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New Exhibit Recalls Formative Era Of Asian American Activism In L.A.

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You could pinpoint the year it began: 1968. That was when the term "Asian American" had begun to crystalize. It came, in part, from a suggestion by Berkeley grad student Yuji Ichioka, who needed a name for a fledgling organization that she was starting with fellow activists (they would become the Asian American Political Alliance).

It is 1968, then, that marks the beginning for "Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles 1968-80s," an exhibit that opened last week at the Chinese American Museum. The focus turns to the wealth of activism that had taken place in Asian American communities during that period in Los Angeles. This description covers only a part of the story, however, as activism had been a part of Asian communities in the U.S. long before the late '60s. There was, for instance, You Chung Hong, a L.A.-based attorney who, in 1928, spoke with a congressional committee to denounce racist immigration laws that kept nonwhites from setting foot in the States.

"Roots" spotlights the mid to late 20th century because, as told by curator Ryan Wong, something new was fomenting by the late 60s. Activists in L.A. were adopting a pan-Asian view of the period's issues, as they began to see the disparate communities of L.A. as being inherently linked. Asian Americans were also growing more aware of their relation to the black and Chicano movements. "What's distinct is a new pan-Asian American identity. Before this moment, people identified as Chinese American, or Japanese American, or you were lumped under the term 'Oriental.' But now there was this idea of strategically coming together," said Wong. "The second thing was how tied in it was with local and global movements of the day. It touched on the idea of a Third World. The idea of Black liberation. The idea of revolutionary politics."

This emerging awareness was echoed in Asian communities around the nation. Fay Chiang, former director of Basement Workshop, a Chinese American collective in New York City, told Smithsonian Folkways that some East Coast Asian Americans were "influenced by what was happening in the Black and Puerto Rican communities," which prompted them to ask "Why not us? Who are we? It was very basic: Who are we? There was a hunger, a need to figure that out, where we felt like it was a matter life and death." Of course, these questions were being asked as nightly broadcasts of the Vietnam War were splashed across TV monitors; a reminder of how easily one could be reduced to the background as the other.

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"Roots," then, is a survey of a movement that was not only actualizing itself, but also finding its place in the broader scope. Among the more emblematic subjects in the exhibit is the case of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean man who was convicted in 1973 for the slaying of a Chinese gang leader in San Francisco. His case was brought to a Korean journalist who discovered, among other things, that eyewitness accounts didn't add up, and that everyone involved with the case—the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, even Lee's court-appointed defense lawyer—had falsely assumed him to be Chinese. What followed was the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, advanced not just by Korean Americans, but Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans as well. Their efforts would lead to Lee's release in 1983. Among the memorabilia that "Roots" has collected is a poster announcing a Chol Soo Lee benefit concert at the former Embassy Auditorium in downtown.

The exhibit isn't just an examination of cross cultural divides—it also looks at the melding of generations. Clippings and photographs document the fight against mass evictions that were taking place in Little Tokyo during the '70s and '80s, which were countered by coalitions such as Little Tokyo People's Rights and The Little Tokyo Anti-Eviction Task Force. These efforts saw younger generations of Japanese Americans speaking on behalf of older residents who were facing displacement. The younger activists "rediscovered Little Tokyo as an indigenous base of Japanese American ethnicity and realized the need to preserve their national roots while the Issei [the first Japanese immigrants] were still alive," according to The Japanese Journal of American Studies.

"Roots" also illuminates an era when Asian Americans were laying bedrock in the arts and media, a necessary gambit as they strove to take rein of the narrative that gets projected outward and, in turn, comes back to define them. "I would argue that this is the first time that Asian Americans collectively owned and produced their visual culture," said Wong. "The idea of a collective of people creating art for themselves is pretty radical. Especially when you consider the long history of stereotyping, anti-Asian propaganda, and yellowface in Hollywood. It gave people subjecthood." It's worth mentioning that Chol Soo Lee's case was the basis for the 1989 movie True Believer, which stripped Lee of the subjecthood that Wong mentions, focusing instead on the existential crisis that shadows the white lead played by James Woods.

The exhibit features a number of independent publications such as the seminal Gidra, which had its beginnings in the (then) newly minted Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. The staff, wholly comprised of volunteers, offered "an Asian American perspective on the international anti-imperialist movement," according to Densho, an organization that works to archive stories from the internment camps of World War II. Gidra, while singular in its goal, ran the gamut and wrote "regular features on dealing the draft, promoted unity with other 'Third World' groups, published art and poetry, and even featured a series of articles on cooking, making clothing, and fixing toilets." [Digital copies of Gidra can be found on the Densho site.]

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Visitors to "Roots" will also find screenings of films produced by Visual Communications, the L.A.-based media arts organization founded in the early '70s. The non-profit was among the first to task itself with presenting, visually and otherwise, a more nuanced account of the lives of Asian Americans (works include MANONG, a portrait of the first wave of Filipinos to come to the U.S. in search of work). And as you walk through the gallery you're apt to hear the swaying verses of "A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America," the 1973 folk album recorded by musicians Chris Kando Iijima, William “Charlie” Chin and Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto (whose own family was rounded up at the Santa Anita Racetrack during the WWII internments).

The scope of any exhibit is limited, and so it stands to reason that the movement didn't end in the 1980s. As Wong tells LAist, Asian American activism is in constant flux, reflecting the call of the times. "Activists are still looking at a sense of place, talking about gentrification, redevelopment. But I think one thing that's particular to today's movement is the focus on intersectionality. Back then there was a women's movement within the Asian American movement, as well as the beginning of a queer moment. But today all those issues come first for younger activists. They understand that you can't get anywhere without a sense of that intersectional grounding." And indeed the prevailing spirit of "Roots" is not just one of nostalgia, but of an anticipation of the future.

It goes without saying that, in the current environment (on Wednesday the President had threatened U.S. cities for protecting their own) "Roots" takes on special urgency as a reminder of the power of communities. And while it almost seems unfair to tag the exhibit as a didactic tool (the gallery was four years in the making), the context we live in shapes everything. As Charlie Chin told Smithsonian Folkway while speaking on his activist background: “we know that people can be whipped into hysteria and xenophobia—we’ve seen it happen before, and it could happen again. And the only thing you can do is be vigilant and educate, educate, educate.”

The Chinese American Museum is located at 425 North Los Angeles Street in downtown Los Angeles. (213) 485-8567. "Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles 1968-80s" is free and will run until June 11.