“Asian hate is not a new thing for me. I suffered a racial attack when I was 16. A guy came to my house, and held a gun to my head and tried to kill me because I was Asian,” says Guy Tang.
Reality TV star Guy Tang, 39, Zooms into my living from LA to talk about his Netflix series, Bling Empire (think Crazy Rich Asians but IRL), the reality series that was on everyone’s lips this past January that focuses on the lives of wealthy Asian and Asian-American socialites based in the Los Angeles area. It’s just been renewed for a second season. The cast became overnight internet sensations thanks to the drama, glitz and glamour and heartfelt stories they brought to the show. Tang makes an appearance as the fun, bubbly and banterous friend of the main gang, but we are hoping to see more of his personal story in season two.
The conversation has, unsurprisingly, moved to the current wave of Asian hate around the world, in light of the mass shootings at massage parlours in and around Atlanta, Georgia, that killed eight people, six of who were women of Asian descent – and former US president Donald Trump’s hate enticing remarks around the pandemic like, calling Coronavirus “Wuhan virus”, “China plague” and “kung flu”. Tang shares with me his own experiences of this insidious type of racism that over the last 12 months has proven so appalling, it’s spawned a social movement with a trending hashtag #stopasianhate calling out for the end of Asian hate crimes.
“People might ask, why are people racist against Asians, especially as stereotypes say they are so gifted and talented? Well, you have to look at history. You have to look at things like Korean war, the Vietnam war, Hiroshima… A lot of people see Asians, as they see Asia — a threat.” says Tang. “I didn’t fit anywhere near that spectrum of the typical Asian stereotype, I’m not good at math. I don’t know karate. I don’t know, kung-fu, I had bad grades in school, but I was good at art, and playing instruments. I played the cello and did orchestra. Those are the things I make good grades on.” Tang was always creative at heart…
He says his experience growing up in the 80s and 90s, without social media meant that the main sources of people’s world view and entertainment was provided by movies and magazines and that back then, there were real limitations on that representation. “I remember movies that were really popular, like Sixteen Candles, where there was an Asian character called Long Duk Dong, and wow!” That movie was a reflection of how TV represented Asian men in general. “They’re always making fun of Asian people, we were / are constantly caricatured. They give us two glasses, slits for eyes, holding a chopstick with a bowl of rice. They’ll use all these racial slurs. So naturally, I’ve never felt like I fitted in,” says Tang.
Tang was born and raised in Oklahoma, USA with his Vietnamese mother and Chinese father but his family values were still very much traditionally Asian. “In Asian culture we were told: don’t cause trouble, don’t ever draw attention to yourself, be quiet… That’s something my parents always taught me growing up. The problem with that is that it makes everyone else, but you, comfortable, and then we’re uncomfortable in our own skin. We are silenced.” he adds: “So if at any time we decide to challenge that and try to speak up, we are seen as problematic. For the majority of my childhood, I didn’t have a voice.”
From an early age he knew he was ‘different’. After being expelled from high school after having nude photos he took of himself exposed, (“The reason why I took them was because I wanted to see myself as attractive and being a beautiful, sexual being, because I never saw that in the media. I was trying to find something in me that was beautiful”,) he moved into hair styling. “I wanted to do hair because I know I can make an impact on people. It’s about making people feel good about themselves. I love everything about hair. The way it moves is what I gravitate towards.”
Tang wanted to become everything he didn’t see, so that little Asian boys and girls could follow suit and understand they too have the option to become anything they wanted to be. He found that doing hair was more meaningful than he’d expected. “Being a hairstylist gave me so much purpose because it’s not only a mission to make people love themselves, but it also helped me discover more about myself through them.”
Both his Instagram and YouTube account, showcase a kaleidoscope of colour creations on hair which soon grew to a +2.5M following, and he also uses his platforms to create space for education, social and political issues. “A lot of hair stylists feel like we have to be one dimensional for our audience. We’re told to just be a hair page, or just a business page, or be X type of influencer, to stay in our lane. When I first started making that shift, people asked: ‘What’s going on? What happened to all the pretty hair pictures?’ But why can’t I show who I am? That’s when you lose yourself and you end up getting burnt out and you don’t know what you stand for anymore,” says Tang.
This confidence wasn’t always apparent as he admits that growing up, he had trouble opening up about his sexuality, especially in a space where his race had already put a target on his back. “I didn’t come out the closet til I was about 27. Even when I did, I came out as bisexual because I was afraid of embracing who I truly was. It was scary to look in the mirror and own it and say, ‘I’m gay.’” he adds: “It took so much ownership. You have to be brave because from that point on, your life will never be the same again.” Tang says that coming out was the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. “I’m still recovering from it to be honest…” That trauma has been carried all through his 30s and Tang vocalised with sadness: “I will never feel safe being gay!”
This feeling is compounded by the negative response he received when exploring his appearance. “It took so much courage to grow my hair long, because I got attacked on social media. When I started growing my hair and shaving facial hair off, people got upset because this wasn’t what a man is ‘supposed to look like’. Suddenly to their standards I wasn’t a ‘man’ anymore.”
He is determined to change the narrative for others who find themselves in this position. He’s named his haircare / colouring brand #mydentity after sexual names #Big9 Creme Lightener, #Magnum8 Powder Lightener and #My Quick Blow Thermal Spray as a way of protest to the way society and the media has singlehandly managed to dexualise an entire demographic of men. “I felt like they tried to castrate us or something. The media rarely presents us with a sexy Asian man.” So for him being the face of his brand, as an Asian man, using the power to own his sexuality is a middle finger to the part of society that combats this sentiment.
He hasn’t, however, shied away from sharing the banterous side to his personality which was presumably, one of the things that attracted him to Bling Empire producers in the first place. Tang’s original fun and light hearted storyline might take a turn in season two showcasing a lot of vulnerability, difficult conversations (outside of ‘penis-pump gate’ which was a notorious scene on Bling Empire). He says he’s proud to be given a platform to share a different side to himself.
“I’ve had to not have my guard up. There will be tears and insecurities exposed, but it’s real. I hope they air my relationship with my husband Almar Guevarra, as I think that would be so powerful for the LGBTQ+ community, to be able represent that part of our world.”
He’s also determined to use his platforms to highlight racism. “A lot of people don’t want to speak on things that don’t directly affect them and conversations around racism makes people feel uncomfortable. There was a time where I remember educating non-Asian friends, and they were literally yawning and asking when dinner was going to be ready. They had no idea how offended I was.” However, despite everything, Tang seems positive and hopeful about the future. He believes that we are in a climate where the suppressed are no longer staying silent.
“When 2020 happened, it woke everybody up. People are saying, no, we’re not taking this anymore.” Tang adds that he is hopeful to experience real change in his lifetime and to witness a real shift amongst this new generation. He is looking forward to building a family with his husband and being able to teach his future kids to be tolerant, respectful, proud and to be confident enough to speak up in a world that has tried to silence people like them.
“We all want to be represented, and we all deserve to be heard. We all need a voice. My biggest wish is leaving my future kids in a world that will be more tolerant and a world where they will be able to use their voice and live their true authentic life, with no judgement. So until that day comes, I’ll keep talking!”