Ching Chong Chickenshits Who Have Forgotten Who They Once Were: An Interview with Benjamin R. Tong

Interview by Eddie Wong with Dr. Benjamin Tong. Posted June 25, 2022.

The following interview of Dr. Benjamin R. Tong by Eddie Wong was prompted by the issue of how to address historical trauma among Chinese Americans. We recently commemorated the 140th anniversary of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. We know that acts of violence, discrimination, and suppression inevitably shape the consciousness of a people. Today, we still experience unabated, violent attacks on Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, especially against Asian women and the elderly.  The amount of stress we are carrying is brutal.

Dr. Benjamin R. Tong is Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, as well as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and organizational consultant in private practice.  He is also emeritus faculty in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.  I want to thank Dr. Tong for sharing his thoughts on the complex issues surrounding our trauma and healing.

This interview was conducted on Feb. 24, 2022 and revised with additional comments in June, 2022.

Eddie: Today many people, including Chinese Americans, are unaware of Chinese American history. They aren’t aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act and are unaware of the psychological baggage that they might be carrying. And this extends to generations of descendants of paper sons and paper daughters.

Benjamin:  Right.

Eddie:  We grew up with a lot of lies and secrecy about our family’s history. But today’s Chinese American community is very diverse. There are people from Taiwan, Malaysia, the People’s Republic of China, and they don’t particularly identify with Chinese American history. It’s not their history. It’s not their experience. But it does impact them. What are your thoughts on that?

Benjamin: That’s a very important point. There’s been more than one Chinese American history. Let’s think more in terms of distinct and unique regional narratives. The Chinese Americans in Butte, Montana had a history different from the California experience. It makes clearer sense to think of Chinese America as consisting of historical enclaves. For instance, take the newly-arrived from, say, Beijing and Szechuan, their Chinese American history is taking root now and their experiences will constitute one but only one version of the Chinese American story. Sometimes folks lean too heavily on the west coast California one. Small-town Chinese America has a different history from urban Chinese America. And so on and so forth.

Chinese residents of Downieville, CA in 1894 book by D.D. Beatty, inspector with U.S. Bureau of Immigration. Photo from California Historical Society website.

Eddie:  You pointed out in your essay “Uh, Which Chinese American Heritage Are We Talking About?” with the Idaho Chinese is that they, at one point, were a quarter of the state’s population. So, they had a little bit of power and people armed themselves and protected themselves which is not an image you typically see of Chinese Americans.

Benjamin:  UCLA historian Alexander Saxton wrote “The Indispensable Alien.” In his research he had material evidence that while there were White gangs that would bust into San Francisco Chinatown and beat up people, they didn’t do gawd awful things like lynch Chinese Americans from lamp posts like what occurred in Los Angeles. That was part of the racist violence that killed 10% of Chinese Americans in El Lay, in 1871.  Nor was the SF Chinatown experience anything like the Rock Springs, Wyoming massacre.  According to Alexander Saxton in San Francisco Chinatown, Chinamans had all manner of guns and assorted weaponry, so there were no White lynch mobs.  Loud and raucous gweIlo, yes.  But lynch mobs, no. Whites would bust in to make trouble and then hastily run out because you had Tong hatchet men and gangs.  Because virtually every family was armed.  Now, in the early years of the 21stcentury, it appears we have to be armed again.

Eddie: Even though Chinese Americans have come in later waves of immigration, and they didn’t directly experience the kind of racism our generation experienced, they are still viewed in the same way by whites and others. We’re the forever foreigner.

Benjamin:  Yes, of course. It’s an entrenched component of white supremacy. It’s in their overarching ideological superstructure as well as individual character to view us as less than human. Racism posits that there’s something innately inferior about another group. Are you familiar with the famous essay “Racist Love”  (1971) by Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan?

Eddie: Sure.

Benjamin: Chin and Chan made a distinction between two kinds of racist stereotypes. Racist love is “You’re all wonderful; you don’t march in the streets making noise like the Blacks. You work hard and you mind your own business.”  Racist hate means “You’re trouble, man!  An outright danger and threat to White people!”  Case in point: Trump saying you brought the COVID plague (“Chinese virus,” “Kung Flu”) to these shores. This virus is of your origin, an example of what was all along backstage behind the curtain of history, ever ready to strike.  The latest variant of the ‘Yellow Peril’ phenomenon. These things are always alive. Like weeds, they can grow and sprout very quickly. The harassment, the assaults, the killings dominate the news media at this time. Anti-Asian violence in one year (2021)increased by 177% in California.

Eddie:  People have written about historical trauma in the case of Holocaust survivors and Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary wrote about the post-traumatic slave syndrome. How would you articulate what Chinese American historical trauma is?

Benjamin:  Did you see the little chart I sent you on decontextualizing trauma, that’s been repeatedly posted on Facebook? Let me read it to you:

“Trauma in a person, decontextualized over time can look like personality; trauma in a  family decontextualized over time can look like family traits, and trauma in a people decontextualized over time can look like culture.”

There is no direct one to one link between the Chinese Exclusion Act and historical trauma. The way to look at it is to view the Chinese Exclusion Act as just one factor that is part of a network of multiple, interrelated ‘causes’ that went into the precipitation of trauma. And there are two kinds of trauma. There’s simple trauma and complex trauma. With simple trauma the symptoms include insomnia, flashbacks, uncontrollable emotions, disrupted relationships, workplace dysfunction, depression and anxiety, etc. And then there’s complex trauma which is trauma that doesn’t end.  It is ongoing, which is trauma brought on by the long-term devastations of life-long poverty, serial abandonment, and, of course, war. And war, who knows where this Russian invasion of Ukraine will lead?  Ultimately, the U.S. might be pulled into it.  Putin has designs on spreading into Europe.

The paper sons phenomena is connected, of course, to the exclusion acts. The psychological profile that emerged from that was of one who has to hide his/her authentic biographical origins. You have to assume a name that’s not yours and you don’t feel right about it. That plays into the stereotype of the sneaky Chinaman.  But that sensibility was something, interestingly enough, brought over here by reason of 2500 years of life under dynastic imperial rule. The Chinese population had to be pretty much meek and mild, timid and docile, mind your own business, ching chong chickenshit.  It was transgenerational, historical trauma from living in a totalitarian, autocratic regime. Imperial rule was replaced afterwards by many years of communist rule and it was much the same thing. You can’t speak your mind and you have to be absolutely compliant.

Chinese man interrogated at Angel Island Immigration Station. Photo from National Archives.

In imperial times classical Confucianism was rewritten. Confucius in the original taught of the importance of autonomy which means being your own person and having thoughts that don’t belong to anybody else. Having the courage to act on that was dangerous and because he (Confucius) never went away just like Jesus, the real one, never went away.  Following the Crucifixion, the institutional Catholic church was threatened by ‘heretical’ varieties and expressions of Christian faith. The Vatican controlled the narrative by making Latin the official language of scripture which nobody spoke except the clergy.  Similarly, the ruling elite of imperial China — the emperor and the scholar- officials — monopolized all power, privilege and prestige.

The scholar-officials didn’t have to work the land if they passed arduous imperial exams.  Ordinary peasant village Chinese families dreamed of a son passing the exams which led to  lifelong material security. At any rate, in imperial times the correct way to present yourself was in accordance with the stereotype of racist love.

There was at one time an incident which was in the news where a black female Chinatown tour guide was in anopen van with white tourists from Germany cruising down Grant Avenue. Someone recorded this gal saying, “you Chinks, go back to where you come from you Chinaman,” And the white tourists went “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And then people wrote up what people in the street said, “Yaow ker, mo lay. “ Yaow ker means what? Yaow ker, lah, let them do what they will do. Mo lay means never mind other people’s business. Parents raised kids in the same way Mo lay yon day dee see: do not mind other people’s affairs.  The ruling elite of Imperial China ordered:  “Don’t take an interest in what’s going on outside of your village, don’t ask what’s going on in the capitol city. Just tend to your crops and your family, and don’t turn your head.”  The body language is always like this (bent over).  So that’s historical trauma that was imported and in turn reinforced by white racism.

Eddie:  In your essay Long-term Consequences of the Nikkei Internment , you pointed out the intergenerational stress where the Nisei didn’t want to share or disclose what happened in Camp because they wanted to protect the Sansei. They didn’t want to traumatize the next generation.  In a similar way Chinese Americans who were illegal, like the paper sons, didn’t want to talk about their true history because again they wanted to protect their children. How do you feel about that?

Benjamin:  Put in simplistic, comparative terms for Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans, if I had to isolate the relevant variables — and there was more than one thing – chief among what they were fearful of passing along to their children was anger. They themselves felt angry at white America, but that had to be suppressed. When you suppress anger, you have liver disorders and there is a somatic component too so there are a lot of Japanese Americans and Chinese with busted livers.  In telling the stories, the fear was our kids would get angry and they will want to get back at White America,  For Japanese Americans, that would mean the FBI will come again to take us away.  So, we must not tell.  For the Chinese, if we tell anyone that we came over on false papers, it will bring shame, i.e., you’re not real and you assumed the name of another clan we didn’t think too much of.

Japanese Americans at Santa Anita Racetrack embark on trains to internment camps. Photo from National Archives.

Eddie: This generation of descendants of paper sons and daughters, we’re in our seventies now. I guess it’s never too late to heal. What are the steps you take to recognize that there is a problem?

Benjamin:  Assuming, Eddie, that you’re not healed, are you?

Eddie: I’m not what?

Benjamin:  Are you walking around unhealed?

Eddie: I think so. I think there’s an unresolved anger issue.

Benjamin:  that you can’t account for?

Eddie:  Sure. I attribute that to my father’s quick anger, but he was angry for lots of reasons including having been discriminated against and having his dream of going to school squashed by poverty.

Benjamin: It was your father’s anger and his father’s…I don’t know how far back it goes was that traceable in some fashion to the exclusion acts and the legislation?

Eddie: I believe so.

Ben:  What’s the connection?

Eddie: The connection is the secrets. It’s the lying about your identity and having to accept less than full citizenship rights because they could never become citizens.

Wong Moon Tung on left with his brothers. He immigrated to the U.S. as a paper son when he was 17 years old. Photo courtesy of Eddie Wong.

Benjamin:  Another note on what it takes to heal. One way of coping with the trauma wrought by racist oppression was to adapt effectively, oftentimes in strategically clever ways, and to take pride in being able to pull that off.

I was a tourist guide in Chinatown (1960s), and everything that came out of my mouth were lies. Tourism started in the old days when post-1906 SF Chinatown was relatively safe.

The apartments of the bachelor ChinaMans were on street level, and sometimes they would not bother to lock the doors. Whites hankering to check out the exotic world of the heathen Chinee would wander into the street level apartments and find a guy half-dressed in his pajamas. The startled occupant would be royally pissed off. “Hey lo fan, get out of here.” “Sorry, we thought you were a store selling something.” “Get the hell out. This not a store.”

After a while, the sharper ChinaMans would say, “Maybe this apartment should be a store. Why don’t we put things in here.” So, they hung up all kinds of junk like lanterns, porcelain containers of various kinds, and especially abalone shells which white people knew nothing about. Whenever lo faan walked in thereafter, you said, “You can buy anything you want except you can’t have that.” They said, “What?” And they looked at the shells. “No, no, no. You no can buy that!  Anything else but not that!” And then they very quickly made up all these stories. “We, we.. religion.. we worship shell god. You no buy.” “I’ll give you $5 (the whites said)!. “No, no.” $10 .” And it got up to $25. “All right, all right, you can have these shells.” $25 a crack!  Fake culture at 25 bucks an abalone shell, reinforced by booshiyet stories about the profound religious meaning of said shells.

Eddie: That’s the jawk jiergh tradition.

Benjamin:  Yes. And you know how the expression jawk jiergh (catching pigs) originated? That came from the railroads. The building of the transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s.  There were different segments of Chinese who were brought over. Some actually had jobs and worked on signed, legal contracts. And some were kidnapped, hit on the head and just dragged onboard American ships, or they were tricked into losing at gambling games. Those young men dared not go back to the village unless they were somehow able to raise enough money to show their faces again. So, the Whites said, “Come to the new world. They’re building an iron horse.” Railroads, it’s called. The moment the kidnapped ‘China Boys’ were on board ship, they were imprisoned in barracoons, giant cages for keeping pigs and chickens alive in the days before refrigeration. If you were caught, it was called mai jiergh jai, buying and selling of little pigs and putting them into a pig pen.

So being caught like a pig became the term for being taken advantage of. When the time of Chinatown tourism arrived in the early to middle 20th century, the ChinaMans could proceed to catch white pigs, jawk loh faan gaw jiergh…. with shell games, chop phooey, Chinee ice cream, tourist guide lies, phoney hatchet man ‘attacks in Chinatown alleys,’ etc., etc.  All this hinged on lo faan not knowing the Fake from the Real.  Sometimes us ChinaMans didn’t even know, at least not before the emergence of Asian American Studies in the late 1960s /early 1970s to set the record straight on a few things of a cultural and historical nature.

Eddie:  Right on!

Ben:  It was revenge.  Sweet and sour, baby!  Boh saat…!!  Revenge.  That was a big thing.

San Francisco Chinatown.

Eddie:  You mentioned earlier about the anger that the parents wanted to shield their descendants from, but there’s also another kind of anger in Chinese families where the women are repressed by patriarchy. You have this double layer of restricted roles. Have you come across that in your practice?

Benjamin: Yes, I have, and it would come off in the way that many Chinatown women would commit suicide. The husband would come home to discover a death of a wife by suicide. There were no guns involved, no jumping off of buildings. The majority of these distraught and angry wives would hang themselves in the bathroom.  The husband would come home and find the body. In effect the message was “you come home, but I ain’t doing nothing for you anymore. I’m just hanging around.” “The one person you could not live without – “you can’t cook, you can’t wash” – the one person who is indispensable to you, I execute.”  Awful. That was how anger was acted out, how resentment was acted out.  And then there was also the corporal punishment of kids justified by “in the old country, this the way I was raised. It made me a better person; let me beat the shit out of you some more.”

Eddie:  Yeah, I experienced that lang gok teh knuckle raps on my head.

Benjamin:  And whacks with coat hangers for other kids.

Eddie: Do you remember the gai mo sau, the chicken feather dusters? They’d use it like a whip. Well, back on the healing aspects of things, how do people recognize this trauma and deal with it?

Benjamin:   Well, in terms of recognizing it, we’re not really even there. You have to acknowledge it by its right name.  It’s called culture now. All the symptoms of trauma are right there in everyday behavior, but it’s not called trauma. It’s called our way of life in this Chinese American culture.  Child abuse justified as legitimate child rearing practice.  So, there’s no dealing with this as a serious problem unless it is first delegitimized and called by its right name: domestic violence, child abuse, etc.

Now let’s consider the Diagnostic Manual Version 5 of the American Association of Psychiatry, which controls the definition of madness or psychopathology or mental disturbance.  There is a section on cross cultural considerations that was inserted in this most recent version when they (American psychiatry) were under pressure to not appear acultural in orientation and to have established professional standards concerning diagnostic differences related to diversity. They said that if we find widespread in another culture observable behavior which we can also find in the US … behavior we define diagnostically as disturbed, we can’t say that this entire other society is sick, although one person, Erich Fromm, said we can and we should.

There is a society, the Swat Putank in the northern region of Sri Lanka, which at one time was known as Ceylon. 100% of the people, according to anthropologists who spent time there, routinely steal from their neighbors and in all kinds of ways take advantage of each other. They raise their kids to be likewise. They clearly fit the category of paranoid and sociopathic personality disorder, but the psychiatric Bible says you cannot diagnose as disturbance a behavior pattern that is so pervasive that it’s normal. We have to call it culture; it’s another people’s way of life.

Eddie:  I guess you could say the same about white supremacy.

Benjamin Oh yes, it is a pervasive form of illness. In fact, one of its premiere manifestations is in former President Donald J. Trump himself.  One psychoanalyst, Otto Kernberg, has devised a categorization of three types of narcissists, and Trump is a malignant narcissist — that is, a narcissist with psychopathic and sociopathic features.

Now in complex and historical trauma there really is a pattern of profound disturbance. In terms of symptomatology, you find anger, among a host of other signs. Anger that cannot be effectively managed, an uncontrollable, reactive and chronic anger.  Many Chinese Americans speak of their fathers and mothers like this or even their entire family.  You never know when they are going to lose it.  It could be over something very small, like accidental knocking of a spoon to the floor.  Anything can be a trigger for the anger that they have stored up as a result of having to survivecertain forms of oppression.  Generation after generation.  How does that sound?

Eddie: It sounds real.

Benjamin:  And there would be ‘treatment,’ treatment not in terms of traditional psychotherapy but treatment in terms of a method called psycho-education.  “Let’s talk about how you got this way and what you might think and do henceforth.”  And sometimes if you use cognition, not feeling, not behaviors, but just thoughts, sometimes trauma will lift.

Eddie: Would cognition apply to other examples of self-loathing or lack of confidence?

Benjamin:  Not necessarily. treatment has to be customized for every client or patient. I taught my clinical psychology students the jingle “A,B,C.”:  affect which is the word for emotion, behavior and cognition, or thoughts and ideas. Sometimes you combine all three or in other instances maybe just one will do it. The treatment for some people might be behavioral, perhaps initially. Get the person to actually do something. Let’s say you have a Chinese American raised in such a way that he’s afraid of his own shadow, who will not take chances of a reasonable risk. These are individuals who maybe never went far from home to get a college degree but still stuck around and got a prestigious job to please the parents.

Let’s say people around him bug him with stuff like “when’s the last time you had a vacation like the kind you never take because you just go to Las Vegas and come back within one day.” “While you’re there, you are anxious as hell because you’re away from San Francisco.” “Oh, I’ve always dreamed of taking a Disney cruise, maybe to Alaska, but no, no, it’s impossible, it’s impossible…”

There is a cognitive way of working that brings into play their feelings and then their behavior. Therapist: “The challenge in therapy is for you — with support from me and others — to gradually find the strength and will to sign up for a 10-day cruise. Maybe go with friends, then you have a support system that will help expand the boundaries of your life.” And that’s in some instances one way of overcoming trauma that cost a life to being closed, encased.

Dr. Satsuki Ina, my trauma specialist friend and colleague, has this potent metaphor to suggest the importance of widening one’s life as a way of dealing with trauma that has caused your life to shrink.  She’d say, “You live in a castle with many rooms; all of them are unexplored. You have picked one room, and in that room, you have drawn a circle in front of a window. You stand in that circle and that has become your whole world. Let me take you by the hand and we don’t know what’s in the other rooms. Let’s get flashlights, oh you don’t have one, I have one. You follow me and let’s go into each room. This one is marked guilt. Oh, should we go in? Later? Okay. Here’s one marked seeing other countries. Hmmm, want to take a peek now? Or should we step in a little later? Very good.” We are working with imagery, with visualization.

Taoist ritual of remembrance at 140th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act in SF Chinatown Portsmouth Square, May 7, 2022. Photo by Eddie Wong

Eddie:  You mentioned in a lot of your writings that the problems require a societal solution. What sorts of things would you recommend for a healthier environment?

Benjamin: Well, perhaps in the ultimate, a revolution — okay (chuckles), a different kind of society. Actually, I have yet to be staunchly committed to any single, for-sure ‘societal solution.’  For now, my point of view is this:  One solution would be recovery of the classical tradition: Confucianism, the folk heroic tradition, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.  All that was redone, reworked by the imperial order. The classical ways still exist but not in the form that was in the beginning viewed as politically dangerous and subversive.

Contained within the Mulan narrative was a dangerous, subversive idea. It’s right there in the story. It’s very clever. Contained in children’s stories are classical Chinese ideas and the one that I often refer to was a saying by Confucius. The Great Teacher supposedly taught “love your father, love your teacher, love your King.”  Love meaning unconditional obedience.  That’s Confucius revised or reinterpreted … have you heard of tieng gow?

Tieng is I tell you, and gow is you do as I say. But that’s not what Confucius meant: not unconditional obedience.  Tieng gow actually means proper behavior, proper conduct, and doing the right thing.  But the imperial authority changed the wording to mean unconditional obedience. The original saying was four lines, not three. Love your father, which means do exactly as he says even if it’s stupid. Love your King, which means the government and the emperor, and love the teacher. The teacher was highly revered. Whatever the teacher says has to be right.

And then the fourth line that was omitted, just wiped out, was love the truth above all else. That means the truth may supersede imperial authority. That’s a dangerous idea and it’s contained in the Mulan story. She dared to go against her family and said that I’m faking my identity and I’m going to live among the soldiers and pretend to be male. “I will live this lie” and she eventually lived this life for 12 years. That was in clear opposition to patriarchal, imperial authority.

WWII painting “Mulan Returns in Glory.”

Eddie:  But looking at US society which is so anti anything that’s not Christian, how would you translate the changes you need into the mindset that already exists?

Benjamin:  The record shows that, thus far, firmly entrenched ideological systems are not changed in any direct, well-defined, and planned fashion that human beings can foresee or devise in advance.  Sometimes it occurs when old gods are unknowingly supplanted by new ones.  Many Western European Whites who had previously committed their lives to Moderation came to worship at the altar of Ceaseless Gain, upon experiencing an entirely different existence — the New World (North America).

Like Chinese/Chinese Americans I happen to know, my orientation is Taoist/Buddhist and Confucianist.  If you’re Chinese/Chinese American, especially in terms of a classical orientation, you are also in some respects a Christian, whether or not you choose to call yourself that. It works something like this. I do believe that there is evidence that the ‘real’ historical Jesus was who he claimed to be. There was such a person who could raise the dead, communicate with people who had passed away, who could heal the sick by sending healing energy across thousands of miles, and who could do other kinds of so-called miracles.  Yeah, I’m referring as well to a Taoist tradition, not the Taoist tradition, since there is more than one.  The one I am part of says there were people just like that historical Jesus who were (and are) males and females numbering in the thousands across historical time and cultures.  By the way, the distinction between monotheistic and polytheistic wisdom traditions is illusory.

I’ll tell you a story.  Some years ago, I bore witness to a man who healed someone by cell phone between Hong Kong and Vancouver.  He claimed he was sending healing energy into an elderly woman who had a serious cardiac condition. The entire staff of Saint Paul’s Hospital (Vancouver) was there, some with notebook and pen in hand. Acting as a conduit for healing energy, a senior student of this healer in HK placed his hands X number of inches over this woman patient’s chest. The woman was asked by phone by this high Master, “Mrs. Chan, how are you feeling?” “Warm, at first a little too hot.” “Okay, great, we’ll it dial it down.” Soon enough, she would fall asleep and then wake up again. They would rest 20 minutes and then repeat this process for a time. This was all recorded and not much drama to witness. The next day, the newspapers reported that there was a patient with heart symptoms who could not even get out of bed the day before, and she was seen in the corridors dancing and singing, attempting to comfort other patients. The top hospital administrator had to tell her “maybe we have to prepare you to go home because whatever you got then, it’s not here anymore.”  I witnessed that.

Vigil and Rally after the Atlanta spa murders. Madison Park, Oakland Chinatown, March 23, 2021. Photo by Eddie Wong.

Eddie: I want to turn to the issue of anti-Asian violence and hate. There’s a lots of different motivations behind it. Some of the people attacking Asians are mentally ill. Others attack  because of the racial stereotypes against Asians of being foreigners, etc. Do you think that we need to actually forge a new identity for Asian people in America to counteract that? It also seems like we’re being attacked because they’re not afraid of us.

Benjamin:  No, no, no.   Be who we once were. We were for the longest time a warrior people, particularly the Cantonese. It took the T’ang northerners 38 years of war with the Yueh tribes (later to be the Cantonese) to subdue them. These ferocious tribes, the Yueh, later took on the identity of  T’ang people.  After they were subdued, the conquered so admired their conquerors that they declared: “we are Tong Yen (People of the T’ang).”  We Cantonese are a warrior people. We’re known to be the fiercest of fighters, but some of us left that behind in coming here.  Some of us, let me emphasize.  Not all of us.

Remember the infamous Joe C. Fong, as in “Joe Boys” and “Jo Fong Gang” of the 1960s?  He was released from a life imprisonment sentence, enrolled in a PhD program in cultural anthropology program at UC Berkeley, wound up teaching and chairing Asian American Studies at City College of San Mateo.  For his dissertation, he did an in-depth study of the Chinese American community in the San Gabriel Valley.  Embedded himself there for a couple of years to conduct ‘ethnographic’ research.  A major finding was the presence of Guan Guung (the God of War) in homes, places of business, eateries, Chinese language schools, ‘round the clock rented or purchased (DVD) movies, etc., etc.  A warrior people.

Eddie: My father used to practice kung fu. All the kids in the village grew up learning kung fu and they also used to hunt with shotguns.

Benjamin: During different periods in Imperial China, actual weapons were outlawed. The warrior classes, like people at Shaolin Temple and Wu-Dang Mountain, had to make weapons of their bodies.  Actually, laws against possession of weapons were hardly enforced, same as here in the U.S.

Guan Guung, God of War.

Eddie:  What about other social forces like the power of solidarity with all other people who have been wronged or oppressed by white supremacy?

Benjamin:  That would take some doing because after all because you have to overcome stereotypes, among other challenges.  The vast majority of Asian Americans fear Black people and there are reasons for that, too.  Blacks are amongst the ones who attacked us even before Trump pulled the trigger (e.g., the L.A. Korea Town armed confrontations with Blacks following the Rodney King beating, etc., etc.) and started to refer to Covid as the Chinese virus, the kung flu. Yeah, thanx but no thanx to the Malignant Narcissist Agent Orange-in-Chief.  The tRUMP triggered the hatred to come forth with a fury, but it had always been backstage waiting to reemerge.  Even before the pandemic, Black perpetrators were routinely extorting SF Chinatown shop keepers to pay protection money as well as ‘pulling jobs’ on jewelry stores.  Anyway, solidarity amongst diverse groups never takes place without having issues in common.  That is not about to happen any day soon.

Identity means nothing new; actually it’s something old.  I’m not for any kind of New Age stuff; I’m for what is ‘age old,’ you might say, like the classics. The models for identity are already contained in three classical works: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” a.k.a. “Saam Gok Ying Yi;” “Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh,” which is the Chinese Robin Hood, and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” which is required reading in every military academy in the world.  You ‘recover’ literature like that and out of that comes identity.,, identity that once was.

Identity is the answer to the question ‘who am I’? The answer in this instance is rooted in who I descended from or where I live geographically. Once communist China took over Tibet, the Dali Lama went on the run for years. He talked about going back and recovering Tibet and then one day he said to his people, “Let us try to be Tibetan somewhere else.”  I’ve been saying to people who still refuse to leave an increasingly autocratic Hong Kong, “try to be Hong Kongers somewhere else.” The first Cantonese who came here long before they came to California were already going to Central America South America. The last ones coming to the Western Hemisphere were in California and Canada. They were the ones who took that seriously. It’s a Taoist idea be at home in the whole world. The entire world is your home.  That’s the ever expanding Chinese Diaspora.

Eddie: Today Asian Americans are only 6% of the US population. How do we find a home among all these other people, many of whom we share a common history with and yet we still don’t have a common vision of how we can live together. What do we do about that?

Benjamin: This has always been the un-United States of America. It’s never been united. There are different USAs with different languages. Even if you look at White people, New England whites and southern whites are very different. Same thing with Chinese Americans. There’s only uniting when there is common cause. Momentarily we had it in the ‘60s in the Bay Area with AAPA, the Asian American Political Alliance at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State. Asian Americans who normally wouldn’t know each other would hang out momentarily until we found that politically it was not viable. The entire organization together initially swung behind housing issues, employment problems, educational inequities, mental health care issues, job discrimination, mass media and propaganda, etc.. People started to branch off in terms of ethnicity and also in terms of issues. I decided my energies would go into academia where my work would be aimed at change… along with involvement in theater and other expressive arts, mass media issues, and mental health concerns.

Benjamin R. Tong (center, bottom row) with fellow faculty at the nation’s first university-level Asian American Studies Program at S.F. State College.

Eddie:  Thank you very much, Benjamin, for spending time with me. I think many people have not heard these perspectives and it will surely generate more discussion.

Benjamin: Eddie, the pleasure is really mine, to be sure. It is especially touching that you and I would actually connect after publication of an article I wrote for East Wind 39 years ago. Thank you very much, indeed.

Cover Photo:

Painting of Guan Guung by Wu Chenggang.

1 Comment

  1. Ravi Chandra on June 29, 2022 at 11:50 am

    Thanks Eddie and Dr. Tong. This interview spanned many topics and I resonated with a fair amount, but had trouble with some of the opinions. I guess if I were to generalize, the opinions I had most trouble with stemmed from recognizing the history of fear and threat, but then building some kind of armor around it. Whether it’s some kind of hatred for some Blacks who are “extorting Chinatown residents” without deeply acknowledging the scars and the diversity in that community; or focusing on ‘arming up’ to fight racism; to supernatural beliefs to offer protection against harm. We are all grounded in relationship. Our nurturing bonds have had great difficulty, personally, in families, and culturally. So the question before us is do we resort to the above named opinions to defend our tiny s- selves or do we actually step forward into the emergent global culture of belonging which is clearly under threat, because the old order doesn’t give up and feels itself under threat as well. In other words – to be simple about it – love instead of fear, threat and survival responses. To me, the greatest threat is that to our relatedness. Not my body or yours per se, though these are vital. Safety is interdependent. I am personally committed to non-violence. Other people have their own awarenesses. But if we default to the lowest common denominator, that will add to the possibility of bloodshed. It’s not hatchets these days. Gun violence puts a bigger price tag on talk of violence. I wish Dr. Tong well, and appreciate his insights and experience, and I appreciate you, Eddie, for disclosing that yes, anger from intergenerational trauma doesn’t just go away. It needs reception and care, and affirmation of identity and relationship.

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