A Search For Identity
"Well, 'e's one o' them chinamen, like as you see scuttlin' about them odd ships in the 'arbour--pieces o'junk, if you ask me" --"A Little Knife Music," Hasty Pudding Theatricals
Fiery red calligraphy on shiny black bags --The Orient Expressed at Jordan Marsh
Singapore Sue: "A lotus blossom girl in that notorious den of drugs, gambling and...Yes, Madame Sin-Sin. Aided by her lascivious henchman Dung Wong, Madame Sin-Sin nightly lures unwary bluejackets to their untimely doom." --"Dames at Sea," Hasty Pudding Theatricals
Images of Asia are everywhere these days. Not since Nixon's historic trip to china have representations of Asian culture been so pervasive in the media. But what are these images? Where do they come from?
Just as Bo Derek did not discover the corn row, Jordan Marsh did not discover Chinese quilted jackets. For most Americans this year, however, awareness of Asian culture will come from images that have been projected by the white-male-defined entertainment and business industries. At best, these images are exotic and fanciful. At worst, they are degrading and dangerous.
While this is the year of Shogun, it is also the year of Edgar Foo Yung, Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, and Singapore Sue. These racist depictions of Asians have returned to the screen and stage as vehicles of "sophisticated humor" in full technological splendor. Hasty Pudding's "A Little Knife Music" and Warner Brother's "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" featured stereotypic, sinister and subhuman Asian males (played by white actors) who lust after white women. Last month, Hasty Pudding offered us the female counterparts: Singapore Sue (so sweet and soft and gentle, my favorite Oriental) and Madame Sin-Sin, who together seduce and destroy Caucasian sailors.
None of these productions involved Asians in their script-writing, direction, or major roles. As in the exotic creations of Jordan Marsh and Bloomingdales, images of Asian peoples and cultures are being invented, manipulated, and presented by non-Asians for their own profit and entertainment. Thus, the Suzie Wong stereotype of Asian women as prostitutes is being exploited by the fashion industry into seductive Oriental silk evening wear.
These recurring stereotypes have met with anger and protest from many Asian Americans. Last spring's Hasty Pudding show was picketed by the Asian American Association (AAA) and other student groups. The opening of "Fu Manchu" in Boston this summer was protested by members of Boston's Asian community. And residents of San Francisco's Chinatown refused to allow the filming of the soon-to-be released Charlie Chan movie in their community because they considered it degrading and offensive.
When Asian Americans protest racist depictions we are often accused of being oversensitive. However, we see our protest as part of a continuing struggle for survival and dignity in this country which we worked so hard to build. The characterizations of Asians as cunning, inscrutable, and subhuman are integrally tied to American society's past condonement of the anti-Asian violence and Exclusion Acts (which prohibited Asian immigration) at the turn-of-the-century, the internment of 112,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massacre at My Lai, and the present ghetto conditions of all urban Asian communities in the U.S. History clearly shows that our fears are legitimate.
What has all this to do with Asian American students at Harvard and Radcliffe? Historically we have not been welcome here. President Lowell proclaimed in 1918, "Having started life prejudiced concerning the restriction against Chinese immigration, I long ago came to the conclusion that no democracy could be successful unless it was tolerably homogeneous." He therefore advocated strictly limiting the admission of "unassimilables," any "group of men who did not mingle indistinguishably from the general stream--let us say, Orientals, colored men..." and Jews. The recent growth of the Asian American population at Harvard and Radcliffe has come about only after prolonged political activism on the part of Asian students.
So when some Asian American students see protrayals of Asian women as whores and of Asian men as slimy undesirables in Harvard theatrical productions our reaction is more than a nervous giggle. We are reminded of our grandmothers, who were prohibited from emigrating to this country and then kidnapped for slave prostitution houses in San Francisco. We are reminded of our grandfathers who were recruited into the brutal jobs of agriculture, mining, and railroad construction--only to suffer lynchings, mob attacks, and discriminatory legislation. We are reminded of the price that our parents and grandparents had to pay in order for us to be admitted into the "democracy" of Harvard/Radcliffe. And we are angry that so few members of the Harvard community either up on stage or in the audience are aware of and sensitive to our history.
As Asian American students, we have not only protested stereotypes but also have tried to integrate our culture and history into the Harvard curriculum and college life. We know that we can be proud of our people's achievements in building America. We also know that at Harvard, as in the rest of the academic world, the history of Asians in America has been consistently neglected or grossly misrepresented.
The development of the western U.S. can not be separated from the sweat of the Chinese miners and railroad workers, the Japanese farmers, or the Philipino labor organizers. U.S. foreign policy in Asia can not be separated from its policies toward Asians in America; nor can the U.S. economy and domestic policies be separated from the slum conditions of Koreatowns, Manilatowns, Japantowns, and Chinatowns today. Yet, how often are these issues raised in Harvard courses?
Although Ezra Vogel, chairman of the Committee on East Asian Studies, said he believes courses in Asian American Studies should be offered, he said that hiring someone within the Committee to teach them is not a high priority. To overcome this problem, Asian American students organized to develop bibliographies, slideshows, and other resources relevant to history. Last spring, after four years of work, students in the AAA and members of the Bureau of Study Counsel reestablished a House seminar on Asian American Identity and Experience. It had been taught only three times before at Harvard.
The seminar provided an opportunity for students, predominantly Asian American, to examine and share their own and their families' experiences as they related to such topics as Asian immigration to the U.S., the development of Asian communities, the Japanese internment experience, images and sterotypes, assimilation and identity. One student wrote in his final evaluation of the course:
I have become more sensitive to the situations of Asian Americans and other minorities who are often less fortunate than I. This experience has been very enlightening, and what I once felt to be a less-than-objective study has educated me in a way that few other classes will ever be able to. My only regret is that few students here will ever be able to incorporate this seminar as part of their Harvard curriculum.
Again, as a result of the organizing of students and Bureau members, the Asian American seminar is being offered this fall. This year's course also includes discussions on Asian women, the Asian Movement, and Asian American Studies. In addition, a course on Asian American creative writing will be offered in the spring to present the rich traditions of fiction and poetry that Asians have developed through their experience in America and more importantly, to encourage students to write creatively of their own experiences.
In a university such as Harvard, whose traditions, food, social life, arts, and academics are so overwhelmingly Eurocentric, there is little institutional support for Asian Americans to explore and clarify our own distinct identities and experiences. Many of Harvard's Asian students come from suburbs where we were among the few Asians in our neighborhoods. We have had few role models from whom to gather pride in our history and heritage--we learn to relate exclusively to the majority experience and wish to be white. For those of us who have grown up in Asian communities our alienation and culture shock are very painful. We are told that Chinatown is dirty, unsafe, and smells of garbage. We see that the only interests the majority society has taken in our communities have been in our restaurants, occasionally the martial arts, and now condominium conversion.
The only support for Asian Americans at Harvard has come from the Third World organizations here and other Asian American groups in the Boston area. Harvard did not recognize Asian Americans as a minority group with a history of discrimination until 1976-77. Four years later in his 1980 Commencement Address on minorities at Harvard, President Bok failed once to mention Asian Americans. Asian Americans, however, have been active in the anti-Bakke, divestiture, and Afro-American Studies movements and have played a leading role in working for a Third World Center.
Throughout the fall, the Asian American Seminar organized a series of evening presentations to celebrate our culture and to share our identities and histories. We presented slideshows such as "Images of Asian Women" and "Reparations and Redress"; and films such as "Wataridori, Birds of Passage" about the lives of three Issei--first generation Japanese-Americans, and "Cruisin' J-Town" about the Japanese-American internment. In addition we produced an Asian American cultural night of music, poetry, and film.
Through these activities we have affirmed our pride in the richness and diversity of the Asian American experience. At the same time we have tried to raise the entire community's awareness of Asian American history and culture. The images of Asian that we present are different from those found in Jordan Marsh, Fu Manchu, and the Hasty Pudding Theatricals because they come directly from our people's experience. Being Asian is not chic or exotic; it is an identity integrally tied to a history of contract labor, violence, and exculsion. It is an identity linked to the development of supportive organizations family associations, and self-sufficient communites. It is an identity that has directly maintained the foods, languages, and cultures of our homelands and simultaneously contributed to the industrialization, agricultural development, and wealth of America. It is a personal identity that is rooted in and reflects the history and culture of a people. And most of all, being Asian in America is an identity of which we are immensely proud.
The sixth and final presentation organized by the Asian American Seminar will be given tonight, from 7 to 9 p.m. in Science Center A. The program will feature a slideshow on the development of Asian communities in America and a discussion about Boston's Asian community. It is an opportunity for everyone--Asians and non-Asian students, faculty and administrators--to learn about Asian American history.
Jane Bock '81, is concentrating in the sociology of race relations and is president of the Asian American Association.
Peter Nien-chu Kiang '80 is the teaching assistant for the Dunster House seminar Asian American Identity and Experience and is a coordinator at the Asian American Resource Workshop in Chinatown.