Act IV

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?


The melody line that goes along with these lyrics is informed by The Cannon Song or Army Song in the Marc Blitzstein version was one of the songs by Kurt Weill in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928). Brecht’s work was adapted from an 18th century English ballad opera, John Gay’s Beggar Opera (1728). Gay’s opera satirizes Italian opera, poverty and corruption. Around the same time Brecht was writing The Threepenny Opera in 1928, Brecht was also studying Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Brecht, a member of the German Independent Social Democratic Party, wrote The Threepenny Opera as a socialist critique on capitalism.

Composer Kurt Weill’s Cannon Song or Army Song is an example of a barrack room ballad. Barrack room ballads are a series of songs by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) dealing with the late Victorian British Army circa 1892. Barrack room ballads has a singsong quality and makes satirical statements about military camaraderie in the English translation of Weill’s The Cannon Song or Army Song:

Never let the army down, young men’s blood keeps going red,

and the army goes on recruiting.

The singsong quality in Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? also reminds me of an anti-Vietnam war protest singalong song entitled I Feel Like I Am Fixin’ to Die Rag by Country Joe and the Fish recorded in 1967 but more well known as one of the recorded selections at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

            And it’s one, two, three … What are we fighting for?

           Don’t ask me why. I don’t give a damn.

            Next stop is Vietnam.

            And it’s five, six, seven, eight

             open up those pearly gates.

             Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why.

             Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.

The Original Fables of Faubus and Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan?  also falls in the category of Black Comedy, a comic work that employs farce and morbid humor. This kind of humor makes light of subject matter usually considered taboo. Black humor was coined by surrealistic theoretician Andre Breton in 1935 to designate a subgenre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism, often relying on topics such as death.

During the emergence of cellist YoYo Ma in the field of 18th & 19th Century Western European classical music in the 1980s, one of my music decisions was to open with Cash Killion, a black cellist from East St. Louis, signfiyin(g) on black blues guitarist Freddie King’s Hideaway (1960) which was covered by a white guitarist Eric Clapton on John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers recording in 1966. Freddie King was one of “the three Kings of the blues,” along with B.B. and Albert.  I enjoyed setting up multiple music and social ironies in its various contexts: A black working class cellist from East St. Louis who had to learn to carry a knife before a European musical instrument, which is normally associated with a white classical musician, performing a blues by a white guitarist who covered a black guitarist’s composition.

The music work, East Wind, is informed by the feeling of pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs’ composition, It All Comes Down to You, recorded in 1979 on Woody Shaw’s Stepping Stones: Live at the Village Vanguard.  Like an Asian American Movement heroic work expressed in the form of an anthem, East Wind is shorter and simpler work than It All Comes Down to You.

Conflating Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? and East Wind into one composition was the result of two developments. First, Max Roach’s Chattahoochee Red recording was released in 1981 on Columbia Records. Roach performed on trapset drums with pre-recorded excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. Roach merged this “duo” work with one of his earlier works, Its Time (1960). (Years later in 2018, I was inspired to model my new recording, The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance with a new work entitled, The Nail That Sticks Up!, a “duo” recording between trapset drummer Deszon X. Claiborne with pre-recorded excerpts of a speech by Yuri Kochiyama).

The second development manifested itself during my first year in the League of Revolutionary Struggle. The organization continued its desk heading because they didn’t know how to apply my cultural work to the needs and priorities of the organization. And cultural work was probably a low priority in this 24/7 activist organization. There didn’t seem to be a unit where this crazy artist/outlier would “fit in.” “We don’t have a line on cultural work,” explained in a monotone voice by two different Asian American unit heads in two different Agitprop units. I felt like I was a recurring guest on What’s My Line?, a TV game show that aired for two decades as early as 1950. After a series of playing musical chairs changing from one unit to another where I was also doin’ the Billie’s Bounce-ing around in two BLM (Black Liberation Movement) units in Oakland and East Palo Alto, the organization came up with the idea of forming a cultural work fraction.

The cultural work fraction consisted of three cadre from three different units.

Francis Wong, a black cadre and I began our cultural work meeting by studying Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art: May 1942 from the book, Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung.

            The problem of attitude. From one’s stand there follows specific attitudes

            towards specific matters. For instance, is one to extol or to expose?

            … Japanese imperialism and all the other enemies of the people,

            the task of revolutionary writers and artists is to expose their duplicity

            and cruelty and at the same time to point out the inevitability of their

            defeat, so as to encourage the anti-Japanese army and people to fight

            staunchly with one heart and one mind for their overthrow.


In Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan?, I expose the two racist white men and the court system as part of the systemic history of national oppression and institutional racism that Asians in the US have had to endure. East Wind extolls or praises the Justice for Vincent Chin Campaign, Lily Chin and all those who support the struggle.

To be clear, I translated, recast and applied Mao’s expose/extoll binary paradigm in Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? into the contemporary context of our Asian American national movement mass work, which is in a completely different context than Mao leading the Communist army and allies in a revolution to overthrow Japanese imperialism. No one in the LRS assigned me to compose and perform Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? If they did, I probably would have had to change the title and the music! (That was a politically incorrect LOL joke. But that’s ok because the LRS does not have a line on humor). Seriously speaking, it was my musical response to the Asian American Movement work at that time of the present where a myriad of the LRS Asian American cadres had a 15 year history of organizing in the Asian American national movements in the smaller organizations that preceded the formation of the LRS.

As a Marxist-Leninist organization, it is important that we take a stand and become part of people’s struggle to fight for justice and equality. Here I offer my mantra both as a music improviser and a cadre signifyin’(g) and loosening up the Leninist term Democratic Centralism (unity-struggle-unity): “We all don’t sound alike, but we sound together.”

Editor’s note:  Jon Jang’s  The Sounds of Struggle Part IV will appear in April, 2019.

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