Highlighting the groundbreaking roles played by Anna May Wong

This week in North Philly Notes, Shirley Jennifer Lim, author of Anna May Wong, explains what prompted her to investigate the career of the important twentieth-century performer whose work shaped racial modernity.

I first witnessed the acting grace of the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong in the 1939 movie, King of Chinatown. In the opening scene she puts down her surgical implements and takes off her cap and mask after a successful emergency room operation.  King of Chinatown underscores Wong’s character, Dr. Mary Ling’s, professional competence for immediately after the surgery, the (San Francisco) Bay Area hospital director offers her the position of resident surgeon. In melodious tones tinged with an upper-class British accent, Wong firmly but politely declines the prestigious appointment because she wishes to raise money to bring medical supplies to China to combat the Japanese invasion. Flashing her trademark smile, Wong gracefully strides across the room, Edith Head-designed skirt and blouse highlighting her all-American modern professionalism. Based on a real life Chinese American woman, Dr. Margaret Chung, Wong’s role represents a modern American woman who is proud of her Chinese heritage.

Before I viewed the film, I knew that the scant scholarship’s dominant storyline focused on Wong as a marginal and exploited actress. According to that narrative, she had mostly played “foreign” and/or “negative” stereotypical roles such as prostitutes or dancers, who often died at the end of each film. Startled at how King of Chinatown proved that viewpoint wildly inaccurate, I decided that Wong’s career merited further investigation.

Anna May Wong_smIn my book, Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, I focus on Wong because she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and “oriental” women between 1922 and 1940. She played groundbreaking roles in American, European, and Australian theater and cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. Born near Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1905, Wong made more than sixty films that circulated around the world, headlined theater and vaudeville productions in locations ranging from Sydney to Paris to New York, and, in 1951, had her own television series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the now defunct DuMont Television Network. The sheer number of films, theatrical productions, magazine covers, and iconic photographs rendered Wong ubiquitous. Global cultural and political interest in the “Orient” propelled her fame in locales such as Germany and Mozambique. Although she is no longer a household name, I argue that Wong remains an important twentieth-century performer because her work shaped racial modernity.

As an Asian American, there was nothing authentically “oriental” about the very American Wong, who, until 1936, had never been to China. Yet decades before the civil rights–generated category of Asian American existed, Wong grappled with how to be an Asian American actress.

Throughout her career, Wong demonstrated an astounding ability to survive as a performer through adapting to technological and format changes. She started in black and white silent films, then pioneered silent two-tone technicolor cinema, then thrived in the “talkies” or sound motion pictures. When film work dried up, she successfully sought opportunities in radio, vaudeville, theater, and photography. Then, in the 1950s, she mastered live television. I have no doubt that if she were alive today, she would be an Instagram or Youtube star, sharing makeup and beauty tips with the world.

I situate this work as part of the feminist recuperation of women’s experiences, and, moreover, racial minority women’s responses to gender being unmarked as white. As decades of scholarship have established, this is not compensatory work but analysis that transforms how we conceptualize history. Body politics still have ramifications for people’s lives. What is at stake in this examination of Wong’s career is the very writing of history: who can speak, who can be a subject, and how it can be done. In doing this work, I wish to validate creative and risk-taking scholarly inquiry. Wong’s cultural creations point to an earlier historical moment of possibility. It shows us how she performed the modern despite facing extraordinary racial and gendered obstacles.

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Quality of Life and Courts

This week in North Philly Notes, Christine Zozula, author of Courting the Community, reflects on how low-level crimes have big implications for local communities.

In late July of this year, Los Angeles City Council voted to reinstate a city ordinance that made sleeping in vehicles on residential streets, or within a block of schools, parks and daycares a punishable offense. As reported by the LA Times and LA Podcast, politicians supported the ordinance by claiming it would allow police officers to link unhoused people to social services through the Homeless Engagement and Response Team. Some LA community members in favor of the ordinance claimed that the ordinance would free up parking for residents with homes and make streets safer and more sanitary. Critics of the ordinance claimed that this policy criminalizes homelessness and makes unhoused people less safe and less likely to be able to transition to housing. The issues raised in response to this ordinance, quality-of-life and debates about punishment and treatment, are all too familiar to me.

Courting the Community_smI spent about a year studying a community court—  I sat in the courtroom to observe daily case processing, talked to the people who worked there, and attended meetings court officials had with residents and various community groups. The first community court opened in New York City in 1993, since then, 37 more have appeared in cities including Minneapolis and Seattle, as well as in countries like Australia and Israel. The overarching thesis of community courts is that quality-of-life crimes victimize the community by creating disorderly conditions that lead to more crime. Whereas traditional courts often dismiss these charges or administer a small fine, community courts aim to “meaningfully punish” quality-of-life offenses. A teenager who vandalized a building might be ordered to paint over his graffiti. Someone who was publicly drunk may have to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and report back to the court. Community courts have a variety of sanctions at their disposal, and punishment might involve “paying back the community,” solving the “root causes” of offending, and jailtime for defendants who do not comply with court orders. They also frequently involve (non-offending) community-members in the justice process.

My experience observing what happened in court oscillated between watching Judge Judy and waiting at the DMV. I watched judges praise defendants who got clean, shaking their hands as the prosecutor ordered their initial crime to be removed from their record. When defendants failed to complete court orders, judges acted as a detached administer or a scolding parent, as he or she sentenced defendants to jail. Community courts embrace both rehabilitative and punitive ideas of punishment, which allow them to be simultaneously therapeutic and tough-on-crime. This seemingly conflictual logic is perhaps best put by one of my respondents, who said, “Some people want and need help, and others want to serve a life sentence 3 months at a time.”

Early in my fieldwork I was puzzled by how seamlessly the community court embraced contradictory goals of punishment and treatment. Over time, I came to understand that the flexibility of the community court model was integral to its success. Courting the Community explores how community courts act as flexible organizations in a deft way to create and maintain legitimacy. Community courts seductively promise residents and business owners safer neighborhoods and cleaner streets. They shower social service providers with additional judicial resources to aid in compliance. They pledge to traditional courts that they will ease burdensome case loads, freeing up more time for serious and violent crimes. My book explores how a community court strategically markets itself to various stakeholders by systematically deploying whatever narrative of effectiveness best fits the audience at hand.

Courting the Community focuses on just one court, but it contains larger lessons that extend far beyond the court’s walls. It raises important questions about what it means to construct “community” through the criminal justice system. It shows how community courts are involved in what I call the criminalization of incivility, which makes things like sleeping in public spaces or playing loud music late at night subject to criminal justice intervention. Courting the Community also guides readers to analyze how criminal justice reform movements make claims about their work and how those claims might obfuscate more empirically rigorous measurements of effectiveness.  

Golden nuggets for moving away from a technological culture to an ecological culture

This week in North Philly Notes, William Cohen, author of Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture, writes about Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg, who inspired his book and field of study.

I was a young city and regional planner in the 1970s. It was a turbulent time especially as there was a growing awareness that we are doing some fairly serious harm to our environment. I had heard about a dynamic professor from the University of Pennsylvania who was one of the organizers of America’s first Earth Day. He was scheduled to give a presentation in April 1970 at the University of Delaware and I decided to go and find out what was really going on. Well, Ian McHarg, a landscape architect and regional planner let his audience of over 500 people have it straight and to the point. We are despoiling our environment and if we don’t change our ways we may in fact be threatening our survival. He extolled us that we must embrace ecology in how we plan, design, and build our human settlements. The year before McHarg had published Design with Nature that immediately became a hallmark call for reversing current trends. It was a challenge not just to planners and designers, but to everyone else.

McHarg’s message to design with nature became my professional commitment that steered my professional life for over three decades and has lasted with me to this day. I would later study with McHarg at Penn and that educational experience became the icing on the cake.

Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture_SMThose of us in both the professional and academic worlds that have a curiosity for discovery are continually looking for that little piece of wisdom, brilliance, or revelation that will bring about a new awareness—not just intellectually, but emotionally. We can find these “golden nuggets” almost anywhere as we proceed through life experiences. I discovered one at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland in 2006 when I was part of a team that interviewed a number of forward looking thinkers concerned about the present state of our environment. It was Graham Leicester director of the International Futures Forum who somewhat casually remarked: “We are subject to rapid technological change, new interconnectedness, speed of advance; we are in a world we don’t understand anymore. The old rules no longer seem to apply. The new rules haven’t been discovered. What we need is a Second Enlightenment.” This was more than a discovery, it was a jolt of lightening.

In retrospect I can say that my professional work as an ecological planner discovered a new twist with this golden nugget. Yes, I concluded we do need to embrace a “second enlightenment” that will be a guiding mantra to move us away from a technological culture to an ecological culture. The evolution and development of the machine—from the earliest clock to today’s computer—has for sure given us great advantages to make life easier and more enjoyable. And this strikes at the center of the concern: Has the advance in technological achievement begun to steal away our basic humanity? Are we losing a connection with our natural environment?

These two points became the focus of the voluminous writings of Lewis Mumford, one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century. He bemoaned the reality that human aspiration and purpose was becoming overwhelmed by technological progress. Think about it; think about how our cities and small towns have declined and how suburbia has grown exponentially. Think about how we have damaged our cultural resources; how we have witnessed diminishing natural and agricultural areas; how we have to tolerate increasing traffic congestion; and how we have seemingly become addicted to our Smartphones and other electronic devices. If we all stand back for a moment and take an assessment of where we are in the continuum of history can we say we are satisfied with our lives, our living patterns, and our environment?

This overriding question gave me the impetus to write Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture. I firmly thought when I began this enterprise that I could somehow meld historical trends with today’s realities and provide a future direction. It was not difficult to conclude that the work of both Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg gives us a strong guiding light to examine and even project that the achievement of an ecological culture is both evident and a necessity. This transition takes on special significance when we look at our current educational system. How we prepare the next generation of planners and designers will be crucial to our success. By advancing an ecohumanism philosophy, as the premise to planning, designing, and building our human settlements, we can see the light of an ecological culture on a reachable horizon. We just need to get there to preserve our environment and our humanity.

 

 

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