ICYMI: Recent News Roundup

A panel from Chapter 3 of Bombshells United. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Many news items come across the desk of the editor here at the First and Central blog. As busy as we’ve been over the last few months with the opening of JANM’s major new exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, and various other developments, we haven’t had the chance to share as many of these as we’d like. Following, therefore, is a roundup of notable news items from the last few months. If you missed any of them, here’s your chance to catch up!

Little Tokyo Has Been Named a California Cultural District

Our own neighborhood of Little Tokyo was named one of 14 California Cultural Districts by the California Arts Council. A new initiative in its first year of operation, the Cultural District designation is designed to “grow and sustain authentic grassroots arts and cultural opportunities, increas[e] the visibility of local artists and community participation in local arts and culture, and promot[e] socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.” The districts are also intended to play a conscious role in tackling issues of artist displacement.

A Cultural District is defined as a “well-defined geographic area with a high concentration of cultural resources and activities.” The designation comes with benefits, such as technical assistance, peer-to-peer exchanges, and access to branding materials and promotional strategy. Per state legislation, each of the districts will hold the designation for five years.

We couldn’t be prouder of our district, which joins other vibrant cultural centers throughout California such as the Eureka Cultural Arts District and Balboa Park in San Diego. To see the complete list of 14 districts, click here. To read more about the initiative, click here.

Wonder Woman Confronts Japanese American Incarceration in New DC Comic

Wonder Woman is looming large in popular entertainment these days. The blockbuster action movie starring Gal Gadot was a huge hit earlier this year, and a sequel is in the works. A smaller film called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which explores the origins of the classic comic book character, was just released last month.

The staff at JANM was thrilled, therefore, to learn that a new digital comic book has come out that imagines Wonder Woman fighting, and even helping to prevent, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The series, titled Bombshells United, is written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage. Bennett decided to write the story after noticing that her cousins’ American history textbooks failed to mention the incarceration. Angered by the erasure, she set about doing her research, reading books like Farewell to Manzanar and No-No Boy, and paying visits to JANM (!) and the Manzanar National Historic Site.

The resulting story focuses on a group of ordinary Japanese American girls who hatch a plan to halt one of the trains going to camp. Bennett chooses to make them the heroes of the story, with some help from Wonder Woman. Although the story is a fantasy, many of the details are historically accurate. Bennett plans to continue exploring a variety of WWII and postwar stories in this series, even looking at intergenerational struggles between the Issei and Nisei.

Read an interview with Marguerite Bennett here. Purchase the comic books here.

Another Exclusive Naomi Hirahara Serial Now on Discover Nikkei

Everyone’s favorite JA mystery writer is at it again. Our Discover Nikkei project, which has hosted several exclusive serials by Naomi Hirahara, is especially thrilled this time to serve as the publisher of Trouble on Temple Street, the third installment in the Ellie Rush detective series. This installment, which follows two published book installments, will be published as an online serial, with new chapters coming out monthly.

Ellie, an LAPD bicycle cop who has been on the force for two years, finds herself in the middle of a Little Tokyo murder case that may potentially involve the people she loves most: her family. Will she be able to connect the dots before the killer harms her aunt, who is deputy chief of the LAPD? Where will Ellie’s allegiance fall—to the truth, or to family loyalty? The serial launched on September 4 and will continue through next August. Read the first two chapters now!

Asian American Comic-Con’s Summit on Art, Action, and the Future

Asian American Comic-Con presented a Summit on Art, Action, and the Future at JANM on July 15. Below, JANM summer intern in public programs and media arts Leighton Kotaro Okada contributes a photo recap of the event.

A roundtable discusses the advancement of APIA women in the film industry.
All photos by Leighton Kotaro Okada.

The first Asian American Comic-Con, held in 2009 in New York City, marked the birth of new discussions in Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) communities. Eight years later, the Comic-Con has returned to address new developments in APIA media production and representation.

JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs with George Takei, Keith Chow, and Jeff Yang.

On Saturday, July 15, 2017, dozens of artists, comic fans, bloggers, movie lovers, writers, actors, “Trekkies,” and activists gathered at JANM under the common theme of APIA pop culture. Panels and roundtable discussions touched on various hot topics, including diversity, Asian American women in the film industry, and more. Panelists came from all over the country and represented a range of diverse opinions and experiences, each bringing a unique point of view and novel ideas on the future of APIAs in media.

Phil Yu, Keith Chow, George Takei, and Jeff Yang gather for a selfie at the event’s conclusion.

A roundtable titled “Woman Warriors: Reimagining Asian Female Heroes” gathered actresses, writers, and producers to discuss the advancement of APIA women in the film industry. Topics such as dragon lady and martial arts stereotypes, fighting for rich and novel roles, and the difficulties of working as both an APIA and a woman in the industry came up while answering questions such as “What should we expect in a rich, textured, powerful, and provocative APIA heroine?” and “What’s worked, what hasn’t, and why has it taken so damned long?”

George Takei receives the Excelsior Award for Art in the Service of Activism.

A highlight of the event was legendary actor and activist George Takei receiving the first-ever Excelsior Award for Art in the Service of Activism. Takei was especially happy to receive the award in the same building where he was married. He then joined author, culture critic, and New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei curator Jeff Yang and Angry Asian Man founder Phil Yu for a special live recording of a They Call Us Bruce podcast. The three talked about Star Trek, politics, and married life, ending with a discussion of “the good, the bad, and the OH MYYY of being George Takei.” Takei’s infectiously hearty laugh and constant joking kept the crowd roaring with laughter.

George Takei, Jeff Yang, and Phil Yu tape an episode of the podcast They Call Us Bruce.

Asian American Comic-Con’s Summit on Art, Action, and the Future was organized, emceed, and moderated by Nerds of Color editor-in-chief Keith Chow and Jeff Yang in cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum.

Leighton Kotaro Okada majors in East Asian Languages and Cultures with minors in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and Songwriting at USC.

George Takei: Mementos from a Remarkable Life

Replicas of Captain Hikaru Sulu’s chair and table from the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. George really loved being a captain in that movie; these items were actually fabricated for the exhibition and are not part of The George & Brad Takei Collection.

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.

This abstract sculpture was carved from a Cypress tree knee by George Takei’s father, Takekuma Norman Takei, while the family was incarcerated at Rohwer, located in the swamps of Arkansas. It is one of George’s most beloved objects.

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.

George’s student ID card from his days at UCLA sits in front of a BDYBA Oratorical Award he won there in 1956.

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 wedding photo of George and Brad is framed next to Brad’s handwritten vows. In the gallery, this artifact is complimented by several inventive wedding cards sent to them by fans.
This rare Simpsons souvenir jacket, only given out to actors who have recurring roles on the TV series, almost made it into New Frontiers but had to be cut due to lack of space. JANM members were able to get an up-close look at this and other objects, and hear personal stories about George and Brad, at our exclusive Members Only Learning at Lunch event on April 21, 2017.

Curator Jeff Yang Discusses New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei

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.

Cover of George Takei’s 2012 book, Oh Myyy!: There Goes the Internet.
George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

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.

George Takei, student body president, at a student council meeting, Mount Vernon Junior High School. George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

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.

George Takei carries the Olympic torch through the streets of Los Angeles in the
run up to the 1984 Olympic Games. George & Brad Takei Collection,
Japanese American National Museum.

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!

Wedding photo of Brad and George Takei, Toyo Miyatake Studios, 2008.
George & Brad Takei Collection, Japanese American National Museum.

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 of New 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.

Decoden takes “Bedazzling” to Another Level

At our last decoden workshop in January 2016, participants got to work on Giant Robot figurines. Photo by MariAnne Nguyen.
At our last decoden workshop in January 2016, participants got to
work on Giant Robot figurines. Photo by MariAnne Nguyen.

 

This Saturday, October 22, JANM is offering a Decoden Phone Case Workshop, led by lifestyle personalities Chrissa Sparkles and Jon Brence. Participants will bring their own plain plastic phone cases and make them over with the decoden materials provided. Many of you are old hands at this, but others may be wondering, what is decoden? And where does it come from?

The word decoden is a Japanese portmanteau combining deco, which stands for decoration, and den, which is shorthand for denwa, the Japanese term for “phone” (literally “electric talk”). Decoden culture began to develop almost as soon as cellular phones came into popular usage, around the turn of the century. If you are familiar with the American craft of “bedazzling,” then you can understand decoden, which is basically the same thing—dressing up ordinary objects with sparkly accessories.

The cake frosting effect can be achieved with acrylic paint. Photo by Courtney via Flickr Creative Commons.
The cake frosting effect can be achieved with acrylic paint.
Photo by Courtney via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

At first, decoden was applied specifically to cell phones and cell phone cases. As its popularity grew, however, decoden spread to encompass portable gaming systems, digital cameras, tablets, flash drives, picture frames, and even fingernails. Today, it’s an essential component of Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture.

Some of the results of the Giant Robot decoden workshop. Photo by MariAnne Nguyen.
Some of the results of the Giant Robot decoden workshop.
Photo by MariAnne Nguyen.

 

The decoden aesthetic is cute, playful, and above all, excessive. A huge amount of colorful, decorative trinkets are affixed to the surface of the phone or other ordinary object, turning it into a bright, eye-catching work of art that expresses the personality of its owner. Popular components include thick, fake cake icing; tiny clay figurines of everything from ice cream cones and lollipops to buttons, candies, and Sanrio characters; and plastic pre-manufactured charms, referred to in the decoden world as “cabochons.”

There is no end to the things you can decoden! Photo by Cuteness is a lifestyle via Flickr Creative Commons.
There is no end to the things you can decoden! Photo by Cuteness is a lifestyle via Flickr Creative Commons.

Making the perfect decoden object can be time-consuming, and perhaps not as easy as it looks; it requires patience to come up with good designs, a large number of individual pieces have to be glued on, and there are a variety of methods and materials to choose from. Come to our Decoden Phone Case Workshop this weekend, where our expert kawaii workshop leaders will take you back to the origins of the craft and make sure you get it just right!

A Blistering Reading of Reservoir Dogs Proves There Is “No Shortage of Asian Talent”

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On October 2, JANM hosted a staged reading of Quentin Tarantino’s classic crime drama, Reservoir Dogs. Organized by a group called No Shortage of Asian Talent (NSAT), the reading had a unique twist—all of the parts in the macho, all-male, all-Caucasian drama were read by Asian American actresses. Elaine Kao played Mr. Blond; Jully Lee played Mr. Pink; Rosie Narasaki was Nice Guy Eddie; Sharon Omi was ringleader Joe Cabot; Grace Su portrayed Mr. Orange; Tamlyn Tomita stepped in as Mr. White; and Jolene Kim voiced a variety of smaller roles, including the cop in the iconic ear-slicing scene.

Elaine Kao as Mr. Blond, Jully Lee as Mr. Pink, and Rosie Narasaki as Nice Guy Eddie.
Elaine Kao as Mr. Blond, Jully Lee as Mr. Pink, and Rosie Narasaki as Nice Guy Eddie.

 

According to the organizers, finding a suitable all-female vehicle was difficult, so they decided to choose from the many all-male films in the canon and enact a gender swap. The stripped-down event had each of the actresses reading her part from a script while standing at a lectern. A disembodied narrator’s voice (West Liang, who was also the director) provided the deejay’s lines that open the film, and went on to narrate the action sequences, which, with a few notable exceptions, were not physically acted out by the actresses.

Tamlyn Tomita as Mr. White, with Sharon Omi as Joe Cabot.
Tamlyn Tomita as Mr. White, with Sharon Omi as Joe Cabot.

 

Watching this brutal, expletive-laden drama unfold in the hands of highly capable APIA actresses—who are typically cast by Hollywood as roommates or best friends in romantic comedies, if at all—was a jarring and fascinating experience. The film opens with a casually vulgar chat among the group of criminals, in which they debate the real meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” The actresses bit into this semi-sexist dialogue with gusto, spitting out their lines without hesitation or self-consciousness. They then maintained this level of vigor for the entire reading.

Grace Su as Mr. Orange.
Grace Su as Mr. Orange.

 

The quality of the acting was excellent throughout, which made the narrative convincing in spite of the gender incongruity at play. Tomita was clearly channeling Harvey Keitel, who played her character in the film, as she deepened her voice and wore a simple white blazer over black pants to enhance her masculine presence. She and Omi were the elders of the group, and they were well cast as the two older men in the film; as Joe Cabot, Omi did a great job emanating the gravitas of an “old mob boss.” In a nice touch, Omi’s own daughter, Rosie Narasaki, played Joe’s son, Nice Guy Eddie.

Mr. Blond, left, leans into a cop played by Jolene Kim.
Mr. Blond, left, leans into a cop played by Jolene Kim.

Perhaps the most intriguing bit of acting, and the best physical realization of a scene, belonged to Elaine Kao as Mr. Blond. With a nice smile and a proper air about her, Kao seems to be the polar opposite of the creepy, psychopathic Michael Madsen character in every way. (In fact, she had a bit role as a blushing soon-to-be-bride in Bridesmaids.) Kao used this dichotomy to her advantage, however, managing to conjure a sinister darkness just below the surface of her sunny smile. The infamous scene in which Mr. Blond tortures and ultimately slices the ear off of Jolene Kim’s hapless cop was the most physically articulated in the entire reading, and both of the actresses played it with relish.

Overall, this staged reading was highly entertaining and stimulating. The gender disconnect between the actors and their characters threw the conventions of masculinity and femininity into high relief. At the same time, the excellence of the acting proved that there is, indeed, “no shortage of Asian talent,” and made a strong case for taking more risks in casting APIA actors. Hollywood, are you listening?

The climactic shootout scene.
The climactic shootout scene.

 

This all-APIA reading was the second organized by No Shortage of Asian Talent (NSAT), a group formed to showcase up-and-coming Asian talent and combat Hollywood’s seeming refusal to give major movie roles to APIA actors. Their first project was an all-APIA reading of Glengarry Glen Ross, which took place last year. Look for more all-APIA readings of iconic films, coming soon from this group.

Dumbfoundead is a Rapper Straight Outta Koreatown

Dumbfoundead, aka Jonathan Park
Dumbfoundead, aka Jonathan Park

 

Dumbfoundead, whose given name is Jonathan Park, is a Korean American rapper. Born in Buenos Aires, “DFD” was raised in LA’s Koreatown. At the age of 10, he got his first exposure to hip hop at a community center in MacArthur Park. He further honed his craft at Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop in Leimert Park. He began to achieve renown after participating in the West Coast division of the rap battle Grind Time Now. Today he has a strong presence on YouTube, where he has over 400,000 followers, and has released three solo albums to date.

Dumbfoundead will be headlining JANM’s outdoor Summer Night Concert on Thursday, August 18, along with other hip hop and electronic music stars. Our summer Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in production, Michael Chang, conducted the following interview with the rapper via email.

Michael Chang: What drew you to music, specifically hip hop and rap, as a way to express yourself creatively?

Dumbfoundead: There was always an “I don’t give a ____” attitude that came with rap music. I feel like I can say whatever I want when I rhyme it over a beat. There’s a lot of power in music. Hip hop as a genre specifically has always been rebellious and DIY, and I like that aspect of it—it makes something out of nothing.

MC: As a creative person, what do you think makes Los Angeles a unique place to work?

DFD: We have so many little neighborhoods, and each one makes you feel like you’re stepping into another country. Being in this city really is the definition of the American experience; I feel like I learn more every day about different cultures and how unique everybody is, which helps me write universal stories and songs.

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MC: Do you think LA is more conducive to a thriving scene for artists of color?

DFD: I love that LA is as diverse as it is. The community of AAPI entertainers here is bigger than anywhere else in the world and I definitely do not take that for granted. I think it’s important that we tell the stories of our people with all the outlets we have here. I know when I tour the Midwest I get a lot of AAPI artists coming up to me and talking about the lack of creative outlets in their town.

MC: The music video for your song “Safe” critiques how Hollywood erases and ignores AAPI identities in mainstream media. Do you think executives, directors, and other people in power inside the entertainment/media industry do this with intent or more subconsciously?

DFD: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s almost a new idea to throw us into leading roles and in some cases they can’t even imagine us playing those characters. In other cases, they aren’t willing to take the chance because they think white actors are a safer bet for box office success. We need more people of color behind the scenes—writers, producers, directors, and executives—pushing our stories forward. We can’t just wait for those roles to come along, or expect them to be written by people who don’t know anything about our experiences. We have to write our own stories.

MC: Looking into the future, are there any other media or disciplines you’d like to explore?

DFD: I would love to write, direct, and act in films. TV and films have always been big passions of mine and there are so many stories that still need to be told. For right now though, I’ll settle for writing treatments for my music videos [laughs].

JANM’s Summer Night Concerts series kicks off this year with “Viva La Taiko” on July 21 and continues with “Electronic and Hip Hop Night” on August 18. Concerts are held on the plaza; admission is free and no RSVP is needed. For more information, visit janm.org.

Michael Chang majors in Graphic Design and Painting at the University of Southern California.

Film Examines Chinese Immigrant History from Women’s Perspectives

This past Saturday, in honor of Women’s History Month, JANM held a screening of the new documentary film, To Climb a Gold Mountain. The film recounts key moments in the history of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the experiences of Chinese women. Extensive commentary from writers and historians (including past JANM guest speaker Lisa See) is used to tell the stories, along with period stock footage, vintage photographs, and—in the case of a 19th-century prostitute about whom very little is known—a gripping reenactment.

Anna May Wong. Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Anna May Wong. Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The film begins on a dark note, recounting the squalid and abusive conditions endured by the first female Chinese immigrants, who primarily served as prostitutes for the bachelor society of Chinese men that worked to build the railroads. Conditions slowly improved as laws changed to allow these men to start families in the U.S.

The rise of the filmmaking industry comes into play next as the life of Anna May Wong, a talented and charismatic actress who pioneered Asian American representation in popular media, is examined. In spite of her widely acknowledged abilities, Wong suffered a bitter disappointment when she lost the lead role in the landmark 1937 production of The Good Earth to Caucasian actress Luise Rainer, who, along with lead actor Paul Muni, played the role in “yellowface.”

The appearance of the glamorous, articulate, Wellesley-educated Soong Mei-ling, who became a world power player when she married Chinese president Chiang Kai-Shek, signifies a historic shift in U.S.-China relations as well as a significant shift in how Chinese people were viewed by the American public. The film ends on a positive and reaffirming note with a profile of Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, who states unequivocally her continuing belief in the American dream.

U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo courtesy of chu.house.gov.
U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo courtesy of chu.house.gov.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with producer and co-director Rebecca Hu, who was brought on to the project by the film’s director and executive producer, Alex Azmi. As a Chinese Canadian, the topic of the film resonated with Hu, but she did not know about most of the women being profiled. Thus, the making of the film was an educational experience for her. She noted that the issues highlighted in the film—such as discrimination against Asians and lack of visibility in the media—are still relevant today, and drew a parallel with recent discussions about the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards.

Hu also shared the good news that To Climb Gold Mountain has been picked up by PBS SoCal. A shorter version of the film that screened at JANM on Saturday—cut to fit PBS’s guidelines—will air beginning on May 17.

To find out more about this film, visit the website, which includes a fascinating gallery of notable Chinese American women, including many who are not featured in the film.

The Importance of Justin Lin and Other Asian American Cultural Pioneers

Next week, Big Trouble in Little Tokyo welcomes director Justin Lin to the museum for a tenth-anniversary screening of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, followed by a panel discussion. Below, JANM Vice President of Programs Koji Steven Sakai reflects on Lin’s influence.

BTILT_splatter+bumpers

When I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, there were zero Asian Americans on television, in movies, or in music. Okay, that’s not completely true, but it isn’t that far off. In fact, I remember playing G.I. Joe and turning one of the bad Asian ninjas (Storm Shadow) into one of the good guys.

Later, when I was thinking about becoming a screenwriter, I wasn’t sure it was possible since there wasn’t really anyone in the film and television world that I could point to and say, “That’s who I want to be like.” I didn’t believe it was actually a viable career, because if it was, why weren’t there more Asian Americans doing it?

It was around this time that three things happened in the world of Asian American pop culture. The Mountain Brothers, the first Asian American hip hop group signed to a major label, released their first album, Self: Volume 1, in 1999. They weren’t just a gimmick either; their album was an instant classic. Then, in 2001, Chinese American rapper MC Jin won seven freestyle battles in a row on BET’s Freestyle Friday. I tuned in at the end of every week to watch him, mesmerized by his skill. Finally, in 2002, Better Luck Tomorrow, the first feature film by Taiwanese American director Justin Lin, came out. It was one of the first Asian American movies bought by a major company.

Tokyo Drift smallAll three of these pivotal moments made me think I could make a career in the arts. But since I’m a screenwriter and producer, Justin’s accomplishment was especially meaningful to me. For once, there was someone I could emulate.

Justin has gone on to become one of the most successful Asian American filmmakers working today. And even with his success, he continues to support the Asian Pacific American community through his blog/YouTube channel YOMYOMF (You Offend Me You Offend My Family) and by always casting Asian Americans in major roles.

He has been an inspiration to me, and I would argue that he has also inspired an entire generation of Asian American filmmakers. For all of these reasons, I am honored to bring Justin Lin to JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, where he will participate in a panel discussion following a 10th-anniversary screening of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the first of four films he directed in the highly popular Fast and Furious franchise. This event, which is part of JANM’s Big Trouble in Little Tokyo series, will take place on Thursday, February 4, at 7 p.m.

Today, there are many more Asian Americans who are visible in popular culture. But I would argue that they all owe a gesture of thanks to pioneers like the Mountain Brothers, MC Jin, and Justin Lin, who helped make things a whole lot easier for those who came after them.

For more information about the screening or to buy tickets, click here.

Koji Steven Sakai is the Vice President of Programs at the Japanese American National Museum, where he has worked for over 12 years. In addition to his work at the museum, he has written five feature films that have been produced. Most recently, his debut novel, Romeo and Juliet vs. Zombies, was released by Luthando Coeur.

The Magical Worlds of Sean Chao

Sean Chao. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sean Chao. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

Originally from Taipei, Taiwan, artist Sean Chao graduated from Art Center College of Design in 2007 and now makes his home in Los Angeles. In 2012, Chao was featured in JANM’s Giant Robot Biennale 3 exhibition. He is known for creating intricate miniature dioramas using polymer clay, basswood, and paper, with nature as a recurring theme; he often depicts dense forests or vast oceans filled with plants and wildlife.

This Saturday, January 16, Chao will be leading a workshop at JANM titled Water Memory. Participants will learn to create their own sculptural underwater scenes using polymer clay, acrylic paint, and paper. In advance of this workshop, Chao graciously agreed to answer a few questions via email regarding his process and his influences.

JANM: How did you become interested in making dioramas?

Sean Chao: Growing up, I was very intrigued and fascinated by the dioramas at various natural history museums I visited, both in Taiwan and here in the States. It amazed me, the many details that were put into the dioramas to recreate natural scenes. It’s a different dimension—frozen in time and locked in a clear display case. One day I just decided to create my own dioramas, filled with worlds that I create.

Sean Chao, Big Cat, 2015, bass wood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sean Chao, Big Cat, 2015, basswood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache
paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

JANM: Tell us about some of the inspirations that drive your work. Monkeys and country peasants seem to make frequent appearances.

SC: I grew up in Taiwan and my culture influenced my work tremendously. I grew up in the city, but I was always fascinated by the simplicity of peasant life in the country—so much closer to nature and so far away from the crowd.

My dioramas are fantasy worlds that I create. Anthropomorphic characters are very charming. They have their own personalities in my world, inspired by the people and animals around me. My brother was born in the Year of the Monkey and he is one of my best friends. My monkey character is based on his personality: smart and adventurous.

Sean Chao, Persimmon Picnic, 2015, bass wood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sean Chao, Persimmon Picnic, 2015, basswood, polymer clay, acrylic,
and gouache paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

JANM: You also have an interesting “creatures within creatures” theme going on, where robots are controlled from the inside by animals. Could you tell us more about this theme?

SC: Human beings create computers, robots, and artificial intelligence based on the likeness of ourselves. It’s in our nature to create. I simply created my own version of the robot. It’s based on an ideal human personality and controlled by characters that were inspired by my family and friends.

JANM: Who are some of your own favorite artists?

SC: Beatrix Potter—she was an illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist, and one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. Hayao Miyazaki—I grew up watching his animations. The stories are very touching for both children and adults, and the way he captures the personality of each character is just fascinating. There is definitely more to learn from him for my own work.

Learn to make a piece like this in this weekend's Water Memory workshop. Sean Chao, Skull Koi 2, 2015, bass wood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache paint on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Learn to make a piece like this in this weekend’s Water Memory workshop.
Sean Chao, Skull Koi 2, 2015, basswood, polymer clay, acrylic, and gouache paint
on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

JANM: What are you most excited about for your upcoming Water Memory workshop?

SC: Meeting people who share the same interest in sculpture and diorama, and of course I’m very excited to show them my techniques. It will be a real fun event.

Space is still available for Chao’s workshop. To register, click here.