Speech by Eddie Wong – November 27, 1981
In addition to meeting, planning and evaluating the political work in small groups called units, which were organized by work area, LRS members attended political education workshops. These workshops provided a vehicle for continual education and a chance to apply a Marxist-Leninist outlook to current issues. This workshop addressed the cultural and generational gap between American-born Asian cadre and the immigrant communities in Chinatown and Japantown. In particular, the workshop addressed the role of cultural work in forging a strong national identity across generations and class backgrounds.
In past sessions of this workshop series on the LRS’ views on the Asian national movements, we’ve talked about student organizing, labor work, and community organizing in the Chinese national movement and the Japanese national movement. We’ve talked abut the need for unity among Asian people of different class backgrounds, men and women and young and old in order to build a strong movement – one which can wage a protracted fight to win equality and political power.
Tonight we’ll talk about the need to promote national identity and culture in order to build a stronger, more cohesive movement. And we will examine the relationship between culture and politics.
The issue of identity has been a prominent issue in the Asian movement, especially among American-born Asians and college students. But from our perspective, we see the issue of identity a little differently. In the early days of the movement, identity was primarily in the realm of personal feelings – checking out your roots in a limited way, getting to understand your family’s heritage and culture, and coming to grips with how to view yourself. These were very earnest feelings, but this personal, psychological approach alone could not really provide answers to how we as a people would come to break through the racist/capitalist system, which subjected us to inequality. This approach reflected an ignorance of the power and importance of national identity and consciousness as a way to arouse people’s militancy and revolutionary fervor. Instead “identity” was geared towards encounter groups, tripping out into self-cultivation, and with its focus solely upon American-born cut off people from a fuller, complete understanding of building unity among the various sectors of Asian people.
What do we mean by national identity or national consciousness? Basically, we’re talking about the pride and self-worth a people feels. Pride that comes out of a rich history and culture. It springs a common psychological makeup based on common values, traditions, and habits that have evolved historically. National consciousness/national identity is very important to maintaining the existence of a nationality. It gives a sense of cohesion by building a mutually recognized collective self-worth – pride in a people’s achievements. National identity is handed down through the generations in the form of culture which is a shared history and traditions expressed in songs, dances, oral and written literature, art, fashion and cuisine. These things are all around us and are a source of pleasure and enlightenment. The culture preserves the history bringing out what is significant. Without national pride and national identity, individuals lose the sense of the collective – the sense of collective will and destiny and seek narrow, self-centered pursuits. Each person can drift toward a self-absorbed survival existence and in the process become alienated and isolated. For oppressed nationality peoples, national identity is very important to promote because imperialism is constantly trying to grind down national culture and identity. Thus, national identity is not static, unchanging phenomenon, but a dynamic one. In response to national oppression, the systematic exploitation and restriction of people based on their nationality, a progressive, revolutionary national consciousness demands that people ask themselves, what kind of people are we? What kind of future do we want for ourselves, our children? How can we live as free human beings? For the oppressor, these questions are dangerous for they arouse people to change reality, to break the shackles of oppression. To stop this from happening, the imperialists try to subvert national identity and culture and replace it with the values and perspectives of the new rulers. Thus, in many different national liberation movements, revolutionaries, progressives and patriots have agitated against the imposition of imperialist or Western culture at the expense of the national culture. Not only must they fight against Western imperialist values but also against what is reactionary within the traditional culture. In the process, a new revolutionary culture develops based on the best of the past and the present.
The Chinese revolution provides many insights to this process of preserving national identity and forging it into a weapon against imperialism. As Western and Japanese imperialism dismembered China bringing poverty and exploitation and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, progressive intellectuals (poets, artists, and writers) rose up along with students, workers and peasants to fight for national salvation. Thousands took to the streets in demonstrations against the unequal treaties, to support boycotts of Western goods, and to condemn imperialism. These were not only acts of political protest but also an expression of national pride and dignity. Lu Xun, the famous short story writer and critic, realized the importance of arousing national pride. In what was perhaps the turning point in his life, Lu Xun told of the shock and dismay he felt while watching a newsreel of the execution of some Chinese by the Japanese military. But it was not only the execution that angered and upset him. It was the look of apathy on the faces of the bystanders that shook him and made him reexamine his goals. Lu Xun, who at the time was studying to be a doctor, realized that it was not enough to cure the physical ills; something had to be done to awaken the spirit of the Chinese people. And this was the task he took up for the rest of his life.
Other intellectuals took up this task as well. Kuo Mo-Jo, like Lu Xun, had gone to Japan to study medicine. When he returned to China in 1918, this is what he saw. (From the poem An Impression of Shanghai)
I was shocked out of my dream!
Ah, the sorrow of disillusion!
Sensual and noisy flesh,
Men wearing long robes,
Women, short sleeves,
Everywhere I see skeletons,
And everywhere, coffins
Tears well up in my eyes,
And nausea, in my heart
I was shocked out of my dream.
Ah, the sorrow of disillusion!
Along with other poets, he formed the Creation Society, a group of romantic poets. As conditions worsened, Kuo Mo-jo spoke out against the injustices and studied Marxism. By 1925, he considered himself a revolutionary committed to the forging of a new China.
Another patriotic poet was Wen I-to, who founded the Crescent Society, a poetry circle, dedicated to the adapting of the modern vernacular to a classical poetic form. He too studied abroad in the U.S. at the Chicago Art Institute. He saw firsthand the discrimination of the Chinese people in the U.S. and wrote about it in a poem, The Laundry Song, which we will read later. When he returned to China, he underwent a similar experience as Lu Xun and Kuo Mo-jo. He too wrote poetry that tapped the rich literary tradition of China and used historical figures and allusions to express his message of national salvation. In his reflective poem, Prayer,
he quietly implores readers to reexamine their national fate.
Please tell me who the Chinese are
Teach me how to cling to memory.
Please tell me the greatness of this people
Tell me gently, ever so gently.
Please tell me: Who are the Chinese?
Whose hearts embody the hearts of Yao and Shun?
In whose veins flow the blood of Ching K’o and Nieh Cheng?
Who are the true children of the Yellow Emperor?
Tell me that such wisdom came strangely –
Some say it was brought by a horse from the river:
Also tell me that the rhythm of this song
Was taught, originally, by the phoenix.
Who will tell me of the silence of the Gobi Desert?
The awe inspired by the Five Sacred Mountains,
The patience that drips from the rocks of Mount Tai,
And the harmony that flows in the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers?
Please tell me who the Chinese are,
Teach me how to cling to memory.
Please tell me the greatness of this people
Tell me gently, ever so gently.
In another more forceful tone, he spoke militantly about the tasks ahead. From the poem, One Sentence:
There is one sentence that can light fire,
Or, when spoken, bring dire disasters.
Don’t think that for five thousand years nobody has said it.
How can you be sure of a volcano’s silence?
Perhaps one day, as if possessed by a spirit,
Suddenly out of the blue sky a thunder
“This is our China!”
How am I to say this today?
You may not believe that “the iron tree will bloom.”
But there is one sentence you must hear!
Wait till the volcano can no longer be quiet,
Don’t tremble, or shake your head, or stamp your feet,
Just wait till out of the blue sky a thunder
“This is our China!”
Can you feel the power of his message, the beauty of his imagery? These are battle cries that fulfill the highest duties and promise of the poet – to give voice to the anger, suffering, and hope of the people.
Hundreds of poets and writers followed this path. Common people of little education wrote poems, stories and popular songs too. All had a common theme – restoration of national dignity through revolution.
National culture as a weapon of resistance against imperialism was also demonstrated in the Algerian revolution of the late 1950s. How many of you have seen the film The Battle of Algiers? There’s an unforgettable scene near the end when thousands of women march from the Kasbah the Algerian working people’s quarters, to the French colonial officials. As women wearing the haik, the long veil/dress, march in protest of the capture and murder of the revolutionaries, you hear the high-pitched, piercing wail, the traditional cry of mourning. The French military commanders cannot comprehend this outpouring of hatred against them, and the wailing, so foreign and ominous, unnerves them. The show of militancy is a visible reminder that the French have failed to subdue the Algerian people.
Frantz Fanon, a radical psychiatrist, described the cultural resistance and cultural transformation of the Algerian people in A Dying Colonialism. In a chapter, “Algeria Unveiled,” he explains why the Algerians resisted the French colonialists’’ campaign to unveil the women. The French saw the role of Algerian women as pivotal to the implementation of Western culture and rule. Their attitude was “the veil is a symbol of feudal, male dominance. Let us liberate her and she will embrace us.” But the reaction was the opposite. “The colonized, in the face of the emphasis given by the colonialist to this or that aspect of his traditions, reacts very violently. Holding out against the occupier on this precise element means inflicting upon him a spectacular setback.”
Fanon pointed out that the veil was worn “because tradition demanded a rigid separation of the sexes.” Furthermore, it was a question for the Algerian people themselves to decide. Some Algerian women in the course of revolutionary action abandoned the veil, as women became equals in the struggle against French imperialism. “What had been used to block the psychological or political offensives of the occupier became a means, an instrument.” Thus, as the film The Battle of Algiers showed, women abandoned the veil and took up Western dress in order to move freely in the European quarters to plant bombs, carry messages, deliver medicine and other tasks.
Fanon’s point is that as much as the imperialists will try to impose its dress, cuisine, and values, there will never be total acceptance. Implicit in this process is recognition of the native person’s inferiority. “You are less than human, therefore, let us civilize you.” Only opportunists, sell outs and running dogs and the very, very sick will eagerly eat this up, e.g. S.I. Hayakawa who brags that he speaks English better than Japanese. For anyone with an ounce of national consciousness, the mere mention of a racist remark, a slur, and a laughing deprecation brings an immediate reaction. Your heart beats a little faster; your ears begin to burn and redden; your face gets flushed and you want to scream, to tear their throats out, to main, to destroy, to push back those words and acts. This is a very healthy albeit violent response and one that can maintain one’s sanity and pride. Of course, there are tactical considerations, e.g. don’t do it if you are vastly outnumbered, but fight if you are attacked. We live in a violent society where our lives are held inconsequential, expendable and our beings repressed. This is what Fanon meant when he said that “it is the white man who creates the Negro. But it is the Negro who creates negritude.” The oppressor always casts the oppressed into a mold, a stereotype that can justify their exploitation and subjugation. But it is the Third World person who creates the true pride and resistance that can overcome oppression.
The examples of China and Algeria hold lessons for Asians in American too. The national oppression of Asian people in the U.S. bears many similarities with colonial oppression in the Third World.
Chinese, Japanese, Pilipino and other Asian immigrants were brought to the U.S. as an expendable labor force and brutally exploited. Economic exploitation and political restriction were reinforced with violent repression and by a total assault on the national pride and dignity of Asian people. In order to legitimize national oppression, the ruling class enacted discriminatory laws, condoned segregation, and instilled racist ideology that was widely promoted in the media. All of this done to justify and make “normal” racist acts against Asians.
To rationalize this mistreatment, the capitalists had to dehumanize Asians, to put them on a sub-human level so that they could never become equals. Their arguments covered a lot of territory. The main thrust of it was that Asians could never be accepted as equals and would be perpetual aliens because they are heathens, i.e. non-Christians, b) have little regard for life, c) have a lower standard of living (that’s why it’s OK to treat them like shit, to pay them lower wages and pack them into ghettos). I’ll leave out the long list of other things such as we stink, bred like rabbits, etc. You may think well these are old stereotypes and that society has become more favorable towards Asians, but variations of this racist garbage exist today. In fact racism against Asians is on the rise, being whipped up by the capitalists and media in the anti-Asian campaign directed at Southeast Asian and Chinese refugees, Japanese imports, etc. Nor will racism go away until national oppression and capitalism are destroyed.
Over the years, the racist stereotypes have evolved to depict us as passive, quiet, unassuming people. Obedient servants who knew their place as the “model minority.” And by wiping out any trace of our true existence and struggle from the history books and media, Asians in the U.S. have only a partial understanding of our national identity and culture. But if we examine our history of struggle and perseverance, we can see that there is much to be proud of.
To unite all who can be united to fight for equality and political power, we need to arouse the national sentiments of our people, to bring out our pride and dignity and to make this into a material force.
What are the roots of our national identity and culture? This is what we will discuss next.
When we speak of national identity for Asians in the U.S., we’re referring to specific Asian national movements – Chinese, Japanese, Pilipino, Korean, etc. Asians have faced a common experience (for example, the majority of Asians came to the U.S. as contract laborers), but each group has its particular history and development in this country as well as different traditional cultures. We believe that national identity and culture for Asian national minorities comes from two things: first, the heroic history of resistance and struggle against national oppression and second the influence of the traditional Asian cultures.
Now, we’d like to give a brief historical overview to the development of national identity and culture of Asians in America. This is by no means a complete survey, for we too are just learning to uncover the roots of our culture. But what emerges most clearly is how our national identity and culture has been affected by national oppression. This inescapable fact of life – national oppression – was a constant, unrelenting attack on our national pride and dignity. Thus, people resisted in whatever way they could and expressed this eloquently through culture and in action.
Each Asian nationality fought to maintain their dignity and pride. They showed very strong national consciousness by rising up in militant, united action on numerous occasions to demand fair treatment.
In Hawaii where the Chinese worked on the sugar plantations, there were several incidents where Chinese workers beat up their white overseers – even cases of murder against whites. On the mainland in 1867, 2,000 Chinese railroad workers stuck for equal wages and for an eight-hour day. Strikes also took place in the cities such as in San Francisco where Chinese shoemakers struck against two white shoe manufacturers. Other Chinese organized lawsuits to protest discriminatory laws.
Much of this is not fully brought out in history books and in the general society because it doesn’t jibe with the image of the quiet Chinamen, with Crocker’s Pets as the railroad workers were called dismissively. But the examples of militant resistance shouldn’t be surprising at all if one understands the cultural background, the national consciousness the Chinese immigrants brought with them. Most of the first waves of Chinese immigrants were southern Chinese from Canton and Fukien. They were young men from a fiercely independent, resourceful and rebellious part of China. For decades the Cantonese had resisted the Manchu rulers and launched a series of peasant rebellions in the 1840s known as the Taiping Rebellions. The Cantonese have a strong reputation as fighters, as people who don’t take not shit from nobody! It’s reflected in the folk culture of the Cantonese, in their worship of many gods such as Kwang Kung, the god of war, literature and good fortune, as well as other deities.
The Cantonese also brought with them a sharp sense of national pride, for their coming to America was directly linked to the imperialists’ dismemberment of China. Although many of the Chinese immigrants had been farmers, high taxes, which were enacted to pay for the indemnities brought on by the Opium War, impoverished them. Furthermore, the ruin of rural handicrafts caused by the imperialists’ importation of foreign goods and subsequent unrest forced the Chinese to leave their homeland. In some of the poems which we will read later, you can see how the immigrants grasped the link between China being a weak country, wrecked by imperialism, and its direct impact on the mistreatment of Chinese in the U.S.
The old timers wrote about their brutal mistreatment in several novels and short stories. In 1960, the People’s Republic of China published a large volume of songs, poetry, essays and novels on the Chinese experience in the U.S. called Fan Mei Hua Kung Chin-Yueh Wen-Houeh Chi (Collected Literature on Anti-American Chinese Labor Exclusion Act). Ku She-hui (Sad Society or Bitter Society) was one novel published in Shanghai in 1905 that told of the conditions on the slave ships that brought Chinese to America. Other first-person accounts by travelers told of mass roundups in Chinatown by immigration authorities – of how Chinese businessmen were forced to sell their property at huge losses when they were deported. Other novels told the story of young Chinese students in the U.S. and recounted the fervor of the anti-U.S. Exclusion Act boycott campaign. Recently, some of these works have been translated into English. Chapters of The Bitter Society appear in the spring/summer 1981 issue of Amerasia Journal. These efforts uncover a body of literature that gives us a link to the past.
Using classical Chinese poetry and popular songs, the immigrants described their bitter experiences in this hostile land. Many immigrants who returned to Fukien and Canton actively participated in the boycott of American goods in the 1900s to try to overturn the Chinese Exclusion Act and to gain more protection of Chinese in the U.S. One long poem was entitled Ti-Chih Mei Kuo (Boycott the United States). Here the poet describes his experience in Hawaii:
When Hawaii was plagued by an epidemic
And the blame fell upon us
For spreading the disease
With our homes burned to the ground,
We fled like clusters of frightened crabs.
There were old men and tender babies,
And other helpless beings
Being burned to death.
The tormented feelings
Of these tragedies,
Bitter to the ear,
Excruciating for the eyes,
Cannot be repeated
By paper and pen.
Sad to say,
Are consequences of our silent indifference
To foreign oppression,
And our own
Other expressions of Chinese immigrant are scratched into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station. These poems also expressed the plight of the immigrants who were detained, subjected to strenuous interrogation and medical examination and arbitrarily held prisoner for months. Many of the poems pointed out that China was powerless to avenge the crimes of the Americans.
When a newcomer arrives in America,
He will surely be seized and put in the wooden building.
Like a major criminal,
I have already been here one autumn.
The Americans refused me admission;
I have been barred and deported back.
Alongside the ship, the waves are huge.
Returning to the motherland is truly distressing.
We Chinese of a weak nation,
Sigh bitterly at the lack of freedom.
The day our nation becomes strong
I swear we will cut off the barbarian’s head.
The Angel Island poems also conveyed the immigrants’ deep feelings of loneliness and frustration.
The west wind ruffles my thin gauze clothing,
On the hill sits a tall building with a room of wooden planks.
I wish I could travel on a cloud far away,
Reunite with my wife and son.
When the moonlight shines on me alone, the
Nights seem even longer.
At the head of the bed there is wine and my
Heart is constantly drunk.
There is no flower beneath my pillow and
My dreams are not sweet.
To whom can I confide my innermost
I rely solely on close friends to relieve my
I have left the village well behind me, bade
Farewell to my father and mother.
Now I gaze at distant clouds and mountains,
Tears forming like pearls.
The wandering son longed to be wealthy like
Who would have known I would be imprisoned on island?
I beat my breast when I think of China and
cry bitterly like Ruan Ji**.
Our country’s wealth is being drained by
Foreigners, causing us to suffer national
My fellow countrymen, have foresight, plan
To be resolute.
And vow to conquer the U.S. and avenge
*Taozhu was a wealthy merchant.
**Ruan Ji was a famous scholar who was known to cry when looking back at the end of a journey.
There are many other poems, songs, popular verses written in Chinese and published in community newspapers. Many of these works captured the hardships of life, crystallizing and releasing deep bitterness. Listen to this poem by Wen I-to, who we read earlier. Wen wrote this poem, The Laundry Song, in 1925 based on what he saw in U.S. Chinatowns.
(One piece, two pieces, three pieces,)
Washing must be clean.
(four pieces, five pieces, six pieces,)
Ironing must be smooth.
I can wash handkerchiefs wet with sad tears;
I can wash shirts soiled in sinful crimes.
The grease of greed, the dirt of desire
And all the filthy things at your house,
Give them to me to wash, give them to me.
Brass stinks; blood smells evil.
Dirty things you have to wash.
Once washed, they will again be soiled.
How can you, men of patience, ignore them!
Wash them (for the Americans), wash them!
You say the laundry business is too base.
Only Chinamen are willing to stoop so low?
It was your preacher who once told me:
Christ’s father used to be a carpenter.
Do you believe it? Don’t you believe it?
There isn’t much you can do with soap and water.
Washing clothes truly can’t compare with building warships.
I, too, say what great prospect lies in this –
Washing the others’ sweat with your own blood and sweat?
(But) do you want to do it? Do you want it?
Year in year out a drop of homesick tears;
Midnight, in the depth of night, a laundry lamp…
Menial or not, you need not bother,
Just see what is not clean, what is not smooth,
And ask the Chinaman, ask the Chinaman.
I can wash handkerchiefs wet with sad tears,
I can wash shirts soiled in sinful crimes.
The grease of greed, the dirt of desire
And all the filthy things at your house,
Give them to me – I’ll wash them, give them to me!
The racism Chinese faced in every sphere of their lives tore at them daily. Each day, they faced a fresh assault on national dignity. No one can tolerate this without fighting back and by any means necessary to preserve what you find enjoyable, valuable and sustaining. Thus, the Chinese immigrants kept alive the traditional culture, primarily Cantonese folk culture. In a society that degraded Chinese people, Chinese custom and Chinese religion, maintaining culture was a way to assert one’s humanity and remain connected to the motherland.
Chinatown became a refuge and a stronghold against the hostile white society. Here, the culture of homeland flourished. By 1852, several Chinese theaters in San Francisco featured Cantonese opera. These permanent companies also travelled to other cities. Honolulu’s Chinese theater featured a company of 80 actors and musicians. In later decades, American-born Chinese also took up the dramatic arts. All forms of culture – dance, puppet making, and the martial arts – continue to this day within the Chinese community.
Despite the efforts of the state, through the public school system, and the Christian churches, which tried to convert Chinese and abandon Cantonese folk deities, many of immigrants and the first generation of American-born Chinese continued to speak Chinese and practice traditional culture. Families continued to celebrate the traditional holidays – Lunar New Year, Ching Ming, Harvest Moon Festival – even thought it did not have the same significance as in China. And this pattern was repeated for other Asian immigrant groups as well.
Within the Japanese community, the cultural traditions were nurtured through the Buddhist Church and by cultural instructors. The community as a whole celebrated the summer obon, the Festival of Souls. Families observed traditional holidays such as Boys Day and Girls Day. Japanese martial arts – sumo, judo, kendo – were taught to young boys. Koto, shamisien and other musical instruments were widely taught.
Culture was something that was and is a natural part of the community life for it brought together people to enjoy common traditions, share festivities and celebrate their perseverance and survival.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a tremendous upsurge in labor organizing and progressive political activity among Asians in the U.S. This spurred the development of working class culture and heightened national consciousness among Asians in America.
In the Chinese national minority, people followed events in China with great interest. Many Chinese in America supported the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat Sen. But after the revolution failed and flowing the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, many Chinese turned towards Marxism as the route to China’s salvation. Groups of socialists and communists rose up among Chinese in the U.S., and they published newspapers, leaflets and journals to promote unity among Chinese people in their struggle for better working and living conditions. One publication was The Vanguard, a newspaper published in Chinese. Progressive groups such as the Chinese Workers Mutual Aid Association in San Francisco also sponsored cultural programs and produced plays about Chinese workers such as The Drifting Life. This was a period of intense activity and interest in politics. Chinese in America eagerly followed the new movements in China for a modern language, use of the vernacular instead of just the classical language, which limited poetry writing to only the well educated. Groups studied and performed the new revolutionary songs and folk dances. It was a time alive with revolutionary culture.
Japanese communists and progressives started newspapers such as the Doho (Brotherhood), a bilingual weekly in Los Angeles. The Doho covered news of the restaurant and produce workers’ organizing as well as the anti-militarist movement in Japan. Poetry and short stories by Nisei and Issei also appeared in the pages of the Doho.
Progressive Pilipino labor organizers also started newspapers and literary journals such as The New Tide, Commonwealth Times and Philippines Express. In these publications, Pilipino workers expressed their hopes, dreams and experiences. One worker/organizer/writer was Carlos Bulosan who captured the feelings of the Pilipino migrant worker during the Depression. Through his short stories, poems, essays and novels, he painted a portrait of poverty amid a land of riches and cried out against the injustice of the capitalist system. The power of his poetry is in the imagery and sense of time and place he evokes. His poem Factory Town demonstrates his mastery of the medium.
The factory whistle thrilled the atmosphere
With a challenging shriek; the doors opened suddenly
And vomited black-faced men, toil-worn men:
Their feet whispered wearily upon the gravel path;
They reached the gate and looked at each other.
No words – lidless eyes moved, reaching for love.
Silence and fear made them strong, invincible, wise.
They shook their hands and tossed their heads back
In secret defiance to their fragmentary careers.
And paced the homeward road with heavy hearts.
These were the longest years of their lives;
These were the years when the whistle at four o’clock
Drove them to the yard, then they scurried
Home heavy with fatigue and hunger and love.
These were the years when the gigantic chimneys blocked
The skies with black smoke that reminded passerbys
Of a serpent-like whip of life within, bleeding,
Scarred with disease and death. These were the years…
Faces behind the laced doors and curtained windows,
Did you see the young man stand by the factory gate,
His face serious and forlorn, brittled with pain,
His hands unsteady with nervousness – did you see him?
Look at the lengthening line of voiceless men waiting
By the factory gate that will never be men again.
Bulosan will always be an inspiration to Asian, Third World and progressive writers because he set in words and by deed an example of the politically committed artist who took a stand with the working class, never aloof from the suffering of his fellow Pinoys. Out of his hardship as a migratory fruit picker, which he described in an essay, My Education, he developed at times a utopian vision fueled by idealism for what America could be but was not.
“I had picked hops with some Indians under the towering shadow of Mt. Rainier. I had pruned apples with the dispossessed Americans in the rich deltas of the Columbia River. I had cut and packed asparagus in California. I had weeded peas with Japanese in Arizona. I had picked tomatoes with Negroes in Utah. Yet I felt that I did not belong to America…
The next two years were like a nightmare. There were sixteen million unemployed. I joined those disinherited Americans… I was sick with despair… Everywhere I went I saw the shadow of this country falling. I saw it in the anguish of girls that cried at night. I saw it in the abstract stares of unemployed workers. I saw it in the hollow eyes of children. I saw it in the abuses suffered by immigrants. I saw it in the persecution of the minorities. I heard some men say that this was America – the dream betrayed..
I read more books, and became convinced that it was the duty of the artist to trace the origin of the disease that was festering American life…. Then I began to hate the crass materialism of our age and the powerful chains and combines that strangled human life and made the world a horrible place to live in. Slowly, I was beginning to feel that I had found a place in America. The fight to hold on to this feeling convinced me that I was becoming a growing part of living America.
(Other people then read the Bulosan poem I Want the Wide American Earth)
Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers,
I say I want the wide American earth,
Its beautiful rivers and long valleys and fertile plains,
Its numberless hamlets and expanding towns and towering cities,
Its limitless frontiers, its probing intelligence,
For all the free.
Free men everywhere in my land –
This wide American earth – do not wander homeless,
And we call each other comrade, each growing with the other,
Each a neighbor to the other, boundless in freedom.
I say I want the wide American earth….
I say to you defenders of freedom, builders of peace,
I say to you democratic brothers, comrades of love:
Their judges lynch us, their police hunt us;
Their armies and navies and airmen terrorize us;
Their thugs and stoolies and murderers kill us;
They take away bread from our children;
They ravage our women;
They deny life to our elders.
But I say we have the truth
On our side, we have the future with us;
We have history in our hands, our belligerent hands.
We are millions everywhere,
On seas and oceans and lands;
On water and all over this very earth.
We are millions working together,
We are bu8lding, creating, molding life.
We are shaping the shining structures of love.
We are everywhere, we are everywhere.
We are there when they sentence us to prison for telling the truth;
We are there when they conscript us to fight their wars;
We are there when they throw us in concentration camps;
We are there when they come at dawn with their guns.
We are there, we are there.
And we say to them:
“You cannot frighten us with your bombs and deaths;
You cannot drive us away from our land with your hate and disease;
You cannot starve us with your war programs and high prices;
You cannot command us with your nothing,
Because you are nothing but nothing.
You cannot put us all in your padded jails;
You cannot snatch the dawn of life from us!”
And we say to them:
We shall no longer wear rags, eat stale bread, live in darkness;
We shall no longer kneel on our knees to your false gods;
O remember in the deepest midnight of your fear,
We shall emulate the wonder of our women,
The ringing laughter of our children,
The strength and manhood of our men
With a true and honest and powerful love!”
And we say to them:
“We are the creators of a flowering race!”
I say I want the wide American earth.
I say to you too, sharer of my delights and thoughts,
I say this deathless truth,
And more —
For look, watch, listen:
With a stroke of my hand I open the dawn of a new world,
Lift up the beautiful horizon of a new life;
All for you, comrade and my love.
The magnificent towers of our future is afire with truth,
And growing with the fuel of the heart of my heart,
And unfolding and unfolding, and flowering and flowering
In the bright new sun of our world;
All of you, comrade and my wife.
I cry. I weep with joy.
And my tears are the tears of my people….
Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers,
I say I want the wide American earth
For all the free.
I want the wide American earth for my people.
I want my beautiful land.
I want it with my rippling strength and tenderness
Of love and light and truth
For all the free —
But his utopian tendencies were offset by a belief in the need to struggle against colonialism in the Philippines and for social justice here in the U.S.
(Other people read the Bulosan poem If You Want to Know What We Are)
If you want to know what we are who inhabit
forest mountain river shore, who harness
beast, living steel, martial music (that classless
language of the heart), who celebrate labour,
wisdom of the mind, peace of the blood;
If you want to know what we are who become
animate at the rain’s metallic ring, the stone’s
accumulated strength, who tremble in the wind’s
blossoming (that enervates earth’s potentialities),
who stir just as flowers unfold to the sun;
If you want to know what we are who grow
powerful and deathless in countless counterparts,
each part pregnant with hope, each hope supreme,
each supremacy classless, each classlessness
nourished by unlimited splendor of comradeship;
We are multitudes the world over, millions everywhere;
in violent factories, sordid tenements, crowded cities;
in skies and seas and rivers, in lands everywhere;
our number increase as the wide world revolves
and increases arrogance, hunger disease and death.
We are the men and women reading books, searching
in the pages of history for the lost word, the key
to the mystery of living peace, imperishable joy;
we are factory hands field hands mill hand everywhere,
molding creating building structures, forging ahead,
Reaching for the future, nourished in the heart;
we are doctors scientists chemists discovering,
eliminating disease and hunger and antagonisms;
we are soldiers navy-men citizens guarding
the imperishable will of man to live in grandeur,
We are the living dream of dead men everywhere,
the unquenchable truth that class-memories create
to stagger the infamous world with prophecies
of unlimited happiness a deathless humanity;
we are the living and the dead men everywhere….
If you want to know what we are, observe
the bloody club smashing heads, the bayonet
penetrating hallowed breasts, giving no mercy; watch the
bullet crashing upon armor less citizens;
look at the tear-gas choking the weakened lung.
If you want to know what we are, see the lynch
trees blossoming, the hysterical mob rioting;
remember the prisoner beaten by detectives to confess
a crime he did not commit because he was honest,
and who stood alone before a rabid jury of ten men,
And who was sentenced to hang by a judge
whose bourgeois arrogance betrayed the office
he claimed his own; name the marked man,
the violator of secrets; observe the banker,
the gangster, the mobsters who kill and go free;
We are the sufferers who suffer for natural love
of man for man, who commemorate the humanities
of every man; we are the toilers who toil
to make the starved earth a place of abundance
who transform abundance into deathless fragrance.
We are the desires of anonymous men everywhere,
who impregnate the wide earth’s lustrous wealth
with a gleaming fluorescence; we are the new thoughts
and the new foundations, the new verdure of the mind;
we are the new hope new joy life everywhere.
We are the vision and the star, the quietus of pain;
we are the terminals of inquisition, the hiatuses
of a new crusade; we are the subterranean subways
of suffering; we are the will of dignities;
we are the living testament of a flowering race.
If you want to know what we are
WE ARE REVOLUTION
Japanese Americans also produced literature and art to express their experiences.
Similar to the Chinese immigrants, the Japanese immigrants were of a peasant farming background. Many were forced off the land when higher taxation was enacted by the feudal aristocracy to pay for industrialization. It took courage, initiative and perseverance to journey abroad to start a new life in a new land. Many single male laborers came to make their fortune and then return home. But like the Chinese, they found that contract labor work left you in debt and locked into a permanent cycle of fieldwork. The Japanese also had strong national pride and stood up for their rights in the face of racist exploitation. In the Hawaiian plantation fields, the Japanese waged several long strikes in 1909 and 1920. On the mainland, Japanese agricultural workers, miners, railroad workers and other workers were pioneers in the trade union movement and took militant action many times to win their rights.
The experiences of Japanese workers and farming families appeared in many literary journals and newspapers established by the Issei. Nisei writers such as Wakako Yamaguichi have tapped this rich mine of experience for her short story and play, “And The Soul Shall Dance,” which is about the hardships of a Japanese farming family in the Imperial Valley. Writings such as Yamaguichi’s reflected the internal functioning of the Japanese family – its inner conflicts and expectations – and shed light on understanding ourselves, and understanding what makes us tick. There were other works as well which noted the emergence of the younger generation, the Nisei, and how they confronted the larger society.
And when the Japanese were unjustly imprisoned in World War II concentration camps, there was a great outpouring of literature and art to express condemnation, despair, vengeance, bitterness and perseverance.
Here are some senryu (unrhymed Japanese verse consisting of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables (5, 7, 5) or 17 syllables in all) and tanka (a Japanese verse form with five unrhymed lines containing 5,7.5,7 and 7syllables) written by Issei in the camps that give alternately wry, ironic and sad commentaries on imprisonment.
but the dust does not stay down
the days when I laughed
are forgotten, three times
spring has passed
living in the cage
since the day on internment
sitting on his ass
the go player
dressed as I am
a snowy wind
And there is this description of an incident of racist brutality described by poet Iwao Kawakami in his poem “The Paper.”
(the desert wind blows and sand covers the barbed wire posts –
here was once a city a mile square: Topaz, “Jewel of the Desert” – a city of ten
thousand people, aliens and citizens bound by barbed wire)
reconstruct how the first days of Topaz
in the grayness following a sunset an old man shuffles along
the road near the barbed wire fence
focus the lens of imagination upon an unshaven face
beneath a shapeless straw hat –
the face of a Japanese seventy years old
a blue working shirt-patched denim trousers – brown boots
that rise and fall, leaving small craters in the dusty road
(this is the beginning of a Utah night and a wind springs up)
two pieces of paper start to flutter in the hands of the old man –
his lips are moving
(what are you reading, sir? Even if it is the camp’s mimeographed
newspaper it cannot be as absorbing as the sight of
purple mountains resting on white sands of the desert)
this is a man who once had a celery ranch near San Diego –
he remembers the wet green stalks on frosty mornings
the Mexicans who said “La Golondrina” as they slashed at the
roots with long knives
the imperturbable young Japanese American truck drivers
the fat Italian commission merchants who kidded him in a
market jammed with vegetables
(war has forced an evacuation-harrows and discs begin to rust)
a sheet of paper flies out of the old man’s hands
the wind carries it along like a white lifeboat bobbing in the
middle of an ocean
a few yards beyond the fence the paper swerves to rest upon
(regulation of the War Relocation Authority: all residents of
the center are herby warned not to go near the fence)
the old man stops, looks at the watchtower some distance away –
surely guards would not mind if he went after a piece of paper
slowly he walks toward the fence, bends down to go through
a buzzard circles lazily above him – swings away in alarm
as a shot shatters the silence of approaching night
dust rises in a cloud as the old man falls sideways in the road
the body twitches – grows still – blood seeps through the hole
in the back of the heart
(order of the Military Police: fire if necessary if any resident
is seen going through the fence)
A GI with a Garand runs down the steps of the watchtower
“Christ, was he trying to escape?”
he sees a mimeographed paper clutched in the dead man’s hand
but does not notice the wind beginning to push another
piece of paper beyond the fence.
(Topaz is now with Virginia City and Nineeveh – the paper,
buffeted by the rain and wind, has crumbled into dust –
only the mountains and the desert remain)
These poems were written to remind us that we must never forget the hardships, the heroic struggles and the perseverance of our people.
Out of our historical experience in the U.S. and through the traditional culture, we have a rich legacy and a distinctive national identity and culture. And most importantly, we recognize that it takes both aspects to forge the national consciousness needed to activate the national sentiments of our people. Without understanding the historical experience of racist oppression and of struggle, one loses a perspective toward evaluating our status today. We refuse to accept the ruling class’ stereotype that we are a model minority, that we have “made it.” How can this be when oppression exists all around us? While the exterior of things evolve, the inner essence of capitalism and its system of national oppression remains the same. We should never forget that it was only a short time ago that our people were being lynched, driven out of towns, and thrown in concentration camps. The thinking, the hatred, the exploitation behind these crimes against our people is still there. We have a score to settle.. things to set right.. and we should carry with us the absolute conviction that truth is on our side, that we can never give up, take an easy way out in our fight for justice, not if we cherish the memories of our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers who came before us. They passed something on to us – the spirit of resistance and struggle, and we must nourish that spirit.
We cannot forget our roots in Asia either and resist the attempt to make us reject our culture, to turn our backs on our language, customs and traditions. These are things that can enrich or lives and broaden our understanding of Asian people and a way to integrate with the many sectors of Asian people here in the U.S. When it comes to discussing culture, we often don’t realize how much American-born Asians have been brought up with Western cultural values and limited American culture is. We grow up ashamed at Asian culture because society deems it strange, exotic weird and while we may know all about the Renaissance, King Arthur, and Paul Bunyon, we know little about Asian culture. There are limitations to how to reverse this. We aren’t saying that people should drop everything to immerse themselves in Asian studies. The main thing we need to promote is an open attitude toward Asian culture and to understand the background, customs and everyday lives of Asian immigrants.