Asian American History and Culture series adds a new editor

This week, we welcome Modeling Citizenship author Cathy Schlund-Vials to the Asian American History and Culture series editorial team.

Temple University Press is pleased to announce the addition of Cathy Schlund-Vials, Associate Professor of English and Asian/Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, to the Asian American History and Culture series editorial team. Schlund-Vials, whose book, Modeling Citizenship , was published by Temple University Press in 2011, joins current series editors David Palumbo-Liu, K. Scott Wong, and Linda Trinh Võ.

Modeling Citizenship sm CompVõ, who is the incoming President of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), acknowledged, “Cathy Schlund-Vials’ impressive academic accomplishments and publication record will make her an invaluable asset to the Asian American History and Culture  editorial team. The range of her expertise in twentieth-century U.S. literature, multi-ethnic literature, immigrant/refugee narratives, refugee cultural production, critical race theory, human rights, and comparative ethnic studies will be important as we identify emergent research that should be highlighted in the series.”

Võ also spoke about her plans for the AAAS. “Next year as we mark the 50-year anniversary of the 1965 Immigration Act and 40 years since the Vietnam War ended, it is important for the Association for Asian American Studies to reflect how both events transformed the cultural, economic, and political trajectory of this nation and its global connections. I intend to make the association a dynamic and inviting intellectual space that fosters innovative research and reimagines the possibilities for Asian American Studies and that also nurtures scholars and community members who are the foundation of our field.”

Saying she was honored to be affiliated with the Temple University Press series, Schlund-Vials highlighted how the Asian American History and Culture  series has been foundational to the discipline. “Since its inception, the series has in many ways not only been witness to the emergence of Asian American studies as a diverse field; it has been at the forefront of its growth as a provocative and productive site of inquiry.”

She also spoke to her plan to foster books for the cultural studies aspect of the series, “I hope to continue the capacious, constantly innovative vision of its founding editors and the press’s forethought with regard to Asian American studies as a viable, sustainable field.”

Temple University Press published the first two titles in the Asian American History and Culture  series — Entry Denied, by series founder Sucheng Chan and Cane Fires, by Gary Okihiro — in the spring of 1991. There are now 65 titles in the series. Under the guidance of Temple University Press Editor in Chief, Janet Francendese, and series editor Chan, the Asian American History and Culture  series focused on titles grounded in original research. The books in the series changed the notion that Temple’s Asian American titles simply added to its acquisitions in ethnic studies; they represented a commitment to an emerging academic field that has from the start been rooted in communities and unique experiences of race and ethnicity.

About the Series

Founded by Sucheng Chan in 1991, the Asian American History and Culture  series has sponsored innovative scholarship that has redefined, expanded, and advanced the field of Asian American studies while strengthening its links to related areas of scholarly inquiry and engaged critique. Like the field from which it emerged, the series remains rooted in the social sciences and humanities, encompassing multiple regions, formations, communities, and identities. Extending the vision of founding editor Sucheng Chan and emeritus editor Michael Omi, series editors David Palumbo-Liu, K. Scott Wong, Linda Trinh Võ, and Cathy Schlund-Vials continue to develop a foundational collection that embodies a range of theoretical and methodological approaches to Asian American studies.

Staging America’s First Contact with China

In this blog entry, John Haddad, author of America’s First Adventure in China, writes about The Empress of China, a play about an American voyage to China, that he saw in Hong Kong.

In 1784, the Empress of China sailed from Philadelphia to Canton, becoming the first American vessel to reach China.  This commercial voyage, undertaken mere weeks after the end of the Revolutionary War, marked the beginning of the Sino-U.S. relationship.  In 2011, the Hong Kong Reperatory Theater staged The Empress of China, a dramatic rendering of this historical journey.  The play was a big deal.  The Theater commissioned a production from Joanna Chan, a successful script writer and director of historical movies and television dramas.  In anticipation of the show, the city was festooned with banners and posters advertising the production.  After finishing its run in Hong Kong, it moved to New York for its American premiere.

Haddad_America's First Adventure_082112I was not only living in Hong Kong at this time, I was writing a book specifically about Americans in China – America’s First Adventure in China.  When I saw the performance, I had recently finished writing a chapter on the very same voyage.  I knew as much of the actual history as anyone, and was well-equipped to compare the play with the historical record.  You may think I am one of those historians who takes pleasure in pointing out the factual inaccuracies in historically-themed plays and films, but that is not my aim here.  I understand that Joanna Chan had to take liberties to ensure that her production appealed to today’s audience.  That said, I do think that a comparison is meaningful.

Though Chan mostly stuck to the historical record, she made two big additions.  First, there is a scene in which the Americans demonstrate fencing to the Chinese, and the Chinese teach the Americans about Kung-Fu.  The scene is thrilling, funny, and acrobatic…but it never happened.  Second, the play includes a forbidden romance between Samuel Shaw, a dashing American, and the lovely daughter of a Chinese merchant.  This also never happened.  Why do I point out these additions?  Trust me: my purpose is not to say either “you want history to be exciting, but I’m here to crush your hopes by informing you the past was dry” or “you want meaningful cultural exchange to have taken place, but the truth was neither side showed any curiosity in the other.”   Actually, deep personal relationships and cultural exchanges did really happen – they just did not happen during the very first Sino-American encounter.

In the 1800s, Americans in China formed close relationships with the Chinese and engineered meaningful exchanges of culture.  Examples are plentiful, but I’ll share just a couple.  In the 1820s, Nathan Dunn, a merchant from Philadelphia, forged friendships with Chinese merchants and government officials.  Why did they like him?  Along with being affable, Dunn opposed on moral grounds the opium traffic that was making his peers rich.  These friendships came in handy.  When Britain’s East India Company tried to force Dunn out of the China trade, his Chinese friends stood by him and protected his business.  These friends also appreciated Dunn’s fondness for Chinese art and culture – though “fondness” does not adequately capture the obsessive nature of Dunn’s collecting.  Mania is more like it.  With the help of Chinese friends, Dunn amassed thousands of artifacts, which he shipped to Philadelphia.  This massive collection became the first serious exhibition of Chinese culture in America.

Another example involves  Anson Burlingame, a former congressman from Massachusetts, as U.S. Minister to China appointed by Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  When Burlingame arrived in Beijing, China was in turmoil: the Qing Government had lost the First Opium War to England, was losing the Second Opium War, and was trying to quell a rebellion.  An ardent opponent of slavery, Burlingame saw China’s foreign affairs through the lens of America’s great debate over slavery.  Just as Southern whites unjustly used superior force to enslave blacks, so too did Britain use its superior military to bully the Chinese.  After befriending Chinese and European officials, Burlingame sought the unimaginable: to replace the West’s “gunboat diplomacy” with what he called the “Cooperative Policy.”  In a nutshell, the European powers and China would settle disputes not with warfare but rather by developing mutual trust, engaging in dialogue, and abiding by treaties.  Though the “Cooperative Policy” did not last, it did define Sino-Western relations during the 1860s.  As Burlingame prepared to return stateside in 1868, the Chinese fêted him with farewell banquets.  At one affair, they blindsided him with a remarkable request that shows the deepness of their trust.  Would Burlingame agree to represent China’s interests in Europe and America?  Burlingame agreed, was given an official Chinese rank, and embarked on an amazing diplomatic odyssey.

I will close by making one last observation about The Empress of China.  That the play exists at all shows that we in the twenty-first century are highly interested in – or concerned about – U.S-China relations.  Yet Chan’s additions suggest something else.  Our desire for this relationship to be about friendship, trust, and cultural exchange is so strong as to compel us to project these things onto the past.  But do we in the present really need to enhance the past so it can offer hope for the future?  If we look not at this single voyage but at the first 100 years of Sino-American interaction, we see much to encourage us.

Considering the lives of transnational adoptees

This week in North Philly Notes, Kristi Brian, author of Reframing Transracial Adoption, reflects on the assumptions commonly articulated by non-adopted people that rightly infuriate many adult adoptees.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow earlier this month to protest the adoption ban that prevents U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. Although the turnout was impressive (reported estimates range from 7,000 to 50,000 protesters) I have to wonder what really brought all these people out.  Are the protesters genuinely united for the sake of Russian children as much as they say they are? Do people feel that they honestly need to help preserve the interests of the mostly white, middle-class, U.S. adopters left with pending or halted adoptions? Of course, it’s not too tough to get folks to stand up for the sake of “poor, orphaned children,” but it’s especially easy if a critical mass of people stands practically “at the ready” to yell at the big state machinery that hasn’t done much for them lately. I suspect this was the predominant unifying element of the protesters and I certainly can’t blame dissidents for making the most of a “hot” moment to demonstrate their democratic freedoms. However, when it comes to rallying behind precious, romantic statements about the immensely better life adoptees are destined to have in the U.S., I urge caution.

Reframing Transracial AdoptionsmAs my research on transnational/transracial adoption from South Korea explains (see Reframing Transracial Adoption), “the better life in America” assumptions commonly articulated by non-adopted people rightly infuriate many adult adoptees. Many of the adoptees I spoke with helped me to understand their reality of navigating the imposition of gratitude that surrounds being “rescued” from a nation often implied as inferior.  While it is true that Russian adoptions into white U.S. families are often pursued as a way to avoid the racial component of adoption, questions of belonging, origins, and abandonment are nearly universal to all state-regulated adoptions.

Not only do we have a lot to learn from adult adoptee perspectives, but critically observing the rise and fall of massive adoption projects, such as Korean-American adoption (the first and longest-running form of transnational adoption) should allow nation-states to learn from one another’s mistakes. Korea went from being the world’s top “supplier” of children for adoption in the mid-1980s to a “sending nation” that is, at least to some degree, more conscious of the meaning and impact of that history. This change happened through internal and external criticism, and most notably, in recent years through the dedicated reform work of the Korean adoptees who have returned to Korea to help keep more Korean children in Korea.

While there may be heartache for families with their minds set on a particular child to “bring home,” I feel abundantly confident that criticism and worldwide scrutiny of transnational adoption serves us all. If nothing else, dramatic legislative actions such as the adoption ban should help us to fine tune our understanding of the relationship between family and the state. Perhaps it will make us ask us what the state has done for our family lately. Or what the role of the state should be in helping us form families. I suspect most of us would like to think of the state as an afterthought. It’s there when we need it otherwise we prefer to keep it out of our family matters. Yet for folks fighting like hell to have the state validate their most intimate, loving partnership as legitimate and legal, the family-state question becomes more vivid. Similarly, for those of us unfortunate enough to find ourselves facing the threat of losing our family members, acquiring them, or reuniting with them based on the intervening policies of a state (including policies of the child welfare system, the police force or the prison system) the power struggle can get ugly.

When it comes to your family or your government, who do you expect to win the power struggle? And in the case of transnational adoption, adopters’ vision for family must interface with the power and politics of two nations.  When the fate of our families becomes heavily determined by the “personalities” of two competitive capitalist nation-states (with many skeletons in both closets) both posturing as the top contender in human rights protections, we can only expect a stampede of contradictions to complicate our attempts at creating family intimacy.

My ethnographic research on adoptive families has led me to a position much like the one being voiced by Russia’s Children’s Rights Ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov. Astakhov has stated candidly at human rights hearings on adoption that the “hysterical warnings” about international adoptions being the best viable solution for Russian children only serves those seeking profit from adoption.

The fact of the matter is, as much as we hate to admit it, transnational adoption is a marketplace driven by and reflective of capitalist modes of production. The desires of white Americans and Europeans (predominantly) are the buyers in that marketplace interested in “giving” a better life to a child of their choice. Race does play a big role in which adoption programs adopters choose. Given this fact alone, transnational adoption offers us a chance to follow the advice of philosopher George Yancy as he urges us to shift our gaze (in Look, a White!) to assess the ways of white folks rather than simply accepting them as the way things ought to be done. Look a Whitesm

My book explores the actions of white adopters in Korea’s history with transnational adoption. But more importantly it highlights the work of the Korean adoptees who have critically observed adoptive family life in the U.S. as well as the politics of race, culture and statehood surrounding their adoptions. Although Korea has provided more children for overseas adoption than any other place in the world since 1955, Korea has dramatically reduced its numbers down to 627 adoptions to the U.S. last year. That is still a lot of children being transplanted through the complex bureaucracies of two national-states that cannot begin to attend to the life-long emotional realities of adoption. The more we see those numbers decrease in all “sending” countries, the better I feel about our abilities to create home-grown solutions to globalized problems that often masquerade as new ways to embrace superficial multiculturalism.

Remembering Tiananmen Square and its impact on both personal and political levels on the anniversary of the protests

In this blog entry, Belinda Kong, reflects back on the 1989 massacre and how it inspired her  new book, Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square.

In many ways, I am an unlikely person to have written a book on Tiananmen fictions.  In 1989, I was a thirteen-year-old kid living in Miami, having moved to the States from Hong Kong just three and a half years earlier.  When the Tiananmen demonstrations erupted that spring, I hardly paid any attention; those students in Beijing seemed so remote to me.  I am sure many people have much more vivid memories of watching the protests on TV that spring than I do. 

My own memory is of hearing the news of the massacre the morning after—it would have been June 4th too on this side of the Pacific—from the son of the owner of the Chinese restaurant where my father was working at the time.  I remember being surprised and confused, by the news itself as much as the sight of this Chinese American college student getting incredibly upset.  I remember feeling how unreal it all seemed, the idea that a whole generation of Chinese students could imagine they possessed the power to change their country’s course, camping out for weeks on end in the nation’s most public political space, successfully mobilizing a million citizens to march in the streets in their support, and even facing down government troops and army tanks.  All this seemed to me like a drama unfolding on another planet.

Then, about a dozen years ago, I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, working on my dissertation on Chinese diaspora literature.  This would become the genesis of my book, Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Squarethough at the time, it was not focused on Tiananmen, and it could hardly be called even a rough draft of the eventual product.  Instead, I was thinking about Chinese identity more generally, about how many Chinese writers in the West could be seen as sharing overlapping concerns about “Chineseness,” whether they had been born and raised in China and went abroad as adults or been born in America and knew only English.  I was trying to bring together some of the most globally visible Chinese writers known to me at the time under a very broad rubric of “writing Chineseness,” regardless of their biographical trajectory or cultural education. 

In many ways, the dissertation was too abstract and did not explain why I discussed some authors, such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan in relation to Ha Jin and Gao Xingjian, but not others.  Meanwhile, without conscious design, I kept getting pulled by the literature on Tiananmen, and it took me several years to realize that these were the works that most clarified my thinking about Chineseness.  Almost by accident, I started to clue in that Tiananmen was one pivotal and defining point for both Chinese and diasporic identity in our time, that I had grown up in the wake of its ripple effects, and that many of the writers I was reading were themselves living out the extended legacy of the movement and the massacre.  It took five years or so for this realization to dawn on me, and another five years for me to reframe my book and coalesce it around Tiananmen fictions.

The insight I ultimately arrived at is that Tiananmen was not just a political event but something that has significantly shaped Chinese literature and cultural identity in the post-1989 world.  When we think of Tiananmen, we usually think history, and above all, we think politics—the politics of mass opposition, of calls for democracy vs. totalitarian state power, etc.  Certainly, with Arab spring, this political understanding of Tiananmen resonates with particular force today.  But what is less recognized is that Tiananmen has had a tremendously powerful, productive, and longterm effect on Chinese literature and cultural identity.  And precisely because the topic remains censored to this day in the PRC, precisely because only those abroad could write about it openly and publicly and without evasion, Tiananmen has come to serve as a key point of self-definition for writers in the diaspora.  Tiananmen is a topic that more and more Chinese authors, especially in the West, have come to address in their writing; it is an event that writers continually imagine and reimagine and thereby keep alive and relevant for our contemporary moment, and also a subject that unifies as well as fractures writers.  Above all, Tiananmen has politicized the Chinese literary diaspora: after the massacre, writers show a much stronger tendency to write political fictions that critique either the PRC regime itself or authoritarian uses of state power more generally.  And most strikingly, these fictions on Tiananmen do not remain static but evolve alongside global concerns, as though Tiananmen already anticipates the theoretical vocabularies with which we continually try to make sense of globalization and global life.

Challenging dominant stereotypes of young people of color

In this blog entry, Bindi Shah, author of Laotian Daughters, describes the impressions formed about an unlikely group of young Laotian girls who became advocates and leaders for social justice and community change.

In the late 1990s I began field work with Asian Youth Advocates, a youth program for second-generation Laotian girls in Richmond, California run by the environmental justice organization Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). This excerpt from field notes on one of my early research visits portrays them as ordinary inner-city American teenagers interested in fashion, music and boys:

It’s a cold, crisp but sunny Tuesday afternoon in February. As I walk in almost everyone looks and smiles or says “hi.” The front room of this small house in Richmond, which serves as LOP’s offices, is packed today. Twenty-one of the youth members are here, waiting for the Whole Group Training on campaign options to start. Bryanna and Huk are sitting close to the radio, tapping their feet to Eminem rapping “My Name Is…” Once the song ends Bryanna turns the dial to a station that plays alternative and R&B music. Two girls are sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, sharing thumsom, a green papaya salad. Others are sitting on the chairs placed in a circle, munching on nachos, burgers, burritos, and sipping on soda.

A lot of the girls are dressed in black today, black flared trousers, black tops and black jackets. Others sport blue or white flared jeans, short T-shirts or shirts that hug the body, and platform shoes or sneakers. This ‘70s retro style transports me back to my own dress preferences as a teenager, though I wore luminous pink crimplene trousers. In the 1990s, these girls are wearing muted colors, which often bear the logos of Tommy Hilfiger, The Gap, BeBe, Nautica, or The Old Navy. Bryanna wears an oversized orange rain jacket, nylon pants that bunch up around her ankles, and sneakers. Others resemble the style of the majority of their peers in the urban multicultural neighborhoods, blue jeans, long T-shirts and sneakers or high-tops.

Their conversations revolve around boys, school, and clothes. My by-now-trained ear picks up both Black English and standard English, with a smattering of Mien and Lao words that I don’t understand.

At first sight this group of teenage Laotian girls appear unlikely candidates as advocates and leaders for the Laotian community in west Contra Costa County, California. In Laotian Daughters, I unravel popular images of young people of color and draw attention to their engagement with political activism and community building.

Politicians and journalists have tended to portray young people, particularly those growing up in poor, urban neighborhoods as social problems and as experiencing moral decline. For example, a media report on a 2001 University of California study that found Laotian high-school girls had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in California and the highest number of teen births was ominously titled “Asian Teen Mothers, a quiet State of Crisis”. Despite a steady decline in youth crime and violence over the last few decades, we continued to hear from the media, politicians and other professionals that young people were “at risk”, with proclivities for teenage pregnancy, gang involvement, violence, drug addiction, and reliance on public assistance. Such constructions provided a rationale for increased surveillance of and intervention into young people’s lives by schools, police, health services, and the juvenile justice system. In April 2001 Governor Gray Davis of California approved $3.3 million for juvenile crime prevention in Contra Costa County. One of the programs that the funding financed was a program that places probation officers in selected high schools and middle school to provide supervision and services to youths with problems ranging from truancy to major criminal offenses.

It is important to examine youth programs with a social justice agenda because such programs can help challenge such representations of young people of color and reveal how citizenship is not just an adult experience. In a community that is linguistically isolated and lives in a region experiencing extensive environmental pollution, APEN hoped to empower and engage the bilingual second generation to act as advocates for the health of their community and to organize around environmental justice, reproductive health, and broader community issues such as inadequate academic counselling resources in schools and the political challenges to bilingual education. Asian Youth Advocates was a broad, integrated youth program that aimed to nurture a new generation of women leaders, in a community where authority is traditionally vested in elderly Laotian males, as well as address issues of adolescence and cultural identity experienced by the teenage Laotian girls.

In Laotian Daughters I show that if we dig beyond the dominant stereotypes of young people of color, particularly young women of color, we can unearth political engagement and the construction of active citizenship amongst this group. Through political mobilization around issues faced by a new immigrant community, these teenage Laotian girls both re-fashioned Laotian culture and demonstrated that young people can be a positive voice for change. In the process they forged a sense of belonging for Laotians in the American nation.

Consuming Jeremy Lin: Centering Race in Professional Basketball

In this blog post, Kathleen Yep, author of Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground puts Lin-sanity in context.

As a former basketball player and as an Asian American, I am inspired by Jeremy Lin’s recent athletic showcase. On February 4th, the Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin, exploded on the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) stage. He came off the bench to score 25 points and lead the New York Knicks to a comeback win over the Nets. The undrafted, twice-cut NBA player, Lin started the next eight games, scoring over twenty points a game including an astounding 38 points against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

In the last weeks, Lin has captured the imagination of the United States and of basketball fans around the world. Thousands of newspaper articles, facebook posts, and blogs are reflecting/producing dominant narratives of sport, race, and masculinity through the phenomenon of “Linsanity.” On the heels of his meteoric stardom, the sports-industrial complex is poised to sell the transnational product of Jeremy Lin as evidenced by  Adidas creating a jersey targeting the China market.

As a sociologist, I am intrigued by the media and fan frenzy dubbed “Linsanity.” Touted as the ultimate “American” story, Lin is hailed by the mainstream media as the underdog who quietly toiled under the radar to find an unexpected entry to the big stage. Tucked within this “Linderella” narrative is the notion of sport as a metaphor for “American” liberal multiculturalism and meritocracy. With this color-blind framework, sports commentators, NBA athletes and fans declare Lin as “simply” a basketball player. But here is the elephant in the room: denying the role of racialization in Lin’s circuitous journey in the NBA is a part of the broader project of centering race. In the predominant black-white frame of the NBA, a “post-racial” framing of Lin as “just an athlete” or “one of the guys” works in concert with the racialized rhetoric of Lin as the model minority or model Christian, Ivy-league educated athlete. The liberal multiculturalist framework of not seeing his skin color elides the the hyperracialization of simultaneously touting him as a hero as a Chinese American and questioning his media attention because his athletic achievements supposedly do not warrant this scale of coverage (read: the media are inflating his alleged average play because he is Chinese.)

The social construction of Linsanity resonates with the sports discourse about Chinese American basketball players in the first half of the twentieth century. Outside the Paint explores the politics of sport in relation to Chinese American female and male basketball players in the 1930s and 1940s in San Francisco. Discussing a playground, a professional men’s basketball team, the first Chinese American to play at Madison Square Garden, and championship women players, the book explores themes that echo today’s construction and consumption of Jeremy Lin. Seventy years prior to “Linsanity,” the first and only Chinese American men’s professional basketball team, the Hong Wah Kues, traveled around the country playing teams like the white Bearded Aces, the Harlem Globetrotters and a Native American team in the late 1930s.

Similar to the media coverage of Lin, the spectacle in the 1930s was the unexpectedness of Chinese Americans as talented basketball players. Similar to today’s frenzy over Jeremy Lin, there were multiple currents of consumption in the late 1930s from not only the mostly non-Asian American spectators but also the Chinese American communities on the basketball tour. The invisible and marginalized Chinese Americans in the 1930s marveled at the visibility of players who looked like them. In 2012, Lin’s transcendence into a popular culture hero validates the vast network of Asian American players and basketball leagues that have thrived for over one hundred years. Similar to the debates about whether Lin is getting attention because he is a novelty, the 1930s Chinese Americans professional basketball players moved the usually black-white discourses around sport to the interplay of Chineseness, blackness, and whiteness.

So, when I jump on the “Linsanity” bandwagon–I am going to buy a Lin jersey for my father’s birthday–it is challenging to separate the racial and gendered depictions of the 1930s Chinese American basketball players with today. And it is challenging to separate the pleasure of watching a great Chinese American basketball player burst onto the NBA scene from the problematic discourses that homogenize and celebrate all Asian Americans as the model-minority who do not confront poverty, underemployment, residential and linguistic segregation and challenges as immigrants. This is a crucial moment to shift the conversation: instead of debating whether or not race is involved with Linsanity, we explore how race in sport is constructed through the interplay of Asianness, blackness, and whiteness. How does the sports-industrial complex simultaneously circulate colorblind and hyperracialized rhetoric about African American, Chinese American, and white players? How are these circulations similar and different for the various racial groups yet part of a similar mechanism?

Rick Shiomi recounts his tour for Asian American Plays for a New Generation

In the latest blog entry from Rick Shiomi, the editor of Asian American Plays for a New Generation chronicles his East Coast tour in support of the book.

My East Coast Book Launch Tour for the new anthology Asian American Plays for a New Generation  began in Philadelphia at the InterAct Theatre. I attended a reading of  a new play by Lauren Yee at the PlayPenn New Play Development Conference. It was so packed it might have been 110 degrees in the dark (I can’t imagine what it felt like for the actors on stage under the lights).  The play, titled A Man, His Wife and His Hat, is a very clever absurdist play about life, love, and marriage when things don’t work out very well but there’s always time to recover. As usual with Lauren Yee, there is always wacky humor and absurdities, like talking walls and golems in this piece, but there’s also a humanist point to be considered in a surprising way. After the reading I attended a reception and had animated discussions with folks about Lauren’s play.

The next day, I attended a meeting with Gayle Isa of Asian Arts Initiative, Seth Rozin of InterAct Theatre, Margie Salvante of the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and several others to discuss the possibility of having the next National Asian American Conference/Festival (ConFest) hosted in Philadelphia in 2013.

 That evening the book launch event was held at InterAct Theatre. The event was co-hosted by InterAct and AAI. About thirty people showed up for the event, which included short talks by Josephine Lee, the senior editor of the anthology, Lauren Yee, the playwright for Ching Chong Chinaman in the anthology, and myself.  We also had short scenes read by four actors, Bi Ngo, Justin Jain, Victoria Chau, and Catzie Vilayphonh.  The cast was terrific and the audience really responded to the readings. The whole presentation was a big hit and I told several people that the cast for the readings would be a good mix of actors to start an Asian American theater company in Philadelphia (no more need to bring in actors from the Big Apple!).

The next stop was Washington DC where I spoke on a panel at the Library of Congress for a book launch event at the Mary Pickford Theater, sponsored by the Asian Division of the Asian Pacific Islander Collection. Franklin Odo, the new chief of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, introduced the event. It was a smaller gathering of employees and members of the public, but so many important results came from that event.  Reme Grefalda, the curator of the AAPI Collection who organized the event, proposed that Mu Performing Arts and myself as an individual playwright archive our production and script materials there as part of the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. The Library of Congress’ goal is to establish a national Asian Pacific American holding with a nationwide outreach. I was honored and ecstatic to have both Mu’s and my records kept at the Library of Congress and felt that alone made the whole trip worthwhile.

But the most fun part of the event was having Lia Chang read a monologue from one of the plays in the book. With only a few minutes of time to think about it, Lia beautifully performed a wild speech by an imaginary character, Queen Elizabeth II, and got instant applause.  Lia was also on the panel and spoke about her work as a photographer, referring to her exhibit of 36 photos on display at the Asian Reading Room titled In Rehearsal, the Lia Chang Theater Portfolio.  It’s a beautiful exhibit of photographs covering the backstage and rehearsal process for such productions as Chinglish by David Henry Hwang, Heading East by Robert Lee and Leon Ko, Disney’s The Lion King Las Vegas, and Samrat Chakrabarti and Sanjiv Jhaveri’s pop opera Bakwas Bumbug!, along with images from her other theater work. Lia also took a number of wonderful photos of us in the Asian Reading Room.  In addition, she wrote an article with photos on the book launch and her exhibit at the Library of Congress.

Then it was up to NYC.  The event there was hosted by Tamio Spiegel and Julie Azuma at their apartment in the Chelsea area of Manhattan.  The event was packed with leaders from the Asian American theater community like Tisa Chang of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Jorge Ortoll of Ma-Yi Theater, Carla Ching of Second Generation, old friends from Soh Daiko and my previous life in New York thirty years ago, prominent writers Henry Chang and Ed Lin, fellow theater artists including Raul Aranas, Lia Chang, and Henry Yuk, and many more people involved in the arts. I even met Cathie Hartnett of My Talk Radio in St Paul and Carol Connolly, the poet Laureate of St. Paul, both of whom were visiting New York. It was a special kind of evening and I signed a lot of books!

This time I spoke along with Aurorae Khoo whose play Happy Valley is in the anthology. We were fortunate to have scenes read again, this time by actors Cindy Cheung, Fay Ann Lee, Amy Chang, and Sean Tarjoto.  They did a lovely reading and the response was great again.  With all the food and drink supplied by Tamio and Julie, I owed a lot to their support and hospitality. Lia Chang wrote an article about this event and took photos as well.

The next day I caught the airporter to LaGuardia and headed home, full of the excitement of so much support for the new anthology, energized by contacts new and renewed, and exhausted by the energy it takes to do a book tour.

How Mu Performing Arts’ New Performance Program generated Asian American Plays for a New Generation

In this blog entry, Rick Shiomi, co-editor of Asian American Plays for a New Generation describes the New Performance Program and the process of selecting plays as being like a Survivor competition.

Two plays tied together in this anthology are Asiamnesia by Sun Mee Chomet and Sia(b) by May Lee Yang. They were both part of the first round of Mu’s Jerome New Performance Program. This program is designed to bring in artists who are not primarily playwrights to write and create new works for theater. It was designed with the Survivor television series in mind. That is, we started with seven artists (performance artists, poets, spoken word artists, etc.) and provided them with an initial commissioning fee and the support of dramaturges, directors and actors.

After several months, Mu held a reading of the seven pieces, either in full or excerpts, and then selected four to continue on to the next stage in the process. After another set of readings, one piece was selected to receive a main stage production. That piece in the first round was Q & A by Juliana Pegues and was produced in June 2008. However, two of the other pieces, Asiamnesia and Sia(b), both still interested us and we later produced them as a pair of one act plays in the fall of 2008 under the title Under The Porcelain Mask: Asian American Women Speak Out.

Each play took its own unpredictable artistic journey to get to that production. In the case of Asiamnesia, it started as a group writing project proposed by Sun Mee Chomet. She wanted her project to give voice to a number of Asian American women on the subject of their own lives, dealing with stereotypes and other forms of challenges and identity angst. In both of the readings in the process, our feedback to Sun Mee was that the results of the group writing process were too uneven and not as effective as imagined. We were in fact going to drop the play from the process when Randy Reyes, who was serving as the director/dramaturg, pleaded that there was something worth pursing in the piece.

We agreed, with the promise that Sun Mee would take on the writing as a solo playwright rather than continue the group writing process. In the summer of 2008, Sun Mee took on the whole project herself and the result was Asiamnesia. It did include one existing poem by Katie Hae Leo, but that was the only segment by an outside writer. The production was directed by Randy Reyes, and it was recognized in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s 2008 Year End Review by Rohan Preston as the best new script.

With Sia(b), we thought May Lee was a long shot in terms of the survivor system. She was the least experienced of the participants, but through her work with Robert Karimi as her director/dramaturg, she was able to generate her play with the Hmong American perspective which has been generally underrepresented in Asian American theater. We saw this piece as a groundbreaking work leading a new wave of Hmong American plays. Mu recently produced WTF by Katie Ka Vang as part of our second round of the Jerome program which took a very different, edgier tone about the Hmong American experience. So in both of these cases, the results were quite unexpected and gratifying. Mu’s Jerome New Performance Program has been one of the keys to our development and production of new work.

Celebrating an “important contribution to the understanding of a neglected ethnic community in the Caribbean”

Anne-Marie Lee-Loy’s  Searching For Mr. Chin: Constructions of Nation and the Chinese in West Indian Literature recently won the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Book Award. This award, which is given by the Caribbean Studies Association, honors the best book about the Caribbean published over the previous three-year period in Spanish, English, French or Dutch. Award committee chair Linden Lewis provided his announcement of the award.

Searching for Mr. Chin is an attempt to understand the construction of  Chinese identity and the place of people of Chinese descent in the Caribbean, namely in Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad, where the importation of Chinese indentured workers was more heavily recruited.

The bulk of Chinese indentured labor to the Caribbean occurred between 1853 and 1866. Despite the focus on the three English-speaking countries, Lee-Loy from time to time expanded her focus to include the Chinese presence in Cuba.  The book is the exploration of a process of belonging and non-belonging in the region. 

Indeed, the author is careful to point to the ambiguous images of belonging of Chinese people in the Caribbean.  Although its focus is on literary representations of Chinese citizens of the region, the book goes to great length to situate the Chinese presence in an historical context.  Lee-Loy takes the reader on a journey in time from the point of Chinese indentured labor, and the way in which these immigrants were compared to both people of African and Indian descent in the region. There is an interesting story here about the control of labor and of sowing divisions among workers along racial lines.  The characterization of Chinese indentured workers was often one that was made up of compliant subjects, who were efficient, and least likely to rebel.

One of the important contributions of this book is to present a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese images in the region that move beyond stereotypes.  There is very little literary work in the region that focuses exclusively on Chinese Caribbean people, so that Lee-Loy’s analysis revolves around minor characters as opposed to book-length treatments of this community. 

Another strength of the book is her analysis of the representation of  Chinese Caribbean persons as having an alien presence in the region.  Some of these representations directly place the Chinese at odds with other Caribbean people.  There are also other images of the Chinese man as a sexual predatory, who by virtue of his financial resources, mainly in terms of shop-ownership, preys on economically vulnerably women.  It is the Chinese shop that also gives us some insight into the perception of the Chinese Caribbean identity that is important to the phenomenon of the nation.  Lee-Loy summaries this issue in the following manner: “The Chinese shop, like West Indian literature in general, must therefore be recognized as a site of performance, that is, a site of contact and exchange between West Indians, where ideas of exclusion and inclusion, suspicion and trust, hostility and camaraderie – namely, ambiguous everyday ideas of belonging – are given tangible meaning through repetitive stylized gestures”. 

The book is clearly written, broadly interdisciplinary, makes an important contribution to the understanding of a neglected ethnic community in the Caribbean, and would add to the storehouse of information on race, ethnicity, gender, class, national identity and community in the Caribbean.  This book is certainly worthy of the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis award.

The drama behind the drama of Asian American Plays for a New Generation

In this week’s entry, Rick Shiomi, co-editor of Asian American Plays for a New Generation provides the backstories for two plays in this exciting new collection.

Every play that Mu Performing Arts was involved with in Asian American Plays for a New Generation had an interesting backstory.  In relation to the actual production, there was always some quirky event that shed light on our company and/or the process of how these plays were developed, produced and eventually published.

For Asiamnesia, by Sun Mee Chomet, it was the painstaking process that started as a project that involving half a dozen Asian American female writers. Playwright Sun Mee wanted to gather various writers together to co-write the play.  So after a couple of drafts and readings that didn’t work because the voices and styles were too disparate, Randy Reyes, the dramaturg and director for the project, pushed to have one last revision done with Sun Mee as the sole playwright. This version include the poem “Yellow Girl” by Katie Hae Leo, one of the original writers in the group.  That draft showed a new promise that was largely fulfilled in the eventual production of the play.  Bringing Asaimnesia  to the stage was one of those odd journeys where the answer was no, no, and no until it turned to yes!; we think it will work.  There was a clear passion and belief in the project even when it didn’t work, but also a willingness to listen to the feedback and make changes based upon that.  The play was recognized by Rohan Preston of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis as the best new script of 2008.

For Bahala Na by Clarence Coo, it was the change in our attitude from reading the play on paper to hearing it at a reading.  When the play was originally submitted, none of our readers were impressed by the play. However, there was a feeling that it should at least be given a reading.  The style seemed unnaturally lyrical and non realistic, but then it was difficult to find someone to direct the reading.  Finally after some difficulty, some excerpts of the play were read at our New Eyes Festival in 2005 and all of us immediately knew we wanted to produce the play. The lyrical style that seemed odd on paper, sounded so beautiful when read aloud; the characters just came alive.  We produced the world premiere production of the play in Sept. 2007.

What remains clear, even in these two examples, is how elusive and unpredictable the creative process is.  What appears not to work with one draft can be turned around in another and what appears odd on paper can appear fluid and natural on stage.  We all know this, and yet continue to be surprised by the twists and turns taken on creative projects.  That’s what makes being an artist such a fantastic trip.


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