Seeing Yellow (1994)
1994. In Karin Aguilar-San Juan (Ed.), The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s, pp. 161-1711. Boston, MA: South End Press.
Asian Identities in Film and Video by Richard Fung
Up until the nineteenth century, Chinese people imagined themselves at the center of the world. They saw their country occupying the space between heaven and earth: the Middle Kingdom. As an imperialist, colonizing power they developed what is now politely referred to as "Han chauvinism," which categorized all non-Han people—Mongolians, Miao, Tibetans ... and white people—as barbarians. In popular speech Chinese speakers still often refer to non-Chinese as ghosts.
But when the Chinese—most of them peasants—began to immigrate to the Americas in the last century, they came under another form of racism. They lost—to the extent that peasants can possess it—their power to define others, and instead became the defined, the circumscribed. They were told who could come, where they could live and work (for smaller wages) ... and in Canada and the United States they were charged a head tax for all these privileges. The Japanese, who believed they were descended from the sun goddess, suffered a similar fate. Their ancestors had repelled the Chinese in the twelfth century when the wind of the gods, the kamikaze, rose up to destroy the invading ships of Kublai Khan. They had dominated Korea and received tribute from Okinawa that is, to the extent that ordinary people receive the benefits of tribute. But when they came here, they too found that they were told where to live and work.
While the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Filipinos, and the Vietnamese had fought each other in their old countries, and sometimes continued to do battle in the new, they had one thing in common. Here, they were all branded with the mark "oriental." Before, they had just seen themselves as east or west of a given mountain, a town or an island. In this new land, they were collectively and permanently east of something... or someone. And while one group was occasionally singled out for praise or hostility—so that was seen as being too rich and buying up all the land, or too poor and working below market value, or owing allegiance to a threatening foreign power, or flooding the land with refugees and street gangs—the makers laws and decisions really couldn't tell one from the other, and could only see the yellow in their skins. In World War II, the Canadian government issued buttons that marked the wearer as Chinese, to distinguish him or her from the
Japanese Canadian "enemy." There are rare stories of buttons being lent to friends so they could pass. To the East and Southeast Asians, their skin had of course just been skin: coarse with work, pale from a life of privilege, hairy or smooth. But then, even some of them began to look at their own hands and see them as yellow. Soon, rather than different shades of human, they began to notice that the hands of others were white, brown, red, and black. It's not that they hadn't noticed differences before, or that they didn't have their own conceptions of beauty or worth, but this particular coding and hierarchy of "races" was new.
"Asian" consciousness only begins to eclipse national consciousness in the context of white racism, and particularly as experienced here in the diaspora. It is premised on a shared sense of visibility, and less on any common cultural, aesthetic, or religious roots: What does Filipino Catholicism have to do with Japanese Buddhism or the Islam of Malaysia? In North America, "Asian" is often used simply as an acceptable replacement for "oriental." Referring to an actual geographical origin, the term seems to carry less colonial baggage. Yet it is worth remembering that Asia is not in fact a natural entity but exists only in relation to notions of Europe and Africa developed in the West. These are political and economic demarcations closely tied to the colonial project. Even today, when we witness the shuffle of states in the former Eastern Bloc, there is anxiety in Western Europe as to where to draw the line for possible inclusion in the European Economic Community. Where does Asia start and Europe leave off, and in whose interests are these borders drawn?
Another problem exists with the term "Asian." Asia, as it has been defined, covers a large portion of the globe: from Turkey to Korea and from Siberia to India. Whereas in North America, East and Southeast Asians have claimed the term, in Britain, "Asian" is commonly taken to refer to people whose ancestry lies in the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka. People of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan descent are rooted in a variety of cultural and religious traditions but share a similar history of British colonialism. More importantly, no matter whether they are born in North America, come from the subcontinent or from the Indian diaspora in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific, or the Caribbean, they occupy comparable places within the North American racial configuration: They are seen to look alike.
Both South Asians and East/Southeast Asians are rightly Asian. Yet because we are seen to constitute distinct groups, our experiences of racism and our resulting politics of resistance tend to follow different lines. Hence, organizing under the banner "Asian" leads to many logistical problems: Around whose terms are discussions of Asian identity framed? Who gets included and who tokenized? In the United States and particularly in Canada, many have chosen to organize explicitly as "South Asians," while "Asian" groups continue to draw predominantly from East and Southeast Asian communities ... with the occasional South Asian member.
Some endeavors have consciously attempted a "pan-Asian" basis of unity, but this works only when organizers take difference and equity into account, and plan them right from the start. Resolving this issue, however, is only partly a matter of finding more accurate names, as people will always fall out of attempts to carve up and categorize the continuity and fluidity that actually exists in the world. At the same time, we draw strength from using our socially constructed identities (with all of the problems I've described) as a lever for organizing and challenging racism. In describing and problematizing our own (albeit shifting) locations, we can move out to understand a system from which we share common oppression. It's in this way that I choose to work within a "yellow" experience of race. This I call "Asian," but with the full recognition that Asian is not only this experience.
Given that the form of racism we encounter in North America is that of white superiority, it isn't surprising that the struggle for Asians to reclaim our subjecthood (or to shed our otherness) has been phrased as a tug of war between yellow and white. But something is wrong with this binary opposition of white oppressor and yellow oppressed. Whereas racism privileges whiteness and targets a somewhat shifting body of "others," anyone, no matter their status or color, can engage its discourses. There is a way that power is fluid and shifting at the same time that it is concentrated at the top. We tread on dangerous ground if we lose sight of either aspect.
Let me give you three examples. First, when I leave my home and walk to the subway, I pass a man who is young, white, anglophone, "able-bodied," and (I'm presuming) heterosexual. He asks me for money. He lives on the street and is economically poorer than I am. But he's also a skinhead, and if I don't give him money, I am aware he may resort to racist harassment. Second, this summer when I walked over to my corner store I overheard a black kid and a white kid mimicking aloud the language of the Vietnamese children playing on the street. I revisited all those conflicted emotions of my childhood: anger and embarrassment mixed with an attempt to "contextualize" what I had witnessed. Finally, after returning home from a recent trip to Chinatown, my mother perused her bills because, she says, “You can't trust those Chinese merchants." By citing these three examples I by no means want to suggest that a white street person, a black child, and my mother have the same social powers, or the same exercise of racism as an immigration official, a police officer, a university professor, a government minister or a corporate head. However, to me, the power of racism is generated in an endless multiplicity of sites, including the self. The children and the young man have no power to deny me education or employment, yet these incidents continuously reassert my social place and my sense of my own (limited) possibilities.
Given the historical misrepresentations of mainstream media, I am not surprised that most independent films and videotapes produced by North American men and women of Asian descent seek redress from white supremacy. They perform the important tasks of correcting histories, voicing common but seldom represented experiences, engaging audiences used to being spoken about but never addressed, and actively constructing a politics of resistance to racism. In her comprehensive article, "Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking, 1970-1990," filmmaker-critic Renee Tajima chronicles the myriad strategies Asian Americans have employed in identifying and exposing white and Eurocentric assumptions both on the screen and behind the camera. Consider, for example, Valerie Soe's two-minute epigram of a videotape, All Orientals Look the Same (1985), in which the title phrase forms a continuous chant beneath a ceaseless procession of different Asian faces; the juxtaposition is all she needs to expose the lie of the stereotype. Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1989) by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima, on the other hand, demonstrates the consequence of that stereotype—Vincent Chin was killed in Detroit by white
unemployed autoworkers who thought he was Japanese—and thereby articulates a basis of unity for Asians on this continent, if only for self-protection.
But in this chapter I want to turn my attention to a small but important body of work that addresses issues of identity and politics beyond an axis of white and yellow. Here I am not primarily interested in those pieces that place Asians alongside other people of color in positions of solidarity or equivalence, such as Pratibha Parmar's Emergence (1986), Shu Lea Cheang's Color Schemes (1989), or Michelle Mohabeer's Exposure (1990). These are important works. I want, however, to focus on films and tapes that explore differences among Asians, as well as between Asians and other non-white peoples.
North American popular politics has developed the term "people of color." This formulation has the advantage of drawing connections between people and avoiding slippage into a discourse of racial purity. But while it is true that non-white peoples are all casualties of white supremacy, the term "people of color," like "Asian," draws a line that collapses racial difference and assumes unity of purpose. From the early 1990s, a number of incidents began to fracture this illusion. In Los Angeles and New York, we have seen increasing hostility between African and Asian Americans. In Toronto, we have witnessed the scapegoating of Vietnamese youth and recent immigrants from the People's Republic of China for increasing violence in Chinatown. The police and the mainstream media point these fingers for sure, but they do so with the collusion of the Chinatown business class.
Two documentary films—Bittersweet Survival (1982) by Christine Choy and Orinne J.T. Takagi and Mississippi Triangle (1984) by Christine Choy, Worth Long, and Allan Siegel—uncover the socio-political and economic roots of interracial tension. This is a critical undertaking because it undermines the notion that racism is simply a question of attitude, or worse, of some ingrained, quasi-genetic antipathy ascribed to "human nature." Mississippi Triangle examines the interplay of class and race in the American South, focusing on the fabric of interactions between whites, blacks, and Chinese. In this cotton-growing region, categorization according to race is a crucial aspect of social organization. Bittersweet Survival looks at more recent immigrants: Southeast Asian refugees. Having escaped the dangers of war in their home countries—war made devastating through American involvement—families arriving in the United States face racist policies and resentment. Often resettled in the poorest of inner-city neighborhoods, they find themselves pitted against existing black communities for limited resources.
Juxta (1989) ponders the fallout from another earlier war. Directed by Hiroko Yamazaki, this short drama follows the relationship between two children, both born of U.S. servicemen in Japan after World War II. The mothers of the children are best friends and Kate and Ted grow up almost as brother and sister. However, this closeness changes radically when the families are reunited with their fathers in the United States. Kate's father is white and Ted's black and the whole social organization of racism—including the prejudices of Kate's white grandmother—pulls the two children and their families apart, leading to pain and tragedy. As adults, Kate and Ted try to rebuild the intimacy they once shared.
Juxta concentrates primarily on white bigotry. But though Asians have often suffered for not being white, their relationship to other groups of people of color has not necessarily been easy. In Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), after the angry crowd has demolished Sal's Pizzeria, they turn to the other symbol of external exploitation, the Korean grocery store. In the heat of confrontation, the owner anxiously defends his business by sputtering "Me no white. Me no white. Me black. Me black. Me black." In a world divided into black and white, the Asian is asked to choose on which side of the fence he sits. In this film, the Korean shop owner's claim to black identity seems fuelled mainly by expediency and immediate self-interest. Yet it (enigmatically) works and the crowd reluctantly moves on ... for the time being. The film suspends judgement. Do the Right Thing presents a vivid portrait of racism in action. Yet, unlike Bittersweet Survival, its exclusive focus on a single neighborhood means that we see only the effects of power. The political and economic factors and decisions that produce that picture escape analysis.
With the ingenious use of a mole, Sally's Beauty Spot (1990) similarly interrogates the place of Asians in a black-white matrix. In Helen Lee's short experimental film, an Asian woman's obsessive attempt to erase a mark from her breast becomes a metaphor for a struggle with identity and racialized notions of beauty. Lee juxtaposes this narrative with a meditation on spectatorship, as the off-screen voices of Asian women (and quotes from theorist Homi K Bhabha) interrogate the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzy Wong, unleashing a multiplicity of readings and positions in relation to the film. As Sally rethinks her mole from blemish to beauty mark, the metaphor is literalized on-screen as a kiss with a black man. Her cover-all make-up spills onto the floor as the words "black is" are typed onto a sheet of paper.
From the 1960s we know that the missing word is "beautiful." But, what about yellow? Sally's Beauty Spot is densely packed with metaphor and does not lend itself to a literal reading. Yet it leaves itself open to an interpretation that suggests our struggle as Asians involves locating ourselves within black politics. The use of the same framing for Sally's kiss with the black man at the end of the film and a white man earlier underlines the white-black binarism.
For Asians to show solidarity with people of African descent, we should not have to claim blackness. Indeed, I would argue that we can only work toward unity by speaking from where we actually are. Obviously, all Asians are not the same, and our various locations will always shift. In any case, this location is not black or white or some position "in between." The struggle against racism is not one of finding a convenient or seemingly correct drawer to fit in. It first involves the traumatic but ultimately liberating task of seeing that the boundaries, and indeed the contemporary conception, of race are not natural, but socially constructed and specific to the times in which we live. For while the early use of "race" in English referred to the French race, the British race and so on, the division of humanity into white, black, red and yellow was only codified and popularized in the eighteenth century, through the work of Enlightenment scientists such as Swedish botanist, Charles Linnaeus. Struggling against racism also entails working with race not simply as one autonomous piece of the mantra of race, class, gender and sexuality. We must recognize that the experience of racism is gendered, classed, and sexualized: My experience of racism as a middle-class, gay Chinese man is different from that of a middle-class, heterosexual Chinese man or a working-class, Chinese lesbian.
Beyond implications of its metaphors, the yellow-black sexuality in Sally's Beauty Spot—and in Juxta—is rare and highly charged. Miscegenation is the ultimate fear for many Asian parents, especially if the "outsider" is other than white. The scarcity of representations of interracial sexuality among the "others"—further rare examples include Mississippi Masala (1991) by Mira Nair and the lesbians in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Hanif Kureishi—bespeaks a situation in which producers are not interested in touching an issue that is so taboo as to be repressed. Or else it reveals the subtle work of racist assumptions in the economics of funding and distribution: on whose terms is it decided what is important, interesting, and viable?
But while Sally's Beauty Spot is groundbreaking for transgressing the white-centeredness that even informs our anger, the fact that Sally never kisses an Asian unfortunately reflects the absence of Asian men from Western sexual representation. For while white males have traditionally fetishized Asian women as sexual objects par excellence—and they are still not ubiquitous even within these terms—Hollywood and television have cast Asian men either as villains with a threatening but unspoken/unspeakable sexuality, or more commonly, they have infantilized them into pre-pubescent grown men such as Bonanza's Hop Sing. Given this context, it isn't surprising that many North American-born Asians do not think of other Asians in sexual terms.
Wayne Wang's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1988) addresses the question of impotence in an historical setting of the fifties and in the context of community cultural pressures. It describes the often-ignored personal fallout from the clash of values of different generations. The issue is also addressed obliquely in Pam Tom's Two Lies (1990), a short narrative film about beauty and self-image, in which a Chinese American teenager reflects on her mother's pending operation to enlarge her eyes. In Helen Lee's My Niagara (1992), however, a short drama co-written with Kerri Sakamoto, the sexual relationship between two Asians becomes the film's focus. Julie Kumagai is a young sansei woman who lives alone with her father, her mother having drowned off the coast of
Japan when Julie was just a girl. Since her mother's body was never found, Julie remains obsessed with the death and with Japan. At the start of the film, Julie breaks off with her white boyfriend and later meets Tetsuro, a handsome Korean, born and raised in Japan. Julie's fascination with a Japan she has never visited is counterposed to Tetsuro's captivation by North American pop culture, his memories of Japan being of either boredom or oppression.
The brief spectacle of Julie and Tetsuro making love is a rare occasion of intra-racial Asian sexuality in a North American production. But this is not a nationalist treatise. While Mr. Kumagai's bewilderment that Julie would leave her (white) boyfriend for "a Korean who wants to be Japanese" hints at the social significance of her choice—both the chauvinism that has informed Japan's relationship with Korea and Koreans living in Japan, and the fact that over 90 percent of sansei in Canada marry non-Japanese—the film happily avoids political prescriptiveness on "correct" sexual partners. Julie's and Tetsuro's mutual involvement does not resolve the internal conflicts of identity for either character.
Apart from its nuanced treatment of the question of sex and race, My Niagara also upsets an unproblematic notion of home. For Julie, home is a perpetually elusive search for the mother. For Tetsuro, home is equally unreal—neither Korea, Japan, nor Canada—and to be eluded at any cost. Being fourth-generation Trinidadian Chinese and living in Canada, I feel doubly displaced. Canada is not my home in the sense of being my cultural or spiritual source. But while my dreams are invariably set in my childhood house in Trinidad, home is no longer there either. It is certainly not in China, which I've visited only once and then briefly. For me, this is the allure of "Asian" identity, one in which home is somewhere but nowhere. "Asian" consciousness both describes and produces a sense of self not rooted in the old nationalities with their attendant chauvinisms, but in a common experience of being yellow and brown in a world defined by whiteness. It is an identity born of resistance and solidarity.
At the same time, "Asian-ness" can easily mask real power differences, not only of class, gender and sexuality, but of ethnicity itself. In researching this chapter, for instance, it was striking to me how many working Asian American and Asian Canadian film and video makers come from those Asian communities, not necessarily with the longest history here, but certainly with the most economic clout. While there has been work by Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, and Malay directors, film and video makers of Japanese and Chinese heritage continue to dominate the offerings at "Asian" showcases and festivals. And many Asian groups have not yet had access to production.
I am aware that my sense of priorities, and even my experience of racism, is rooted in being both an indistinguishable yellow-skin and specifically Chinese. So that while I may feel solidarity, neither internment, nor refugee camps—nor the head tax for that matter—is my own specific history. Even as an Asian producer myself, I cannot speak from these experiences, but I can assist in opening a space in which others can see and hear these visions and voices.