It’s never been about the money. It’s never even been about a career. This was all to my mother’s dismay when I tried to explain to her why it was important to build an Asian American cultural movement. “What culture? Culture?! We’re Chinese! We have culture!”
Both my parents came from Sunwei, Guangdong, China: my father in the 1930’s as a “paper son” and my mother in 1950 as a refugee from a landowning family fleeing the Communists after her arranged marriage to my father. My siblings and I grew up in the insular world of a cramped backroom in the family laundry in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Jackson Heights then was not the bustling diverse, multi-ethnic community along the #7 IRT subway line it is today. During the 1950’s McCarthy era, it was predominantly Irish, Italian Catholic and Jewish. We were among three Chinese American families. The others were the Lees and the Chins (this is Charlie Chin’s family). (A funny story: Charlie remembers me and my two sisters, Jean and Janice, on our tricycles and I remember Charlie and his high school friends singing doo-wops under lamplight in front of the candy store!)
We faced our share of racism, exclusion and a sense of isolation that sent us back to Chinatown on Sundays week after week visiting Grandma and Grandpa, my many aunts and uncles and cousins on Henry Street, old-timers in the family association; shopping for ingredients my mother used to make dishes learned from her girlhood village; and the dreaded Chinese School on Mott Street where I sat next to children 5 years younger than me and where I never got beyond the first grade!
My mother did not want me to attend art school and follow my passion for painting. It was Barnard where I would be assured of an Ivy League degree and an Ivy League Chinese American husband or a CUNY college where I would become a teacher, nurse or social worker.
Instead this was Hunter College in 1969 in the midst of the anti-war movement, after Civil Rights and the assassination of the Kennedys, King and Malcolm X, and the world was changing. I dove into the student anti-war and Asian American anti-war movements; demonstrations for better schools, housing, jobs, against police brutality in our communities, demanded Black and Puerto Rican studies, Asian American studies, Women’s and Gay Studies to be institutionalized into the curriculum; set up a food co-op so working class students could eat and a daycare so women with children could attend their classes. We came back to the communities to “serve the people.”
In Chinatown, I started as a volunteer at the Chinese American Planning Council’s then unnamed youth program (now Project Reach) during the summer of 1970. The following summer I went abroad on the “Love Boat” language and cultural program in Taiwan. I stopped off in Hong Kong to visit the very-extended Chiang and Leo families and met relatives living in very different economic circumstances, from shacks on rooftops, bunks in family-owned factories to wealthy industrialists with factories throughout Asia. I didn’t learn much Mandarin that summer, but my eyes were opened to the issue of class.
I came back to New York City the fall of 1971, after hitchhiking through California visiting various Asian American studies programs and communities, deciding I would make my life in this city and that this was home. A few weeks later I went to a Yellow Pearl meeting at the Basement Workshop, not knowing I would spend the next 15 years there working with other artists, writers, choreographers, musicians, media and folk artists, performers, historians, cultural and community activists changing history.
The question “Who am I?” and trying to understand the forces that have shaped my life, racism, sexism, homophobia, class-ism, age-ism, has fueled my work as a poet, visual artist, cultural and community activist for the past 35 years. I have struggled to learn and to name these forces, understand how they manifest and affect and limit my own life and the lives of people in the different communities I move in; to channel my rage away from self-hate and self-destruction into creative and life-affirming forms that speak for and about our specific human conditions; to create institutions to house our work and spirit; and to stretch the boundaries of existing institutions to be inclusive of us outside the traditional, hierarchal, straight, white, male-dominated American canon.
Why culture? Beyond the working class immigrant generation’s basic needs of food, clothing, shelter for survival, I believe culture is the psychological weapon for the survival of our future generations. Culture allows us to remember; to create the means to express those most difficult, as well as most joyful and celebratory, of life’s experiences.
Culture allows us to dream, to envision what is possible.
Battling my 3rd bout of breast cancer, I am getting a sense of that time when I can no longer do the things I am able to do now. I think of my fourteen year old daughter, Xian, and what it is I want to say to her, what I want her to know about me. I think about the next generation, students here at NYU’s A/P/A Studies Program & Institute and the young people I work with at Project Reach, a youth center on the Lower East Side for young people at risk , and what it is they would want to know, what I can share with them in mutual working and learning experiences. And I look forward to all of it.
PS: My deepest thanks to Jack and A/P/A Studies for this opportunity to complete my book-length poem “Chinatown” at this moment in time.
14 August 2003