Black Chinese: history, hybridity, and home.

Author:Thompson, Wendy Marie

(Original Title: Black Chinese: Historical Intersections, Hybridity, and the Creation of Home)

In entering into the twenty-first century, one might affirm that the face of Chinese America has changed or has it? Chineseness has been constantly conceptualized through the measure of phenotype, the quantity of blood, the preservation of language, or the possession of surname. But what happens when African American bodies and other nonwhite cultural sites are introduced into dialogue with Chineseness and Chinese American history in order to create a different story?

It is true that due to cultural, linguistic, and perceived citizenship differences, the historical extent of nineteenth-century interaction between Chinese immigrants and African American residents was somewhat limited, but in geographically mapping Chinese and African American communities in large metropolitan cities, one will find that many Chinese quarters across the United States were situated next to or on the fringes of black neighborhoods. And too, in the realm of labor, many employers whose staff was predominately African American would occasionally hire Chinese or "Oriental" men as strikebreakers and cheaper labor replacements in the transportation industry, as in on trains as porters or as field workers on agricultural estates.

That said, my primary focus in looking at situations of African American and Chinese overlap is on what came from it: the creation of hybrid spaces between people. In this paper I use four key visual images to uncover the sporadic sexual, working, and living relationships that culminated between Chinese and African Americans during the late nineteenth century and into the twenty-first.

My choice in using visual images is rooted in my personal belief that an image--photography, video, portrait, postcard, comic book--serves as a multidimensional tool that preserves and contests: it preserves a particular social, political, cultural moment in time while contesting other narratives that stand as the singular strand, the prevailing story.

But when there is a lack of a visual record (or a written one for that matter), there arises a condition that leads people to assume that such events--social, political, cultural, racial, communal, tribal--did not exist. With the following images, I am both bringing forth and attesting to a mixed race communal existence and using these artifacts as a lens that will help us visualize a different kind of Chinese America.

However, I would like to begin this paper at the crux of the late-twentieth century and the sudden boom of chic black/Asian mixed-race representations in popular culture as seen through a contemporary American gaze. The physical embodiment of African American and Asian American intersections were for the first time made widely accessible through figures on television or in the entertainment industry, represented in part through part Thai and part African American (or more popularly stated "Cablinasian") golfer and consumer endorsement icon, Tiger Woods; native Floridian and African American Filipina, Melissa Howard, who starred on MTV's the Real World: New Orleans; and African American Korean R&B singer Amerie Rogers.

Additionally, the American public became versed in films and visual landscapes which featured the mesh of humor, culture, and the absurd in such parallel worlds of Chinatown/ Hong Kong and urban working-class urban black America with the films Rush Hour and Romeo Must Die. Concurrently, the commercial hip hop scene was graced with the lyrical spitting of Chinese American rapper Jin the Emcee who was able to utilize a particular racialized urban vernacular on the Black Entertainment Television program Freestyle Fridays to win rap battles against black opponents seven consecutive times in a row before going on to be signed with Ruff Ryder Records.

From these cultural scenes, a seeming cultural fusion was on the verge of happening between blacks and Asians in the United States after a rough period of conflict (the zenith arrived with the intense rioting and civil clashes between Korean small-business owners and urban black residents in Los Angeles, California). But to look at the underlying landscape between black and Asian or to even make the bare assumption that there is a common landscape is where we must begin to posit these two seemingly oppositional identities outside of popular culture.

In terms of the physical realities of mixed race Afro-Asian bodies, there exists some form of historical context following the children born of Asian and African American parentage drawn primarily from the U.S. militarization and occupation narrative: the children of war, the children of camp-town women, the children of bar hostesses, and the children of American imperialism in a postcolonial Asia-Pacific.

But when talking about Chineseness and Chinese America and the larger-scale historical, political, social, or lived intersections with African Americans, we are left without much context: there was no pretext of war that gave way to the occupied presence of African American troops in China or Taiwan or Hong Kong, and where scholars have studied African American and Chinese American histories, what has been left as an aside are the richest parts found in the slippage of a footnote.

In the art world, two Caribbean artists who have maintain their creative posts on the vertebrae of cultural location and national identity--and who both now make their home in the United States--have both used their artistic works to reveal their own questions regarding the presence of both an African and Chinese lineage. Albert Chong, who works in photography and mixed media, introduces decorated portraitures-something like mini altares--of various members of a mixed Afro-Chinese Jamaican family.

Performance artist, poet, and Jamaican national Staceyann Chin has also addressed the issue of origin and (mixed race in her most recent performance Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires, which ran in New York City in 2005. Her performance, in part, set out to re/claim roots in Jamaica where her parents first fell into a relationship and where her black Jamaican mother became pregnant with her. Her Chinese father who worked at a furniture store, never acknowledged Chin as his own child although he would eventually live with another black Jamaican woman as well as the children produced from that union. (1)

Still, even with these valuable narratives, I am forced to ask myself: are these our only stories of desire, of family, of the self?.

This absence that bleeds into invisibility is dangerous. So after moving from California to the East Coast to attend graduate school, I quickly decided to dedicate much of my time to combing through archival documents, printed sources and published articles, monographs, and other texts to see if I could find what was out there, to see what other documents or accounts I could uncover.


This first photo I found in the Farm Security Administration--Office of War Information Collection at the Library of Congress is of Joe Gow Nue and Co. Grocery and Meat Market, which was taken in...

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