It was a cultural reset: a short history of the ABG aesthetic

Asian Baby Girls are seen as rebellious, replacing polite, studious cultural norms with being loud and taking up space. But rebellion only goes so far when it is prescriptive.

by Mai Tran
|
07 October 2020, 5:08pm

Image via YouTube

If you’re a younger millennial or Gen Z Asian American, you probably already have an idea of what an ABG is. Asian Baby Girls, also referred to as Asian Baby Gangsters, are typically East and Southeast Asians known for their big eyelashes, defined brows, dark clothing and dyed hair. They hang out in groups, they like to eat and party in Koreatown, they Juul and do recreational drugs; they’re hot; they’re feminine. Like many vague archetypes used to create a false sense of collective Asian American identity, ABGs are now seen as something of a meme, an aesthetic to wear ironically or a way to describe an uninhibited friend. It's easy to make fun of them, but they also have a certain allure, a promise of having a social circle and living a carefree life.

At my predominantly Asian high school in the early 2010s, every grade level seemed to have its own ABG clique. The ABGs had navel piercings and rose tattoos and perfectly filled-in eyebrows with an effortless fade. They attended every rave (and posted it on Instagram afterwards, naturally). Despite the glamour, ABGs today are generally regarded with negative connotations, similar to the Valley Girl or dumb blonde stereotype. Some Asians will become sharply defensive if they are associated with the term. It’s a vague and blanketing thing; as an easy to reach joke it is prevalent, with the punchline often leveraged against women. Today, some are ‘reclaiming’ the label, capitalising on the ABG hashtag on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, while others make long posts about how the term should be retired, its original meaning warped beyond recognition by ignorant teens. Before staking a claim on the label, I wanted to better understand its origins and how the cultural trend developed. Incidentally, I did not have to go far.

While working at a restaurant, I met a group of women coworkers who had been friends since their high school days in the 90s. They grew up in the greater New York area, in Queens, Chinatown, Jersey City, and the Lower East Side, and entertained the younger servers with stories about their youth. With their thin, tattooed eyebrows, fashionable clothing, and ombréd hair, they were some of the original ABGs. Mabel Szeto, who is rumoured to be the fiercest of the crew, said “there was definitely an Asian party scene, with promoters like Genasia and KM Productions, mostly in Midtown or out in Queens. We listened to a lot of hip-hop, then trance music came later. Everyone knew everyone. The majority of us wore black, and hairspray and Sun In to lighten our hair was trendy. Asian girls at the time were either seen as nerdy or gangster.”

Jennie Kan, another member of the group, chimed in: “The Chinatown gangs were really active in the 80s, until [Mayor] Giuliani locked everyone up. He would give ten years for a burglary charge and a lot of the bigger members got life, so after they cleaned up my generation was full of wannabe gangsters. If you weren’t ‘hanging out’ with a gang you were a total dork. There was no in-between.”

Hence, Asian Baby Gangsters sprang up as a way to gain social capital, a familiar teenage defence mechanism to fit in and advance themselves within their communities. My coworkers recalled fights they used to get into at clubs and parties. “We never started anything, but if anyone had a problem with us we defended ourselves. Back then, people would just randomly approach you over anything.”

Even though ABGs — as these women prove — have been around since the 90s, the term only began surfacing in the past decade; a Google search will lead to listicles and videos like 15 Things ABGs Know All Too Well, 24 Hour ABG Transformation, or 18 Types of Asian Girls. There is a consistent focus on aesthetics, lifestyle, and what to drink (boba). It’s part of a pattern that repeatedly occurs with Asian Americans, a tendency to create all-encompassing narratives in the hopes of finding a common identity. The first time I watched the Fung brothers’ 18 Types of Asian Girls was in 2015, as a high school senior. These are so true, I thought. I laughed along with them; I sent it to my friends. I tried to place myself in one of the types, but had to mash three together to get something that resembled myself.

This happens again and again with Asian American ‘experiences’ or ‘identities’. When people first started talking about how Asian parents don’t say ‘I love you’ but bring their children plates of cut fruit, it felt revelatory (my dad’s family does this, my mother’s does not). I didn’t know the experience occurred in other households, or that it had the potential of being more than just a plate of hastily cut mangos. Later, I noticed that stoic Asian parents and cut fruit started appearing everywhere, in memes, podcasts, movies, and metaphors. The thrill of shared experience turned into an aversion for the cliché, however true it once seemed. Like ABGs who use the aesthetic for social gain, many Asian American narratives are easy to refer to because they have become standardised, mythologising an entire diaspora. 18 Types of Asian Girls has almost five million views, but inevitably delves into the cultural trend of ABGs at only a surface level, bypassing its nuance and darker aspects.

Jennie likes to say that kids nowadays have “gone soft”, but even if physical fights are less commonplace and gangs no longer have a hold on communities, ABGs haven’t eased up on the drugs and partying. Much of the culture is now tied up with raves and music festivals, rather than specific clubs or bars owned by figureheads. In college and university spaces, Asian interest sororities (almost all of which were founded in the 90s), urban dance crews, and other social groups have a reputation for cultivating the ABG aesthetic and throwing ragers.

One of my old high school classmates, TZ, began identifying as an ABG while attending a University of California school. After spending her first year acclimating to college academics and student organisations, she rushed Asian Greek Council (AGC) in the hopes of making more friends. She was drawn to a smaller sorority where she felt an immediate connection to the members; they were easy to talk to, down-to-earth, and more diverse than the national sororities whose chapters tended to be majority East Asian. At the same time, AGC had unspoken rules she had to adhere to.

TZ recounts, “I felt pressured to look, talk, and behave a certain way in order to fit in. I tacked on several piercings, almost got tattoos, dyed my hair, wore fake lashes, and slathered on makeup before I left the house. Most of the things I had in common with the Greek circle were drinking habits, nicotine and drug addictions, going to raves, and listening to the same EDM artists. It was my chosen way to relieve stress and finally get a taste of freedom away from my strict Chinese parents.” After pledging, she heard rumours of fraternity counterparts forced to do push-ups on bottle caps, swallow goldfish, and have boiling water poured over them, some of which turned out to be true. Drugs were casually mixed. At one party, a pledge brother passed from an overdose; others often drove home intoxicated.

ABGs have been credited as rebellious, shirking polite, studious cultural norms in favour of being loud and taking up space — but rebellion only goes so far when it is prescriptive, a slipping out of one stereotype and into another. It can feel liberating to purposefully change an aesthetic; people like to call it a “glow up”, when in actuality it is often just a conforming to Western, heteronormative beauty standards. It is also widely known that in many Asian interest groups, anti-blackness in the form of cultural commodification and use of AAVE is rampant. Being an ABG is hardly revolutionary, considering the cultures it takes from and how little leeway there is. At best, it’s edgy normativity.

As TZ entered her senior year and prepared for graduate school and the “real world”, she tired of the focus on partying and socialising. After earning her degree, pulling herself out of the addictions, anxiety, and emotional trauma from hookups with disrespectful men took their toll. She grew out of the phase, and would only consider returning for the occasional rave or clubbing night out. “People have lives outside the party scene,” she told me, before adding, “Some of these girls went to medical school or law school after college.” When I asked my high school-aged sister if there were still ABGs at my alma mater, she reported that they were alive and well. She was even close with one, quickly adding that her friend was “super smart and nice!” despite her identification.

For every person I approached about being an ABG, there was an acknowledgement of the stereotype followed by a quick dispelling of it. For many Asian American women, partying and experimenting is a youthful phase that any other teen or college student might go through, yet they also have to contend with the weight of a label, and one that is of our own making. A white teen dyeing their hair and joining a sorority is just a common white teen, whereas ABGs must prove “this is not the only thing I am.” The adoption of mass Asian American narratives repeatedly erases nuance and personalities, in the name of community and relatability.

In the past few years, the aesthetic has toned down and become more flexible to fit with natural beauty trends. Many women have varying degrees of ABG characteristics, picking and choosing what they are comfortable with without regards to the archetype, while others like TZ go for a lifestyle that is short-lived and all-consuming. My coworkers still meet with their childhood friends every few weeks to dress up and have nice dinners. They post filtered group photos and occasionally go to concerts together, they have families and own businesses. They still look hot. When I first texted Mabel and Jennie to ask if I could interview them, I had to explain what an ABG was, and they replied with a casual “oh haha.” They aren’t concerned with what people label them, even though they are some of the most exemplary ABGs I know. In my daily life, the term seems to be popping up less and less, but maybe I am just becoming out of touch. Either way, ABGs are growing old.

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RACISM