The Meeting: Asian American Music Workshop
In the spring of 1981, I worked at Stanford University in interdepartmental mail and later became a labor organizer for United Stanford Workers SEIU Local 715 (now Local 680) representing mainly black, white and Chicano male workers. In the Stanford Daily, the student newspaper, my curiosity was aroused when I saw an announcement about an Asian American Music Workshop meeting at the Firehouse, the space where the Asian American Student Association (AASA) frequently met.
When I showed up to the meeting, there was only me and Francis Wong. Back then, this was a heftier 190 Ib. Francis Wong, who grew a beard and wore a green colored trench coat to match his green colored BMW car. His appearance cause one to wonder what was underneath his trench coat: a saxophone or a weapon? I later learned that Francis Wong co-founded AASA with Julie Yumi Hatta (who got married with Francis five years later). As usual, I dominated the conversation and Francis quietly listened to my “shotgun blast of stream of consciousness” talk about black music and black revolutionary politics through John Coltrane and Amiri Baraka. After one hour of tolerating my long (East) winded talk, I asked Francis, “What are you into?” Francis pulled a copy of Unity newspaper out of his backpack and showed me an article written by Amiri Baraka. I had a feeling that Francis was in the know.
Act IV, Scene 2
LRS: The League Rejects Strangeness
One year later in 1982 without knowing about it until later, the League of Revolutionary of Struggle (LRS), a US Marxist-Leninist organization with Mao Zedong Thought, was interested in recruiting me during the time I was a shop steward for the United Stanford Workers SEIU Local 715. Just before we voted to go on strike mainly over our work protection rights, I got a mohawk haircut. I could imagine and visualize the LRS leadership head desking at a recruitment review meeting. When I asked Francis about the status of my recruitment, he gave a posturing reply, “They are all busy and involved in other priorities.” This was probably true. But I also speculated that the LRS leadership assumed they were getting an activist from the Left not from “Out of Left Field.”
Act IV, Scene 3
I Second Revolution
“So, if you feel like giving me
a lifetime of devotion
I second revolution.”
Jon Jang signifyin(g) I Second That Emotion by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Two years later and “a hundred million miracles”, I received my “second chance”/” I second revolution” and was recruited by Francis Wong to join the League of Revolutionary of Struggle (LRS), a US Marxist-Leninist organization with Mao Zedong Thought. One of the reasons I was attracted to the organization was because Amiri Baraka was one of the leaders. The League (that is the LRS not the JACL for you young revolutionaries LOL) also had a strong core of Asian American activists who were rooted in the Asian American national movement and in solidarity with other people of color struggles. Quite a few of these Asian American activist cadres embraced Amiri Baraka and black arts music of resistance. So I felt a special kinship with the cadre in the League.
There were only two questions I had before joining the LRS: “Would I have to give up music?” Would I have to give up my sense of humor?” Francis responded, “I think the organization sees you playing a role in our cultural work.”
There was no answer to my second question. It was a non sequitur that didn’t faze Francis, who was raised a good Catholic boy disciplined in the art of self-control. Like in the opening scene in Enter the Dragon film where the Bruce Lee character is mentoring a young student: “You must learn emotional content, NOT ANGER!”
The reason why I raised the second question about losing my sense of humor is in reference to a story back when I was a student at UC Berkeley. While standing in line to register for courses for the Fall Quarter, I was taken aback by a couple of Asian American students who were trying to recruit me into Marxist Leninist study groups. They seem too intensely and strangely serious and rigid for this colorful aspiring artist/outlier.
Act IV, Scene 4 Chant in 4/4 Time Signature
East WIND! Equality for Asian PEOPLE!
East WIND! Justice for Vincent CHIN!
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, 44 films were made featuring Charlie Chan, a fictional detective character, all portrayed by three different white actors in yellow face from 1931-1949.
In 1981, another Charlie Chan film was produced by Hollywood called Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. The film featured white actors Peter Ustinov and Angie Dickinson in yellowface in the eponymous title roles. A group of Asian American activists formed C.A.N. Charlie Chan, which is an acronym for the Coalition of Asians to Nix Charlie Chan. The strategy of C.A.N. was to organize a national protest campaign to boycott the film. Activists included the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) and the Asian American Resource Workshop from Boston.
A year later during the summer of 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27 year old Chinese American, was beaten to death by two white men in a suburb outside of Detroit. The two white men, who were drunk, beat Vincent Chin to death because to them Vincent represented the Japanese auto industry. Ronald Ebens, one of the drunken white men who was still an employed supervisor at an auto plant, spewed his hateful racist rage to Vincent Chin: “It’s because of you motherf-ckers that we (white Americans) are out of work.” Vincent Chin was made a scapegoat for the high employment and anti-Japanese import hysteria.” The two white men were exonerated by the US court system with a $3,700 fine and 3 month prohibition in March 1983.
In response to this racist violent act, I composed and dedicated Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? to Vincent Chin and his mother Lily Chin. Here are the lyrics to the 13 bar blues song
Are you Chinese or Charlie Chan?
I told you Charlie was a white man
With his two bucked teeth and his eyes pulled back
Vincent Chin lies dead from his racist attack
Are you Chinese or Charlie Chan?
Charlie was a white man
What is the meaning behind the title, Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? Signifyin(g) on this racist violent act, I offer this imaginary scenario: “What if the two white men beat a young Charlie Chan to death only to discover that he was a white man in yellowface who took away jobs from Asian American actors?” Remembering one of Detective Charlie Chan’s oriental sayings, “Every fence has two sides,” I respond signifyin(g): “One side white man, one side yellowface.”
For what is strangely and ironically worth, Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? became the first (and maybe the only) Asian American Signifyin(g) song in the Movement. The work was inspired by Charles Mingus’ The Original Fables of Faubus. In 1957, Orval Faubus was the governor of Arkansas who ordered the National Guard to block a few black children from entering the “whites only” Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. On Columbia Records first recording of Fables of Faubus in 1959, Charles Mingus lyrics was banned. In 1960, Charles Mingus recorded The Original Fables of Faubus with his lyrics on Candid Records, an independent record co-founded by Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Here is an excerpt that was sung by Mingus and trapset drummer Danny Richmond signifyin(g) in a black minstrel style.
Oh, Lord don’t let ‘em shoot us!
Oh, Lord don’t’ let ‘em stab us!
Oh, Lord don’t let ‘em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan?