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ABG: A History of the Original Asian It Girl



Asian Baby Girl, ABG for short, is often thrown around in the East and South East Asian communities. Its implications are controversial, and although its meaning may be debated, we have all heard of the term. Perhaps you’ve seen it in a Subtle Asian Traits post, or a TikTok transformation. One thing's for certain, and that ‘ABG’ is ubiquitous wherever the Asian diaspora are in the world.


Origins

'ABG' originally stood for Asian Baby Gangster. The term gained prominence in the 80s and 90s in the US, due to an increase of South East Asian immigration. Jackie Kan states:


‘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.'

The term originated from gang culture, describing a South East Asian girl who defies societal stereotypes already established about their East Asian counterparts. At the time, East Asians were heavily bound by the model minority myth, deeming them hard working and compliant within a dominantly white American society. ‘ABGs have been credited as rebellious, shirking polite, studious cultural norms in favour of being loud and taking up space’ states Mai Tran. The term eventually began to be used by some East Asians to insult South East Asians, perpetuating stereotypes about them being promiscuous and low class.


The Modern ABG

Nowadays, when ABG is mentioned, the surface level meaning mainly refers to a certain look or lifestyle. Their fashion is influenced by hip-hop inspired street style, a huge contrast to beauty standards in East and South East Asia entail. Pale skin and delicate features with large round eyes are switched for honey bronzed skin and cat eyes with large lashes. Their lifestyle stereotypically consists of parties, raves and lots of Boba stores.


In my opinion as a South East Asian, The ‘ABG look’ links me to a kind of culture of my own, not necessarily the history of a country, but the community of South East Asians in a foreign area. It’s a whole new beauty standard for East and South East Asians, which is far less rigid than the beauty standards in East and South East Asia itself.


Controversy

Due to the violent gang-related origins of the term, along with its history as an insult, some still perceive the term 'ABG' as offensive. Some debate on whether its meaning should have been changed, or if it's positive to have turned an insult into an aesthetic. Others say that it is a reclamation of the term, helping Asian diaspora break free of rigid beauty norms.


The largest controversy surrounding the term — who can say it? The modern ABG aesthetic is used by East and South East Asians alike, however due to its origins, many believe it is not right for Asians that once used it as an insult, to adopt it. There is also the issue of the ‘ABG look’ being specifically curated by South East Asians, for South East Asians, but East Asian disaspora have modified the look to suit their unique features.


As someone with South East and East Asian ancestry (with South East taking more predominance), I personally find ‘ABG’ to be a reclamation of power against South East Asian stereotypes.



Words by Piangfah Arnprakhon

(@piangfaharnprakhon on IG)


Edited by Lucy Eaton

(@llucyeaton on IG)

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