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How It Feels to Be Viral Me: Affective Labor and Asian American YouTube Performance
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On March 15, 2011, just days after University of California–Los Angeles undergraduate Alexandra Wallace posted (and subsequently took down) her incendiary “Asians in the Library” video log (vlog) on YouTube, another video set ablaze Facebook walls and Twitter accounts. Jimmy Wong’s “Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song”—a satirical love song addressed to Wallace—distinguished itself from the hundreds of other ranting and remix response videos. Opening with an excerpt from the offending party’s original post—as she mockingly renders a scene of Asians answering their cell phones in the library with an “Ooooh, Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong,” Wong’s video quickly shifts into a style and staging commonly associated with online vlogs. Seated and directly addressing the camera, he is framed by his home studio’s accoutrements: computer and electronic keyboard on his left side and a row of cables neatly hanging on the wall behind him. Stuttering in a thick Asian accent and, in turn, deriding Wallace’s own orientalist rendition, a guitar-strapped Wong introduces his song into a boom microphone that hangs near his face: “Greetings, Miss Alexandra Wallace. I’m not most . . . how you say . . . politically correct person. So please . . .” (head bows quickly) “do not take offensive. Thank you.”

Viewers familiar with the “Asians in the Library” video would recognize that this introduction riffs on Wallace’s own preface: while she is not the most “politically correct person,” she does have Asian friends, and hopes, in the end, that viewers do not take offense. Wong strums a single chord, signaling a magical transformation, as the video again cuts to Wong, now guitarless but seated in the same position. This new version of Wong purrs into the microphone without an Asian accent or tone of deference. With his recording studio–style headphones on, his seductive vocal style recalls Asian American radio disc jockey Theo Mizuhara (“Theo” on Los Angeles R&B/hip-hop station 92.3 the Beat), often assumed to be African American by unsuspecting listeners because of his deep and soothing voice. This sexier Wong calls to Wallace—“Oooh girl”—before launching into his own rendition of her library scene: “Don’t think I didn’t see you watching me talking on my phone yesterday . . . all sexy . . . All Ching Chong Ling Long . . . Baby, it’s just code . . . It’s just the way that I tell the ladies that it’s time for me to get funky.”

For Wong, “getting funky” means launching into an acoustic ode to Wallace, a remix and reclamation of words and phrases lifted from her original video post. The song culminates in a repeating chorus, one that “wrings the musicality of the original Ching Chong” bit while satirizing its incommensurability: “Ching Chong . . . It means I love you . . . Ling Long . . . I really need you . . . Ching Chong . . . I still don’t know what that means.” The song’s arrangement of vocal melody and harmony, acoustic guitar, and lo-fi percussion are simple and catchy. Yet the video’s visual elements—the main frame of Wong is surrounded by small boxes or PiPs (picture in pictures) of him performing each portion of the music—requires a professional style of multichannel editing. Here, Wong’s video evidences the unstable divisions between amateur and professional that is characteristic of the video-sharing website YouTube, ones that have helped redefine contemporary media production.

Since its initial posting, “Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song” has garnered almost 4 million hits worldwide, received coverage from both Asian American and mainstream U.S. press outlets, and landed the twenty-three-year-old actor/musician a role in an upcoming indie film. As a video that was able to spread quickly and across many screens, the “Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song,” in all respects, was a viral hit. While its popularity must be characterized as unexpected or accidental, in order for a YouTube video to “go viral,” it must actually incorporate emotional hooks: key signifiers that catch the attention and sensibility of a particular audience. While sites like YouTube, by hosting such videos, enable the process of viral video making, these videos’ successful transmission—from one user to the next—requires...

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