What does that even say? I have no idea!
Something struck me while I was putting together yesterday's (well, it was yesterday -- writing these things takes a little time 8) massive gallery of "Big 5" Unicode art of video game characters from China, by which I mean... Taiwan. There was a feeling I got, poring over the sum of the artwork, the inscrutable characters folded into it, and the blade of grass I had to hold on to, Latinized filenames. That feeling was: this was not the first time I've been made to feel exactly this way -- baffled and bewildered -- while poring over textmode art, a domain that I thought I had well in hand.
If you turn the clock way back to the very moment of my induction into the digital underground, you find me circa 1994 in area code 604, a land at the crossroads -- in Caucasian-colonized North America, but with easier access to Pacific Rim countries than to the heartland of my own country; also, chronologically situated between Vancouver's debutante ball to the world, Expo '86, and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China.
What this meant was that the ethnic makeup of Vancouver was in transition; still a painfully white town with a nonetheless historic Chinatown that anti-Asiatic riots and the head tax had failed to erase earlier in the century, alarmist local media made it feel like virtually every other house (at least, those without covenants not to sell to Chinese) was being torn down in order to put up a square-footage-maximising, feng shui-optimised "monster house" (larger, to accommodate multigenerational families from Hong Kong who would include a second master bedroom for revered grandparents... the monsters!) I don't know if most area codes saw a substantial influx of Chinese immigration in the '90s -- it wouldn't surprise me if San Francisco, Seattle and New York also saw it, but it most definitely would surprise me if Kansas, Chicago and Orlando did. (As for Hawaii, the most Asian state? Probably I ought to go take a look at some early TeklordZ artpacks. Oh? Huh. How inconvenient: I see this piece as a pinnacle of classic ANSI art -- but do I only embrace it thus after ts had established that it wasn't his default mode?) All I can report is that it definitely was in effect in Vancouver, and we kind of got the impression that it was happening here moreso than anywhere else. So I don't know if what I'm describing was a wholly localized phenomenon or something felt to varying degrees in other areas. I figured that these kinds of subjects were being drawn everywhere at this time, while my recent research suggests that everyone else was drawing ANSIs of Public Enemy and Eddie the Head. Had I realised I was in such an extraordinary Petri dish at the time, I surely would have paid closer attention to the specifics.
In elementary school I had Chinese friends -- the only two such boys in my class, Alan and Albert, rare cohorts at an exceedingly white school in an exceedingly white neighbourhood. They won me over on the basis of their drawing giant robots (racist trope warning: with the seemingly genetic ease and effortlessness we'd come to expect from East Asians) all over their schoolwork, which suggested that we might share some common interests -- a suggestion confirmed when Albert invited me to his house where we snacked on fried rice and played Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari on his imported Famicom. (This is to say that I was acclimatized to Chinese culture to the extent that I had favorite dishes at weekly dim sum, but duck feet were not among them.) But then I switched streams into a bilingual program (French! How can we make the student body just a little whiter?) at a different school and, after a few years of playing D&D with my 100% white nerd bros, found my way online. Not into the bleeding-edge beating heart of things, mind you, but to such local Public Domain BBSes as would accept calls from my borrowed 1200 baud modem circa 1992.
As we've seen in regards to their musical tastes (and as we will see in regards to their enthusiasm for professional sports!) the Public Domain scene basically just held up a mirror to the dominant culture, which was painfully white and blandly seasoned with artifacts of mainstream baby boomer culture like Garfield, Gilligan's Island and Archie Comics. With very few exceptions (such as a seeming obsession with Cindy Crawford swimsuit .GIFs and the dictates of FidoNet Zone Coordinators) the online culture was entirely an echo of what had come before in the wider world -- it had no culture of its own. (Of course, the underground begged to differ.)
And despite the 604's growing Chinese population, this demographic was virtually invisible online. Among 2200 BBSes listed, there is one entry tossing them a bone --
-- and of permutations of the ten most common Chinese surnames we find about 15 separate appearances among the roster of PD SysOps there. However slim a minority group they may have been here at that time, they certainly amounted to more than the fraction of one percent represented here ... and as anyone who spent any time in local computer shops could have testified, it wouldn't have been surprising to see their demographic segment over-represented. But not in the Public Domain BBS sphere.604-736-2694 VANCOUVER, CANADA Chinese Connection, The Chinese Connection (1993-1995) Yen-Zon Chai
Basically, it seemed that there was no Chinese Public Domain, and what I always figured (hypothesized or, who knows, imagined out of thin air?) was that their community of hardened teenage nerds, already organized for mutual support in a wider culture in which they were still outsiders (here, brother, you're tired of watching crappy Schwarzenegger action movies and want to know where to find some good old Jackie Chan VHS dubs in the PAL standard? Maybe you'd like to look at some of Victoria Harbour's most beautiful swimsuit models to help you think about the kinds of girls you grew up with?) (I was quite a bit less flattering about that latter case in an early Kithe interview), took an express route to a Chinese piracy underground (long a glorious Hong Kong tradition.) (Even if not entirely a figment of my imagination, this theory is expressly incorrect; you can ask me some time about Bernard Wu and The Synthesizers, area code 604's least hip music tracking group, who briefly surfaced in promotion of their venture to, as best as I can tell, sell MIDI arrangements of cantopop tunes for karaoke machines... which seems about the most PD undertaking imaginable. Hey, don't laugh -- unlike what we were doing it had an immediate commercial application!) The only one who knew the score was local science fiction writer William "Neuromancer" Gibson, who handily foreshadowed both cyberspace and the importance East Asia would play in it.
Once the path forward was revealed, it was hard work getting me up to speed with the culture of the digital underground -- why is Renegade a more elite BBS software than Telegard, which letters should I replace with numbers, which vowels get capitalized, and who are all these Image Comics characters? But once I was able to pass a New User Verification quiz on an elites BBS, I kind of figured that I now knew everything I needed to know about maneuvering through this strange subculture. OK, that's Maxx, that's Grifter, that's... who's that?
Now presumably I could just ASK DF about all this, what it was about, what were his experiences with racism in Canada and online in the 604, and was it a bold assertion of pushing back... but I haven't been in touch with him since Friendster. I am looking forward to picking the brains of a few Chinese BBS locals I am still in touch with for a follow-up, because I'm sure that there is a story to be told here... only it isn't really my story to tell.
PTT, the biggest and oldest, launched in 1995, so maybe it was more contemporary), even though both could occasionally be put to Chinese subjects. I must conclude that any similarities are merely the result of parallel evolution, both artforms emerging for similar reasons -- a desire to be visually expressive in a low-bandwidth textmode environment.
Edited to add: one reader has already commented extensively on the contemporary Japanese presence on the US West Coast and the difficulties inherent in rendering kanji on computers. Over here!