FOR years Asian-Americans have been depicted by the news media as the ``model minority'' for their rigorous work ethic and studious youth. Are they also the model consumer? The originators of a magazine called Rice are banking on it. Founded in San Francisco in 1987 and now published out of Los Angeles, this slick West Coast monthly targets young Asian-American professionals and entrepreneurs, the so-called yappies of the late 1980s.
``Our original intent was to bridge the gap between Asians in the Bay Area with a community newspaper because there is such a prominence of Asian-Americans here,'' says the magazine's founder, Doug Wong, a 34-year-old Chinese-American businessman and San Francisco native. ``But as we began to research and look into the market, we found it was really more upscale.''
According to US Census Bureau figures, Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing minority in the United States, topping 5 million as of 1985, about 2.1 percent of the US population of 239 million. Barring changes in US immigration law, the number of Asian-Americans will reach 9.9 million by the year 2000. This group is of special interest to advertisers and publishers because it tends to be relatively affluent: 32 percent have had at least four years of college, and the median family income is $22,075, 11 percent above the US average.
``Mainstream America has always thought of the Asian-American market as lucrative and growing, but no one knew much about it,'' says national ethnic advertising director Will Chow, also a San Francisco native of Chinese heritage. ``The total consuming power of Asian-Americans runs into the billions.''
The specialty magazine business is notoriously volatile, with publications starting and faltering every month, but Rice, which entered its second year with a domestic and overseas circulation of 75,000, has grown steadily. It is now distributed nationally by Select, Inc., one of the country's top distributors. The biggest milestone, however, was selection for a national ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) audit, which verifies circulation.
Doug Wong and his partner, Lawrence Lui, founded Rice with an initial $500,000 investment. Wong figures they will lose more than $1 million the first year, but he is confident they will turn a profit by the end of the second year.
Rice is the second US monthly to target the young, upscale Asian market, which is said to number 700,000 households nationwide with an average income of $67,000. The ground breaker, ASIAM, began in Los Angeles last December.
Editor/publisher Chin Wang says the editorial focus is ``on issues that have an impact on both Asian-American groups and Asians in the Pacific Rim.'' So far articles have tended to be light, avoiding ``controversial'' topics, but Mr. Wang is fostering a more serious image.
In these days of Japan's towering economic strength and presence, and the well-lauded success of America's own ``model minority,'' it is hard for many people to think of Asians as anything but part of the mainstream, but Wong contends Rice fills an important gap: ``You see Time and Newsweek, but it's hard for me to relate and understand my culture by reading them. I hope that in picking up a magazine like Rice, young Asians - whether they are rich or poor - can find something in it, something they can be proud of.''
Response from the Asian-American community has been mixed. Some feel the highly successful image that Rice projects reflects only a small, very successful minority of the Asian-American community and masks the fact that many Asian-Americans are still struggling. According to the magazine's own surveys, readership is predominantly Chinese and male, with an average income of $35,000, followed by a Caucasian readership of 20 percent.
``RICE is of concern because of what they seem to project,'' says Chin Jang, a San Francisco architect of Chinese heritage who is active in the coalition against anti-Asian violence, ``Break the Silence.'' ``The Asian experience has been diverse and is getting more diverse every minute; Rice presents distortions. I wouldn't want to see it go out of business, but I don't think they're serious enough.''
Carole Hayashino, information officer of the Bay Area Japanese Citizens League, has similar concerns. ``The whole `model minority' image is exaggerated and misused,'' she says. ``It's used to overlook the realities of ongoing Asian-American problems.''
According to the November 1985 Population Reference Bureau Bulletin, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Asian Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese make up 95 percent of the Asian-American population, but there are 22 smaller Asian groups. Chinese-Americans, whose history goes back to 1849 and the gold rush, constitute the majority. Now fourth- and fifth-generation American citizens, they are well established and often affluent. In contrast, new immigrants such as the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians often live in poverty.
``Asian-Americans have only done well in two areas,'' says Amado Cabezas, the coordinator of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, ``higher education and some kinds of businesses, mostly in labor-intensive operations where they have done well because of very hard work and long hours.''
``Obviously there is a market for a magazine such as Rice,'' Professor Cabezas says. ``And I wouldn't say it is strictly a Yappie magazine, but I think its readership is mostly Chinese- and Japanese-American born, those who are trying to find their way in the workplace. The problem in that group is upward mobility.''
Does Rice really present the range of issues facing the entire Asian-American community? Doug Wong believes so. ``Our goal is to be the lead product in Asian-American/Pacific Rim communications.'' Its very name, he says, is an attempt to unite and represent all the different Asian-American groups.
``We wanted an element that they could all relate to. Whether they were rich or poor,'' he says. ``Everyone grew up on rice. We hope that the magazine is something they will grow with, too.''