Thursday, February 08, 2007

INSTANT YANG V. 38: GO GO UNIQLO!; ASIAN POP GIFT GUIDE; THE GREATEST GIFT; ASIAN POP 2006 BEST, WORST WEIRDEST--SEND ME YOUR TAKE

Hi all,

Super-late this issue, and for good reason--I've been ripping around the country on work-related travel and the few minutes I've had to breathe have been spent trying to remind my son what my name is. Oh well.

Anyway, the holidays are just about upon us, and that was as good an excuse as any to take a look at a fresh new face on the retail block--Japan's uber-apparel brand UNIQLO, which has been making its enigmatic presence known with "pop-up" stores and big red logo banners all around Manhattan over the past few months. Well, all of that was just a tease for the big unveiling of their global flagship store last month--three levels chock-a-block with garments that basically kick ass, on a very basic level.

The chain prides itself on its low-cost, logo-free functional designs, which are made to be mixed, matched, and combined with the more idiosyncratic elements of your wardrobe, as a kind of base layer for your own personal style. Since I have no style, personal or otherwise, the store is a perfect way for me to outfit myself in preferred fashion: Brandless and utilitarian. (If I could get away with wearing a grey jumpsuit every day for the rest of my life, I'd do it. Not wanting to look like a mental patient or a Devo tribute bandmember, I'm fine with rocking the solid-color t-shirt and black jeans look. It's like a corporate uniform for my category of quasi-professional anyway.)

Then again, UNIQLO's more eccentric fare is hard to pass up--particularly their Artist T-Shirts, which offer designs by some of the most prominent (and some of the cultiest) graphic talent in Japan on limited edition tees for just $16. Gaah...okay, I'm loading up.

Want more? Here's this week's column:

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ASIAN POP: Asian Pop Shopping
By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The opening of Japanese uber-retailer UNIQLO's flagship store in New York leads Jeff Yang to think about shopping from an Asian Pop perspective -- and to offer some Asian Pop suggestions on choice stocking-stuffers for your lucky loved ones.

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And, because I know a bunch of you don't actually read all the way down to the bottom of these things, here's this week's extra bonus feature in full:

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ASIAN POP'S HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE
Here in the U-Need-It States of America -- hey, you can't spell "consumer" without "U" and "S"! -- -the arrival of December coincides with one of the more torturous rituals of the winter season, which is to say, last-minute Chrismukkwanzaa shopping. In our conversation, Nobuo Domae noted that while holiday gift giving is catching on in Japan, there's no real parallel to the frenzied orgy of purchasing, wrapping and shipping that we engage in. "Here in the U.S., people are giving many, many gifts to many, many people," he says. "In Japan, maybe wives and husbands, families, they give each other presents, but friend to friend? Very rare. Maybe zero. You just give gifts to a very limited group of very important people."

In part, this is because Christmas in Japan is a popular Western novelty but not an embedded "tradition" per se. This is a society that is, after all, almost universally Buddhist and Shinto. But here's the other reason: Gift giving in Japan is such an omnipresent part of social convention that it almost makes no sense to have a whole new holiday tied to the exchange of presents.

People in Japan give formal gifts to one another when they get their twice-a-year work bonuses (oseibo in December and ochugen in June), when they return from vacation trips (omiyage), when they move into new neighborhoods (hikkoshi aisatsu) and when a friend or colleague is leaving (osenbetsu) -- not to mention all of the usual occasions (birthdays, weddings, childbirth, etc.).

It doesn't matter what the gift is, although it generally has to be bought in a store, wrapped in elaborate packaging and, if possible, edible. Gifts are the tangible currency that both lubricates and fuels the concept known as giri, or, loosely translated, "duty." By giving gifts, you acknowledge your social obligations to those around you. By accepting a gift, after refusing it half a dozen times, then making a great show of praise and delight if forced to open it, you return this acknowledgment. The smooth operation of Japanese civil society is inordinately dependent on this regular exchange of canned hams and $50 cantaloupes.

For Americans, gift giving isn't just a show of social etiquette. What you give matters -- sometimes, a whole heckuva lot. The other night, my wife and I were watching TV, and one of those Staples "Department of Unexpected Gifts" commercials came on, leading her to muse that a paper shredder really would be kind of useful. A less canny husband would take this as a cue that she wants one for Christmas. I, on the other hand, understand that a paper shredder from Staples is an "unexpected gift" for a reason. A cow turd would also be an "unexpected gift" and, probably, equally welcome.

But hey, I'm not here to dump on Staples. There are probably dozens of people who would love to unwrap office supplies on Christmas Day. More power to them. I am, however, ready to suggest some Asian Pop alternatives:

UNIQLO ARTIST T-SHIRTS...WITH PACK IN TOY!: T-shirt designed by cool Japanese artist? Good. Same T-shirt with bubble-wrapped transforming robot? Better! UNIQLO has brilliantly paired funky mechas, Tamagotchis and other amusements with like-themed T-shirts, and is selling them in one hot bundle -- in New York City, that is. If you've got a friend who lives in Gotham and is willing to ship on your behalf, here's your ticket to Asian Pop gifting glory.

ASIA EXTREME DVDs: Green and red are Christmas colors, right? So why not a gift that'll have your friends turning green in the face due to all of the blood being spattered across their flat-screen TVs? OK, so many of Tartan's Asia Extreme flicks lean toward atmosphere and dread rather than gore and ultraviolence. But then you've got Chan-Wook Park's pathologically brilliant "Vengeance" trilogy -- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. Give it to someone you love. Or hate.

"SONG OF THE TRAVELING DAUGHTER": Abigail Washburn's a banjo-pickin', bluegrass-singin' folkie who just happened to spend a few post-collegiate years in China. Which explains why she's wont to write and perform Appalachian mountain music in Mandarin, a language that's surprisingly suited for the genre. "It's actually harder to put English words to music than Chinese," she says. "Chinese is all one- or two-syllable words, and most have open vowels at the end of the word, so the language almost sings by itself. ... If you listen closely to 'Song of the Traveling Daughter,' you can hear how easy it is to put them to music." Take her advice. Listen to it, and then share the buzz by giving this phenomenal disc to a music lover in your life.

AMERICAN BORN CHINESE: San Francisco native Gene Yang's moving, hilarious and all-around brilliant graphic novel ultimately didn't win the National Book Award, but that just shows the judges have no taste, or no cojones. It definitely wins my pick for best read of the year, however, so put it at the top of your lit-gift list, stat.

BUILD YOUR OWN ACTION FIGURE: So you want to get a cool Asian American action fig for your son, daughter, niece or nephew but are not a fan of Quick Kick, Yellow Power Ranger or Apu from "The Simpsons"? Why not roll your own posable plastic plaything, courtesy of the Vicale Corporation's online "action figure on demand" tool? They actually have an "Asian" head option, even though it has white hair and looks, like all the other heads, fairly creepy. Still, for under a hundred bucks, where else are you going to get a semi-customized, sort-of-Asian-looking doll with a body and pubic region that only a massive steroid overdose could produce?

NINTENDO WII: Or you could cut out the middleman and just give your loved one the kidney it'll cost to acquire one of these sold-out-everywhere bad boys.

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And, because the gift of giving is a gift in itself, here's another suggestion: Donate to a charity of your choice. One I'd personally like to see supported is Curtis Chin's Shui Kuen and Allen Chin Foundation, which offers scholarships to college-bound kids who've worked in an Asian restaurant or had at least one parent who's worked in an Asian restaurant.

Unfortunately, I missed announcing this year's $1000 scholarship deadline, which was December 1--but if you or someone you know is eligible, keep an eye on this for next year. Curtis launched the foundation in honor of his mom and dad, owners of one of Detroit's best-loved Chinese restaurants; a tragic car accident took his dad's life, and injured his mom (who's thankfully recovered); the unique terms of the scholarship are intended to celebrate the profound role that the restaurant trade has played in the development and survival of our communities.

One last little thing: My next column is a roundup of Asian Pop's best, worst, and weirdest of 2006, from the perspective of many of those who've appeared in Asian Pop over the past year. But I'd like to open it up to all of you as well--so please feel free to send me your thoughts on the highlights, lowlights, and inexplicable-lights of 2006, in Asia and Asian America. I've got some thoughts of my own, of course...

Thanks for a great year.

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