Celebrating Filipino American History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase a dozen Temple University Press titles focusing on Filipino American lives and culture.

Temple University Press is proud to be publishing these two new titles from our Fall list:

Invisible_People_smInvisible People: Stories of Lives at the Margin, by Alex Tizon, Edited by Sam Howe Verhovek, with a Foreword by Antonio Vargas, provides unforgettable profiles of immigrants, natives, loners, villains, eccentrics, and oracles.

The late Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Alex Tizon told the epic stories of marginalized people—from lonely immigrants struggling to forge a new American identity to a high school custodian who penned a New Yorker short story. Edited by Tizon’s friend and former colleague Sam Howe Verhovek, Invisible People collects the best of Tizon’s rich, empathetic accounts—including “My Family’s Slave,” the Atlantic magazine cover story about the woman who raised him and his siblings under conditions that amounted to indentured servitude.

Mining his Filipino American background, Tizon tells the stories of immigrants from Cambodia and Laos. He gives a fascinating account of the Beltway sniper and insightful profiles of Surfers for Jesus and a man who tracks UFOs. His articles—many originally published in the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times—are brimming with enlightening details about people who existed outside the mainstream’s field of vision.

Campaigns_of_Knowledge_SMCampaigns of Knowledge: U.S. Pedagogies of Colonialism and Occupation in the Philippines and Japanby Malini Johar Schueller, makes visible the afterlives of U.S. colonial and occupational tutelage in the Philippines and Japan.

In Campaigns of Knowledge, Malini Schueller contrapuntally reads state-sanctioned proclamations, educational agendas, and school textbooks alongside political cartoons, novels, short stories, and films by Filipino and Filipino Americans, Japanese and Japanese Americans to demonstrate how the U.S. tutelary project was rerouted, appropriated, reinterpreted, and resisted. In doing so, she highlights how schooling was conceived as a process of subjectification, creating particular modes of thought, behaviors, aspirations, and desires that would render the natives docile subjects amenable to American-style colonialism in the Philippines and occupation in Japan.

Here are ten additional Temple University Press books on Filipino American life and culture: 

The Cry and the Dedication, Carlos Bulosan and E. San Juan, Jr. This previously unpublished novel chronicles the adventures of seven Filipino guerrillas rebelling against U.S. domination.

The Day the Dancers Stayed: Performing in the Filipino/American Diasporaby Theodore S. Gonzalves. This book explores the way that cultural celebrations challenge official accounts of the past while reinventing culture and history for Filipino American college students.

Discrepant Histories: Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures, edited by Vincent Rafael. This volume of essays explores postcolonial issues of identity, social control, power, representation, and culture.

Filipino American Livesby Yen Le Espiritu. This book provides first-person narratives by Filipino Americans that reveal the range of their experiencesbefore and after immigration.

Locating Filipino Americans: Ethnicity and the Cultural Politics of Space, by Rick Bonus. This book defines ethnic identity and social space for Filipino Americans.

On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan, by Carlos Bulosan, edited by E. San Juan, Jr. This book is a collection of writings by a prolific and political Filipino American writer.

The Philippine Temptation: Dialectics of Philippines-U.S. Literary Relations, by E. San Juan, Jr. This book is a passionate discussion of the history of oppositional writing in the Philippines.

Pinoy Capital: The Filipino Nation in Daly City, by Benito M. Vergara, Jr. This book examines the double lives of Filipino American immigrants.

Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourseedited by Antonio T. Tiongson, Ric V. Gutierrez, and Ed V. Gutierrez. This volume collects essays that challenge conventional narratives of Filipino American history and culture.

San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement, by Estella Habal. This book shows how a protest galvanized a cultural identity for Filipino Americans.

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Temple University Press and Libraries Make 32 Labor Studies Titles Freely Available with NEH Grant

This week in North Philly Notes, we recap our work reissuing out of print Labor Studies titles with the help of Temple University Libraries and an NEH Grant.

In 2017, Temple University Press and Temple University Libraries received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to make a selection of the Press’s outstanding out-of-print labor studies titles freely available online as part of the Humanities Open Book Program. The titles were selected based on their impact on and ongoing relevance to scholars, students, and the general public.

As of October 1, 2019, all 32 titles are available on the Temple University Press website, where they can be read online or downloaded in EPUB, PDF, and MOBI formats. A print-on-demand option is forthcoming. All titles are also available open access on JSTOR and Project MUSE.

The books have been updated with new cover art, and 30 titles feature new forewords by experts in the field of labor studies. The forewords place each book in its appropriate historical context and align the content with recent developments in the field. The selected titles reflect a range of disciplines, including history, sociology, political science, and education.

The NEH grant also made it possible for Temple University Press and Temple University Libraries to host several public programs in conjunction with the reissued titles. A program in November 2018 featured Sharon McConnell-Sidorick and Francis Ryan discussing Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850 by Bruce Laurie. McConnell-Sidorick penned the foreword for the new edition. In April 2019, in support of Phyllis Palmer’s reissued book, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945, Premilla Nadasen spoke about how women of color organized after taking over domestic responsibilities from white housewives. And this month, William Jones will present a lecture entitled, “Remembering Philip S. Foner and The Black Worker,” reflecting on the eight-volume series The Black Worker, edited by Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis. Videos of the presentations will soon be available on Temple University Press’s blog, North Philly Notes.

Mary Rose Muccie, Director of Temple University Press, said, “Labor history is a key area of focus for the Press and today’s labor movement was shaped by many of the people and actions depicted in these titles. We’re grateful to the NEH for allowing us to reissue them without access barriers and help them to find new audiences.”

Annie Johnson, Scholarly Communications Specialist at Temple University Libraries added, “Thanks to the generous support of the NEH, we have been able to introduce these important books to a new generation of scholars, students, and the general public. We’re excited to continue to collaborate with the Press on other open publishing initiatives in order to further our shared mission of making scholarship widely accessible.”

About Temple University Press
Founded in 1969, Temple University Press chose as its inspiration Russell Conwell’s vision of the university as a place of educational opportunity for the urban working class. The Press is perhaps best known as a publisher of books in the social sciences and the humanities, as well as books about Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley region. Temple was an early publisher of books in urban studies, housing and labor studies, organizational reform, social service reform, public religion, health care, and cultural studies.

About Temple University Libraries
Temple University Libraries serve as trusted keepers of the intellectual and cultural record—collecting, describing, providing access to, and preserving a broad universe of materials, including physical and digital collections, rare and unique books, manuscripts, archives, ephemera and the products of scholarly enterprise at Temple. We are committed to providing research and learning services, to providing open access to our facilities and information resources, and to fostering innovation and experimentation.

About The National Endowment for the Humanities

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

Redefining Toxic Masculinity in Trump’s America

This week in North Philly Notes, Cynthia Barounis, author of Vulnerable Constitutions, writes about “anti-prophylactic citizenship,” and Trump’s rhetoric.  

When I first began to develop the concept of “anti-prophylactic citizenship” five years ago in my research on queerness and disability, I did not anticipate how explicitly its opposite would take shape in the campaign, election, and presidency of Donald Trump. To say that Trump ran on a platform of racial exclusion and xenophobia is to state the obvious. But less frequently do we invoke the word “prophylactic” to describe Trump’s obsession with closed borders. Our discussions of prophylaxis tend to center, more progressively, on preventative medicine and public health. Against the puritanism of abstinence-only education, safe sex campaigns advocate the availability of prophylactic barriers to minimize the risk of STIs. And against the autism panic of anti-vaxxers, immunization records in schools are a commonsense strategy for protecting children against preventable outbreaks of contagious diseases.

And yet this primarily medical term also cuts to the core of the Trump administration’s attitude toward those populations he has named as threats. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater symbol for national prophylaxis than Trump’s promise to “build a great, great wall on our southern border.” A prophylactic barrier is designed to preemptively seal off the body from foreign invaders. While Trump has not succeeded in erecting his wall, his administration has enacted more insidious forms of border security since he took office, from the discriminatory Muslim Ban to the mass detention of asylum seekers and the unconscionable separation of parents from their children at the border. Even as I write this, Trump is making new headlines in his refusal to admit Bahamian climate refugees into the U.S. in the wake of Hurricane Dorian because they contained “some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.” To make America “great again,” in this worldview, is to safeguard the imagined purity of an American “us” against infection and contamination by a supposedly un-American “them.”

Recognizing Trump’s rhetoric as fundamentally prophylactic allows us to more easily see the ableism that motivates his fixation with closed borders. During an interview with NPR last month, Trump’s acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, took it upon himself to rewrite Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, etched onto the Statue of Liberty. Quoting the iconic lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Cuccinelli improvised an extra addendum: “Who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” More than just an ableist metaphor, the requirement that immigrants be able to “stand on their own two feet” and not request assistance sends a clear message: sickness and disability have no place within Trump’s America. To what extent does the nostalgic rallying cry “Make America Great Again” resemble the rehabilitative pressures that demand that certain individuals become able to “walk again”?  More importantly, what would it look like to refuse that demand, requesting care instead of cure and demanding access rather than quarantine? What would a model of anti-prophylactic American citizenship look like?

Vulnerable ConstitutionsAs I was writing Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood, I discovered the answer to this question among an eclectic set of American novels and memoirs, from the canonical voices of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald to the more explicitly radical writings of James Baldwin and Samuel Delany. Each of these writers rejected the prophylactic impulse to seal off the borders the body (and nation) against infection. In so doing, they rebelled against the medical wisdom of their day. Against doctor’s orders, they imagined a new form of American masculinity that celebrated the virtues of the viral. In their works, I was fascinated by the number of shapes these infectious visions took, from the risky intimacies cultivated among queer barebacking subcultures in response to the AIDS epidemic to the rejection of the sanitizing psychiatric labels and coercive therapies applied to gay men in the 1950s and 60s.

Rather than embracing an ideal of impenetrable masculinity, these writers believed that individual body, as well as the body of the nation, becomes healthier and more robust as it drops its defenses. They help us to envision an alternative form of manhood that dictates that the body remain open, incorporating and adapting to those elements that others identify as ‘threats.’ This alternative masculinity, of course, is not beyond critique. Its glorification of risk and resilience (“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) might simply replace one masculine ideal with another. But by celebrating the value and even the pleasures of contamination, it is a masculinity that is “toxic” in the most positive sense of the word.

 

Celebrating Banned Books Week

In honor of Banned Books Week, North Philly Notes posts an excerpt from Ganzeer’s entry, Charlie and the Aliens, from Who Will Speak for America?, edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin.


Who will speak for America? Barbara Jordan asked this question in her historic address to the 1976 Democratic National Convention. In the wake of Donald Trump’s first year in office, we posed this same question to over 40 essayists, poets, fiction writers, and artists. Like Barbara Jordan, we wanted to know who would have the courage and dedication to speak for American values. 

Our contributors reminded us that the true question was—perhaps, has always been—who will be allowed to speak for America. Banned Books Week emphasizes this ongoing, central fight. There are forces that would prevent us from sharing our stories, expressing our experiences, raising our voices. We must speak, nonetheless, and advocate for those whom the powerful would silence.

This excerpt comes from Ganzeer, whose protest murals were removed by the Egyptian government during the 2011 revolution.Stephanie Feldman, co-editor of Who Will Speak for America? 


Who WIll Speak for America revised_030818_smWhen I was first invited by Nathaniel Popkin⁠—one of the two masterful editors of Who Will Speak for America?—to submit something for inclusion in the book, I thought to myself: Okay, Ganzeer, this is your chance to write a serious scholarly piece for a serious scholarly book! And when I sat down to write the thing, that was in all seriousness my very serious intention. Yet, what came out was something else entirely.

I suppose the reason for this is… well, it’s really hard to write seriously about something that to you seems so obviously absurd. And let’s be clear; things are tremendously absurd right now. From the rhetoric surrounding the migration of human beings within our planet Earth, to the levels of incarceration in American prisons, to the continued prevalence of racial stereotypes, and the ridiculous myths of “American ideals.” It is all quite frankly very, very dumb.

So I found myself writing about it all through the lens of an absurd science fiction story about a 3-eyed alien named Charlie and his arrival to an Earth only scarcely populated by human beings.

I honestly didn’t think Nathaniel or Stephanie would want to include it, that its tone would be too, uh, absurd to include in their very serious academic tome meant to get at the heart of the American question. But much to my surprise I was wrong.

But y’know what? It’s one of the very few times I was elated to be wrong! Not for my own sake, but for the sake of academic publishing, for the sake science fiction, and for the sake of America!


An Excerpt from Charlie and the Aliens by Ganzeer

When it was my turn, I took a step toward the counter. The clerk raised his hand in a gesture that suggested I shouldn’t and then pointed to the kid standing behind me to step forward instead. And that’s exactly what the smug little brat did. He just marched on over without the slightest bit of hesitation.You might find it surprising that this memory is coming to me now as I sit in a cold, dark jail cell on the Moon with three other inmates, sharing stories about how we ended up here. Like campers around a campfire sharing ghost stories, except all the stories are supposedly true, and the thing we’re gathered around is not a fire but a shared sense of camaraderie. Much like a campfire, it’s this camaraderie that gives us a sense of security.When you first set foot in prison, you assume that everyone there must be bad, real bad. That no one there is anything like you. Which contradicts a popular saying we have on my home planet, Capulanos: “If to prison you are sent, then for sure you are innocent.”

I used to think it was just that: a saying, a proverb. It might’ve been true a very long time ago, when the justice system was anything but just. Or maybe it happened to catch on because it rhymes, and our brains are weak, easily malleable things incapable of standing firm against the irresistible power of the jingle. That may be one of the reasons I fell for Earth, a planet that boasts a great many jingles. Of note is:

     Proud to be an Earthling
     Where life is grand and free
     The entire cosmos is burning
     But here in peace we be
     O the wealth we are earning
     For our eternal shopping spree

In any case, the testimony of two of these fellas—a Menos-Earthling and an Aradis-Earthling—leads me to believe that there may be some truth to that Capulanos proverb after all. Both have ended up here by way of completely convoluted circumstances. The third inmate has yet to speak, but he’s the one I’m most excited to hear from because—dig this—he’s Human. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a Human Being before, despite having lived on Earth for several years.

Figure 5.3 Ganzeer - Starscone BoyBefore Earth, I lived on Capulanos, where I was born. And it was there on Capulanos, when I was still a child, that I walked into Ziggy’s Starscone Store—steps away from getting the most succulent, luscious starscone you could ever dream of—and got my first taste of discrimination. The clerk gave this fat little punk-ass foreigner preferential treatment. Not only did he ask him to step forward when it wasn’t yet his turn, but he covered the kid’s starscone in a thick blanket of Magic Sparkles. Without charging him! I saw it with my own three eyes. The kid then walked out of the store to reunite with his parents, obviously tourists. They had scaly skin and metallic accessories most peculiar in design, and the mother was lavishly overdressed. These weren’t just any tourists: they were from the wealthiest planet in the galaxy, Earth. (But not Human, mind you. I’ll get to that later.)

The clerk, less giddy than he was a second ago, asked me, “Whaddya want, kid?” and when I told him, he gave me exactly what I wanted but with very little interest. He lacked a certain oomph in his manners, which I wouldn’t have noticed had he not been on top of the world to serve the kid who had just preceded me. The kid who most certainly should not have preceded me. When I asked the clerk if I could get a topping of Magic Sparkles, only then did he smile, but it was more of a smirk. He told me it would cost extra. With utmost entitlement and a bloated chest, I pointed out that the other kid had just gotten Magic Sparkles for free. A most unpleasant laugh escaped him, and he proceeded to lecture me on the importance of hospitality toward foreigners. I couldn’t understand why I was being treated as an inferior species on my own planet! And then I wondered: If I were to visit Earth, would I get better treatment than the locals? I couldn’t help myself from staring at the foreign kid and his parents. The kid sinking his teeth into that thick layer of Magic Sparkles while his parents shooed away a couple of locals asking for money. Granted, beggars can be a little pesky, but those kids could have obviously done with a little more meat on their bones.

But more than the local beggars or the parents, I was focused on the kid and his starscone. He noticed. And I’m almost certain that what he saw was a boy glaring back at him with far more hate than the situation called for. Yet the foreign kid’s reaction to this was quite bizarre. After barely a femtosecond of surprise, he smiled. The little punk smiled because he knew. He knew he was a privileged little brat and liked it. He took pleasure in it. For the first time in my life, I felt this sensation: a bulge in my throat accompanied by a cardinal spark of rage. A combination that I can describe only as the thirst for vengeance. To this day, the sweet aroma of fresh starscone brings back feelings of revenge.

The opposite is also true: a thirst for vengeance always brings to mind the smell of fresh starscone. Which is why, sitting here in this murky, bonechilling jail cell about to recall the story of my incarceration, I find myself remembering this childhood incident at Ziggy’s Starscone Store. Because, let me tell you, right now, at this moment, I’m feeling mighty vengeful.

On the anniversary of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950

This week in North Philly Notes, Masumi Izumi, author of The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Lawwrites about the McCarran Internal Security Act, which was enacted on September 23, 1950. 

Four years ago in late September, I spoke to a small attentive crowd and many indifferent passersby in a street protest held at one of the busiest intersections in the city of Kyoto. We were protesting the passage of the national security related bills that were steamrolled the day before. The overwhelming majority of constitutional scholars considered that the bills violated the nation’s pacifist constitution because they allowed the government to send its Self Defense Force troops abroad to take part in military actions unrelated to the defense of the territory of Japan. Tens of thousands of citizens gathered in protest in major cities. Thousands surrounded the Diet building every evening. I took part in a rally in Tokyo, joined a couple of demonstrations in Osaka, and walked with my daughter in several marches in Kyoto.

Over many years as a historian, I had interviewed Asian North American grassroots social activists. I wrote papers about political and cultural activism in the postwar Japanese American and Canadian communities. But I was not an activist myself. On that day at the protest rally, I asked the crowd and the passersby: “After the 9/11 attack, the U.S. government passed the Patriot Act and told people that everyone needed to be under surveillance because terrorists might be hiding among them. Then the U.S. government attacked Iraq on an accusation that later turned out to be a lie. Today, the Japanese government is telling us that we are threatened by our neighboring countries, that we need to remilitarize, and that we need to give up our liberties because excessive freedom jeopardizes our nation. But isn’t it our freedom that protects us, because it is our inalienable human rights that hold our government accountable?”

Since the return of a conservative cabinet led by an ultra-nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party prime minister in 2012, I have found myself living under a reactionary regime that imposed a series of repressive legislations. The LDP-Komei Party coalition passed the Specially Designated Secrets Act in 2013, steamrolled the National Security Acts in 2015, and made “conspiracy to commit a crime” a criminal offense in 2017. When the Security Acts passed, it felt as if the protective shield for our land and our people – our pacifist constitution – lost its effect.

Rise and Fall of America's Concentration Camp Law_sm_borderIt was around this time that I restarted my effort to publish the book based on my Ph.D dissertation. In The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s, I chronicle the passage and repeal of the Emergency Detention Act, or Title II of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (hereafter Title II). I elucidate how Japanese American wartime mass incarceration provided a legal precedent for this law. Through discourse analyses, I show how Japanese Americans were discursively placed outside the constitutional protection of civil liberties. The analyses requires a revision in historical interpretations of Japanese American incarceration that it was not only important as an example of mass incarceration of a racial minority but it also was a sinister legal precedent for preventive detention of individuals considered potentially dangerous for national security. I do not mean that Japanese Americans posed threat to national security. In reality they did not. But the Executive Order 9066 granted the military a sweeping power to designate any part of the U.S. to be a defense zone from which it could exclude anybody in the name of national security. This expanded the government’s war power, and it led, in the Cold War period, to the authorization of the government to detain any person whom the government considered might engage in acts of espionage or sabotage. The book also depicts how a Japanese American grassroots movement to repeal Title II, or the “concentration camp law,” led Americans to reflect on their nation’s past and present racism and political oppressions in a critical light in the late 1960s.

When I wrote my dissertation, I meant to write about the past in a foreign country. Now, as I see my book come out in print, I am engaged in an actual struggle to halt the governmental efforts to undermine civil liberties and human rights in my country. I am also witnessing intense protests in the United States against immigrant detention, and I see global movements arising against neo-liberal economic policies and calling for actions to stop the climate change. If I had a choice, I would rather be a historian chronicling activisms in the past, because it feels much safer to study what happened in hindsight. I realize how scary it is to be active when we do not know the consequences of our actions or inactions. But perhaps only through our own struggles, we can understand the fears and hopes experienced by the past activists whom we write about.

Examining the global migration crisis, human rights, and xenophobia

This week in North Philly Notes, Heather Smith-Cannoy, editor of Emerging Threats to Human Rights, asks, Do things really get better once forced migrants escape dangerous conditions? 

In September of 2015, the tiny body of a 3-year old Syrian refugee washed ashore in Greece. The gut-wrenching image of a small, innocent child trying to escape a brutal civil war with his family, only to drown in route to a better life, was not one that I could shake. Little Aylan Kurdi’s tragic journey struck me especially hard because he was the same age as my son. Until that day my research on human rights had always been about the impact of laws on people in far off places—women in Hungary, civilians in UN protected combat zones, and political prisoners in Central Asia. But the image of his small body, face down on the shore fundamentally changed the way that I think about human rights in a rapidly changing world.

Emerging Threats to Human RIghtsEmerging Threats to Human Rights is my attempt to look beyond the traditional boundaries that defined how I had thought about global human rights.  Rather than studying one group of people, in one particular county, Aylan Kurdi’s story showed me to that to wrestle with emerging threats to human rights in our world, I needed to look across the human experience to understand both the causes of flight and the possibilities for the fulfillment of rights after flight. In other words, do things really get better once forced migrants escape dangerous conditions?

In collaborating with the talented academics, attorneys, and activists that contributed to this volume, we arrived at three interwoven themes that capture a new way of thinking about human rights within a process of migration. When sea levels rise, for example, where will people who call small island nations their home go to seek refuge and what will be the status of their rights what they arrive in that new community? If violence erupts in one’s country of residence and they flee, do they have a chance to improve their lives in their new country? When governments dismantle citizenship rights, effectively stripping people of their legal status, what happens when they try to escape?

Collectively, this anthology examines three causes of migration—resource depletion, violence and deprivation of citizenship, which, to varying degrees compel people to leave their homes in search of safety and a better life. We find that violence generates more refugees than resource depletion and deprivation of citizenship but together these chapters show that escape is only the beginning of the story. When people escape dangerous conditions, their prospects for a full life depend critically on where they land and how they get there. Contributors Money and Western conduct a global macro analysis of rights fulfillment in one chapter. They show that the fate of forced migrants depends on three factors of the host state—governance quality, access to resources, and the availability of citizenship for new migrants.

Contributor Kerstin Fisk shows that when refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia sought asylum in South Africa, they were instead subjected to organized xenophobic violence carried out with the support of the South African government. In the chapter I wrote, I show that as Rohingya refugees are stripped of citizenship by their government in Myanmar, they run for their lives to boats waiting at sea. Traffickers use the opportunity to exploit people desperate to escape genocide. The cover image of the book shows some of those Rohingya refugees who made it out of Myanmar successfully. That image comes from the largest refugee camp in the world, Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh.

In the time it took to put this volume together, the global migration crisis has only intensified. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that as of September 2019, there are more than 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, unquestionably the worst migration crisis on record. I hope that Emerging Threats to Human Rights will start a conversation about the human rights and human dignity of the world’s growing migrant population and serve to counteract a rising tide of xenophobia.

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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