Yellow Peril: Reconsidered by Paul Wong
Yellow Peril Reconsidered is a national touring exhibition of photography, film and video work by twenty-five Asian Canadians. This essay by the curator is one of six essays in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.
Yellow Peril: Reconsidered is a diverse selection of experimental and documentary photo, film and video work produced by Asian Canadians. It includes artists and producers of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino origins. This grouping of twenty-five artist’s works, collaborations and community projects represents the voice of new immigrants and of those who have been here for many generations.
The exhibition and publication focus on specific works that reflect Asian Canadian sensibilities. I have defined “Asian” by the colour of our skin and the geographic regions it implies. The ways in which we have been depicted, treated and consequently viewed by others in the new World are different form those of other visible minorities: Blacks, Natives and Indo-Canadians.
Asian Canadians have been excluded from contemporary art and from the production of film and television projects. As visible minorities, we have historically faced numerous racist obstacles such as the Head Tax, imposed on Chinese immigration from 1885 to 1923, the Exclusion Act which prevented new immigration from 1923 to 1947, and the internment and deportation of the Japanese during WWII. These and other legislative acts prevented earlier generations from obtaining equal rights in Canada, such as voting, land ownership, education. They also legitimized popular racism against the yellow hordes. This in turn created an inferiority complex that has helped shape behavioral practice within our communities, and the way our community is viewed in the New World by the dominant culture.
Behavioral codes include “try hard not to be noticed” and “be subservient to white people.” They are also evident in the ongoing stereotypical portrayal of Asian women in popular media as either being Susie Wongs or Geisha Girls. Further laws denied Asian workers access to skilled labour jobs. Asians were relegated to physically dangerous positions building the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) and to low paying jobs such as fish canning, sewing in sweat, shops, operating laundries, farming and domestic labour. To insure that the population did not grow, women and children were not allowed to immigrate. To insure that Asian businesses did not prosper, they were discouraged from hiring white workers.
As late as 1947, Prime Minister MacKenzie King stated: “The policy of the government is to foster the growth of the population of Canada by the encouragement of immigration… The essential things is that immigrants be selected with care, and that their numbers be adjusted to the absorptive capacity of the country. There will, I am sure, be general agreement with the view that the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the Orient would change that fundamental composition of the Canadian population.”
Although this Order in Council P.C. 2115 was finally repeated in 1956, the sentiment it expressed is still common today.
Despite the hardships, legal, semi-legal and illegal immigration continued. Asians created elaborate methods to take advantage of the widely-held belief that “all Orientals looked the same” to unite families and bring in new immigrants. Asians were silenced by the constant threat of deportation. Forces within and outside the community encouraged them “not to be outspoken and to be law-abiding.” Asians had to prove themselves to be as good as whites. Incredible pressures were placed upon the native-born children to be fully assimilated Canadians and to strive for success in the “prestigious professions” of doctors, lawyers and accountants.
The Asian community is made up of many different, and often oppositional, factions separated by class, politics and religion just like any other community. The indifference that Asian communities in the new World have toward alternative art and to support or recognition of the contributions being made by non-conventional Asian Canadians is no coincidence. Community leaders within minority groups tend to be extremely conservative. They often reflect the racist and oppressive attitudes of the dominant culture back onto their own, once again proving that they are just like the dominant voice. Entry into the community is difficult at best.
In general, few Asians venture into the field of contemporary art practice. Those who do, make fully assimilated “Eurocentric” work or choose to work in traditional forms or commercial art areas. In recent years, more Asians have been visible in the art milieu. This is especially noticeable while visiting art colleges. With this marked increase of participations by Asians we are slowly beginning to see works that address and question issues of race within a dominant white society.
Despite what we are taught to believe in Canada, it is appalling how far behind the United States and the United Kingdom we are in the development of “minority programs.” The ongoing and unresolved bilingualism problem in Canada leaves little room or no monies, political energies, commitment or media attention for other cultural issues. This inability to recognize “others’ directly, and perhaps intentionally, suppresses our voices.
The idea of multiculturalism is in an infant stage of development. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act, which became law on July 21, 1988, requires that all departments and agencies of the federal government make multiculturalism part of their policies and programs. Multiculturalism is perceived as a “catch phrase,” yet another “ism” not to be trusted, a buzz word used as a rallying point by the politician of the month, the deputy ministers and lifers (government employees), who interpret policies to insure that their jobs continue.
Most federal and related agencies are just staring to begrudgingly deal with this problem. It is the intention of Yellow Peril to contribute in a positive way to these discussions before policies and programs are defined. The exhibition and publication present critical views by Asian Canadians. To be understood, we must first be seen and be heard.
It is only now that we are beginning to see and to define ourselves. We have all learned about Western culture and, in the art world, how to appreciate the banalities of the Euro avant-garde. These are the standard upon which we base our opinions.
It is a racist practice to judge marginalized work and new ideas that have never been given the opportunity to evolve. When confronted by work that is different, we don’t understand because we do not know how to see. When viewing work that is critical of the dominant culture, we get offended because it is about us. When seeing work that is clearly and intentionally “reverse racism,” we get reactionary and defensive. It’s called a taste of your own medicine. The unfortunate part is that we usually dismiss work of this nature as being “not art” and being too “specific.” It is institutionalized racism that allows these types of well-meaning qualifications to spew out of the mouths of so called non-racist white middle class liberals. I have spoken with those types who have rebuked my curatorial intentions by stating that “I was just as white, if not whiter, than they were.” I have been called a “banana Asian,” yellow on the outside and white on the inside. What makes me even angrier is the denial of our cultural possibilities by other Asians. It is the institutionalized racism that permeates our everyday lives. It has oppressed people to the point where they automatically censor whole parts of their histories in order to function in society. While researching and developing the exhibition, I spoke with many Asian artists who chose not to be a part of this exhibition because their work didn’t reflect on “Asian Canadian sensibility,” or they did not want to participate in something that would stigmatize them as being Asian artists.
Although we are grouped together as one single “visible minority,” the language and cultural problems within our specific ethnic groups are enormous. There is hostility and misunderstanding between native and non-native borns, the assimilated and the not-so assimilated, those who native tongue is English or those whose is not.
I have also spoken with white artists who felt excluded from the process, arguing that they were as well informed, if not better, on the issue and had a stronger Asian sensibility than many of the artists in the exhibition. After all, they had spent many years in the Orient and were fluent in several dialects. They fail to see that the process of self-discovery they say they support for Asians, leaves no room for European colonialists.
This assumption is predicated on the hierarchical condition in which non-Asians (Asianphiles) embrace non-Canadian born Asians as the real thing. They embody the exotic, they fit more neatly into colonial expectations. Asianphiles’ tendencies include hurling themselves at “things Asian” and gaining enlightenment through appropriating the hip elements of Eastern religions. Asianphiles are the collectors of Asian artifacts. They festoon themselves with curios, the trinkets of an imperial past. The current fascination is to watch the art world competing to embrace the “genuine Chinese” artist, to be the first one on gallery row to show off the “dissident artist” who boldly denounces the evils of communism.
This exhibition features the real views of the Asian New World. The focus in on the use of photography, film and video (the communication and information mediums). The tools of mass media and popular culture are the authoritative and principle voices for government and multinational corporations. Film, video and photography are the popular languages of our time and thus represent the most possibilities for innovations and ruptures. They are the 20th century forms that offer these artists the best potential to “define” themselves. They have not automatically been pigeon-holed into conventional modes of representation. In order to make new or radical statements, one must use new and radical means. These are the very media that have appropriated our culture and our heritage. The artists in Yellow Peril have set out to reclaim images that are theirs.
The Yellow Peril logo uses a commercial available typestyle known as Chinatown. Other similar typefaces are called Chopstick and Fantan. We are reclaiming stereotype sign language as ours and repositioning it to mean far more than a Chinese Canadian restaurant logo or too much starch on your collar.
Throughout the exhibition, various themes emerge. Food is at the centre of Daisy Lee’s The Morning Zoo and Anthony Chan’s Chinese Cafes in Rural Saskatchewan. From the growing and selling in Morning Zoo to the cooking and serving in Chinese Cafes, these works focus on the stories of ordinary people.
The reproduction capabilities of photography, film and video have attracted artists and producers engaged by the potential for wider distribution and access to a broader public. Several photo projects are book works. Melanie Boyle has produced I Have Always Loved the Romance of Travel in an accessible form. The 24-page book is available for $1. The book was originally produced in 1988 using photocopier on rice paper. Each book was handsewn together. The work is based upon her first travels to China. The use of the inexpensive form fits her bewildered innocence of culture shock.
Stories by Benjamin Chou is a one-off 24-page accordion book. Stretching out twenty feet, it is exhibited laying flat and cannot be handled by the viewer. The accordion book is designed to be displayed or handled preciously. The intimacy of the family album suits the format.
The Yellow Poem Project by Nhan Nguyen is a 24-page book of photo-collages using current colour photocopier methods. Although the book is in an edition of thirty, he will produce each book only as they are ordered. Each book is sold virtually for the cost of printing. Like Boyle, this is a first photo book work. Both consider themselves painters.
Nguyen is of Filipino/Vietnamese descent. He left Vietnam several months before the fall of Saigon. He learned more about the Vietnam War here than when he was there. His knowledge of these events and of history is informed by the images of mass media. His collages use those images to restructure his history. Many of the collages are about looking-Asians looking at Asians, Asians looking at Westerners. The juxtapositions of similar points of view clarifies the indifference, not the objectivity created by mass media. Being Vietnamese, he is constantly reminded about the war. There is an underlying assumption that he is directly responsible for it and the shaming of America.
America is still trying to cope with that defeat, which is being defined by the endless stream of Hollywood films that continue to portray the Vietnamese as unsavoury gooks and savages. Meanwhile the white or black American is portrayed as a big, camouflaged, sensitive sort of throbbing manhood. Feeling bad is predicated on feeling good.
Much of the Vietnamese population in Canada is, in fact, ethnic Chinese. Although born in Vietnam, many were expelled in retaliation for China’s aggressive acts on Vietnam’s borders. These actions were directly related to the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Nguyen’s presence in the exhibition reminds us that we are not all here in the “land of opportunity” by choice.
The sense of loss is met head on in a number of works including Ruby Truly’s The Journey, Jay Hirabayashi’s performance Rage and in the complex offering of Midi Onodera’s The Displaced View. These artists are Canadian-born Japanese. They carry the effects of the generation born after internment, growing up in the unspoken silence created by parents protecting them from the ugly truth. Truly left Hawaii and came to Canada as an act of protest over US involvement in Vietnam, and to further distance her past. Her video, The Journey, is a haunting work on the fear of returning to confront the (un)known. In Rage, Hirabayashi concocts an angry fusion of dance, theatre, music and history to portray the emotional response to the Japanese having been branded as “enemy aliens.”
The Displaced View touches upon many issues: wanting to grow up white, being isolated from other Japanese, growing up unable to understand of speak Japanese. The film explores these gaps by framing three generations of Onodera women. It is in English and Japanese, with only the English segments subtitled in Japanese. By not translating the Japanese to English, the non-Japanese speaking viewer shares the isolation felt by the filmmaker.
Tamio Wakayama is a documentary photographer. Furusato is the story of his search for identity as he journeys from rural Ontario in the 60s, to the Civil Rights Movement in the American South, to the plight of Native peoples across Canada, to Japan, and finally, to his birthplace, Vancouver.
I have included the work Silence Into Silence because it represents work being produced by community organizations to be used within those communities. The tape produced by L’Amite Chinoise de Montreal is a dramatic fiction in Cantonese and English, and consciously not in French. It is a feminist work from a non-conventional viewpoint. It is an unusual co-production with Videographe and directed by three non-Asians. Silence Into Silence speaks of the difficulties of assuming one’s voice.
Jin-me Yoon’s installation work (Im)permanent (Re)collection addresses the packaging and displaying of culture as nifty artifacts. The work is a mix of her family snapshots, icons of Korean culture, and that of American imperialist points of view. The work questions who represents history.
Ubiquitous China by Laiwan is bout the problem of language and its assumptions based on race. She asserts that the perpetuation of the English language constitutes the ongoing colonization of our cultures. This colonization is most evident in the case of the Vietnamese language in its written form. In forty years of European/American invasions, the language is now entirely based on the French alphabet. Its previous form, using Chinese characters, is barely known even to scholars.
Writing forms the basis of scripts for films and videotapes, the use of text occurs throughout the exhibition. Jim Wong-Chu is a photographer, writer, poet, broadcaster and activist. He has played a pivotal role in the development of an Asian Canadian identity. I have included five poem scrolls and the photo-triptych Iron Chink. It depicts a machine of the same name, built in Victoria in 1909 to replace the Chinese worker in the fish canning industry. It was promoted as being able to clean up to fifty fish per day, thereby replacing about six Chinese labourers.
Many of the artists in this exhibition use nom de plumes or have had their names changed legally. They have done so for varying reasons. Jim Wong-Chu is a “paper son,” a term describing the practice used to enter Canada or the US using another’s papers or that of a deceased relative. At the age of three, Jim Wong-Chu came to Vancouver. He was given to and adopted by an uncle. Wong-Chu is made from two clan names. Another example is Ruby Truly, who was born Linda Ansai. Truly was a stage character that she developed and Ruby the name of a mountain in BC. Chick Rice grew out of Grace Eng, Taki Buesinger is not a blues singer. Nhan Nguyen’s mother is Vietnamese, his father is Filipino. To leave Vietnam it was more advantageous to use the Vietnamese surname.
Most of us are given two names at birth, names in our native tongues used in the home and English names to better fit in on the outside. We do not have to be ashamed of who and what we are. It is not necessary to go from being Pak Ma to Joe Blow.
Many of the Yellow Peril artists are gay or lesbian, and some have dealt with these issues in their work. I have included Chinese Characters, the seminal work by Richard Fung that examines the desires of gay Asians in relation to white gay pornography. Richard Fung has produced an important body of work that is closely linked to a better understanding of self-identity. When I first met Richard in 1987, I remember being put off by his manner. I saw this later as perhaps my inability to place him. It wasn’t native-born English, it wasn’t English as a second language, it wasn’t just the affected speech of a homosexual, nor was it the accent of a UK education. Like many of the artists in this exhibition, he is not native-born, but neither is he fresh-off-the-boat. He was born and raised in Trinidad. Fung continues to produce work about being on the outside of already marginalized issues.
Two first films The Compact by Brenda Joy Lem and Sally’s Beauty Spot by Helen Lee are centered around the stereotyped visions of Asian femininity and sexuality—each work explores the notions of interracial expectations of obsession and fetish.
Photographer Chick Rice is obsessed with the notion of style. Tommy 1978-88 was edited for this exhibition. It is a series of portraits of chick of sittings by Tommy Wong. We see the stylistic influences of he individuals and the imposed collaborative trust. The selection of these seven photographs is a photographic history of the artist and the subject. It is about androgynous beauty.
Confronting assumptions and making comparisons are underlying themes throughout the exhibition. Take Bluesinger’s cibachromes, The Beginnings of the East, are of minority, non-Han Chinese Muslims on the other side of the Gobi Desert. They are a gentle reminder that visible minorities exist in other cultures and that they are being attacked in totalitarian and democratic regimes.
5000 Years of Good Advice by Mary-Ann Liu and Jay Samwald, was shot in China on super-8 film and edited on video. It includes repetitive images of a caged tiger pacing and young school children doing calisthenics. This work, released in 19878, is now even more relevant following the events of Tianammen Square in 1989.
Marlin Oliveros’ simple and visually stunning Ati Ati Han records what appears to be an impromptu celebration of semi-clad boys gyrating provocatively to the beat of primitive drums. It was recorded in Manila immediately after the fall of the Marcos regime. Oliveros’ relationship to the New World may be one of the past. He is not a landed immigrant, a Canadian citizen or a foreign alien. He has been to Canada and has tried numerous times to get landed status. I think he may have given up trying.
Chi Chung Mak’s East End Afternoon is a single photograph tat eloquently challenges the assumptions that all Hong Kong immigrants arrive with suitcases full of American dollars. Chi Chung Mak is a landed immigrant. Although he was educated in Canada, he has chosen to work in Hong Kong. The influx of recent Hong Kong immigration is not by choice. Given the choice to be able to live in a democratic Hong Kong or barbarian Canada, most would opt for the excitement of home.
Henry Tsang challenges our notion of what is foreign and undesirable from the point of view of a foreigner who cannot see why we are attracted to the opposite. The two photo works look at aspects of colonial culture as abnormal.
Making journeys and returning home are the principle subjects in the work of Sharyn Yuen and in one of the pieces by Roy Kiyooka. The ancient custom of ancestral worship ties many of us to villages (burial sites) in Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Where our bones rest, the places of our birth, the sites of our origins and those that came before us, are important links to our past and our present. As seen in Yuen’s photo text emulsion on handmade paper Jook Kaak is based on her first return. She states: “The intensity of the visit was overwhelming. It lasted all of 45 minutes.”
I have witnessed this emotional journey, the years of assumptions and the confusion of expectations mixed with sheer excitement of the moment that happens all too quickly. Yuen uses memory, notations, and photographs to recount those events, to see what formed and informed the velocity of that visit.
In Cantonese we call it hang san (walking the mountain). It is an ancient custom, a pilgrimage to the graves of our ancestors, where offerings are made to deities, rituals performed, firecrackers blown off and food shared at the graveside. It is not unusual to have bones exhumed and moved. We witness a similar ritual in Roy Kiyooka’s photo mural “her last trip up to the family grave on top of mt. Hitsudan.” The three large mural pieces in the exhibition attest to the way Kiyooka registers and views the world around him.
This exhibition includes the work of students as well as the important influence of Nobuo Kobuta and Roy Kiyooka, both born before internment. They are multi-disciplinary artists who have made significant contributions to contemporary art in Canada. In retrospect, they are the brave survivors of a generation that had to kick ass. Perhaps it is that drive that is at the very foundation of making art that attracts the so-called misfits and disenfranchised. It is those souls adrift and in search that often make the most worthy and brilliant statements of our time.
We can start to see what links us as Asians and as Canadians. We can see similar sensibilities at play and at work, we can start to see and to understand the differences. There is an Asian Canadian sensibility, there is an Asian Canadian contemporary art; there is an Asian Canadian photo, film and video community.
Produced against all odds, Yellow Peril: Reconsidered is a testimony that we do indeed exist. I am afraid that after having said that, we will be perceived as equals, as co-inhabitants. Unfortunately, in the search for “truth,” I have also created the “big lie.” This exhibition only exists due to the pressure applied to funding agencies and artist-run centers owned and operated by the white middle class. Perhaps I am helping to perpetuate the “one of each syndrome” that Midi Onodera outlines in her essay. The real truth is that there is very little activity in the area and I see no real or genuine support, other than on a one-off basis.
Originally published in: Video Guide, Spring 1991