The Art of Car: Inside the Asian American Subculture of Import Cars

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SAN MATEO, Calif. — Imagine taking the nation’s fastest, most technologically modified cars and parking them on the dance floor of the hottest hip-hop club. With fog machines, DJs, B-boys, models and go-go dancers, that was the scene at San Mateo’s Expo Center for a recent gathering of Hot Import Nights, an event produced more than twenty times a year across the United States and known as the premier auto show in the import car industry.

Unlike other auto shows, Hot Import Nights synthesizes a night club-like atmosphere with the nation’s toughest and most rigorous “tuner” (automotive modification) competitions. It also highlights the growing subculture of import cars and racing, a billion-dollar industry dominated by Asian Americans.

The genesis of car modification culture stemmed from America’s hot rod classics of the 1950s and 1960s, but the exact origin of the import car scene remains controversial. From young Latino males in the 1970s to Asian American youth in Southern California in the 1980s and 1990s, the birth of the import car racing scene is widely contested.

“The import car scene was a movement,” said Ernie Manansala, a well-respected import car tuner whose claim to fame was a modified 1993 Lexus SC300 for NOS Energy Drink last year. “It helped complicate the Asian American male stereotype of being quiet, studious, computer geeks and turned us into a group that others can respect on a different level.”

Manansala, a 25-year-old Filipino American from New Jersey, is one of thousands of Asian American import car enthusiasts who have made careers out modifying cars.

For Jim Pan, president of the tuner club TW Competition, modifying cars started out as just a hobby. “I was actually in hotel management,” Pan said. “I came to a point in my life where I just wanted to pursue my passion and interests in cars.

Pan, born in Taiwan and raised in New York, founded TW Competition in 2001 with a small group of friends. Currently, it is the most exclusive tuner club in America, according to Modified Luxury & Exotics magazine. At Hot Import Nights, TW Competition was named the Hottest Team Overall and Hottest Team Representation, in addition to club members claiming ten individual awards.

Despite being a predominantly male niche, Asian American females constitute the majority of models in the import car scene. Hot Import Nights’ modeling competition is considered one of the most prestigious modeling contests in the industry. “Hot Import Nights is the biggest influence in the industry,” explains KT So, a professional model and first generation Chinese American from Los Angeles. “Just look at the exposure and large crowds they bring out.” An audience of 330, 000 attended the event in 2007.

Bianca Smith, whose ethnic background is Filipino and Swedish, recently won the 2008 competition. “Hot Import Nights is the biggest event [in the industry] that brings people together from all over the world,” Smith said. “I am so proud to represent this community.”

And interest in tuning and car modifications at the professional level among Asian American women seems to be growing. At the San Mateo event, approximately five female tuners presented their vehicles for competition.

But it was their male counterparts who showed the ostentation for which import car culture is known for. Cars featured computer keyboards on visors, monitors on dashboards, television screens on windows, digital LED gauges for engine data, and sound systems that totaled over $55,000.

But it’s more than just bling for bling’s sake, many car aficionados say.

“It’s an expression of our lifestyles,” said Chris Agloro, the owner of a 2006 Mustang GT and the overall points winner for the 2007 car competition. HIN holds competitions at every event and participants can earn points from event judges. The participant with the most points at the end of the year is the winner.

For some, box-office smashes like The Fast and the Furious and Gone in 60 Seconds solidified the connection between the import car industry and criminal activity. And street racing is undeniably dangerous — in 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that police listed street racing as a factor in 135 fatal crashes. However, the majority of Asian American models, tuners, DJs, and attendees say that the subculture has created a positive impact on the community.

“It brings together all nationalities and walks of life,” said Manansala. “It provides an alternative to gangs, drugs and violence that our youth are so susceptible to. Furthermore, it definitely teaches you discipline and responsibility because you learn that every piece you invest requires a lot of hard work and money.”

“What the canvas is to the artist, the car is to the tuner,” Pan adds. “I think, by nature, I’m not that expressive. For me and other people in the industry, cars are our way to articulate our creativity.”

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