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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Celebrating Pride

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Pride month with a dozen Temple University Press’s LGBTQ titles.

City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972by Marc Stein

Marc Stein’s City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves is refreshing for at least two reasons: it centers on a city that is not generally associated with a vibrant gay and lesbian culture, and it shows that a community was forming long before the Stonewall rebellion. In this lively and well received book, Marc Stein brings to life the neighborhood bars and clubs where people gathered and the political issues that rallied the community. He reminds us that Philadelphians were leaders in the national gay and lesbian movement and, in doing so, suggests that New York and San Francisco have for too long obscured the contributions of other cities to gay culture.

Civic Intimacies: Black Queer Improvisations on Citizenshipby Niels van Doorn

Because members of the Black queer community often exist outside conventional civic institutions, they must explore alternative intimacies to experience a sense of belonging. Civic Intimacies examines how—and to what extent—these different forms of intimacy catalyze the values, aspirations, and collective flourishing of Black queer denizens of Baltimore. Niels van Doorn draws on eighteen months of immersive ethnographic fieldwork for his innovative cross-disciplinary analysis of contemporary debates in political and cultural theory.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice, by Ryan Patrick Murphy

In 1975, National Airlines was shut down for 127 days when flight attendants went on strike to protest long hours and low pay. Activists at National and many other U.S. airlines sought to win political power and material resources for people who live beyond the boundary of the traditional family. In Deregulating Desire, Ryan Patrick Murphy, a former flight attendant himself, chronicles the efforts of single women, unmarried parents, lesbians and gay men, as well as same-sex couples to make the airline industry a crucible for social change in the decades after 1970.

From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United Statesby Craig A. Rimmerman

Liberal democracy has provided a certain degree of lesbian and gay rights. But those rights, as we now know, are not unlimited, and they continue to be the focus of efforts by lesbian and gay movements in the United States to promote social change. In this compelling critique, Craig Rimmerman looks at the past, present, and future of the movements to analyze whether it is possible for them to link identity concerns with a progressive coalition for political, social, and gender change, one that take into account race, class, and gender inequalities. Enriched by eight years of interviews in Washington, D.C. and New York City, and by the author’s experience as a Capitol Hill staffer, From Identity to Politics will provoke discussion in classrooms and caucus rooms across the United States.

The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture, by Heike Bauer

Influential sexologist and activist Magnus Hirschfeld founded Berlin’s Institute of Sexual Sciences in 1919 as a home and workplace to study homosexual rights activism and support transgender people. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. This episode in history prompted Heike Bauer to ask, Is violence an intrinsic part of modern queer culture? The Hirschfeld Archives answers this critical question by examining the violence that shaped queer existence in the first part of the twentieth century.

In a Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood, by Michael Sadowski

Adolescence is a difficult time, but it can be particularly stressful for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identifying youth. In order to avoid harassment and rejection, many LGBTQ teens hide their identities from their families, peers, and even themselves. Educator Michael Sadowski deftly brings the voices of LGBTQ youth out into the open in his poignant and important book, In a Queer Voice. Drawing on two waves of interviews conducted six years apart, Sadowski chronicles how queer youth, who were often “silenced” in school and elsewhere, now can approach adulthood with a strong, queer voice.

Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural Americaby Colin R. Johnson

Most studies of lesbian and gay history focus on urban environments. Yet gender and sexual diversity were anything but rare in nonmetropolitan areas in the first half of the twentieth century. Just Queer Folks explores the seldom-discussed history of same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity in rural and small-town America during a period when the now familiar concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality were just beginning to take shape. Eschewing the notion that identity is always the best measure of what can be known about gender and sexuality, Colin R. Johnson argues instead for a queer historicist approach. In so doing, he uncovers a startlingly unruly rural past in which small-town eccentrics, “mannish” farm women, and cross-dressing Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees were often just queer folks so far as their neighbors were concerned. Written with wit and verve, Just Queer Folks upsets a whole host of contemporary commonplaces, including the notion that queer history is always urban history.

Modern American Queer Historyedited by Allida M. Black

In the twentieth century, countless Americans claimed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender identities, forming a movement to secure social as well as political equality. This collection of essays considers the history as well as the historiography of the queer identities and struggles that developed in the United States in the midst of widespread upheaval and change.

Officially Gay: The Political Construction of Sexuality by the U.S. Militaryby Gary L. Lehring

Officially Gay follows the military’s century-long attempt to identify and exclude gays and lesbians. It traces how the military historically constructed definitions of homosexual identity relying upon religious, medical, and psychological discourses that defined homosexuals as evil, degenerate, and unstable, making their risk to national security obvious, and mandating their exclusion from the Armed Services.

Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer Americaby Miriam Frank

Out in the Union tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. Miriam Frank shrewdly chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s. She documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities.

Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desireby Cynthia Wu

Cynthia Wu’s provocative Sticky Rice examines representations of same-sex desires and intraracial intimacies in some of the most widely read pieces of Asian American literature. Analyzing canonical works such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, as well as Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Yankee Dawg You Die, Wu considers how male relationships in these texts blur the boundaries among the homosocial, the homoerotic, and the homosexual in ways that lie beyond our concepts of modern gay identity.

Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood, by Cynthia Barounis

Amputation need not always signify castration; indeed, in Jack London’s fiction, losing a limb becomes part of a process through which queerly gendered men become properly masculinized. In her astute book, Vulnerable Constitutions, Cynthia Barounis explores the way American writers have fashioned alternative—even resistant—epistemologies of queerness, disability, and masculinity. She seeks to understand the way perverse sexuality, physical damage, and bodily contamination have stimulated—rather than created a crisis for—masculine characters in twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literature.

Announcing the new issue of Kalfou

This week in North Philly Notes, we present the table of contents for the new issue of Temple University Press’s journal, Kalfou, edited by George Lipsitz.

Please recommend to your library!   • To subscribe: click here  

Kalfou_generic-cover_102015
Vol 6 No 1 (2019): Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies
Feature Articles

Art and Social Action

Teaching and Truth

In Memoriam

Book Reviews

Kalfou is a scholarly journal focused on social movements, social institutions, and social relations. We seek to build links among intellectuals, artists, and activists in shared struggles for social justice. The journal seeks to promote the development of community-based scholarship in ethnic studies among humanists and social scientists and to connect the specialized knowledge produced in academe to the situated knowledge generated in aggrieved communities.

Kalfou is published by Temple University Press on behalf of the UCSB Center for Black Studies Research.

 

Announcing Temple University Press’ Fall 2019 Books

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase the titles on Temple University Press’ Fall 2019 catalog.

 

Action=Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France, by Christophe Broqua
Chronicling the history and accomplishments of Act Up-Paris

The Battles of Germantown: Effective Public History in America, by David W. Young
Lessons from Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood on how the public engages the past

Campaigns of Knowledge: U.S. Pedagogies of Colonialism and Occupation in the Philippines and Japan, by Malini Johar Schueller
Making visible the afterlives of U.S. colonial and occupation tutelage in the Philippines and Japan

Disabled Futures: A Framework for Radical Inclusion, by Milo W. Obourn
Offering a new avenue for understanding race, gender, and disability as mutually constitutive through an analysis of literature and films

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

Immigrant Rights in the Nuevo South: Enforcement and Resistance at the Borderlands of Illegalityby Meghan Conley
Examining the connections between repression and resistance for unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Southeast

Invisible People: Stories of Lives at the MarginsAlex Tizon; Edited by Sam Howe Verhovek; Foreword by Jose Antonio Vargas
Unforgettable profiles of immigrants, natives, loners, villains, eccentrics, and oracles

Japanese American Millennials: Rethinking Generation, Community, and Diversity, Edited by Michael Omi, Dana Y. Nakano, and Jeffrey T. Yamashita
A groundbreaking study of ethnic identity and community in the everyday lives of Japanese American millennials

Protestors and Their Targets, Edited by James M. Jasper and Brayden G King
Examining the dynamics when protesters and their targets interact

Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the DecolonialEdited by Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vazquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray
Putting the environmental humanities into dialogue with Latinx literary and cultural studies

Little Italy in the Great War: Philadelphia’s Italians on the Battlefield and Home Frontby Richard N. Juliani
How Philadelphia’s Italian community responded during World War I

Memory Passages: Holocaust Memorials in the United States and Germanyby Natasha Goldman
Considers Holocaust memorials in the United States and Germany, postwar to the present

Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia, Edited by Paul M. Farber and Ken Lum
A living handbook for vital perspectives on public art and history

Pennsylvania Politics and Policy: A Commonwealth Reader, Volume 2Edited by J. Wesley Leckrone and Michelle J. Atherton
Addressing important issues in Pennsylvania politics and policy in a constructive, nonpartisan manner

Power, Participation, and Protest in Flint, Michigan: Unpacking the Policy Paradox of Municipal Takeovers, by Ashley E. Nickels
The policy history of, implementation of, and reaction to Flint’s municipal takeovers

Public City/Public Sex: Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Parisby Andrew Israel Ross
How female prostitutes and men who sought sex with other men shaped the history and emergence of modern Paris in the nineteenth century

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

The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960sby Masumi Izumi
Dissecting the complex relationship among race, national security, and civil liberties in “the age of American concentration camps”

Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion among Young EvangelicalsJeremiah J. Castle
Are young evangelicals becoming more liberal?

Stan Hochman Unfiltered: 50 Years of Wit and Wisdom from the Groundbreaking Sportswriter, Edited by Gloria Hochman, Foreword by Angelo Cataldi, With a Message from Governor Edward G. Rendell
50 years of classic columns from one of Philadelphia’s most beloved sportswriters

Strategizing against Sweatshops: The Global Economy, Student Activism, and Worker Empowerment, by Matthew S. Williams
Explores how U.S. college students engaged in strategically innovative activism to help sweatshop workers across the world

Taking Juvenile Justice Seriously: Developmental Insights and System Challenges, by Christopher J. Sullivan
Comprehensive developmental insights suggest pragmatic changes to the complexity that is the juvenile justice system

The Age of Experiences: Harnessing Happiness to Build a New Economy, by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, With a Foreword by B. Joseph Pine II
How the booming experience and transformation economies can generate happiness—and jobs

The Subject(s) of Human Rights: Crises, Violations, and Asian/American Critique, Edited by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Guy Beauregard, and Hsiu-chuan Lee, With an Afterword by Madeleine Thien
Considers the ways Asian American studies has engaged with humanitarian crises and large-scale violations

Celebrating Temple University Press Books at the Association for Asian American Studies conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we spotlight our new Asian American titles, which will be on display at the Association for Asian American Studies conference, April 25-27 in Madison, Wisconsin. Several Temple University Press titles will be celebrated at a reception for new books on Thursday, April 25, at 6:00 pm in the Madison Concourse Hotel.

But wait, there’s more!…

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Temple University Press is hosting a reception at 2:00 pm on Friday, April 26 to celebrate 50 years of publishing. Our Asian American History and Culture series editors are expected to attend.

 

Temple University Press titles in Asian American Studies for 2018-2019

From Confinement to Containment: Japanese/American Arts during the Early Cold Warby Edward Tang, examines the work of four Japanese and Japanese/American artists and writers during this period: the novelist Hanama Tasaki, the actor Yamaguchi Yoshiko, the painter Henry Sugimoto, and the children’s author Yoshiko Uchida. Tang shows how the film, art, and literature made by these artists revealed to the American public the linked processes of U.S. actions at home and abroad. Their work played into—but also challenged—the postwar rehabilitated images of Japan and Japanese Americans as it focused on the history of transpacific relations such as Japanese immigration to the United States, the Asia-Pacific War, U.S. and Japanese imperialism, and the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans.

Anna May Wong: Performing the Modernby Shirley Jennifer Lim, re-evaluates the pioneering Chinese American actress Anna May Wong who made more than sixty films, headlined theater and vaudeville productions, and even starred in her own television show. Her work helped shape racial modernity as she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and, more generally, “Oriental” women between 1925 and 1940. Lim scrutinizes Wong’s cultural production and self-fashioning to provide a new understanding of the actress’s career as an ingenious creative artist.

America’s Vietnam: The Longue Durée of U.S. Literature and Empireby Marguerite Nguyen, challenges the prevailing genealogy of Vietnam’s emergence in the American imagination—one that presupposes the Vietnam War as the starting point of meaningful Vietnamese-U.S. political and cultural involvements. Examining literature from as early as the 1820s, Marguerite Nguyen takes a comparative, long historical approach to interpreting constructions of Vietnam in American literature. She analyzes works in various genres published in English and Vietnamese by Monique Truong and Michael Herr as well as lesser-known writers such as John White, Harry Hervey, and Võ Phiến. America’s Vietnam recounts a mostly unexamined story of Southeast Asia’s lasting and varied influence on U.S. aesthetic and political concerns.

Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory in Asian American Narratives of Return, by Patricia P. Chu. In researching accounts of diasporic Chinese offspring who returned to their parents’ ancestral country, author Patricia Chu learned that she was not alone in the experience of growing up in America with an abstract affinity to an ancestral homeland and community. The bittersweet emotions she had are shared in Asian American literature that depicts migration-related melancholia, contests official histories, and portrays Asian American families as flexible and transpacific. Where I Have Never Been explores the tropes of return, tracing both literal return visits by Asian emigrants and symbolic “returns”: first visits by diasporic offspring. Chu argues that these Asian American narratives seek to remedy widely held anxieties about cultural loss and the erasure of personal and family histories from public memory.

Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire, by Cynthia Wu, examines representations of same-sex desires and intraracial intimacies in some of the most widely read pieces of Asian American literature. Analyzing canonical works such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, as well as Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Yankee Dawg You Die, Wu considers how male relationships in these texts blur the boundaries among the homosocial, the homoerotic, and the homosexual in ways that lie beyond our concepts of modern gay identity. Wu lays bare the trope of male same-sex desires that grapple with how Asian America’s internal divides can be resolved in order to resist assimilation.

Coming Home: Asian American root journey narratives

This week in North Philly Notes, Patricia Chu, author of Where I Have Never Been, writes about developing her interest in narratives of return.

About sixteen years ago, I decided to go to Taiwan to give a paper on stories about Chinese Americans who visited China for the first time. At the time, I was in the same position as the heroine of an Amy Tan novel, for my mother had died just about a year earlier, and I had never seen mainland China or the relatives who lived there. A friend told me I needed to develop an international audience, and I was invited to attend a conference on history and memory in Taiwan. I hadn’t traveled much during my mother’s illness and my probationary, pre-tenure existence, so I threw together a proposal for a paper on Asian American roots journeys—narratives where Asian Americans returned to their parents’ homelands for the first time. Oddly, I felt at home in Taipei, which I had last visited as a child with my immigrant parents and American siblings. Despite my illiteracy in Mandarin and my failure to buy local currency before leaving the airport (not being used to traveling alone outside the U.S.), I felt happy, surrounded for the first time in years by Chinese people, and staying in a hotel that offered noodles and rice porridge for breakfast.

My conference paper began by describing a set of personal essays about the experience of coming to China for the first time. This was Cultural Curiosity: Thirteen Stories about the Search for Chinese Roots, edited by Josephine M. T. Khu. The writers of these essays belonged, as I did, to the generations born abroad by members of the Chinese diaspora.  Like the writers Amy Tan and Gish Jen, the designer and architect Maya Lin, and many others, the writers in this collection were children of emigrants; having grown up outside of China, they had visited China for the first time as adults after it was reopened to the west. In my paper, I talked about the cultural steps taken by these essayists, many of whom were estranged linguistically, culturally, or personally from their family origins. They studied Chinese; they learned about Chinese customs; and they arrived as foreigners in China, often meeting their relatives for the first time, and struggling to understand the complex family histories their relatives related. One contributor, Lily Wu, recounted how, as visiting student at Beijing University in the 1980s, she was welcomed by her Chinese relatives while studying in Beijing, but was embarrassed to see them, because no one had informed them of her mother’s mental illness. When she got to know her mother’s brother, he and his wife took her to see her mother’s favorite sister, who had cared for her mother when they were girls. Tragically, this beautiful aunt, who resembled her mother, had also become mentally ill and been placed in a mental hospital. When Lily met her aunt, she was stricken, not only by the dozens of stories she had heard by that time of her classmates’ trials during the Cultural Revolution; not only by the terrible waste she could see in her aunt’s desolate existence; but also by the realization of her own loss when her own loving mother, due to her mental illness, had psychologically withdrawn. As I recounted Lily’s tale of overwhelming sadness and tears, and her uncle’s kind response, to my scholarly audience, I also felt stricken with sadness and deeply moved by her story. Khu’s collection had confirmed for me the stakes of this literature of migration and return: loss, mourning, reconciliation, and the telling of stories before they vanished.

Where I Have Never Been_smDuring the next fifteen years, I reviewed over 100 Asian American stories in which the theme of return drove the narrative, opened or closed doors, or defined crucial moments in people’s lives. I considered films, plays, novels, some poetry, autobiographies, memoirs, and family histories, including a wider ethnic spectrum than I can describe here. I saw that my own wish to see my parents’ country was reflected in dozens of Asian American texts and is deeply American. Indeed, the trope of return to a parent’s homeland pops up in American texts from Presidential memoirs (President Obama’s Dreams of My Father) to Hollywood films about adoptees in search of their roots (Lion; Kung Fu Panda 2). Clearly, the search for origins theme had a universal aspect. But what elements of these stories were specific to Asian Americans?

In the case of Chinese Americans, I began by believing that the position of being cut off from the ancestral country during the Cold War, and the resulting alienation and sense of personal and cultural recovery, was in itself a story being examined by a generation of writers. I knew, also, that Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Southeast Asian, and South Asian Americans were affected in various ways by the six decades of the Chinese Exclusion laws. Beginning in 1882, Chinese laborers were forbidden to enter the U.S., with exceptions made only for merchants, diplomats, students, those who had previously lived in the U.S. and could claim the right to reenter, and their children. The law excluded those of Chinese descent, whether they entered from China, Hong Kong, Canada, or Cuba. Those of Chinese descent were also barred from applying for U.S. citizenship. And in the decades after 1882, Congress and the courts had extended the exclusion laws to bar most other Asians from entry and citizenship. When I began reading return narratives, I saw how these laws had resulted in many other Asian Americans being separated from their families, even before the Cold War.

In many return narratives, the stories of earlier generations who had come to the U.S. and returned were rendered more vivid in the family histories of present-day authors who returned to Asia to understand, research, and imagine lives and stories that would otherwise be lost. I was fascinated by the stories of Lisa See’s great-grandparents, an immigrant merchant and a runaway American girl who founded an American family despite the laws against their marriage and built family businesses on both sides of the Pacific, and the story of Denise Chong’s grandmother, a young woman brought to Canada to be the concubine of a Cantonese worker; she supported both two families, one in Canada and one in Guangdong province, on the slender wages of a tea waitress. And I was touched by the story of the father-daughter team, Winberg and May-lee Chai, who described the lives of May-lee’s idealistic grandparents, Charles and Ruth Chai, brilliant scholars who studied in America and returned to rebuild China, only to find that all the seeds of the Republican government’s collapse were already in place by the time they returned in the early 1930s. In the course of my research, I had the chance to speak with Denise Chong about what it meant to break her grandparents’ silence and publish their long-held secrets. She responded that she had searched for a way to remember them and their world as they really were, before it was too late. She became my first model for the author who by writing, seeks to repair the past.

At the very beginning of the tradition of Asian American return narratives is the autobiography of Yung Wing, who came to America in the 19th century, graduated from Yale, became a U.S. citizen, returned to China in mid-century to found the first major educational exchange program between China and the U.S., married an American, and published his autobiography in 1909. As an immigrant who worked in both countries but raised his family in America, Yung not only exemplified and anticipated the transpacific travel patterns found in later stories; his book represented the first attempt by a Chinese American writer to present himself both as a global subject (the equal of European globetrotters who documented their encounters with racial others) and as a kindred spirit to the African American authors of slave narratives. At least, that’s how I see it.

Toward the very end of the tradition—the recent past—I turned to the novels of Lydia Minatoya and Ruth Ozeki to answer my own questions about how the task of representing World War Two and the attached historical controversies have been taken up by Japanese North American writers. For many decades, Japanese Canadian and Japanese American writers have written eloquently about the internment of Japanese North Americans, but have been more cautious about addressing questions of Japan’s World War Two history. However, since the resolutions of the redress movements in Canada and the U.S., Minatoya and Ozeki are among the handful of Japanese American authors who have ventured to consider issues of Japan’s wartime past, and public and private memory, while also telling engaging stories about Japanese women who come to America, then return to Japan.

Did I myself ever return to China and find my long lost relatives? Yes, but that is another story.

 

History Lessons: Henry Sugimoto’s Art on the Japanese American Experience

This week in North Philly Notes, Edward Tang, author of From Confinement to Containment, describes the art and life of Japanese American artist Henry Sugimoto, one of the subjects featured in his new book.

In light of the current debates about immigrants, border walls, detention centers, and travel bans, I often think about the Japanese American artist Henry Sugimoto (1900-1990), one of four cultural figures I examine in From Confinement to Containment: Japanese/American Arts during the Early Cold War. Along with his family, Sugimoto was incarcerated in the camps at Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas, during World War II, solely because of their racial and ethnic background. When the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many Issei (Japanese immigrants in the United States, including Sugimoto) and their American-born Nisei children were suspected of being loyal to Japan. Pressure from various political and farming interests intensified on the federal government to oust Japanese Americans from the West Coast. As a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which mandated the removal of over 110,000 of them to detention facilities located in the most desolate environments in the nation’s interior. That two-thirds of these civilians imprisoned without trial were U.S. citizens (the Nisei) hardly mattered to the rest of the country. Sugimoto painted many heart-rending scenes of what mothers and fathers, the elderly, single folks, and even infants experienced during their removal and confinement, as evidenced in one striking composition, Nisei Babies in Concentration Camp (circa 1943). But the artist also made sure to portray a subordinated community’s endurance, creativity, and love for one another in the midst of such trying conditions.  

fig 1_nisei babies
After the war, Sugimoto continued to paint scenes of the mass confinement and also became interested in the broader history of Japanese Americans in the United States, rendering muralist portrayals of their immigrant past. Some depicted episodes of racism and other obstacles faced, a theme initially explored in his paintings about the wartime incarceration. In an untitled piece featuring the words “STOP PICTURE BRIDE” (circa 1965), Sugimoto takes note of the immigration bans at the turn of the twentieth century. Japanese men first came to America as much-needed agricultural laborers, but white fears of a growing “yellow peril” instigated several legislative acts that restricted their further entry. These included limits on “picture brides” — Japanese women who came to marry those immigrant men and thus establish families and communities in the United States (a development to be averted, in white nativist eyes).
In the image, Sugimoto juxtaposes two symbols of America: Uncle Sam (state power) and Lady Liberty (the ideals of freedom and democracy). The artist transforms Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” finger-pointing, derived from the World War I recruiting poster calling on Americans to make the world safe for democracy, to an “I Don’t Want You” glare and gesture directed at Asian immigrants. Yet the Statue of Liberty, representing the cosmopolitan embrace of the world’s incoming peoples, stands above Uncle Sam and alongside the Japanese picture bride, which reveals how Sugimoto felt about the compatibility between the nation’s principles and the newcomers appearing at its shores.

fig 2_stop picture bride
Sugimoto himself journeyed from Japan to America in 1919. His parents were already in the United States before the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement that curbed Japanese entry, so he was able to join them through a chain migration process. His first love was for French Postimpressionism and other European styles of art. He gained an international reputation in the 1930s with his artistic promise and traveled widely. But the wartime imprisonment of Japanese Americans quashed his public visibility and pushed him to a muralist sensibility that conveyed subtle, and often outright, political protest. During the early Cold War era, however, Sugimoto continued to labor in obscurity. Few wanted to address the injustice of confining Japanese Americans, especially when this population was now seen as a new “model minority” to promote a benevolent, multiethnic America and when Japan became a new U.S. ally in the fight against communism and Soviet expansion. With the advent of increased Asian American activism in the late 1960s and the growing movement for reparations for the Japanese American confinement, critics and audiences began to pay more attention to Sugimoto’s efforts. In 2001, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hosted the largest retrospective of his work. What is important to remember is that between the 1940s and 1960s, before this renewed public notice emerged, Sugimoto was detailing scenes of war, racism, immigration, and incarceration as intimately entangled issues that still resonate to this day.

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