Celebrating Pride Month

As Pride Month comes to a close North Philly Notes showcases three recent books by LGBTQ authors. You can check out all of our Sexuality Studies series titles here and all of our Sexuality Studies/Sexual Identity titles here.

Charles Upchurch, author of “Beyond the Law,”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain

PRIDE is about continuing, celebrating, and securing the work of past generations that has led to greater LGBTQ equality and inclusion within society. That work is sometimes advanced by those with access to political, economic, and cultural power, but this is of secondary importance to the work done by everyone who lives an authentic life, influencing those around them by their example. I have the privilege of being an academic historian, and my new book, “Beyond the Law,”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain, documents the first ever political effort to reform the laws that punished sex between men, which occurred in the early nineteenth century in Britain. At its core, it is a story about those who refused to go along with the vilification of individuals for engaging in private consensual acts. It’s a hopeful story, and while theoretically informed, it is also one that is written in accessible language to reach more people with an account of their rich past, perhaps inspiring them as they make a better future for us all. Happy PRIDE.

Martin Manalansan, coeditor of Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America

Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America is a forum of vibrant queer voices from Asian North America. At a moment of xenophobic anti-Asian violence and major anti-LGBTQ legislations, the essays, poems, and other creative works in this collection are offering experiences of struggle, exuberance, and survival. Q & A is a testament to the resilience of this  group of scholars, writers, poets and cultural workers whose works are forging hope and viable futures beyond the precarious present.  

Susan Krieger, author of Are You Two Sisters?: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple

During this Pride month, a great array of alternative identities and lifestyles are honored. The “L” word comes first in the list of LGBTQ+, but it is often an invisible identity, as the title of my book Are You Two Sisters? suggests. Particularly for that reason, I think, this new ethnography makes an important contribution.

Since the publication of Are You Two Sisters?: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple, I have been overwhelmed by the appreciation I have felt from readers and potential readers of the book. Studies of lesbian life are rare. As women, much of how we live and feel is invisible to others, and even invisible to ourselves. Aware of that invisibility, lesbian and queer women readers have been especially grateful for this account. I value their praise for the authenticity of the story and for the narrative as a contribution to “our lesbian herstory.”

I am also pleased to have reached a broader audience of Psychology Today online readers. My articles there draw from chapters in the book concerning lesbian invisibility in the larger world and dilemmas of identity within a lesbian couple. I am proud that the insights presented in Are You Two Sisters? may be of value for readers from a range of life experiences.

Tattered Archives: On Stories That Tell Too Much–and Never Enough

This week in North Philly Notes, George Uba, author of Water Thicker Than Blood, reflects on his memoir.

My mother, were she still alive, would feel humiliated, and deeply hurt, to see it in print. I’m speaking of my memoir Water Thicker Than Blood. Even after all the years spent drafting, revising, compacting, and completing it, I cannot escape that hard fact.

That the book also offers an unflattering portrayal of me makes no difference. A cringeworthy childhood, what’s new about that? But the other depiction, she was in certain respects awful, my mom. Explosive, resentful, vindictive. Relentlessly critical. Violent in words, even in actions. And now I am pulling secrets from the family vault. To what end? Even more, at a time when the figure portrayed, the one who did soften over time and was genuinely liked by many, cannot possibly mount a defense.

The glimpse my book provides is partial, fragmented, incommensurate with the complex, wounded, charitable being that constituted my mother as a whole. This is a point I shall return to.   

But first I’d like to comment on a recent Zoom meeting in which I was asked to discuss Water Thicker Than Blood in relation to Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation.

In writing my memoir, I was not thinking of Hartman’s groundbreaking call for a reckoning with the starkly limited archive devoted to African women in the Middle Passage—for a different kind of engagement with history, one amenable to narrative and storytelling, to imagining what cannot be verified even while respecting the limits of the knowable. I was not thinking of Hartman, but I sensed a harmony in our thinking.

One small example is that at various junctures in my book I issue a declarative statement, which I afterwards revise or correct. I use this device in part because I am stating something I may once have believed to be true (“The body is over 90% water”), but in part because I wish, like Hartman, to unsettle the authority of the “author-ized” account, whose command of the truth and of the past should be contested. I am reminded of how in Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” the very act of quoting from a slave ship captain’s trial transcript uncovers the gaps, omissions, and questions latent within the official record.

My forays into Japanese folklore, myth, and legend constitute efforts to introduce cultural elements largely suppressed under Japanese America’s postwar imperative to mimic white Americans and downplay differences. This strategy works in concert, I think, with Hartman’s championing of counter-histories to amplify and disrupt the conventional protocols of history.    

My epilogue contains references to Emmett Till and to a racist, anti-Japanese sign appearing in a store window shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor. While my book’s general trajectory follows my awkward climb toward political awareness and a more complex understanding of myself and others, I wanted to end by reminding readers that racial hatred, as well as racial violence, was the underlying driver behind the damaging postwar ideology of belonging, just as it was the immediate driver behind the concentration camps themselves.

The epilogue doubles back to the book’s first chapter, wherein I describe the impact of Pearl Harbor on Japanese American communities in Southern California, but also to the book’s Acknowledgments pages, wherein I decry the upsurge in anti-Asian hate crimes and hate acts since the start of the pandemic. For Hartman, writing the past is inseparable from writing the present, as well as the condition for envisioning a free future. By violating the presumed boundaries of the memoir as enclosed historical artifact, I attempt to convey a similar idea. My hope all along has been to add something original to the historical archive and to negotiate with it at the same time.         

I mentioned above that my mother could be awful. Would it be a stretch to believe that she saw herself as the exact opposite? That she saw herself as the best possible—because of her unrelenting vigilance—Nisei mother? That the ideology of belonging produced her? At least as I, in my limited capacities as a child, came to understand her?

Being accepted, being accepted specifically by white Americans, even if it meant accepting a second-class citizenship, was an idea familiar to multiple generations of Japanese in America following the war. Sometimes, as in my mother’s case, it became the foundation of their childrearing philosophy, a bedrock principle only heightened by midcentury disciplinary practices, educational formations, and harrowing life circumstances.

But what of my mother’s full story? There was more to it than the anxiety, bitterness, and rage that I dwell on in my memoir of childhood. Saidiyah Hartman tells how, on the slave ship, Venus was one of two doomed girls permanently denied a voice and a full accounting. Their stories were forever cut short, partial, unrealized.

Of my mother, Florence, her story becomes in some ways the same.

Celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase our Asian American Studies titles for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Readers can get 30% these books with the code TAAAS22 at checkout through our shopping cart.

Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities, by erin Khuê Ninh, asks, How does it feel to be model minority—and why would that drive one to live a lie?

“As an Asian American daughter of immigrants, reading Passing for Perfect, I felt my life understood. erin Khuê Ninh has explained our plight—the mad scramble for refuge, the guilt over our parents’ sacrifices, and our trust that education will save us. This book will give us strength against the attackers who blame us for what’s wrong with America. We shall overcome violence with knowledge.”—Maxine Hong Kingston

Read more here
Model Machines: A History of the Asian as Automaton, by Long T. Bui, presents a study of the stereotype and representation of Asians as robotic machines through history.

“In this powerful and indispensable historiography, Long Bui puts to rest any lingering doubt about the pernicious pervasiveness of the model machine myth that has long cast Asians as technologized nonhumans in American cultural and economic histories…. Bui provides rigorous analyses of the implications and damages of the myth as well as bold provocations for interventions and change.”—Betsy Huang, Associate Professor of English and Dean of the College at Clark University

Read more here
Pedagogies of WoundednessIllness, Memoir, and the Ends of the Model Minority, by James Kyung-Jin Lee considers what happens when illness betrays Asian American fantasies of indefinite progress?

“In this powerful and indispensable hist“James Kyung-Jin Lee’s Pedagogies of Woundedness is a poignant and moving work of criticism about illness and mortality. Beginning with a remarkable connection between the seeming invulnerability of Asian Americans as a model minority and their prevalence in the medical profession, Lee proceeds to explore the many ways that Asian Americans have written about bodies, health, and death. One comes away from his insights wiser and braver about what we all must face.”Viet Thanh Nguyen, University Professor at the University of Southern California, and author of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

Read more here
CULTURAL STUDIES 
Asian American Connective Action in the Age of Social Media: Civic Engagement, Contested Issues, and Emerging Identities, by James S. Lai, examines how social media has changed the way Asian Americans participate in politics.

“Lai’s timely book provides a nuanced analysis of the ideological and other divisions among Asian Americans, scrupulously refusing to homogenize or essentialize them.”Claire Jean Kim, Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine

Read more here
Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, by Elora Halim Chowdhury, illuminates how visual practices of recollecting violent legacies in Bangladeshi cinema can generate possibilities for gender justice.

“This book enables a timely understanding of contemporary Bangladesh through the cinematic lens of 1971.—Nayanika Mookherjee, Professor of Political Anthropology at Durham University, UK

Read more here
Giving Back: Filipino America and the Politics of Diaspora Giving, by L. Joyce Zapanta Mariano, explores transnational giving practices as political projects that shape the Filipino diaspora.

Giving Back is a compelling ethnography about the politics of diaspora giving, tying the personal, the family, the community, the state, and the global in a critical stroke of brilliance, empathy, and alternative visions of philanthropy and volunteerism in the lives of Filipinos in America….Mariano’s critical examination of the politics of diaspora giving is a must-read for Filipinos and anyone participating in transnational philanthropy.”—Pacific Historical Review

Read more here
Reencounters: On the Korean War and Diasporic Memory Critique, by Crystal Mun-hye Baik, examines the insidious ramifications of the un-ended Korean War through an interdisciplinary archive of diasporic memory works. 

Crystal Baik’s Reencounters offers a vital archive of desire, violence, silence, and decolonial possibility while crafting a much-needed critical framework for thinking and feeling through the diasporic memory work of contemporary Korean/American artists and cultural producers.”Eleana Kim, University of California, Irvine

Read more here
BIOGRAPHY
 
Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life, by Chia Youyee Vang, with Pao Yang, Retired Captain, U.S. Secret War in Laos, recounts the life of Pao Yang, whose experiences defy conventional accounts of the Vietnam War.

“It is rare to read personal accounts from those who fought as surrogate soldiers of the American Armed Forces in Laos and to hear about the experiences of our T-28 pilots, because so many of them were killed during the war. Vang did a wonderful job of capturing the experiences of Pao Yang, one of the Hmong T-28 pilots who was shot down and captured by the communists. I will definitely use this book as a requirement for my Introduction to Hmong History class.”—Lee Pao Xiong, Director and Professor of the Center for Hmong and East Asian Studies, Concordia University

Read more here
Water Thicker Than Blood: A Memoir of a Post-Internment Childhood, by George Uba, is an evocative yet unsparing examination of the damaging effects of post-internment ideologies of acceptance and belonging experienced by a Japanese American family.

This is a lovely addition to the rich literature somehow created out of a moment in history where an entire generation of Japanese Americans had every dream they’d ever had taken from them, all at once.”—Cynthia Kadohata, Newbery Medal– and National Book Award–winning author of Kira-Kira and The Thing about Luck

Read more here
Elaine Black Yoneda: Jewish Immigration, Labor Activism, and Japanese American Exclusion and Incarceration, by Rachel Schreiber, recounts the remarkable story of a Jewish activist who joined her incarcerated Japanese American husband and son in an American concentration camp.
 
“Rachel Schreiber, an expert on Jewish women labor activists, presents a highly useful biographical sketch of an important figure in Elaine Black Yoneda. Avoiding the extremes of mythologizing or demonizing her subject, she offers a balanced account that historians specializing in women’s history, labor history, and Japanese American history will heartily welcome to the scholarly works in these areas of inquiry.“—Brian Hayashi, Professor of History at Kent State University

Read more here
LITERARY STUDIES 
Warring Genealogies: Race, Kinship, and the Korean War, by Joo Ok Kim, examines the racial legacies of the Korean War through Chicano/a cultural production and U.S. archives of white supremacy.

“Crucially, Kim’s juxtaposition and brilliant analysis of unlikely archival materials and cultural texts make an original and exceedingly important contribution to our understandings of the links between the Korean War and U.S. racial, carceral, and settler colonial formations. This is a rigorous and impressive interdisciplinary cultural study.”—Jodi Kim, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside

Read more here
Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America, Edited by Martin F. Manalansan IV, Alice Y. Hom, and Kale Bantigue Fajardo, Preface by David L. Eng, offers a vibrant array of scholarly and personal essays, poetry, and visual art that broaden ideas and experiences about contemporary LGBTQ Asian North America

“[T]hese voices from queer Asian North America attest to the brilliance, fierceness, and raucous pleasures of queer diasporic world-making, theorizing, and cultural production. A landmark achievement.”—Gayatri Gopinath, Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University

Read more here
Ocean Passages: Navigating Pacific Islander and Asian American Literatures, by Erin Suzuki, compares and contrasts the diverse experiences of Asian and Pacific Islander subjectivities across a shared sea.

Ocean Passages demonstrates how transpacific studies can evolve and continue to be a generative framing for counterhegemonic, decolonial research across disciplines.” —Lateral

Read more here
Unsettled Solidarities: Asian and Indigenous Cross-Representations in the Américas, by Quynh Nhu Le, illuminates the intersecting logics of settler colonialism and racialization through analysis of contemporary Asian and Indigenous crossings in the Américas.
Association for Asian American Studies’ Humanities and Cultural Studies: Literary Studies Book Award, 2021

Read more here
Graphic Migrations: Precarity and Gender in India and the Diaspora, by Kavita Daiya, examines “what remains” in migration stories surrounding the 1947 Partition of India.

“Daiya’swide scholarly purview ranges across literature, cinema, graphic novels, and the creative arts, as she assembles a rich archive of contemporary reflection and critical relevance.”— Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

Read more here

Listen Up! Temple University Press Podcast, Episode 5: Jennifer Lin, author of Beethoven in Beijing

This week in North Philly Notes, we debut the latest episode of the Temple University Press Podcast, host Sam Cohn interviews author Jennifer Lin about her book, Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s History Journey to China, which provides an eye-opening account of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unprecedented 1973 tour. A companion volume to Lin’s documentary of the same name, this photo-rich oral history takes readers to the People’s Republic of China during the time when Western music was banned.

The Temple University Press Podcast is where you can hear about all the books you’ll want to read next.

Click here to listen

The Temple University Press Podcast is available wherever you find your podcasts, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Overcast, among other outlets.

About this episode

Eugene Ormandy was the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1971 when ping pong diplomacy was starting to thaw U.S.-China relations. (An American table tennis team was invited to Beijing—the first American group of any kind asked to visit mainland China since 1949). Wondering about the possibility of having the Orchestra visit, Ormandy’s idea soon became a reality with some assistance from the White House, and President Richard Nixon, and National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, among others. In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra embarked on a 10-day visit to Beijing and Shanghai to perform a series of concerts. This historic event is retold in Jennifer Lin’s Beethoven in Beijing, which recounts this remarkable breakthrough cultural exchange.

Beyond a Monolith

This week in North Philly Notes, James Lai, author of Asian American Connective Action in the Age of Social Media writes about what the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard Lawsuit Reveals about Emerging Political Identities in the Asian American Community and the role of Social Media Networks.

On January 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would be hearing the appeal of the federal Harvard Admissions case (Students for Fair Admissions v. Presidents and Fellows at Harvard College) in which a federal judge ruled that Harvard University did not discriminate against Asian American applicants. Arguably, in no other community has felt the divisions of the affirmative action issue than the demographically and ideologically diverse Asian American community. Despite these divisions, a common narrative by journalists has been to portray Asian Americans as a monolithic group in their stance against affirmative action policies creating a zero-sum game that pits Asian Americans on one side and other racial minorities (African Americans and Latinx) on the other side. Such depictions are inaccurate and fail to grasp the larger picture as one recent public opinion poll and study found that a majority (nearly sixty percent) of various Asian American ethnoracial groups generally support affirmative action policies since 2016. 

Upon closer examination, the Harvard lawsuit, in addition to others like it, reveals emerging political and group identities taking shape among the over 30 ethnoracial groups that comprise of the larger, contemporary Asian American community as well as how the process of connective action is facilitating the motivations behind these lawsuits. These identities among Asian Americans are shaped by emerging political contours such as class status, educational background, immigrant status, and political ideology, and amplified through social media platforms or digital counterpublics,  which refer to spaces where racial and ethnoracial groups can share experiences and challenge larger narratives in the mainstream media. Digital counterpublics can take the shape in the form of inward social networks (i.e. WeChat, a common app used by Chinese American immigrants that seeks to build consensus on issues along ethnoracial lines) and outward networks (i.e. common social media platforms like Twitter that typically seek to build consensus beyond a specific ethnoracial group). Political motivation represents one of the critical facilitators of connective action that has served as an adaptive political strategy for Asian Americans, which has the nation’s largest foreign-born population (nearly 70 percent in 2020), to mobilize politically both online and offline for their ideologically divergent voices in the public arena and discourse around various contentious topics.  

In the Harvard case, WeChat will continue to serve as a vehicle for framing, mobilizing, and fueling the political motivations around Harvard’s policy of the highly educated and working class Chinese American immigrants who make up a key constituency of the plaintiffs known as the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which was created by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has previously challenged affirmative action policies as seen with the University of Texas case. In addition to online counterpublics like WeChat, on February 3, 2022, sixteen days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the Harvard case, Edward Blum and SFFA released the full version and a trailer of the same video on YouTube entitled “Admissions” to serve as an online commercial on SFFA and their concerns now that they find themselves in the nation’s spotlight.  

However, what is often lost in the discussions are the connective action efforts by progressive Asian American activists, community leaders, and national Asian American civil rights organizations, who refuse to be portrayed as “racial mascots” or a racial wedge group. On Twitter, an outward social media network, Asian American progressive hashtags such as #NotYourWedge and #DefendDiversity have become synonymous with the tweeting and subtweeting of information related to the reasons for defending higher education diversity and why this issue matters for Asian Americans even if Asian American applicants are not likely to benefit from affirmative action policies. 

In this regrouping along ideological lines as illuminated by the Harvard case, new political coalition possibilities emerge in the Asian American community on both sides of the ideological spectrum where social media platforms have become a critical vehicle for online and offline political mobilization and shaping of public opinions around affirmative action. This will likely be the case for the diverse Asian American community on other bellwether issues in the future.

Celebrating National Library Week

This week, in North Philly Notes, in honor of National Library Week, we highlight Temple University Press’ Open Access books, journals, and collaborations

Labor Studies and Work From its start, Temple University Press has been known for publishing significant titles in labor studies. Given this long history, many of these titles have gone out of print. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Press, in collaboration with Temple University Libraries, reissued 32 outstanding labor studies books in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats and made them freely available online. Chosen by an advisory board of scholars, labor studies experts, publishers, and librarians, each book contains a new foreword by a prominent scholar, reflecting on the content and placing it in historical context.

The grant enabled us to reissue the eight-volume The Black Worker series.

Knowledge Unlatched makes scholarly content freely available to everyone and contributes to the further development of the Open Access infrastructure. KU’s online marketplace provides libraries and institutions worldwide with a central place to support OA collections and models from leading publishing houses and new OA initiative.

Read an interview with Press author Jennifer Fredette, whose book, Constructing Muslims in Francwas one of the first KU titles. 

One of the recent Press titles in the Knowledge Unlatched program is Islam, Justice, and Democracy, by Sabri Ciftci.

We publish the open access journal, Commonwealth: A Journal of Pennsylvania Politics and Policy, on behalf of the Pennsylvania Political Science Association. In 2021 Commonwealth published a special issue on women in Pennsylvania politics.

Caring Beside: Metaphors of Solidarity at the Bedside

This week in North Philly Notes, James Kyung-Jin Lee, author of Pedagogies of Woundedness, writes about “the horizontal ethics of care and politics of resistance” as well as the power that can come from the person lying on the bed.

            

In the epilogue of Pedagogies of Woundedness, I cite the opening scene of Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory,” in which they describe listening to the sounds of a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest taking place outside their apartment, while Hedva was consigned to a bed because of a chronic illness: “Attached to the bed, I rose up my sick woman fist, in solidarity.” They then wonder what role ill/disabled people might play in revolutionary activity: “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” Such a question resonates with a corresponding image that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha conjures in her essay “Crip Superpowers,” that implores her readers and fellow activists to imagine, “We can community-organize flat on our ass in bed—as what the movement needs most.”

The horizontal body in space and time is the prevailing image of the patient consigned to the hospital bed that animates so much of the crucible of experience that animates physician memoirs, the contrast between the standing, able-bodied doctor hovering over, caring, surveilling, and enacting on the prone one in need of care and thus submitting to such diagnostic colonization. It is this asymmetry of power exemplified in bodily position that motivates both Hedva and Piepzna-Samarasinha to see the bedridden Asian American sick woman as nonetheless agentive. Here, I also take to heart Mel Chen’s meditation on Piepzna-Samarasinha’s insistence on a politics enabled “flat on our ass in bed” by their subtle but trenchant critique of the most widely used phrase to demonstrate solidarity with a cause or community or condition: “The grammar of ableist liberatory fervor is succinctly captured, for instance, in the widespread use today of declamatory campaigns that urge one to metaphorically ‘stand with’ various populations or politicians. Such a metaphor is constructed on the figurative imagining of a literal standing. The question becomes what might it mean to ‘stand with’ a figural group, when standing for wheelchair users, or those chronically ill ‘flat on our ass in bed,’ cannot readily invite such ‘politically aligned’ embodied action.” At the time of this writing, my social media feed is filled with posts that stand with the people of Ukraine, stand with LGBTQ+ kids in Florida and trans children in Texas, and of course all through the pandemic we were ostensibly standing with health care workers toiling in the desperate days and weeks of the worst of the COVID pandemic. I suppose that the lack of shortage of people standing with others is a small testament that wounded, vulnerable people receive some modicum of compassion that isn’t tethered to market forces or transactional expectation.

But Chen’s, Hedva’s, and Piepzna-Samarasinha’s insistence on a horizontal ethics of care and politics of resistance have hit home in ways that exceeded my imagination once the final draft of Pedagogies of Woundedness was locked. The following is a story which I have permission to disclose: a year ago, our older teenage daughter attempted suicide and in doing so revealed that she had been suffering from severe mental illness and associated trauma for years, unbeknownst to me and her mom. What followed was a long flight of various treatments, both outpatient and residential, and our family’s baptism into the world of mental health care. There have been and continue to be moments of crisis that punctuate periods of relative mental and emotional stability, and some rare moments of happiness for my daughter, and for the other members of the family. Early on, I clung to a restitution narrative, but we’re late into this story and I recognize now that my daughter is living a different genre. Early on, I stood over her bed desperately wishing she could join me, despairing that the aggressivity of her depression prevented her from even remaining conscious for hours at a time. Over time, I came to understand that standing with my daughter when she couldn’t get out of bed wasn’t all that much different from the physician’s diagnostic colonization of his patient.

So I’ve tried to shift my body and my metaphor to align with where my daughter is on any given day. On really tough days, as she lies in bed, I’ll sometimes lie on the floor and listen to the quiet sounds of her breathing. At moments when she is able to sit at her desk and is willing to let me into her space, I’ll pull up a chair: sometimes we sit face to face and at others side by side, as if we’re facing the world together. Stories of illness and disability, and the politics and ethics that emanate from these stories, the power that can come from the person lying on the bed, have taught me that there is and must be always more room to imagine solidarity with the vulnerable. Nowadays, I will only stand with people, like my daughter, if they want to stand, and if they give me permission to rise with them, if they let me take their hand into mine.

Women’s History Month: Anna May Wong

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of Women’s History Month, we repost Shirley Jennifer Lim’s article about Anna May Wong that appeared in The Conversation on March 7.

The U.S. Mint will, over the next four years, issue quarters featuring the likenesses of American women who contributed to “the development and history of our country.”

The first batch of the American Women Quarters Program, announced in January 2022, includes astronaut Sally Ride and poet Maya Angelou.

One name on the list might be less familiar to some Americans: Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

Back of quarter featuring engraving of woman.
Anna May Wong will appear on the back of a quarter as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program. U.S. Mint via Getty Images

As someone who has written a biography on Wong, I was delighted to provide the U.S. Mint with Wong’s backstory.

The subject of renewed attention in recent years, Wong is often referred to as a Hollywood star – in fact, the U.S. Treasury describes her as “the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood.” And she certainly did dazzle in her roles.

But to me, this characterization diminishes her chief accomplishment: her capacity for reinvention. Hollywood continually stymied her ambitions. And yet out of the ashes of rejection, she persevered, becoming an Australian vaudeville chanteuse, a British theatrical luminary, a B-film pulp diva and an American television celebrity.

A star is born

Born just outside of Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1905, Wong grew up witnessing movies being made all around her. She dreamed of one day becoming a leading lady.

Cutting classes in order to beg directors for roles, Wong began her career as an extra in Alla Nazimova’s 1919 classic film about China’s Boxer Rebellion, “The Red Lantern.” In 1922, at the age of 17, Wong landed her first starring role in “The Toll of the Sea,” playing a character based on Madame Butterfly. Her performance was well received, and she went on to be cast as the Mongol slave in the 1924 hit film “The Thief of Bagdad.”

However, she quickly hit a wall in an era when it was common to cast white actors in yellowface – having them tape their eyes, wear makeup and assume exaggerated accents and gestures – to play Asian characters. (This practice would continue for decades: In 1961, director Blake Edwards egregiously cast Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and as recently as 2015, Emma Stone was controversially cast as a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character in “Aloha.”) Wong would go on to land roles playing unnamed minor characters in the 1927 film “Old San Francisco” and “Across to Singapore,” which premiered a year later. But anything outside of typecast roles seemed out of reach.

Woman and man hold hands.
In ‘Daughter of the Dragon,’ Anna May Wong starred alongside Warner Oland, a Swedish-American actor who often appeared in yellowface. LMPC/Getty Images

In some ways, her career mirrored that of the great Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, who had forged a path for people of Asian Pacific descent in Hollywood. Hayakawa became a star through his headlining role in the 1915 Lasky-Famous Players film, “The Cheat.” However, as anti-Japanese sentiment increased in the U.S., his roles dried up. By 1922, he had left Hollywood.

European fame

Some actresses would have accepted their lot, grateful for the chance to simply appear in films.

Not Wong.

In 1928, fed up with a lack of opportunities in Hollywood, she packed her bags and sailed to Europe, where she became a global star.

Woman holding purse on sidewalk.
Wong poses in front of the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris in 1935. Bettmann/Getty Images

From 1928 to 1934 she made a series of movies for Germany’s Universum-Film Aktiengeselleschaft, and found work with other leading studios such as France’s Gaumont and Associated Talking Pictures in the U.K. She impressed in her roles, attracting the attention of luminaries such as the German intellectual Walter Benjamin, British actor Laurence Olivier, German actress Marlene Dietrich and African American actor Paul Robeson. In Europe, Wong joined the ranks of African American artists such as Robeson, Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes, who, frustrated by segregation in the U.S., had left the country and found adulation in Europe.

When film work wasn’t forthcoming, Wong turned to vaudeville. In 1934, she embarked on a European tour, where she sang, danced and acted before enthralled audiences in cities large and small, from Madrid to Göteborg, Sweden.

Wong’s revue showcased her chameleonlike powers to transform herself. In Göteborg, for example, she performed eight numbers that included the Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower” and the contemporary French hit “Parlez-moi d’Amour.” Inhabiting a variety of roles and races, she seamlessly shifted from speaking Chinese to French, from portraying a folk singer to appearing as a tuxedo-clad nightclub siren.

Wong decides to do it on her own

What I love about Wong is that even as Hollywood thwarted her time and again, she continued creating her own opportunities.

Though she spent years in Europe, Wong continued to audition for American roles.

In 1937, she tried out for the leading role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “The Good Earth.” After she was rejected, she decided that if she couldn’t star in a movie, she would simply make one of her own.

She took her one and only trip to China, documenting the experience. Her charming short film showed numerous activities, including female impersonators teaching Wong how to enact Chinese female roles, a trip to the Western Hills, and a visit to the family’s ancestral village. At a time when the number of prominent female directors in Hollywood could be counted on one hand, it was a remarkable feat.

Two decades later, the film would air on ABC. By that time, Wong had established herself as a TV star by playing a gallery owner-cum-detective who traveled the globe solving crimes in “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.” It was the first television series to feature an Asian Pacific American lead.

By the time Wong died on February 3, 1961, she had left a legacy of more than 50 films, numerous Broadway and vaudeville shows, and a television series. Equally important is how she became a global celebrity despite being shut out from Hollywood’s A-list leading roles.

It’s a story of tenacity and determination that can inspire all who want to see images of people of color reflected back to them on screen.

Celebrating Women’s History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Women’s History Month. Use promo code TWHM22 for 30% off all our Women’s Studies titles. Sale ends March 31, 2022.

New Titles

Elaine Black Yoneda: Jewish Immigration, Labor Activism, and Japanese American Exclusion and Incarceration, by Rachel Schreiber, recounts the remarkable story of a Jewish activist who joined her incarcerated Japanese American husband and son in an American concentration camp.

Are You Two Sisters: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple, by Susan Krieger, authored by one of the most respected figures in the field of personal ethnographic narrative, this book serves as both a memoir and a sociological study, telling the story of one lesbian couple’s lifelong journey together.

From our Backlist:

Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, by Shirley Jennifer Lim, shows how Anna May Wong’s work shaped racial modernity and made her one of the most significant actresses of the twentieth century.

The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap, by Yasemin Besen-Cassino, traces the origins of the gender wage gap to part-time teenage work, which sets up a dynamic that persists into adulthood.

Feminist Post-Liberalism, by Judith Baer, reconciles liberalism and feminist theory.

Feminist Reflections on Childhood: A History and Call to Action, by Penny A. Weiss, recovers a history of feminist thought and activism that demands greater voice and respect for young people.

Good Reasons to Run: Women and Political Candidacy, edited by Shauna L. Shames, Rachel I. Bernhard, Mirya R. Holman, and Dawn Langan Teele, how and why women run for office.

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness: A Notorious Divorce in Early Twentieth-Century America, by Jean Elson, a fascinating story of the troubled marriage and acrimonious divorce of Nina and James Walker elucidates early twentieth-century gender and family mores.

Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment, by Leah Ruppanner challenges preconceived notions of the states that support working mothers.

Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall, an anthology that celebrates the life and work of a major African American writer.

Their Day in the Sun: Women in the Manhattan Project, by Ruth H. Howes and Caroline C. Herzenberg, tells the hidden story of the contribution of women in the effort to develop the atomic bomb.

Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism, by Barbara Tomlinson, a sustained critique of the ways in which scholars have engaged with and deployed intersectionality.

Women Take Their Place in State Legislature: The Creation of Women’s Caucuses, by Anna Mitchell Mahoney, investigates the opportunities, resources, and frames that women utilize to create legislative caucuses.

Women’s Empowerment and Disempowerment in Brazil: The Rise and Fall of President Dilma Rousseff, by Pedro A.G. dos Santos and Farida Jalalzai, explains what the rise and fall of Brazil’s first and only female president can teach us about women’s empowerment.

Listen Up! Temple University Press Podcast, Episode 4: Rachel Schreiber, author of Elaine Black Yoneda

This week in North Philly Notes, we debut the latest episode of the Temple University Press Podcast, which features host Sam Cohn interviewing author Rachel Schreiber about her book Elaine Black Yoneda, the first critical biography of this pioneering Jewish activist.

The Temple University Press Podcast is where you can hear about all the books you’ll want to read next.

Click here to listen

The Temple University Press Podcast is available wherever you find your podcasts, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Overcast, among other outlets.

About this episode

Elaine Black Yoneda is the remarkable story of a Jewish activist who joined her incarcerated Japanese American husband and son in an American concentration camp during World War II. Author Rachel Schreiber deftly traces Yoneda’s life as she became invested in radical politics and interracial and interethnic activism. Schreiber illuminates the ways Yoneda’s work challenged dominant discourses and how she reconciled the contradictory political and social forces that shaped both her life and her family’s. Highlighting the dangers of anti-immigrant and anti-Asian xenophobia, Elaine Black Yoneda recounts an extraordinary life.

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