It started with the Facebook event: “Find Your BAE Before V-Day.” It was an alluring proposition, but there was a catch: all attendees were supposed to be Asian. The decree wasn’t explicit but rather implied through the event’s sponsors, a Facebook group called Subtle Asian Dating (SAD). They collaborated with the community organization, Asians Afterwork, and the mobile app, Get Apollo, to host the event.
I kept saying to my friends: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we went to this?” I was single. I was Chinese. I was also a reluctant but curious participant in Subtle Asian Dating (SAD). A friend had invited me to the group a few months back, but I found the interface disorienting. It was filled with intra-community identifiers and mannerisms I had trouble deciphering: “wholesome fuccboi,” “halfie,” “Lambda brother.”
True to its name, Subtle Asian Dating involves match-making: users “auction off” friends by writing detailed posts containing biographies, photos, and pros and cons lists. A Slate article described the page as a “virtual marriage market for millennials of the Asian diaspora.”
I waded through a morass of dating “applications” when I first visited the page. My eyes blurred against descriptions such as: “great with parents,” “Ivy League,” “loves math,” “makes $$$$.” The tone of the page was satirical, but the comments section also included suitors that seemed genuinely interested. Every few posts, I stumbled across the word Asian Baby Girl (ABG), but no one bothered to define what it meant.
I fell down an internet rabbit hole. Even though SAD users frequently throw around the term, online definitions for ABG are circuitous. They evade personality traits in order to emphasize physical attributes or community activities: fake eyelashes, revealing clothing, dyed hair, tattoos, high alcohol tolerance, and a propensity towards going to raves. Urban Dictionary describes it as a “girl…[who] parties all night long. Puts a lot of makeup on and is usually a slut.” But the post concludes with the statement: “Most Asian girls do not appreciate being called an ABG.” On Subtle Asian Dating, young women are proudly calling themselves Asian Baby Girls.
The origin of the term is elusive. But online theorists on Reddit link the etymology of the word to Asian Baby Gangster, a term popularized among the Asian diaspora in the late 1990s to the early 2000s. During that period, Asian Baby Gangsters subverted the Model Minority stereotype, but in damaging and disavowed ways. According to posters, the term was reductive more than radical, a pejorative referencing: “gangbangers, “sex workers,” and “drug dealers.” Somewhere along the line, however, a gender divide was erected and “baby” replaced “ganger,” possibly as a nod to the petite stature that many Asian women are said to have. It is a perception critics call the “infantilization” of Asian women.
Despite the amorphous nature of the term, media about ABGs abound. On Youtube, popular creators such as Jenn Im and Sarah Cheung have posted “ABG Transformation” videos, in which they demonstrate the ABG aesthetic, complete with a makeup tutorial, a temporary tattoo application, and clothing options. On TikTok, Melissa Gan (@melganyay) created an “ABG” anthem, with the lyrics “You want to hit up a rave? / I can totally get you in / My boyfriend is the DJ / His name’s Kevin Ngyuen.”
In essence, Asian Baby Girl is another cultural stereotype entrenched in a legacy of descriptors used to describe Asian women. From “China Doll” to “Dragon Lady,” most of these terms are regressive designations foisted upon Asian women and perpetrated through Western media. Asian Baby Girl, however, fills a unique vacuum–an intra-community term that is also often self-identifying. The question then becomes: what values are connoted through this self-coined term and how does it play into or go against the enduring stereotypes of Asian women?
When Michelle Fang, 23, joined Asian American rapper Chow Mane’s music video, “ABG (Asian Baby Girl),” she thought it would be an “empowering” experience. She wanted audiences to see a side of Asian women that highlighted sexual autonomy. In the credits, she’s named as the “ABG Margot Robbie,” a reference to the sequence in which she and Mane recreate the infamous “Daddy doesn’t get to touch mommy” scene from The Wolf of Wall Street. Now, however, Fang sounds embarrassed about her experiences on set.“If I self-examine, then I think there is an element of me self-shaming. I think that music video contrasted with my personal values.” She trails off. “The music video was written and directed by a guy. It definitely tried to play up the sexuality of the term.” The video went viral when it premiered, but it was soon unlisted from YouTube.
Fang no longer identifies as an ABG, though she admits in college she “probably” was one. She was a sister of Berkeley’s Asian American sorority Sigma Omicron Pi. Fang describes sisterhood bonding activities that involved putting on fake eyelashes and buying group orders of circle lenses, contacts that change a wearer’s iris color and size. “I don’t want to use the term ‘indoctrinated,’’ she says, “ but everyone around you is dressing like this and acting like this, so it becomes your reality about what is desirable and what you want to look like.” She pauses before continuing. “At this point, I don’t even know if it’s a self-fulfilling thing or if it’s just by chance.”
The possible self-fulfilling nature of ABGs is what most intrigues Peter Lee Hamilton. “There’s no ABG organization that says, ‘this is how you become an ABG,’” the 23-year-old explains. “It’s more that people change themselves to become more like ABGs…So what does that say about the ABG community and the authenticity of it?”
Hamilton was one of the early rising stars of Subtle Asian Dating, with a post that amassed over almost three thousand “likes”. But he views the group mainly as a lens to examine the ABG and Asian collective at-large. “[The page] can tell you what a lot of [Asians] find attractive, and that’s interesting for determining what the values of the community are,” he says. He sees all these differentiating terms on Subtle Asian Dating as an attempt to answer the question: “What type of Asian are you?”
On Subtle Asian Dating, archetypes propagate in response to such a question. There’s the Asian Baby Girl, but there’s also her inverse, the Asian Bible Girl, who is described as “innocent,” wholesome,” and “wifey material.” As Stephanie Zou, 21, a SAD member, explains, “The most popular girls [on SAD] are either the really delicate [ones] with, like, big eyes or the ABG who is really out there and loves to rave and talk about bubble tea.”
In that case, is calling yourself an ABG a subversive act, a shedding of the “whole” Asian girl stereotype? Is it a rallying cry against the infantilization and subjugation of Asian American women? Are ABGs really just young Asian American women who are open about their right to desire and to feel desired?
That’s what Fang believed, but then the music video happened, and she had to confront the hyper-sexualization of the term. “Any label you create may start off as subversive, but then it might be re-appropriated by the hegemony and become repressive again,” she says. She describes the term as “on the whole progressive rather than regressive.” But Fang admits that “In many ways, the term ABG is still very misogynistic—even in the name itself: Asian Baby Girl.” She adds: “The patriarchy is very much embedded in it because the heart of what defines an ABG is in reference to a male.”
Maybe the difficulty in discovering a clear definition for ABG stems from that conundrum.
If young women have been self-identifying as ABGs to reclaim a sense of autonomy and distance themselves from the prevailing “Asian Bible Girl” stereotype, then the responses of their male peers–like Mane who folded the term into a sexualized hip-hop video– demonstrate a central schism in this act of reclamation. Perhaps Asian Baby Girls wanted to be diametrically opposed to Asian Bible Girls, but they ended up adjacent instead. As Fang said, reclamation became reappropriation, which in turn became repression. Ultimately, wasn’t the Asian Baby Girl vs. Asian Bible Girl division just a modern update on Renee Tajima-Peña’s hypersexual Dragon Lady vs. submissive Lotus Blossom dichotomy? The epithets shifted, but the essence stayed the same.
I thought a lot about Dragon Ladies and China Dolls before I decided, finally, to attend the SAD event. None of my friends agreed to join me. “I’m going so I can figure out, once and for all, how to describe an ABG,” I texted one of them. “Lol,” she responded. The gathering is hosted in Chinatown Square, a squat black building in Philadelphia that houses a pan-Asian food hall. I enter through glass doors stickered with peeling advertisements: Happy hour 4-6 on weekdays! Ask about our bubble tea loyalty card!
Inside, the men in attendance vastly outnumber the women. I spy suede skirts, knee-high boots, fur vets, dyed hair, but nothing that distinct, nothing at all like the “ABG Transformation” YouTube videos. The term ABG feels more amorphous than usual, like an Instagram filter rather than an identifier. It is analogous to calling yourself a nerd or a jock in high school–a default to group think for simplicity, to avoid nuance.
People eye each other from across the room but refuse to diverge from their fortress of friends; it’s like a middle school dance, except almost everyone is East Asian. I’m one of the only unpaired people in the room, and a boy wearing khaki shorts and a button-down approaches me and points to the notebook in my hand. “Are you being antisocial tonight?” He smiles in a way that indicates he thinks he’s being charming. His name is Jake Moon. He is 25 and he laughs when I ask what his definition of an ABG is.
“An ABG is just an Asian girl who’s basic,” he says. “She follows the cultural stereotypes almost out of social obligation.” A group of girls pass, and Moon’s gaze lingers on one of them. Her dyed blonde hair ripples as she tosses her head. I ask if he would call her an ABG, and he contemplates for a moment. “Hard to say.” He tilts his head. “Why? Do you think you’re an ABG?”
The question surprises me. I look at what I’m wearing, the non-heeled boots paired with the cardigan and skirt. I laugh and shake my head. But back at home, I think of Moon’s question again while I press play on Chow Mane’s music video. The scene bursts to life: three Asian women sitting at a table littered with champagne flutes and Grey Goose bottles. Between taking selfies and biting into strawberries, the girls wave their long acrylic nails and gossip. Mane sits behind them, half-watching and half-preening to the camera as he raps: “All black when she go out / Brown hair turned blonde now / Eyeliner with the wings on ’em / Tattoo somethin’ Chinese on ’em / Last weekend in Vegas, this week in Koreatown / Next week got a festival, week after that she got me in town.”
The video ends, and I’m left staring at my reflection on the laptop screen. Maybe my answer to Moon actually should have been: “No, I wouldn’t call myself an ABG, but somebody else could.”