Karin Aguilar-San Juan (Ed.), The State of
Asian Identities in Film and Video by Richard Fung
Up until the nineteenth century, Chinese people imagined themselves at the center of the world. They saw their country occupying the space between heaven and earth: the Middle Kingdom. As an imperialist, colonizing power they developed what is now politely referred to as "Han chauvinism," which categorized all non-Han people—Mongolians, Miao, Tibetans ... and white people—as barbarians. In popular speech Chinese speakers still often refer to non-Chinese as ghosts.
the Chinese—most of them peasants—began to immigrate to the
While the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Filipinos, and the Vietnamese had fought each other in their old countries, and sometimes continued to do battle in the new, they had one thing in common. Here, they were all branded with the mark "oriental." Before, they had just seen themselves as east or west of a given mountain, a town or an island. In this new land, they were collectively and permanently east of something... or someone. And while one group was occasionally singled out for praise or hostility—so that was seen as being too rich and buying up all the land, or too poor and working below market value, or owing allegiance to a threatening foreign power, or flooding the land with refugees and street gangs—the makers laws and decisions really couldn't tell one from the other, and could only see the yellow in their skins. In World War II, the Canadian government issued buttons that marked the wearer as Chinese, to distinguish him or her from the
Japanese Canadian "enemy." There are rare stories of buttons being lent to friends so they could pass. To the East and Southeast Asians, their skin had of course just been skin: coarse with work, pale from a life of privilege, hairy or smooth. But then, even some of them began to look at their own hands and see them as yellow. Soon, rather than different shades of human, they began to notice that the hands of others were white, brown, red, and black. It's not that they hadn't noticed differences before, or that they didn't have their own conceptions of beauty or worth, but this particular coding and hierarchy of "races" was new.
consciousness only begins to eclipse national consciousness in the context of
white racism, and particularly as experienced here in the diaspora. It is
premised on a shared sense of visibility, and less on any common cultural,
aesthetic, or religious roots: What does Filipino Catholicism have to do with
Japanese Buddhism or the Islam of Malaysia? In
problem exists with the term "Asian."
Asians and East/Southeast Asians are rightly Asian. Yet because we are seen to
constitute distinct groups, our experiences of racism and our resulting
politics of resistance tend to follow different lines. Hence, organizing under
the banner "Asian" leads to many logistical problems: Around whose
terms are discussions of Asian identity framed? Who gets included and who
tokenized? In the
Some endeavors have consciously attempted a "pan-Asian" basis of unity, but this works only when organizers take difference and equity into account, and plan them right from the start. Resolving this issue, however, is only partly a matter of finding more accurate names, as people will always fall out of attempts to carve up and categorize the continuity and fluidity that actually exists in the world. At the same time, we draw strength from using our socially constructed identities (with all of the problems I've described) as a lever for organizing and challenging racism. In describing and problematizing our own (albeit shifting) locations, we can move out to understand a system from which we share common oppression. It's in this way that I choose to work within a "yellow" experience of race. This I call "Asian," but with the full recognition that Asian is not only this experience.
that the form of racism we encounter in
give you three examples. First, when I leave my home and walk to the subway, I
pass a man who is young, white, anglophone, "able-bodied," and (I'm
presuming) heterosexual. He asks me for money. He lives on the street and is
economically poorer than I am. But he's also a skinhead, and if I don't give
him money, I am aware he may resort to racist harassment. Second, this summer
when I walked over to my corner store I overheard a black kid and a white kid
mimicking aloud the language of the Vietnamese children playing on the street.
I revisited all those conflicted emotions of my childhood: anger and embarrassment
mixed with an attempt to "contextualize" what I had witnessed.
Finally, after returning home from a recent trip to
historical misrepresentations of mainstream media, I am not surprised that most
independent films and videotapes produced by North American men and women of
Asian descent seek redress from white supremacy. They perform the important
tasks of correcting histories, voicing common but seldom represented
experiences, engaging audiences used to being spoken about but never addressed,
and actively constructing a politics of resistance to racism. In her
comprehensive article, "Moving the Image: Asian American Independent
Filmmaking, 1970-1990," filmmaker-critic Renee Tajima chronicles the
myriad strategies Asian Americans have employed in identifying and exposing
white and Eurocentric assumptions both on the screen and behind the camera.
Consider, for example, Valerie Soe's two-minute epigram of a videotape, All Orientals Look the Same (1985), in
which the title phrase forms a continuous chant beneath a ceaseless procession
of different Asian faces; the juxtaposition is all she needs to expose the lie
of the stereotype. Who Killed Vincent
Chin? (1989) by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima, on the other hand,
demonstrates the consequence of that stereotype—Vincent Chin was killed in
unemployed autoworkers who thought he was Japanese—and thereby articulates a basis of unity for Asians on this continent, if only for self-protection.
But in this chapter I want to turn my attention to a small but important body of work that addresses issues of identity and politics beyond an axis of white and yellow. Here I am not primarily interested in those pieces that place Asians alongside other people of color in positions of solidarity or equivalence, such as Pratibha Parmar's Emergence (1986), Shu Lea Cheang's Color Schemes (1989), or Michelle Mohabeer's Exposure (1990). These are important works. I want, however, to focus on films and tapes that explore differences among Asians, as well as between Asians and other non-white peoples.
American popular politics has developed the term "people of color."
This formulation has the advantage of drawing connections between people and
avoiding slippage into a discourse of racial purity. But while it is true that
non-white peoples are all casualties of white supremacy, the term "people
of color," like "Asian," draws a line that collapses racial
difference and assumes unity of purpose. From the early 1990s, a number of
incidents began to fracture this illusion. In
Two documentary films—Bittersweet
Survival (1982) by Christine Choy and Orinne J.T. Takagi and Mississippi Triangle (1984) by Christine
Choy, Worth Long, and Allan Siegel—uncover the socio-political and economic
roots of interracial tension. This is a critical undertaking because it
undermines the notion that racism is simply a question of attitude, or worse,
of some ingrained, quasi-genetic antipathy ascribed to "human nature."
Mississippi Triangle examines the
interplay of class and race in the American South, focusing on the fabric of
interactions between whites, blacks, and Chinese. In this cotton-growing
region, categorization according to race is a crucial aspect of social organization.
Bittersweet Survival looks at more
recent immigrants: Southeast Asian refugees. Having escaped the dangers of war
in their home countries—war made devastating through American
involvement—families arriving in the
Juxta (1989) ponders the fallout from
another earlier war. Directed by Hiroko Yamazaki, this short drama follows the
relationship between two children, both born of
Juxta concentrates primarily on white bigotry. But though Asians have often suffered for not being white, their relationship to other groups of people of color has not necessarily been easy. In Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), after the angry crowd has demolished Sal's Pizzeria, they turn to the other symbol of external exploitation, the Korean grocery store. In the heat of confrontation, the owner anxiously defends his business by sputtering "Me no white. Me no white. Me black. Me black. Me black." In a world divided into black and white, the Asian is asked to choose on which side of the fence he sits. In this film, the Korean shop owner's claim to black identity seems fuelled mainly by expediency and immediate self-interest. Yet it (enigmatically) works and the crowd reluctantly moves on ... for the time being. The film suspends judgement. Do the Right Thing presents a vivid portrait of racism in action. Yet, unlike Bittersweet Survival, its exclusive focus on a single neighborhood means that we see only the effects of power. The political and economic factors and decisions that produce that picture escape analysis.
With the ingenious use of a mole, Sally's Beauty Spot (1990) similarly interrogates the place of Asians in a black-white matrix. In Helen Lee's short experimental film, an Asian woman's obsessive attempt to erase a mark from her breast becomes a metaphor for a struggle with identity and racialized notions of beauty. Lee juxtaposes this narrative with a meditation on spectatorship, as the off-screen voices of Asian women (and quotes from theorist Homi K Bhabha) interrogate the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzy Wong, unleashing a multiplicity of readings and positions in relation to the film. As Sally rethinks her mole from blemish to beauty mark, the metaphor is literalized on-screen as a kiss with a black man. Her cover-all make-up spills onto the floor as the words "black is" are typed onto a sheet of paper.
From the 1960s we know that the missing word is "beautiful." But, what about yellow? Sally's Beauty Spot is densely packed with metaphor and does not lend itself to a literal reading. Yet it leaves itself open to an interpretation that suggests our struggle as Asians involves locating ourselves within black politics. The use of the same framing for Sally's kiss with the black man at the end of the film and a white man earlier underlines the white-black binarism.
For Asians to show solidarity with people of African descent, we should not have to claim blackness. Indeed, I would argue that we can only work toward unity by speaking from where we actually are. Obviously, all Asians are not the same, and our various locations will always shift. In any case, this location is not black or white or some position "in between." The struggle against racism is not one of finding a convenient or seemingly correct drawer to fit in. It first involves the traumatic but ultimately liberating task of seeing that the boundaries, and indeed the contemporary conception, of race are not natural, but socially constructed and specific to the times in which we live. For while the early use of "race" in English referred to the French race, the British race and so on, the division of humanity into white, black, red and yellow was only codified and popularized in the eighteenth century, through the work of Enlightenment scientists such as Swedish botanist, Charles Linnaeus. Struggling against racism also entails working with race not simply as one autonomous piece of the mantra of race, class, gender and sexuality. We must recognize that the experience of racism is gendered, classed, and sexualized: My experience of racism as a middle-class, gay Chinese man is different from that of a middle-class, heterosexual Chinese man or a working-class, Chinese lesbian.
Beyond implications of its metaphors, the yellow-black sexuality in Sally's Beauty Spot—and in Juxta—is rare and highly charged. Miscegenation is the ultimate fear for many Asian parents, especially if the "outsider" is other than white. The scarcity of representations of interracial sexuality among the "others"—further rare examples include Mississippi Masala (1991) by Mira Nair and the lesbians in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Hanif Kureishi—bespeaks a situation in which producers are not interested in touching an issue that is so taboo as to be repressed. Or else it reveals the subtle work of racist assumptions in the economics of funding and distribution: on whose terms is it decided what is important, interesting, and viable?
But while Sally's Beauty Spot is groundbreaking for transgressing the white-centeredness that even informs our anger, the fact that Sally never kisses an Asian unfortunately reflects the absence of Asian men from Western sexual representation. For while white males have traditionally fetishized Asian women as sexual objects par excellence—and they are still not ubiquitous even within these terms—Hollywood and television have cast Asian men either as villains with a threatening but unspoken/unspeakable sexuality, or more commonly, they have infantilized them into pre-pubescent grown men such as Bonanza's Hop Sing. Given this context, it isn't surprising that many North American-born Asians do not think of other Asians in sexual terms.
Wayne Wang's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1988) addresses the question of impotence in an historical setting of the fifties and in the context of community cultural pressures. It describes the often-ignored personal fallout from the clash of values of different generations. The issue is also addressed obliquely in Pam Tom's Two Lies (1990), a short narrative film about beauty and self-image, in which a Chinese American teenager reflects on her mother's pending operation to enlarge her eyes. In Helen Lee's My Niagara (1992), however, a short drama co-written with Kerri Sakamoto, the sexual relationship between two Asians becomes the film's focus. Julie Kumagai is a young sansei woman who lives alone with her father, her mother having drowned off the coast of
The brief spectacle of Julie and Tetsuro making love is a rare occasion of intra-racial Asian sexuality in a North American production. But this is not a nationalist treatise. While Mr. Kumagai's bewilderment that Julie would leave her (white) boyfriend for "a Korean who wants to be Japanese" hints at the social significance of her choice—both the chauvinism that has informed Japan's relationship with Korea and Koreans living in Japan, and the fact that over 90 percent of sansei in Canada marry non-Japanese—the film happily avoids political prescriptiveness on "correct" sexual partners. Julie's and Tetsuro's mutual involvement does not resolve the internal conflicts of identity for either character.
from its nuanced treatment of the question of sex and race, My Niagara also upsets an unproblematic
notion of home. For Julie, home is a perpetually elusive search for the mother.
For Tetsuro, home is equally unreal—neither
At the same time, "Asian-ness" can easily mask real power differences, not only of class, gender and sexuality, but of ethnicity itself. In researching this chapter, for instance, it was striking to me how many working Asian American and Asian Canadian film and video makers come from those Asian communities, not necessarily with the longest history here, but certainly with the most economic clout. While there has been work by Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, and Malay directors, film and video makers of Japanese and Chinese heritage continue to dominate the offerings at "Asian" showcases and festivals. And many Asian groups have not yet had access to production.
I am aware that my sense of priorities, and even my experience of racism, is rooted in being both an indistinguishable yellow-skin and specifically Chinese. So that while I may feel solidarity, neither internment, nor refugee camps—nor the head tax for that matter—is my own specific history. Even as an Asian producer myself, I cannot speak from these experiences, but I can assist in opening a space in which others can see and hear these visions and voices.