asian hair offenses | zines | middle east rock | nancy kwan | the future of farms
ASIAN AMERICA UNABRIDGED
Far East Movement in Issue 22 | winter.10 | $4.95
Sang Lee Farms of Peconic, NY, is one of many Asian American farms that sells its entire crop directly to consumers, bypassing supermarkets altogether (p. 28)
04 Editorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Note 05 Contributors 08 Events
Far East Movement: The Los Angeles hip-hop group soars up the charts. By Nicki Sun
22 Film star: Masashi Niwano steps into a new role at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. By Angela Pang
TAKEOUT | Stuff to Take Home 10 COIF FORCE: Jules Chan wants to eliminate your bad hair days. By Margot Seeto
F.O.B. | Front of the Book 12 lazy susan: Bay Area Asian American group takes Parkour to new heights. By Ken Shen Robinson 13 RECIPE: How to throw a grownup prom. By Annette Lee 14
Popped: With emerging representation in film and TV, can we say weâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve made it? By Dino-Ray Ramos
FEATURES 26 saving face: Asian Americans are increasingly opting for plastic surgery that enhances their natural look instead of altering their ethnic appearance. By Jennifer Bagalawis-Simes 28
Back to the Future of Farming: Financial and cultural survival on three Asian American family farms. By Nina Kahori Fallenbaum
Food 36 menu to go: Catering and the roots of a new Filipino American cuisine. By Paola Rodelas
REDUX | Another Look at Media 16 MAKE MAGAZINE: In the digital media era, DIY publications are thriving. By Lisa Wong Macabasco
COVER CREDITS: photographer Colin Brennan | photo assistant and behind the scenes photographer Antonio Bolfo | photo assistant Kwabena Brenya | Art director Ursula Liang | styling assistant Ray Rogers
02 HYPHEN Fall.10
Space is the place (p. 38)
Up close with actress Nancy Kwan (p. 43)
Paradise found: A photographer’s everyday is her audience’s out-of-the-ordinary. By Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik
FILM 43 who’s that girl?: A new documentary on actress Nancy Kwan’s life prompts a revisit to her seminal role as Suzie Wong. By Cathlin Goulding
BOOKS 46 Hit the Road and Go East: Two new novels take us on the long journey back home. By Abigail Licad 48
Top Three: Samrat Upadhyay on the books he continues to revisit.
Rock of ages (p. 50)
You've come a long way, Data (p. 14)
reviews 54 CDS: Music reviews 55 DVDs: Movie reviews
Fiction 56 Annie hall, annie hall: A movie on TV spurs a look back at a dysfunctional relationship. By Wakako Yamauchi
First Person 62 Reflections of War and a Makeshift Altar: A Marine learns about tolerance in the Middle East. By Peter J. Swing
Comic 65 Throwback By Louie Chin
49 True Rock of Ages: Two Middle Eastern bands flee danger, find refuge in NYC. By Margot Seeto 52 Passport to the Unexplored: Emi Meyer forges new paths in jazz pop. By Emily Leach
Read the Hyphen blog, back issues and more at hyphenmagazine.com
HYPHEN winter.10 03
The Way We Were Far East Movement is one of 2010’s hottest music acts, but we took the hip-hop quartet on a G6 back in time to reminisce about their beginnings, and we photographed them for the cover of The Throwback Issue of Hyphen. Music writer Nicki Sun caught up with the guys in FM while they were on tour in New York. She talked to them about where their name came from and how growing up in multicultural Los Angeles influenced their music. And, photographer Colin Brennan and art director Ursula Liang and their crew got some great shots of Far East Movement for the cover and our interview. Farming is one of the most enduring professions and the chang-
Cover Shoot: A sneak peek behind the scenes
04 HYPHEN winter.10
ing marketplace is leading some farmers to sell their fruits and vegetables the old-fashioned way: directly to consumers. Food Editor Nina Kahori Fallenbaum surveys how some Asian American farmers are using old techniques and applying them in this age of organic produce and eating locally sourced food. The Internet is making print media look so 20th century. But zines — those underground, under the radar publications created in someone’s kitchen — are experiencing a renaissance in the digital age. Managing Editor Lisa Wong Macabasco talks to Asian American zine publishers who are sticking to their dead-tree ways. In Film, Books Editor Cathlin Goulding previews To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey, a documentary that traces the career of actress Nancy Kwan and the 50th anniversary of her breakout role in The World of Suzie Wong. If you’ve been out of high school for a while, thinking about those days always evokes a little nostalgia. If you missed your prom or it was a night to forget, our Recipe gives you the ingredients for a reset on a drive down memory lane. Before taking that trip, take a look at some of the other offerings in this issue, including our Books, Music and Front of the Book sections, and our feature about Asian Americans who undergo plastic surgery, not to look white but to enhance their ethnic identity. This is Hyphen’s 22nd edition and like our zine brethren, we’re still printing away but adapting to tell the evolving story of Asian America.
Harry Mok Editor in Chief
Photographer Antonio Bolfo (www.antoniobolfo.com)
Photo by jeremy Keith villaluz
By Lisa Wong Macabasco
Photographer Myleen Hollero took Iranian rock band Hypernova to new heights for this issue, shooting them impromptu on a New York rooftop accessed via a harrowing climb through a bathroom window. The San Francisco-based photographer’s work has been published in Giant Robot, Momentum and Edible magazines, and she previously shot the all-Asian drag queen troupe the Rice Rockettes and zine artists-turned-video-game-designers for Hyphen. Favorite throwbacks: Hypercolor clothes and mixtapes. Throw them back: mom jeans.
she wrote for Hyphen was about Asians who celebrate multiple wedding ceremonies, and since then, she has consistently written some of the magazine’s most fascinating stories, going under the hood at a Filipina-owned body shop, roaming vineyards with Asian American winemakers and investigating the Asian American prison population. As Features editor, she has raised the bar for the magazine’s long-form journalism. Now, she is about to embark on another ambitious project: motherhood. One lesson learned from her years with Hyphen: “Never believe a writer when they tell you they are about to file their story.”
“Asian American farmers can be badasses,” said Antonio Bolfo of his observations while photographing Sang Lee Farms in Long Island, NY, for this issue’s feature on farms selling directly to consumers. The only Asian farmers he had seen prior were from old Asian movies that depicted “poor, helpless farmers being beaten up by thugs, only to be protected by disgruntled samurai.” He came away with a deep respect for farming, and, what’s more, Bolfo said, “Their stuff is actually delicious. There is this type of yellow carrot that tastes like candy.” The New York City-based photographer has been published in The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Time. Favorite throwbacks: film photography and Sega. Throw them back: Horrible CGI films based on great ‘80s and ‘90s cartoons.
“I was watching Annie Hall on television, and I couldn’t figure out how this gorgeous young woman could go for Woody Allen,” Wakako Yamauchi said of the inspiration behind her short story in this issue, “Annie Hall, Annie Hall.” Yamauchi was born in 1924 in California’s Imperial Valley. In 1942, she and her family were interned with thousands of other Japanese Americans in the Arizona desert. Following the war, Yamauchi began writing fiction. Her short story “And the Soul Shall Dance” was published in the groundbreaking Asian American anthology Aiiieeeee! (1974) and later adapted into an award-winning play, beginning Yamauchi’s long career as an acclaimed playwright. She is the author of two collections: Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994) and Rosebud (2010). Favorite throwbacks: Truman Capote and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
Stephanie Kubo watched the 1985 cult film The Goonies for the first time as research for her illustration in this issue (accompanying the debut of Dino-Ray Ramos’ pop culture column). The Oakland, CAbased illustrator agreed with Ramos’ argument that today’s Asian American actors playing roles that aren’t explicitly Asian should be considered a step forward: “As much as I liked Short Round, I don’t think I’d be too happy if all Asians played roles like that now.” Kubo’s work has been featured in Blanket and M.E. Design magazines. Favorite throwbacks: hammer pants and Sailor Moon. For this issue’s story on the popularity of print zines in a digital age, Malaka Gharib drew herself, making her food zine, The Runcible Spoon, at her desk: “Well, a very skinny, punk version of me,” she said with laughter. The Washington, D.C.-based illustrator also created a sidebar on how to create your own zine, which she’s been doing since age 14. Her next big illustration assignment is a flier for a “bulb bash” (celebrating flowers that grow from bulb seeds) at her neighborhood community garden. Favorite throwbacks: Setting a table according to Emily Post’s rules and wearing slips. Keep it back: wearing camo print. Features Editor Pia Sarkar brought over 13 years of newspaper and business journalism experience (at the San Francisco Chronicle, thestreet.com, The Bergen Record and The Providence Journal) with her when she joined Hyphen as Redux editor in 2007. The first story
In almost a year and a half, Yumi Wilson has cultivated the First Person section into some of the most riveting reading in these pages. She is most proud of working with writer Aly Morita on her moving piece in memoriam of her father, actor Pat Morita. Wilson, a former reporter and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and now an assistant professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, will be stepping down from her post after this issue. “I’ve learned that it takes a village to create a really good publication — and you have it!” Favorite throwbacks: bell bottoms and Sugar Hill Gang. Keep them back: “I used to spike my bangs, wear huge neon earrings and carry a seethrough plastic purse. Hello!” Since joining the staff in early 2009, Front of Book Editor Maveric Vu has nurtured the Lazy Susan section into the perfect assemblage of idiosyncratic amuse-bouches. “I tried to bring stories to Hyphen readers that I personally found interesting: quirky, geeky and queer perspectives,” said Vu, who has reported for Hyphen on Hollywood’s problematic casting of The Last Airbender, Asian American car designers and how Asian Americans have come to dominate the hiphop dance scene — and he’s done it all with indomitable sass and style. Sadly, Vu will be taking a break from Hyphen after this issue. “An old saying goes that journalists write the first draft of history,” he said. “I am proud to have been a contributor in the history that Asian Americans are creating for themselves.”
HYPHEN winter.10 05
(photos shown actual size)
’s zine aga are M u q x7 in 7 rdelli S ed atur t Ghira e f was vent a e Box gh e City” u a L h t e f h T st o “Be
Issue 22 Winter 2010 Printed in the USA
Publisher Lisa Lee
Hyphen 17 Walter U. Lum Place San Francisco, CA 94108 hyphenmagazine.com
Editor in Chief Harry Mok Managing Editor Lisa Wong Macabasco Creative Director Erica Jennifer Loh Jones Editorial Editors Sita Bhaumik (Artwell, Takeout), Momo Chang (DVDs), Nina Kahori Fallenbaum (Food), Cathlin Goulding (Books), Caroline Kim-Brown (Fiction), Abigail Licad (Books), Kimberly Lien (Front of the Book), Pia Sarkar (Features), Jericho Saria (Associate Editor), Margot Seeto (Music), Maveric Vu (Front of the Book), Yumi Wilson (First Person), Akito Yoshikane (Redux) Contributing Editors Annette Lee, Angela Pang, Dino-Ray Ramos Copy Chief Kimberly Lien Copy Editors Akiko Ichikawa, Pauline Moc, Leanna Yip Editorial Assistant Jimmy La Creative Director of Photography Andria Lo Photo Editor Jessica Lum Editorial Designers Dalen Gilbrech, Lawrence Guzman, Bernice J. Kim, Jennifer Kim Van Nguyen Design Assistant Jennifer Kim Van Nguyen Article Ender Billy Hong Cover Graffiti Luke Patterson Business Personnel Manager Lanlian Szeto Legal Counsel Hung Chang Accountant Jay Chi Secret Agent Annette Lee Publisher’s Assistant Stephanie Chan Development Coordinator Irene Kao Circulation Manager Amy Lee Subscriptions Manager Stephanie Chan Marketing Events Director Lanlian Szeto Events Manager Christina Dou Mr. Hyphen Co-Chairs Clay Ngo, Dian Pan Mr. Hyphen Sponsorship Manager Christopher Jocson Advertising Manager Mark Power Community Outreach Manager Willa Hu Community Outreach Coordinator Andrew Pai Marketing Associates Lorraine De Guzman, John Kiyasu, Bena Li Production Director Mike Lee Business Copy Editor Jackie Huang
WEB Web Director Sean Aquino Designers and Developers Christine Vilar, Nina Reyes Tech Consultant My Nguyen SEO Consultant William Wong Techie Andy Kuo Blog Editors Sylvie Kim, erin Khue Ninh Bloggers Saif Ansari, Cynthia Brothers, Momo Chang, Winston Chou, Ken Choy, Theresa Celebran Jones, E. Tammy Kim, Claire Light, Alvin Lin, Dot Lin, Priyanka Mantha, Mic Nguyen, Jennifer Thúy Vi Nguyen, Catherine Shu, Joy Tang, Dexter Lee Thomas, Catherine A. Traywick, Victoria Yue Board of Directors Samara Azam, Janice Lee, Chia-Chi A. Li, Wil Wong, Bernice Yeung Founding Editor Melissa Hung Special thanks to D’Lo, I.W. Group, DotAsia, Ursula Liang Subscriptions email@example.com Subscriptions cost $18 for four issues. Hyphen is published three times a year. Why so few times? Because we are volunteer-run and we all have day jobs, OK? Please note that subscription payments are not refundable. Please also note that Hyphen cannot replace issues lost due to unreported address changes. Please update your mailing address to ensure uninterrupted delivery of your magazines by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Ad Sales email@example.com Letters and Story Queries firstname.lastname@example.org Other Stuff email@example.com Hyphen is fiscally sponsored by Independent Arts & Media Hyphen is distributed by Armadillo (# 310.693.6061) and Ubiquity (# 718.875.5491) ©2010 Hyphen. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without the publisher’s permission, except for review purposes. So there.
feed ours too!
Chu wears his crown proudly.
Mr. Hyphen 2010 Kyle Chu, left, takes the crown from 2009 winner Pahole Sookkasikon.
Contestants Ryan Takemiya, Anthony Kim, Chu, and Antonio Moya.
Mr. Hyphen 2010 Defies Stereotypes Kyle Chu wins crown and $1,000 for Center for Asian American Media. Writer Cynthia Brothers Photographer Andre Nguyen Kyle Chu’s electrifying performance and personal account about how Asian American stereotypes have impacted his life catapulted him over four other contestants to take the Mr. Hyphen crown for 2010. About 400 people packed the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco on Nov. 6 to ogle and root for the five Mr. Hyphen contestants and the nonprofits they represented: Jeremy “Kilusan” Bautista (violence-prevention and mentorship program United Playaz), Chu (Center for Asian American Media), Anthony Kim (Korean Community Center of the East Bay), Antonio Moya (San Francisco’s Mabuhay Health Center) and Ryan Takemiya (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum). San Francisco-native Chu, who identifies as a queer fourth-generation Chinese American, took the crown and sash and won over the judges with his sex appeal, shimmy shake and tenor saxophone skills. “I’m feeling so many things: I’m awestruck; I’m so shocked; I had a lot of fun,” Chu said. “The most important thing is to be yourself and truly yourself.” One of the most powerful moments of the evening was Chu’s account of being called a “Chink” by someone he was dating and how it propelled him to become active in media and Asian American studies to subvert race, gender and sexuality stereotypes. In addition to the glory that comes with being Mr. Hyphen, Chu won the $1,000 prize for San Francisco’s very own Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) to support his passion for the arts and media empowerment. Chu took the reins from Mr. Hyphen 2009 Pahole Sookkasikon, who was in attendance to pass the crown. Comedian D’Lo, who also hosted the show last year, started the evening by introducing the contestants, clad in matching warmup gear. Mr. HyGo to hyphenmagazine.com to see videos, photos phen hopefuls and more coverage of the Mr. Hyphen contest. then flexed their
08 HYPHEN winter.10
skills in the talent competition, which included Takemiya’s Power Point presentation on API identity and dreams, Kim’s soulful rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and Chu’s drag performance to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Contestants next fielded questions from the panel of judges that included International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and CAAM Chair Dipti Ghosh, Campbell, CA, mayor Evan Low and filmmaker Alice Wu of 2004’s Saving Face. Candidates answered questions about which superheroes they would be (Spiderman and Japanese anime’s Sailor Moon got their props), what they would cook to impress a date (spam musubi and adobo were in the mix) and described a defining moment in their lives as Asian American men. D’Lo facilitated while impersonating his Sri Lankan mother, dressed in a stunning red and gold sari. The heat cranked up a few notches with a fashion show by San Francisco Bay Area designers Cecilia Aragon and Estrella Tadeo. After workin’ it in couture menswear, the contestants whipped the crowd into a frenzy with a special sleepwear segment. Hello, boxer briefs and rocket-ship onesies! The judges awarded first runner-up to Bautista, for his commanding spoken word and B-boy journey through a hip-hop-influenced youth in San Francisco’s Mission District. He also presented a heartfelt description of his personal hero, Filipino American activist Al Robles. “I feel blessed, it was a great opportunity for all of us to get together and share our talents with the community. ... The competition was fierce, but at the same time, there was a spirit of togetherness and brotherhood that really epitomizes the essence of this event,” Bautista said. Cynthia Brothers is a blogger for hyphenmagazine.com. This is her first story for Hyphen’s print version.
Hyphen on the scene Out and about across Asian America.
Jay Jao (mochamonkey.com): 1,4 Andre Nguyen (takenbyandre.com): 2,3 Hannah Suh (hannahsuh.com): 5, 6
Hyphen Issue 21: The New Legacy Issue Release Party 1. MC Rocky Rivera 2. dance crew Main Stacks and 3. MC Kero One rocked San Francisco's Mighty nightclub on September 17. 4. Hyphen staffer Clay Ngo with Ting Meinu. Plate by Plate San Francisco: Project by Project’s First Annual Tasting Benefit 5. Actress Jamie Chung and 6. The Amazing Race’s Tammy Jih were among the many who enjoyed delicious treats from top Bay Area restaurants at Terra on September 18, with proceeds benefiting APA Family Services.
HYPHEN winter.10 09
Coif Force Chances are, you’re at odds with your hair: The two common types of Asian hair are thick and coarse or fine and slippery. Both are difficult to cut and style, one being unruly and full of life and the other limp and lacking body. You’ve also probably had enough of hairstylists taking on your mane without understanding it enough to give you a great crop and style. Step into San Francisco’s Dekko Salon for a cut by Jules Chan, an English expatriate of Chinese descent who established herself in the city after obtaining an O-1 visa for an Alien of Extraordinary Ability, for which one unusual requirement is to show documentation of winning the likes of a Nobel or Pulitzer prize. A genius visa for a hairdresser? Chan, co-owner of Dekko, is that good, and she’s garnered a large clientele of Asian Americans who rejoice in finally finding someone who not only understands their hair, but also combines boundless creativity with thoughtful consideration of one’s personal style. Chan, who has taught and styled hair all over the world for nearly 30 years, isn’t just settling with giving Northern Californians of all ethnicities amazing cuts. She’s always envisioned a line of products for Asian locks — something that didn’t exist until she created her own Juju Chan line that boasts the slogan “A Product Line Designed with Asian Hair in Mind.” “People with other hair types can also use it,” she says. “This just means that each product will be created to work best for Asian hair with certain textures. The styling cream will be thicker and stronger to give straight thick hair some hold and texture, but the volumizer will be light enough to give hold and volume to thin Asian hair.” While the line has yet to be fully released, the first product out, the Texture Powder Styler, has already received rave reviews on beauty and fashion blogs. This dry shampoo absorbs excess oils,
010 HYPHEN winter.10
but unlike baby powder (which many women have used to combat oily hair) adds volume and texture. It’s a great midday pick-me-up for a hairstyle that’s gone through the hustle and bustle of a busy day. The powder can also be key for mornings when you’ve slept past your alarm and don’t have time to shower and fully style your tresses: Just give them a quick tousle with the powder, and you’ll look fresh. Next is a styling cream that gives messy body and texture, then a smoothing cream for calming down thick, wiry hair after blowdrying. Down the road, there will be volumizers, hairsprays, curl enhancers, pastes, styling waxes and straightening lotions, and Chan hopes to eventually add men’s styling and natural products. If you can’t get a coveted hair appointment with Chan, her blog serves as a solid substitute, chock-full of tips for Asian cuts, as well as a chronicle of funky and interesting styles that the Englishwoman comes across during her travels back to the UK and other places around the world. Getting yourself and your roots pumped up is now just a click away. Margot Seeto, Hyphen’s Music Editor who currently lives in Honolulu, has fine and slippery hair.
Portrait by andria lo. pr oduct ph oto by patrick gonzales rafanan .
Jules Chan wants to eliminate your bad hair days. Writer Margot Seeto
Jules Chan’s Top Five Hair Offenses Photographer Patrick Gonzales Rafanan
1. Overly razored hair, leaving a very thin wispy look — on both guys and gals. Sorry, but guys look worse: They end up looking like Japanese pop stars gone wrong. Very sexy — NOT! 2. Tight, frizzy granny perms. Ladies hoping to make their hair look thicker by perming it tight and curly end up looking like an explosion went off on top of their heads. 3. Guys who bleach their hair, and it ends up looking brassy and yellow. I call this Mong Kok Hair, or Triad Hairstylist Hair! 4. Asian mullets — or any mullets in fact (excluding the cool, trendy ones, of course). Über short sides, short square tops and long backs — ugh! 5. I call them Taiwanese fringes; you might know them as ’80s mall bangs. A small slice of hair comes forward, separated by a part, while the rest of the fringe behind it is combed back to stand up high and then falls over to one side.
Jules Chan’s Top Five Asian Celebrity Hairstyles Alexa Chung Cool without looking like she’s trying too hard. Maggie Cheung With her Asian Afro, she looks fabulous! Keanu Reeves Cool as a cucumber with any haircut. Takeshi Kaneshiro Long, sexy Hero hair. Faye Wong For her different trendy looks, we have to give her credit.
Visit jujuchan.com to purchase the Texture Powder Styler and to read more about Jules Chan’s observations about the hair world.
HYPHEN winter.10 011
A CONCRETE PLAYGROUND Bay Area Asian American group takes Parkour to new heights Writer Ken Shen Robinson Photographer Seng Chen ADMIT IT. When you watched your first Jackie Chan movie as a kid, you probably proceeded to mimic the same gravity-defying stunts off of your living room furniture. But while your reenactment may not have progressed beyond the privacy of your home, the growing Parkour community in the San Francisco Bay Area is perfecting environment-based movement into an art form. “Did you see that?,” a bystander says as Albert Kong, a six-year Parkour veteran, sprints and uses the flat face of a stone planter to launch himself several feet to a ledge. “He looks like a character in a video game.” I can see the reverence for classic Hong Kong action films as I watch Kong and oth-
into buildings when we’re just kind of playing and training,” Kong says. Parkour was originally developed as a movement style for the French army in the early 1900s that promoted quick, ag-
Marisa Lee in the midst of a wall climb.
Albert Kong does a "tic tac" off a wall.
er Asian American “traceurs” — those who practice Parkour — at a jam session on the University of California, Berkeley, campus. “Good spots tend to be universities and schools.” says Kong. “They have a lot of diverse, interesting architecture that’s close by.” These traceurs see more than just a walkway or a balcony — they see a route for escape. “I grew up watching Jackie Chan movies,” Kong says. “The ways that he interacts with his environment to complete his purpose of getting away … [is] inspiring to me.” Yet, outside of the context of a movie, Parkour’s practical applications raise some concerns. “People have the misconception that Parkour is kids learning how to break
012 HYPHEN winter.10
ile movements and quick thinking. By the 1990s, Le Parkour morphed from a military discipline to a way of life. The current generation of Asian American traceurs cite YouTube as their main initial exposure to the sport, and online community forums play a key role in organizing meets and discussions. “I saw it and I was like, ‘This is exactly what I want to learn how to do.’” says Kong, who is known as “lethalbeef” online. The Bay Area Parkour community continues to grow, largely because of a welcoming environment for new participants. These aren’t egotistical hotshots trying to show off, but rather a group that supports and pushes each other to the next level. “[Kong] is really great and friendly,” says Justin Tang, a martial arts enthusiast who joined the San Francisco Parkour community more than a year ago. “He takes the time and helps you learn.”
Marisa Lee, another recent recruit, was first attracted to the physical and mental challenge that Parkour brings. “It’s great for building confidence,” she says. “I would really like to see more girls come out and explore Parkour as an option to going to the gym.” Lee says that only one in 10 traceurs is a woman. Jam sessions are long and the physical demands are rigorous. Yet, these Asian American traceurs are reluctant to call it a day. They stick around to discuss techniques and trade video footage of successful stunts. This group has moved far beyond amateur living room stunts to lay the foundation for a growing Asian American Parkour community. With their eyes to the concrete landscape, the possibilities are endless. Ken Shen Robinson is a San Francisco–based editor specializing in online media.
All photos shot around UC Berkeley.
Marisa Lee, Albert Kong and Jodie Rodriguez vaulting over rails.
Making Better Memories How to throw a grownup prom Writer Annette Lee Illustrator Emilio Santoyo Did your parents forbid you to go the Spring Fling because the ACTs, the SAT fallback, were the next day? Did your actual prom experience leave you wanting something ... different? Never fear. With this handy guide, you can plan the Senior Ball/Junior Prom/Sock Hop you never had — with the added bonus in that you can now legally spike the punch. WHAT YOU NEED • Crêpe paper • Balloons • Evite/Facebook event post • Sound system and Pandora • Thrift store tux or dress (ruffles optional) • 100 of your closest friends/neighbors • Crowns • Hard liquor (optional, but recommended — Boone’s Farm works well) Invite Send out an Evite/Facebook event request two to three weeks in advance. Yes, back in our day, there was no such thing as an Evite or Facebook, but it’s still cheaper than sending written invitations and classier than tweeting your 100 closest friends. Want to go really retro? Log in to that Friendster account and invite people that way! (But be sure to also send them a Facebook invite, too.) Decorate Don’t let a lack of funds get you down. Pick a theme. Put the PI in API and go “Under the Sea,” “Tropical Paradise” or “Honoring the Fighting 442nd Regimental Combat Team” (that would be the all-Asian American unit that fought in WWII. Thanks Wikipedia!). Or, perhaps you are still recovering from the crippling case of the nerds you had in high school. How about Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica? It’s cool to be nerdy now. So go to the dollar store and stock up on tissue paper, balloons, plastic spaceships, storm troopers, etc. Dress Reliving your high school (not-so) glory days is only sadder if you actually buy a new/nice outfit. Don’t go down that path — go to the thrift store. Buy something with lots of ruffles in pastels. This goes for both women and men.
Photos There is no prom without the posed prom photo. How else are you to remember how fat/skinny/broken out you were? Use a paper tablecloth and tape it to a wall as a backdrop. Affix prom-themerelated items to the backdrop — plastic fish, tinfoil stars, the aforementioned storm troopers, whatever goes with your chosen theme. People can use their own cameras to capture these moments forever. Music Hook up your speakers to your laptop. Log in to your Pandora account and find an ’80s station. Your Ride Make an entrance and rent a Hummer limo for the night. This may be your last chance to rent a vehicle that is the product of the unholy mating of a Hummer and another Hummer. Even if you do decide to go frugal and just rent the standard stretch limo, both will give you ample room to lose your virginity all over again, or for the very first time. With all these things in place, all that’s left is to heavily spike the punch and yourself, wait for your guests to arrive and, finally, have the prom you deserved — or at least get drunk trying.
HYPHEN winter.10 013
014 HYPHEN winter.10
I See Asian People With emerging representation in film and TV, can we say we’ve made it? Writer Dino-Ray Ramos Illustrator Stephanie Kubo In 1985, I was taken on a treasure-seeking adventure with Mikey, What’s different now is that Brand, Mouth, Chunk, Andy, Stef, Sloth, the Fratellis and Data. If all of the aforementioned acyou are an ‘80s child, are drawn to retro cult appeal or just like tors are being cast for their the act of doing the truffle shuffle, then you know that I’m talking acting chops and not because about the legendary film The Goonies. of their Asian-osity. They are Data (who was played by the decade’s go-to Asian boy, Jona- regular people who happen to than Ke Quan) was the only “ethnic” one of the bunch. From the be Asian: finally, a healthy representation via a prismatic variety of first moment he spoke, I could barely understand him because his Asian Americans. Good for us, right? diction was in perfect broken English. Progressive, fists-of-fury Asians might reproach this lovable character as a puppet in an Earlier this year, I, in a fit of nostalgia, purchased seasons one and Asian Minstrel Show. I, on the other hand, see this role as ground- two of 21 Jump Street. The purchase felt like a no-brainer (a steal breaking — if not for the fact that the character wasn’t as blatantly at $19.99), and it, much like Padma Lakshmi’s role in the 2001 offensive as a Long Duk Dong might have been, then because movie Glitter, was an enlightening moment for me. Data was an integral part of what would become a classic enBesides being a super-awesome show about undercover ofsemble cast. ficers fighting crime in troubled high schools, the major sell of During my years as a spoken-word militant, I would get my 21 Jump Street was Johnny Depp (by the way, it’s still his finpanties in a wad when it came to this kind of stuff. I don’t know est work). The more I watched the show, though, the more I noif I’ve become soft to the portrayal ticed Dustin Nguyen as Officer of Asians in American entertainment “I don’t know if I’ve become soft to the portrayal Harry Ioki. He dressed in acidor if Asian Americans are becom- of Asians in American entertainment or if Asian washed Z. Cavariccis, rad blazing more commonplace on the big ers with huge shoulder pads Americans are becoming more commonplace and small screen — either way, I feel and occasionally sported the on the big and small screen — either way, I feel that we have little reason to comtrendy dangling feather earring. that we have little reason to complain. ” plain. Things could be far worse: There may have been one or Outsourced could get picked up for two instances when the show a full season … oh, wait. What I mean is that maybe we should was splashed with an “Umm, they’re forgetting their Asian viewput down the picket signs, relax and just enjoy the work of our ers” moment here or there — but they didn’t feel offensive enough brethren — without getting too comfortable. We can’t forget about to remember. Nguyen was just one of the guys, as much of a the looming K-Town reality series, for example. By the time this “dude” as Peter DeLuise and Depp. Like his colleagues, Nguyen’s column goes to print, it may already have proven to be a cultural was a character that helped define a generation: He was cool, in touchstone of cringe-worthy stereotypes causing irritable bowel style and dealt with realistic teen issues. Why wasn’t he the pop syndrome. On the plus side, it will show that Asian Americans can culture poster child for the late ‘80s? His character’s name was be fame whores like the rest of them, breaking out of that model- Harry Truman: You can’t get more American than that. what-was-that-phrase-again myth. In a weird, screwed-up way, it Data from The Goonies may forever dominate as emblematic could be a win-win situation. of Asian Americans in mainstream ‘80s pop culture, but maybe we A small pack of Asian American actors have certainly added should make room on the shelf for people like Dustin Nguyen. God relevance to Hollywood: Margaret Cho, Aziz Ansari, Danny Pudi, knows it’s better than being Long Duk Dong’d. Mindy Kaling, Ken Jeong and the list goes on — especially with some of the current hits on television. Glee has struck token-Asian Dino-Ray Ramos is a freelance writer, journalism instructor, and pop culture gold with Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum, Jr., and Hawaii Five- junkie based in San Francisco. He is a contributor to the San Francisco O is relishing in its success with Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park in Chronicle, 8Asians.com and TheFinerDandy.com, his own blog of high and lowbrow culture. two of the four lead roles.
HYPHEN winter.10 015
Make Magazine In the digital media era, DIY publications are thriving. Writer Lisa Wong Macabasco Illustrator Malaka Gharib When Malaka Gharib, founder of the Washington, DC, zine The Runcible Spoon, is told that her publication has been spotted in the halls of the federal government, she chuckles in disbelief: “Really?” Her reaction is understandable: The zine, focused on new and healthy eating in the district, collages adorable illustrations and magazine cutouts alongside articles titled “Food So Fresh It Should Be Slapped: Celebrating the Season’s Best at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market” and recipes for homemade mustard. That this free eight-page, black-and-white photocopied rag would be read by the nation’s stodgy power brokers seems dubious. After all, the 24-year-old created the zine to be decidedly egalitarian: “We’re about democratizing the DC food scene and bringing it — quite literally — to the streets,” the mission statement reads. I later discover Treasury (where I’d heard The Runcible Spoon has been spotted) is not only a government department to which you pay your taxes. It’s also a vintage boutique in the district’s hip U Street district where Gharib lays out copies. The populist ethic of The Runcible Spoon is a historic hallmark of zines, loosely defined as small-circulation, cheaply produced independent publications that are often free or low cost. Zines exploded in the 1980s, due to the proliferation of copy centers and affordable computers. The early ’90s saw another resurgence of the medium, when young feminists in particular used it as a tool for activism. This was all, however, before the World Wide Web juggernaut killed many a printed word.
016 HYPHEN winter.10
As many publications today flee for the digital hills, Gharib’s fetching year-old zine is a hopeful sign that not only is print not dead, but, as many in the scene attest, it’s thriving. Statistics on zines are hard to pin down, partly because of the informal and transitory nature of the genre, but many enthusiasts say the field is doing just fine in the 21st century. If anything, zinesters say the Web has resparked interest in their medium by making it easy for readers to find zines across the world to match their interest: Rick Kitagawa, a zine maker, notes that up to 75 percent of his sales are international, thanks to the Web. Some are even dipping their toes into the digital publishing world by means of websites such as issuu.com that allow entire issues to be posted in their original format and flipped through (Gharib uses Issuu’s widget to display her zine at therunciblespoon.info). And interest in zines remains high; attendance to and sales at SF Zine Fest have increased steadily since the annual festival started in 2002, according to Kitagawa, one of the event’s organizers. With society awash in 24/7 Internet connectivity and ads, the time may actually be ripe for the humble medium, according to Daniela Capistrano, founder of the POC Zine Project, which promotes zines by people of color. “Right now young people are swimming in consumer culture,” Capistrano says. “There is always a backlash against passive states of consumption, so what we are experiencing right now is an appreciation of DIY activities like zine making, urban gardening, knitting, tools and equipment fabrication. The act
of considering your thoughts, the layout and execution of your own zine on your own terms is very liberating.” Indeed, it was partly in reaction to her day job as a blogger (for the anti-poverty nonprofit One Campaign) that Gharib created The Runcible Spoon. A lifelong magazine lover, she missed the thrilling tangibility of print magazines, and she maintains that the zine conveys her identity to readers in a way that a website can’t. The idea was to give the district’s food bloggers a physical space to display their work, promote their blogs and celebrate the area’s robust food scene with an emphasis on home cooking and using local, sustainable ingredients — all with a hearty dash of quirky fun. “I wanted to go back old-school and hoped to God that people still cared about zines like that,” she says. “I know that I do.” Gharib started her first zine (about indie music) at age 14, and then, as now, production involves a pair of scissors, tape, colored pencils and a stack of old magazines. An issue is completed in one day on her dining room table. The zine’s title comes from Edward Lear’s nonsensical poem “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which features an imaginary eating utensil. Gharib produces the issues once a season and distributes them in boutiques, cafes and other spaces where her target audience — the district’s food-curious young professionals — congregates. Cathy Chung, owner of Treasury, affirms copies are snapped up quickly and says the appeal is “that it’s local, doesn’t have an advertising agenda, and the layout is really appealing. Local food has been discussed but not in such an accessible and fun manner.” Indeed, Gharib positions her zine as a counterpoint to the frequently snobbish foodie movement. Part of that effort involves introducing more obscure Asian food to readers: one recent article, for example, covers nyonya, a Malaysian specialty derived from recipes passed down through generations. And having grown up in a predominantly Filipino community (Gharib is of Filipino and Egyptian descent), Gharib has made it her personal crusade to bring Filipino food to the mainstream. But she acknowledges the challenges of making Filipino food, ahem, palatable. “It doesn’t look very appetizing,” Gharib says. “We don’t have any star dishes like pad thai or pho. We have pancit, which is just stir-fry noodles, which isn’t that captivating.” And what do zine producers make of the hand-wringing over the state of the print media industry? The pressures are entirely different. Capistrano points out that financial gain isn’t of paramount importance in the zine world; people create regardless of the economic climate. And costs are lower: Gharib spends about $200 at a copy center to print 400 of each issue, in addition to small batches of surreptitiously-printed-at-work copies. The charm of zines, however, seems to lie in the premise that out of humble materials comes an utterly unique product. Gharib hopes readers will display her zine in their homes or keep copies handy in their kitchens. Ultimately, she wants to see The Runcible Spoon become a full-sized color magazine, where each issue is like a cookbook. “We want the zine to feel like a beautiful handmade gift that you wouldn’t want to throw away,” Gharib says. Lovers of print and lovers of food — not to mention home cooks fed up with food-splattered laptops — are sure to agree. Lisa Wong Macabasco is Hyphen’s managing editor. She last wrote about Asian American women’s experiences with abortion.
HYPHEN winter.10 017
J-Splif, Prohgress, Kev Nish and DJ Virman (clockwise from top left) are flying Far East Movement to the top of the charts.
018 HYPHEN winter.10
The group performing in Honolulu in November.
The Rising Sons Far East Movement is doing big things and staying fly. Writer Nicki Sun Photographers Colin Brennan (studio) Aaron K. Yoshino (live)
Far East Movement is the first Asian American group to top the Billboard charts and hit No. 1 on iTunes with their song about big-time ballin’, replete with champagne bottle service, dancing ladies and a top-of-the-line Gulfstream plane. FM is making history with a colossal sonic boom — and the group doesn’t plan on landing anytime soon. The Los Angeles-based group of late-20-somethings, composed of Kev Nish (Kevin Nishimura), J-Splif (Jae Choung), Prohgress (James Roh) and DJ Virman (Virman Coquia), went from being publicity interns at Interscope Records to being signed by the company. They’ve toured with acts like Lady Gaga, N.E.R.D and Mike Posner. The group, which was formed in 2003, received their first break when their song “Round Round” was featured in the 2006 Justin Lin film The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. But it’s been the infectious single “Like a G6” — think of a stir-fried “Boom Boom Pow” dipped in soy sauce — that’s brought the band’s name to the masses. Asian American music acts had a good year in 2010 breaking though to mainstream success, lead by FM, Bruno Mars and Legaci (Justin Bieber’s backup singers). Far East Movement talked to Hyphen over the phone while driving through New York about being inspired by taco trucks and Korean barbecue, how being in a music group was like being in AA and moving beyond race in music.
HYPHEN winter.10 019
“It’s also a free-wired world where people see you by your screen name or Twitter name. You’ll hear a song on a radio, not knowing the artists or the artist’s race, and then find out later. The world is becoming more open-minded in that race doesn’t matter.”
020 HYPHEN winter.10
Your group was originally called Emcee’s Anonymous and you switched it to Far East Movement shortly after you recorded your song titled “The Far East Movement.” Kev Nish: We went with Emcee’s Anonymous because we had no idea we wanted to take this seriously. It was kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous: a bunch of people with addictions and just wanting to handle business. One day, we recorded this song in an attic in downtown L.A. — with an old-school computer, an ‘80s monitor and a Radio Shack microphone — about what we felt was the next generation of kids in downtown L.A. who couldn’t really be defined by a genre, but more defined by a playlist of music. It was being open-minded to experimenting with different sounds, bringing in everyday things like taco trucks, Korean barbecue, street wear, fashion — you name it. We loved everything in the song and called it “The Far East Movement.” That song was terrible, by the way. We deleted it, but it was a lightbulb in our head. This song described everything we were about: our ideals, our lifestyle, our musical tastes. So we named ourselves the Far East Movement and we made sure no one had our song in their hard drive. (Laughs) Do you embrace being labeled as Asian American artists? KN: We are really honored and grateful that our community is proud of that. At the same time, we feel, as L.A. kids, it’s an honor to hopefully inspire other backgrounds as well — African Americans, Latinos, Caucasians — because those are the artists we grew up with. We grew up in a scene where it’s so multicultural and when one of us comes up, it is about one of our people in L.A. representing. It’s also a free-wired world where people see you by your screen name or Twitter name. You’ll hear a song on a radio, not knowing the artists or the artist’s race, and then find out later. The world is becoming more open-minded in that race doesn’t matter. Social media sites like MySpace, YouTube and Facebook are helping artists get discovered, but how did you promote your music before those sites existed? KN: We treated MySpace, Facebook and all sites like those as if we were meeting someone in person. Like going to a show and shaking everyone’s hand in the room — we took that seriously. Every time someone would add us as a friend, we would write them saying: “Yo, what’s up? Good to meet you. What city are you from?” We value that relationship. Of course, as we got busier, we had to find other ways to stay in touch. Nowadays, we’ll go on cherrytreerecords.com [an imprint of Interscope Records] and use that to stay connected. How did you know that the route you were taking would be successful? KN: It was hard because we’ve had management in the past who lost all faith in us, and there were points in our lives where we thought there were no other ways to go. But we stuck together. People would say, “Oh, those guys are delirious. How can you get into music?” or “Might have to go solo. No chance of being in a group.” But as brothers, we were each other’s support system. We
had an incredible woman by the name of Diana Tran, who’s this fab executive director for the International Secret Agents Concert [an annual event that features emerging talent in the Asian American community] we produce with Wong Fu Productions. Diana is the mother and backbone behind our business. It was people like that. And, of course, our fans. They keep us constantly pushing harder and fighting for more. What kind of day jobs did you have when you were coming up? Prohgress: We did all kinds of crazy stuff. I mean J-Splif used to do all kinds of jobs from office managing until 5 p.m., then writing and recording with us until 3 to 4 a.m. and then going back to work at 6 a.m. again. He never slept. KN: Remember when J-Splif had that taco cart? P: He was rolling tacos. KN: We were bag boys. I was a valet attendant and then we actually interned at Interscope Records. That opened our eyes to a whole other side of the business that we were so intrigued by. That changed our perspective to go hard and really go all the way. Where did you film the video for “Like a G6”? P: That’s So Hyang restaurant in L.A. near Wilshire. It’s my dad’s friend’s restaurant. Get kimchi and soju! Why are you all single? Doesn’t it get lonely on the tour bus? KN: We have our Cherry Bombers — that’s all we need. Our focus is our music and our fam and fans. It never gets lonely when you have so many people supporting and representing. If FM was on a G6 and the pilots were incapable of flying, which member would take over and why? KN: DJ Virman. If he can man a turntable, I’m sure he could fly a plane. There’s so many parodies and covers of your songs “Rocketeer” and “Like a G6” going around. Which one has been your favorite so far? P: We actually were just at a radio station earlier in Boston and a couple of the DJs made a good one. Their rendition was “Fried Like a Cheese Stick.” (Laughs) Nicki Sun is a San Francisco Bay Area–based multimedia journalist.
HYPHEN winter.10 021
â&#x20AC;&#x153;Someone from another local film festival asked in a derogatory manner why Asian Americans needed to have a film festival.â&#x20AC;?
022 HYPHEN winter.10
Film Star Masashi Niwano steps into a new role as San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival director. Writer Angela Pang Photographer Jack Huynh, Orange Photograpphy As an intern tasked with sifting through the archives of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Masashi Niwano spent countless hours filing more than 15 years of press kits promoting Asian and Asian American films. Even though he was studying film at San Francisco State University, he was stunned to discover that so many Asian American movies existed. “Being exposed to all these different stories excited me,” Niwano says. “I wanted to see as many of these films as possible.” Thus sparked Niwano’s passion for Asian American cinema. He would go on to serve for four years as executive director of the Austin Asian American Film Festival. This year, he was selected to lead CAAM’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, the nation’s largest showcase for new Asian American and Asian films held annually since 1982. In this except from a conversation we had with the 29-year-old second-generation Japanese American, Niwano discusses having Freddy Krueger as a “babysitter,” why the festival’s former director Chi-hui Yang is a stud and his plans for the 29th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which will take place from March 10 to 20. Where did your love for film come from? Growing up in Campbell, CA, all my friends were asking for bikes, but what I really wanted was a video camera. My parents both had jobs that took them away from home in the evenings: My mother was a waitress and my father was president of a wholesale fish company. They would take me to rent movies to keep me busy. My favorites were slasher films like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. After watching these, I really wanted to make my own horror films, so I begged my mom for a video camera. My parents were supportive of my passion for filmmaking, buying me lighting kits and helping me recruit actors. My dad worked with freezers and butcher knives, and he let me use them as sets and props. As a filmmaker, your films have screened at festivals across the United States, including South by Southwest and NewFest. In fact, your narrative short, Falling Stars, which was based on your experience of coming out to your best friend in college, was an official selection of the 2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Do you plan to continue making films? My first priority are my duties as festival director. Hopefully, as time goes on, I’ll have more time to get back into it. In December, I will be starting a video blog on CAAM’s website
HYPHEN winter.10 023
024 HYPHEN winter.10
showcasing Asian American filmmakers, musicians and artists. I’m a musician myself and play the guitar. What kind of struggles, if any, have you faced in the Asian American film scene? While in Texas promoting the Austin Asian American Film Festival, someone from another local film festival asked in a derogatory manner why Asian Americans needed to have a film festival. It was
“My dad worked with freezers and butcher knives, and he let me use them as sets and props.”
an ignorant comment and served as fuel for me to show them what Asian American cinema was all about. Asian American film festivals are crucial to our communities. As a community, the only way we can grow stronger together is if we take time and truly understand each others’ unique histories and stories. Film festivals are an ideal space of this type of exploration. Who are some up-and-coming filmmakers to look out for? Tadashi Nakamura, I’m looking forward to his new Jake Shimabukuro documentary ... that is being produced by CAAM; H.P. Mendoza; PJ Raval, he’s an amazing filmmaker, who recently was the cinematographer for the Oscar-nominated doc Trouble the Water; Jessica Yu, I’ve loved all of her films, including Ping Pong Playa
Masashi Niwano’s All-Time Favorites
Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1995) Its lush and vivid palette and overly romantic atmosphere blew my mind. Once you see a Wong Kar-wai film, you never forget it.
and In the Realms of the Unreal — I see a very bright future for her. Where do you see Asians in the future of cinema? Whether in Hollywood or through online outlets such as YouTube, I’ve never seen the Asian American community as driven and passionate about media making. I see a lot more Asian Americans behind the scenes and a lot of aspiring filmmakers breaking through. I don’t know if we’ll see that same parallel in front of the screen. I definitely think America is ready for more Asian American representation, but unless it makes studios more money, they aren’t going to change. How do you feel about filling former festival director Chi-hui Yang’s shoes? I’m both excited and really nervous. Chi-hui is seriously a stud! When I was an intern, I was struck by how passionate he was about the festival and cinema in general. The way he talked about filmmakers and the power of film, it inspired me and shaped my direction in life. I wanted to be like Chi-hui and to have his job. As festival director, you have the opportunity to influence the next generation of Asian Americans. Can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect in next year’s festival? I plan on bringing fun, exciting and avant-garde elements to the festival. I am a big fan of horror and experimental films and would like to see more of these films included. I also want to have more interactive events and more music. Content condensed by editorial staff.
Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964) When I was in high school, I struggled with duel identities: being Asian and American. To escape my tween identity crisis, I would immerse myself in horror films. Not only is this a fantastic slasher film, but it portrayed kick-ass Asian female killers! I think any internal shame I had about being a Japanese American kid in a predominately Caucasian community faded away after I saw it.
A.K.A. Don Bonus (Spencer Nakasako, 1995) It’s raw, heartbreaking and incredibly touching. This was the defining film that convinced me to dedicate my life to Asian American cinema.
HYPHEN winter.10 025
Saving Face Asian Americans are increasingly opting for plastic surgery that enhances their natural look instead of altering their ethnic appearance. Writer Jennifer Bagalawis-Simes Illustrator Chloe Bonfield Dressed in her Sunday best, Nancy Cabigot — Auntie Nans to family and friends — looks like my 45-year-old sister. She’s actually pushing 60 with 10 grandchildren. She points a finger to her nose with a wink. “This makes a lot of difference,” she said. “Doesn’t it? Cabigot, a retired marketing manager living in Los Angeles, had rhinoplasty, or nose reshaping surgery, last year. This places her among the 180,000 Asian Americans age 55 and over who went under the knife last year out of 3 million ethnic patients. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 743,000 cosmetic surgery procedures were performed on Asians in 2009 with nose reshaping, eyelid surgery and breast augmentation as the most commonly requested enhancements. Asian Americans placed third among minorities undergoing plastic surgeries with African Americans ranking second with 986,000 and Hispanics at the No. 1 spot at 1.5 million. Drs. Samuel Lam and Edmund Kwan, plastic surgeons who have long served ethnic patients in their own practices, said they have observed a mainstreaming of plastic surgery in the Asian American community. They said more Asian Americans are becoming open to having plastic surgeries and accepting of others who choose to have them. For Cabigot, surgery was not an impulsive decision. She had been getting Botox for several years and then last year decided on a more drastic change after doing a lot of research and getting recommendations from friends. “I’ve only got a few years in me
026 HYPHEN winter.10
and I wanted to make sure I’m going to love that permanent change to the very end,” Cabigot said. Cabigot confided that she has always felt that her nose seemed out of place on her face, that it felt unnatuExample of nose reshaping. ral. But with a strict Filipino American mother and an equally strict husband, she felt stuck. “Back then, you don’t call attention to your flaws by having surgeries done. Plus, you’ll also be accused shamelessly of trying to look white.” Using plastic surgery to look more “white” is a much chewedover debate within the Asian American community. Carrie Ching, outspoken editor of the now-defunct Monolid magazine — its own name an assertive statement against double-eyelid surgery among Asian American women — has said that peer and parental pressures “to assimilate to white culture” have led many Asian American women to turn to plastic surgery. “I actually believe that plastic surgery for eyelids is an unfortunate thing, since Asian eyes are so inherently beautiful,” Ching said. “A little surgery here and there is fine, but such huge racial trends are disturbing and a sign of low esteem. I hope Asians can find it in themselves to love their eyes.” Seventeen-year-old San Jose, CA, native Hanh Phuc Tran strug-
Photos courtesy of Charles S. Lee, MD / asiancosmeticsurgery.com.
gles with that in the face of a tempting offer: eyelid surgery to be paid in full by her parents and grandparents. Tran said her grandparents, who immigrated to the United States after the end of the Vietnam War, believe their difficulties to assimilate stem from their Example of eyelid surgery. Asian appearance. Her grandparents and parents have suggested that she get eyelid surgery when she turns 18 in order to fit in and far from their ethnic features.” be successful. “My grandparents are worried that some opportuniPerhaps this is why practitioners now offer procedures specificalties may not be open to me because of my Asian look,” Tran said. ly marketed to ethnic patients. A quick Web search yielded practices She remains undecided about whether she will undergo plastic that offer “Asian cosmetic plastic surgery” among their services. “It surgery. “I’m sure other girls my age would jump at the chance, isn’t that Asian Americans are not having other surgeries done, such especially if your parents or grandparents are willing to pay for it,” as liposuction, tummy tucks or facelifts,” Kwan said. “It’s just that she said. “But I don’t think looking a little less Asian and more white procedures such as eyelid surgery, nose shaping, jaw reductions can give me a better chance at life.” and breast augmentation have become popular among them.” Others defend their procedures by denying any desire to look Both Lam and Kwan believe the “softened” look in plastic surmore white. “I didn’t go to a plastic surgeon with the unconscious gery is becoming popular among Asian Americans, but at the same decision that I wanted to have eyes as big as white people,” said time, it’s not unique to them; even white patients strive for more Othello Chu, 30, who had blepharoplasty — or double-eyelid sur- natural-looking results. “Gone are artificial-looking surgeries: the gery — three years ago. “I went in knowing exactly what I wanted very high noses, overexaggerated lips or alien-looking eyes of the my eyes to look like and why. It’s not a matter of imitating or wanting ’80s,” Lam said. “There are also fewer barriers between races that to be someone else.” the standard cookie-cutter look is no longer the norm. Patients are As a sales executive for a Silicon Valley software company — a aspiring to enhance ethnic looks that reflect mixed cultural heritage job that involves meeting face to face with prospective clients — and globalization.” Chu wanted to improve the features of his eyes. “I’m one of those Asian Americans are becoming more willing to work with their Asians who has the markedly sleepy eyes,” he said. “It didn’t bother ethnic features rather than work against them, Kwan said. “My pame when I was young, but now that I’m in a very competitive job tients want a more balanced-looking face. Make the individual parts environment, I could use the confidence booster.” of their face like their protruding mouths, jutting teeth, narrow eyes Lam, founder of Lam Facial Plastics, a Dallas cosmetic surgery or wide jaws look attractively proportional. Seldom do I encounter practice, agrees that Asian Americans, like any other patients, just ethnic patients who want major alterations to their faces.” want to look good. “Let’s not put Asian Americans in a box. We Chu wanted his eyelid surgery to look as normal as possible. do ourselves a disservice if “I know people will notice the we assume that every time difference in the way my eyes “Let’s not put Asian Americans in a box. We do so-and-so got cosmetic surlook after the surgery. But I ourselves a disservice if we assume that every time gery done, he or she wanted didn’t want it to look like I’ve so-and-so got cosmetic surgery done, he or she to look Caucasian instead of done something fake. I wantwanted to look Caucasian instead of Asian.” Asian.” ed to feel that these are what The motivations are varmy eyes would look like if I’ve — Dr. Samuel Lam, founder of Lam Facial Plastics, a Dallas ied, Lam said, and tied to been lucky enough to be born cosmetic surgery practice emotions and expectations, with them.” such as wanting to look good to increase career prospects, to apCabigot felt the same way with her nose job. She made sure that pear younger for romantic success or to simply gain more confiher nose didn’t look artificial. She worked closely with her surgeon dence. Kwan notes that most of his Asian American patients un- to achieve a look that would enhance her face rather than call attendergo eyelid surgery because single-crease eyelids make them look tion to her reconstructed nose. “The best compliment I’ve received older; Kwan says those clients simply want to look younger and after my surgery is from people who noticed how youthful I look, but more bright eyed, not more white. didn’t notice I’ve had surgery done. The look on their faces when I Lam calls it “ethnic softening”: “It means softening of facial fea- tell them is priceless.” tures — narrow eyelids, flat nose bridges, wide jaws that patients Korean American Charlotte Suh, 22, a college student from San deemed overly ethnic but still preserving their ethnicities. They’re still Francisco, is contemplating plastic surgery. “I’m thinking of having 100 percent Asian in appearance. But their strong ethnic features my jaws reduced or maybe a facial contouring after graduation. And have been softened so they’re no longer too dominant on their faces.” no, I don’t want a Hollywood celebrity’s nose or a Korean idol’s jaw. Kwan believes that Asian Americans are moving toward proceI still want to be me with a little bit of enhancements to my look.” dures that preserve their ethnic identity as a result of demographic Suh scoffed at the suggestion that she wanted non-Asian feachanges in American society. “The appearance of Asians in Amer- tures. “How come Asians in Asia are not being accused of this? In ica were considered a novelty 40 years or so ago, so many were Korea alone, cosmetic surgery is as common as having your teeth striving to change their appearance to integrate better in a predomi- straightened. It’s only here that we get condemned by people in our nantly Caucasian society,” Kwan said. “Hence, the stigma that if own community for wanting to improve our features. Does it have you go to a plastic surgeon to change something, you’re immedito be a racial question, too?” ately thought of as wanting to be another race. But in this modern and diversified society, I’m seeing more and more Asian Americans, Jennifer Bagalawis-Simes is a San Jose-based freelance writer. She last wrote young and old alike, wanting to have surgeries done that don’t stray about sustainable seafood consumption for Hyphen.
HYPHEN winter.10 027
028 HYPHEN winter.10
Back to the Future of Farming Financial and cultural survival on three Asian American family farms. Writer Nina Kahori Fallenbaum Photographers John Alden, JA Photography (Kozuki Farms) and Antonio Bolfo (Sang Lee Farms) Kaye Kozuki is passionate about peaches. She’s a peach partisan. “My favorites are the low-acid nectarines,” she says. “Most stores don’t write down the variety, or let you know what type of fruit you’re eating, but we do. It matters.” Kozuki’s family has owned their stone fruit and grape farm in Parlier, CA for almost 100 years. Begun in 1926, it is now farmed by three of George and Hisaye Kozuki’s eight children, all thirdgeneration Japanese Americans. The Kozuki parcel is 850 acres spread around the town of Parlier, about 30 miles south of Fresno in California’s Central Valley, the heart of the state’s booming fruit and vegetable industry. California farmers supplied almost half of the nation’s fresh vegetables and 68 percent of processed vegetables in 2008, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Farming is an unpredictable and financially nerve-wracking enterprise. Margins are low, and product must be sold in narrow windows of time, leaving farmers are the mercy of the markets. The Kozukis, however, are part of a small but growing group of Asian American farmers determined to overcome the odds: They’re reaching directly to consumers using a strategy called “direct-toconsumer marketing.” This means selling their products at farm stands, farmers markets, and through mail order and box subscription. The practice differs from selling to a wholesaler who distributes in bulk to supermarkets, restaurants and food-service com-
panies. The decentralization means higher profits to farmers — if they’re looped into those channels. The US Department of Agriculture takes a national survey every five years of farming and farm sales, and their most recent findings in 2007 found direct-to-consumer sales totaling about $1.2 billion. Within vegetables and melons alone, direct-to-consumer recorded a stunning 97 percent increase in sales in 13 years, reaching $335 million by 2007. The growth in direct-to-consumer sales (mostly of fruits and vegetables, but increasingly among meat, eggs, and other products) can be traced to many factors, including the popularity of farmers markets and increased interest among consumers in the source of their food. While almost all of the Kozuki family’s fruit is sent to a local packer (who ships to supermarkets and Wal-Marts around the world), about a half percent is taken to Fresno’s Vineyard Farmers Market. There, Kaye Kozuki sells what she calls “the best of the best” to shoppers willing to come out rain or shine and pull from her boxes of white peaches, yellow peaches, nectarines, pears, and a few plums and grapes. Her prices are comparable to that at the local grocery, with the difference being that family farm takes home three to five times more profit. Coming to the farmers market, while it reflects only a small part of their business, allows the Kozukis to hear what their customers want and to shape their product mix accordingly. Kozuki is adamant
HYPHEN winter.10 029
030 HYPHEN winter.10
about having an actual farmer at the stand to ensure accountability and get feedback from consumers. “Over the years, we have become friends with our customers and educated them about our fruits,” she says. One thing non-farmers can learn about, for example, is the ripening process. If a piece of fruit is picked too early, it can be hard, green or tasteless. Picked too late, it may look camera-ready but can spoil in one hot day at the market. Farmers like the Kozukis carefully calibrate how long to leave fruit on the vine or the tree in order to preserve flavor while preventing rot. “Customers want it ready to eat, but I lose too much fruit that way. You have to take care of it,” Kozuki says to customers increasingly accustomed to pre-cut and ready-to-eat items. “You have to let them sit out a couple days [before eating].” Customers also quibble about appearance, misshapes and pockmarks. Because the Kozukis’ farm limits use of pesticides, however, the perfect-looking pink orb of a peach is rarely possible. In a way, farmers are the first entrepreneurs. They are their own bosses with at times crushing responsibility: They have wide latitude to create what they want but a set window in which to sell it. They’re risk-takers to the extreme, and for Asian American farmers, discrimination, language barriers and alienation sometimes make it even harder. At the same time, Asian American farmers stand to benefit from increased awareness and popularity of Asian vegetables and fruits. Ken Suzuki is a Delmar, DE vegetable farmer who sells almost exclusively to Japanese restaurants and groceries. About 10 percent of his crop is sold direct-to-consumer, via mail order and at the occasional farm stand at a cultural fair or church bazaar. He considers his company, called Nihon Yasai (or “Japanese Vegetables”), a cultural bridge and a taste of home for his mostly expat customers; he has little contact with non-Japanese customers or farmers. “That’s why I grow – it’s for them. If they were not happy with me, I’d quit,” he says with an ominous hand-slice across his neck. “It’s very hard, but my English is not so good so I must do something.” The greenhouses and neat fields of his 58-acre farm are packed with over 30 varieties of Japanese vegetables: shishito, shiso, daikon, yuzu, Japanese cucumber, eggplant, squash, green onion and cabbage. When Suzuki started 28 years ago, no one grew many of these vegetables on the Eastern seaboard. He
HYPHEN winter.10 031
..Sang Lee Farms
032 HYPHEN winter.10
“If you think my food is too expensive, try to grow your own food. Plant a seed and see what happens. After feeding yourself, try to pay your bills based on growing that food. It’s not easy.” —Fred Lee, co-owner of Sang Lee Farms and a second-generation farmer
endured tough years renting farmland and experimenting with the differing soils and conditions of Maryland and Delaware. For health and cost-cutting reasons, Suzuki made homemade pesticides by brewing hot peppers and extracting the juice of garlic chives, then spraying a diluted mixture over the fields. Little by little, he found stability in his crops and his business model. He is still recovering from a $200,000 loss during the 2005-06 growing season, when prices dropped, plants died, and he had to move from his leased land. On the drizzly Sunday afternoon I visited, we walked through a creaky plastic door that led to greenhouses packed with vegetables in the Japanese style of space-conserving agriculture: tightly-hewn rows between small citrus trees and cherry tomato vines trained onto chest-high poles four-deep. Another greenhouse teems with small flats of sprouts sharing space with young ginger stalks. One greenhouse of cucumbers suffered a double-whammy of disease and fungus this year, and when we opened its door white mist covered the wilted leaves of a cucumber graveyard: The entire crop had been lost. Although government programs can provide insurance for setbacks like cucumber fungus, Suzuki says he didn’t feel confident enough in his English the few times he attended those meetings. Sales on Suzuki’s online site Nihonyasai.com, aren’t easy either, because unlike in his native Japan, there’s no chilled delivery service for residential produce shipments, and customers sometimes complain of vegetables arriving too hot or too cold. They continue to order, however, as do restaurants who are both appreciative of his unique selection and demanding of newer and more obscure varieties. Yuzu was trendy last year, shishito may be next. Suzuki is the one who must quickly respond and pray that land, heat, water and insects cooperate. While a few high-profile farmers markets sell expensive gourmet items, Suzuki pushes back against the perception that direct-toconsumer is more expensive. “I make sure to price close to the supermarket. I just get more than when I sell to a wholesaler,” he says. However, in the instances when his prices can’t compete with those from the West Coast, where the growing season is longer and transportation costs are lower, Suzuki tries to explain to his East Coast customers why his Delaware vegetables might cost a little more: “They know how much I take care of the plants. In a big farm, it’s all done by machines, and they don’t really take care of the plants until harvest.” Whereas Suzuki sells about 10 percent of his product directly to consumers, the Lees of Peconic, NY sell their entire crop retail, bypassing supermarkets altogether. Sang Lee Farms (motto: “Our Produce is Fresh-Lee-Cut!”) benefits from the popularity of directto-consumer sales in New England, a region where this business model forms a higher share of total agricultural sales than in other
parts of the country. After decades in the wholesale business, the Lees switched to their current combination of farmers markets and a roadside farm stand. They also participate in community-supported agriculture, a group investment scheme that began in Japan in the 1960s. Community-supported agriculture, or CSAs, didn’t start with food: News reports of toxic chemicals in liquid soap led housewives to seek out all-natural soap for washing diapers and other household uses. When only industrial quantities could be found, the women organized groups in their neighborhoods to split the purchases. This DIY sourcing expanded to include vegetables, rice and other staples. Today, the largest CSAs in Japan distribute glossy catalogues with photos of farmers to millions of households across the country, while smaller corner operations continue to buy and share in bulk much like they did over 30 years ago. In the United States, CSAs are undertaken more for the relationships they create and the financial security they bring to farmers. Members pay a sum at the beginning of each season to help a farmer buy seeds, fertilizers and other necessities. In return, they get a box of assorted produce throughout the season, usually topped off by a farm tour or other educational events organized by the farmer. Tucked inside the boxes (or sent by email) are newsletters describing life on the farm, including setbacks like bug attacks or a late-season rain. The “community” aspect of a CSA expands commercial transactions into the idea that eater and producer share the largesse or the disaster that Mother Nature can bring. While CSAs are not as popular in this country as in other parts of the world, the 2007 Census of Agriculture lists 12,549 CSAs across the United States. Specific data does not yet exist on Asian American adoption of this direct-to-consumer sales model (although Asian Americans are entering farming at much higher rates than the general population). The Lee family learned about CSAs with the help of Just Food, a nonprofit in New York City that acts as a matchmaker between interested pockets of urban residents and smaller farms that want to sell directly to consumers but don’t know how. The Lees now bring boxes of pre-sold veggies every week to their three Brooklyn CSAs, including one in DUMBO (short for “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass”), about as far from the farm as one can get. Fred Lee is the co-owner of Sang Lee Farms and a second-generation farmer. His father and uncles supplied bok choy and other Chinese vegetable staples from their farm on Long Island, NY and later from a winter farm in Hobe Sound, FL. They sold to restaurants and Chinese markets along the East Coast and as far away as Montreal. Fred didn’t think he’d get into farming until his father suddenly grew ill at the beginning of one planting season. Fred was 26 and brought home his then-girlfriend Karen (they met at Boston University business school), plunged into the family business, marrying
HYPHEN Fall.10 033
“That’s why I grow -- it’s for them. If they were not happy with me, I’d quit.” —Ken Suzuki, 28-year farmer of Asian vegetables
034 HYPHEN winter.10
and raising three children between the two farms. With Karen’s help, the farm grew, moved and expanded its non-Asian vegetable offerings and started selling packaged products like salad dressing, pesto and jellies. At 56, they are both slim and full of energy. In the 1990s, Karen started doing cooking demonstrations at their farmstand on Saturdays, teaching people how to use vegetables like gai lan, yu choi, Shanghai and mustard greens. “I could tell they were intimidated by a big bag of Asian vegetables, so I cut them smaller and put them in a bag with onions and the necessary sauces, and called it a stir-fry combo pack,” says Karen, a petite Boston native with a warm smile. I asked her what the Chinese American community’s reaction was to this new method of selling and using traditional vegetables. “They thought I was crazy!” she laughs. Non-Asian customers, however, snapped up the knowledge and the stir-fry bags – and their farm survived that downturn. Over the course of a decade, their farm transitioned completely from wholesale to retail, and the Lees emphasize the twists and turns their business endured through the years. The late ’90s were the hardest for them, when cheap agricultural imports from Mexico and Canada flooded in following the passage of NAFTA. “If people only knew how much hard work it takes, they would have greater respect and appreciation,” says Karen as she deftly maneuvers her golf cart around the Long Island farm, where they have consolidated their operations. “One crop takes three years, so it takes patience.” We pass asparagus and strawberry plants in various stages of growth, regeneration or cleanup, reflecting the complicated calendar every farmer must plan for. For every customer who insists on a lower price (I’m guilty as charged), there’s a farmer who wants to explain what their prices
mean. Increasingly, many are choosing direct-to-consumer sales to inform their customers about the realities of farming. Fred Lee is grateful for recent successes but hopes consumers won’t forget the effort that went into their lettuce and tomatoes: “If you think my food is too expensive, try to grow your own food. Plant a seed and see what happens. After feeding yourself, try to pay your bills based on growing that food. It’s not easy.” He remains optimistic, however, even encouraging young people to join him in the business. “I think to grow your own food, and to produce something almost from nothing, is great. That’s one of the rewards that I continue to have with the farm. We eat all the produce that we grow, and I’m just tickled by that. I love the freshness, I love that it’s organic, and it helps us be healthy, you know?” he says as the store closes up and the sun starts to fall behind the trees bordering his farm. “It’s a constant education process with the people we sell to, and I still have so much more to learn myself.” Nina Kahori Fallenbaum is Hyphen’s food editor. She last wrote about restaurant-worker organizer Bonnie Kwon.
See photos of Ken Suzuki’s farm at: hyphenmagazine.com/magazine/food To buy from the farmers listed in this story www.kozukifarms.com www.nihonyasai.com www.sangleefarms.com
HYPHEN winter.10 035
Caterer turned restaurateur Jay-Ar Pugao in front of his eatery in Oakland, CA.
036 HYPHEN winter.10
Menu To Go Filipino Americans have been offering their cuisine through catering long before it was declared the next big thing. Writer Paola Rodelas Photographer Andria Lo Many lovers of Filipino food cheered the recent spate of news articles declaring the cuisine the next big food fad. Long the underdog of Asian fare, the often heavy, deep-fried and meat-centric dishes were finally enjoying their moment in the mainstream. More Filipino restaurants have been cropping up across the country, and they have been innovative and successful to boot. Chicago’s Sunda is a “fancy” (read: not plated on plastic foam trays) Asian restaurant that features many Filipino dishes on its menu. The owners of Purple Yam, a Filipino restaurant in Brooklyn, also wrote a book called Memories of Philippine Kitchens, which documents Filipino food across generations and includes over 100 Filipino recipes. But the roots of Filipino American food businesses are in catering, which allows entrepreneurs to build up the capital and the reputation to start a restaurant. Catering is a relatively inexpensive way for aspiring Filipino American food entrepreneurs to start a business. Rather than hiring hosts, servers and cooks, many Filipino American caterers rely on their families for cheap, and oftentimes free, labor. “The Park’s Finest doesn’t just include me, but my fiancée and my compadres that I grew up with since elementary school,” said Johneric Concordia, who credits his father for the savory BBQ sauce that has all of my Los Angeles Pinoy friends raving. Concordia owns The Park’s Finest, a popular Filipino BBQ catering service in L.A. Jay-Ar Pugao, owner of the Oakland, CA-based Filipino vegan catering business No Worries, said his family was the reason the business exists. “My mom innovated it, my brothers promote and handle the behind-the-scenes aspect of it, my father is my investor and believer and my close friends — who I consider family — provide unconditional love and work for it,” Pugao said. “This is definitely a family business.” Concordia chose to open a catering business in 2009 despite the fact that food trucks were emerging as the fad of the moment for those wishing to start a small food business cheaply. “We knew that taco trucks were going to be poppin’, but we wanted to take a different route,” Concordia said. “Instead of waiting hours in line to get food, give us a call, and at the time desig-
nated, we’ll come with the food. Let’s be convenient to the people.” Pugao started his catering business 14 years ago as a foodloving teen. “Catering was the initial idea because I knew that while in high school, I was not prepared to handle the overwhelming responsibilities of trying to open a restaurant,” he said. Beyond serving up delicious food, these caterers also use their businesses as an avenue to create change in their communities. Concordia attributes his success to his activist background (local nonprofits helped him develop a business plan), and he hopes to give back to the community by someday creating a scholarship fund with the help of The Park’s Finest. Pugao, on the other hand, hopes to contribute to creating a healthier community. “The reason the name is ‘No Worries’ is to dispel all the negative connotations that Filipino food comes with: unhealthy, oily, fatty, meat-heavy,” he said. Consider the Filipino party staple lechon baboy, a roast pig dish, and it should be little surprise that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the Filipino American community, while diabetes cases are increasing at an alarming rate in the Philippines. “It is important to me that people understand there is a wonderful alternative for them, but it is up to them to seek it,” Pugao said. That alternative has become easier to find. In October, No Worries opened its first restaurant, instantly drawing huge lines. The catering business will continue to operate as well. Likewise, Concordia hopes to one day open a “Pinoy House of Blues” in Southern California where the Filipino American community can gather and eat. So what will it take? Working harder, of course. “Filipino cuisine is the next big thing only if Filipinos represent it as such,” Pugao said. Concordia agrees. “We’re always competing with one another,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the next big thing if we don’t trip ourselves up. It’s just an issue of supporting each other.” Paola Rodelas is a writer living in San Diego. She contributes to bakitwhy.com and is an intern for the San Diego Asian Film Festival.
HYPHEN winter.10 037
Paradise Found The Photography of JaneTam. Writer Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik
Jane Tam, a photographer from New York,
loves a good medicine cabinet. “As a kid, I would go to the neighbor’s house and rummage through their drawers,” Tam says. Tam began photographing her grandparents’ Brooklyn home to satisfy her curiosity: Grandma apparently didn’t throw anything away. Tam brought one image, Aunt’s Tinfoiled Kitchen (2006), to a critique and her classmates at Syracuse thought the foil was an art installation of her own doing. Tam quickly realized that the visual language she had grown up with was virtually unknown to her peers. “The camera forces me to slow down and pay attention to what is going on around me, to recognize the dualities of outsiders and insiders.” What does her family think of her ongoing series Foreigners in Paradise? As Tam receives accolades, her parents marvel at all of the people that want to see pictures of grandma and grandpa.
See more of Foreigners in Paradise at janetam.com.
All photos are courtesy of the artist.
On this page: Chloe, 2008
038 HYPHEN winter.10
HYPHEN winter.10 039
This page, clockwise from top: Grandmother, 2008 Sara, 2008 Dim Sum on Newspaper, 2008 Dining Room Table, 2006
040 HYPHEN winter.10
Top: Grandfather Taking a Break in Our Back Porch, 2007
Left: Grandparentâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Cart in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, 2007
HYPHEN winter.10 041
Top: Aunt’s Tin-Foiled Kitchen, 2006
Right: Grandmother’s Swollen Foot and Sweet Potato Leaves, 2008
042 HYPHEN winter.10
“It was a strong woman’s role. And a wonderful role for an actor. That’s how I looked at it.” — Nancy Kwan
Who’s That Girl?
Photos courtesy of Redwind Productions Inc.
A new documentary on actress Nancy Kwan’s life prompts a revisit to her seminal role as Suzie Wong. Writer Cathlin Goulding It was an accidental audition, one that 20-year-old Nancy Kwan stumbled upon while peering in on Hong Kong actors vying for the much-coveted Hollywood movie role of Suzie Wong. Wearing a wine-colored cheongsam with her hair coiffed into a sleek bun, Kwan smiled broadly at the camera, answering questions about the pronunciation of her name and taking graceful, profile-revealing turns in patent leather heels. Kwan, who had no prior acting experience, was on the verge of making movie history. This turn of fate opens To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey, a new documentary from director Brian Jamieson. As a long-time fan of Kwan and executive at Warner Bros.’ home entertainment division, Jamieson began researching Kwan’s life when the studio was considering a re-release of four of her films. The documentary, which is currently touring the film festival circuit in the United States and internationally, details Kwan’s life and the role that defined her career.
The World of Suzie Wong became a hit in 1960 and made Kwan, the daughter of a Chinese architect and an aspiring English actress, a star. The role also made her a trailblazer for Asian actors in an era when Hollywood still used white actors for Asian roles. But in the 50 years since its theatrical release, cultural critics have cast Suzie Wong as a sanitized and exoticized depiction of a prostitute. A “cute, giggling, dancing sex machine with a heart of gold,” novelist Jessica Hagedorn wrote of the character in an essay titled “Asian Women in Film: No Joy, No Luck.” The movie recounts the relationship between American artist Robert Lomax, played by William Holden, and Kwan’s titular character, a Hong Kong prostitute. At first, Lomax holds the tart and seductive Suzie at arm’s length. However, with sly persistence, Suzie inserts herself into the painter’s life, becoming his muse and even-
HYPHEN winter.10 043
“I identify as an actor. That’s what I am.” — Nancy Kwan
044 HYPHEN winter.10
Photos courtesy of Redwind Productions Inc.
tually his lover. The movie’s romance between a confident American man and a beautiful Asian woman replicated a paradigm that had been long established — and perpetuated — in Hollywood. Yet, in spite of the movie’s portrayal of prostitution and Asian females, Jamieson argues that Kwan turned out a memorable performance, adding dimensionality and charm that counters what critics have viewed as Suzie Wong’s stereotypical subservience and exotification. “She comes across as this vivacious young girl who just delivered the lines so naturally,” Jamieson says. “As a result, [Kwan] gives [Suzie Wong] something of herself, some of her own personality. I really think it was all of that magic and mix that ultimately carried the day for that character.” However, many audiences, especially Asian audiences, didn’t see it that way. “When it was released, I got asked by Chinese and Asians, ‘Well, she’s a prostitute. Do you think all Asian women are prostitutes?’” Kwan says. Now 71, Kwan takes the criticism in stride: “It was a strong woman’s role. And a wonderful role for an actor. That’s how I looked at it. It was just entertainment.” The World of Suzie Wong was a rare opportunity in Hollywood for an Asian actor. Previously, very few were offered leading roles; Asian American actors like Anna May Wong and Keye Luke took a backseat to their white counterparts. More marketable white actors, such as Luise Rainer and Jennifer Jones, with the aid of elaborate costumes and “Orientalizing” eye makeup, assumed roles written for Asian characters in such major Hollywood productions as The Good Earth (1937) and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955). “[Hollywood] didn’t think they could make money by having a Chinese actress in the lead,” Jamieson says. “When Nancy got the role of The World of Suzie Wong, she didn’t realize it at the time, but she was making history. That ultimately opened the doors and changed the status of other Asians to follow.” Jamieson believes that Suzie Wong was a catalyst, for better or worse. “Suddenly people were conscious of the ‘Orient,’ ” he says. As a result, Jamieson says, “you had all of these Westerners wanting to go to Hong Kong to find their Suzie Wong. But maybe not in a bad way, maybe in a good way.” Jamieson believes this pursuit of Suzie Wong by Westerners fostered more liberal ideas about interracial relationships. Ultimately, the documentary repositions Kwan’s role as glamorous and pioneering rather than a softened or sensualized image of Asia for white audiences. It was Kwan’s ease and humor in front of the camera, as well as the box office success of The World of Suzie Wong, that led to her other defining role as the brassy Linda Low in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1961). While she would eventually appear in over 50 films and television shows, including playing an acrobatic circus performer in The Main Attraction (1962) and as Bruce Lee’s mentor in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), her subsequent career would never match her early successes. Both Jamieson and Kwan see the trajectory of her career as the result of the profit-driven nature of the film industry, as well as fluctuating attitudes toward Asians in the United States. Despite the financial success of Suzie Wong, the belief that Asian actors could not bring in numbers at the box office lingered in Hollywood; therefore, few roles were assigned or generated for Asian stars. The public’s dissatisfaction with American involvement in the Vietnam War led to a significant decrease in the demand for Asian-themed movies.
Nancy Kwan and William Holden in a publicity photo for The World of Suzie Wong.
Additionally, Jamieson says that Hollywood has always been reluctant to cast Asians or Asian Americans in characters “outside the culture,” a premise he disagrees with. In the Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep film The Bridges of Madison County, for example, “Why couldn’t it have been Clint Eastwood and Nancy Kwan?” he says, jokingly. While his documentary wrestles with the uneven path of Kwan’s acting career, fleshing out the untold story of Kwan’s personal life became a chief concern for Jamieson. In the final act, the film turns its focus toward Kwan’s only child, Bernhard Pock, who died of AIDS at age 33. Jamieson draws a telling comparison between this and the death of Suzie Wong’s infant baby in a disastrous mudslide in The World of Suzie Wong. “There was something prophetic about it in the sense that Nancy would lose her only child under the most tragic of circumstances,” Jamieson says. In fact, that is what Jamieson believes The World of Suzie Wong was really about, not merely a story of a prostitute. “It was a beautiful love story about a woman trying to overcome her own circumstances, raising a child,” he says. “Nancy also had this enduring love story with her only son.” In the 50 years since The World of Suzie Wong premiered, there have not been many film roles played by an Asian or Asian American actor that have produced such fervent dialogue and scholarship as that of Suzie Wong. Today, Kwan believes that there are few such defining roles written for or by Asian Americans. While she encourages young Asians and Asian Americans to pursue acting and work behind the camera, Kwan does not see herself as an Asian or Asian American actor. Instead, Kwan’s identity is rooted in a firm adherence to her craft, as well as a loyalty to the characters she portrayed. “I identify as an actor,” she says. “That’s what I am.” Learn more about the documentary or purchase a DVD at www.kashensjourney.com. Cathlin Goulding is a books editor at Hyphen. She last wrote about Karen Tei Yamashita and her novel I Hotel.
HYPHEN winter.10 045
Hit the Road and Go East Where are you from? It’s the persistent question that jangles many an Asian American nerve. For the most part, we know what the question is really trying to ask. The roundabout inquiry into your ethnic origin, while innocuous at first glance, can be downright offensive when used to channel stereotypes. So depending upon your mood (or the cultural makeup of your inquisitor), you saucily name an American city or, in a beneficent move to quell the other person’s guesswork, a foreign country. Still, during quieter moments of introspection (From left) Authors Deanna Fei and Ronica Dhar. and self-honesty, your mind has likely wandered toward an underlying issue at stake — how much do you know about your ancestral homeland and history? crave knowing more because we’ve heard so much about it from Not much, a sad number of us might say. Or at least, not enough. our parents,” she said. “It’s almost a rite of passage that every imDriven by such awareness, an increasing number of first-time migrant generation goes through. … My parents raised me with a novelists and poets are turning to their families’ ancestral home- strong awareness of this other place where I belong.” For Dhar, writlands for inspiration. Rather than writing about themes of forced ing her novel became an attempt to re-create her parents’ emoexile and displacement that characterize classic immigrant literational attachment to India for herself. ture, such as America Is in the Heart, China Men and Dictee, this In Fei’s novel, a mother reunites three generations of women generation’s newest writers are writing about return to their families’ after her husband’s death by planning a two-week packaged tour countries of origin. of China. As the trip progresses, all the women struggle to come Two such recent books are Ronica Dhar’s Bijou Roy and Deanna to terms with the conflicts in their lives and learn to be vulnerable Fei’s A Thread of Sky. Both authors are second-generation immiwith each other. The granddaughters learn about their grandmothgrants publishing their first novels. Dhar’s parents arrived in the er’s revolutionary past as a leader of the Nationalist movement. AlUnited States in the 1970s to escape India’s political turmoil and though edified by their grandmother’s example, the granddaughters raised her in Michigan. Fei was raised in New York by Taiwanese continue to be haunted by her ultimately failed efforts in their drive parents who came to the United States in the 1970s for graduate to overachieve at the expense of their well-being. school. For Fei, the craving to return to her parents’ homeland was furIn both novels, the return to the ancestral homeland is precipitat- ther spurred by her family’s reluctance to talk about the past and ed by the father’s death. Upon return, the main characters discover she acknowledged that doing so would be a complicated task. “For family secrets that intertwine with major events in their ancestral one thing, it’s a problem of translation, and I don’t mean that strictly countries’ histories. Rather than offering epiphanies or resolution, in the linguistic sense,” Fei said. There’s so much explaining that both works complicate the idea of home, belonging and connec- needs to be done for someone who grew up in America that I think tion. As both novels conclude with the main characters awaiting there’s this sense of ‘well, you wouldn’t understand anyway.’ ” their next trip in airports, we are reminded of their suspended state As opposed to the silent, passive nature of treating sensitive between countries and cultures, as they process memories from issues that is prevalent in most Asian cultures, it is a “peculiarly their visits and altered relationships with their families. American impulse, this idea that talking about something somehow In Dhar’s novel, the main character, Bijou, returns to India to makes it better or helps it heal,” Fei said. “I think that that isn’t alperform the holy ritual of scattering her father’s ashes in the Gan- ways the case especially when there’s a history of war, trauma and ges. During her trip, she learns of her father’s guerrilla past as a displacement — a lot of those subjects don’t easily lend themselves member of a communist group called the Naxalites that terrorized to conversations.” Indian landlords and authorities into redistributing wealth among The prominence of return in writings by new Asian American peasants. Bijou’s discovery of her father’s betrayal of his closest writers diverges from previous return narratives in that little reccomrade by abandoning the movement and fleeing abroad to es- onciliation occurs between the ancestral homeland and American cape imprisonment provokes a crisis, driving her to question herself rootedness. Unlike the teary conclusion of The Joy Luck Club, for and her knowledge of her own history. example, where the protagonist’s trip to China awakens her to her Dhar attributes the trend of return narratives to a “craving”: “We heritage and family ties, Bijou Roy and A Thread of Sky offer no
046 HYPHEN winter.10
photos courtesy of authors
Two new novels take us on the long journey back home. Writer Abigail Licad
prone to concealment by elders and misinterpretation by younger generations. Because “home” itself is so unstable, “identity,” then, is no easy find. Rather than the epiphany we were all hoping for, the novels end with the characters still wrestling with the tensions unearthed by their trips. “It’s almost a rite of passage that every immigrant generation Wen Jin, assistant professor of English and comgoes through. … My parents raised me with a strong parative literature at Columbia University, recognizes awareness of this other place where I belong.” the trend of returning to ancestral homelands as a “transnational turn,” which examines the ongoing cul— Ronica Dhar, author of Bijou Roy tural, political and historical interchanges between the United States and Asia. Jin notes in an interview that the ambivalence surrounding identity, homeland and historical ties Fei said she resisted writing a return-to-homeland narrative for a long time precisely to avoid such neat conclusions. “For me, if any- in the novels can be read as a way to explore various cross-culturthing, that’s the beginning of a story, that’s where you start to ex- al identifications and widen the reach of what can be considered “Asian American” — as well as “Asian American literature” — in a plore all the questions that it raises, and that’s where novels come way that resists a US-centered geographical location. from, this idea of exploration,” she said. Like Jin, Fei views cross-cultural allegiance as the most imporIt might be expected that the quest to discover home will lead to a deeper understanding of one’s identity, as it often does in bio- tant concern for writers of her generation. “For previous generations, there was a need to either assimilate more as Americans and graphical accounts, such as William Poy Lee’s The Eighth Promise, prove our sameness or there was this clinging to primarily Chinese where the son undergoes a mystical experience upon reaching his or whatever their identity is as opposed to being American. But for mother’s native village in China. “Home,” however, is not what it my generation, we’re truly Chinese American or Asian American in used to be in Dhar’s or Fei’s novel. Characters wake up to their own false nostalgia as the reality of constant change infects their a way that both of those are equally important to us.” Dhar embraces the same plurality: “It’s a process. First, you feel memories and old beliefs. They gasp at capitalistic booms in the urban centers of their ancestral homelands. They grapple with the like, ‘Where do I belong?’ And then, you figure it out — you can belong in many, many places.” new forms that old traditions have taken. They recoil at their treatment as complete foreigners. Emotional and psychological ties to their families’ histories persist, but even these histories are elusive, Abigail Licad is a books editor at Hyphen. pat resolution. Any romantic expectations held by the characters of reclaiming heritage, shedding negative aspects of American culture and healing family rifts end in disappointment.
Fictionalized and poetic accounts of the return to ancestral homelands are proliferating. Here are a few examples of how first-time writers are using this theme to launch explorations into the many-layered and sometimes hidden components that make up our identities.
Dust and Conscience by Truong Tran (Apogee Press) The speaker in these prose poems falls in love with a man he meets during his trip to Vietnam and confronts the inherent contradictions in his sexual and cultural identities.
Gold by the Inch by Lawrence Chua (Grove Press)
Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A young man’s rediscovery of Thailand leads to a destructive obsession with a male prostitute. Chua’s experimental and erotic prose captivates.
Told through collage-style narratives, this novel follows an aspiring writer who travels back to the Philippines to solve the mysterious murder of his beloved mentor.
Lost Men by Brian Leung (Three Rivers Press) In this tender and heartbreaking story, a son and his estranged father visit China, where they unseal a secret letter written by his white mother before her death.
Stealing the Ambassador by Sameer Parekh (Free Press) In this suspenseful tale, a grandson reunites with his grandparents in India and uncovers their militant past.
HYPHEN winter.10 047
New and noteworthy
Hello Kitty Must Die By Angela S. Choi (Tyrus Books)
Koko Be Good By Jen Wang (First Second) Jen Wang’s debut graphic novel, Koko Be Good, traces the lives of three San Francisco residents: Koko, a mod-styled cigarette girl scamming for free rent and extra cash; Faron, her teenaged partner in crime; and Jon, a shy musician preparing for a move to Peru with his long-distance girlfriend. A chance meeting results in an unlikely friendship between the rebellious Koko and the sensitive Jon. Jon’s recollections of his altruistic girlfriend and their college romance compel Koko to trade in her shyster ways for an onslaught of wellmeaning, albeit misguided, charity efforts. In one cringe-worthy scene, as a new volunteer at Mission Bay Home for the Elderly, Koko launches a resident head first into the street from her wheelchair. Readers will be struck by the sepia wash and cinematic grace Wang lends to illustrations of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. The drawings of church steeples and morning traffic function as quiet, meditative spaces between Koko’s renegade pursuit of humanitarian causes and Jon’s bewildered decision making. While the graphic novel verges on trite sentimentality in moments of the characters’ youthful speculations, Wang’s expressive drawings bestow a wistful depth and humor to the characters’ endeavors in bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. — Cathlin Goulding
East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres By Andrew Lam (Heyday) In one passionate essay, “Letter to a Young Iraqi Refugee,” journalist Andrew Lam, who was forced into exile from Vietnam as a boy, advises the youth: Learn to live with the contradictions of your new home, ally yourself to this country and let it transform you even as you transform it; tell your story. In the 20 other moving and insightful essays that make up East Eats West, Lam explores these contradictions and transformations while describing his own path to discovering his voice. What emerges is a picture of America being reshaped by the East. America, according to Lam, is now grappling with the effects of the artifacts and world views that accompany emigrants from Asia — pho, manga, martial arts, Hong Kong-style action movies, Buddhism, the ethos of hard work and entrepreneurship and strong and abiding communal relationships. Something is lost in the transplantation though, as the cult of the individual practiced in the West imprints itself on the emerging immigrant subjectivity. America whispers rebellion, Lam says, follow your bliss. This requires triumphalism of the individual over the communal. You can see this in Lam’s writing too: There is a lot that’s beautiful and wise in it, but some of it is triumphantly so. — Nawaaz Ahmed
048 HYPHEN winter.10
We asked Samrat Upadhyay (author of Buddha’s Orphans): What books have you continued to revisit throughout your life? Stephen Karcher, Total I Ching: Myths for Change (Piatkus Books) I have been practicing the Chinese divination system of I Ching for about 20 years, and it never ceases to amaze me what a work of poetry it is in its accuracy, beauty and empathy. It can, by turns, be a spiritual counselor, a listening ear, a pontificating parent, a soothing voice, or a har-har-laugh-inducing friend. This particular version of the ancient classic by scholar and translator Karcher does away with the rigid, doom-and-gloom language of some of the other versions, offering the I Ching as a dance of life. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Out of India (Morrow) I remember reading these stories over and over in my late 20s, when I was a graduate student in a rented room in a house in smalltown Ohio: This was one of the first books that taught me how to write a short story. A German Jew married to a Parsi man, Jhabvala offers a cynical yet compassionate view of her Indian characters and their Western counterparts in India. She is at once distant and intimate with the landscape of India, which I love about this collection. Tarthang Tulku, Milking the Painted Cow (Dharma Publishing) Tulku is a highly accomplished lama with a stunning range of beautifully written books on meditation, Buddhist thought and mind transformation. Milking the Painted Cow remains my favorite, one that I turn to constantly for inspiration, both in life and for writing. The suffering we experience in our lives is a direct result of “fictions” that our mind creates. Tulku reminds us that a deep understanding of our mind can lead us to powerful realizations, such as those enjoyed by the great Chandrakirti, who, with his mind, could shape reality into any form he wished: He is said to have fed the monks of his monastery during a famine by milking the painting of a cow.
photo: Daniel Pickett
Angela S. Choi is my kind of sicko. Faced with the perennial problem of the Asian American fictioneer — how to rep the aZn without crapping out another crab-eating, mother-daughter triumph — Choi’s solution was: just add serial killer. We meet the heroine of her debut novel, Fiona Yu, attempting to take her own virginity with a silicone dildo. Detecting no hymen, Fi decides to have one constructed. A 28-year-old libido-free lawyer who lives with her parents, Fi begins to unravel her rather profound issues when her plastic surgeon turns out to be her long-lost childhood friend Sean Killroy. Sean’s, er, serial approach to conquering inferiority empowers Fi to stand up to her demanding father and his series of inappropriate prospective husbands. Fi’s complicity, in turn, empowers Sean to start offing barflies and prostitutes. The novel achieves terrific energy through the fragile balance between Fi and Sean’s absurdly murderous doings and the more serious childhood abuse that drives them. But as an attempt to deconstruct a clichéd genre, Hello Kitty Must Die ultimately fails. The novel’s pushy parents, loser Asian suitors and salvation in the form of a handsome white man don’t critique, but, rather, reinforce stereotypes. As fun as Hello Kitty is, I hope her next book is more thoughtful. — Claire Light
Hypernova, from left: Jam, Raam, Kodi and Kami.
True Rock of Ages Two Middle Eastern bands flee danger, find refuge in NYC. Writer Margot Seeto Photographers Derek Lieu (Acrassicauda) & Myleen Hollero (Hypernova) WITH THE ERA of punk as provocateur of the bourgeoisie long gone, bands that loudly tout equality and condemn “The Man” from the bowels of American suburban garages don’t exactly scream subversion. But pan over to Iraq, where metal musicians can’t headbang due to a perceived similarity to Jewish prayer movements, where rehearsal spaces have been bombed and musicians are called Satan worshippers by religious fundamentalists. Or pan to Iran, where playing Western rock music can get musicians arrested or even publicly flogged. Acrassicauda, hailed as the first heavy metal band from Iraq, and Hypernova, known as the premier rock band out of Iran, embody the true nature of what it is to be rock, to stay true to one’s art no matter what the circumstances. Both bands were inspired by black market American music (which is why both currently sing in English) and both have found refuge in New York City. They are fortunate enough to finally have a place for their creative expression. Heavy Metal in Baghdad: Acrassicauda Acrassicauda’s name is derived from the black scorpion Androcto-
nus crassicauda, commonly found in the Middle East. With influences such as Metallica and Slayer, lead vocalist Faisal Talal, guitarist Tony Yaqoo, bassist Firas Abdul Razaq and drummer Marwan Riyadh put out head-splitting tracks such as “Massacre” on the recently released EP Only the Dead See the End of the War. Moved by the band’s perilous journey to the States, Alex Skolnick of Testament produced the EP and Josh Wilbur, who has worked with Lamb of God, mixed it. The members of Acrassicauda say their musical content isn’t political, but it’s apparent in song titles such as “The Unknown” and lyrics that often speak of bloody death (“The life you reaped / Once had a name / The blood stains your hands / Wrapped in guilt sealed with shame” are the opening lyrics to “Garden of Stones”). The effects of living not only in a war zone but also as a taboo entity in a war zone have seeped into the band’s subconsciousness. “As I grew bounded to my fate / Rewinding the wounded memories I gained / So weak I can hardly breathe / So sick of their lies, tired of their deceit,” Talal growls in the song “Message from Baghdad.” Acrassicauda’s story could have been short. The band members met at art school and then later while working as journalists
HYPHEN winter.10 049
Acrassicauda (Clockwise, from top left): Tony Yaqoo, Marwan Hussein, Faisal Mustafa and Firas Allateef.
050 HYPHEN winter.10
and translators. In the early 2000s, they began playing basement shows. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the band was not allowed to headbang and was even forced to write a youth anthem in support of Hussein. During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and in the post-invasion period, many of the band members’ family and friends were killed during bombings. Insurgency rose and as just one consequence, the band’s rehearsal space was also bombed in 2006. Vice magazine found Acrassicauda and featured the band in a 2004 article; later, the magazine’s co-founder Suroosh Alvi and Vice Films head Eddy Moretti returned to Iraq to film what would become the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad. The initial article, while important in illustrating the plight of one band’s pursuit of creative freedom, also put the band further in danger, drawing death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. Acrassicauda fled to Syria along a bus route where it was common for vehicles to get hijacked and passengers kidnapped. But when a change in immigration policy would have required the band to return to Baghdad to apply for visas into Syria, Acrassicauda sold their instruments to pay for their escape to Turkey.
“All our journeys, all of our things we’ve done so far as refugees ... has made us more passionate to argue, to write, to deal with it, make it more meaningful.” — Marwan Riyadh, drummer of Acrassicauda
With violence increasing in Baghdad, Alvi and Moretti felt obligated to help the band stay out of Iraq. They garnered donations along with funds from the Vice corporation to help the band record demos while trying to resettle the members in Germany and Canada. Eventually, the band applied for asylum and was granted refugee status in the United States. Acrassicauda’s story draws fans who normally wouldn’t listen to heavy metal, but the band embraces them. “We want to be different,” Riyadh says. Part of that is incorporating musical influences from Iraq. “We want to bring something new to our music.” Despite — or maybe because of — their fame, Iraq remains a dangerous place for Acrassicauda and bands like them. “What happens is that they emerge and they vanish,” Riyadh says. “It is too dangerous for them to continue as a band without risking their lives as well as their families,” says J.C. Santos of Vice Records. So, the bands dissipate. Although they are ultimately just a group of guys who want to play metal, Acrassicauda’s members have embraced their story as a means of advocacy. “We would be lying if we didn’t say the interviews with the media haven’t made us a political band by now,” Riyadh says. “All our journeys, all of our things we’ve done so far as refugees, seeking asylum in each country has made us more passionate to argue, to write, to deal with it, make it more meaningful.” Exploding Stars: Hypernova As a band that has faced down the risk of their instruments being destroyed by the police and even worse things (musicians
have been lashed in Iran), Hypernova finally has a place where they can pursue music full time without fear of reprisal. However, vocalist/ guitarist Raam, guitarist Kodi, bassist Jam and drummer Kami aren’t completely carefree; they still go only by their first names or nicknames to protect family members back home in Iran. There are more difficulties. They missed their South Hypernova in Brooklyn, NY. by Southwest music festival debut in 2007 because of visa issues. Recently, the only member available for a phone interview from New York City was Raam (who spent his childhood both in the United States and Iran). The rest of the band was stuck at the Canadian border for months, causing Hypernova to miss several shows in support of the release of their first full-length album earlier this year. “It sucks being from the axis of evil when you want to travel,” Raam says. The album Through the Chaos is a bookmark in the story of the band members’ lives. Although there are some classic influences from the likes of Joy Division, the sound is reminiscent of early 2000s indie rock, with a lean toward dance-rock. Raam is aware of this. “We really sucked ass. I really think that the whole sort of indie sound has become passe and has worn out.” But, he says, “Our sound’s changed a lot since we recorded the album two years ago.” The future of Hypernova may incorporate more electronic sounds, as well as late ’80s and early ’90s shoegaze influences. For now, listeners who know the band’s background may understand a bit more of the song “Viva La Resistance” when Raam sings, “I will not bow down to your god / This is not who I am / I will not give into your lies / This is not who I am.” As with Acrassicauda, Hypernova didn’t set out to become political crusaders. But media attention and ties to their homeland have compelled the band to advocate for what it sees as just. “The June  elections saw our brothers and sisters fighting for justice,” Raam says. “We felt we had to raise our voice and let our brothers and sisters back home know we’re standing in solidarity with them. I’m not a politician, but it’s the least we can do.” Aside from speaking out, Hypernova is also intent on action. The band started a management and promotional company called Neverheard, Inc. Its first project was bringing fellow Iranian band The Yellow Dogs to the States. “We had to learn the hard way,” Raam says of learning the ropes of the music industry, from finding out how to get to the United States to securing a rehearsal space to the nuts and bolts of touring. “We’ve been helping out a lot of people. We don’t just want to stick to Iran. We want to help kids all over the world, the underground scene anywhere.” Margot Seeto is Hyphen’s music editor. She last wrote about Christy Edwards of Christy & Emily.
HYPHEN winter.10 051
Passport to the Unexplored Emi Meyer forges new paths in jazz pop. Writer Emily Leach Photographer Aaron K. Yoshino ON THE CUSP of June in Tokyo’s chic Daikanyama neighborhood, a crowd of the city’s urban elite, including a sprinkling of salarymen and a woman with an Afro, begin to sway to the jazzy sounds reverberating off the mustard-colored walls. Twenty-four-year-old Emi Meyer has just started her sold-out show. “I saw my reflection and I knew it was me. I imitate art, and it imitates me,” Meyer sings, in English, clear and with patient rhythm. Absent are the kawaiis and the gasps of Japanese-girl caricature; this concert could be anywhere in the world. Meyer’s sound is unique in the Japanese music circuit, a bilingual cross between Norah Jones and Japanese alternative singersongwriter UA, and her musical efforts have already received a warm welcome in Japan. Her self-released debut album, Curious Creature, was, for example, incorporated into several Japanese film soundtracks. One single off the album was nominated single of the week on iTunes Japan, which led to Meyer being crowned as iTunes Japan’s Best New Jazz Artist of 2009. Meyer’s sophomore album, Passport, is her first written entirely in Japanese, but because of her bicultural identity and American upbringing, the lyrics challenge her listeners with topics not often heard in modern Japanese music. “Kimi ni Tsutaetai,” or “What I
052 HYPHEN winter.10
Want to Tell You,” reflects on the crossroads that recent college graduates face. “I was at a point in my life with a lot of decisions to make,” says Meyer, 24, about the period after graduating from Pomona College. “The song reflects the importance of finding a choice that feels right and appreciating that.” Initially, major Japanese record labels questioned the lyrics. “Usually the reaction was, ‘That’s a very interesting song, but why don’t you talk about love?’ ” Meyer says. She moved her talents to an independent label, Plankton, where she feels she can freely and happily express herself. Meyer was born in Kyoto to a Japanese mother and white American father and moved to Seattle as a newborn. Meyer’s mother specializes in Japanese orchestra and introduced Meyer to music at an early age. Music became the form of expression for her multiracial background, allowing her to incorporate her fluency in Japanese and English. Before she even turned 6, Meyer was already plunking away on her piano. With a mostly American upbringing, Meyer admits to feeling like an outsider to Japanese pop culture. “Growing up in the United States gave me an ignorance or a fearlessness in what I was creating,” Meyer said. “I didn’t listen to J-pop when I was growing
up; I didn’t know what J-pop was supposed to sound like.” Meyer also says her Japanese does not always fit the standard mold, confessing some issues with excessive keigo, the respectful form of the Japanese language. But her distinct background, combined with her unique syntax and strong voice, has proved alluring to her Japanese audience. “I think she feels lucky,” says Michiyo Morioka, Meyer’s mother. “While she was growing up, she went through what could be called identity crises, but now I think she feels it is the best of both worlds. Like she can be a bridge.”
“I didn’t listen to J-pop when I was growing up; I didn’t know what it was supposed to sound like.” — Emi Meyer
Meyer studied ethnomusicology, a major of her own crafting, at the suggestion of her mother, who wanted her daughter to look at ethnic music from an anthropological perspective. “It puts you in the perspective of the music itself, like, ‘why are you making that music?’ ” Meyer says. Informed by her understanding of global music, Meyer married her fascination with multiple cultures to her ethnic background to create a cohesive album, palatable to both Western and Japanese ears and designed with a sense for connections between the two worlds. “The way people listen to the songs is different in Japanese and English,” Meyer says. “In English, it seems to be more
about the rhythm, while in Japanese it is more about the lyrics.” Unlike in most J-pop music, Meyer’s lyrics read as poetry, like haiku, and she spurns simple themes and basic emotions endemic to the genre in favor of writing from her own perspective. The sincerity of Meyer’s message is a refreshing break in the Japanese music scene. These considerations, however, pale alongside Meyer’s live performance, which possesses a charismatic gravity to pull in just about anyone. As Meyer announced and explained each song in Japanese, her ethnic background seemed natural, almost unnoticeable, to the Tokyoites. “Being a child of mixed race is not as rare as it used to be,” Morioka says. Indeed, half-white and half-black Japanese people abound in modern Japanese society. What is rare, perhaps, is seeing an American artist try to break through the starkly monolingual American music scene with bilingual albums. On the other hand, music in this century has likely become colorblind and borderless. Audience members at Meyer’s Tokyo show said that they felt zoku zoku — thrilled, or felt goose bumps — and “like floating on a lake.” Not one person mentioned her mixed-race background. Likewise, Meyer’s Passport co-producer Shingo Annen, more famously known in Japan as independent rap artist Shing02, smiles through serious questions about race and culture. “At the end of the day, we are trying to express something; have a message, but also have some fun,” he says. “Sometimes there is a little humor in the politeness that is Japanese culture.” Emily Leach last wrote for Hyphen about Japanese Cubans.
HYPHEN winter.10 053
Crazy for You Mexican Summer myspace.com/bestcoast
On the Ones and Threes Merge Records myspace.com/versusnyc
As U Were Decon Media lyricsborn.com
Silver Kanine Records myspace.com/eternalsummers
The teaming of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno as Best Coast joins high talent with lo-fidelity. Cosentino is formerly of the experimental drone-psych outfit Pocahaunted, while Bruno’s minimal electronic solo Dreamt On EP found its way onto Glenn Kotche’s (of Wilco fame) Best Albums of 2009 list in Filter magazine. The pair’s sound is a stylistic break from their individual projects, shifting from Pocahaunted’s angular 8-minute soundscapes and Bruno’s diverse experimentalism to clean and concise pop that averages 2 minutes per song. While Cosentino’s voice leads the charge, Bruno’s instrumentation “supplies the troops” for this new pop cavalcade, a stratagem aligned by the two’s careful attention to song arrangement. Wearing influences readily, songs are constructed with lyrical candidness and musical simplicity. With sun-kissed melodies and reverb-drenched guitars, songs like “Our Deal” and “Summer Mood” act as odes to ’60s California sunshine pop and surf rock, while “Honey” could be “Just Like Honey” in its Jesus and Mary Chain-like sway. Throughout the album, Cosentino’s confectionery yet callous voice swells, while the drums and guitars respond like waves, ebbing between ferocious clamors and slow tidal undulations. Best Coast has supplied us with the perfect soundtrack for summer drives up and down the I-5. Is it original? Probably not. Is it good? Definitely. — Ryan I. Miyashiro
As if we haven’t heard enough of musicians returning from an extended hiatus (or disbandment), Versus makes like Eyjafjallajökull and erupts on the masses with its Merge Records release On the Ones and Threes, their first album in nearly 10 years. Blonde Redhead, Unwound and Cotaine were some of the bands associated (and in some instances that collaborated) with these New York City rockers, shaping the sound of an experimental guitar-driven genre unique to its decade. With a band named after a Mission of Burma album, you can get the gist of how much Versus wants to bend white noise with the guitars. On the Ones and Threes reflects images of how fans from 10 years ago look today, “alt-dads” that have since traded in their Doc Martens for Keds. Hit up the opening track “Erstwhile” and “Gone to Earth,” which pretty much show a little older, more mature face than the salacious sound Versus is known for. “Cicada,” “Saturday Saints” and the title track “On the Ones and Threes” go toward a slightly different approach: not so much with the long hair, but still rocking a little flannel to say, “Hey I can still do this … on the weekends.” — Matt Ratt
San Francisco Bay Area hip-hop vet and Quannum Projects founder Lyrics Born is back with more of that notorious Bay Area funk on his latest endeavor As You Were. The opening track “Kontrol Freak” starts with a simple bass synth hook quickly elevating into a fullblown Grandmaster Flash party track. “Woulda Coulda Shoulda” is a throwback to a time when Earth, Wind & Fire ruled the dance floors. Since implementing a full band, Japanese American Lyrics Born’s music has taken on a different cast — one that transcends genre. It’s hip-hop, funk, pop, soul, R&B, and club at the same time. The album single “Lies x 3” is upbeat with a cathartic feel. LB seems to be coping with a broken relationship, as his lyrical themes are somewhat reflective this time around. For long-time fans, the intimate “Pushed Aside / Pulled Apart” is a fresh take on the artist’s signature style. Always honest, As You Were demonstrates that the blues can take on many forms. Another valiant effort by the longtime Bay Area legend. — Lyle Matsuura
The lush soundscapes of dreamy, beachy pop — a throwback to endless ’60s summers — is something independent radio stations have been transmitting as of late. Riding this trend, Eternal Summers’ debut LP Silver is still worth its nostalgia, being inspired more by the woods of Roanoke, VA than the sands of southern California. Think wood fairies rather than beach bikini babes. The pair of lead vocal-guitarist Nicole Yun and drummer Daniel Cundiff brings a mix of high-energy vocals of sass and beats filled with fun, along with the expected fuzzy, chill tracks of this emerging genre. “Pogo” and opening song “Disciplinarian” keep enough adrenaline flowing to stay awake for sleepier, lengthier tracks like “Eternal” (with the requisite “aaahhhs”) and “Bully in Disguise,” which runs as the album’s longest song at 6 minutes. “I’ll Die Young for Rock ‘n’ Roll” acts as a vocal interlude for the LP and is the one song where Cundiff takes the lead. Being that the band is part of a music collective called Magic Twig Community, it’s not surprising that Silver is a creative departure from the band’s first self-titled EP, having a more solidified sound with greater range of risk. — Margot Seeto
054 HYPHEN winter.10
Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story Directed by Bruce Alan Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson watmisaka.com The story of Wat Misaka is unusual: a Japanese American college basketball darling who captures the imagination of fans at a time when his ethnic group is targeted as the country’s enemy. A “sparkplug,” the 5'7” Misaka broke the racial line as the first person of color to join the nascent NBA, as part of the New York Knicks. This was in 1947. Extensive interviews with Misaka, his brother, sports historians and Misaka’s teammates show an optimistic and popular man. Though the humble Misaka doesn’t admit it, he was a victim of discrimination. After three games and seven points in the NBA, Misaka was cut from the team. Was he let go because of his race or ethnicity? We’ll never truly know, and unfortunately, we’ll never see Misaka’s true potential as a player (Misaka later turned down a chance to play with the Harlem Globetrotters). Only recently, Misaka received the accolades he deserves. The filmmakers’ ample use of archival material — newspapers, audio recordings, video footage of Misaka in his prime — brings the story to life. With recent Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin’s draft into the NBA, it’s nice to pay homage to someone who did it decades ago and to learn from Misaka’s experiences. Subtitled in English and Japanese. — Momo Chang
Wo Ai Ni Mommy
Speaking in Tongues
Directed by Annabel Park and Eric Byler 9500liberty.com
Directed by Stephanie WangBreal woainimommy.com
Directed by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider speakingintonguesfilm.info
9500 Liberty is a riveting documentary that captures the antiimmigrant debate in Prince William County, VA. Filmmakers and Coffee Party USA founders Annabel Park and Eric Byler capture the often-painful footage of neighbors pitted against each other as a county tries to oust all of its Latino “illegal aliens.” It begins with a conservative white blogger dubbed “Black Velvet Bruce Li” who teams up with a local politician to pass a heinous law that targets everyone who doesn’t look white or speaks another language. At the heart of the debate are the people directly affected — the immigrants, the children and even the police chief who’s caught in the crossfire — leading to many emotional, knot-in-your-throat moments. But people who are oppressed will rise up — and they do, with unlikely allies like Republicanmoms-turned-bloggers. Byler and Park began uploading the footage to YouTube in 2007 while filming, in pieces, as the issues were unfolding. The feature-length film is the final product of the footage, but the real debate over immigration continues across the nation. The lessons from the film are as important as ever: what happens when xenophobic mob mentality goes unchecked online and in the public arena. Extras include deleted scenes and interviews with the directors. — M.C.
In the age of Angelina Jolie and Madonna, transnational adoption has become a highly publicized issue, whether it’s being lauded or criticized. Stephanie WangBreal’s engrossing documentary seeks to push past that debate and show the transnational adoption process in the raw by following the transition of 8-year-old Fang Sui Yong of Guangzhou, China, as she becomes Faith Sadowsky of Long Island, NY, over the course of 17 months. The long takes in many scenes are purposeful; everything is captured, from Faith’s deerin-headlights expression when meeting new mother Donna to her gradual assimilation into American culture. One particularly brilliant moment shows the adoptive parents struggling to understand Faith’s questions of “Why adopt?” and “Why China?” They are equally perplexed by a transnational adoption counselor’s explanation that race and culture are entirely different things. The film is a slice of the Sadowskys’ life, and though it may seem to end abruptly, it is a deft move on Wang-Breal’s part to show that no one can know how Faith will feel about her identity in the future. The DVD includes deleted scenes, interview outtakes with a psychologist, a Q-and-A and an update on the Sadowsky family. — Sylvie Kim
Speaking in Tongues follows four students in the U.S. who are learning Chinese or Spanish. Sounds simple, but the debate around “speaking English” has inflamed political discourse for years, with some states adopting English-only laws. This narrow view is quietly being challenged in immersion classrooms, where kids learn second languages, such as Durrell, an African American in San Francisco who is learning Mandarin. The film, moving at times, shows that becoming bilingual is more than just about creating a competitive workforce in the global economy. Rather, it’s about building confidence, creating meaningful relationships and making connections. The film shows that learning a different language helps children, academically and personally. Kids who know more than one language eventually do better on standardized tests than their monolingual counterparts, debunking the popular myth that being bilingual hurts one’s English skills. And Durrell is able to talk with an elderly Chinese woman in Mandarin, making a personal connection that would’ve been unlikely otherwise. The DVD is subtitled in English, Spanish and Chinese, and the film’s website has ample resources for those interested in the issue. — M.C.
HYPHEN winter.10 055
l l l l a a h h l l l e l e i i a a n n h h n e e i aan n i n n n a a Writer Wakako Yamauchi Photographer Paul Chan
056 HYPHEN winter.10
Another Another Saturday Saturday night
night of revelry.
Just kidding. It’s just one more weekend night. I’ve spent a lot of these alone with my faithful TV — the one in the bedroom, not the one in the front room that Jeff, my son-in-law, installed for me with all the up-to-the-minute stuff (of the time). The DVD is now a couple of years old (my grandkids love it), and the VCR is practically expiring from old age and neglect. The satellite dish is still fairly new. Jeff bought it originally for his own mother, but she didn’t want it since all the programs are in English and her first and almost only language is Japanese. After his mother rejected the satellite dish, Jeff installed it on my roof. He also bought me another TV to accommodate a DVD. I am past declining any gift, large or small. I’m grateful. That TV with all its accessories is in a small built-in cabinet designed for technologies of another era. My house is old, but Jeff found a set with almost the exact dimensions of the small cabinet. He and Faith (my daughter) very nearly mangled his hands fitting it in. It could have been disastrous since Jeff needs his hands (and who doesn’t?). He’s a dentist. There is a smaller TV in my bedroom without all the gadgetry (except for the remote). I usually watch this one because I can lie down in relative comfort and even doze a bit while the shows drone on. And on. The sleep button is a godsend, but I recently lost the remote. How do you lose a remote? Easily, if you’re as forgetful as I am. I’ve looked everywhere: under the bed, under the dresser and in its
nine drawers, on the night table (and in its drawer), in the deep folds of the recliner. I’ve torn the bed apart, looked through my closet among the lint balls in the shoeboxes (mine congregate with a passion), and I’ve even looked in the fridge. The other night I sat on the recliner, disgusted with the TV and all that getting up to change the channels and up again to lower the sound (during commercials) and up and down, up and down. I finally turned it off, threw a “FORGET YOU” over my shoulder, and went to the other TV. I chose to watch Annie Hall on satellite. Annie Hall is pretty old, but I hadn’t seen it when it was first run and I was younger and could keep up with the youthful antics of white people. It claimed to be a three-star comedy, and I needed the laughs. Badly. The front room TV is a little low for me, and I can’t get a good angle lying on the couch or sitting on a chair, so I did what the kids do: I pulled down a couple of cushions and lay on the floor. I got comfortable one way or another, but after settling down, I noticed a layer of dust (now at eye level) on the dark tile of the dining room floor, and, being a neat freak (the kids say), I thought I’d just swab a damp mop over it while the host was doing the introduction thing for Annie Hall. After that, what would I be able to miss? I did hear him say it was one of the finest pictures of the ... was it “century”? No, that’s too many movies. He said that Woody Allen wrote and directed it after his affair with Diane Keaton had fizzled out. Now I’m not into movies much, but I had the impression that Hollywood people go in and out of relationships so often it doesn’t hurt them as much as it does the rest of us. They can’t let it. There are too many beautiful flakes out there to divert the pain and too many pressing ambitions that demand attention. It surprises me anyway that Diane Keaton could actually have fallen for Woody Allen; he is definitely not the typical movie star. This breakup was important enough to put down in black and white. I mean color. So I run a bucket of soapy water and wring out the mop (your hands never touch the mop slop, they advertise), and I miss the beginning of the show. When I get back to the TV, the beautiful Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) is already attracted to Woody Allen (Alvy Singer). A likely story. But he was younger then and had almost a full head of hair, so maybe it’s possible.
HYPHEN winter.10 057
They’re at a party. Annie Hall flirts, acts silly, and says dumb things to catch Alvy’s attention, and he, getting her vibes, offers to take her home. “Oh, you have a car?” she asks coyly. He says, “No, I thought I’d call a cab.” “I have a car,” she says, and in an instant they’re in a Volkswagen careening down the New York streets with a petrified Alvy urging her, in an understated way, to slow down, slow down. Straight off, we see Annie Hall’s free spirit and Alvy’s repressive nature. Not earth shattering; not even mildly funny. I say, if it’s a comedy, make me laugh. “MAKE ME LAUGH,” I shout. I could just hear my Faith scream back: “Chill out, Ma!” I never talked that way to my mother. Well, she emigrated from Japan, and I wouldn’t have known how to say “chill out” in Japanese. Besides, that particular phrase hadn’t yet been coined. And also I’ve not been the best Nisei mother. Nisei women are supermoms. Faith has probably wanted to throw a towel over my head many times. But she hasn’t. Hey, she’s not here; maybe she wouldn’t have said that. I make things up as I go along; it’s my other life. Besides, the doors and windows are closed, I’m alone, and I can say anything I want, as loudly as I want. She’s not here. No one is. Heck, I can belch over a can of soda; I can pass a couple of social no-nos; just like guys. Who sees? Who hears? WHO CARES? That’s why I’m alone now. That’s why he left me. Well, no; I wasn’t like that when he was around. That’s not why he left me. See? If you live long enough, you even answer yourself. I finish mopping, throw out the water and set the mop outside. When I get back, Annie Hall has moved in with Alvy Singer. Alvy is wary. He’s been married twice before, and he’s cautious. Alvy is a cautious neurotic stand-up comic. He’s seriously sensitive to anti-Semitic remarks like “Jew eat yet?”; “Jew care for a smoke?”; “What Jew say?” I can relate to that. I’m averse to the word “Jap.” Even when it refers to Jewish American Princesses. I don’t even like it when Japanese say it. I’ve been hearing “Jap” since my first contact with white people — in kindergarten by very young children. And later by older people, men and women, schoolteachers, and senators too. Lots of politicians. One said, “Once a Jap, always a Jap. Put ‘em in the badlands and throw away the key.” When I was a little girl, my mother told me that racism prevails in America. When shopgirls wouldn’t wait on us, she would stamp her feet and handle the merchandise roughly. “They’re being rude because we’re Japanese,” she’d say very loudly in Japanese. “Let them know we know, and we don’t like it.” She would touch everything in reach and fling the merchandise down contemptuously. Mess up the counter. Once she even put on a store hat and made ready to take off with it. Anything to get attention.
058 HYPHEN winter.10
We couldn’t just go to another store because there was only this one main street in our country town — only one Sears, one five-and-dime, only one JCPenney, one Mode O’Day. There was a seed and fertilizer building on the outskirts. We did have two shoe stores: Karl’s and Kirby’s. The clerks were nicer there. Hurray for competition. Still, my mother worried that we (she had three of us then) would not be able to function in white society, and she sometimes (when there was money) took us to the Woolworth's lunch counter so we could learn to order food (banana splits and sundaes usually) and eat in public with the proper utensils. We even went to the “Garden City Restaurant,” where one of her students’ dad (she taught Japanese once a week at the Buddhist temple) was the cook. The meal I remember is a hamburger patty with one long green scallion and a mound of rice. We had more interesting meals at home. My father did not participate in these outings. He had nothing to prove. “GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM!” That was used a lot. Well, we couldn’t do it because we didn’t have boat fare (thanks to the Great Depression), and also my mother had promised her sister in Japan she would return a rich woman. Her pride wouldn’t let her go back poor. My aunt told me this many years later, many years after my mother died (still pining to return). I don’t know why I went to Japan — maybe to prove to my mom it wasn’t totally impossible (as though she could somehow see it from that little plot in San Diego). Also, I wanted to know if Japan was all she said it was: beautiful, wonderful, cherry blossoms in the spring, petals riding the wind like snow. Like snow. Maybe I was just going in her place. It was my first visit — not going “back,” as I had been admonished many years before. I thought of her all the way over, always yearning but never realizing her dream. I suppose I would have pined for America if I were unable to get back. I suppose I would always have remembered the white primrose covering the desert floor in spring or the sun fading on the wall of our old house. Maybe I was just saying to her, “IT’S DOABLE, MA! I DIDN’T GO STEERAGE, MA!” Well, I didn’t make a promise like she did to her sister. Racism is endemic; it’s infectious. It colors your decisions and how you live your life. As a kid, you fight back: “Yeah? I’d rather be a Jap (I said it) than poor white trash like you!” “Go back where I came from? I was born here. Same as you, you dumb Okie!” Yes, I said that too. The cruel sound of some words never fades. Most of Alvy Singer’s jokes center around his racial paranoia and low self-esteem laced with an obsession with death. People laugh with him because, I guess, everyone has felt the pain of being on the outside and the fear of death. It’s the old saying: When it hurts too much, you laugh, or you will cry.
“II wanted wanted to to know know if Japan was all she said it was: beautiful, wonderful, cherry blossoms in the spring, petals riding the wind like snow. Like snow.”
Annie Hall is different. She’s young, and a gentile, and has little concept of diaspora or Holocaust. She has only a nodding acquaintance with bias (do you like foie gras, or do you hate liver? No, that’s from another movie). She loves people, she loves to laugh. All this Alvy stuff is too dark for one who’s always been on the “inside.” You know, a non-Jew. Alvy brings home books, and Annie gets the hint but resents his efforts to make her more intellectual, more feeling, more hurting. Like him. Alvy wears her down with his need to change her. His obsessions are big baggage. I can connect with that. Sid tried to change me too, but not intellectually. Nisei boys don’t really care for smart girls. Sid was my brother’s friend. During the war my brother had been shipped off to a separate camp, and that’s where he met Sid. After Japan was defeated, after we were released from camp, we tried to pick up our lost lives. My father died from bleeding ulcers just days before camp closed. He didn’t have to worry about resettlement. My mother thought we ought to go to San Diego with the last contingent of evacuees, so my mother, my sister and her son (her husband was serving in a labor battalion in Alabama), and I moved to San Diego with the last group leaving camp. My brother joined us later. I found work in a photo-finishing plant and tried to save money for art classes in L.A.; my brother worked with a fishing crew. Sid was a live-in schoolboy for a white family in Westwood. That means he was working, washing dishes, vacuuming, pruning trees, mixing drinks at a house party, taking coats, and so on. He was trying to get through UCLA without his dad’s help. His major was political science. My brother and Sid were going to a wedding for a couple they knew in camp. Cars were narrow then. Sid slipped his left arm over the back of the seat as though trying to make room. Okay. Then I felt his fingers gently stroking my shoulder. My scalp froze, but I said nothing. What could I say? KEEP YOUR FINGERS TO YOURSELF? My brother would be alarmed. It might break up their friendship. Sid pressed his thigh against mine. Well, that was kind of nice. Sid was a very funny guy, easy to like, but because I wasn’t interested in starting a relationship, I didn’t do the girl thing with him. Well, not too much. And he seemed to be comfortable with that. We laughed a lot. I could tell he liked me, but I’d always been suspicious of fresh guys (what does he want from me? Oh, no, not that.) And I didn’t have much respect for guys who would consort with people like me (Alvy says that). I think I was afraid I might snag a loser, and I wasn’t ready for a winner. Sid suggested we get together after the wedding, but my brother said no, he had to hurry back to San Diego. He had a tuna boat to catch. When we got to my girlfriend’s, Sid asked for my phone num-
ber; I told him I was moving to Los Angeles soon. “Well then, I’ll give you mine. Call me when you get here,” he said. My brother scowled. At the end of the month I moved in with my girlfriend in East Los Angeles, got a part-time job, and was busy trying to get into Art Center School. The GIs were monopolizing the day classes, so I settled for a couple of night courses. I didn’t call Sid, but the next month he wrote a letter (sent care of my brother) saying he was disappointed that I hadn’t called him and gave me his phone number again. I called and we met again. And again. And again. I couldn’t believe it: could anyone really find me so engaging? I let myself like him. It felt good. Weekends we walked a lot and ate at food stands in the neighborhood: burritos, tacos, hamburgers, hot dogs. We rested on park benches. We went to cheap movies on skid row (Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley). My girlfriend didn’t care for Sid, so it was hard for us to stay at the house. Sometimes he took a streetcar with me to my class and then went on to the house in Westwood. That’s a lot of trolley transfers. Sid had a thing about germs. Never mind all those we swallowed in dirty restaurants. We got around by trolley, and he was careful not to touch doorknobs and poles with his bare hands. I held his arm while he hooked his other elbow around the metal bar set up to steady lurching riders. So that’s the way we traveled. Unless we got seats. Me, I’m a country kid and used to dirt and bacteria. I told him we must look a sight, two Nisei reeling together like conjoined twins. He said, “Don’t worry about it; you’re with me.” He remembered that his mother’s hands smelled of Clorox. I never smelled my mother’s hands. The floor is hard; I am uncomfortable. The movie is making me restless. I can do a small load of wash. At least the whites. Washwash, clean-clean. What happened to the girl who wasn’t afraid of a little dirt and sweat? Relax and watch the show. Can’t. It’s a personality disorder; accept it. Just go ahead and start the washer and save the analysis for later. I know this story already. It’s like my own except for ethnic and economic differences. From the service porch the sound of the dialogue is unmistakable. There are problems in the Annie-Alvy alliance. Annie is sitting on the bed smoking pot. Alvy asks why she is so compelled to smoke that stuff all the time. “It relaxes me,” she says. Is this before or after coitus? Either way, it’s not a good sign. But that’s exactly how it is: while people continue their annoying habits, they don’t notice changes in the relationship — the shift in attitude. Of course, in a movie, it’s much faster. I get back, and the turn is dramatic. The romance is gone; the bickering is intense. I met a guy in my art class who liked to talk to me. “You like baseball?” Ben asked. No. “Like to dance?” No. “Well, how about
HYPHEN winter.10 059
dinner and a movie, or a hike in Yosemite, or a yak ride to ShangriLa?” he asked. “Sounds like fun, but I have a boyfriend; he might want to come along,” I said. I realized then how weighty our dependence had become. Ben was Chinese and didn’t seem to have the hang-ups that Japanese have. He liked to hear me laugh and enjoyed my language excesses. Sid would say, “Don’t use ‘love’ for every condition. You can’t love a thing. Or hate a thing. A thing’s a thing.” Or, when I threw a snit, “Your dad should have given you a good spanking.” Or, when we were talking among friends, “Shhh shhh, lower your voice.” Or, when I apologized (just to end an argument), “We can’t go on like this.” Not to continue sounded good. Oh, to be free again. It’s only halfway through the movie. There’s a good forty-five more minutes of plot. Now it’s clear that Annie Hall must leave Alvy Singer. It can’t continue like that. It’s too depressing; too confining. Annie packs up her stuff, and Alvy lets her go. Ben had begun to look good to me. He was into commercial art and was already planning an agency of his own. His large prosperous family backed him fully. They dressed well, ate well, and laughed heartily. Sid’s family wasn’t like that. His mother was a cool cat: no envy, no anger, no hate. She was very cultured and a fastidious cook. The Clorox hands were before the war when she did housework for a rich white family. After the war, when our temples were reactivated, she joined the Buddhist Women’s Auxiliary and became an important official. Though she was always gracious, I knew she disliked me. Well, “dislike” is too strong. Apathetic. Sid’s father died disliking me. I tried to make nice to them, but they saw right through me. I was too country, too raw. Their eldest son was a doctor (did his internship in camp), their daughter was a university graduate, Sid had a political future in mind (what a dreamer), and I was a gauche country girl. They were politely condescending; that’s the only way I could put it. But I was young and didn’t care, and it wasn’t Sid’s fault. I knew he loved me. I think that’s what galled them. Annie Hall, Annie Hall. Of course she leaves Alvy. She moves into a small apartment. She sees other men. I decided to end my relationship with Sid. After all, it’s not like we had an affair or anything. I think we weren’t intimate (well, we were very intimate, but not sexually) because among Nisei, sex was serious business, and commitment was generally forever. In those days. It was a piece of cake. There was no need for the preparation, practicing words to soften the break. After class, about 9:30 one evening, I ducked into a telephone booth, called Sid, and told him I wanted to call it quits. He was surprised but seemed relieved. He said, “If that’s what you want.” “We’re no good for each other.” I think that was from a movie. Where else would I get such dialogue? Never had to use words like that before. Well, I’d practiced them; no use wasting them. “You must be right,” he said. He didn’t seem angry. We said good-bye. I was free! For a five-cent phone call (that’s what it cost) and an old movie line, I had freed myself. I felt truly liberated. That weekend
060 HYPHEN winter.10
I went out to dinner and a movie with Ben. We had fun. He asked for another date. We went out about four times. I tried; I think I did, but it was no good. I was always thinking of Sid. It was less than honest. Unfair to Ben. I told him I wanted to get together with Sid again, but I doubted that he’d take me back; he was so proud and stubborn. Ben blew his stack: “What is this? Are you playing musical chairs with me?” I had never seen him so angry. “I have to get back with him or nothing. My heart is breaking,” I said. Ben looked ready to cry. He hugged me so tightly I thought my ribs would break. That was another first for him. But he let me go. “No hard feelings,” he said. And we continued to be friends at school. Sometimes I can stare directly at the TV, but, if my mind is elsewhere, I see and hear only the discourse in my head. Then, in an instant, a word or gesture will bring me back to the TV (like changing channels), but, of course, I’ll already have missed a lot. Sometimes I can reconstruct what I’ve lost. Maybe not; if this movie is autobiographical, then Woody Allen either has a powerful internal invisible girl-magnet, or he’s delusional. Here he is in bed with yet another beautiful woman. But it doesn’t look like an affair of great proportions. No panting, no open-mouth kissing, just talking about another one of Alvy’s obsessions. The phone rings. It’s three in the morning, and Annie’s on the phone asking, “Are you with someone?” “No,” Alvy says, “It’s the radio.” Annie cries; she misses him so much; she wants to come back. “WAIT, ANNIE,” I shout. “HOLD OFF. YOU HAVE TO WAIT. I know about these things. You have to hurt and wallow in pain; you have to eat it, sleep it, excrete it, until you get sick of it; bored with it. Then you move on. You don’t move back in. I wish someone had told me that. Maybe I would be with a guy who might have made me happier. Or just as miserable. Me-me-me; it was always about me. Though Sid didn’t say it, I think he felt the awful void too. Maybe he cried in his room as I did — quietly (so my friend wouldn’t hear) — or maybe without tears so that he would hurt less. I cried into the phone too. It cost another nickel to ask him to take me back, to tell him how bleak the days were without him. “I will come see you tomorrow,” he said. The joy. The joy. Next day, Sid took off from his studies, and we went to Griffith Park. I made a couple of sandwiches, and we found an isolated spot in the woods and picnicked. We hardly ate or spoke. He spread his coat over the dry eucalyptus leaves, and we made love. I kept thinking someone was lurking behind the trees, and I was very nervous. “Let them watch,” Sid said. He didn’t care. Let them watch; I was with him again. It was like returning home. “We should always be together,” he said. No more hunger. No more thirst. The Korean War was heating up, and there was talk of conscription. Sid’s parents thought he should marry someone to avoid the draft. I don’t think they cared who I was. AVOID THE WAR AT ANY COST was the message. It was almost funny. I know now, they didn’t want their son to experience the horrors of war — to kill another family’s son or, worse, to be killed. I know, because it’s the way Sid was brought up. It’s why the family was sent to a separate camp. It’s why my brother was there too.
“You You have have to to hurt hurt and wallow in pain; you have to eat it, sleep it, excrete it, until you get sick of it; bored with it.”
Sid quit his job and took a leave from school. We were married in his brother’s house by a Buddhist minister with just our families present. My sister had a new baby with a bad allergy, and she cried all through the ceremony. My brother was very quiet. Annie Hall goes back to Alvy. It doesn’t work. After a few more bouts with Alvy, she leaves again. She moves to California with a new lover. Annie, the optimist. Now, it’s Alvy’s turn. In his understated way, he feels the pain. He follows her to Los Angeles and begs her to come back to him. “Marry me,” he pleads. Annie cannot be persuaded. He returns to New York without her. If he appears unscarred, it’s because he’s used to enduring; he’s a Jew. And life, for both, moves on. All the couples we knew were having babies but us. Sid said he didn’t want to bring up kids only to send them off to war. “Another one will break out soon. You’ll see,” he warned. “He’ll miss it. He won’t be old enough,” I said. “Or it might be a girl.” “Girls suffer too. Didn’t you learn anything from the camp experience? Wars are fought for power, territory or resources. We’re the ones that get caught in it. We, the unwashed masses.” “I want someone to love me unconditionally.” “You have someone.” But my needs were huge and grew with the years. More attention, more everything. More than Sid could handle. He had wants too. He had to prove himself, and that was also consuming. He tried all sorts of avenues; insurance served him better than most. With insurance he was serving his community too. And I had my way. I had my baby. My Faith. And for a while I stayed off Sid’s back. Sid got involved in community activity. It suited his needs; it also helped get clients. He made appointments in the evenings after the work day. When he opened his own office, he was away day and night. To keep busy, I fell in with Faith’s PTA but very soon was drowning in the bureaucracy. I should have expected that; I’m not a people person. I joined an art class again. My instructor looked at my work and asked, “Where’s the soul in this?” Soul? What did he mean? “It’s beyond what you see with your eyes,” he said. “When you find it, you’ll never paint like this again.” He pointed to my canvas.
Sid and I did not drift apart in grace. We waged bitter war — for power, for territory. And then he left. Faith said, “Can you blame him?” She had grown up. She loved her dad but still stuck by me. He found someone else to love. Someone compliant, younger, and prettier. Faith bought a new dress for Sid’s wedding. I watched her get ready; I felt betrayed. I said, “So you’re really going.” She said, “I’m not deserting you, Mom.” Then, “He’s only trying to be happy. I’ve come to believe the main thing in life is to be happy.” You know she didn’t get that from me. I had to give up painting because the pictures got so dark; I couldn’t find the light. Couldn’t find the soul. One night I felt so god-awful, I woke Faith from deep sleep and said, “I don’t think I can make it, Faith.” She knew exactly what I meant. She said, “You’ll make it, Mom. You’re strong.” And I did: hour by hour, day by day. I let it go. And I learned things that, being a hardhead (to the max), I couldn’t have learned any other way. There’s no chain of command above or below. I’m the top and the bottom. I have not yet found “soul,” but it’s been an interesting search. I’ve started a running dialogue with myself to hold on to perspective, to sanity. It’s a useful habit: “You did it, girl, hip hip hurray!” Or, “Now live with that.” Or, “Here’s where you swallow a little pride and do an about-face.” Or, “I hear you.” I HEAR YOU, ALVY! Yes, I hear you, and, as they say, Alvy, I feel your pain (Annie Hall is out of my league; I can’t keep up with her eternal cheer). But, as you very well know, Alvy, wounds heal (if they don’t kill you). Did years pass before the day you bump into Annie Hall on a New York sidewalk? She had come back but not to you. You exchange a few friendly words, walk together a short block, then say good-bye. Good-bye, Annie Hall. She blithely hops a curb to cross the street. The credits roll. Wakako Yamauchi is the author of the play “And the Soul Shall Dance,” produced by the East West Players in 1977. This story is part of Rosebud, a collection of short stories to be published by the University of Hawaii Press in January.
HYPHEN winter.10 061
Reflections of War and a Makeshift Altar Two framed pictures of my brother and me used to hang over a makeshift altar in my mom’s house. They were the stoic portraits that all Marines take during boot camp. My picture was above the Santo Niño (the Filipino name for “Baby Jesus”), and John’s hung above the Virgin Mary. As in many Filipino households, my mother dedicated a revered space in her house for an army of figurines that included Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Jolly Green Buddha (usually brandishing chocolate), a bowl of coins, and the golden cat waving its arm. One day in 2001, while I was on military leave, I suggested that she move the pictures to the living room. “Bakit? You guys look great!” she said proudly. “You are both Marines!” “But Mom,” I said jokingly, “usually when you put pictures of guys in uniform over an altar, that means they’re dead. I still have two more weeks before I go to the Middle East!” She screamed “Walang hiya!” (shameless), and left me alone staring at the altar. I donned a goofy smile and laughed to myself as I often did when things got too serious in my family. It was probably a really bad joke for my mother to hear at the time. I thought, as I often did, that by making light of the situation I would relieve the sadness in my parents’ hearts. Just a few weeks after 9/11, my unit would be part of the first wave of Marines deployed to the Middle East for Operation Enduring Freedom, an operation that would ultimately take the lives of 1,227 U.S. servicemen. That afternoon, I visited my best friend Kaysar to say goodbye before I left for base the next morning. I’ve known Kaysar since the first grade. It’s hard to explain how we became friends because we came from totally different backgrounds. His folks were devout Muslims from Iraq and Do you have a story to tell in 1,000 mine were dedicated Cathwords or less? Send submissions to olic Filipinos. Sometimes, firstname.lastname@example.org. differences like these are
062 HYPHEN winter.10
enough to halt friendships; in our case, Kaysar and I learned more about each other’s cultures than any textbook could teach us. Eventually, we were like brothers. Now, I was off to war to potentially fight a part of his people, his roots, his history. “Just be safe out there,” he said patting me on the back. As we embraced in his driveway, a truck full of guys drove by and yelled, “Rag-headed faggots.” As one of the few Muslim families in the neighborhood, From top: The altar at the house of the author’s mother; portraits of the author discrimination would soon come and his brother at their mother’s house. daily for the Ridhas. “And you be safe out here,” I told him. That night I had a quiet dinner with my parents. We didn’t talk much about me leaving. We just ate kanin kamayan (with our hands) and talked about the things we would do together when I returned. Before we finished, my father told me something that would stick with me throughout my time in the Marines and beyond. “Filipinos have a long history in wars,” he said. “Filipinos are fighters. It is in our blood.” The next morning our unit boarded five commercial aircraft to fly halfway across the world to Shannon, Ireland — our last stop before we would reach our primary landing zone in Alexandria, Egypt. There, our commanding officer told us that someone forgot our ammunition in another plane and what we had left was very little. If we found ourselves in a hostile environment upon exiting the plane, odds were that we wouldn’t survive. The commanding officer then informed us that the chances of our aircraft being ambushed were very high. My heart dropped.
Photos courtesy of Peter J. Swing
Writer Peter J. Swing Portrait Derek Lieu
FIRST first PERSON person
The author at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., in October.
As a squad leader, I called for a meeting in the back of the plane with my 16 Marines. I informed them of the situation and got mixed responses. It was heartbreaking to see some of the 18-year-olds scared to death. But it was worse to hear the jeers of racial epithets and outright hatred towards Arabs and Muslims. I thought about Kaysar. I thought about his family and how they treated me like their son for so many years. I was their family, and they were mine. I thought about the guys who yelled at us on Kaysar’s driveway. I thought about my Marines and all the terrible things they were saying about my pamilya. Our lives and survival depended on one another. I was their leader and they would listen and do everything I asked them to. But how could I tell them what they were saying was wrong? How could I tell them all of this, just hours before we landed? I remained silent about their hateful comments. As we approached the landing strip, the aircraft’s lights dimmed down. Everyone was quiet. The aircraft stopped and I looked outside the window. Other than the blinking blue lights from the aircraft, there was nothing but darkness. Our commanding officer gave us a signal to open the doors. I began to breathe heavily, with adrenaline pumping through my veins. Before I turned the handle, I remembered my father’s words. I regretted that I didn’t stand up to my Marines. I wanted to tell them that what they were saying was wrong and that, perhaps, the people they were so quick to hate could be people who were part of my family. I promised myself that if I lived through that day, I would let them know. “On the count of three open the hatch, Swing,” my commanding officer said to me. “Three, two, one...” I ended up keeping my promise. I was sitting in the passenger seat while Sgt. Largent was driving our Humvee through hundreds of miles of Egyptian desert. We were frustrated due to the lack of
guidance in our mission and the blazing heat didn’t help quell our tempers. We stopped to rest our vehicle from overheating, pulled out two water containers and used them as seats. “I just want to get back home to my wife and little girl,” he said. He passed me a picture of his daughter and smiled wearily. “Swing, why can’t we just bomb the shit out of these bastards so we can get this over with?” He covered his eyes with his sunglasses and looked across the horizon. He sighed heavily. “A lot of these bastards have wives and little girls waiting for them at home too, Largent.” I handed him his picture. “The soldiers we see ... they’re no different from us. They’re just as desperate to get back to their families as we all are.” “I just want to see them again, that’s all. I’ll do whatever it takes to see my little girl.” A tear made a trail down his cheek through the light film of dust and sand that covered both our faces. There would be many times when I spoke with other Marines — sometimes when we were safe and resting. Other times, when we were in the heat of battle. I wanted them to look at the Egyptian and Afghan nationals as people like ourselves, people with families and stories. It’s hard to escape the memories that constantly play over and over like an old, dark film reel in my mind. If I’m not thinking about anything else, I can sit with my eyes closed for hours, still very awake, and watch everyone’s faces and hear everyone’s voices — many of whom are now very far away. I’m not sure if I changed the views Sgt. Largent had about the people of the Middle East, but I’m certain I invited him to see these people from a different perspective, even just for one second. I like to think I helped them find humanity in a place and time when it was hard to come by. Peter J. Swing is a communications consultant to the Asian American Justice Center and currently a steering committee member for the Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education. He is working toward completing his first novel, Café Para Tus Labios, about the life of a coffee laborer in Costa Rica. HYPHEN winter.10 063
Some unisex things
are not that great like leggings, bandana ascots and bathrooms. But sometimes unisex things are awesome – like the Hyphen t-shirt.
Be awesome. Get your shirt today at hyphenmagazine.com/store.
“ The wounds of war do not heal when the shooting stops…” After years of living in Japan, Jake Dawson returns to the U.S. for his mother’s funeral. She had committed suicide and no one knows why. She was beautiful, accomplished, and financially comfortable…so what had compelled her to take this awful step? Determined to find out the cause of his mother’s suicide, Jake starts to delve into her past and finds out that she and her parents had been among the 110,000 Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. In the course of his investigation, Jake learns more than he ever wanted to know about racial prejudice, xenophobia and war hysteria, but will he ever understand how these events reached across more than half a century to claim his mother’s life?
Before the Dawn is available at Amazon.com in both trade paperback and Kindle editions.
HYPHEN winter.10 065