Estelle Peck Ishigo’s Life and Work Contrast Beauty with Despair

Now through December 31, 2018, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming is staging the first significant showing of Estelle Peck Ishigo’s work in nearly 50 years. The Mountain Was Our Secret: Works by Estelle Ishigo includes ten watercolors by the artist on loan from JANM’s Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection and several of the artist’s pencil sketches, courtesy of the Bacon Sakatani collection.

 

Born in Oakland, California, in 1899, Estelle Peck was raised by a series of relatives in Southern California. In her twenties, Peck attended Otis Art Institute where she met and fell in love with aspiring Nisei actor Shigeharu Arthur Ishigo. Due to anti-miscegenation laws at the time, the pair were unable to marry in the United States, so they wed in Mexico in 1929.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many businesses fired employees of Japanese descent. Estelle, because of her marriage, lost her position as an art teacher. When her husband was forcibly removed and incarcerated at Pomona, and later Heart Mountain, Estelle opted to go with him.

Because of her background as an art teacher, Estelle was recruited as a documentary reporter for the US War Relocation Authority. With this job, it was her responsibility to record the Heart Mountain experience in illustrations, line drawings, and watercolors. As evidenced in her art and writing, Estelle took her official work as a documentarian for the WRA seriously, making sure to accurately document the miserable conditions at the camp. Many of her pieces illustrated the lack of privacy and comfort in living quarters and latrines. Like many Heart Mountain artists, Estelle’s work often depicted the mountain itself, an imposing figure in a desolate landscape.

“Untitled,” painted in November 1943, depicts Heart Mountain and the rough landscape of the camp.

Estelle first began documenting conditions in the camp by using watercolors. However, she admitted to being frustrated by watercolor’s inability to fully capture the conditions in which Japanese Americans were forced to live, calling the medium too “clean and untroubled.” To remedy this shortcoming, Estelle created more charcoal and pencil drawings, many of which are in JANM’s online collection.

When she was released from Heart Mountain in 1945, all the art that she had created was considered the property of the government and seized. She managed, however, to smuggle out many pieces by hiding them between her and Arthur’s clothing. After the war, the Ishigos returned to Southern California and lived in a trailer park. They struggled to find steady employment. Arthur died in 1957, and Estelle lived hermetically until 1972 when her artwork was rediscovered and included in a California Historical Society exhibition. That same year, she worked with the Hollywood Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League to publish a book, Lone Heart Mountain, which recounts individual stories as well as shared realities of persons of Japanese descent before, during, and after incarceration.

In 1983, filmmaker Steven Okazaki heard of her story and sought to make a documentary about Estelle. While doing research for his film, Okazaki discovered Estelle was living in poverty and residing in a Los Angeles basement apartment. When he told her about his project, Estelle said, “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell my story. Now I can die.” She passed away in 1990, just before the release of the film, Days of Waiting, which went on to win a Peabody Award and an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

“Recital of Piano Students, Heart Mt.,” painted March 1944, shows the incarcerated participating in the arts.

Through her work, Estelle showed the duality of the American concentration camp experience. She had the unique ability to capture both the quotidian, tedious activities required for daily survival as well as scenes of respite, brief moments of joy amidst trauma. An excerpt from her book, Lone Heart Mountain, notes this binary experience: “Gathered close into ourselves and imprisoned at the foot of the mountains as it towered in silence over the barren waste, we searched its gaunt face for the mysteries of our destiny: and some spoke its name with the same ancient reverence, felt for their own mountains in Japan.”

The Mountain Was Our Secret is included with admission at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which is $9 for adults and $7 for students and seniors. Children under 12 and members of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation are free. More information is available on their website.

Photographer Jim Lommasson on What We Carried

What We Carried: Fragments & Memories from Iraq & Syria, a traveling exhibition of the Arab American National Museum, is on view at JANM until August 5, 2018. Having previously created work centered on American soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, photographer Jim Lommasson wanted to tell the stories of those affected by the United States’ participation in these countries. When the same approach he had used in the past did not yield meaningful results, he tried another tactic. The following is excerpted from the artist’s statement:

 

I realized from the conversations, that when one leaves their home, under the cover of darkness with a kid under each arm, you can’t take much with you except some practical items and maybe one or two mementos. It became clear that the carried items tell the story. I began to ask recent refugees in several U.S. cities to share those things with me. I photographed the objects, I made 13” x 19” archival prints and asked the participant to write on the photograph why that item above all others, was so important that they chose to carry it on their long journey to America. The results speak volumes about being uprooted and displaced, about loss, and the preservation of identity. What was carried? What was left behind?

I realized that the objects and the stories help those of us who see them feel compassion and an intimate empathy. What would I take with me? But the more powerful understanding is the realization, of what was left behind. What was left behind was everything else: homes, friends, family, school, careers, culture and history.

The stories tell how similar we all are. Circumstances and zip codes determine what kind of lives we will live. When we try to walk in “others” shoes, we become more human. When we understand that those “others” are not as different as the media and that politicians make them out to be. When we see tired, hungry and desperate families arriving in inflatable boats, walking by the thousands to refugee camps, we have to understand that we would look just like them if we lived in a war zone, or were victims of a natural disaster. Those tired, desperate people might also be teachers, doctors, engineers, or homemakers. Their objects tell us how similar we are. What would you choose? A picture of your mother, bible, a Qur’an, a ring, a teapot, maybe even a Barbie doll? Yes, all of these things travelled from Iraq and Syria to your neighborhood. We aren’t as different as we think. Certainly those who fan the flames of “us” and “them” profit by spreading fear and hatred for personal political gain and try to keep them out by persecuting based on foreign-ness or religion. History has demonstrated that it works.

 

You can read Lommasson’s full statement on our website. What We Carried is included with museum admission. For a closer look at the exhibition, visit JANM on July 28, 2018, when we will be hosting two special events for visitors. At 10:30 a.m., take a guided gallery tour of the exhibition, or join us at 2:00 p.m. for Stories of Displacement, presented in partnership with Vigilant Love, which will share the perspectives of recent Iraqi and Syrian refugees, Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, and others.

Tell Your Tales of Little Tokyo

Artist Dan Kwong
Artist Dan Kwong

Dan Kwong is a veteran performance artist, director, writer, and native Angeleno, based at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. He is one of four artists who are currently part of the inaugural +Lab Artist Residency Program, sponsored by the Little Tokyo Service Center. The theme of the residency is Community Control and Self-Determination. The four artists are living in the historic Daimaru Hotel on First Street for three months while creating art projects that involve the Little Tokyo community and speak to this topic.

Dan’s project, Tales of Little Tokyo, involves collecting personal memories and stories about Little Tokyo from seniors (as well as some younger generation folks), and shaping that material into a theatrical piece.

“Little Tokyo is a precious and vibrant community with over 130 years of history,” says Dan. Our stories are at the heart of that history, and collectively they become the voice of our community. This project aspires to give that voice a hearing.”

Through the first week of July, Dan is conducting a series of informal “story-circle” gatherings at JANM. Story-circles happen every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, usually from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and Wednesdays, usually from 1:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Gatherings happen in JANM’s Araki Community Education Center.

Members of the JANM community share stories of Little Tokyo

In these story-circles, Dan asks various questions—it’s a bit like an interview—and people share their memories, stories, and anecdotes about Little Tokyo. These are recorded.

In early July, Dan will sort through and edit this material and write a theatrical piece that expresses the significance and value of preserving and sustaining Little Tokyo as a cultural community.

On the weekend of July 28-29, there will be a public presentation (most likely a staged reading) of the piece in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.

Please let Dan know if you are interested in sharing your tales of Little Tokyo. He would love to hear from you! Dan can be reached at dkbb12@aol.com. A maximum of 10 people can share per session so contact Dan in advance to ensure your spot and confirm the time for the day you want to participate. You can also just drop by one of the story-circle sessions if you’d like to listen in; you might still want to contact Dan to confirm the time. Paid admission to JANM is not required, but there are great exhibitions now on view so you may want to take full advantage of being here. Admission is only $12 for adults and $6 for seniors.

For more information about the +Lab Artist Residency Program, check out the LTSC’s press release announcing the inaugural artists.

This Summer, See Masumi Hayashi’s Work in Glendale

Now through July 8, 2018, three pieces from the JANM permanent collection by artist Masumi Hayashi are on view at ReflectSpace Gallery at the Downtown Central Library in Glendale. The photocollages, from Hayashi’s “American Concentration Camps” series, are presented as part of the library’s exhibition entitled Accused of No Crime: Japanese Incarceration in America, which weaves a personal narrative through photographs, art, and film to highlight stories of Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps during World War II. Hayahsi’s work is presented alongside pieces from Mona Higuchi and Paul Kitaguki as well as archival images from Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, among others. Admission to the library is free. More information about the display can be found here.

Gila River Camp, where Hayashi was born.
Gila River Relocation Camp, Foundations, 1990, panoramic photo collage. 22″x 56″

Born in the Gila River War Relocation Camp in Rivers, Arizona, just after the war ended, Hayashi spent her childhood in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she worked at her parents’ neighborhood market. She briefly attended UCLA before moving to Florida to be with her husband, who had joined the Navy. Hayashi later enrolled at Florida State University where she earned both her BA and MFA.

In 1982, Hayashi joined the Cleveland State University faculty as Professor of Photography. While at CSU, Hayashi received awards and fellowships from a number of institutions, including the Ohio Arts Council, the Civil Liberties Educational Fund, and Arts Midwest. She worked at the university until her death in 2006.

Hayashi developed a systematic photographic style that involved taking multiple exposures of a single subject and assembling them into large panoramic scenes that could be six feet across or larger. She is probably best known for her series “American Concentration Camps,” which centered on the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.

According to the artist’s statement in 1997, preserved on her online museum’s website, “The viewer can instantly see a 360-degree panoramic view which would otherwise circle around her, thus the viewer becomes both prisoner and guard within the photograph’s memory.” Her work is often described as eliciting contradictory sensations. Former JANM curator Karin Higa in 2003 noted that there is a “suggestion of dysfunction between what you see and what you know—what you can’t find out” in her work. The “American Concentration Camps” series is no different, moving viewers to take in both the beauty of the landscape and the memory of what happened there as well as that which can never be known about either. As Hayashi once remarked, “What we’re living with is not always on the surface.”

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Monument, 1995, panoramic photo collage, 48″x 80″

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Hayashi’s work and all of Accused of No Crime.

Breaking the Fast with #VigilantLOVE

On May 24, 2018, the Japanese American National Museum was honored to support and participate in the #VigilantLOVE 3rd Annual Bridging Communities Iftar—the evening meal that breaks each day’s fast during Ramadan—held at the Centenary United Methodist Church. As a new staff member in the Education Unit at JANM, I was excited to attend the event with a few colleagues to learn more about #VigilantLOVE and the Little Tokyo community.

Place setting at the #VigilantLOVE iftar.

According to its website, #VigilantLOVE is a healing and arts-driven organization that counters mainstream narratives of insularity, building upon the legacy of Muslim American and Japanese American solidarity since 9/11. As someone new not only to JANM, but also to Los Angeles and the West Coast, this solidarity is one that I was not aware of until starting at the museum. But it is one that makes perfect sense when considering the shared commitments to fighting against hate, battling racism, and standing up for constitutional rights that again seem imperiled in our country.

Already in my short time at JANM, seemingly disparate aspects of my identity, both personal and professional, have converged in unexpected and exciting ways. I was raised Muslim, and by my own choice wore the hijab from grade three through my first semester of college. I have fasted for Ramadan in the past, but it has been many years since I have attended a community Iftar event. I never would have thought that my professional work, at a Japanese American organization no less, would have provided the opportunity for me to connect with this part of myself again.

The event itself was also a very unique mix of elements, from speakers to poetry reading to reflective breaths of gratitude to fundraising. In learning a little more about #VigilantLOVE, the confluence of these, again, seemingly disparate elements fit perfectly into their organizing model, which “integrates grassroots organizing, policy advocacy, political education, the arts, and healing practices within the culture of everything we do.”

Origami note containing words to make poetry.

My favorite part of the night was the short collective poetry activity attendees were invited to participate in. Since I’m an educator, perhaps this is not too surprising but I loved that everyone was invited to collaboratively create something with the others at their table. Each table had a small gold or silver origami envelope containing various cut-out words; our job was to create a haiku using words from our envelope. Our JANM table struggled a bit (we needed to make sure the number of syllables in each line was correct!), but eventually came up with this:

side by side building

wakeful unshakeable friends

create strengthen home

Our poem, and the night as a whole, reminded me of the importance of community—of friends —in building the world we want to see. Despite mainstream rhetoric of insularity and isolationism, where people focus on the issues that divide us, this event helped us to remember the beauty of the multicultural, multifaceted world in which we live.

Collaborative haiku.

 

Getting in Touch with Our Roots: Submissions Invited for Nikkei Chronicles 7

Nikkei Chronicles is an annual theme-based writing project from Discover Nikkei. Its goal is to promote deeper understanding of the histories and insights of people of Japanese descent living around the globe. This year, after inviting submissions from the Discover Nikkei community, Nikkei Roots has been chosen as the theme.

Jay Horinouchi designed the Nikkei Roots logo.

Discover Nikkei invites writers to interpret “roots” in whatever ways they choose; the following questions are offered only to help writers get their thought process going:

  • What does being Nikkei mean to you?
  • How does your Nikkei identity reveal itself in your day-to-day life?
  • What activities do you engage in to maintain traditions from Japan?
  • How do you stay connected to your roots, whether individually or collectively?
  • When and how do you really feel like a Nikkei?

To best explore the shared heritage and experiences of Nikkei while recognizing the singularity of each experience, a wide range of texts will be accepted, including academic papers, personal essays and stories, and other prose pieces. (For this installment, poetry will not be considered.) Submissions can be made in English, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. All stories submitted that meet the criteria will be published in Nikkei Chronicles 7: Nikkei Roots: Digging into Our Cultural Heritage on a rolling basis as part of the Nikkei Roots series in Discover Nikkei’s Journal section. Authors may submit multiple entries.

It is hoped that by publishing a wide range of Nikkei stories, Discover Nikkei will help readers enhance their understanding of what it means to be Nikkei. Nikkei Chronicles 7 will be about how Nikkei identity—a connection to roots—is maintained individually or collectively, as a family or as part of a community.

Submissions will be accepted until September 30, 2018, at 6 p.m. PDT. For more details and to submit, click here.

Kodomo no Hi Learning at Lunch

In conjunction with Kodomo no Hi—Children’s Day—in Japan, the JANM Collections Unit presented a Members Only Learning at Lunch session on Saturday, May 5. A group of artifacts from the collection, including Boy’s Day Festival in May, was shared with members. The watercolor painting is one of several donated to JANM in 2002 by Charlotte Opler Sagoff. While the other pieces donated at the time are signed and dated by the artist, this painting alone is not, leaving some uncertainty about its origins. It is stylistically similar to a number of the others donated from Sagoff, making its identification as close to positive as our collections team believes to be possible.

Boy’s Day Festival in May, 1945

Sagoff taught high school at the Tule Lake incarceration camp while her husband, Marvin Opler, was stationed there for three years as a government anthropologist, social psychologist, and community analyst. Unlike other anthropologists the government assigned to camps, Opler was critical of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As Minoru Kiyota notes in Beyond Loyalty: The Story of a Kibei, “Opler regarded the residents of Tule Lake as essentially normal human beings, while [Tule Lake Director Raymond] Best considered them fanatics.” Historian Peter Suzuki holds up Opler as a model for the positive influence anthropologists could have had on the War Relocation Authority.

Opler further criticized the segregation of “loyal” and “disloyal” internees at Tule Lake, and showed a respect for Japanese culture that went against the mores of the time. Sagoff enrolled their son in the Japanese nursery camp at Tule Lake, making him the only white student. Opler’s willingness to think of the Tule Lake prisoners as real, normal people perhaps stemmed from his ability to situate their culture within a wider worldview. He likened the prisoners’ renewed interest in Japanese traditions to when Plains Indians returned to the Ghost Dance religion, calling both reclamations and affirmations of identities too long sublimated to colonizers. Opler had in fact begun his anthropological career observing Native Americans, alongside his brother Morris, in New Mexico. (While Opler was assigned to Tule Lake, Morris was stationed at Manzanar.)

While at Tule Lake, Opler appreciated the artistic work of those imprisoned. According to Sagoff, he hired artist Dick Toshiki Hamaoka to draw representations of life at Tule Lake because they were unable to afford photographers. Boy’s Day Festival in May, with koinobori in the air, barracks housing, and residents going about their daily lives, is plausibly one such work. According to Sagoff, Hamaoka was 17 at the time he was commissioned and was a cartoonist for his high school newspaper. By her account, after the war, Hamaoka repatriated to Japan.

WRA records indicate that there was a Toshiki D. Hamaoka, a kibei Nisei, from Los Angeles at Tule Lake. However, those records show him to be 25 years of age at the time Sagoff would have known him. Moreover, the WRA shows him as being married, with previous military service, and indicate that he was sent first to Santa Anita and then to the Amache camp (also referred to as the Granada camp) in Colorado. A Bulletin from Granada, Colorado, dated October 21, 1942, corroborates all of this: “Alice Misaye Ouye and Richard Toshiki Hamaoka were married at the Lamar courthouse Thursday. The couple, formerly of Santa Anita, were accompanied by Police Chief Stanley Adams. They now reside at 11G-12F.” The couple was moved to Tule Lake in 1943, perhaps because of responses to the loyalty questionnaire. Final Accountability Records show the Hamaokas arriving at there from Granada in September 1943 and leaving for Japan on Christmas Day 1945. Regardless of his age, WRA records list Hamaoka’s qualified occupation as “artist” and “photographer.”

If Boy’s Day Festival in May is indeed by Hamaoka, it may well be one of his final completed piece before repatriating to Japan.

JANM members look at Hamaoka’s watercolor at a Members Only event on May 5th.

Opportunities to view and hear about artifacts from the JANM Collection, like this Members Only Learning at Lunch event, are a great benefit of membership. Join or renew today!

Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata)

There’s nothing quite like a hometown crowd.

Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata) is my short documentary about the struggles and obsessions of Shin Miyata, a Tokyo-based record label owner and promoter who specializes in the difficult task of distributing Chicano music in Japan.

Shin’s goal has always been to bring authentic and diverse representations of Chicano and Latinx culture to Japan. He has done so with a purity of intention that hasn’t brought him financial gain, but has instead delivered a wealth of understanding that has educated, enlightened, and actually changed the lives of many people.

The documentary was made in conjunction with JANM’s exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo. Like the art that was featured in the exhibition, Shin’s work provides a prime example of the intersectionality of Japanese and Latinx cultures and artistic collaborations.

 

Highlights from the Transpacific Musiclands Outdoor Concert at JANM, curated by Shin Miyata, featuring Quetzal, El Haru Kuroi, and La Chamba.

 

As we were planning our first screening in Tokyo, set for April 7 at an event space called Hare-Mame, Shin was nervous. Not only was he reluctant about promoting a screening of a film about himself, he was also worried that not many people would show up.

He wanted to add more entertainment—more films, maybe even a band. We decided to include Tad Nakamura’s poignant short doc about a little-known slice of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, Breakfast at Tak’s, plus a few of Shin’s favorite DJ’s—the Trasmundo crew and DJ Holiday.

Regardless of the additional entertainment, when the night of the event arrived, Hare-Mame was packed to the gills. It was full of Shin’s friends and followers, all eager to watch the documentary about him.

As the film played, the crowd’s reaction was amazing to see. It was much different from audiences in LA and Mexico City, the two cities where the film had previously screened. I don’t know if it was because of cultural differences or personal knowledge of Shin, but the Japanese audience burst into laughter at unexpected moments and actually cheered (!) during a section of the film where other audiences had remained silent.

 

Our Man in Tokyo at Hare Mame in Daikanyama, Tokyo

 

As the credits rolled, they erupted into a sustained applause—not just for the film, but also for Shin himself, who has impacted their lives in a deeply meaningful way for many years by introducing them to the art, culture, and politics of Chicanos and Latinxs from the US. It was an acknowledgement of all the tireless work he has done for Chicano/Latinx artists and the people of Japan.

Many people thanked me afterwards for telling Shin’s story, but I was just grateful that they had shown up and were open to Shin’s mission of cultural understanding and unity. As I write this, I know that he is already on to a new project—searching for the next band to take to Japan, digging up a long-forgotten album to re-release, or planning another live event. His struggle continues and countless people are better off for it.

***

If you live in the Bay Area, Our Man in Tokyo will be screening as part of CAAMFest 2018 on Sunday, May 13. Info and tickets here: caamfest.com/2018/shorts-programs/toyko-beats

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To see some of the bands that Shin has worked with and the concert he curated at JANM, check out these videos:

 

Quetzal performing “Para Sanar” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

El Haru Kuroi performing “Niños Viajadores” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

East LA Taiko performing at Transpacific Musiclands

 

La Chamba performing “El Guapo” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

Conjunto J and Tex Nakamura performing together at Transpacific Musiclands

 

Ruben Guevara performing at Transpacific Musiclands

 

Can’t Attend the 2018 Gala Dinner? Show Your Support Anyway!

JANM’s 2018 Gala Dinner is just a few days away, on April 21. Even if you’re not able to attend in person, you can still support an important JANM initiative that is the focus of a portion of the evening: the Bid for Education.

JANM’s Bid for Education program was officially launched at the 2000 Gala Dinner by the late US Senator Daniel K. Inouye in response to state budget cuts that threatened bus transportation for school field trips. Since then, it has become a galvanizing force behind the museum’s School Visits program, making field trips to JANM possible for more than 12,000 primary and secondary school students and teachers every year.

Funds raised by the Bid for Education are earmarked to support bus transportation and museum admission for primary and secondary school students from Title I schools and groups who have demonstrated financial need. Both school buses and public transportation are eligible for funding. Bid for Education funds also support K–12 educator workshops, the development of free resources for educators, docent recruitment and training, and many other educational initiatives.

3rd-grade-students-visit
Bid for Education funds support bus transportation to JANM for primary and secondary school students, like these third-graders. Photo by Gary Ono.

One teacher from Bell Gardens, California, recently shared this with us: “As a Title I school with financial need, your grants have provided us with the opportunity to coordinate a field trip to such a worthwhile institution, which provides our students with an invaluable cultural experience.”

mas-yamashita-tour
The Bid for Education allows students to have docent-led tours of JANM’s Common Ground exhibition, like this one led by volunteer Mas Yamashita. Photo by Tracy Kumono.

Another educator, from Lynwood, California, said, “We thank JANM for the generous Bid for Education scholarship that made our great day possible. We wish you continued success in your mission to educate, enlighten, and inspire.”

Bid for Education receives much of its funding during the annual Gala Dinner, but donations can be made at any time. If you won’t be with us at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites this Saturday, please consider making a gift online now. Support at any level is greatly appreciated!

Get Ready for hapa.me with This Catalog Essay Excerpt

Cindy, Japanese / German. Photos by Kip Fulbeck

JANM is thrilled to be opening a new exhibition by our old friend Kip Fulbeck on April 7, 2018. Check out the schedule of opening day activities for hapa.me – 15 years of the hapa project and plan to spend the day with us.

The following text is excerpted from an essay by Cindy Nakashima in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition. Nakashima has researched, written on, and taught about mixed race for over 30 years. She has published numerous articles on the subject, co-authored the book The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, and has co-curated two museum exhibitions exploring critical mixed races studies.

When Kip first spread the word in 2000-2001 that he was going to do a photo-based project of mixed race Asian/Pacific Islanders, we – meaning the small but growing group of us who were doing Hapa work at the time – were equal parts excited and nervous.

First of all, we asked ourselves and each other, “But who cares about us?” While it was definitely an exciting time to be in the dialogue – a moment of coalescing around the subject of mixed race (some were even calling it a “multiracial movement” – it still felt very much as if we were a small and obscure topic in the big world. If Mixed Race as a subject matter was ever recognized within the larger discourse on race (and even then, only marginally), it was always assumed to be Black/White.

And how will Kip ever find enough of us to photograph? Remember, there was no Facebook or Instagram back then. We’d have to get on our early generation cell phones and call every mixed person we knew, and make fliers and post them all over campuses and J-town and Little Tokyo. And what kind of venue would want to show our photographs? Would an Asian American community or student center identify with us enough to show it? Would they even be interested, let alone supportive? We’d been made to feel unwanted in Asian American institutions before – it was an especially painful sting. Dreaming big reminded us of how small we were.

Or were we?

. . . .

The photo shoots that Kip set up across the country turned out to be mob scenes, with 20, 30, 40, 50 Hapas … 1,200 in all across the country, pouring out of the makeshift studios into the hallways. People drove hours to sit on the floor with other mixed people, filling out release forms and answering his “What Are You?” paperwork.

hapa.me - Shane
Shane, Japanese / French / Chinese / Native American (Sioux) / Swedish. Photos by Kip Fulbeck

For those whose photos were included in the exhibit or book, Kip ultimately decided to omit their names for safety and privacy purposes. This had the added effect of taking away a major source of external supposition and judgement about the subjects in terms of their ethnicity, paternal/maternal lineages, social class, and cultural adherences. We Hapas know that our names can misrepresent us as easily as they can represent us.

Interestingly, Kip did choose to include the subjects’ self-reported ethnic identifications on the page with their “What are you?” answers, and he did so in all lower-case, using tiny letters. He included whatever the subjects wrote – ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, regional identities – with little effort for consistency. At first I wondered why. When I asked him, the answer was simple: he knew that we’d want to know! It’s easy to forget, when analyzing The Hapa Project, that the audience in Kip’s mind was first and foremost mixed people. And let’s face it – we love learning about each other’s mixes! Just the fact that a person’s identity includes “Thai, Indian, Scottish and Lithuanian” excites our imaginations for the family history as well as the Thanksgiving dinner menu that might go with it.

But other than that, the external gaze of this project is very often an Asian American one, and as Kip frequently mentions, the only people who have trouble believing that he’s Chinese are Chinese people. The rigidity of what “looks” Chinese, Japanese, Korean – as determined by Chinese, Japanese, Koreans –  was, and is, something worth challenging. The faces in The Hapa Project might not “look Chinese” (or Japanese or South Asian or Thai) – but they are. Get used to it!

There’s a reason why The Hapa Project has lasted so long, both in terms of visual interest and relevance. Yes, it’s gorgeous. But it’s also terrifically thoughtful in its concept and in its design. I am one of the lucky few who was witness to just how much thought Kip put into it.

hapa.me cover
Catalog cover: Jenn, Japanese / French / Native American (Cherokee) / Irish. Photos by Kip Fulbeck

The hapa.me – 15 years of the hapa project catalog can now be pre-ordered from the JANM Store, though they will not be shipped until after April 7. If you join us for opening day, you can purchase yours then and have it signed by Fulbeck, Nakashima, and others involved in hapa.me at 4 p.m.