By Guest Contributor: Jan Lee
It was Valentine’s Day in New York City. While others were thinking about where to buy last minute chocolates and flowers, my thoughts were entirely elsewhere. I was reading restaurant reviews in the New York Times and found myself confronted with an article exploiting my community’s perceived exoticisms.
The review was from the New York Times (“Culinary Clashes End in Harmony at Chinese Tuxedo“), but I would have sworn I was reading a Chinatown caricature by Chuck Connors—the 19th century Rhode Islander who shamelessly profiteered by hawking exaggerated, cartoonish tales of exciting and foreign “ethnic” life in turn-of-the-century Chinatown to upper-class white tourists. National news correspondent Arthur Bonner described Connors as “a hanger-on in Doyers Street saloons who earned tips by showing thrill seekers tame wonders like the Joss House. For an added tip he would show them an opium den complete with a ‘fallen woman’.”
This treatment of Chinatown as a seedy den of foreign crime and taboo thrills to be packaged and sold as a form of ethnic tourism would be best left to the past. Yet, writers and editors seem perfectly willing to revive old stereotypes and evoke the worst of Chinatown’s history in a vain attempt to remain relevant, regardless of the consequences.
By Guest Contributor: Conrad Lihlihi (@clihilihi)
Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, entertainment news outlets reported that film project “Ni’ihau” was in pre-production and had cast actor Zach McGowan (Black Sails) in the lead role of Ben Kanahele, a Native Hawaiian man who featured centrally in the historic so-called ‘Ni’ihau Incident’. That announcement sparked accusations of white-washing and historical inaccuracies from online commentators.
In terms of the film production of “Ni’ihau” itself, there’s not much I could say that hasn’t already been said. Business-wise, I don’t see any support for this film from any communities (outside of hard core Zach McGowan fans). At this point, it seems almost certain that this project will fail.
However, news of the “Ni’ihau” film project re-raised a particular issue dealing with Asians and Pacific Islanders that I feel should be talked about. Specifically, does the term “Asian Pacific Islander” contribute towards a tendency for many Asians to claim Pacific Islanders as part of the same monolithic racial community, and thereby unknowingly erase the Polynesian narrative?
Last week, Deadline broke the story that writer/director Gabriel Robertson (EastEnders, Bucket, The Gift) was attached to write and direct a feature film based on the infamous so-called “Ni’ihau Incident”. Deadline further reported that actor Zach McGowan (Dracula Untold, Terminator: Salvation, Black Sails) — who is not Native Hawaiian — had been cast in the leading role of Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, a historical figure and Ni’ihauian who was awarded a Purple Heart for his role in the incident.
News of McGowan’s casting triggered immediate backlash from Asian American and Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander activists, who accused the filmmakers of using “Polyface” to whitewash the character of Ben Kanahele. In addition, Asian Americans criticized early buzz surrounding the planned “Ni’ihau” film, which described the incident as a “catalyst” for Japanese American incarceration (Editor’s Note: see JACL’s Power of Words handbook).
In truth, the events of the Ni’ihau Incident was co-opted by hardline conservatives to provide a veil of legitimacy to obscure the racist and anti-Asian motives behind Japanese American incarceration. History has since confirmed that Executive Order 9066 — which led to the forcible removal of over a hundred thousand Japanese and Japanese American civilians — was not based in significant military intelligence showing that Japanese Americans were untrustworthy; rather, Japanese American incarceration emerged as the latest escalation in a decades-long pattern of legalized anti-Asian and anti-Japanese harassment and criminalization.
Online outcry against “Ni’ihau” was fervent, taking the shape of memes, Twitter threads, and long-form thinkpieces. As it turns out, the filmmakers behind the planned “Ni’ihau” film were listening; and, they weren’t very receptive to the criticism.
The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is not a monolith.
Representing over 18 million people, AAPIs are a diverse, fast-growing population that includes Americans who identify with one or more of numerous East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups. Even the most populous of of AAPI sub-groups — Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, and Filipino Americans — individually comprise less than one-quarter of the total AAPI population.
And yet, the federal government still largely fails to collect data that reflect the diversity of the AAPI community; instead, most federal agencies follow an archaic standard — established in 1997 — wherein they lump together all AAPI into the two broad categories: “Asian” or “Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander”. Such a generalizing approach misses the nuance of the AAPI community, and washes away the specific socioeconomic challenges faced by AAPI sub-groups.
By Guest Contributor: Yung Wing
We often hear about the success of Asian Americans who are emblematic of the “model minority” stereotype. But we rarely hear the voices of those who fall through the cracks. The term AAPI, or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, was popularized by the Obama Administration from among several terms which already existed. It encompasses not only East Asian and Indian American immigrants who on average possess more degrees and levels of education when they immigrated to the US, but also the Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders who are not as well off. And when the public only has one “model minority” conception of AAPIs, comparably marginal peoples are too often forgotten.
Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!