Wong Fu and Bopomofo’s Phil Wang: Building things that last

Cold Tea Collective sits down with the legendary Phil Wang of Wong Fu and Bopomofo to talk about his work and what’s next.

Walking into Bopomofo Cafe in the San Gabriel Valley — aka land of the best Chinese food in Los Angeles — the Cold Tea Collective crew is greeted by friendly staff at the counter, and not far from the front door, a wild Phil Wang is spotted, working on what could very well be the next big script for Wong Fu Productions

Wang is co-founder of the new cafe along with business partner Eric Wang (no relation). He didn’t just greet us as the boba shop owner, but as a genuinely nice guy (see what I did there?).

How could this legendary man who has influenced generation Y and Z be so approachable? 

The story of Bopomofo Cafe. Interview with Phil Wang and Cold Tea Collective’s Natasha Jung.

“Sometimes people come to the cafe, see me behind the counter and ask why I work here,” said Wang. “I joke and tell them Wong Fu isn’t cutting it these days, so I had to pick up a second job,” said Wang. 

Ah yes, it’s his humour, humility, and work ethic.  

Frequented by Wong Fu fans and boba lovers alike, Bopomofo Cafe is something everyone can understand. 

“I think there’s something aspirational about seeing a business start from scratch,” he said. “Not everyone can relate to creating videos on YouTube, but everyone’s been to a cafe.” 

Three years after initially deciding to make the cafe a reality, Wang continues to share progress photos and real talk about running a business.

https://www.instagram.com/p/ByB870mFS0u/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

IT’S NOT JUST A CAFE, IT’S A COMMUNITY SPACE

The first time Wang went to a boba shop was in high school and he recalled feeling a sense of empowerment.

“It was the culture of getting boba, and having something that felt distinctly Asian American.”

In college, Wang knew he wanted to work at a boba shop because he associated it with being a “cool Asian American — I fell in love with hospitality and being creative through food, beverage and service.”

After college, Wang moved to the San Gabriel Valley, where Bopomofo is now located, and got to writing some of our favourite Wong Fu scripts in boba shops. 

Photo Credit: Natasha Jung

“We wanted to create a physical space where young creatives could work on their stuff, just like how coffee shops can be to others.”

In the complex where Bopomofo is located, there are three other neighbouring boba shops, but that’s not of concern for Wang — he’s more focused on giving back. 

“We wanted to put our roots down in a community that raised us,” the entrepreneur said. “These Asian enclaves are where we came from. We wanted to reinvest in the community. I want to take pride in where we come from in our dual upbringing.”

WHO YOU CALLING A BOPOMOFO?

The new cafe owner takes pride in offering a product influenced by both Asian and American food culture, which is recognized in its name.

“Our concept is very ABC (American Born Chinese), our menu is ABC food, so our name Bopomofo is actually the first few letters of Mandarin Chinese language.”

Watch a short clip of how Wang recites his ABCs in Mandarin:

Cold Tea Collective runs Phil Wang through Mandarin drills.

After our interview, we ordered food including the Bopomofo Taiwanese fried chicken sandwich and MOFO Club and desert dou-tiao.

Who delivered our order to our table? None other than Phil Wang himself, along with a camera to take photos of the beautiful food his team had just created because #content. 

Photo Credit: Natasha Jung

WONG FU

The Wong Fu Productions YouTube channel says their page was created in 2007, but day one fans may recall being sent a link to download the earliest of Wong Fu’s productions via an FTP site — aka before YouTube. 

Since then, their hits such as Strangers Again and Everything Before Us, their more recent hits Asian Bachelorette 1 and 2 and Dating After College, and their weekly walk show Lunch Break, have amassed over 600,000,000 views to date.

When reflecting upon his own success, Wang said he never set out to be a filmmaker, influencer, or famous — he was just trying to get through college.

“Wong Fu just happened and we stepped up to the plate to take it to where it is now,” said the filmmaker. “Timing, luck, passion arose through storytelling to get us where we are today.”

Wang often hears comments from Asian Americans about how they changed the course of their careers and lives. 

“It happened so gradually, so I didn’t realize we affected a generation,” said Wang. “Knowing that we have made an impact on others, I think about the people who have inspired me and it blows my mind.”

WHAT’S NEXT

When asked what’s next for Wong Fu Productions, Wang said both growth and maintenance. 

“YouTube is harder than ever to get into, so the next phase is to use the platform to help find and grow the next generation of creators.”

Wang also recognizes most Wong Fu content is East Asian, heteronormative, West Coast, SoCal Asian, and there are more stories that need to be told, so he supports other content creators such as the Asian Boss Girl Podcast, of which his now-wife Helen Wu and friends Janet Wang and Melody Cheng are behind. 

Photo Credit: Natasha Jung

BUILT TO LAST

The content creator recognizes the challenge in appealing to everyone’s tastes. 

“As a business, we want to keep our core audience fulfilled, but we also need to reach out to new audiences and try to find new people that age into our content,” said Wang. 

“Ultimately it has to come back to creating content that we are proud of — if we are only creating content that we think our audience will like, that’s a never-ending cycle of disappointment for ourselves. We still have to make things we believe in personally.”

To quote the ultimate Tiger Mom, Eleanor Young from Crazy Rich Asians, Phil Wang understands how to build things that last.

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People chatting at the Making It documentary screening.

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