HIP-HOP ELEMENTAL | CHLOE DAO | the notorious msg | HAPA HOLLY WOOD | asian massive
ASIAN AMERICA UNABRIDGED
the music issue
Issue 10 | FALL.06 | $4.95
Break free. (p. 30)
the vibrations of lineage: A new generation of South Asian American musicians struggle to define their own sound. By Robin Sukhadia
furious five: Hyphen gets elemental with hip-hop’s new school. By Momo Chang, Rebecca Klassen, Neelanjana Banerjee and Marcie Chin
04 05 06 07 09 11 14
music moments: Artists, albums and events of note—pardon the pun—in Asian American history. By Jason Coe
trapped in chinatown: Some undocumented immigrants keep another secret—HIV. By Lisa Wong Macabasco
KEITH TAMASHIRO: Music meets design.
ditor’s Note E Contributors Letters Interrogasian Recipe: How to Raise a Child Prodigy Comics: Graffix Remix By Junichi Tsuneoka Asianspeak
TAKE OUT 10
tationery for the jet-set, iPod Monster Socks, S Creature hats and bags, and an English-Tagalog children’s book.
Cover photo: Seng Chen, Cielo Oreste, Model: Madhavi Jagdish, Photo Assistants: Khang Tran, John C Liau, Makeup/Styling: Julie Dy
| Stuff to Take Home
| Another Look at Media
Road Show: DriveTime video blog, taped during a morning commute in Boston, is picking up a lot of traffic. By Ching-In Chen
FLIGHT of the imagination: Project Runway winner Chloe Dao’s fashion career is taking off. By Jennifer Huang
Deep fried beats. (p. 20)
Fusion or confusion? (p. 24)
| Front of the Book
EAR GUITAR: A foray into Asian earwax. By Sabrina Tom
Sew on. (p. 13)
Happy hapas. (p. 52)
GIFTED & TALENTED
| The Arts
Asianspotting: Spot the Asian American in that band! By Todd Inoue
brown is the new black: Tanuj Chopraâ€™s post-9/11 story punches at the heart. By Sadaf Siddique
Sounds of the game: Video game soundtracks and the bands who love them. By Amy Lam
hapa hollywood: Two up-and-coming filmmakers hope to spark a movement and send a message. By Ravi Chandra
from the dead: Colma: The musical revives a genre. By Esther Lee
REVIEWS: Albums, DVDâ€™s & books
wokking the world: The humanizing and conscious-making impacts of The Notorious MSG. By Bernice Yeung pigs on A tour: On the road with Experimental Dental School.
vertigo By Katinka Baltazar
Issue 10, FALL 2006 EDITORIAL Editor in Chief Melissa Hung Editors Neelanjana Banerjee, Rudy Beredo, Sita Bhaumik, Momo Chang, Harry Mok, Sabrina Tom Contributing Editors Todd Inoue, Lisa Katayama, Karen S. Kim, Lisa Ko, Brian Lam, Bernice Yeung Copy Editors Civiane Chung, Martin Nobida, Sharon Park Editorial Assistant Andrew Pai Intern Jason Coe ART Creative Director Stefanie Liang Director of Photography Seng Chen Art Director Cielo Oreste Design Director Hatty Lee Senior Designer Adrienne Eliza Aquino Creative Staff Lian Ladia, Khang Tran
Neela: One of my earliest moments of musical definition came when I went to see Guns N’ Roses play in Dayton, Ohio. I was 13 and Axl Rose’s pasty white skin and shrieking lyrics fueled my pre-teen angst. Seeing them live was going to be the most exciting night of my young life. But that particular day, Axl was in a bad mood. He decided not to come out on stage, and when he did at 2:30 a.m., he berated the audience. I still screamed my lungs out for him as he ran around the stage in those unfortunate white spandex hot pants, but my heart was a little broken. But what I remember most from that concert is that Seattle-grunge band Soundgarden opened the show and even from my outlying stadium seats I could tell that the hairy guitar player was Indian. That moment of recognition with Kim Thayill—who Rolling Stone went on to list as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time—made me realize the impossible. Asians can be rock stars too! Momo: Putting together this music issue was like a continuation of that moment. As we began to research story ideas, we found that Asian Americans are in every genre of music and have been making a difference for a long time. In this issue, we feature musicians who are making noise in everything from hip-hop (p.30) to the Asian Massive movement (p.24) to film musicals (p.56) to video game soundtracks (p.18). We’re profiling these artists not just because they’re Asian Americans with an instrument in hand—that’s easy to find. (After all, many of us were forced to take piano or violin lessons). We’re featuring people who have impressed us with their talent and heart, like beatboxer Jugular (p.34), rap trio Notorious MSG (p.20), and graphic designer Keith Tamashiro (p.44). These are artists with a message. So, listen. 0
Neelanjana Banerjee & Momo Chang Managing Editors, The Music Issue
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BUSINESS Associate Publisher Benjamin Ng Marketing Director Mike Loh Personnel Director Annette Lee Events Coordinator Bernice Yee Subscriptions Manager Ann Ninh Marketing Associates Paul Cruz, Shari de Costa, Lanlian Szeto, Angela Tsang Various Other Things Mike Lee Business Fellow Rebecca Klassen TECH Webmasters My Nguyen, Colbert Tse Various Technical Things Andy Kuo, Chris Fan ADVISORY BOARD Neelanjana Banerjee, Quang Bao, Bob Hsiang, Jennifer Huang, Linda Jue, Sonny Le, Claire Light, erin Khue Ninh, Nguyen Qui Duc, Sandip Roy, Yuki Tessitore, William Wong, Bryan Wu, Helen Zia THANK YOU! Mia Nakano, Bradford Foo, Jason Wong, David Fessler, Mary Wang, Greg Sato, Emily Liu, Kathryn Chow, Oliver Wang, Sonny Le
SUBSCRIPTIONS firstname.lastname@example.org AD SALES email@example.com LETTERS & STORY QUERIES firstname.lastname@example.org OTHER STUFF email@example.com Hyphen P.O. Box 192002 San Francisco, CA 94119 hyphenmagazine.com Hyphen is fiscally sponsored by Independent Arts & Media. Hyphen is distributed by Small Changes (# 206.382.1980), Ubiquity (# 718.875.5491) and Armadillo (# 310.693.6061). Hyphen is published three times a year. Why so few times? Because we are volunteer-run, OK? Subscriptions cost $18 for four issues. ©2006 Hyphen. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without the publisher’s permission, except for review purposes. So there. Hyphen Issue 10 Fall 2006. Printed in the USA.
PHoto: mia nakano
MUSIC THAT MATTERS
CONTRIBUTORS Ravi Chandra, M.D. (“Hapa Hollywood”) is a San Francisco-based psychiatrist and writer who struggles with how to describe what he does. Urban shaman, happiness locator, philosopher of the soul, companion to the underworld and “guy who sits in the corner and listens” all come to mind. He is especially interested in Asian American arts, culture and identity, which led him to write for Hyphen. He also writes prescriptions. www.sfpsychiatry.com Roger Persson (“The Vibrations of Lineage”) grew up on the Swedish tundra, not far from Denmark, but currently lives and works out of San Francisco as a freelance photographer. He focuses on portraiture and urban landscapes. His images have appeared in L.A. City Beat and Health Magazine, among others. When he is not photographing, he spends his time bicycling and duck hunting. Lisa Wong Macabasco (“Trapped in Chinatown”) is a writer living in San Francisco. She’s a recent graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and has written for Mother Jones, AsianWeek, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and University of California, Berkeley’s hardboiled. She is also a co-founder of the National Asian American Student Conference. Ching-In Chen (“Road Show”), the daughter of Chinese immigrants, grew up around Boston. Her last day job was working with the Boston Asian American community, but now she can be found having adventures in Greyhound stations and random locations across the country, writing fiercely in notebooks and eating good food.
EJEN CHUANG (“Furious Five—Peppa”) is a frequent Hyphen contributor and framer of the quintessential L.A. question, is a haircut really worth three Ketel tonics (either totalling about $40, sans tip)? When not shooting luminaries such as Gael Garcia Bernal or Antonio Villaraigosa, he likes to spend time downing bacon cheeseburgers with close friends Vince and Angelina at the Philly Steak Depot in Hollywood. www.helloejen.com Junichi Tsuneoka (Comic) has established a unique illustration style often recognized as “California Roll Stylie,” the result of both visual and conceptual fusion of Japanese pop culture and US urban culture. He founded STUBBORN SIDEBURN, an art and illustration studio, to broaden his visual communication. www.stubborn sideburn.com Ronald Kurniawan (“Trapped in Chinatown”) graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. Inspired by ideograms, syllables, letterforms, beasts and heroic landscapes, he continues to create a visual language where the wilderness and civilization could merge happily together. He currently lives and works in the quiet town of Los Angeles where he paints meticulously and happily, accompanied by his sidekick pug, Ruffles. A military brat, Katinka Baltazar (“Vertigo”) has resided on or around US Navy bases in Japan, Italy, the United Kingdom and Iceland and currently writes fiction from Southern California. A graduate of the master of fine arts program in creative writing at San Francisco State University, she is the author of the self-published collection of creative writing Songs of Discovery (available at www.lulu.com) and the editor and publisher of www.fiercewomen.com, a women’s community website.
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we have international subscriptions, you know I’m not Asian American. I’m not even American. I did however bust a gut laughing when I read your mission statement-typething and am now angling to find more. One day, I’ll actually go to the States and get hold of a copy and all will be well. Kat Brown London, England POWER TO THE PEOPLE As a subscriber of Hyphen, I wanted to say thanks for creating a solid and fantastic mag. It’s always empowering to see Asian American images and stories captured through our own lenses and voices. Paul Dien New York, NY you’re welcome Thanks for another great issue! I really enjoyed the piece on Kenji Yoshino—I found his concept of “covering” to be an interesting and useful articulation of the conflict between personal identity and the public eye. The interview with Mike Shinoda almost made me want to give Linkin Park a second chance. Even the article about that annoying comedian Chinaman was interesting because it reminded me of how I coped with being identified as Asian
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in middle school (but why did he get two pages while three much more interesting comics got only one each)? Reading Hyphen has been helping me continuously re-conceptualize Asian American identity. Thank you and keep up the good work. Alex Kondo Oberlin, OH OOPS, WE DID IT AGAIN Calvin Shih’s name was misspelled on the contributors page of Issue 9. Calvin wrote the profile about badminton player Howard Bach. Sorry about that, Calvin! IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING In Issue 9, we talked to artist Michael Arcega in “All Puns Intended.” The accompanying photograph of Arcega was taken by P.G. Rafanan on location at Heather Marx Gallery in San Francisco.
Write to Hyphen! P.O. Box 192002, San Francisco, CA 94119 or firstname.lastname@example.org Please include your full name, city and state. Letters will be edited for length and clarity. Or comment on our blog (of course we have a blog): www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog
INTERROGASIAN Hyphen’s sensei of sensibility answers your questions about Asian culture. Dear InterrogAsian, Why do older Asian women wear those huge visors? Any time I go to the market or walk the dog, I see at least three older women wearing visors that approximate a welder’s mask. What’s up with that? Hat to the Back Dear Shat, Ah yes. There are a few theories circulating about the Ridiculously Large Visor (RLV). Some would point to the popularity of Peanuts, and its main character Charlie Brown whose baseball cap would cast formidable shade. Others believe that it goes back to Angel Island, where newly processed immigrants were handed an RLV along with proof of citizenship, a used Honda Accord and a kick in the ass. However, the tradition of the RLV has its roots in the motherland, especially Vietnam and Korea, where women of higher societal means would intentionally stay out of the sun to give the impression they were rich and didn’t have to work. As pale skin gained favor, the use of parasols and bamboo rice picker hats skyrocketed. Stateside, visors are a natural progression of the desire to keep peaches and cream complexions from curdling. I bet Nancy Kwan has one. Today, the RLV is experiencing a resurgence among skin savvy Asians due to ozone layer depletion and Bird Flu. The sturdy head gasket with widebrimmed shield protects against harmful UV rays and the errant contaminated airborne bird dropping.
Illustration: phil cho
Dear InterrogAsian, Why do Asian people always order water with no ice? It’s just weird. Cold As Ice Dear Icee, I know Asians like to order soda pop with no ice for economic reasons: more soda! As for water: anti-flatulent powders mix best with room temperature water. Lactose intolerant brothers and sisters with a hankering for pizza or ice cream don’t want nasty clumps swimming around their wa-
ter glass. Seriously though, a recent report stated that restaurant ice containers contain more nasty germs than a Turlock, CA gas station bathroom. Asian cultures, for the most part, value cleanliness and “water without ice” is a precautionary gesture. The less time spent curling up in a fetal position spewing dirty brown dishwater out of the chocolate starfish, the better. Dear InterrogAsian, The other night I was followed home by a guy who said, “Hey, are you Asian? Because I’m really into the Asian persuasion.” Do you have any comebacks other than saying “No!” and running away like a pansy? An Unpersuaded Asian Dear Hot Thing, That has got to be the corniest opening line. “Do you need a light, because you’re smmmmoking!” seems downright chivalrous by comparison. Before we get into the proper response, let’s quickly examine the origins of the male species. Men are prone to impulse and blurt out things even Pavlov could count on, hence the popularity of Hooters and yelling at football players on TV. When someone comments on your ethnicity as a show of woo, you are not dealing with a full deck here. And banish the pansy thought; fleeing is an ingrained mechanism to stress. Ever see the crowds in Godzilla movies? Respect that. Own that. So back to Chad No Game. It’s already assumed in his mind that you’re foreign goods, so why not use it to your advantage? The best response is not to respond at all. Feign limited English proficiency, paired with a shake of the head and wag of the finger. Follow Yunjin Kim’s lead on Lost. If Chad persists, bust an Oriental Flavor freestyle on him: “Call off the invasion/This ass is a sovereign nation/This Asian persuasion don’t do Caucasian.” Then spray the dude square in the eyes with Sriracha sauce and bounce. Have a question for our inscrutable sensei? Send them to interrogAsian@hyphenmagazine.com
HERE HE IS—Mr. Asian America The competition wasn’t the only thing that was hot at the first Mr. Hyphen Contest. What do boxer briefs, Asian American community organizations and Miss San Francisco Chinatown 2006 all have in common? Well, nothing until we brought them all together at the very first Mr. Hyphen pageant held May 19th at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in Oakland, CA. Our idea was to recognize the importance of arts and activist organizations in the Asian American community by honoring the man-power behind them. Little did we know that our little pageant would quickly turn into an audiencescreaming, R. Kelly lip synching, T-shirt swinging extravaganza. The full house of sign-toting supporters and oglers got to see the six contestants hailing from the Bay Area to L.A. to NYC strut their stuff, their talent and answer some heart-wrenching questions from celebrity judges—including Tiffany Mah, the reigning Miss San Francisco Chinatown 2006. Stand up comedian Ali Wong and TV-host Brian Tong kept the crowd entertained and the sarcastic comments flowing as the night’s lively MCs. We brought in local designers J9 and Kimiko Fisika to dress the contestants in modern casual wear—but the boys also had a chance to show their originality in the risqué sleepwear category.
The talent section showed that the contestants were as diverse as the organizations these guys represented with everything from dramatic monologues to electronic music sets in the mix. The real emotions came out in the second half with the intense interview portion where the contestants were able to represent their organizations, which included the Gay and Pacific Islander Men of New York, the Filipino Community Center, the Vietnamese Artist Collective, the Chinatown Community Development Center, Project Ahimsa and the Asian American Theater Company. In a climactic finish, Robin Sukhadia of Project Ahimsa—an organization dedicated to empowering youth through music— won the hearts of the audience with his musical talent, and articulate and sincere answers. Sukhadia was awarded a $500 check for his organization, a crown and a very sparkly rhinestone belt. Kevin Liao (Chintown Community Development Center) and Mario “Nomi” DeMira (Filipino Community Center) won 1st and 2nd runner up, respectively. But this is only the beginning … stay tuned for information on how to enter Mr. Hyphen 2007.≤
Contestants: James Espinas (1), Mario “Nomi” DeMira (2), Alain Dang (4), Kevin Liao (5), Brian Wang (6) Robin Sukhadia (8); MC’s: Brian Tong (3), Ali Wong (9) Judges: Tiffani Mah & Jennifer Huang (7) PHOTOS: David Huang (www.poeticdream.com), john c liau (WWW.VAINDEER.COM)
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How To Raise a Child Prodigy Writer Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik Illustrator Patt Kelley
Congratulations! You’re expecting! As you will learn, the groundwork for true genius must be fostered in baby’s first valuable months. This is the perfect time to read the indispensable guide Two is Too Late and put baby on the path to success. Next, sign up for the groundbreaking course in pre-childhood education, Teach Your Baby to Read. This course teaches baby to associate her first memories with the written word by using oversized flashcards. For instance, when baby sees an abacus for the first time, hold up the “ABACUS” flashcard, and so on. A great third-trimester activity—I mean you’re barely mobile anyway—is to start baby’s music education. Take an empty Cracker Jack box and fashion a baby-proof violin. Also, purchase a recording of Suzuki Method Book I and listen to it exclusively. When baby is born, she’ll learn Twinkle Twinkle Little Star faster than all the other kids. Make sure the violin and the “Teach Your Baby to Read” flashcards are packed and ready to go to the hospital. When baby first sees daddy—you’ll be tired, but muster the energy to hold up the big “DADDY” flashcard and read the word slowly and clearly. Give baby her Cracker Jack violin—and don’t forget the corresponding flashcard! There’s no time for laziness while baby’s precious mind is forming. After you’ve recuperated from delivery, it’s time to start Kumon math sessions, second-language courses (Latin is making a comeback) and swimming lessons. Physical activity like swimming does wonders for motor skills. These group activities are also a great opportunity to meet other dedicated moms, although none of them will have children quite as bright as yours (nor will other moms be as devoted). Just be sure that baby doesn’t grow too much, because nobody’s impressed by a 2-year-old if she’s 3 feet tall—even if she can play Elgar’s Enigma from memory.* *If baby does start to grow freakishly tall, as often occurs with the genetically fortified food products in the United States, abandon fantasies of breeding a young concert violinist and start thinking Yao Ming.≤
How to make a cracker jack violin 1 Cracker Jack box 1 12” ruler Black Sharpie marker Brown non-toxic paint Hot glue gun Sandpaper and down top corners of 1 S ruler so as not to injure baby. lue ruler to Cracker Jack box 2 G 3 as the “neck” of the violin. 3
se black Sharpie to draw U outline of violin and specific parts according to the diagram provided by your Suzuki instructor.
Writer Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik Photographer Mia Nakano
STUFF TO TAKE HOME
Lucky You Stationery for the jet-set. Forget about the envelope, Hello! Lucky makes cards so beautiful, you’ll want to lick the paper. Born to an American diplomat and the daughter of a Taiwanese admiral, sisters Eunice and Sabrina Moyle gathered inspiration for their stationery collections from their childhood travels. Songbirds and sock monkeys abound in this vintageinspired line. The very first cards were printed on a hand-cranked press in Eunice Moyle’s garage. While the digs may have changed, Hello! Lucky still prints all of their letterpress cards in their San Francisco studio. Wedding? Baby on the way? They offer custom printing services to celebrate any card-worthy occasion. Find Hello! Lucky at www.hellolucky.com or at Lola in San Francisco.
There’s a Monster In My Pocket Warm up your iPod. Artist Jacqueline Myers-Cho gave birth to the very first iPod Monster Socks on a crisp November evening in 2004. Labor was difficult. The monsters would have squealed—if she had finished sewing on their mouths. The Monster Socks, with their jingle bells and safety pins for eyeballs, were a terrifying lot. Fortunately, they turned out to be quite friendly. Despite their roughly-hewn exterior, all they really want to do is nuzzle around an iPod, listen to some sweet tunes and ride around in your pocket. You can forget trying to score twins though. These iPod Monster Socks are strictly one of a kind. Adopt an iPod Monster Sock at www.jmcdesigns.etsy.com.
Creature Feature Faux fur never goes out of style. Rachel Chow and Jason Carpenter have Creature cooties. The Los Angeles-based duo make Creature bags, Creature hats and snarky little Creature minis waiting to devour your pocket change. If that doesn’t satisfy your penchant for neon faux fur, they can also turn you into a head-to-toe Creature. Drawing their inspiration from friends—real and imaginary—every Creature is lovingly handmade with the standard implements: fabric, scissors, thread, metal chopsticks and wooden spoons. The Creatures have even starred their first short film, Bunnies Don’t Cluck. Curious? Just don’t feed them; we’re not sure if they bite. Catch the latest Creatures at www.creatureco-op.com.
Heads Up Little Lakas saves the day. Firefoot has moves so hot his feet emit sparks; the Karaoke King has threads that rival Elvis; they both live in the Makibaka Hotel. All little Lakas wants to do is sing and dance with them, but something terrible has happened. Lakas’ new friends have 30 days to move out of their home. Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel is based on the true story of the 2002 eviction of the tenants of Trinity Plaza Apartments in San Francisco. Poet and activist Anthony D. Robles and artist Carl Angel team up in this bilingual English-Tagalog story. It’s the perfect gift for a budding activist. Visit your local bookstore or www.childrensbookpress.org.
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another look at media
ROAD show DriveTime video blog, taped during a morning commute in Boston, is picking up a lot of traffic.
Ravi Jain may not be able to get a call back from B-list celebrity Howie Mandel, but in his Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston, he is a star. Jain is the creator, director, writer, producer and driver of DriveTime (drivetime.ravijain.org), a talk show video blog that he conducts weekly from his car as he and his wife, Sonia Targontsidis, commute to work. Jain, 35, says he’s been recognized on the street, as “you know, the one in the car.” On a rainy afternoon, I find myself in the car, a 1986 Audi lovingly dubbed as Studio A, to be the guest on Episode 27 of DriveTime. I’m right in front of the camera Jain has mounted on the dashboard and Jain asks me questions while he tries to look out the fogged-up window, narrowly missing an accident. When I mention that I write poetry, Jain invents the DriveTime Poem Room and asks me to read my poem, “Baker’s Story,” on the spot. He responds with a limerick he wrote when he was 13: There once was a man from the West Who told all his friends I’m the best He got shot by a nun And then kicked Mondale’s butt And now he’s as hard as the rest. This spontaneity and quirkiness has won Jain and DriveTime a growing audience. DriveTime’s popularity has steadily increased since it was featured as a free download on iTunes.com last fall. Jain created DriveTime in the fall of 2005 as a way to do something creative as part of his regular day and as a way to get feedback on his work, something he’s missed since getting a master of fine arts degree from the Massachusetts College of Art in 2001. Doing something during his commute seemed perfect because he drives through an eclectic cross section of Boston—his commute takes him from Jamaica Plain, where many other vloggers reside, to Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Allston, Harvard Square in Cambridge and the Fenway area. Targontsidis didn’t think she’d be involved at the beginning and says she was always nervous in front of cameras. “I was involved in theater, but I was always behind the scenes. I was a photographer instead of performance artist,” Targontsidis says. “I don’t know how I became the co-host other than that I wanted a ride to work.” First came blogs, then podcasts, and now video blogs are taking off as technology makes it easier for people to create and distribute content. One of the exciting things about video blogging is the immediate feedback and participation from the audience, Jain says.
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The episode prior to my appearance on DriveTime was the most popular up to that point. Jain asked viewers whether he should keep or shave his beard. Anybody can respond with ideas (and votes), which can be folded into the show. (Jain ended up trimming his beard.) Others have posted their own video comments in Jain’s blog. One reader from Atlanta sent in a demo recorded by a camera in his car with his wife, a copycat of DriveTime. “It’s the opposite of traditional broadcasting, where you’re in a position of talking and everybody else listening,” says Tony Kahn, a veteran radio producer behind public radio’s first podcast and a guest on DriveTime Episode Five. “People really contribute ideas to you and tell you about how your show matters to them. It keeps you fresh and honest.” In Studio A, Jain spouts ideas while we talk. A DriveTime meet and greet with DriveTime bouncers and cordoned ropes! Having Targontsidis drive instead! Having a guest pick them up to get into another guests’ car! A RideTime episode on a bike! (See Episode 28.) A DriveTime tour across America where they go to different cities and pick people up! We start to talk big, but Jain doesn’t want to break away from the core concept of DriveTime, which is that he can fold it into his life and his commute. Jain brings up Dilbert, created by Scott Adams while working in a conglomerate and hating his office cubicle. “He left his job to do comics but he lost something because Dilbert was fueled by the inanity of corporate America,” says Jain, who insists there’s something about pushing the limits of whatever constraints he can set up for himself. “It’s almost a paradox to do this as a full-time gig because you need to have constraints to push and pull against. You can’t have complete freedom.” Although Jain doesn’t want DriveTime to become a full-time gig, he wouldn’t mind figuring out how to support it financially. Jain often jokes about sponsorship on his show, telling guests not to mention any product names until he gets advertising deal. He says one patron sent him a $50 check and a box of gourmet cookies. DriveTime has had a fair amount of coverage from local media such as the Boston Globe and New England Chronicle. The Australian science and technology show Beyond Tomorrow taped a segment and Wired magazine listed DriveTime as one of its favorite vlogs. But Jain says he still can’t get calls back from potential guests, citing recent unsuccessful attempts to interview someone from the zoo, the “beer advocate” from The Weekly Dig newspaper and, of course, Howie Mandel. “I’d love to crack the circuit of someone coming to Boston and getting in the loop of interviewing people to promote their book,” Jain says. —Ching-In Chen
Flight of the imagination Project Runway winner Chloe Dao’s fashion career is taking off. Writer Jennifer Huang Photographer John C Liau You’re chosen to compete on Project Runway, a fashion reality-TV show, against bitchy, backstabbing divas who declare they’ve won from the start. How do you compete? If you’re Chloe Dao, you counter with no-nonsense straight talk and produce stunning clothes that do the bitch slapping on the runway. Dao won the competition and, among other prizes, a Saturn convertible and $100,000. But she’s not resting on her laurels. Dao is developing her clothing line, Houston-based Lot 8, and her new national public image. Dao’s come a long way from the refugee camp in Laos where she and her seven sisters sold candy to survive. Hyphen caught up with Dao to find out what life is like after winning a reality-TV show. How has your life changed since you’ve won? CHLOE DAO: Well, I do bigger things; I just do more important things. You know, meetings with DMA, which is one of my contract prizes, (representation by) DMA designer management agency. They rep like Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, and so it’s just that amazing opportunity to work with someone that big. I get a brand new car. I’m going to look cooler driving around! That’s nice. I get some money to do my line and do it right. Fans. I have publicity. I have a name—when I say ‘Chloe Dao’ now people actually know who I am. What’s your advice for someone like me who’s on a budget and can’t spend big bucks on clothes? I’m on a budget! I think I look pretty good! I think you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars. I mean, I’m wearing H&M, my store and Zara, which is all really reasonable stuff but I think I look like a million bucks right now. It’s not about money, it really isn’t. It’s about knowing what your style is and what looks good on you. And honestly, the best thing about fashion is, really, it boils down to confidence. You can wear a clown outfit but if you’re confident in it, you’re going to look good in it. A lot of fashion seems to be for tall, thin people. Do you have to be tall and skinny to look good in it? I don’t think that’s true, honestly, I don’t. On the runway, of course it’s on tall skinny models because they are the best representation of clothing, you know, they’re built to show off clothes. But I’m barely five feet tall and I think I look pretty good. Really, again, it boils down to finding the garments that work for your body the best. I mean, you can be a size 24 and still look amazing. If you’re size 24, show off your cleavage. Bottom line, cleavage is good for any size. Enhance what really is your best asset and always hide the rest. That really is my philosophy. You were in a refugee camp in Laos, and now you’ve become this nationally known figure, so is it the American dream come true for you? I do feel like it is the American dream that came true for me. But I don’t take it for granted because it was the American dream that I worked, like, 15 years to achieve. It wasn’t an overnight success, and I’m still working, I work 17, 16 hours a day still.
And when you say you’re working are you doing appearances? Are you designing? Are you doing stuff for Bravo? Everything you just listed. I’m serious. I’m still cutting, I’m still my cutter, I’m still partly my sewer, I’m still the buyer, I’m still going to L.A., I’m still the designer, I’m still the production person, I still help do my marketing. I’m involved in every way. I still sweep my store. I still vacuum. I still do everything. Do you have to be more conscious of your own image now? I diet now. I’m just kidding! I do sit-ups! No, I—honestly ... I brush my hair when I go out. Usually I don’t, and now I do feel like I have to brush my hair and put some make up on. I do because when people see me I don’t want them to think ‘Oh, lord, she looks like a mess!’ You know, I am a little bit more self-conscious, but believe me, I’m still eating everything I want to eat. I think if I work hard, I deserve to eat whatever I want. I do care, I just brush my hair more, bottom line. I do. Cuz I usually don’t brush my hair ... And I’m proud of it, because it looks good without brushing!≤ Jennifer Huang is currently working on a documentary about African American soldiers during World War I. Her Project Runway addiction serves solely as an escape from the interminable wait for 2008.
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Compiled by Karen S. Kim
mily made a f y m e ic if r nd the sac a h t s ot have.” ir f n w id a d s y I e , h n t a t tter life tha e ation Americ r b e a n f e o g t s s ie ir f the “As a e opportunit h t cumbent in e in v a n a h t a e ld s u alf Indian to un November half Irish, h so that I wo hakta is oping in ntice. adelphia. B an who is h il c h li P b f u n The Appre o p o e n t R n w a ti to , s e A 4 m 0 T o 0 K 2 R BHA sent his h ring his R AJ PETE k nown du s and repre ll e e v ti w ta e n m e a s c epre owties be House of R r wearing b fo t n a h c n and his pe
“I would really like an Asian to make it there. I would like that Asian to be me.” who is RAIN, 23-year old Korean pop music sensation et. Often hoping to crossover into the American music mark rmed to called the “Korean Justin Timberlake,” Rain perfo in New two sold out crowds at Madison Square Garden l entertainer York and was voted the second most influentia in the world by Time magazine in 2006.
“The rush to ju dgment that oc curred in my case was prompted by a number of calc ulated, unlawfu l leaks by govern ment officials.”
W EN HO LE E, former nucl ear scientist w from his job an ho was fired d held in solita ry confinemen months in 1999 t for nine after becomin g the target o probe, has bee f a spying n awarded a $1 .65 million se to end his law tt lement suit claiming the US govern violated his p ment rivacy by leak ing his person of the settlem al files. Part ent will be pai d by five new Associated Pre s agencies: ss, Los Angeles Times, ABC, N Times and Was ew York hington Post, w hose reporter to disclose th s declined eir governmen tal sources on involving the th e stories case.
“It is in the bes t interest of the State of California to respect, emb race and understand the full diversity of its citizens.”
SENATE BIL L 1615, by Cal ifornia state Senator Joe Si mitian (D-Pal o Alto), that is circula ting the Legis lature. The legislation, if enacted, wou ld require that state agencies , boards and co mmissions that collect dem ographic data allow respondents o f mixed heritag e to select more than on e racial desig nation.
Ear Guitar Japanese scientists reveal the truth behind Asian earwax.
ear pick tucked away in the nightstand, in the drawer that no one is supposed to open, you finally have scientific justification for your weird little habit. A team of Japanese scientists recently discovered that earwax comes in two types, wet and dry. About 95 percent of East Asians have a genetic mutation that gives them dry earwax, as opposed to 97 percent of Europeans and Africans who have wet earwax. Dry earwax is characterized as grey and flaky. (Thus the need to scoop it out.) Wet earwax is honey-brown and moist. Earwax in Southern and CenIf you grew up in an East Asian house-
Speaking of halves, while the scien-
picks. For those who don’t, an ear pick is a
tists studied the earwax gene in 33 ethnic
thin stick, generally made out of aluminum,
groups, there was no research on people
plastic or bamboo. Some have decorative
of mixed heritage. Which gene type would
features on one end, like the Hello Kitty
such an individual inherit? In an informal
mimikaki, while others are more functional
survey conducted on hapas.com, four
in their aesthetic. On the other end is the
out of seven respondents claimed to have
all-important scoop, which digs around
the wet variety, and the rest had the dry.
the ear canal, prospecting for tiny golden
One individual had fickle earwax, which
treasures. For some, ear cleaning is a fam-
changed depending on his environment.
ily tradition, a mother or grandmother or
And yet another man who has lived in Ja-
aunt’s reason to live. Others seek out pub-
pan for the past five years wrote that his
lic services, like the local barber, who can
earwax had actually evolved—from wet to
trim, shave and probe, all in one sitting.
dry. Around the world, earwax and identity
Still others prefer to conduct their earwax
extraction independently. Patience and precision required.
illustrations: Phil Cho
tral Asians is roughly half wet and half dry.
hold, chances are you know about ear
So what kind do you have? If you’ve never looked or thought about
While the provenance of ear picks is
it, the King’s Idea ear scope may be just
unknown, and the cultural obsession with
the device you need. It looks like a peri-
ear cleaning even harder to trace, a new
scope attached to a battery pack, consist-
study does help explain why Asians have
ing of a camera and a light at one end and
long favored the scoop over, say, the kind-
a viewer for peeping at your buildup at the
er, gentler cotton swab. It also means that
other end. For $90 you can shine a light
if you’ve ever had a non-Asian boyfriend
into your inner ear and tell all your friends
or girlfriend or houseguest who found your
about what you saw. —Sabrina Tom
ASIANSPOTTING Spot the Asian American in that band!
It’s the musical version of the Calgon commercial; an Asian face appears on stage or in a music video, rocking out among the non-Asians. Whether its Phil Chen flowing in silk outfits in Rod Stewart’s “Passion” or James Iha submitting to Billy Corgan’s stone fist, here are some of the most famous token Asians in rock. —Todd Inoue
A Perfect Circle, Smashing Pumpkins
Book of Love
Reel Big Fish
Keyboards, vocals, percussion
Guitar, piano, violin
Playing with Bob Marley, Skatalites
Siamese Dream (1993)
Bachelor’s in English lit from UC Davis (2000)
Rock Steady (2001)
Master of Puppets (1986)
“Flagpole Sitta” (1998)
“Sell Out” (1997)
Touring with Ear of the Dragon (1995)
Suffering through Rod Stewart’s disco period
Let It Come Down (1998)
Cutting his dreads
“It’s My Life” cover song
“Oranges and Lemons”
Intraband meltdown and psychiatry sessions captured in Some Kind of Monster.
Getting caught in the label shuffle, ensuring they couldn’t build off the momentum of “Flagpole.”
With ska punk rode the fuck out, the band was dropped from their Jive label in 2006.
Versus breakup in 2000
Master Class instructing at L.A. Music Academy.
Playing with A Perfect Circle and working in fashion design.
Headlining the Taste of Chaos tour 2006.
Starting Kingsbury Studios label with first album by reggae artist Elan Atias.
Participated in 2001 reunion, working in graphic design.
Recording new Metallica album with Rick Rubin.
Finished his computer science degree. Rocks and blogs at jeffjlin. typepad.com
Planning and masterminding a comeback.
Headlining shows with her own band The Fontaine Toups.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
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BACKGROUND PHOTO: Sebastien Bergeron
EXTRAC- INSTRUTION MENT
Sounds of the game Bands like Florida-based Select Start blend their classical background and love of video games to start a whole new genre of music. Writer Amy Lam Illustrator Jason Sho Green The idea of video game music usually conjures up memories of the rudimentary beeps and blips of the Atari and 8-bit Nintendo eras. This is despite the fact that video game music has grown increasingly sophisticated, thanks to high-fidelity technology and the accomplished arrangements of game music composers such as Nobue Uematsu (Final Fantasy series) and Shigeru Miyamoto (Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda). Yet to hear Select Start’s version of The Legend of Zelda theme, a tune familiar to video gamers growing up in the ’80s, is to have one’s childhood memories revived and reinvented. From the rapid piano scales of Final Fantasy 9—Eternal Harvest marking the start of a grand adventure, to the folksy guitar solo Zelda—Wind Waker, each change in tempo corresponds to the level changes in one’s mind. And yet, the emotions that arise from hearing these digital melodies played with classical instrumentation are nothing like what one remembers from 8-bit gaming. Based in Gainesville, FL, Select Start is a sixmember ensemble band dedicated to performing video game music covers. Following other emerging game music bands, such as the Minibosses and the NESkimos, Select Start’s style is unique in its arrangements, featuring the cello, piano, violins, guitar and flute. The band formed in 2002 when three of the members met at a kung fu school. Celloist John Cheng, who jokes “my love [of music] was forcibly imposed by my parents,” had quit playing music after high school. During college, Cheng met future band members Austin Harley (flute) and Dave Yasensky (guitar). It was Yasensky’s idea to perform covers of video game music for a Florida open mic. A network of friends and relatives brought together Robert Lee (violin), Hoyin Kwan (violin) and Christine Lee (piano) to form the original members of the band. Kanako Sueyoshi (violin) and Elaine Li (violin) stepped in after the departures of Kwan and Robert Lee. The video game industry has been capitalizing on the growing musical appreciation among gamers for years, selling video game soundtracks, one of the most successful being Halo 2, which topped at No. 162 on the Billboard Charts in 2004. Two competing world tours, Video Games Live and Play! (featuring Nobue Uematsu’s music and others), offer live orchestral performances of video game music classics synchronized with a lights and graphics show. Paralleling these de-
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velopments is the impetus from fans themselves to create music inspired by their favorite games. OverClocked Remix (www.ocremix.org) is a website archive of arrangements and re-interpretations of gaming music created entirely by fans and amateur composers described by some as “free fan art.” Select Start takes the “bedroom remixes” one step further with its adaptations of video game themes into live classical performances, elevating the music from its synthesized origins. “Our instrumentation is usually more complex than what is possible in a game soundtrack,” Yasensky, one of the band’s composers, explains. “Usually, when I arrange, at least, the instruments we have are used to naturally extend the piece to where we believe it was headed when it was composed … In some of our latest arrangements, we take a lot more liberties with adding new melodies or even completely original passages ... but we generally prefer to stay faithful to the original.” Some music, which can be perfectly played ad infinitum in the virtual world, proves technically difficult to play in real life. Take the Tetris theme, which begins slowly, then speeds to a frenetic pace as blocks fill the screen. As Cheng explains, “arms just aren’t designed to move that fast.” Another difficult piece, according to Yasensky, is Super Mario Bros. II. “I can come close when we play it slowly, but when it speeds up, I have no chance.” Performing at local music venues in Florida and at anime conventions, Select Start’s repertoire ranges from mainstream classics such as Sonic the Hedgehog to less commonly known pieces. “We like to throw in at least two pieces from a more obscure video game every show,” says violinist Li. “It keeps the audience on their toes and it’s a lot of fun when someone in the crowd recognizes it.” Select Start’s performances have elicited unpredictable reactions from the audience. Cheng recalls, “Sometimes, especially Final Fantasy songs, people become highly emotional; we have seen people crying from being so happy or so sad. One time, people made a large Moscow dancing line during Tetris, and a whole bunch of people fell on each other; luckily no one was hurt.”≤ Amy Lam is a graphic designer from Dublin, CA. Her favorite video game is Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders.
WANT TO PLAY ALONG?
The Great Video Game Music Quiz www.okcupid.com/tests/ take?testid=589395504682 7478815 Think you can recognize video gaming’s greatest tunes? Test your memory with this quiz. OverClocked ReMix www.ocremix.org Arcade nostalgia permeates this community of amateur and independent composers. Play! A Video Game Symphony www.play-symphony.com Video Games Live www.videogameslive.com Two competing world tours featuring live orchestral performances of video game music. A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music www.gamespot.com/ gamespot/features/video/ vg_music Details the artistic and technical history behind video game music, from 1960 to the present.
GAME MUSIC COVER BANDS
Select Start www.selectstartband.com Florida-based band. The NESkimos www.neskimos.com A rock outfit based in Florida. Minibosses www.minibosses.com One of the first game music rock bands. Piano Squall www.pianosquall.com A pianist who regularly performs game music covers at animé conventions. OneUp Mushrooms www.oneupstudios.com A jazz-inspired ensemble that just broke up after four years.
WOKKING THE WORLD
The significance of The Notorious MSG to Asian America cannot be overstated.1 Though some cultural critics have already begun calling the group the “Asian American Beastie Boys,”2 this descriptor does not begin to accord this bold New York Chinatown rap trio proper respect for its role in challenging racist barriers in mainstream entertainment and revolutionizing Asian American media representation3. Indeed, the charming yet virulent
rap group—comprised of front man Hong Kong Fever, heartfelt crooner Down Lo-Mein and the silent but strong Hunan Bomb4 — are more accurately likened to Asian American Sidney Poitiers for our post-modern times. The rap group’s socio-political consequence to Asian American identity-making comes, in part, from the members’ humble beginnings in Asia.5 Following the well-documented pattern of
1 Not since Martin Yan have Americans witnessed this rare and effective form of entertainment-cum-culinary cultural diplomacy between Asia and America. 2 It’s possible that the first person to draw this allusion may have posted to the Badminton Central Discussion Forum, www.badmintoncentral.com. 3 With hit songs such as “Straight Outta Canton” and “Chinatown Hustler,” The Notorious MSG deftly capture the ennui and angst experienced by lowwage migrant workers who are constantly overlooked and dismissed by both the corporate entertainment industry and mainstream America at large. Furthermore, the group’s frequent allusions to their sexual conquests and prowess, coupled with their colorful gastronomic analogies for male genitalia (e.g. their “egg rolls”), powerfully counteract decades of Asian male emasculation that have been exacerbated by the Western press and media. See also the entertaining interview with The Notorious MSG from the Web portal the Gothamist, “The Notorious MSG, Original Chinatown Bad Boys,” February 23, 2006. Here’s a snippet: Q: When you’re roaming the streets, what kind of heat do you guys pack? Gas, electric, hot plate? What else do you pack? A: Our most ferocious weapon is the heat that we pack between our legs. Our egg-rolls are like homing missiles, and we have a full-lock on the vagina, captain. 4 These are not, in fact, the performer’s real names. 5 All three men hail from what they call “the ghettoes” of Asia. Before arriving in the United States, Hong Kong Fever, who is originally from Kowloon Bay, admits that he was engaged in some form of criminal behavior that he is now “not proud of.” Down Lo-Mein is from Ping-Tung, Taiwan, where his grandparents
ran a prosperous brothel. The Hunan Bomb is a former pit fighter originally from Inchon, South Korea, who developed what is believed to be an unstoppable fighting technique known as the “Kimchee Claw.” The original third member of MSG, Funky Buddha, was also originally from Korea and was rumored to have come from an unsavory background. Funky Buddha was replaced by the Hunan Bomb in October 2005, after Funky Buddha was gunned down in Chinatown. See the TV news report of Funky Buddha’s death on New York 1, accessible on The Notorious MSG’s web site. (There continues to be vigorous debate as to whether or not Funky Buddha’s death is a hoax. But then again, if it was reported on the news, it must be true.) 6 It is rumored that the men of The Notorious MSG were passengers aboard the infamous Golden Venture ship, which smuggled 286 illegal Chinese immigrants in cramped and horrific conditions. 7 E.g. Strain Theory. Look it up, you lazyass. 8 From an interview with The Notorious MSG: HK: When we get here, we discover it is not that easy. You know, we work in the kitchen, we work very hard in the restaurant. We find out about our brothers and sisters getting killed, getting jacked. On the streets. No respect. DLM: ...People treat them like animals. HK: So we find they live like second-class citizens over here. … That become more of our message from our music. To kind of, with our success, we want to give our brothers and sisters in the Chinatown streets, in the ghetto and kitchens all over the world, given them a voice and let their stories be told. …
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PHOTO: COURTESY of MSG
The humanizing and conscious-making impacts of The Notorious MSG. Writer Bernice Yeung
Third World migration to developed countries such as the United States for economic opportunities, these young men, who were all teenagers at the time, boarded a cargo ship to the United States in 1993,6 which is where they reportedly met. Upon landing in New York’s Chinatown, they went out in search of the American Dream. Hong Kong Fever and Down Lo-Mein did as so many other hard-working immigrants do: They took thankless jobs as delivery boys, waiters and chefs at a take-out restaurant in New York’s Chinatown called the Crazy Wok. (The Hunan Bomb initially parted ways with his Chinese friends for a period of time and went back to underground pit fighting, where he was undefeated for many years.) But as a result of experiencing what some scholars have come to call “racial discrimination” and “cultural ignorance,” immigrant life would prove to be challenging for Hong Kong Fever and Down Lo-Mein. Criminology theories7 would predict that the twosome would not be able to resist the call of the criminal underground, and indeed, they could not. Both men joined a Chinatown gang called The Dumpling Killaz, which was known for running the Chinatown mahjong circuit, but they soon discovered that mayhem and destruction did not help them properly express the rage and frustration they felt as disrespected and dehumanized immigrant restaurant workers.8 Though they would eventually stage a violent coup and disband the criminal organization, arguably, it is their experience with gang life that helped the duo establish the necessary “street cred” 9 to launch a hip hop group that could garner the respect of an unforgiving multicultural society. Using simple equipment such as the Roland D-20 keyboard and a Tascan 4-track recorder, the musical duo began crafting “deep fried beats”10 and lyrics based on their hardscrabble experiences in the kitchens and alleys of Chinatown.11 The duo eventually recruited their old friend the Hunan Bomb to join them in this new enterprise—one designed to create socio-political calamity through hip hop music and unparalleled acts of on-stage bravado.12
In tapping into the unexplored territory of New York’s Chinatown, The Notorious MSG have come to establish themselves as something of a hip hop tour-de-force, with appearances on MTV and performances at respected New York night clubs such as CBGBs and The Knitting Factory. The group has also been profiled by top media organizations such as BBC’s “The World” and the New York Times,13 which have noted the group’s astonishing Horatio Algiers-like rise from Chinatown pot-scrubbers to a renown and influential musical act.14 Through its compelling music and public presence, the group has brought the plight of Asian immigrant workers, as well as the oft-disregarded potency of Asian male masculinity to the forefront of mainstream Western consciousness. For example, their tremendous fashion sense15 imbues their performance with youth and sex appeal. And the fact that the trio raps and makes statements such as “we fucking rock the bitches when we’re on stage” in hop-socky Chinese accents only adds authenticity to their revolutionary musical work. Indeed, in its continued quest to represent the True Experiences of Asian male workers to a larger audience, The Notorious MSG succeeds in disrupting flawed but persistent stereotypes and discourses about Asian Americans. Despite their notable contributions to American life and culture, however, The Notorious MSG remains dissatisfied with their accomplishments, which perhaps reveals their weakness for over-achieving. In fact, Hong Kong Fever has argued that the group will not feel it has achieved the American Dream until it has helped incorporate Asian Americans fully into mainstream media and entertainment. As he has eloquently stated, “We are here to carve a boothole in the Corporate America. We will carve the boothole bigger and bigger until all of our brothers and sisters can fit there. And it is going to be painful. But they will like it.”16≤
There are a lot of stories that have not been told that we want to share with the world. It is a perspective that people have not thought about or even seen. We try to bring that to the surface. There is a lot of, I feel, repression and rage in Chinatown that people, from not being able to express themselves fully. … We try to give that expression in our music.
e.g. downing shots of soy sauce and smoking egg rolls. The New York Times keenly notes: “The name Notorious MSG is more than a play on that of the Notorious B.I.G., the 1990’s rapper, and on monosodium glutamate, the flavor enhancer used in some Chinese restaurants; it also serves as an acronym for Moo Shu Guys. The name was adopted, said the former workers at a Chinese restaurant, after a run-in with a customer who had made racist comments. … For reasons they declined to specify, the men would not give their real names or say where they lived; they would say only that they were in their 20’s and sought to make music illuminating the hard-knock life that they and their fellow Chinese immigrants often face.” From Julia Wang, “Their HardKnock Life,” The New York Times, June 11, 2006. 14 Another mainstream news organization, Time Out New York, ran a story entitled “Chopschticks” that stated, “Judging by their outfits—and their name— you might think that the band Notorious MSG is a put-on.” (Clearly, this is not the case.) 15 During their live performances, the men of The Notorious MSG typically remove Red Adidas track suits (or some other fly get-up) to reveal the standard restaurant worker uniform of white shirts and black pants. Hong Kong Fever also boldly sports a bowl cut, Down Lo-Mein wears his hair in well-coiffed jheri curls, and the Hunan Bomb’s mop has a studied, punk rock messiness to it. 16 In Hong Kong Fever’s dialect, “boothole” is interchangeable with “butt hole.”
Slang for “street credibility.” Their words, not mine. From “FOB for Life”: it’s getting so damn hot in the kitchen people dissin’ jealous of all the ladies we kissin’ now listen to the funky beats you’re missin’ 9
Put your hands together for the boys got the wontons and the baby bok choy Makin’ good food everybody can enjoy From New York city to old Hanoi in my right hand my tek-9 in my left hand my fried rice drink my oolong tea on ice smoke the egg roll oh so nice
This scholarly work was originally published in The Journal of Symbolic Eggrolls 12
HYPHEN FALL.06 021
PIGS ON A TOUR
Photo: Michael Aghajanian
Experimental Dental School keeps from going mental on their recent US tour thanks to the healing effect of animals and the convenience of wetnaps.
Shoko at Elcid, Los Angeles. We played with Sholi—our new nice friends. Wish we had more pictures of Elcid. It had a cool Spanish style with long red steps that lead down to the show space.
Bath and breakfast courtesy of baby wipes and microwave Indian food. Didn’t like the Hollywood hotel prices—slept in van. T his is Ryan giving Jesse a van shower— risqué business.
Slept in th e van. Read y for mor It ’s the seco e. nd day so we are really fresh at this point . tour F lu on
Backstage beauty sess ion.
nd ard a , Edw n a y R , ar. Shoko ig, Sug belly p t o p his
Had a great time hanging out in El Paso, T X. One kid got Ryan’s phone number so he can talk to Ryan about his relationship problems.
Shoko sees elephants! Memphis, TN zoo.
T his is the Pilot Light in Knoxville, TN.
Shoko: “I’d never been to any of these cities. Really enjoy seeing all these new places and meeting new people.” 022 HYPHEN FALL.06
ver. o Den t s g in s Shoko
Made in Mexico. Magic People played with us at the Middle East Club, Boston. T his was one of our favorite nights of the tour.
CREDIT TK: TK
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Alam Khan with his sarode, a 25-string north Indian lute he has been practicing for over 15 years.
i grew up mostly isolated from a larger South Asian community in a number of small motels that my family ran in Ohio and Indiana. What little money my father earned, he spent on records and an impressive stereo system. Alongside Neil Diamond, Elton John and the Beatles, my father constantly played his large collection of Bollywood records. I remember him singing along to the great film composers and artists: RD Burman, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bosle. I used to listen to those scratchy records while wearing my dad’s massive Pioneer headphones. Whenever I put them on, I entered a different world—one of whimsical arrangements, catchy melodies and romantic lyrics. For a long time, these strange songs were all I knew of the musical traditions of India. That all changed in 1998. I was driving through Chapel Hill, NC, one year after graduating from college there. My best friend put in a sampler cassette tape of Talvin Singh’s debut album release, OK, that he had just found in the free bin at a record shop on Franklin Street. I remember listening to the first track, “Butterfly,” and being stunned by the crystalline and resonant beauty of the tablas, vibrating brightly above the richest and sickest drum and bass beats I had ever heard. That’s when the revelation happened: I was hearing tabla in a context that made sense to me, in a way that made it possible for me to reconcile the tradition of my parents with contemporary times growing up in America. Somehow, hearing Singh’s tricked-out tabla beats led me to study classical Indian music with guru Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, and tabla became the lens through which I would begin to understand the immense depth and history of classical north Indian music as a whole.
cities of Calcutta and Bombay. It was only after Indian independence in 1946 that the music slowly became accessible to the Indian public, through public concerts, recordings and radio broadcasts, and, eventually, to the wider global audience at large. Master musicians like Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar, who trained intensely for years in near isolation, brought the music to western audiences starting in the 1950s. The arrival of these and other master artists on the world stage changed the course of classical music forever. New amplification technologies and altered formats for presenting classical music combined to make classical north Indian music more appealing to western musical sensibilities. The willingness of pioneering artists to bring the music to new audiences around the world was seen by traditionalists as an affront to the previously closed nature of the music, which had been guarded for centuries by a strict code of lineage and patriarchy. For most of the history of north Indian classical music, only certain male blood relatives were permitted learn the intricacies of playing instruments like tabla, sitar and sarode.
E G A E N I L F O S N O THE VIBRATI define their own erican musicians struggle to Am ian As uth So of ion rat A new gene otographer Roger Persson Writer Robin Sukhadia Ph Starting in the 16th century, classical north Indian music was protected and nurtured by the royal courts under the great Mughal emperors of North India. Their court system of patronage supported artists who developed their music to tremendous levels. This system began to collapse during the British occupation of India and great musicians were forced to seek ways to sustain themselves. They found patronage in smaller courts, with the newly wealthy landlords that were created by the British system, and in the new colonial
In the late 1990s, Singh and other British Asian Underground pioneers—including Asian Dub Foundation, Nitin Sawhney and State of Bengal—initiated a global movement of electronic and dance music influenced by the classical music of north and south India, often referred to as the Asian Massive movement. These pioneers created music straddling two musical worlds: a contemporary technological musical world where there are few restrictions, and a traditional acoustic one where respect for sacred paradigms and discipline are of utmost importance to creative expres-
HYPHEN FALL.06 025
sion. The result of their sonic experiments was a new musical identity representing the South Asian diaspora worldwide. Today, young South Asian Americans are both carrying on the classical traditions of their parents and continuing to forge new ground in the electronic music scene. Artists such as Anoushka Shankar and Alam Khan are carrying on the groundbreaking tradition of their fathers by continuing the tradition of classical music, while innovators such as Karsh Kale are producing electronic tracks with world musicians from all over the planet. But can these musical forms converge and coexist in the modern world without sacrificing the purity of the classical form? “Classical music is not for entertainment” Sitting and talking with Alam Khan, 24, at the world famous Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin, CA., is like sharing a sacred meal with a rising acolyte at an ancient temple. One of the youngest sons of maestro Ali Akbar Khan, Alam radiates seriousness and an intense self-awareness about his role as one of the youngest torch bearers of his father’s and grandfather’s legacy. The young Khan began studying sarode—a 25-string instrument that traces its roots to Afghanistan—with his father when he was 7, and has performed with him around the world, including at the prestigious Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, India, and at Carnegie Hall. In 2004, Khan made his debut solo performance accompanied by the great tabla wizard Zakir Hussain. “I don’t consider myself a good musician or a learned musician,” Khan says. “I think I am just learning, that I am a student, and that I will always be a student. Right now, I am practicing rigorously and taking all my father’s classes. I instruct review classes, and give private instruction to students at the college. What I need now, and what I am doing now, is the practice that comes only through performance.” Throughout the interview, Khan deftly evades any opportunity to talk about his own musical achievements. To the point of being self-deprecating, he defers to the elders in his family and the lineage he represents. It is easy to understand why. His father carries forth the teachings of his father, the mystical genius Baba Allaudin Khan. Baba, who was also the guru of sitar player Ravi Shankar, is said to have mastered hundreds of musical instruments—both Indian and Western. A visionary innovator, he is credited with modernizing sitar, sarode and a number of other instruments; he
thing. You can be an American student and this music can touch your heart, and it feels like an old friend, it feels right, and you understand the connection and you devote yourself to that.” Like many developing masters before him, Khan’s course to becoming an established classical north Indian musician has been deliberate and slow. You won’t find any fancy marketing schemes here. He is still establishing himself in the old way, by performing selectively at prestigious conferences in India and throughout the world. His only album release to date, Father to Son (2002), features him playing alongside his father. When we begin to talk about the Asian Massive movement and about contemporary applications of classical north Indian music, Khan expresses strong reservations. “My father always says, ‘There is fusion, and there is confusion,’” Khan says. “My grandfather spent his whole life learning this music to make it as pure as possible, and he learned it directly from blood-related descendants of Mian Tansen [a 16th Century musical genius in the court of the Mughul emperor Akbar]. It is important to me that this music remains pure. We have the technology and, yes, we can [sample classical music], but we must have a foundation or the building will collapse.” In 2002, Khan released a self-produced hip-hop album, Raps, Rupees & Rickshaws, featuring himself and Oliver Black as MCs. Khan produced all the beats and the album featured rising tabla virtuoso Debopriya Sarkar on the signature track, “Hangin’ with Bubai.” “I like electronic music. I listen to it and I make it, so I would be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t enjoy it. But it can only take you to a certain place, it taps into different kinds of emotions and vibrations. But it doesn’t get to the core essence,” he says. “Spiritually, classical music is not for entertainment, it is not fashionable and it is not image-saturated—it transcends all of that. It is for your body, mind and soul; and one of the things that is great about my father—and all the masters living (there are not many living these days)—is that they are able to be open channels for love and compassion to come through them. My grandfather used to say that you can play and devote yourself to the ragas so much that you forget the time of day, your surroundings, the place you are in, your name, everything. In order to achieve that, it has to be very pure, and the emphasis has to be on real pitch, rhythm and tuning. It is a whole different level.”
Spiritually classical music is not for entertainment Alam Khan II
was also able to create and improvise ragas, spiritually attuned examinations of scale and emotion designed to be played over extended periods of time (sometimes more than three hours), at certain times of day and in certain seasons. “On a conscious and subconscious level, it plays a big part of my mental state that I come from a line of great musicians,” Khan says. “If I didn’t do this, it would haunt me that I didn’t do it.” Spirituality and reverence for the sacred are central to Khan’s way of thinking about the music and his place in the family profession. “I want to make people happy like my father did. The lineage is important, yes, but devotion to the music is the most important
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Khan says he notices a lot of carelessness in pitch in electronic music that utilizes classical Indian samples. The focus on rhythm and beat over tuning seems disrespectful to him. “A lot of people are trying to fuse this music. I think that is just the medium through which people listen to music these days. Music is made electronically. It is a reflection of our generation today. We want a quick fix. We have no time to meditate, no time to get in touch with old traditions. In modern society, we pick up our Yoga Journal magazine, we wear our shirts with deities on them, and that makes us spiritual,” he says. “It is a whole state of mind that the music misses nowadays.“
PHOTO: Pamela Springsteen
Anoushka Shankar decided to dedicate her life to sitar at the age of 12.
“That old world hardly exists anymore” Anoushka Shankar, daughter of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, was barely 12 years old when she decided to dedicate her life to sitar. “This music, it requires so much because of its immensity,” she says. “There is just so much dedication that it requires and I still go through tussles with that, because I love it as passionately as I do. When you are tied to something so immense, so big, with so many rules and regulations, sometimes it can be overwhelming. Definitely as a 12-year-old, you are thinking: “Do I really want to set myself up to this?” Shankar, now 24, grew up in London, India and San Diego. She says living in the United States, where lineage isn’t the ultimate parameter for success, gave her more permission to define her own path. That said, her father was a pioneer on many fronts. He was among the first classically trained sitarists to be embraced by Western audiences, thanks primarily to his connection with George Harrison of The Beatles. Performing milestone concerts at Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival, Ravi Shankar presented classical north Indian music in the landscape of a rapidly changing American pop culture. His extensive knowledge, virtuosity and his ability to eloquently educate Western audiences combined with an openness to experiment were critical to bringing new audiences to classical north Indian music. “I don’t know if it is having a history of royalty in Indian culture, but people really love lineage. They want to see the child of someone who they love being the continuation of that [art],” Anoushka Shankar says. “I saw very early on that there were going to be major expectations. I had to decide, basically, to the best of my ability, to ignore it. I decided at a young age that if I was going to take this on, that this was going to be my journey.” Beyond her father’s role in turning on the flower power generation to Indian classical music, his real legacy has to do with his intense training under Baba Allaudin Khan. Ravi Shankar spent seven intensive years in Maihar, a small village in India, studying sitar. Intensive, in some ways, is too weak a term to describe the austere and rigorous manner in which Baba taught his disciples. While improvisation is a major element of the music, studying hundreds of ancient compositions and memorizing them is first required to be able to intelligently improvise. The ragas are more like spells, requiring a great deal of time to learn properly and master. For Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, a typical day of practice could include up to 18 hours of playing. “[My training] is not the same situation of having to leave everything and go to a village and practice 16 to 18 hours everyday for seven years,” Anoushka Shankar says. “That old world hardly exists anymore. It is there in some senses, but as much as possible, my father tried to retain the essence of that in a much more present-day world.” While Anoushka’s training may have been slightly different from those who came before her, learning from her father has
been its own amazing experience. “It is intense. You are very dependent upon your teacher. It is a very abstract relationship, as it is, because you are connecting through an art form. At least in my life, it is a very unique relationship that I have with my father, and it is the reason that we are as close as we are. It does demand a lot, a lot of memorization, a lot of time and energy. The payoff though is so instantaneous. The relationship that it created between us, it is so magical.” But beyond her father’s legacy, Anoushka is clearly establishing her own musical identity and is doing it with her own modern style. Her latest album, Rise (2005), is a departure from the past three albums, which were primarily focused on her playing classical sitar. Rise features lush atmospherics and shorter, electronicbased compositions she wrote, featuring sitar. Her forthcoming album will feature collaborative work with electronic artist, Karsh Kale. In the spirit of her visionary and progressive father, Rise reflects her versatility, not just as a sitarist but as an arranger and composer, incorporating elements such as multilayered voicings, harmonization, world instruments and classical Indian instruments. The use of electronic effects is subtle and not so subtle at points, indicators of Anoushka’s openness to experimentation with technology. Proving that she can bridge the divide, Anoushka continues to perform regularly in India, alongside her father and in a solo context. “It is funny, you really have to prove yourself every time you go back there,” she explains. “For me, the way I dress, the way I am and being female, I get a lot prominence for that in India, being very different from the bulk of the classical Indian music world. So, when it comes down to stripping it down and playing the music, you kind of really have to show that the shell for me may be very different, but the substance is still there, regardless.”
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“The music is diversifying” Karsh Kale’s groundbreaking electronic music has been at the center of the Asian Underground movement in America for years. He plays tabla, but audiences rarely see him present these drums in a purely classical format. In live performance, Kale, 32, often performs tabla using pedals and effects processors. Reviewers have said of Kale that he is “well on his way to mastering his own musical language” and that he’s a “musical ambassador for Indian sounds.” Kale’s playful energy and excitement are contagious. He projects a vibrant, frenetic energy when I catch him in Los Angeles. He moved to the West Coast from New York City last year but says he has only been in town a total of three of the last 24 months. His demanding travel schedule takes him around the globe DJing, performing and producing new tracks with musicians all over the world. Talking to him, there is a loving permission that he grants to any South Asian near him to be more expressive and more free. It is refreshing. Lineage and rules are far away when talking to him about music. “I don’t really believe in lineage. I think the examples of lineage that we see, people like Zakir Hussain, Anoushka Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan, very much deserve to have the spotlight because they have truly mastered and taken their art form to another level. But in general, I don’t think there should be a rule for other artists to be excluded because they are not part of the lineage in any art form. An artist needs to be able to create their own aesthetic as opposed to trying to fit into all the institutions that exist,” he says. From Kale’s first solo album, Realize (2001), to his latest, Broken English (2006), his music uses classical Indian musical paradigms and instruments, but he pushes them far outside of their existing stuffy environs and onto the dance floor. “I studied with three different teachers over a total of six years and the rest of the time I spent learning by myself. I spent a lot of
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Coming From the Future The more I study and practice tabla, the more I realize its potency as an art. Even though the compositions are in some cases hundreds of years old, they can sound as if they are coming from the future. I have been able to apply the compositions I have learned on tabla to a wide range of genres, from classical to trip-hop to experimental IDM. Only the versatility and depth of an instrument like tabla can allow for such wide collaboration. I think the application of tabla in so many environments is a reflection of my Americanness, a reflection of how in this culture a musician is exposed to so many different forms of music, and that experimentation is accepted, if not required. The danger, as purists like Alam Khan convey, is that classical Indian music can be presented in a distorted way. Even though I came to playing tabla by hearing it in a drum and bass track, I’m concerned that many people will never understand the full depth of this music’s depth, thus endangering its lifespan in the West. How awful would it be if a listener’s only exposure to classical Indian music is through the samples heard in a Missy Elliot song, a Beatles songs or a distorted, looped Asian Massive track? I often hear from people that Indian classical music isn’t sustainable in American culture, because it requires so much patience, discipline, time and energy to understand. But seeing the dedication with which artists such as Khan, Shankar and Kale are giving this music, I don’t think there is too much to be worried about.≤ Robin Sukhadia is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in world music at CalArts, after studying tabla at the Ali Akbar College of Music for five years. He is the International Grants Program Director for Project Ahimsa, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth through music.
PHOTO: Mischief Photo
Karsh Kale’s music takes classical Indian paradigms and instruments and transforms their sound for the dance floor.
time accompanying people because of my father’s involvement with performing arts in the Indian community. So I spent most of my time learning tabla by learning from and watching tabla players, retaining as much information as I could,” Kale says of his training. Kale is currently busy touring, doing live concerts with his band Realize and producing DJ events with Kollective—a national DJ collective party that he started last year with resident DJs across the country. Broken English reflects a departure from the electronic music for which Kale is best known. “I have been writing a lot more music and focusing more on songwriting. I have been doing a lot more composition off the computer: sitting with the guitar, sitting on a piano, sitting on a Fender Rhodes, writing full compositions, even within Ragas, and singing all different styles of Carnatic [south Indian] songs,” Kale says. “I’ve spent the last 12 years collaborating with so many different incredible artists. I haven’t really sat down until recently and just looked at what I have received from all those experiences.” Kale has spent much time traveling in India and performing there in the growing dance and electronic music scene. “The most exciting thing for me is to see people redefine the stereotype of the modern South Asian,” Kale says. “More South Asians are coming up from different parts of the world and are incorporating different aspects of world culture into their South Asianness and then projecting that on the world. The music is diversifying: There are singer songwriters, hard-core scratch DJs, tabla players and Indian classical musicians all changing the way we hear South Asian music.”
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Hyphen gets elemental with hip-hop’s new school. Dek tktktk tk ttkt kt ttkkt tkktktk tkt kt Writer tktktkt tktktk Photographer tktktkt tkktktkt This is body text
MCs that matter.
Writer Momo Chang Photographer Seng Chen
Jonah Deocampo and Jack DeJesus prefer to aim straight for your head. With their lyrics, that is. “When we speak, we try to get in there,” Deocampo, or MC Bambu, says, gesturing to his head with expressive hands. The two Filipino Americans make up hip-hop group Native Guns—a play on ’90s hip-hop collective Native Tongues—and are known for their conscious lyricism, occasional rapping in Tagalog and live shows that get even the most reluctant heads nodding. They grew up in different parts of inner city Los Angeles but in similar situations—both were jumped into gangs at a young age; both say hip-hop saved their lives. Deocampo, 29, grew up in Watts and was one of the only Asian kids on the block. At 12, he was jumped into a gang, but his way with words not only gave him an expressive outlet, but an easier out from gang life. Fast forward to 2001, when Deocampo met DeJesus, a k a Kiwi, at an event in Los Angeles. Their first collaboration, “Peaceful Pistols,” appeared on Deocampo’s 2001 solo album. Their first full-length album together, Barrel Men, was released this spring and includes cameos from DJ Rhettmatic, Sabzi of Blue Scholars and Denizen Kane of Typical Cats. The album opens up with “Initiation,” about a young kid getting jumped into a gang, but both Deocampo and DeJesus are quick to point out that they’re not advocating that lifestyle. Though they may be misunderstood for the violent symbol of a gun, Deocampo says it’s all metaphorical—the gun as a symbol of getting straight to the point and as a revolutionary symbol for selfdefense. These two self-described “bald-headed brown brothers with tattoos” are walking poster men of balance between art and activism: DeJesus works fulltime at a nonprofit, hosts a monthly radio show dedicated to Asian American hip-hop on an independent Berkeley radio station, and can be seen out on the streets as a chant-leader during demonstrations. Deocampo works at a media company by day and teaches hip-hop writing on the side. The newest addition to their group, Patrick Huang, or DJ Phatrick, 24, teaches music production to high school youth in West Oakland. DeJesus, 31, who now lives in San Francisco, says he can’t separate what he raps about from his background. “I’m going to want to talk about sweatshops and identity. I feel like my Filipino-ness has everything to do with the quality of my music. We don’t want that to be removed from the art.”
ten to spin Top 10 hip-hop joints by API artists (in no particular order) by Jack DeJesus/MC Kiwi
1 “Another Life” » Denizen Kane
2 “Authentic Vintage” » Jern Eye 3 “Chaos” » Skim 4 “Keep it Going Now” » Power Struggle
5 “Still Water” » ELEMNOP 6 “The Long March” » Blue Scholars
7 “Sureshot” » The Pacifics 8 “Slingshot” » RJ 9 “I Suppose” » Group Therapy “Work It” » Native Guns
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Writer Rebecca Klassen Photographer Ejen Chuang
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ON WEEKENDS, Peppa—nom de guerre for L.A.-based Peipei Yuan—practices falling from great heights and landing hard. But she knows how to get right back on her feet. This stuntwoman-in-training—you can see her work in CBS’s Numb3rs—is exuberantly devoted to movement in all its forms. Her primary love, though, is breaking. “Bgirling,” she insists, “is a way of life for me.” It’s no surprise that this self-professed “adrenaline junkie” had taken on the challenge of the “testosterone sport” that is the b-boy cipher. Peppa asserts, “Claiming the floor, you really have to have guts. It’s really a mind thing. Every time I get on the floor it’s still such a rush. Like what am I going to do when I throw?” She simplifies the intimidation by focusing on the music: “If a really good song comes on, I’ll be sure to get down.” Peppa’s predilection for movement needed a little jump-start early in life. When she was a baby, Peppa’s mother thought she was mentally retarded because she failed to cry in reaction to her sister’s hijinks—like the time she stuck a toothpick in Peppa’s eye. The doctor recommended that they work on increasing little Peppa’s motor skills through gymnastics. “I think I must have what they call an addictive personality, because when I start some-thing I keep doing it, to the extreme.” When she tore her knee ligament doing gymnastics, she took up springboard diving. Partner dancing in PE classes sparked an interest in lindy, swing and salsa. When a relationship ended, she took off on the weekends to snowboard as a way to feel better. Summer’s lack of snow led her to skateboarding. She also surfs. This impressive roster for Peppa has mostly been a form of cross-training, especially after she started breaking in the New York club scene in 2000. She views herself as a sort of kinesiologist, which only helps her in her daytime job as an animator. The ability to translate idea into movement leaves the “technical nerds who’ve never done physical things in their life” in the dust. In terms of hip-hop culture, Peppa gets most excited about the scene’s creative spirit, as well as the increasingly globalized focus. When there’s a big event, “kids from around the world will travel for the love of hip-hop,” like the L.A.-Stuttgart exchange she participated in back in August. “It’s so beautiful. They’re just here to dance. For the love of hip-hop culture, the arts. Not drugs, or to get drunk, or pick up on girls. It’s such a simple idea, but it’s pure, and it’s right, and it’s the way life should be.”
On a sweltering 112-degree afternoon in San Diego, Mike Relm nearly sweated through his signature suit. While on tour with Peeping Tom, former-Faith No More front man Mike Patton’s collaborative project, Relm got to showcase his own unique DJ skills. He spun an audio/visual set that mashed up Peanuts, Rage Against the Machine, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Battle Royale, White Stripes, some of his own beats, old Beatles footage, Led Zeppelin, N.W.A., The Neverending Story, The Godfather, Arrested Development, The Ali G Show and more. “I like when people laugh,” Relm explains about his show. “I hate standing for longer than 20 seconds and not doing anything [on stage]. I feel like I’m ripping people off.” Relm has certainly paid his dues in the DJ world, purchasing his first turntables in early high school and winning his first DJ competition over 10 years ago at an import car show in San Francisco. By 1999, Relm had placed second
in the International Turntablist Federation’s world competition and become a serious artist in the world of scratching. “It wasn’t really an art form when I got into it,” Relm says about his humble origins. “You’re just the guy that plays the music. I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I did nothing but that. When you do something so often, when you’re so deeply engulfed into it–you turn it in to different things. I started manipulating sounds and music, started experimenting.” Relm’s serious interest in film, his desire to truly entertain the audience and some technological advances in the form of DVD-mixers, led him to the incarnation of his show today. “I used to run a video loop behind me just for atmospheric stuff. When I would open up for bands, I didn’t want to be just playing records on stage. If anyone is on stage, you’ve gotta earn it. I’d do as many zany tricks as I could but the video wouldn’t really have as much to do with what I was doing musically,” Relm says. “Now I can control what people see and what people hear and it’s a lot more fun.” This fall, Relm will tour his show widely as the opening act for Del the Funky Homosapien. But he says that his music will continue to evolve and he is currently working on a full-length album of original music. “No more mix tape stuff,” he says, characterizing his music as uplifting and eclectic. As an Asian American DJ, Relm says that he has always felt as though hip-hop has welcomed him with open arms. “Especially with turntablism, there is no racial discrimination because it is about the skills,” he says. “DJs are pretty lucky. We can be whatever we want, but you can’t suck.”
mike relm DJ cum auteur.
Writer Neelanjana Banerjee Photographer Jerome Gacula
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Being South Asian has definitely helped elevate Toronto-based Jugular’s beatboxing abilities. On top of the extremely versatile and diverse bass lines, drums, record scratches and musical sound bites that he makes with his mouth, he includes intricate tabla rhythms and even Bollywood orchestral flair in his repertoire. After six years of spitting in microphones all over Canada and the United States, Jugular is expanding his beatboxing skills into something more holistically musical. He is currently working on a full-length album called Welcome to the Universe, where he beatboxes as well as plays guitar, bass, keyboards and flute. “No samples are used,” he says. “All layered percussion sounds heard on the album are made by the human mouth.” Jugular describes the album as a “complete make-out album” in the style of ’70s/’80s soul with elements of R&B and hip-hop grooves. The album will drop November 2006. Jugular—otherwise known as Nikhil Tumne—says his musical-mouth skills developed the same way as those of most internationally known beatboxers. “You have to be broke,” the 27-year-old Jugular says. “Beatboxing comes from not having any instruments. My parents didn’t buy me a guitar. But you couldn’t stop me—it was like a disease. In the end, I had to make the music with my mouth.” Jugular’s family emigrated from India to Toronto’s working-class Thorncliffe Park neighborhood in the late 1960s, where he grew up on the sounds of hip-hop in the streets. But when the family moved up and out to the suburbs, he felt out of the loop. “People were into bands like Poison and Skid Row, and I was like what the fuck?” Jugular says rapidly. “I was like, ‘What about Erik B and Rakhim?’” He first started performing as a way to escape the frustrations of university life. “I support university if it helps you get to where you want it life,” he says, “But I hated it. I would do my homework and stuff and then I would go downtown and get on the mic just to get the frustration out of my system.” When not working on his album, Jugular teaches beatboxing workshops to young people through the Urban Noise arts festival. A longtime community activist, Jugular says he hopes to “move minds through music” and has definitely faced the trials and tribulations of a young brown man after 9/11. He lists various times when he has been denied entry to the US, pulled off of planes by the INS and questioned for hours. “Pretty much every time I have to go to America I get pulled into INS and interrogated,” he says bitterly. “They are really targeting the wrong people.” Yet, Jugular says he doesn’t let such setbacks discourage him, he just works a bit harder to get his music out there. “It just fuels me more,” he says “I will continue to keep on doing art till I die. No government can keep that shit away from me.”
Writer Neelanjana Banerjee Photographer Alex Felipe
Beatboxer for the people.
New York-based painter Jeff Cylkowski, 30, recently graduated with a bachelor’s in fine arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. On paper, he doesn’t exactly conjure up the image of a graffiti artist. But dig a little deeper and you’ll also find a Korean American adoptee who grew up in the Midwest, raised in the subcultures of urban America, particularly skateboarding, punk rock and hip-hop. His first solo art show Momentum, which opened in 2003 at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, consisted of a series of murals—with bright and bold colors, text and shapes including lots of sweeping arrows that clearly reference his foundations in graffiti and b-boying. And Momentum rightly captures Cylkowski, a k a SlopeMUL, and his life thus far. Adopted at birth by white, working class parents in Chicago, this artist of Korean descent found identity first through the urban Midwest, where he pioneered a small graffiti scene in Indianapolis, which he refers to as “IndiaNoPlace.” “I lived in predominantly white/black communities,” he describes in his bio. “I never knew what it meant to be Asian or Korean… I spent most of those years confused, wanting to be white/black.” Cylkowski, who has painted walls, tunnels and trains internationally, also lived in San Francisco, where he was an active writer in the flourishing late ’90s West Coast graffiti movement, and Philadelphia, where he began identifying with the burgeoning Asian American art scene, including working with the Asian Arts Initiative (www.asianartsinitiative.org). But as an artist constantly on the move, he decided to apply to art school at age 27, surprising even himself. Today, Jeff describes his work as “a rhythmic assemblage of abstract elements borrowed from art history—sampled, reexamined and remixed, into imagery that reflects a fusion of painterly romanticism and hard-edged digitalism with a graffiti (street art) sensibility.”
CREDIT TK: TK
Graffiti artist on the move.
Writer Marcie Chin Photographer Jason Chen HYPHEN FALL.06 035
MUSIC MOMENTS Artists, albums and events of note—pardon the pun—in Asian American music history. Writer Jason Coe Illustrator Nathan Huang
1955 Indian sarode player Ali Akbar Khan becomes the first Indian musician on American television when he appeared on Alistair Cooke’s Omnibus. 1957 Pat Suzuki becomes the first Japanese American signed to a major label when she is referred to RCA by Bing Crosby. 1964 Eight-year-old child-prodigy Yo-Yo Ma appears on television performing with composer Leonard Bernstein. Ma goes on to study at the Julliard School, eventually becoming the most acclaimed cellist in the world. 1968 Ben Fong-Torres begins writing for Rolling Stone Magazine and is promoted to news editor in 1969. He continues to be a major journalist in the American music scene. 1968 Asian Music, a magazine dedicated to scholarly research on Asian musical art forms, publishes its first issue. 1973 Charlie Chin, Chris Iijima and Nobuko Miyamoto create the folk trio Yellow Pearl. Their first album, A Grain of Sand, spreads a political message championing minority rights, immigrant rights and an anti-Vietnam War message. 1975 Latin soul pioneer Joe Bataan releases Afrofilipino, one of his best-selling albums and a tribute to his bi-racial heritage. 1978 Sound Explosion, the first of hundreds of Filipino-led mobile DJ crews in the San Francisco Bay Area, forms at Balboa High School in San Francisco. These crews will eventually produce Filipino American scratch legends like DJs Q-Bert, Mixmaster Mike and Apollo. 1979 Hiroshima, a fusion jazz band comprising Japanese Americans, releases its self-titled debut album on Arista records. From the album, the R&B hit “Roomful of Mirrors” becomes a hit. 1986 Filipino American heavy metal band Death Angel releases its first album, The UltraViolence, hailed as one of the greatest thrash albums of all time. 1987 Jan Jang and Francis Wong found the nonprofit Asian Improv Records, the main recording label of the Asian improv jazz movement, which began in the ’80s and still flourishes today.
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1992 Half-Chinese/half-Trinidadian rapper Fresh Kid Ice, from 2 Live Crew, releases a solo album, The Chinaman. 1995 Ear of the Dragon, a compilation album of Asian American indie rock bands including Seam, Versus, Aminiature, Skankin’ Pickle and J Church, is released.
2005 Chinese American music journalist Jeff Chang publishes Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, widely considered one of the definitive books on hip-hop history. 2006 MTV launches various Asian American channels, including one catering to South Asian Americans, Chinese Americans and Korean Americans.
1997 Coinciding with the release of UK-based Talvin Singh’s Anokha, the album rumored to have started the Asian Massive movement, DJ and filmmaker Vivek Bald begins the groundbreaking Mutiny club night in New York City, creating a critical mass for the rise of South Asian American DJs and musicians working on the cutting edge of electronic music. Mutiny continues until 2003. 1998 The soundtrack of the film Yellow, directed by Chris Chan Lee, is the first to feature only Asian American musicians. 1999 Handsome Boy Modeling School, a rap collaboration comprising Dan “the Automator” Nakamura and Prince Paul, releases its first album So …How’s Your Girl? to critical acclaim. Nakamura, of Japanese descent, is at the forefront of trip-hop and is featured on the first Gorillaz album. 2000 Linkin Park releases Hybrid Theory, which goes diamond (ten times platinum) and is currently the best-selling debut album of the 21st century. Founding members include Joseph Hahn, who is of Korean descent, and Mike Shinoda, who is half-Japanese. 2001 First Asian America Hip Hop summit held in Los Angeles. 2002 A revival of Flower Drum Song is done on Broadway, rewritten by David Henry Hwang, writer of M. Butterfly and starring Lea Salonga from Miss Saigon. Hwang rewrites the musical as he assumes Rodgers and Hammerstein would have written it if they were Asian American. 2002 Chinese American rapper Jin wins BET’s 106 and Park Freestyle Fridays competition for the seventh week in a row. He later signs to Ruff Ryders and releases The Rest Is History, the first rap album by an Asian American on a major label, in 2004. 2004 Professor Deborah Anne Wong publishes Speak it Louder: Asian Americans Making Music, one of the only books published on Asian American music and a significant contributor to this time line.
Jason Coe was Hyphen’s intern. He spent part of his summer researching a more comprehensive version of this timeline with 63 entries. To see the full timeline, in all its awesomeness, visit hyphenmagazine.com
CREDIT TK: TK
1938 Charlie Low opens Forbidden City—the first nightclub to showcase Chinese American performers—in San Francisco, a favorite haunt of locals and visiting celebrities such as Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby.
CREDIT TK: TK
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CREDIT TK: TK
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Trapped Chinatown Some undocumented immigrants keep another secret—HIV. Writer Lisa Wong Macabasco Illustrator Ronald Kurniawan
Every morning, Susan Lee* rises around seven in the morning from the bed she rents for $200 a month in a Lower Manhattan share and gets ready to go to work. Her thick, straight shoulder-length brown hair is accented with orange streaks that conceal her 47 years and hint at her profession, cutting hair in a Chinatown salon. On this winter day, she draws navy eyeliner on her lower lids, piles on four layers of sweaters and a black leather jacket, and wends through the cramped Chinatown streets bustling with produce sellers and shoppers. Lee blends into the milling crowds, just another employee on her way to work.
why APIs get tested at only half the rate of most other ethnic groups—44 percent are diagnosed only when seeking treatment for what they later find out to be an AIDS-related illness. This same fear also prevents APIs from sticking with their treatment regimen and from disclosing their AIDS status to peers, employers and Chinatowns are the best places to live if you have a secret, and New York is no family. Secrecy becomes exception. While Asian American activists may object to Chinatown’s reputation essential, and isolation and as an inscrutable underworld, the neighborhood continues to exist beyond the self-blame only deepen. Asian immigrants living reach of the law. It’s not that the people there don’t understand American laws; with AIDS are marginalized partly because its members they just aren’t afraid of them. choose to remain silent for It’s a place where people keep their heads down and their mouths cultural reasons, but also because there just aren’t many of them. shut, where parents tell their children that the nail that sticks out According to the Department of Health, 1,067 APIs had AIDS in gets hammered down, and residents say that even if someone was New York City at the end of 2004, comprising a mere 1.1 percent shot in the middle of a crowded street, the cops would never know of infected people citywide. APIs have consistently represented who did it. Blending in is a survival tactic that capitalizes on the inapproximately 1 percent of AIDS cases nationwide. At the end ability of non-Asians to distinguish one Asian face from another. of 2004, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention counted Lee would know. She has a secret. In fact, she has a couple. 4,045 APIs living with HIV or AIDS in the US. But it’s likely that She is an undocumented immigrant, and she is HIV positive. Like these figures don’t account for the portion of the half-million unmany of the 7 million other undocumented immigrants in the US, documented Asian immigrants that may also be infected with this she faces the challenge of holding down a job and a place to live virus. “You can’t play the numbers game with this community,” while sending money to her family back home and staying off the says Dr. Ezer Kang, a clinical psychologist at Columbia Presbytepolice radar. She must also get her medical treatment without rian Medical Center. drawing attention from her community, where AIDS is strongly asWhen AIDS arrived in America in 1981, its face was uppersociated with “immoral” acts like sexual promiscuity, prostitution, middle class, gay, white and male. Today, almost one in four Amerintravenous drug use and homosexuality. icans living with AIDS contracted the disease through heterosexStigma is common in all racial and ethnic minority communiual contact, and 65 percent of Americans living with AIDS are of ties, and Asian and Pacific Islanders with AIDS are particularly Asian, African American, Native American or Hispanic descent. vulnerable. Fear of being discriminated against is the main reason Across the globe, the disease spreads fastest among vulnerable populations including young women in Sub-Saharan Africa, mo*Name has been changed. nogamous wives in India and rural farmers in southern China.
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All signs point to Asia as the epidemic’s next frontier. Some experts predict that in 2010, Asia will have more AIDS-infected people than the 25 million in sub-Saharan Africa today. With new AIDS infections on the rise in the two most populous countries in the world and the steady influx of immigrants from Asia—a quarter of the total arrivals in New York City since the early 1990s—it’s clear that the outbreak of rampant AIDS among the Asian immigrant community in America is a ticking time bomb. But minority AIDS activists are still struggling to emerge from beneath the disease’s lingering reputation as one that affects predominantly white gay men. Last February, a promiscuous gay man in New York City was found to have a particularly drug-resistant strain of HIV that escalated to a rapid onset of AIDS, reviving the stereotype. Confronted with this “supervirus,” city and state health authorities promised more outreach to methamphetamine users and young gay men. Among this media frenzy, there was no mention of additional outreach to immigrants, the poor, people of color or women—communities where the disease has exploded in recent years and the need for education and care services is the most urgent. The situation is all the more difficult for people who aren’t even allowed to be here. Federal law stipulates that undocument-ed immigrants who are HIV positive cannot obtain an immigrant visa, Medicare or non-emergency hospitalization. In the late 1980s, a little-known provision of federal law enabled local immigration authorities to grant temporary legal status for up to several years to those undocumented residents facing extreme hardship. Those with AIDS were eligible for Medicaid, disability benefits, and state-funded housing vouchers. But the passage of the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 put a stop to Medicaid benefits for undocumented residents and limited those who earned special status to only 120 days in the US. “Silence equals death” was the powerful rallying cry used by activists to illustrate the Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge AIDS in the 1980s. It’s a phrase that has also been leveled at President Bush over his strategy of HIV prevention through abstinence education programs instead of condom distribution, comprehensive sex education or needle exchange programs. These words still remain true today for undocumented Asian immigrants struggling with this irreversible disease. The Quest to Be a Good Mother Born and raised in Malaysia, Lee dropped out of school in sixth grade to work as a hairdresser. She had her first son at age 35 and another one two years later. Her husband was an unemployed gambler who neglected his family, and she divorced him when the youngest son was only a few months old. She dreamed of moving to New York to join her two younger sisters, both of whom had immigrated in the late 1980s on tourist visas and eventually obtained green cards. She made very little money in Malaysia and hoped to earn a fortune in the US, or at least enough to send home to her two sons. She applied for a visa twice, failing both times. Then, she heard whispers of another way to get into the country.
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In 1999, she paid $2,000 to a travel agency specializing in the illegal migration of Malaysians to the US, said goodbye to her young sons and got on a plane. Her journey, entirely arranged by the agency, included a one-day stop in Korea, a lone flight to Toronto where she pretended to be visiting relatives and a boat trip from Canada that smuggled her and five Chinese migrants into the US. She stayed with her sisters for the first three years, but eventually moved out as their families grew. Every month Lee sends $400—half her monthly salary—to her mother, now the boys’ guardian, to pay for their school fees and living expenses. “That’s a lot in Malaysia,” she says proudly. In January 2004, Lee was besieged by a harsh cough that lingered for two weeks. Her relatives took her to the hospital, where she stayed for two weeks while doctors ran tests and studied X-rays of her lungs. She wasn’t getting better, and her doctors asked her to consider an HIV test. She had heard of AIDS, but didn’t know what it was or how it was spread, until she was diagnosed with HIV a few days later. Chinese New Year is supposed to be the happiest season of the year, a time to celebrate a fresh start with the family. Instead, Lee was alone with her secret. She was shocked and scared, but there was no question in her mind that if others knew, she would be ostracized. She has not told her sisters about her disease, nor her mother, who is old and easily shocked. She has kept the secret from her coworkers as well, because of what she fears to be all-too-certain consequences. She may tell her sons about being HIV-positive when they’re older; she worries they will be afraid of her if they know now. “The Asian community has contempt for those with AIDS,” she says. There is something enigmatic about her, as she picks at a custard tart with her fingers and looks away often. “People wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore. They would spread the word around, and I’d lose my job and not be able to find another. Most people wouldn’t understand and would only make my life more difficult.” She says she doesn’t know how she contracted AIDS. No matter how difficult her situation is in New York, Lee knows it’s better than what life would be in Malaysia. Health care for people with AIDS remains a challenge back home, where most cases are among young male intravenous drug users. “The doctors wouldn’t know what to do,” she says. “If you have no money, they won’t help you at all. If you have HIV, you wait for death to come.” getting help “Eat Fuk” greets me on the doorway of the Chinese-American Planning Council’s AIDS program office in Chinatown. This misspelled and ungrammatical obscenity leads into your standard low-budget nonprofit office. Sterile white walls are aggravated by fluorescent lighting. The office is pin-drop quiet, and although there are 10 cubicles, I never see more than five employees on any visit. Employees sit on metal folding chairs and peer into old computers. Handmade posters and signs are displayed everywhere. Information pamphlets are simply designed and easy to
The Numbers At the end of 2004, 77 percent of APIs living with AIDS were men, 22 percent were women and 1 percent were children. Most HIV/AIDS cases among APIs are concentrated in the East and West Coasts, Chicago, Hawaii and Guam. Only California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and the Pacific Islands report AIDS cases among APIs by ethnicity/national origin. API men who have sex with men comprise 72 percent of the community’s male AIDS cases, compared to 56 percent of Native Americans, 52 percent of Hispanics, 44 percent of Blacks and 75 percent of Caucasians. API women are least likely to report what put them at risk for HIV/AIDS. Among cumulative AIDS cases reported by API women, “risk factor not reported or identified” accounted for 24 percent of the cases, compared to 20 percent for Black, 13 percent for Native American/Alaska Native, 12 percent for Hispanic, and 12 percent for Caucasian women. Of those diagnosed with AIDS between 1996 and 2004, 81 percent of APIs were alive nine years after diagnosis, compared to 74 percent of Caucasians, 72 percent of Hispanics, 65 percent of Native Americans, and 64 percent of African Americans. Data from a 2003 HIV testing survey in Seattle indicated that 90 percent of the APIs surveyed perceived themselves at some risk for HIV infection, yet only 47 percent had been tested during the past year. From 2001 to 2004, APIs had the highest annual increase of HIV/AIDS diagnoses. APIs were diagnosed at an average annual increased rate of 9 percent, while the overall rate of diagnoses among all ethnic groups did not change. APIs have high rates of many preventable diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis B that are strongly associated with HIV. In fact, APIs with AIDS have the highest rate of Pneumocystis pneumonia among all ethnic groups.
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photocopy. One afternoon a worker from the energy company pays a visit, inquiring about an overdue bill totaling $160. The program’s energetic executive director manages to charm from him a few extra days to pay the bill. The Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) is a 40-yearold social services organization aimed at low-income and nonEnglish speaking Chinese residents in New York City. Its AIDS program was started more than 10 years ago with a grant from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, and today it’s one of only two New York City organizations that cater specifically to Asians living with AIDS. Its programs include a bilingual hotline and monthly support groups, but its most popular ones are case management and translation services for clients seeking HIV testing. They have 56 clients, many of whom ask for housing and immigration help in addition to health services. The Council has been Lee’s guardian angel. After her first hospital stay, a CPC representative came to visit her and helped arrange for the state to pay her medical expenses, which totaled around $20,000 for two weeks. The Council then helped her get an AIDS Drug Assistance Program card that gives her access to free medicine that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. Lee now knows a lot about AIDS, thanks to the Council’s seminars on health, nutrition and sex. The Council also throws holiday parties, where she has made many friends. One of the friends she made was another undocumented immigrant named James Fong, a Chinatown cook who was diagnosed in Malaysia and now remembers to take his medicine by color. He’s been taking the “browns” for two years, and the “whites” help battle anemia, for which he was hospitalized last year. He has sex with women in New York, but he always uses a condom and doesn’t think it’s necessary to tell them about his HIV status. None of his friends or co-workers know his secret, and he feels no need to tell them, either. “If they knew, it’d be a hassle, a headache,” he says. “In Chinatown, we don’t talk about HIV.”
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Regrets About The Past Lee’s outlook has changed since her diagnosis, although her daily routine has not. She still works 11 hours, seven days a week at the hair salon. When she’s not working, she cleans, cooks and stays at home. Sometimes she goes for dim sum with her sisters. She takes extra care of herself, doing a little bit of exercise when work is slow and disinfecting bloody cuts right away. But she has faced no major health problems since her diagnosis, and her doctor says that if she takes her medication, she will stay healthy for years.
“What’s happened’s happened,” she tells me, “and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no point in thinking about the future.” Because doctors have told her that people diagnosed with HIV live an average of 10 years, she believes she has nine years left. She is mentally prepared to work for $3 an hour for the rest of her life and to eventually die alone. “The saddest thing is not knowing if I will ever see my sons again,” she says, looking away into the distance.≤ Lisa Wong Macabasco is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.
API HIV/AIDS organizations National Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum www.apiahf.org California Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center (San Francisco, San Mateo County, East Bay) www.apiwellness.org Filipino Task Force on AIDS (San Francisco) www.filaids.org Asian Americans for Community Involvement (Santa Clara County) www.aaci.org Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (Southern California) www.apaitonline.org Asian Youth Center (Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley) www.asianyouthcenter.org Guam Communications Network (Long Beach) www.guamcomnet.org Asian Pacific Health Care Venture, Inc. (Los Angeles) www.aphcv.org
UCSF Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (San Francisco) www.caps.ucsf.edu Hawaii Life Foundation (Honolulu) www.lifefoundation.org Illinois Asian Health Coalition of Illinois (Chicago) www.asianhealth.org Massachusetts Massachusetts Asian AIDS Prevention Project (Boston) www.mapforhealth.org New York Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS (New York) www.apicha.org Chinese-American Planning Council, Inc. www.cpc-nyc.org Pennsylvania AIDS Services in Asian Communities (Philadelphia) www.critpath.org/asiac
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Keith Tamashiro is an innovative graphic artist with a keen eye towards the cutting-edge, and a distinctive point of view. For more than a decade, Tamashiroâ€™s work has graced the covers of countless albums, including artists from MCA, Transparent Music, Warner Bros., Interscope and Geffen record labels, such as Blink-182, Herbie Hancock, Ashlee Simpson, Damian Marley, DJ Shadow and Jurassic 5. Along with Gabriela Lopez, Tamashiro started Soap Design, a design studio based in Los Angeles that specializes in music packaging, promotional merchandise, art organizations and fashion merchandise. He has also worked pro bono on many art projects. In January 2006 Tamashiro suffered a cerebral aneurysm. After a three-anda-half month stay in intensive care at UCLA Medical Center, he is now at a rehabilitation facility where he continues to recover. To make donations (monetary or other), contact Lopez at 323.666.2383 or email@example.com. For more information, visit: www.myspace.com/ ktgetwell.â‰¤
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Brown is the New Black “Indian Niggas ... Pakistani Niggas ... Bangladeshi Niggas ... haven’t y’all heard? We’re the new niggas!” From the first sentence of the film Punching at the Sun, director Tanuj Chopra draws you into the gritty, racially charged world of his young main character, Mameet Nayak. While the film focuses on a South Asian teenager coming of age on the mean streets of Elmhurst, Queens, it is also one of the first films to deal with the experiences of the South Asian community in a post-9/11 world. Since its premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival—a first for a South Asian American feature film—it has created a buzz in independent film circles. Punching at the Sun recently won the Best Narrative Award at the 2006 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. But Chopra is no stranger to film awards—his earlier short film Butterfly, a Bollywood-esque love story, won three best film awards. So how does the 28-year-old director explain his success? “Sandwiches,” he says deadpan. “I learnt all about mak-
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ing a good film from learning how to order a sandwich.” He goes on to explain how his laid-back California style—Chopra originally hails from the San Francisco Bay Area—didn’t cut it in the East Coast. “See, you have to know what you want. In California, I can say I don’t want mayo or I don’t want pickles. But on the East Coast, the waiter just raised an eyebrow and said: ‘Just tell me what you want, okay?’ So today when I order a sandwich I know exactly what I want. That’s an important lesson to learn both in life and in film.” Chopra’s interest in films began early in high school. He admits to being an indiscriminate movie junkie, spending his days watching up to three films back to back. “It was only when I saw Mississippi Masala and Bhaji on the Beach, that for the first time I realized that there were possibilities out there for someone like me,” he says. For Chopra, that possibility was to make an honest movie about the South Asian experience. “No one walks around saying ‘Am I Kris or Krishna?’ We all have
our moments of identity crisis and then we go order some nachos. A lot of the South Asian films out there don’t speak to me. I just wanted to make something that people could relate to,” he says. Against the backdrop of the culturally diverse Queens neighborhood, Punching at the Sun explores the dynamics and tensions not only of the rage within the protagonist’s internal life, which begins to crack after the tragic death of his brother, but also looks at larger political issues affecting South Asian immigrants. For Chopra, however, the film is mainly a story about loss. It emerged from him losing his grandparents and sensing how that changed him and his family. “I wanted to give a voice to anyone who has lost someone.” The story also grew from his work with the South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) community in Queens. While living and working in Elmhurst, he began mentoring media workshops and getting the youth to document their experiences after 9/11. During this time he also met members of
PHOTO: Elliott Yakush
Tanuj Chopra’s post-9/11 story punches at the heart. Writer Sadaf Siddique
the SAYA! basketball league whose story he weaves into the film. Race relations play a big part of the film. Even while he was shooting the film, people would follow the crew around shouting insults and telling them to “go back to their own country.” “There is a kind of racism you grow up with in this country, whether it is internalized self-hatred or projected racism or just not seeing yourself represented in the mainstream media. And especially after 9/11, you see a different kind of racism,” Chopra says. With a limited budget raised from friends, family and fundraisers, they had no room for mistakes. “We rehearsed for two whole months. I had a 17-day shoot schedule.” Chopra sees his film as a grassroots initiative made possible only because of the
community’s donation of time, resources and services. From the antagonistic protagonist (a riveting performance by Misu Khan), to his hilarious friends (the amusing Kazi Rahman and Taran Singh), a majority of the cast were first time actors recruited from his media workshops at SAYA! Chopra said his cast and crew worked for “nothing except the dream to create a film that reflected their experiences.” Personally for Chopra, the film has made him feel like a different person. He admits, “I feel like there has been a great weight on my shoulders. With my last film, everyone loved it. But with this film they are being challenged. It is a political film and it’s saying something about people’s lives so there is a huge pressure of reception.”
And how has the reception been? “At the Berkeley screening most of the people really got the desi humor, at another screening at a Bay Area high school, they were cracking up about all the political stuff,” he laughs. “Mostly I think people respond to the film with their hearts.” Chopra is currently juggling finishing school with trying to get the film distributed internationally. Not one to rest on his laurels, he is already planning his next film project on “technology and the army of super desis.” All he’s ready to give away is that it is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a tale about greed in the ’90s.≤ Sadaf Siddique is a freelance journalist based in Belmont, CA.
The Lost Generation Dust of Life shows the Vietnamese community’s wounds. In Dust of Life, first-time director Le-Van Kiet portrays the conflicted and sometimes violent lives of Vietnamese American youth living in Orange County during the early ’90s. The film follows the life of Johnny, an orphaned and displaced teenage refugee dealing with issues of assimilation and gang life. Can you explain the title and how it applies to Vietnamese American youth? Dust of life, “Bui Doi” in Vietnamese, refers to street kids in Vietnam who had to fight and beg for food. For me, the phrase defines a lost generation with a struggle for identity and the stigma of being displaced. I feel this summarizes the psychology of Vietnamese American youths. Your film opens with a shot of the “boat people.” Why did you choose this image to begin your film? It’s really to remind the audience of where these kids are coming from. The Vietnamese community is still in various stages of healing and understanding because of their history and this needs to be recognized.
What is the story behind the production of your film? When I was in film school at UCLA, I knew I wanted to tell this story, not only for myself but for the community. I went to my own experiences growing up in Orange County in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I also talked with many gang members and former gang members, and talked with their friends and family. The film is a collection of these experiences. Many of your actors are first timers. Was this beneficial for the film and its realism? Yes, it was a conscious decision on our part to cast nonactors. We did take a risk because some of these kids had never been exposed to a film set. But I think the risk was worth it because the authenticity that showed on screen was wonderful. Have you had any negative backlash from the Vietnamese American community? Surprisingly, no. It was something that was always on my mind when writing the script. However, I didn’t find myself compromising because, in a sense, it wasn’t me writing the script, it was the voice of the characters who were dictating the story. I think the community knows how real the violence is because they had to experience it themselves. —Jason Coe
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Hapa Hollywood Two up-and-coming filmmakers hope to spark a movement and send a message. Writer Ravi Chandra Photographer Seng Chen During the 24th Annual San Francisco Asian American Film Festival in March 2006, directors Eric Byler and Mora Mi-Ok Stephens screened their films Americanese and Conventioneers, respectively. They sat down with Hyphen to discuss their work, politics and experiences of being hapa. Here are excerpts from that hourlong conversation. I hope to understand a bit about your processes, what pulls you into stories and informs your filmmaking, and a little bit more about you personally. Mora, I should say that the folks at Hyphen have a special bond with you because your production company is called Hyphenate Films. Why did you choose Hyphenate? MORA STEPHENS: (Laughs). We’re called Hyphenate Films because we’re all hyphenates. Hyphenates in the sense of writer-director-producer, production designer-editor-cameraman, etc. At the core of the company are people who can and do fill many positions at once so we’re able to work with very small crews, creating a more efficient and family-like environment. The films I’ve seen so far from you both have been pretty dark. Philosophically, is there something that made you want to make that kind of film? MS: I wasn’t setting out to make a dark film. I wanted to make a film about the divide in the country—red state-blue state, Republican-Democrat—a divide that has become very ugly. And Eric, what’s behind the Eric Byler-ness of your movies? ERIC BYLER: (Laughs) I don’t think of them as dark. As I was writing Charlotte Sometimes (2002), I was also forming my artistic tenets. One of them was to be faithful to truth, and not to try to bend the characters and their paths into story arcs that would be pleasing to the lowest common denominator audience. Usually when I’m
disappointed in a movie it’s because they do just that. Once the filmmaker decides to subjugate the truth behind these people to some other idea, they inject themselves into that world and therefore I can no longer believe in that world. The ending of Charlotte Sometimes was written by the characters. Eric, you’ve also mentioned this red state-blue state divide that plays out in Americanese. EB: In 2005, when we were shooting Americanese, I think that might have been the darkest year in our nation’s history. Certainly in terms of the impact our nation has on the world. Americanese is saying, “There’s no sense in returning hate with hate. And bigotry is an ugly thing.” It sounds like politics really informs your decisions. EB: In my life, but not as much in my movies. The reason why Tre is still not finished is that while we were waiting to raise money to finish production, I was working for John Kerry. MS: My husband Joel Viertel, who produced Conventioneers, and I both worked for the Wesley Clark campaign, and then again for Kerry. That was definitely one of the inspirations for the film. And also, being a native New Yorker, being shocked that they were going to hold the national convention in one of the most liberal cities in America. EB: Where there are people of color. MS: I didn’t want to make a film that was a propaganda piece, saying that one side is right. It’s more about sparking a dialogue and sparking questions. A narrative story can do that because you’re pulling people into a love story. So for me, having worked on the campaign, this was my way of contributing to the dialogue ... Recently, we did the Spirit Award screenings. That was the most fun. Right after the film, during the Q&A, the audience got into an argu-
ment and starting shouting across the aisles, “No, that’s not the meaning of the film!” It got to the point where Joel was saying, “Wait, let her finish!” Eric, [you gave what] sounded a little like a stump speech earlier. It made me want to ask a question and maybe start another rumor. Eric, are you ever interested in being a candidate for public office? EB: That’s not a stump speech. What I’m saying is, “You people need to get active.” But I would only run for office if I thought it was the best way I could make a difference. It may be that the best way I can make a difference is to do what I’m doing anyway, which is to make movies, and do what Mora’s doing. Related to that, what kind of beliefs about themselves and the world did you envision your characters having? What beliefs do they have deep within, pulling them into their situation? EB: I think Massey (a character in Conventioneers), in a moment of weakness, did something that was very ugly [in the movie]. That’s something that a lot of us are capable of doing. I think that’s something that the characters in my movies do too. When your heart is broken, sometimes you do things that you later regret. Maybe one day Massey will regret what he did. MS: I equate it to the end of the opera Carmen, when the spurned lover comes back and can’t have her, so he stabs her. In my film, it’s a verbal stab. EB: The most blatant scene in Americanese about racism is the first time Miles (the African American boyfriend) walks through the door. The parents know that with an African American suitor for their daughter, it’s going to be a little bit harder to disguise their prejudice. So they actually go out of their way and overcompensate to be as nice to him as possible. When I described that scene to the actors, I didn’t have to say, “You’re representing a
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more subtle form of racism.” I didn’t even have to say “You’re overcompensating.” I always talked to them in terms that had nothing to do with race ... So they end up fighting over him in the scene, and it first comes across as neither of them doing anything malicious. But at the same time, knowing the context, that the family is re-
ally at odds over his ethnicity, it comes across with that subtext. MS: That’s more playable for the actor too. The most racist person is not thinking, “Gosh, I’m so racist! I’m going to say the following racist thing!” It’s so deep it’s part of their fabric. EB: Right, they don’t realize it when they’re doing it. MS: And that’s true of everything. We never talked about the larger political metaphors with the actors in Conventioneers. It’s just about creating a character that’s truthful. You as the director get to step back and think about all that. How important is using Asian American characters or being part of the Asian American film movement to your futures? MS: The next three projects I’m working on deal with Korean characters and Korean actors. The next film I’m directing is called Georgia Heat, and it’s about a Korean woman married to an American GI in 1968, living in the rural South in a small town, who is struggling to build a house for the Korean son she left behind in Korea, a house she promised him years ago. It’s very much a family story and a love story. The film beyond that is set in Korea with some American characters, but mainly Korean. It’s very exciting to be part of an Asian American movement.
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I have to ask a couple of hapa questions. Have there been any barriers within the Asian American community or outside, in terms of making or presenting your films? EB: My story has been documented about that. There was a big hullabaloo over Charlotte Sometimes. Charlotte Sometimes was a journey. It had a hard time entering Asian American film festivals because I didn’t bother to explain that I was half Asian. MS: The name? EB: Right. MS: I’ve gotten that as well. EB: The first year we were out, all I really wanted to do was be in the Asian American film festivals, and we were getting rejected. In the mainstream festivals, we started to win awards, and that was when—I guess they did a little more research, or whatever—we started getting invitations from Asian American film festivals. So there was a circuitous pathway. I had to gain recognition from the mainstream film festivals before the Asian American film festivals were interested. The other arm of that was that Charlotte Sometimes deals with issues that are very sensitive, most of them sexual in nature, which is probably the hottest button issue for this community. Anyway, a lot of people were upset that a mixedrace Asian American would try to tackle that subject. The fairest way I could characterize their objection was that because I don’t look Asian, I haven’t lived the life that they’ve lived. So I should go tell other stories, not their story. MS: That’s outrageous. I’ve had to explain that I’m half Korean, half Irish, and very proud of the Korean side, proud to be Eurasian and mixed as well. EB: And what about white? MS: And proud to be Irish. EB: Well, okay! (Laughing) I had to learn to say that. And learn to feel that. MS: Definitely. For this film, it’s been exciting to be here as an Asian American filmmaker. But I also have to explain why Conventioneers is here, because it doesn’t have Asian characters. ... But the next three films we’re pushing up that great hill to make are Asian American films. In terms of the hapa thing, it’s one of the things I’m exploring, and these different stories are
about clashing cultures. At the San Diego Asian Film Festival there was a panel discussion. Somebody in the audience went off on a tirade about “perpetuating the idea of the Asian woman with the white man” (in Georgia Heat, Mora’s next film), and how that’s such a problem in Hollywood. I said, “I take a personal objection to that because that’s my family. I have an Irish father and a Korean mother, and that’s my own personal experience.” Scorsese’s making films about Italian Americans, I’m going to be making films about mixed races, mixing cultures, and outsiders, people feeling lost in the community. That’s going to be a recurring theme. The next film may be about a white man with an Asian woman, but the film beyond that is about a Korean man with a white woman. It’s something that’s important to me. I’m not perpetuating a stereotype; I’m exploring individual stories that are relevant to me. Maybe this is a little related. What goes into the decision-making process when you decide to use or not use your middle name? MS: My middle name is “Mi-Ok” which means “beautiful jade,” and it’s also taken from my parents’ names, Michael and Oki. My full name is Mora Mi-Ok Stephens. I didn’t take my husband’s name, so “Stephens” is also important to me. EB: Are you going to continue to use your middle name, now that you’ve started? MS: I think so. EB: There’s an actor in L.A., Eric Steinberg, a very accomplished theater actor. He also appears in films and television. He’s half Korean, half Jewish. He’s maybe a half generation ahead of me. The funniest thing is that in the Asian American artists’ community, Eric Steinberg sounds totally like an Asian name. I admire that Eric was able to achieve that. He has a stage presence, a bigger-than-life presence that leaves an impression on you, [and] he just made “Eric Steinberg” sound Asian. He said to me, “I’m not going to change my name. I’m going to change the way people think. Fuck changing my name.” Do you have an Asian middle name, Eric? EB: I have a Chinese (given) name, but my official middle name is “Anthony.” So that wouldn’t have helped. But I thought about it a little bit when I first got to L.A. Then I talked to Eric Steinberg, and said, “You know what? I’m gonna do the same thing!” (Laughs)≤ Ravi Chandra is a San Francisco-based psychiatrist and freelance writer.
From the Dead Colma: The Musical revives a genre. Writer Esther Lee Photographer P.G. Rafanan Musicals hark back to childhood days and sitting awkwardly with parents, who, unlike you, never seemed to mind viewing a favorite musical for the umpteenth time. Then again, who among us hasn’t secretly hummed a musical’s catchy melody or practiced dance moves from a memorable musical number? Before musicals became ‘uncool’ after the 1950s, it was considered customary for people to break into song. However, today many of us perhaps hold a love/hate relationship with the musical genre.
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What is the fate of the musical genre now, when the overwhelming tendency may be to laugh rather than to join in on the singing? Just when faith in the musical genre was beginning to wane, Colma: The Musical came out of the production hands of director Richard Wong and writer H.P. Mendoza, whose collective vision brings us a feature film that evolves past preconceived pitfalls of former screen musicals and offers a fresh take on the genre. During a phone interview, Wong recalls how
he and Mendoza (who once lived in Colma, CA as a high school student) first met in a San Mateo, CA film class and says, “One of the main things that drew us together was how much we both loved musicals and pretty much nobody else did.” Featured this year on the film festival curcuit, Colma: The Musical, which features over a dozen original songs composed by Mendoza, centers on Rodel, Billy and Maribel—friends and disenchanted high school graduates—living in Colma, a small town just south of San
Francisco, famous for its dead outnumbering the living. The film’s opening song, “Colma Stays,” lists the recent developments of Colma (a new In-N-Out Burger!) and suggests the rest of the world continues on while Colma stays isolated and in a state of limbo. One of the film’s cinematic highlights, the “Crash the Party” sequence— shot in a single take and lasting nearly eight minutes, according to the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival program—follows Maribel as she tries to blend in with college partygoers and persuade the irreverently-humored Rodel and Billy to do the same. The trio later faces struggles and new directions that threaten their friendship: Billy becomes distracted with a new girlfriend and aspirations of an acting career while Maribel continues with her small-town es-
capades of late-night parties and underage drinking. Meanwhile, Rodel deals with the recent breakup with his boyfriend, Michael, and keeps his sexuality a secret from his father. In regards to Billy, Maribel and Rodel, Mendoza notes they are similar to characters in films that he and Wong admire most, who “flaunt their flaws and are ones you still root for.” When asked about the effect of Colma: The Musical upon its audiences, in particular, its Asian American counterparts, Mendoza replies in an email, while in transit screening his film around the US, “I never wanted to write anything that only catered to Asian American audiences. It’s just not me ... While there may be a lack of volume in the Asian American voice in film, there’s a significantly lower percentage of characters like these being represented.”
“Colma was made by Asian Americans and has Asian American actors in lead roles, but I wouldn’t say it is an overtly ‘Asian experience’ film,” Wong writes in an email. In other words, it doesn’t stuff the issues down your throat. He adds, “We deal with very universal topics that are not specifically Asian American.” Thankfully, we haven’t seen the last of H.P. Mendoza and Richard Wong’s collaborative projects as they have already embarked on a sequel to Colma: The Musical, titled Serramonte: The Musical, which will feature Maribel (played by L.A. Renigan) as a full blown lead. To keep tabs on future sightings and accolades of Colma: The Musical, be sure to visit www.colmafilm.com.≤ Esther Lee teaches creative writing at San Francisco’s New College of California and serves as the youth coordinator at the Korean Center, Inc.
Song and dance How does Colma compare with Flower Drum Song? THEY EACH HAVE...
a Multi-Talented Effeminate Guy
longing for home
“I would only break it [the law] a little bit.” (says Mei Li to her father about singing publicly in San Francisco without a license.)
The younger, teenaged brother of Wang Ta (played by James Shigeta) struts his balletic dance moves and singing while sporting a baseball uniform.
Bachelor Wang Ta chases after the modelesque Linda Low but Helen, the seamstress, secretly loves him and so does Mei Li, the singer of flower drum songs.
Mei Li and her father illegally immigrate to the U.S. from China. Mei Li loves San Francisco, the city at which their boat docks.
Mei Li, Linda Low and Helen cater mainly to attracting the attention of men, whether it be singing songs, hemming their jackets or performing seductive dances. And Linda Low just loves “being a girl.”
Even aftering being robbed in front of his own home, Wang Ta’s father still resists storing his money in a bank rather than storing it the traditional Chinese way— under his bed.
Recent high school graduates Rodel, Maribel, and Billy check out a college party and their underage drinking ensues.
Billy pursues his acting career by performing in a play, Friend Joseph.
Each time Billy falls in love, he sings the same tune (just replace old girlfriend’s name with new one in the chorus) while Maribel just wants to get laid and Rodel suffers from a recent breakup.
Billy and Rodel dream of leaving Colma whereas Maribel views Colma nostalgically and can never imagine herself anywhere else. She wonders if, on clear days, folks in San Francisco think of those in Colma.
Maribel usually tells it like it is. She’s thoughtful, tough, and vulnerable at the same time. A complicated character!
Rodel hides the fact he’s gay from his Filipino father for fear of his father’s rejection.
Flower Drum Song (1961)
Colma: The Musical (2006)
Old Values in Modern Times
women who belt
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Asobi Seksu Citrus (Friendly Fire Recordings) www.asobiseksu.com Citrus is the latest effort from Brooklyn’s dreamy pop rock outfit, Asobi Seksu. Aptly titled, the album is a rich sensory experience, ranging from sweet pop lament to bitter dirge. Though wrought from nostalgia and loss, Citrus is heartbreakingly hopeful. It’s a dual tribute to love gone wrong and shoe-gaze pop. “Strawberries,” “Thursday” and “Strings,” evoke early 1960s pop with syrupy vocal harmonies that swim over simple crescendoing basslines and a casual snare drum. At other times, the album pays homage to new wave romanticism with soaring synthesizers that propel vocalist Yuki’s saccharine melodies through layers of guitars and distortion in songs like “New Years” and “Nefi + Girly.” Citrus is a springboard album; however, one hopes—for the sake of independent pop rock—that Asobi Seksu prefers to continue enriching pop from the outside in. Especially, if it means giving us more meticulously crafted, perfectly honed pop. —Jenny Miyasaki
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MEG & DIA
It Came from Beneath the SFC (442 Records) www.unagi442.com
Barrel Men (self-released) www.nativeguns.com
Something Real (Doghouse) www.meganddia.com
The hip-hop world has accepted and elevated Filipinos’ status as DJs but not the Pinoy MC. With Barrel Men, the LA/San Francisco Bay Area Pinoy trio (MC’s Bambu and Kiwi with DJ Phatrick) Native Guns might just shatter that barrier. Native Guns hit hard with revolutionary raps that compare favorably with Dead Prez and The Coup: 1/3 fuck the system, 1/3 Filipino identity, and 1/3 buckin’ shots. The contrasting styles of Bambu and Kiwi (think AK-47 vs. Glock) keep the sound fresh. They even drop some verses in their native Filipino tongues, yet avoid trenching themselves as strictly Pinoy, seeking common ground with all minorities. Even when the flow gets uneven and the stories a little far-fetched, tight production by DJ Rhettmatic (Beat Junkies) and others keeps it moving on what you’re reminded is a freshman effort. All in all, Native Guns has successfully blasted their message; the question is, are we ready to hear it? —Vivek Sridharan
This Korean American sistersfronted Salt Lake City Top 40 karaoke pop rock outfit makes me want to swandive out of my fifth story window and splatter paint my drama queen frown onto the concrete sidewalk. They’re THAT good at what they do. Words such as “I can’t go on...I’m lost and alone...no way to make you stay” over acoustic ballads, post-emo indie riffs, frail bridges that explode into the uplifting chorus (that’s when you jump) topped with polished production, ready this prefab band to open for Avril Lavigne or whoever the #%* is at the top of the pops these days. Hatched and nurtured in karaoke bars, Meg & Dia lure you in with clean, strong voices backed by their very own stencil-traced songs. Please note the beauorgeous falsetto on “Setting Up Sunday” and climb back into your room off of the ledge. It’s Saturday! —Rudy Beredo
It Came From Beneath The SFC is Unagi’s answer to crossover (and transcontinental) R&B/hiphop. Unagi brings the soul of the East Coast to the smoother side of hyphy. He laces the album with lyrics and melody that say life is double-sided but can be pretty damn good when you’re standing on common ground. Saddling up with Linkletterz for the first vocal track “Stay Focused,” you ask whether the rhyme or the beat came first. The two work succinctly as though destined to jump start the lyrical side of the album. The jazzy instrumental, “Rolling Ronnie,” conjures up a sexy retro, yet perverse, dark-side. Finally, he hands over the spotlight to a rhythmic poem delivered by Melina Jones who magically channels Jill Scott and Bahamadia, a delectable duo. Unagi earns East and West Coast props for fusing soulful instrumentals with grinworthy vocal tracks into one tight piece of work. —Felicia Mowll
You could be the lucky winner of a featured CD or Hyphen T-shirt. Send completed surveys by December 1, 2006 to: Hyphen Reader Survey | PO BOX 192002 | San Francisco, CA 94119. Winners will be drawn at random from the recipient pool.
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Year of the Yao
Chan is Missing
Directed by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern
Directed by Wayne Wang
Directed by Kerry Asmussen and Konda Mason
Highlighting the social and cultural obstacles of Yao Ming’s first season with the Houston Rockets, Year of the Yao will have you air dunking on your living room wastebasket. From adjusting to the aggression and speed of NBA play on the court to commercial shoots and cuisine choices off the court, you’re right at Yao’s side. Gems include Charles Barkley kissing a donkey’s ass and Yao mistakenly gulping his vitamins with gin instead of water, blushing rose red just before a commercial shoot. NBA action with Yao Ming—it’s chow funtastic! —Rudy Beredo
One of the first major films to portray Asian Americans in a realistic fashion, Wayne Wang’s ad-libbed, noir-tinged (black and white with tons of voice over) mystery hits all the prime targets—vivid characters, snappy dialogue, a captivating plot and seamless flow. Two cabbies morph into the role of amateur gumshoe when their business associate vanishes. Led on an intriguing sleuth chase through San Francisco’s Chinatown circa 1980, the two are left scratching their heads over why Chan has disappeared. Check out the now/ then fade in/out shots of Chinatown on the extras! —R.B.
Though stationary behind the microphone, Cho hesitates naught when squeezing the trigger, piercing the light of truth through your ignorant skull. One bit starts with “If you laugh your ass off at Will and Grace but are against same sex marriage, fuck you!” Many of her better moments are her impressions—Momma Cho, Grandma Cho, Bjork and John “The Fangornian Ent” Kerry. Extras include an animated rap video, Margaret Cho belly dancing and an Asian American male’s coming out documentary. Unfortunately, some of her serious candid comments are funnier than her material. —R.B.
Mike Relm— Suit Yourself Directed by Mohr Piece Live turntablists are a drag. You stare in awe when they scratch faster than you can talk, but the complete lack of a beat leaves you with a headache. Not so with Mike Relm, who rocks the party, showcases his array of skills and mixes music from every genre like no other. His set is a musical journey, ranging from Simon and Garfunkel/Busta Rhymes mash-ups to deftly juggling “Billie Jean” until the beat is unbearably slow, and then unleashing it in its full fury, to the ecstatic crowd. Hee-hee-hee! —Vivek Sridharan
Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
New York City, 1968. In this watershed year of American politics, Georgette George escapes her rural upstate New York hometown for the big city. Raised in a poor and troubled household as the oldest of six children, George arrives at Barnard College on scholarship, where she is paired up with Dooley Ann Drayton, a wealthy Connecticut-born WASP who had requested a roommate “as different as possible from [her] own.” Self-righteous, dogooder “Ann” longs to be black—“Oh, I wish I could wear an Afro!” she says, examining her own limp hair—and attempts to escape her own privileged background by leaping into student radicalism. George secretly yearns for an alternate life as well: the assuredly square traditional trappings of marriage and family. Sigrid Nunez’s portrait of a friendship is also in part a portrait of a generation, a relentlessly detailed depiction spanning a tumultuous four decades. Nunez’s precise and often wickedly observant prose, written in the form of George’s memoir, takes George from her college days
and career as a magazine editor in the 1970s to raising her children in the 1990s, framed between real-life events such as the post-Vietnam progressive backlash, Woodstock, the Patty Hearst trial, and race and gender politics. But The Last of Her Kind is more than mere retrospective or nostalgic Sixties lit. At the heart of the novel is the intense friendship between George and Ann and their seemingly unbridgeable class differences. Although George has not seen her former roommate for nearly 20 years, she still can’t shake her. Ann, even in the form of the symbolic, endures as a metaphor for a certain kind of life: “For hadn’t Ann done it—held on to her purity and her dream and illusions all those years?... The change of name, the dedication to the creation of a new self, the fierce determination to escape what they were born, the passionate belief in unselfish devotion. The heart.” In Nunez’s story, the last, or the lost, serves as elegy as well as enigma. —Lisa Ko
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R Writer Katinka Baltazar Artist Mik Gaspay
Raquel’s crazy Uncle Pete is crowing, “Keraw, keraw, keroo!” and tapping on the window of her dorm room with the bouquet of twigs that he had brought from the Valley. He had been wrestling with Raquel’s grandma’s dog when he rolled over some leaves in the dirt. They had crunched underneath his back, crackled like the balled-up newspapers he sometimes threw into the wire rim above the garage door of grandma’s house. He would leave the garage door open so that when he missed, the paper balls would shoot straight into his room, where they collected with the shreds of tire rubber, chewed up lollipop sticks, and bent metal scraps that he found in the streets. The prettier things he gave to Raquel, like the twigs he discovered that morning after following the trail of leaves on his hands and knees. “Mark, will you cut that shit out already?” Raquel blearily draws the curtain and opens the window so abruptly that Uncle Pete ducks to avoid the swinging glass panel. Two weeks ago, Mark, wearing his heart, along with his frat letters, on his sleeve had serenaded her with a love song and his guitar. “Who is Mark?” Uncle asks. Raquel wipes the sleep from her eyes. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I thought you were someone else.” Although she still has a hangover from last night’s keg party, she cannot now mistake the sight of her poor uncle standing outside her dorm room window, smoking a cigarette and wearing faded and oil-stained jeans, a crumpled imitation designerbrand tee shirt, and the Ray Bans he had bought at the flea market in San Fernando, the sunglasses he said made him look good enough for Princess Diana. Even though she had passed away, he would not stop wearing them. He used to tell Raquel that wearing them felt better because he could now look up at the Princess in heaven without fear. Ever since he fell from the roof of the old house in the Philippines, looking at the sky gave him vertigo. “Who is this Mark?” Uncle repeats. “You have a boyfriend now. This Mark? You do not have time for your Uncle Pedro anymore? This is why you never visit? This Mark?” “Uncle, please. Can you smoke a little farther from my window?” Raquel turns on the rusty electric fan that Uncle Pete had put together with some of his metal scraps, a steel chain, and the rickety motor of a power drill.
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The fan had been a going-away present. Even though Raquel had not gone far, the Volkswagen Beetle that Uncle was continually working on could make the trip from the Valley to UCLA only if he brought plenty of water in case its old engine overheated. So Uncle had made Raquel promise that she would not forget him and once in awhile visit him at her grandma’s house. “Your mama, she only wants the best for you, and she always gets what she wants. But your Uncle Pedro, he can see the moon. He paints your grandma’s roof blue. Maybe he cannot look at the sky, but he can climb on the roof and fly. This fan, makes the air spin, makes your hair twirl, makes you giddy.” Raquel had laughed. She said she knew; she could feel the wind take her. Uncle Pete was the best man in the world, and no matter what her mother said he was just fine with her. He was not bastos. He did not talk dirty to her, like her mother Lorna said he would. He did not preach about God and faith and ask questions that were only intended between a man and a wife. Did not knock her around the head or grab her by the scruff of the neck as he did with her grandma’s dog. Did not try to brainwash her, or do anything she did not want to do. He did not make her over like a tomboy despite her mother’s warnings. “You want to grow up crazy like your uncle?” said Lorna. “You want to grow up sirang ulo? Hold your head up. When a man looks at you, ignore him. Wait for him to prove himself to you. You deserve a man who will treat you like a princess, like a queen. Look at your uncle. Thinks himself in love with Princess Diana! He is a fool. You better not grow up to be one yourself!”
While Uncle Pete finishes smoking his cigarette, Raquel places the twigs in an empty liquor bottle on the shelf above her desk. Next to the bottle is the shot glass she had received during a social with Mark’s fraternity. It had been Raquel’s first quarter at UCLA, and she was finally away from home, away from curfews and midnight telephone interruptions. So when her suitemates invited her to rush one of the more popular Asian American interest sororities on campus, Raquel shrugged, What the hell. Why not? For three weeks she attached cutouts of the Chi Delt’s Greek letters to her ass with a glue stick and glitter, scored phone numbers from males on her ankles, her shoulder blades, and once above the spoon of her pelvis while she swallowed a body shot and sucked on a lime to chase it down. Mark had licked her lips clean, swished his finger in the shot glass, and traced a line of tequila from her stout sunburned chin to the beaded silver ring piercing her navel. Raquel quickly changes out of her oversized tee shirt and into surf shorts and a tank top, dips her head under the faucet, and gargles with mouthwash. Then she slips into a pair of brown leather sandals and grabs the car keys on her desk. For high school graduation, Lorna had leased Raquel a brand new Acura coupe, which had power door locks, windows, and steering, a black leather interior, and one hundred sixty horses. Lorna had promised to buy it for her if she kept her grades up and did not end up getting pregnant or married. Before Raquel had gone to college, she had assured her mother that everything would be fine. “Don’t trip, Mom. I can take care of myself,” Raquel had said. Lorna had been satisfied with her answer until she discovered the condoms stashed between the box spring and mattress
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of the four-poster bed she had given Raquel for her sweet sixteenth birthday. She accused Raquel of being confrontational, of deliberately leaving the condoms behind to make a statement, make her angry, like the time Raquel came home from her high school graduation party wearing a boy’s sweater, which swished around her hips when she crept up the stairs. Lorna had waited until Raquel entered her bedroom and started to undress before she approached her. “Whose sweater is that? Where is your bra? What, now your virginity is not enough, your boyfriend has to take your lingerie as souvenir? You take everything for granted, Raquel, all the things I give you, the nice, decent clothes I buy you, the fine, gold jewelry I drive down to Chinatown to get just for you. You never appreciate what I give you. Instead, you degrade yourself with cheap lipstick. You lie to me so you can go out with boys! What do you think you are doing? You think you are a woman already? You think the boys like you? They just want to get more of you. That does not make you a woman. Do you want them to call you a whore? Do you think they will respect you more? Is that what you think?” Raquel told her mother to leave her alone. Get out of my room. I don’t want to talk about it. She did not want to explain how cold it had been in the hills above the San Fernando Valley, where the boy had taken her after the party, had lain her down on a mound of earth and promised to keep her warm. How she had waited to hear him say I love you, until she could not hear her ocean anymore, how afterwards she just wanted to play stickmen and matchbox cars with Uncle again. Instead, her mother made her lie in the yard with the brown centers of her breasts facing sunrise. “If you like being dirty so much then sleep in the dirt,” her mother had said. Raquel lay on her back on the grass, stared up at the roof of her mother’s house set against the black moonlit sky, and wondered if her uncle had felt just as alone and ashamed when he fell off the roof of the old house in the Philippines. She fell asleep dreaming that she was floating on her body board, balancing atop a wave, the sun shining on her. She awoke to discover that the warmth had not been a dream. Sometime before morning, her mother had covered her bared breasts with a quilt.
Raquel meets her Uncle outside her dorm room and tells him she is taking him for a drive in her car. “But where are we going?” “You’ll see.” She drives along the Pacific Coast Highway to the spot on the beach where she used to go crabbing with her mother. Her hair was longer then, like her mother’s, black and wavy in the breeze. Lorna would dress Raquel’s hair up in barrettes and pigtails, twisting the braids with fingers as deft and resilient as seaweed sifting through water. Although Lorna bound Raquel’s hair so tight she squirmed, a few strands would drift free. The strands would get caught in the net, the crabs clawing at her hair with their pinchers. When Raquel took up body boarding, she decided that she wanted to feel the water splash on her neck, the rush of waves tussling her short curls. She wanted to have sex on the beach. To arch on the sand like a dolphin, grit between her toes, fingers
wreathing through the kelp that budded the shore. The night she wore the boy’s sweater, she had wanted to take him to the beach, but he told her it was too far, and he just could not wait anymore. When Raquel and her uncle arrive at the beach, Uncle Pete asks, “What are we doing here, Raquel? Where are the trees?” “I want to show you something. There,” Raquel points. “On the rocks. You can only see it when you’re near the edge, because the water hits the rocks just so and sprays you in the face. When the water washes over you, you have to close your eyes like you’re dreaming so that you can see it.” Raquel begins descending the slope toward the beach and reaches for Uncle’s hand so that they will not slip. “The water is so blue!” Uncle hollers. “Like the sky, except that now I’m looking down at it, down at blue, blue, blue!” Uncle releases her hand, picks up a fistful of sand, and showers the air. He lopes around in circles, flailing his arms, until he gets to the rocks. “Easy there, Uncle Pete. You might fall down again.” “No, you have to go fast, zoom like a rocket ship. You cannot be scared. When I stood on the roof, I was scared. That is why God struck me. He was testing me, daring me to look at his face, but I could not face him. I covered my eyes, and I fell down. Now I have to cover my eyes all the time. He punished me, you see? I could not even look at the Princess with my own eyes. And now that she is gone, I will never have a chance. This Mark, your boyfriend, does he look at you with his own eyes?” 0 “Uncle Pete, he’s not my boyfriend.” “Well, then, he should not be looking at you at all.” Uncle Pete squats on the edge of the rocks. “Do you think your Uncle
Pedro is crazy? I get headaches, and sometimes I have visions from God, but I am not crazy. Your mother, she tells me I should change my clothes, brush my teeth, wash my hands! But that is not dirt she sees. That is not bad. That is wrestling with the dog, climbing trees.” Raquel sits down next to him and places his hand in a shallow pool of water beside them on the rocks. “There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of balance either, Uncle Pete. Feel how good the water is?” Uncle immerses his other hand in the pool, spreads his fingers out, and then rubs his hands together, as if he were cleansing them. “Look, there’s a wave coming.” Raquel gestures at the horizon. Uncle squints. “What am I going to see? How will I know what it is when I see it?” “It’s a secret,” Raquel says. “You have to be real quiet, and you can’t tell anyone, or else you won’t be able to see it.” Raquel gathers Uncle to his feet, and together they stand and wait for the ocean. Uncle Pete closes his eyes and faces the sky. The sun glances on Raquel’s brow, over her chest, crosses her knees. She body boards in rings around the waves, while Uncle blasts a rocket ship from the blue roof of grandma’s house to the moon.≤ Katinka Baltazar is the author of Songs of Discovery, and the editor and publisher of www.fiercewomen.com, a women’s community website. She studied creative writing at San Francisco State University.
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