New York exhibition celebrates awakening of Asian-American identity in the 1970s

A New York exhibition celebrates the flowering of Asian-American identityin the 1970s, writes Richard James Havis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 6:13pm

Asian Americans have a reputation for being apolitical, passive members of society. But that is not so, and has never been so, says Ryan Wong, curator of "Serve the People: The Asian American Movement in New York", an exhibition now on at the Interference Archive in the Big Apple.

The exhibition, which runs until February 23, brings together posters, artworks, photography, magazines and music produced by social and political activist groups that were active in the city during the 1970s. It also shines a light on the years that saw the birth of the term - and the concept of - "Asian American".

There was an amazing outpouring of art, culture, and activism that was trying to identify the idea of Asian American-ness
Ryan Wong, curator 

"The idea is to look at the identity of Asian Americans in a political context," Wong says in an office of the Interference Archive, a Brooklyn-based organisation that focuses on documenting materials created by social movements. "It's focused on the Asian-American movement, a constellation of activists and organisations in America, especially in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and New York City, in the early 1970s. At that time, there was an amazing outpouring of art, culture, and activism that was trying to identify the idea of Asian American-ness, as well as to put Asian Americans at the forefront of the international social movements that were happening."

The activists addressed everything from the provision of healthcare services to providing arts education for young people, Wong adds. "They made posters, art and film, they believed in revolutionary politics, and they thought Asian Americans were at the forefront of the era of global revolution. There was really a diverse mix of organisations at this time."

Artefacts on show include copies of the influential Asian-American magazine Bridge, and photographs of demonstrators protesting against police brutality and racial discrimination outside New York's Supreme Court building in 1975. There's music by Fred Ho, a jazz musician who infused the form with ideas from Asia, as part of an aim to develop a revolutionary Asian arts movement.

There's also a collection of artworks from "Yellow Pearl" (a pun on the racially abusive term "yellow peril"), a project of the Basement Workshop. This arts and activist collective, founded in 1971, served as the locus of many of the groups in the Asian-American movement.

The late 1960s and 1970s were a time of international revolution, and images from Vietnam and elsewhere inspired Asian Americans, and provoked movements sympathetic to their causes, says Wong. It would be wrong to think of the movement as simply composed of social groups protesting local issues, as some were allied to the big political movements and ideologies of the times, he says. "Some of the posters in the Interference Archive's collection show the visual culture that people in the Asian-American movement would have seen coming out of Asia," says Wong.

"There are anti-Marcos and anti-US imperialism posters from the Philippines, and posters of the Cultural Revolution in China. That really codified a certain image of revolution and uprising, even though no one at the time knew what was really happening."

But the idea of revolution was very much on everyone's mind, says Wong, hence Asian Americans were motivated by the Vietnamese revolution and the Gwangju uprising in South Korea in 1980.

One group that had a presence in New York was the Union of Democratic Filipinos, usually known as the KDP. The group wanted to bring socialism to the US, and also aid those trying to overthrow president Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. "The KDP was directly linked to groups in the Philippines. They were very much an international group," says Wong.

There was also a Maoist organisation called Workers Viewpoint Organisation, which came out of the Asia Study group, who came into being to study Marxist-Maoist thought. "They sent cadres around the country to organise workers in factories with the eventual goal of revolution," says Wong. The group became the Communist Workers Party (United States) in 1979.

Asian-American groups were also inspired by US political organisations such as the Black Panther Party, usually called the Black Panthers.

The exhibition aims to illustrate the excitement Asian Americans felt in the early 1970s, when change on a mass scale seemed possible. Artefacts came from the personal collections of Tomie Arai and Corky Lee, two activists of the period, from the Museum of Chinese in Americas, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, and from the Interference Archive's own collection.

"The visual material gives a sense of the excitement of that era, and shows how an identity was being formed by images and words. By putting all the posters, magazines and photographs together, we aim to communicate something about what it was like to be there at the time," Wong says.

The title of the exhibition comes from a quote from Mao Zedong. "He called on everyone to serve the people, as it's the highest form of duty, the best thing you could do with your life. In America, that translated into community service, local organisation, and trying to get all these groups together under the banner of being Asian American."

"Asian American" is such a widely used term today, it's surprising to discover it only came into existence around 1968. "Before then, you would identify yourself by your country of origin, or your ancestry - Chinese, Japanese, Filipino. Or you would be called 'oriental', which, of course, is a problematic term," says Wong. "By using the term Asian American, these activists were making a conscious political statement that Asian Americans were a group, and had a history."

It also allowed people to rethink their identity. By coming together under the Asian-American banner, they had the chance to define what they were in terms of politics, gender, and their situation in the national movement, Wong says.

The exhibition has been popular with Asian-American students, some of whom have been inspired to further research their history. "Many of the questions that were being asked in the 1970s are still relevant today," he says.

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