100 Years of Hell-Raising

The Hidden History of Asian American Activism in New York City

That ethnic-exclusive identification would come to haunt Chinese Americans, when, after the war, the U.S. exchanged Asian enemies, substituting Red China for fascist Japan. Suddenly, government agents began hounding hundreds of Chinese, deporting scores and imprisoning dozens of others, including China Daily News editor Eugene Moy, who died soon after his jailing. Amy Chen, who's making a documentary about Chinese Americans and McCarthyism, has uncovered a "Chinese Confession Program" run by the Immigration Service. That sinister program, along with blacklists and harassment, took a toll: both the CHLA and Daily News were virtually shut down.

THE CIVIL RIGHTS Movement of the '50s and early '60s brought protest politics back and wrought changes for all people of color in America, but the sea change in Asian American life really came in its wake. Like the feminist movement, the Asian American Movement of the late '60s and early '70s took flight as the New Left sputtered. The Black Power–inflected Movement spawned a host of institutions, from ethnic studies departments to community health clinics, nurtured the first generation of Asian American artists and writers to cross over in a big way, and, perhaps most importantly, invented "Asian Americans" themselves--that is, people with a panethnic political identity based on shared American histories of immigration, discrimination, and resistance.

In New York, the Asian American Movement can be traced, more or less, to a Madison Avenue Park bench, where in the fall of 1968 two women met for lunch. Kazu Iijima and Minn Matsuda, longtime friends and activists, wanted to start a Japanese American group for their college-age kids, but by the time they'd finished canvassing everyone they knew (and didn't know) in Asian New York, the two "crazy little old ladies"--as Iijima laughingly puts it now--had come up with the first Movement organization, Asian Americans for Action.

Triple A's first members included Yuri Kochiyama, the Harlem-based comrade of Malcolm X, as well as a contingent of second-and third-generation activists. "War brought us together," says Iijima. Indeed, opposition to the Vietnam War galvanized Asian Americans, who added a racial analysis to the antiwar movement, linking American military excursions in Asia to an imperial project driven by "gookism," just as the term gook itself--a child of America's war in the Philippines--later migrated to Korea, then Vietnam, among other destinations. But just as feminists found themselves marginalized in New Left organizations, Asian activists were often shunted to the side of the antiwar movement. The result was to foster independent Asian American organization and to bring disparate Asian groups together.

Meanwhile, a flood of organizations of every sort was precipitating change all over Asian New York. And crucially, activists of each Asian ethnicity increasingly considered their fortunes linked and their pasts connected. As Chris Iijima, Kazu's son and also one of the founders of Triple A, puts it, "there were so many things going on at different levels, a cross-pollination happened." Or as he, Nobuko (Joanne) Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin sang on the 1973 ur-Movement folkie album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America:

We are the children of the migrant worker
We are the offspring of the concentration camp.
Sons and daughters of the railroad builder
Who leave their stamp on Amerika.

Typical of the new groups was Chinatown's Basement Workshop, which spawned one of the first panethnic Asian American magazines, Bridge, and the first Asian American arts journal, Yellow Pearl. Also typical was the way Basement became the site of internecine warfare between various fast-blooming Marxist factions. Indeed, sectarian energies animated by the supposedly imminent Revolution helped generate all kinds of activity--storefront legal clinics; guerrilla theater; large demos against police brutality, employment discrimination, even Chinatown tourists--as well as hefty doses of paranoia and more-Mao-than-thou posturing.

Not that a portion of paranoia was uncalled for: in at least one case, the government targeted Asian American activists--as it did much of the counterculture--accusing two founders of the Chinatown Health Clinic, Kenny Chin and Liz Young, of plotting to assassinate the emperor of Japan! The government's logic was outrageously fuzzy, but it persisted nonetheless, convicting Young and Vietnam vet Chin on minor weapons charges after a mistrial.

Ultimately, though, the conservative morning in America may have had the greatest effect on the Asian American Movement: Reagan-Bush era policies sapped community funds, put labor organizers on the defensive, and stymied civil rights progress. Nevertheless, the post-'60s hangover feels a bit different to many Asian Americans, since the dropping of racist immigration quotas in 1965 has led to explosive growth in Asian American communities.

The first generation to call themselves Asian Americans discovered a common past partly because their American histories were so similar. Exclusion laws gave the Asian American experience a kind of shape--early immigration followed by a long drought and assimilation struggles for the American-born generations. It took a while for the 1965 revisions--not intended to foster Asian immigration, by the way--to have an effect, but now the majority of Asian America is foreign-born.

Meanwhile, the huge increase in Filipino, South Asian, and Southeast Asian immigration is likewise reshaping the community: 30 years ago "Yellow Power" rose and fell as a slogan; today, that moniker would be unthinkable, not so much for its dated power politics as for its monochromatic picture of Asian America. And while many "Uptown" Asians--especially second-, third-, and fourth-generation types--now grapple with problems like glass ceilings, many "Downtown" Asians--including new immigrants--struggle in society's bottom tiers. Still, new Asian immigrant communities are making more and more noise: South Asian cabbies, Filipino health workers, Southeast Asian students--all are insisting on a place at the table.

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