Saijo took a photograph of each interested participant, which he then printed onto a section of newspaper that the participant chose out of several available stacks. Guests completed the artwork themselves, with Saijo’s assistance, by mounting the print onto a wood panel with glue.
Visitors of all ages stopped by to participate in this simple yet provocative exercise. Each visitor was able to take home his or her own “self-portrait.”
Mike Saijo, a contemporary mixed-media artist based in Los Angeles, was recently profiled for JANM’s Discover Nikkei project. Read the profile here.
April 29, 2017, marked the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Uprising, also known as the Rodney King riots. Films have been made and essays have been written to commemorate this anniversary, and throughout the city, a variety of talks and panel discussions over the last month have attempted to grapple with the legacy of this major event and examine how far we’ve come since then.
On May 11, JANM was pleased to present, in partnership with Asian American Journalists Association-Los Angeles and PBS SoCal, a film screening and discussion titled K-TOWN ’92 Reporters: Who Gets to Tell the Story? K-TOWN ’92 Reporters is a recently completed short documentary by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee. The film, which can be viewed on the PBS website, captures the reflections of three Los Angeles Times reporters of color who covered the Uprising, with a particular focus on under-reported perspectives in the Korean-American community.
Although the film is only 15 minutes long, it delivers a powerful impact by revealing some of the racial dynamics that were at play not only on the streets of LA, but in its newsrooms as well. Reporter Tammerlin Drummond, who is African American, recalls being stuck at a sleepy bureau in the suburbs of Orange County until the Uprising prompted the Times editors to send all of their reporters of color to South Central LA. Similarly, Hector Tobar remembers feeling excited to work on a major piece about the Uprising, only to be told to focus on Latino looters. John Lee recalls prowling the streets of Koreatown with Drummond after curfew, when chaos ruled and police were nowhere to be found. As a dark-complected Korean American, he feared that he and Drummond might be shot at by Korean store owners.
The screening was preceded by a speech from Angela Oh, a former trial lawyer and a second-generation Korean American. Oh opened with a participatory qigong exercise and did not mince words as she described a dysfunctional judicial system that did not deliver justice and a complex city in which many people, while occupying the same space, lived entirely different inner lives. Following the Uprising, Oh traveled the country for three years giving talks, encountering many frightened Korean Americans and a general public who had no idea who Koreans were. This led her to view the Uprising as Koreans’ “sorrowful introduction to the consciousness of the American mainstream public—the price of initiation into race relations.”
Following the screening, Oliver Wang, Associate Professor of Sociology at CSU Long Beach, moderated a panel discussion with filmmaker Grace Lee; former LA Times reporter John Lee; Victoria Kim, who currently covers Koreatown for the LA Times; Wendy Carrillo, a journalist and activist who just completed an unsuccessful run for California’s 34th Congressional District; and Joanne Griffith, Senior Producer at American Public Media’s Marketplace Weekend.
Wang began by asking Grace Lee what prompted her to make this film, when so many films on the subject are already out there. She responded that after 20 years of watching coverage of the Uprising, she saw the same narratives emerging over and over—narratives that did not include the perspectives she heard from the Korean American community. John Lee later echoed this sentiment, saying that while Koreans and Blacks were portrayed in the media as bitter enemies, the reality was that most of them got along with each other. Kim brought up the example of Young Ok Lee, also known as “Mama,” a beloved Korean shopkeeper whose store at the corner of 8th Street and Western Avenue was left alone throughout the riots because she was like a mother to the entire neighborhood.
As each person on the panel discussed his or her own background and how they were affected by the Uprising, it became clear that there are as many perspectives on the event as there are people. The one thing they all have in common is the deep and lasting impression the event left on each of them.
Carrillo was 11 when the Uprising happened. Her parents had fled the civil war in El Salvador, bringing her into the country with them illegally. The family watched coverage of the Uprising together on Spanish-language TV and discussed how much it reminded them of the situation back in their home country. At school, Carrillo’s class wrote get well letters to Reginald Denny. Years later, she would be the last reporter to interview Rodney King, only two days before his death. She said he felt guilty about the riots every day of his life, even though they were obviously not his fault.
As a person of African background who grew up in Britain and moved to LA as an adult, Griffith had trouble figuring out African American identity, which was alternately represented overseas by The Cosby Show and the Rodney King riots. She also recalled a comical incident that happened while she was waiting for a Metro Red Line train in Hollywood—a passerby heard her British accent and asked if she was auditioning for a part.
Kim was seven years old in 1992 and living with her family in South Korea. She recalls having no concept of race relations or what it meant to be an immigrant, since everyone in Korea was Korean. Having no concept of the Korean American experience, people there referred to the Uprising as “the black riots.” Kim had to learn everything after the fact. In 2012, she worked on 20th-anniversary coverage for the LA Times, at which time she chose to profile “Mama.”
(JANM also had a unique and indelible experience with the Uprising. In April 1992, the museum was preparing to open its doors for the first time, with a dedication ceremony scheduled for April 30—the day after the Rodney King verdict. As chaos ensued, grand plans for an outdoor ceremony had to be scrapped. Rather than being disappointed, however, then-Executive Director Irene Hirano Inouye took this confluence of events as a sign and an opportunity for JANM to reconfirm and strengthen its mission. In her dedication speech to 400 guests and media representatives, now crammed inside the museum, Hirano Inouye noted “the need for continued education, multicultural understanding, and stronger linkages between ethnic communities in the United States.” When the museum opened to the public on May 15, representatives from a wide array of LA’s community organizations were invited.)
The panel was asked how far they think the city, and American society in general, has come since the Uprising. Carrillo thinks things are actually worse now—the repetitive 24-hour news cycle still focuses on sensationalistic reporting, which numbs the public. Griffith said that they agonized over what to cover when she worked at KPCC. She stressed that newsrooms must be more diverse and cover communities from the inside out, not from the outside in. Kim speculated that at one time, white men gathered in rooms to set the news agenda; now at least, they are forced to reckon with what’s trending on Twitter. Web analytics reveal which stories get the most views and comments, which has changed the face of journalism.
K-TOWN ’92 Reporters was actually produced as part of ktown92.com, an interactive web archive that explores the 1992 Los Angeles Riots through the lens of greater Koreatown. With a mix of archival news footage, new interviews, and other media, ktown92.com invites users to create their own unique documentary experience and to hear poignant stories that were overlooked by the media coverage of the day. Together with the film, the web archive aims to disrupt the Uprising’s master narrative by empowering people to construct their own.
JANM’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Gala Dinner and Silent Auction, happens this Saturday at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites. Among the many fantastic items that will be up for auction is the handmade quilt pictured here, a memorial to the World War II incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry created by JANM volunteer June Aoki in collaboration with her mentor, Maria Reza.
The quilt is sizeable, measuring 58 x 54 inches, and includes many wonderful details. A reproduction of a Civilian Exclusion Order, posted to inform Japanese Americans of their impending forced removal and incarceration, sits at its center, surrounded by photographs of all ten of the American concentration camps where they were housed for the duration of the war. A barbed-wire border encloses them. Images of notable persons and moments, as well as the Japanese saying gaman (perseverance or “keep on”), line each side.
In addition to the wonders of photo-printable fabric, the quilt is helped along by a suitcase-patterned fabric that Aoki happened to stumble across in a downtown fabric store. Seeing that the pattern evoked the suitcases carried by those bound for camp, who were limited to “only what you can carry,” Aoki used the fabric to make the quilt’s backing.
A former LAUSD schoolteacher, June Aoki has been volunteering at JANM since her retirement 15 years ago. Although both of her Kibei-Nisei (second generation, educated in Japan) parents were incarcerated at Poston, she herself avoided that fate because she happened to be in Japan at the time, being cared for by her grandparents. Born in California, Aoki went on to finish grade school and junior high school in Japan before rejoining her parents in the States.
Aoki, who has been quilting for as long as she’s been volunteering at JANM, recently joined a quilting group called TELAS (The East Los Angeles Stitchers). The group was largely working on religious imagery inspired by the Catholic backgrounds of many of its members. Since Aoki isn’t Catholic, she wondered what she could work on. Fellow member Maria Reza, who also happened to be Aoki’s former supervisor at LAUSD, suggested that she focus on elements of her own Japanese American history, and offered to help develop an idea.
The two met several times at the museum, and finally settled on “Executive Order 9066” as a central theme. Over the next two months, they worked together on the design and construction of the piece, enlisting several helpers along the way. Fellow TELAS member Gloria Flores did much of the quilting, while Alhambra quilter Sandra Kurosaki did the embroidery. JANM volunteer Henry Yasuda did the calligraphy for the gaman panel, and JANM Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee helped to find and sort through appropriate historical images.
Aoki initially offered to donate the quilt to JANM, but was told there was nowhere to hang it at the moment, and the quilt would wind up in storage. She decided instead to contribute it to the Silent Auction. If you are attending our sold-out dinner event this Saturday, be sure to bid early and often if you want a shot at this beautiful quilt!
New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, which has been on view for a little over a month now, features a cornucopia of fascinating artifacts from the life of the noted actor, activist, and longtime friend and supporter of the Japanese American National Museum.
The exhibition, whose format was inspired by Takei’s role on the iconic Star Trek television and film series, is divided into five “voyages” exploring the many aspects of Takei’s life: his childhood spent in a World War II incarceration camp; his rise in Hollywood as a pioneering Asian American actor; his civic engagement and community activism; his groundbreaking all-APIA Broadway musical, Allegiance; and his current status as a social media icon.
George and his husband, Brad, have been collecting and organizing their various possessions for years. The 200 artifacts that are currently on view in New Frontiers represent just a small portion of The George & Brad Takei Collection, which was donated to JANM last year and is still being processed as we speak. During a recent Members Only Learning at Lunch event, Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales of the 300 boxes and nearly 200 framed objects that she and her team collected from the Takei home. The exclusive gathering focused on a selection of objects that did not make it into the exhibition.
These included Boy Scout photos from George’s childhood, a personal scrapbook that George himself put together, samples of fan mail he has received, and a copy of the script for the January 15, 1987, episode of Miami Vice, on which George was a guest star. Wetherbee also shared a number of interesting stories that she heard during the process of reviewing the items at the Takei house.
If you have not yet seen the exhibition, we offer a few highlights in this blog post, along with a bonus image that was taken at the Learning at Lunch event. Note that another Learning at Lunch event will take place on June 3 and will also spotlight items from The George & Brad Takei Collection that did not make it into New Frontiers. If you are not yet a member, click here for information on how to join and enjoy great benefits like this one.
A slim newspaper has been circulating as part of promotions for Visual Communications’ 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), portions of which will be screened at JANM. Titled Bronzeville News, it mimics some of the humble broadsheets that may have circulated during the Bronzeville years of Little Tokyo, when, in the absence of Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in remote camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, African Americans moved into the neighborhood and made it their own, nicknaming it after a historic black neighborhood in Chicago.
The newspaper evokes another era at the same time that it announces and serves as the program for Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, a free, two-day LAAPFF event that delves into this brief but fascinating period in Little Tokyo’s history. Over the weekend of April 29–30, visitors will be able to take in an interactive media installation, a 360⁰ virtual reality presentation, and a live jazz performance. Presented by FORM follows FUNCTION and Visual Communications, Bronzeville, Little Tokyo will take place at JANM’s own Historic Building and the Union Center for the Arts courtyard, two historic neighborhood sites.
Bronzeville was a nexus in time that brought together several significant strands of Southern California history. Following the evacuation of persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, Japanese enclaves quickly became ghost towns. Since Asians were legally barred from owning property at that time, this meant that a lot of white landlords found themselves without tenants. At the same time, African Americans from the Deep South started flooding into California to work in the war defense industry, which faced a labor shortage. The vacant buildings in places like Little Tokyo made for convenient housing for the laborers. The neighborhood soon became a hotbed for African American business, culture, and night life.
In addition to many intriguing vintage photographs and advertisements, the Bronzeville News contains a thoughtful essay by artist and project researcher/consultant Kathie Foley-Meyer, in which she considers the significance of Bronzeville in forging Los Angeles into the multicultural metropolis that it is today. Her quotation of a 1945 editorial on integration in California is eerily reminiscent of debates taking place today in the wake of new immigration policies from the current administration. Foley-Meyer runs her own creative project at projectbronzeville.com.
Staff members at JANM have been particularly excited lately about a new product being sold at the JANM Store: Karami, a unique salsa developed over 100 years ago by Japanese American immigrants in Colorado. In addition to being extremely tasty, the salsa (whose name means “beautiful heat”) offers a window onto a little-known piece of Japanese American history.
According to Karami’s website, the salsa came into being around the turn of the 19th century, after some enterprising Japanese immigrants settled in Colorado with their families. Finding themselves far inland without access to the ocean-based food staples of their native land, they were forced to be inventive with the resources they had. After sampling a variety of local vegetables, they found that the spicy green chile pepper made for the most viable substitute for seaweed. They mixed the green chiles with soy sauce and used it as a topping on rice, fish, chicken, and meats.
Generations of Japanese Americans who grew up in Colorado were known to keep a jar of the homemade mixture on their kitchen table. Every family had their own variation on the recipe. It was Jason Takaki’s family recipe that formed the basis of the product now known as Karami Japanese Salsa; with the help of his partner Kei Izawa, Takaki was able to turn his salsa into a viable business. For a detailed account of their journey, check out this Daily Camera article. For an early review of the salsa, see Gil Asakawa’s 2013 article on JANM’s DiscoverNikkei.org. For even more delicious historical details on Colorado’s Japanese salsa, check out this article on the Great Flavors website.
This writer sampled the product and was instantly hooked. Karami Japanese Salsa possesses a smooth, silky quality that I’ve never experienced in other salsas. An initial pleasingly sweet flavor soon gives way to a memorable kick that packs a low, slow-burning heat. I had it with tortilla chips and polished off half a jar before I knew it. Maria Kwong, JANM’s Director of Retail Enterprises and the person responsible for bringing us this salsa, tells me it’s great on hot dogs. Jason Takaki himself likes it best on fried rice.
A jar of Karami sells for $8 in our store; check it out the next time you’re at the museum. Please note this product is not available online.
To get you geared up for the event, we present below a quiz on Japanese American history. Take the quiz and see how much you know! This Saturday, the first ten people who come to the survey table at JANM and present a printout of this quiz with the correct answers written in the blanks will receive a $10 gift certificate to the JANM Store.* So put on your thinking and research caps and come on down for a day of learning and fun!
1. What public office did George Takei hold between 1973 and 1984?
10. Decades after World War II, Japanese Americans successfully lobbied for the United States government to pass a federal law that formally apologized for their wrongful incarceration and granted reparations to surviving camp detainees. What is the official name of this act?
*No purchase necessary to enter. Limit one entry per family; entry must be presented in person on the day of the event to qualify. Limit one prize per family. Gift certificates have no cash value. Contest ends when all ten prizes have been given away, or at 4 p.m. on April 8, 2017, whichever comes first. Employees and volunteers of the Japanese American National Museum are not eligible.
Founded in 2011, Kizuna is a nonprofit organization based in Little Tokyo whose mission is “to build a future for our community through the education, empowerment, and engagement of the next generation.” Through a variety of workshops, projects, and initiatives, Kizuna teaches leadership and community service skills as well as Japanese American values and cultural practices to Nikkei youth of all ages.
At the 2017 Oshogatsu Family Festival, JANM hosted Kizuna’s story time reading and signing of their recently published children’s book, Thank You Very Mochi (available for purchase at the JANM Store). We will also be partnering with them to present our next JANM Free Family Day on Saturday, April 8. The event will celebrate Japanese American history and Kizuna staff will be on hand to lead craft activities, a spam musubi workshop, and story time readings.
This week, we sat down with Kizuna director Craig Ishii via email to find out more about the organization and what it does.
JANM: You’ve been going strong now for six years. Please tell us the story of how and why Kizuna was founded.
Craig Ishii: Several of us had been working at different community-based nonprofits for some time—Little Tokyo Service Center, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Japanese American Citizens League, etc. During our tenures with those organizations, it became clear that the community was looking for involvement from the next generation, but there was a general lack of knowledge and practice on how to do this. So in 2011, we brought our heads together and created the organization. We were not experts in this arena, but we had the drive. We went through several names before we found the name “Kizuna.”
When we were first getting off the ground, we had no office and no resources, but we had our networks, a clear vision, and nonprofit building skills. In addition to our years of working in nonprofits, several of us also held master’s degrees in nonprofit management; I really believe that the technical knowledge we acquired in those programs had a huge impact on the success and growth of Kizuna. In our first year, we launched our programming, held our first fundraiser, and seeded the funds to hire our first staff member. Since then, we’ve been able to continuously grow our budget, staff, and programs each year.
JANM: What does the name “Kizuna” mean?
CI:Kizuna doesn’t have a direct English translation. Eiko, the very wise receptionist at JACCC, described it best when she told me that kizuna is the depth of your relationship with someone. So the bond between myself and my parents, that is our kizuna; or the bond between best friends, that’s kizuna. We chose this name for a couple of reasons: we’re hoping to create a deep relationship between our students and the community, but we’re also hoping to build a tightly knit next generation that is connected and networked.
JANM: Tell us about the book, Thank You Very Mochi. What inspired you to get into publishing, and is this the first of more children’s books to come?
CI: Our program manager, Paul Matsushima, held a workshop a couple years back where he had to manage more than 60 kids for a mochitsuki (mochi pounding) workshop. He knew that having 60 kids pound and knead mochi at once would be impossible, so he split them into various activity stations. One of those was a storytelling station that revolved around a family mochitsuki. Afterwards, one of the parents said to him, “Hey, that story is a cute idea, you should turn it into a children’s book.” So Paul, Sophie Wang (Kizuna’s development coordinator), and I co-authored Thank You Very Mochi. It’s been a great way to get our mission out to the community here in Southern California and beyond. I think this book is everyone’s favorite accomplishment to date and yes, we would like to publish more!
JANM: What are some of your other favorite accomplishments?
CI: I’m pretty sure we have the largest network of Japanese American summer camp programs in the nation now. We manage six separate locations working with around 350 elementary to middle school students per year (and that number grows each year). It’s our largest program but also our most creative. It’s my personal favorite because it allows Kizuna to build the culture of the next generation. When we have a student who attends for more than a couple of years, we can impart important understanding and behaviors that will help them be successful and give back to our community as they age.
JANM: It’s amazing that you offer a full range of programs for ages seven through young adulthood. Do your kids tend to come back to take on more advanced programs?
CI: Yes, definitely, there’s a high retention rate. For me, working with kids is the clearest and most direct representation of impermanence. On one hand, you want the kids to grow up and everything that you do is about their growth and development. But then, of course, as they do grow up, they become smarter and wiser, and they really don’t need you as much. Then at that point, they become the teachers, instructors, and mentors. It’s great to watch this, but sometimes it feels like it happens a little too quickly. I’m sure folks in my parents’ generation say the same thing about us!
This Thursday evening, JANM hosts the latest edition of East West Players’ A Writer’s Gallery Reading, a semi-annual series featuring new work by Asian and Pacific Islander American writers. June is the First Fall, written by Yilong Liu and directed by Jeff Liu, follows a Chinese American gay man who returns home to Hawai‘i after a painful breakup. He must confront his sister, his father, and himself about an unspeakable past that separated them, and a tender family history that held them together.
Born and raised in Chongqing, China, Yilong Liu has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Hawai‘i and is the recipient of a 2016 playwriting scholarship from East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Writers Institute (DHHWI) in conjunction with Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theatre (APAFT). His work has been produced or developed at Kumu Kahua Theatre, New York International Fringe Festival, New York Indie Theatre One Minute Play Festival, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and Queens Theatre. We sat down with him via email to talk about his new play, and what it’s like to be a gay Asian writer.
JANM: I’m intrigued that the inspiration for this play is a portrait of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to immigrate to America. Moy was “imported” from China by two enterprising traders, who put her on display as a publicity stunt to sell more exotic Chinese goods. The portrait shows her surrounded by said goods. What was it about this portrait that inspired you?
Yilong Liu: The first time I saw this picture, I was taking a seminar on Asian American theatre history in grad school. We were talking about the performative elements of her “exhibition” and how those were founded on exoticism. However, other than her being exploited and objectified, I myself as someone who was born and brought up in China, wondered how she was feeling personally as someone who also came to the US as a young adult, whose worldview had probably been largely shaped already in her home country. Because essentially, the immigration experience for someone who comes here at a younger age and those who are older can be very different. There is much complexity and nuance in the Asian and Pacific Islander identity spectrum that is often lost in the way outsiders look at us. The challenges faced by various APIA and API immigrant groups are not all the same, so it is important and necessary to encourage a deeper understanding.
On the other hand, I also find myself responding to this image on an emotional level. Having worked as a Chinese instructor in Hawai‘i, I was touched by many of my second-generation Chinese American students’ stories. Their fathers, or grandfathers, travelled great distances back to China to get married, then started the long journey of bringing their families to the US, but it would take years and years before they could reunite again. And when they did, unlike the kids, who would continue their education in American schools, the mothers usually stayed at home and weren’t able to speak any English. What was it like for them? What did they do when the rest of the family all went to school or work? What were they thinking, when they were sitting quietly in their rooms, just waiting for the ones who meant the whole world to them to get home? I kept thinking about Afong Moy when I thought about them.
JANM: LGBTQ stories are a major focus of your work. Were you out when you lived in China, and if so, what was that like? How would you compare the LGBTQ scene in China with the experiences you’ve had since you’ve been in the States?
YL: I was out to my friends and some of my cousins back in China. Being in a tight-knit society and a whole generation of only children have definitely complicated the coming out process for LGBTQ youth back home. More often than not, the kids’ coming out of closets are likely to put their parents into “closets” instead. The parents will go through the stages of confusion, anger, and fear, and eventually struggle with whether they should and if so how to “come out” to their own extended family members, friends, and colleagues, because of the way Chinese and most Asian societies function. Therefore, many kids don’t want to inflict the same kind of pain they have gone through on their parents. In June is the First Fall, although coming out is not an issue, we can still feel how the father, influenced by Chinese and American culture at the same time, is dealing with his mixed feelings about his son’s sexuality.
JANM: I read in an article that you have already been made aware of the paucity of representation of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in American media/arts—for the APIA LGBTQ community, even more so. What kind of reception are you experiencing to your work, which is a very rare foregrounding of issues faced by these communities?
YL: Coming from China, where LGBTQ people as a marginalized group strive for visibility, understanding, and acceptance, I understand the significance of positive representations in arts/media. When I was a teenager, the only gay characters allowed on screens were almost always demonized, exaggerated, cartoonish, and heavily stereotypical. I found that distressing. The lack of representation—and the level of misrepresentation—make it even more difficult for people struggling with their sexuality, and will lead to unavoidable feelings of alienation and self-denial. I can only imagine when the situation is complicated by races, cultures, and politics.
So far, I think audiences have responded well and warmly to what I have to share. Being a bilingual writer, and brought up in the southwest of China, I find it specifically challenging but just as equally fun and rewarding when writing. I feel this urge, this responsibility, and this deep desire to write the stories I am telling, about queer people caught in between worlds, not only because it’s a way of empowerment, or that it’s even more needed in light of the recent political climate, but also because the stories are so beautiful and so heartbreaking that they deserve to be told. I feel audiences really respond to the perspective I bring in and the journey I am going through. They make me feel that my voice, although different and still raw, is appreciated and needed, and for that I am very grateful.
Join us for a reading of June is the First Fall this Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.
This weekend, JANM opens New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. Drawing on the George & Brad Takei Collection of personal artifacts, which was recently gifted to the museum, New Frontiers explores the life and career of the pioneering actor, activist, and social media icon. The exhibition begins with Takei’s incarceration at the Rohwer and Tule Lake concentration camps as a child during World War II and moves through his career as a Japanese American actor in Hollywood, his public service appointments, his coming out as a gay man, his activism on behalf of both the Japanese American and LGBTQ communities, and his wild popularity as a social media figure. In the process, New Frontiers provides a unique window onto American history and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
New Frontiers is curated by noted author, journalist, and cultural critic Jeff Yang. We sat down with Yang via email to talk about the exhibition and his curatorial process.
JANM: Why George Takei, and why now?
Jeff Yang: George’s life has been extraordinary, and it has placed him at the center of some of the most critical changes in American society and culture: from the injustice of the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, through the fight for marriage equality, the struggle to overcome Hollywood stereotypes, the push to own our creative voice as Asian Americans, and the transformative rise of social media. In many of these circumstances, he wasn’t just a witness but a prime mover. These facts alone would make him an exceptional individual to explore through the lens of history. But, at 79 years old, George has never been more active, more outspoken, or more relevant. The changes we’ve seen over just the past six months have underscored the narratives in George’s life and made it clear that we still have many lessons to learn from the experiences he’s had.
JANM: How did you come to be the curator of this exhibition?
JY: I’ve known George for many years, having written about popular culture and Asian American issues since the late 1980s. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, and since becoming an adult, I’ve had the fortune of befriending him as well. I’d curated another large and complicated pop culture exhibit for JANM in 2013 (Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics, 1942–1986) and I suppose George, and the powers-that-be at JANM, thought my experience and POV were a good fit for this historic show.
JANM: What is your biggest goal for this exhibition?
JY: I want people to get a unique lens on the last 80 years of American history and to learn, especially now, how our rights have been won and protected through the years and why it’s critical to remember how we’ve fought for them. And also to have a great time! Visitors should expect to have an experience that we hope will make them want to come back again—with friends.
JANM: We understand you’ve been combing through a lot of George’s personal possessions. Which ones have you found particularly intriguing, and why?
JY: The process of curation has been exhausting because of the sheer volume of items we have available! George and his husband Brad have donated virtually everything in a lifetime of collecting to the museum—over 100 boxes of amazing stuff, and it has taken a year just to sort through everything. There were personal Takei family memorabilia from the camps; early images from Asian American—or, as they called it then, “Oriental”—Hollywood; behind-the-scenes artifacts and personal notes from Star Trek, the Broadway musical Allegiance, and George’s many other roles and works; intimate correspondence and mementos from Brad and George’s wedding and life together; and iconic merchandise and one-of-a-kind fan art given to George over the years. We are also doing our best to make the exhibition richly interactive and contextual; there’s a ton to learn from it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan.
As for my personal favorite item? I think it’s probably the pocket “casting directory” of Hollywood’s Asian/Pacific actors dating back to the 1950s. It shows some familiar faces and many more obscure ones, all presented with stereotypical one-liners that underscores how Hollywood saw them. Things have certainly changed since then—but not as much as we might have hoped!
JANM: What gave you the idea to produce a comic book in conjunction with the exhibition?
JY: We realized early on that any catalog for an exhibition of George’s unique life would need to be highly visual, and to weave memory and imagination. The graphic novel form was ideal for that! So Excelsior: The Many Lives of George Takei is your guide through the exhibition in comic book format. We’re also putting together a graphic anthology of stories inspired by George’s life and the issues he has engaged throughout it, called (like the exhibition) New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. The latter is more like a catalog for the exhibition, but done in an eclectic comic book format. Unbound Philanthropy is generously funding that project.
JANM: Has working on New Frontiers changed any of your opinions on popular culture or APIA history?
JY: It’s made me realize how much has changed over the past 80 years—how we as APIAs have moved from the fringes to the center of popular culture, and how popular culture has moved from the fringes to the center of society. And George has been a significant part of that.
Join us on Sunday, March 12, for the public opening ofNew Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. There will also be an Upper Level Members’ Reception on Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m., with an opportunity to meet George, Brad, and Jeff personally. For information on becoming an upper level member, please visit this page.