B. Ruby Rich and Brian Hu
From Film Quarterly, Spring 2020, Volume 73, Number 3
Today, there are celebrations taking place across U.S. universities. The creation of Asian American studies centers and departments fifty years ago was the culmination of an effort by students, administrators, and community members to reorient American history, to engage directly in their communities, and to promote Asian American faculty research and hiring. By 1968, there had been at least three generations of Chinese, Filipinos, and Japanese in the United States, many engaged in profound political work, but what was new about the late sixties was the creation and institutionalization of a collective, pan-ethnic voice known as Asian America.1
As Karen Ishizuka and Daryl Maeda have chronicled, the establishment of an Asian American politics required a cultural consciousness: a “cultural mythology,” as Renee Tajima-Peña has it.2 Film Quarterly’s special dossier on Asian American film history is occasioned by a cluster of anniversaries of the key institutions that gave rise, over the prior half century, to this very field. This is the forty-fifth anniversary of New York’s Asian CineVision (ACV), which presents the annual Asian American International Film Festival, and deserves to be lauded for the work it has done to build Asian American film and community there. The fiftieth anniversary of Visual Communications (VC), the Los Angeles–based media-arts collective, founded in 1970, is being locally celebrated but deserves broader recognition within film studies. The year 2019 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, which came of age in close partnership with the off-campus VC. It also marks the fortieth anniversary of northern California’s CAAM, the Center for Asian American Media (formerly known as NAATA). This conjunction demands an adequate moment of recognition and reflection, so Film Quarterly has taken up all four in this special dossier on the histories of the category of Asian American film and video, some of its key texts and practitioners, and numerous forgotten histories.
Certainly there was Asian American filmmaking before any such institutions existed, whether the early silent films of Marion Wong and her sister Violet or the industry contributions of James Wong Howe or the films of Esther Eng or so very many others. But that history is not the focus of this dossier. Instead, these articles pay attention to the post-1968 moment when national politics, campus activism, independent filmmaking, video technologies, and an unprecedented concurrence of pan–Asian American consciousness all came together to create a newly self-aware cinema.
Visual Communications was unique in that it marked the beginning of a self-consciously pan-ethnic media-making practice. Here were filmmakers who called themselves “Asian American” (as opposed to simply Japanese or Filipino) and who participated in the antiracist and anti-imperialist activities of the Asian American movement. In fact, VC was originally incorporated as “Asian American Studies Central” and was guided by a committee of Asian American studies faculty throughout Los Angeles County. As ethnic studies found a home in universities, and later in secondary education, VC’s primary task was to work with scholars to produce visual educational materials for a burgeoning discipline. Most famously, the collective produced short documentaries like Robert Nakamura’s Manzanar (1972), which recalled Japanese American incarceration during World War II, and Alan Kondo’s … I Told You So (1974), which profiled poet Lawson Inada.
These translated well into classroom contexts, but filmmaking was always part of a larger effort to provide visual media to educators. In 1972–80, VC produced the multimedia package Asian American People and Places, a series of foldout posters featuring photographs and texts about ordinary Asian American life; an accompanying “East/West Activities Kit” with games for elementary school students; and an “Asian American Kit” of photo slides and cassette narration for the Los Angeles Unified School District.3 These photographs have the same stately pictorial compositions and respectful attention to neighborly detail seen in VC’s documentaries, but also the playful and normalizing incorporation of language found in contemporaneous Asian American literature and theater. This work is a reminder that Asian American film history must incorporate its original multimedia and nontheatrical contexts, especially in this moment of revisiting fifty years of Asian American studies and public education.
Another dimension of Asian American cinema’s “public-ness,” as well as another reminder of its inherent cross-modalities, is the role of television in its development and definition. Producing content for a community cable-access channel was the initial focus of Asian CineVision (ACV) when it formed in 1975 to address issues of the Asian American community and train community members in the basics of video and televisual production. Just as VC emerged alongside new ethnic-studies programs and community organizations, so ACV was formed out of the Basement Workshop, a collective of Asian American activists that first assembled in 1969 to organize political and cultural programs, including the Asian American Dance Theatre. In addition to media training and cable programming (such as a nightly news program in Chinese), ACV published Bridge and CineVue magazines, which presented essays, film criticism, and literary works.4
In 1978, ACV became the first media-arts organization to stage an Asian American film festival. VC would follow suit in 1983. ACV’s Asian American International Film Festival became a gathering space and an incubator. As the participants in this dossier’s roundtable testify, it was a crossover space between local and international filmmakers, bringing together those who were just starting out and established stars. And the politics were not always simple: at one time, ACV had to print two different festival programs: one with the films from the PRC but not from Taiwan or Hong Kong, and another that was just the opposite.
Television was the initial focus of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), which was founded as the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA) in 1980 and celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. Based in San Francisco, CAAM originated as an Asian American organization for the production of publicly supported content after a Corporation for Public Broadcasting task force report determined that minorities (including Asian Americans) were not being represented in public television; today, it is a member of the consortium retitled the National Multicultural Alliance. It was assembled with the same kind of artist/activist fervor that propelled the others: “godmother” Loni Ding, documentary filmmaker and professor, called the first meeting after the CPB report to demand a seat at the table (and funding trough) for Asian American work; soon after, James Yee came on as its administrator. However, the CPB funding combined with Yee’s administrative chops—he would go on to run the Independent Television Service (ITVS)—marked CAAM from the beginning as a very professionalized organization.
It has continued to update itself across generations and technologies. CAAM has been the national funder of much Asian American–themed public broadcasting, including feature-length documentaries, a capacity institutionalized with the CAAM Media Fund in 1990. CAAM has supported many filmmakers cited in this dossier (Spencer Nakasako and Rea Tajiri, for instance) and many others who should be, including Ramona Diaz, Kayo Hatta, Grace Lee, Justin Lin, Felicia Lowe, H.P. Mendoza, Duc Nguyen, PJ Raval, and the others mentioned below.
CAAM’s Media Fund has provided production financing and ensured exposure through public TV and its own San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (now known as CAAMFest). As a media-arts organization, CAAM also serves as an educational distributor for many documentaries and an artist cultivator-mentor through such programs as the CAAM Fellowship and Muslim Youth Voices Project. CAAM continues its legacy of support for Asian American filmmakers across generations, too, funding new documentaries by Tadashi Nakamura, son of the film pioneer and VC cofounder Robert Nakamura. At present, with ITVS funding, Tadashi is making a film on his dad, Third Act, closing the circle.
The early histories of VC, ACV, and CAAM have all been well-documented, both by scholars and by the organizations themselves.5 This historiographic approach, focusing on a trio of early frameworks and ongoing legacies, has heavily shaped “Asian American film history” and elevated the major filmmakers who have also figured in their founding and development, such as Linda Mabalot, Robert Nakamura, Renee Tajima-Peña, Loni Ding, and Christine Choy. Asian American filmmakers have remained central to documentary history, with far too many to name here. In addition to those included in this dossier, important figures include Deann Borshay Liem (First Person Plural, 2000), Emiko Omori (Rabbit in the Moon, 1991), Valerie Soe (All Orientals Look the Same, 1987), S. Leo Chiang (A Village Called Versailles, 2010), and a roster of hundreds more; nor should the key role of editor extraordinaire Jean Tsien be overlooked. Often in conjunction with CAAM, many of these films came into being through funding from ITVS, the mother lode for groundbreaking and ethical documentary in the United States.
These foundational filmmakers remain amazingly active, too. Emiko Omori reshaped Rabbit into an installation piece, When Rabbit Left the Moon (2016), for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Executive Order 9066, shown the very week of the order (February 19) at the Asian Art Museum to huge crowds.6 Another project reaching completion too late for this dossier is Asian Americans, the long-awaited five-part series for public television spearheaded by executive producer Renee Tajima-Peña and funded by PBS and ITVS in partnership with WETA (the Washington, DC, public television station) and CAAM, with a new generation of filmmakers—S. Leo Chiang, Geeta Gandbhir, and Grace Lee—on board as episode producers. Its research into Asian American history in the United States has produced a vast archive of material that will doubtless instigate scholarship in new directions.
The traditional focus on individuals and institutions has been supplemented by “aesthetic histories,” as traced by the work of such scholars as Glen M. Mimura, who writes Asian American cinema into the legacies of Third Cinema, or Ming-Yuen S. Ma, who traces the shifting role of speech and voice from the VC years to 1990s experimental video.7 Scholarship that chronicles a history of work at the formal/institutional margins is equally crucial, such as Jun Okada’s “alternative history” that foregrounds avant-garde video artists like Nam June Paik, who navigated issues of race and culture within the international art circuit of the sixties and onward through performances and installations.8
Recent scholarship has turned to ethnic-specific media histories, in some ways returning to the pre-VC period of independent production that predated pan-ethnic coalitions. For instance, Nhi T. Lieu’s work on the Vietnamese American variety show, circulated via videotape across the Vietnamese diaspora since the eighties, demonstrates that ethnic-specific approaches can still offer important political and historical reframings that account for demographic shifts, access to technology, diasporic identities, and distribution networks.9 Such works deepen the historical inquiry with specificity regarding aesthetics, audiences, gender, and politics, while broadening definitions of both film and history.
Significantly, some of the most expansive, illuminating, and rigorous works of Asian American film history can be found within Asian American cinema itself. The last few years have seen a number of documentaries on the histories of Asian Americans taking command of the movie camera to tell their own stories or to draw attention to their everyday lives: S. Louisa Wei’s Golden Gate Girls (2013) focuses on the San Francisco–born filmmaker Esther Eng, with a diasporic as well as Asian American focus. Other documentaries remind viewers that Asian American film history is also a personal one. Ali Kazimi’s mesmerizing Random Acts of Legacy (2016) uses 16mm Kodachrome home movies of a Chinese American family in Chicago in 1936–51, as captured by cameraman-father Silas Fung, to redefine the image of Asian American life during the Depression. CAAM’s current “Memories to Light” program, which solicits, preserves, and exhibits home movies made between the twenties and eighties, seeks to continue and expand such projects.
Linking the personal and the political together with the legacies of the Asian American movement of fifty years ago is the contribution of Harry and Josh Chuck’s tremendous documentary Chinatown Rising (2019). Beginning with the unearthing of old reels of film shot by Harry from the sixties to the eighties, it both captures activist work in San Francisco’s Chinatown and aims to fulfil Harry’s dream of producing the definitive film of the neighborhood’s history. It is only now that the footage has been assembled into a feature documentary, with the help of Harry’s son Josh—a testament to cross-generational collaboration and the legacy of Asian American film history.
The circles of acquaintance, collaboration, and mutual aid continue to propel Asian American documentary. James Q. Chan, producer of Chinatown Rising, made an earlier signal contribution to San Francisco’s Chinatown history with his short film, Forever, Chinatown (2016), which documents the creations of artist Frank Wong, a Chinatown native who returned from a life working on Hollywood film sets to craft incredibly detailed dioramas recapturing his youth in a nearly vanished city.
As a documentary that captures the inexhaustible joy of the archive—long-lost images of the streets, of old friends, of the color and passions revealed by a roving and curious camera—Chinatown Rising transmits the same sense of discovery and commitment that invigorates the contributions to this dossier on Asian American film and history in its fiftieth year of power.
Josslyn Luckett foregrounds Betty Chen and Laura Ho, two UCLA Ethno-Communications Program students associated with Visual Communications. As Luckett describes their student films, an alternative view of VC comes into view—playful, dangerous, enigmatic, and quite in contrast to New York critic Daryl Chin’s assessment of early Asian American documentaries as “noble and uplifting and boring as hell.”10 Beyond complementing an otherwise very male early history of VC (dominated by founders Robert Nakamura, Duane Kubo, and Eddie Wong) with critical female voices, Luckett’s piece also foregrounds the historiographic difficulty of tracking down evidence of filmmakers who are “both everywhere and nowhere,” as is too often the case with women artists.
Continuing to explore the margins of the movement are firsthand testimonials by some of Asian American cinema’s foremost artists. In a new interview with Oliver Wang, documentarian Arthur Dong discusses a career straddling the LGBT and Asian American circuits in San Francisco from the eighties until now. Furthermore, the interview depicts Dong as not just a subject of history, but a significant multimodal historian of Asian American popular culture in his own right—from his films on Chinese American filmmakers, on Killing Fields actor Haing S. Ngor, and on 1940s Chinatown nightclub performers to his more recent photography books and curatorial contributions.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast are film and video artists, mostly working in experimental modes, similarly navigating multiple spaces—in this case, festivals, exhibitions, and museums. In a breathtaking forum discussion, artists Rea Tajiri, Roddy Bogawa, and Shu Lea Cheang, along with critic Daryl Chin, recall a vibrant eighties (and seventies and nineties) era in New York City, where rule breaking was not just a formal matter, but a political and cultural one that led them in different directions, often encircling ACV. The roundtable, convened by Tajiri, Abby Sun, and Vince Schleitwiler, is also valuable for how it propels film history beyond the institutional approach and toward one of production cultures—nodes centered on specific cities, neighborhoods, and even individual buildings.
The pragmatic and symbolic significance of the local is also a theme of Viola Lasmana’s article on Kelly Loves Tony (1998), one of three feature documentaries directed by Spencer Nakasako out of the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, an after-school program serving mostly Southeast Asian refugee youth in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. As Lasmana argues, Kelly Loves Tony is a collaboration between Nakasako, producer/editor Debbie Lum, and documentary subject Kelly Saeteurn herself, who frequently wields an analog Hi8 camera to speak to, as if writing in a diary. Here, the small-form technology allows for an amateurism that Lasmana, channeling Edward Said and Roland Barthes, characterizes as a ritual of love unique to the autoethnographic impulses of refugee creativity. Lasmana also considers the historical implications of Asian American amateurs speaking to the camera, reframing how scholars might think about contemporary Asian American practices of online vlogging.
The unique cultural experience of refugee communities—a segment not significantly on the minds of the Asian American movement in the sixties and early seventies—is also discussed in Lan Duong’s article on Vietnamese American film history in terms of a counterarchive that preserves the stories and imaginings of a Vietnamese diaspora, separate from both the dominant national archives in Vietnam (and for whom the emotional and physical suffering of the South Vietnamese is unassimilable) and the white-savior wartime fantasies of Hollywood. For Duong, the space of this counterarchive is the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA), which like VC, ACV, and CAAM before it, hosts conversations on cultural politics, incubates new artists, and presents a film festival (Viet Film Fest, first convened in 2003). It is a counterspace that creates the possibility of an alternative political imagination and also promotes diasporic, LGBTQ, and experimental voices.
Melissa Phruksachart’s powerful essay “The Bourgeois Cinema of Boba Liberalism” returns to the political imperatives of Asian American cinema circa early VC, contrasting those early demands for social transformation with contemporary demands to merely be seen—a superficial call for representation that, Phruksachart argues, feeds market-oriented notions of success and absorbs Asian American journalism, hashtagging, and student activism into a neoliberal charade. Focusing on paratextual discourse surrounding two 2018 blockbusters—the Hollywood rom-com Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu, 2018) and the independent techno-thriller Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018)—Phruksachart asks vital and urgent questions about the role of colormuteness and public relations in how audiences and producers have come to demand and value Asian American cinema. For Phruksachart, what’s at stake is the spirit of anticapitalism and anti-imperialism that energized filmmakers to begin with—a spirit that can also address expanded notions of social justice as Asian American cinema enters its second half-century.11
In today’s “post–Crazy Rich Asians” period (as some are calling it), boundaries inherited from Asian American cinema’s first fifty years are blurred, and even that period’s seemingly stable categories can become unreliable. Consider, for instance, the outraged reactions to the news last fall of the Golden Globes nomination of the U.S. independent feature The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019) as Best Foreign Language Film. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the transnational ambitions of Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell can—especially with the power of the China market and the fraught U.S.–China trade relations of 2020—still engender old “perpetual foreigner” stereotypes—a syndrome that the Golden Globes nomination revives.
It sometimes seems that the most visible media activism today is the neoliberal #GoldOpen, whereby rich Asian Americans pay off Hollywood studios in the name of social change. Even Visual Communications and Asian CineVision opened their festivals with “colormute” films like Searching. Nonetheless, new categories of media-arts centers are emerging—for instance, with the cloud-based community of local, regional, national, and transnational documentary interests known as “A-Doc.” Not based in any single city, A-Doc clusters conversations through Slack channels and get-togethers at events and festivals wherever its members happen to congregate. A-Doc is, in its own words, “a national network that works to increase the visibility and support of Asian Americans in the documentary field. … [They] welcome and include filmmakers who self-identify as Asian American, recognizing that this is a porous, evolving definition.”12
This very new movement is confined to filmmakers at the moment, but it surely will spread to instigate new approaches to aesthetics and historiography as well. And while this dossier as a whole focuses on documentary, due to the anniversary of key institutions that have supported so much of that work, it is crucial to recall that fiction filmmaking has held extraordinary importance throughout as well, as the articles by both Duong and Phruksachart demonstrate. Wayne Wang’s magical Chan Is Missing (1982) still looms large. So does Justin Lin’s taboo-busting Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). They, too, are part of the renegade history of Asian American film.
Finally, then, what can be learned from the experimental shape-shifting of the video of the eighties and nineties, or from the not-so-random acts of Betty Chen’s or Kelly Saeteurn’s legacies in picking up the camera? More than ever, this dossier argues, a historical perspective is necessary, not simply to fill in the gaps, but to refuel the fire for passionate commitment. In film, as in politics, history’s secrets deserve exposure. Besides, anniversaries are never just about the past after all: they can clear a path to the future.
1. For a study and commemoration of fifty years of Asian American Studies, see Russell Jeung, Karen Umemoto, Harvey Dong, Eric Mar, Lisa Hirai Tsuchitani, and Arnold Pan, eds., Mountain Movers: Student Activism and the Emergence of Asian American Studies (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2019).
2. Key sources are Karen L. Ishizuka, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties (New York: Verso, 2016); Daryl J. Maeda, Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); and Renee Tajima, “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking, 1970–1990,” in Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts, ed. Russell Leong (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1991), 17.
3. Other photo packages included the “Asian American Study Print Series” for the Asian American Bilingual Center in Berkeley (1975) and “In Movement: a Pictorial History of Asian Americans” for the Department of Asian American Studies at California State University Long Beach (1976–77).
4. On the history of Asian CineVision, see Stephen Gong, “A History in Progress: Asian American Media Arts Centers: 1970–1990,” in Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts, ed. Russell Leong (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1991), 1–9.
5. See, e.g., Jun Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movements (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015). On the occasion of their many anniversaries, VC, ACV, and CAAM have published organizational histories in the program booklets for their film festivals and on websites. VC commissioned a documentary, Claiming a Voice: The Visual Communications Story (Arthur Dong, 1990), for its twentieth anniversary.
6. For more details, see http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions/emiko-omori.
7. Glen M. Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Ming-Yuen S. Ma, “Claiming a Voice: Speech, Self-Expression, and Subjectivity in Early Asian American Independent Media,” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ed. Lori Kido Lopez and Vincent N. Pham (New York: Routledge, 2017), 11–25. Okada also considers the aesthetic implications of institutional change in Making Asian American Film and Video, presenting a history of documentary and fiction techniques that respond to changing imperatives in public television and the Asian American film festivals. On media organizations’ impact on the emergence of the feature-film format, see Brian Hu, “The Coin of the Realm: Valuing the Asian American Feature-Length Film,” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ed. Lori Kido Lopez and Vincent N. Pham (New York: Routledge, 2017), 63–73.
8. Jun Okada, “Nam June Paik and Laurel Nakadate at the Margins of Asian American Film and Video,” Cinema Journal 56, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 136–41.
9. Nhi T. Lieu, The American Dream in Vietnamese (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
10. For a discussion of Chin’s assessment, see Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video, 26–29.
11. For a related argument about the depoliticization of Asian American cinema, see Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, “What Was Asian American Cinema?” Cinema Journal 56, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 130–35.
12. For more information, see the A-Doc website: https://a-doc.org/.
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