Hey, You’re Cool! Kathleen Tso and Vicki Ho of Banana Magazine
Baesians Tso and Ho fuse East and West
If you haven’t heard of the term “Twinkie,” perhaps you’re more familiar with “banana.” Yellow on the outside and white on the inside, the fruit has become the de facto symbol representing Asians caught between the intersections of Eastern and Western cultures. It was this very term, plucked from its pejorative roots by first generation founders Vicki Ho and Kathleen Tso and replanted as a seed idea for Banana Magazine. The lifestyle publication came to fruition in 2014 over after work margaritas (Ho works in fashion PR and Tso is in social and digital media), and has since cultivated an alternative platform for contemporary Asian culture or, as their site boasts, “All Things AZN.”
Simply put, the magazine celebrates the achievements of Asians throughout the creative industry. Thumbing through its stylized pages, Banana’s content spans the globe. There’s an interview with a Japanese dance crew, a recipe for Thai hot pot, a profile on Shanghai’s emerging rap scene, and, of course, a nostalgic homage to New York’s very own Chinatown.
Banana is an active response to mainstream media’s propensity to whitewash, typecast, and yellowface its depictions of the Asian experience. To those still grappling with a conflicted identity, rest assured. Vicki Ho and Kathleen Tso have some wise words for you. So read up.
How did Banana come about? What’s the magazine’s history?
Vicki Ho: We launched Banana in 2014 and it came out of a few different reasons. Kathleen and myself had been friends for a little bit and we had always wanted to work together in some capacity. We looked around at our network of friends, the industry that we work in, and we were like, ‘How come there are so many amazing and creative Asians in their own right, but how come no one highlights them?” We realized that no one had tapped into the creative industry for Asians. Everything we found was very politically driven or celebrity or pop culture-driven. It was all mostly based on the west coast, so we saw that as a great opportunity for the two of us to finally get to work together to bring in our friends and our community and try to make something out of it.
How did you come up with the title Banana?
Kathleen Tso: We came up with the concept of Banana and the name really was secondary. One day I was having a conversation with my sister and she was joking around and she said, “Why don’t you call it Banana?” It was something our parents had called us growing up in more of a joking way because we were ABC (American Born Chinese). They thought it was funny as we were more Americanized, even though we spent all this time going to Taiwan growing up. Vicki told me she had been called a ‘banana’ growing up too. We understand the term can be used in a derogatory way, but wanted to reclaim the idea. Banana is a symbol of a lot of Asians growing up in this generation. We’re so influenced by Western culture and ideas and it really symbolized that coming together.
Banana’s readership spans the world, but the term ‘Banana’ usually refers to Asian Americans. Who exactly is Banana’s audience?
KT: I think definitely Banana is usually used in Western cultures. Not just America, but European countries, however I also think it relates to Australians. We’ve actually had a lot of Asians reach out to us from Australia and it seems like they have a very similar dichotomy of both East and West. Our audience feels very global. It is not for every single Asian around the world, but it is this Asian person who feels a bit alternative and is very influenced by Western ideals. That person can be in Asia. I know in Taiwan is so heavily influenced by Western pop culture that’s kind of the pinnacle of what you want to achieve, this Western lifestyle. So I think it’s anyone around the world who has this identity crisis or has interests in the creative field.
Have there been any pieces in Banana that have resonated with your particular experience?
VH: Definitely the Asian glow piece from Issue 003. I’m actually in that feature and wrote the piece. I get super red when I drink and I’ve always been really self-conscious about it, especially as I’ve gotten older. PR is an industry with a lot of social gatherings and networking opportunities, so it’s even harder for me to let go of the fact that I get red at these work-focused functions. This article that I ended up writing was almost a therapeutic experience of me to get over that insecurity and knowing that you’re not alone in this world.
KT: I would say something that hit close to home for me is taking a closer look at Chinatown, and not necessarily New York Chinatown, but really expanding that story across the country. When I moved to Chinatown—I’m from Texas—it was really the moment I felt at home in New York. I felt really connected to it, and maybe it had something to do with the fact that, for a lot of Asian Americans, it feels like a home away from home. I wanted to understand the changes happening. A lot of people talk about the gentrification of Chinatown—and I wanted to tell these stories of people coming together to find a solution.
Banana Magazine fills a large gap in contemporary media. Growing up without realistic portrayals of Asian American to look towards, how did you both personally reconcile these cultural differences?
VH: I had a lot of cultural identity issues growing up. I think a lot of people did as well during this time. There was no one in media or entertainment that we truly felt like we could relate to and be really proud of. I grew up in an Asian-dominant neighborhood. I grew up in Brooklyn and my high school was 70% Asian, yet I found myself not being able to relate to a lot of my peers and the interests that we had were very different. It wasn’t until I was in college when I finally came to terms with it. Even recently, when we started Banana, I truly didn’t truly start appreciating my culture until I started gathering all these stories and meeting people in the same playground as me also hustling and getting their name out there in a creative career not traditionally approved of by Asian parents. Banana changed a lot for me and really helped me appreciate my Chinese background a lot more.
KT: I’d say I haven’t been able to reconcile those differences. I grew up in Texas where it is predominantly white and I was one of the only Asian kids growing up. I think there might have been like 10-15 other Asian kids in my high school, but I didn’t really start reconciling the feeling of being different until I moved to New York, but not fully until I started working on Banana. I didn’t have a lot of Asian friends growing up and I didn’t relate to the girls I went to Chinese school with. Then I made some friends in college, but I wasn’t fully ‘woke’ yet because I was making jokes about my race to make me feel better. Even in college, we were still this token thing, so I really wouldn’t say I made any kind of internal reconciliation or full appreciation until Banana.