being misrepresented in that attempt sounds pretty traumatizing to me. Plus it’s a matter of pride for their heritage.
Just like I’ve taken pride in the fact that I’ve had Hmong audiences afterwards tell me, “I feel like you captured the Hmong youth experience in your film” is pretty humbling. Alongside scholars, students, community members and friends, I’ve received a lot of support from the Hmong community for the film.
After a screening the film last spring at the “Breakin The Law Festival of Urban Movement,” Popmaster Fabel of the legendary Rocksteady Crew said during the Q&A session, “I feel like I just watched my story in this film. I feel like these guys (pointing to B-Boys Villn and M-Pact, two of the dancers in the film) are my family.” That you could be Hmong or a B-Boy/B-Girl and really see a part of your experience in Among B-Boys has been the ultimate compliment to my work.
What are you working on next?
CW: Next I’m working on a documentary that is consistent with a theme I call “hip hop on the margins” and is actually about another dancer named Hung Van Lam and his alter ego, B-Boy Hella Hung. Hella Hung is a superhero trying to battle against an unjust society by destroying social boundaries. He’s also an underdog who has been told by just about everyone he’s incapable, and he’s fighting for the ability to follow his dreams. I’m currently trying to finish post-production for the film and recently learned a lesson in the difficulties of crowd funding. It’s an interesting story that I’m actually a part of, because he was my roommate for 2.5 years in Los Angeles and at the urging of my grad school advisors, wrote my Master’s thesis about the character of Hella Hung.