Punks Around, Cometbus, and me: Thoughts from the 2020 pandemic and uprisings

A mutual friend connected me with the editor of Punks Around, who was looking for potential contributors for their next issue. I said, “Sure,” because they seemed cool and I’m flattered that anyone cares what I think.

The deadline was today––the end of a weekend of unrest sparked by bad cops murdering George Floyd to top off a flurry of racist activity across the country. I wrote myself into a bleak corner, accurately reflecting how I felt about the shitty state of our world and what it takes to affect real change. I had no words, no power.

My 12-year-old daughter asked, “What are you writing?” and I handed a partially told story she’s heard a million times in different combinations and now stars in. Yawn. Spotting the latest issue of Cometbus by my side, she moved on. “What are you reading?”

I told her that one of my favorite writers went around asking punk rock survivors, “What went wrong?” How did the scene fail and did it make any lasting contributions to culture or society? And why do we love clubs that are shuttered, artists who ODed, and bands that broke up, but hardly anyone celebrates the lifers who are more often viewed as washed up, sold out, or out of touch?

“What went wrong? What do you think?”

With fresh thoughts about the defunct magazine and series of concerts on indefinite hiatus, my response was, “Nothing! The process has always been more important than the results.”

Suddenly, I knew what to write.

***

When the magazine I helped start ran its course in 2010, I was philosophical. Sixty-eight issues over 16 years was a damn good run for a DIY publication. Advertising was drying up, distributors kept biting the dust, and the age of print was on its way out. And maybe our readers didn’t need us anymore.

The first issue of Giant Robot came out in 1994 after my friend Eric told me he wanted to make a zine about Asian stuff. I said, “Me too!” So we applied our energy and collective experience contributing to Flipside, Fiz, Fear of Grown-Ups, and other punk zines to create one of our own that featured noise music and garage rock from Japan, junk food from Hawaii, Hong Kong movies, imported and indie comics, and more. It’s hard to believe any of that stuff was still underground back then, or that when the cover of the second issue featured me wearing giant cat head and dress for a part-time Sanrio gig, that there were people out there who weren’t familiar with Hello Kitty.

We went on to feature big-time artists, pro skaters, and respectable authors, as well, and the publication evolved from a stapled-and-folded photocopied digest into glossy magazine with international distribution and a handful of shops. But to me, Giant Robot was always a punk zine with intensely personal and subversive subject matter intended to infiltrate and uplift culture. Having Yellow Power activists alongside punks like Channel 3, J Church, or P.K. 14 and underground artists like Twist and Jon Moritsugu and then big time actors and filmmakers like Maggie Cheung, Wong Kar Wai, and Park Chan Wook was pretty rad.

Mixing and matching subjects insured that we never got bored, and maybe punkers would get turned onto movies, art weirdos would get into comics, and so on. And Asian American culture would be mixed up with Asian stuff, and we’d document and share it because we thought it was important. There was an unspoken sense of pride that AAPI readers could grasp and everyone else would absorb it. We could go to a college campus and stoke Asian American student groups but then have a booth at Comic Con and geek out with readers from around the world.

By the time our magazine ran its course, Takashi Murakami’s art was on Uniqlo shirts, which were at the mall, and K drama was bigger than manga, which was in every public library. Asian chefs and street food were everywhere. We couldn’t take credit for the mass enlightenment, but the world looked pretty good from the garage behind Eric’s house where we made the magazine. Maybe, for the first time, it was not uncool to be an Asian American kid?

Our mission, to champion and grow Asian culture, was clearly over, and I could comfortably retire from the world of kung fu and return to punk rock where it all began.

A few years later, my wife and I wound up starting Save Music in Chinatown, a series of all-ages matinees to raise money for the music program at the historic neighborhood’s public elementary school. The idea was that we’d carry on the first-generation punk tradition of the old Hong Kong Café, and it’s been a pretty amazing to have the Adolescents, Alice Bag, Alley Cats, Channel 3, The Dils, Phranc, Würm, and more playing to help out the community of my immigrant grandparents and in-laws. For our daughter to attend school there, and for Wendy and me to become involved in it, was actually poetic. So was seeing our daughter, our nieces, and their friend start a punk band and play for us often.

The coronavirus crisis canceled the most recent show, which would have been our twenty-first over seven years. It also canceled any misconception that things were better off for us Asians in America, who have been getting victimized by hate crimes, scapegoating, and alienation more than I’ve ever seen in my life. And after feeling slightly reassured that we might come together to make change, George Floyd getting murdered by bad cops was the last in a string of reminders of a much bigger picture of systemic racism.

It’s hard not to feel like toiling in subculture is stupid when the dominant culture is doomed. What’s the point?

But if punk rock taught me anything it’s that life isn’t like some jock sport that can be scored with points. The coolest songs don’t make a dent in the charts. The best gigs are never the biggest ones. The ugliest artists can be the most beautiful. And maybe you’re doing it right if no one has heard of your zine or shows!

All of us underdogs continuing to struggle in the face of stupidity and hopelessness is more meaningful than ever. Quality of life is not measured by fame, money, or accomplishments and awards, but time we spend doing what’s important to us with people we love. And even if our toiling amounts to little, maybe we can add up to something together. Or at least not be defeated.

Author: martinkendallwong2014

Co-founder of Giant Robot magazine (RIP) and Save Music in Chinatown (since 2013)

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