Revolutionizing A Government for the Masses

12 Jul


The decadences of the First World;
as reflected in the decadences
of the Third World.

Social class structures,
of shunned communi-

Where humanity is a serious
/ cry-
for the concerned citizens
the upper class are living
with such privileges
where I become
the enemy
to enjoy
the other

Democracy becomes a side order
of salad with
& American

The main course is
what they want in society,
unless the masses
agrees to recognize
the universal experiences
of suffering
to revolt.

© Susan L. Yung 2006

Revolutionizing A Government

Empress Dowager in “Beginning in the Great Revival

I was asked by Steve Cannon, the blind director of A Gathering of the Tribes (AGOTT) as prompted by Tom Savage, a homosexual poet who has been to India and is a Buddhist, to review the imported movie from mainland China, Beginning of the Great Revival. Upon hearing the assignment, I, in a collaborating mood, asked Tom to co–write this review, but he declined. I think he’d rather review “Mozart’s Sister” rather than the ongoing relations and conflicts of being American Chinese who must be partial to her Mainland Chinese roots—Not. I guess Tom and Steve thought I would enjoy such a propagandized historic movie that reenacts China’s pre–communist days of turmoils when Mao Tse-Tung was a student. In general here is a short description:

Beginning of the Great Revival, known as The Founding of a Party in China and a companion piece to 2009’s blockbuster The Founding of a Republic, details the historic events surrounding what is referred to as the Chinese Revolution, the period from 1911 to 1921, when Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty and planted the roots of what has become today’s Chinese Communist government. The story shows the beginnings of the country’s most influential first-generation leaders, including Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek and Zhou Enlai. Featuring a cast of over 150 of China’s biggest box office names such as Liu Ye, Chang Chen, Chen Kun, Andy Lau, Daniel Wu and John Woo. (Chinese with English subtitles)

This film’s “details the historic events” is out of the question. It attempts to be in chronological order. However with its various jump cuts, this film totally confused me with so many dates and location shots flashing across the screen that China’s history becomes more jumbled with killings, lectures, “hand holding” romances, and more killings. Through the jump cut reenactments, there are battle scenes, acts of heroisms, lectures, speeches, street riots, secret meetings, counter conspiracies, emperor court proceedings, establishment of the Republic of China, assassinations, and plenty of student protests, the movie is how Mao, once a foot soldier, an astute enthusiastic student studying Marxism-Leninism and finally the formation of the Communist Party in China. The movie opens with location shots of gov’t officials talking on the eve of WWI where the Germans after losing the war gave its portion of China to Japan. There were many quick fast one liners explaining the worse of two evils America or Japan. One official states “Has Americans ever helped China?”

An important scene is the politics of the pigtails where one is identified as the Han Clan. After its western modernization via modern dress, the pigtails had to be cutoff. In resistance, there is a scene with an honored philosophy professor who becomes ridiculed by faculty and student members debating Confucius’ traditions as oppressive regime vs modernization. Then, the Boxer’s Rebellion ensues with more conflicts in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Hu’nan, wherever unrest presided while a jump cut refers to the last emperor who ascended the throne in his infancy is sympathetic to a caged cricket and Sun Yat-Sen was establishing his first Republican nation to appease Westerners and Japan’s encroaching modernism. Another jump cut to a general or administrator wishing to become the next emperor. He is seen lovingly caressing the emperor’s robe and the next scene shows him lying dead wearing the robe at his funeral. After an hour and half we finally watch the signing of the Versailles Treaty where the Chinese delegates walked out after publicly announcing the secret joint agreement between Germany and Japan. Thus caused further malcontents and uprisings which led to the first Sino Japanese war, the movie, “The Sand Pebbles” (starring Steve McQueen & Mako, a Japanese American performing a Chinese “coolie” who got Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor but instead Walter Mattheau got the award for “The Fortune Cookie” movie) and further prompted Mao-Tse Tung to emulate Russia’s Bolshevik (peasant) revolution, led by the bourgeoisie.

A Scene from “The Beginning of the Great Revival

The movie had wars, some romance, history and cast of thousands willing to dress up and get paid nothing, as well as a star–studded cast of 150 Chinese actors whose names kept appearing whenever the actor spoke his parts. (I should get out my red book of Mao’s quotes … then I’ll totally be misunderstood or not) Thus it became very difficult to read the subtitles and view the reenactments, simultaneously. With all the busyness when the subtitles flash as quickly as the spoken Chinese I could only read half the sentences and make up my own conclusions. My attention span soon dims and can’t wait until the movie ends.

The scene changes every half minute from a “farewell” railroad scene with friends or government official consoling his daughter; to Versailles to sign its Treaty or not; to secret meetings, to hotels of a frightened couple being killed; to the streets of Shanghai/Beijing where two Russians are being followed by a bicycler as they ride a rickshaw through the city’s narrow streets; to some battlefields where a hero leads the charge and rushes up a hill, inspiring other soldiers to overrun a hill like Bunker Hill in “The Patriot” movie or in opening shots of Russell Crowe in “The Gladiator”. It looked like a civil war where grey uniformed Chinese are killing blue uniformed Chinese with unlimited cast of extras. In part it felt like Russia’s “War & Peace”. After awhile seeing Chinese killing Chinese makes the audience immune and careless what were the causes and demands for a war.

The last half hour focuses on Mao Tse-Tung slowly taking up the leadership to organize the Communist Party, quoting the “Communist Manifesto”, then cut to the many student uprisings due to what? Reaction towards the Versailles Treaty? Or somehow, they convinced police/soldiers to side for their causes where they successfully invade government officials for betraying a nation. This became a reminder of the student’s roles in the Tiananmen Square Massacre for democratic reforms where there were sit-ins, hunger strikes, and other peaceful tactics until the military’s invasion. Eventually the student leaderships escaped to America and became political scientists, engineers, or artists at Princeton University. As for Americans, it would be Kent State where 4 students were randomly shot while protesting the Vietnam War. However, this film did not show any student killings when other movies ie “The Last Emporer” depicted Chinese students being mowed down my soldiers. When thirteen students held their “secret” meetings to formulate a new nation’s agenda, there was a lot of sloganeering, postulating and finally the people’s song in Chinese, “chi-lai, chi-lai” that quickly segued soap–boxed debates to recruit peasants nationwide and then quick historical shots of Mao’s Long March inland etc. and the rest is history.

Addendum: The movie did not meet China’s expectations of having a full house in a major distributing movie house, Lowe’s AMC. There were only 2 couples and I sitting in an air–conditioned 75 seat theater. It proved to be a poor investment to depend on Americans to repay their debts to China.

Susan L. Yung
July 8, 20011

Learning to Bite the Hand That Feeds Ya or Ya Still Don’t Git It!

2 Jul

By Susan L. Yung

Looking back to “once upon a time” in 1972, I worked for an organization in order to develop a cultural institution for Asian Americans. I had been one of the original proposal writers for the Chinatown History Project and when government money came trickling down, there were many conflicts and issues that developed. Under such circumstances, I directed most of the money to upgrade Chinatown’s community and its environment. I felt that it should no longer be an invisible underdeveloped, underclass community when all the other surrounding communities such as Soho, Little Italy, City Hall and Wall Street were progressing into wealthier communities while the immigrant and urban social problems began to increase due to the 1965 immigration laws which added more people to the already densely populated Chinatown area. Many problems coexisted under this one organization where Mandarins vs. Toisanese vs. Hong Kong vs. ABC vs. Queens College, vs. Hunter, vs. City Universities vs. Harvard Business graduates vs. Princeton vs. foreign students vs. Korean grocers and merchants vs. Filipino vs. “laumpang-laumpan” (Thais) as well as the existences of personal problems such as grieving for a dying, cancerous relative, or owing gambling or investment debts or having cousins involved with gang shoot-outs or getting caught in cross fires or having made visit to the mentally disturbed friend whose psychotic breakdown happened on the same day of another friend’s wedding, or the boss firing the competent or incompetent seamstresses, typists or bookkeepers for wanting to unionize and ask for higher wages; and AIDS infecting various friends can cause many animosities.

In this turmoil, I worked as Basement Workshop’s general administrator and proceeded to the next stage – mobilizing the community that the Black Panthers had exclaimed with fervor and relentless dedication “serve the community.” I willingly worked for less pay (for a minimum salary of $5,000/year). These savings enabled this organization to provide more seed money for various projects like the birth of Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAFEE). In another incident, when another woman managed to fundraise more money and signed a three–year lease from Zacarro, Inc. for a loft space in Soho, unresolved conflicts arose again. It turned out that all the money got spent on construction supplies and equipment for three years.

After the loft’s renovations, even with the bickering, slandering and character assassinations that dissolved into nothing, the Italian landlord whose wife campaigned for Vice Presidency in 1984, had increased the lease to $3,0000/month. This terminated Basement’s occupation in Soho and the organization returned to Chinatown. The majority of the group disbanded leaving Theodora Yoshikami and Fay Chiang in charge. We never regrouped because the men in their traditional, chauvinistic attitudes could not concede to the women’s ideas and interests. Obviously, we had to fail as a group and become singular entities. I pursued my own individuality and financed my own education in order to write, perform and produce my experiences so that a new generation would be “enlightened” about our human frailties.

…At this age, the only resourceful mainstream alternative is for me to return to the education system and apply for graduate school to get a masters degree in figurative art, and maybe I will get a better–paying job. However, in perusing a high gloss brochure on “how to register and become a marketable artist,” I notice that I must earn 60 credits and pay a nominal fee of $400/credit. The application is very simple and once accepted, I will be taking classes in drawing, painting, and theory techniques in order to render the human anatomy into realistic shapes. Scanning the pages of the faculty list, the teachers are well–known, i.e. Eric Fischl, Alfred Leslie, Jack Beal and Michael Graves. It is an impressive list but they all seem to be Anglos and the curriculum Eurocentric. So where does that leave me, the Asian artist? If I take action and insist on instigating Asian artists to teach Asian classic art, I will be kicked out as a trouble maker and lose all the hard earned investments of getting the graduate degree in the first place.

What does activism have to do with mainstream education? In the First World, nothing, except we, as Asians in America, learn how to become either a marginal outcasts in America, or enjoy indirectly its luxuries in compacted spaces. However, due to my travels and having learned to appreciate third world cultures, I acquired an interest in these differences and started to find alternative programs or workshops relating to these cultures in New York City. Most classes are small because grand masters teach them who are not “western” certified or operate from an established institution but have acquired this knowledge from their homelands and due to persecution or other reasons are willing to teach in the United States. So their workshops are usually recommended through word of mouth from former students, and in the past five years, I found several interesting classes to occupy my days after working 9–5. These classes are economically reasonable for my income bracket. I did not have to join an expensive gym with expensive spandex uniforms to work out on an expensive mechanical horse. Instead, I gained cultural knowledge b developing myself as a whole person wit additional unique talents. These classes rage from learning the Tibetan language and its philosophy to the way of self-protection. The martial arts I study are Arnis–Filipino stick fighting and Pencak–Silat–Indonesian knife and hand fighting. I have also learned the Caribbean and Taiko (Japanese) drumming rhythms and the craft of Chinese knot making. From these classes I learn about the teacher and the student’s dedication …

However, in learning more of the basics of both Asian cultures and Western cultures, there is only the political awareness to tackle. This is where I find myself in the arena of communication and starting over. This past year, I spent filming, editing and promoting two videos: the first is a 60–75 minute video entitled, “Democracies in Chinatown: 1975–1994, making its premiere in 1995. It is a discussion between two women about their political and artistic careers working in an insular patriarchic Asian community in America. The second video is 20 minutes long and entitled “Images From a Neglected Past,” a cultural presentation of four performances accompanied by photographs of my worldly travels, all edited into one performance. The video describes the history of an American sub–culture and hopefully will fill a gap in the struggling amnesiac Asian American identity crises. They also will be a documented legacy of the Asian American experience in the latter half of the 20th century.

printed in A Gathering of the Tribes #6 winter/spring 1995/96

A Deceased Role Model: IRIS CHANG 1968-2004

1 Jul

A year ago, Steve Cannon, the director of A Gathering of the Tribes asked me to contrast Iris Chang’s book, The Chinese in America — a narrative history of 150 years — with PBS’s three-part series “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.” The book and the video series were released just as China is emerging as an economic force and threatening American enterprise with its cheap labor costs.

Well, I tried, but I found it difficult to reconcile my American identity with my Chinese ancestry. Earlier, when I had sought psychological counseling in Chinatown for midlife traumas — losing a lucrative job at the American Museum of Natural History, imprisonment by a rich white boyfriend, homelessness, menopause and now the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center — the NYU Chinese psychiatrist diagnosed me as bi-polar. I believe this ailment, defined by western medicine, serves as an excuse to offer the quick fix of pharmaceuticals — a means of enhancing the wealth of medical professionals.

Nevertheless, I tried several opening attempts to do the reviews as follows:

By reading Iris Chang’s book, I found the many layers of history that had affected an unwanted ethnic group in America. She writes of the white government imposing the Exclusion Act, limiting Chinese citizenships in America. The book is a page-turner and after awhile one has to laugh at all the impositions of the US on the Chinese because we kept arriving nonstop. The funny thing is that the Chinese kept arriving in search of that “Gold Mountain” dream, and still we continue to leap over humiliating obstacles. I notice this especially whenever I apply for jobs through which I might ascend to the middle-class from my impoverished milieu.

Here are some of my notes upon viewing the PBS special Becoming American: The Chinese Experience:

All narrative text is written by Anglos, except for one Asian producer, Ruby Yang. The consensus is still a white man’s interpretation overseen by one Asian woman. There are a series of oral histories defending the strengths of early Chinese history in America (excluding Iris Chang) from San Francisco to Idaho.

The series uses Chinese scholars from China who are dubbed in English to explain and describe Chinese American experiences. It becomes a mixed bag of individual narrations that are linked with Bill Moyer’s sympathetic overvoice. Does this clearly define us? Overlaps of positive and negative stereotyping … One Lo fan (white devil) explains rationale of setting up a feudalistic system so that the Chinaman can work as household laborers (i.e. Hop Sing on the Ponderosa) in exchange for learning the American culture.

The historic transition waivers from black and white, good and bad, positive and negative juxtapositions. I think representations of the negative attitudes towards the Chinese outweighs the positives we have contributed to America: rail road building versus the imposition of immigration laws which limited Asian’s arrival to America or the numerous massacres of small Chinese towns in Western frontiers. Surprisingly, a foreign Chinese scholar in China knows more about Chinese American history than any of the American Chinese. Is this a reflection of differing educational values between the two nations?

Part I: When Chinese railroad workers went on strike for equal pay, the result was a $1/day. Then there is the overview of Chinese culture, the Civil War veterans’ testimonials interspersed with the Yung Wing story, a Yale graduate who ventured throughout America and complacently settled in Connecticut … . There are crisscrosses between the West and East Coast attitudes towards Chinese, a delineation of the mass white hysteria at the beginning of Chinese migration to Massachusetts, and a breakdown of “Yellow Peril” where further anti-Asian bigotry was expressed … .

This should culminate in massive defensive retaliations, but the program focuses on individual court cases that went on for 20 years as opposed to including the Confucius Plaza demonstrations in 1972 (it is always deleted and forgotten history) or the San Francisco Internatationl House demonstrations that culminated after the Black civil rights movement. This had been a personal triumph and historic moment in Asian American history. Since this only reflects a smaller population of minorities in American it just becomes tomfoolery.

What they (young, white Americans) don’t know will hurt us, as they continue to practice the same racial hatred towards us no matter how much we complain. Throughout the presentation as white and Asian professionals, those with academic credentials, explain and interject the “sad tragic” Chinese American experience with interjections by Bill Moyer’s narration. The Asian viewer must become quite displaced and passive about these enduring persecutions … .

In the program, there are so many reality checks and associations by these “scholars” that I wonder what psychological labels will be or are cast upon us. I witnessed turmoil in my grandfather’s anger as he worked, isolated for 40 years in the laundry business, under such humiliations while petitioning the US government for the arrival of his seven-member immediate family from China. Does this documentary become an apology of the politically correct? Does it make us feel optimistic about ourselves? And why do so many young Asians want to be writers? …. Their books become the “true confessions” of the Asian American experience. Something is wrong when 1 ?% of the American population must have their stories published to become visible.


Eventually, the videos describe the Asian woman’s plight as “prostitutes held against their will,” a euphuism of men’s fantasy. It is explained as a “sordid episode” in Chinese American history in contrast to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The white man explains further about the Chinese railroad workers developing and settling a Chinese community in Idaho, which culminated in a massacre. In length, the video details how in 1876 Kearny campaigned on an anti-Chinese platform, characterizing them as an economic, yellow peril ploy. This idea became ingrained and branded in every Chinese American’s experience, while the Easterners organized their labor forces against the Chinese. We were the “eager target” for the working class.

Finally, the first part of the series ends with Yung Wing exiled from America after his Yale education, and his return as an illegal alien; he lived and died in a boarding house in Connecticut.

The producers emphasize the American Gold Mountain dream by including 10-minute addendums that further prove the double-edged sword of our duel existences. It counters the impact of all the odds against us. The viewer is bombarded with the Chinese success story. These are impressionable personal journeys of Shirley Young, a marketing researcher; David Ho, the Aids pioneer; David Henry Hwang, the playwright; Shirley WuDunn, The New York Times reporter; I.M. Pei, the famous architect; etc. What more proof does one need? Do I have to continue to review parts 2 & 3 video since a pattern prompts the viewer to expect perpetual hardships in the Chinese American experience?

I tired of viewing this kind of programming and had shelved the book and videos as more trophies for my Asian American collection, until Iris Chang committed suicide on November 12, 2004.

Now, this writing becomes a memorial of a “great” American historian, a journalist, the recipient MacArthur Foundation’s Program on Peace and International Cooperation Award, the Organization of Chinese Americans Woman of the Year Award, the recipient of two honorary doctorates (from the College of Wooster in Ohio and California State University at Hayward), a wife and a mother. In addition, she has written for numerous publications, such as the New York Times, Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, and has been featured in countless radio, television and print media — including Nightline, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, Good Morning America, C-Span’s Booknotes, and Reader’s Digest. She also lectured frequently before business, university and other groups interested in human rights, World War II history, Cold War history, the Asian American experience, Sino-American relations and the future of American civil liberties.

She had written and published three books. At the age of 25, Iris wrote \italic{The Thread of the Silkworm}, published in 1993. It is about a Chinese scientist, Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen. “He [Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen] was this brilliant, Chinese-born Cal Tech aerodynamics professor and the founder of the Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena,” Chang explained in an interview with Robert Birnbaum of Identity Theory

( “He was actually treated quite well during W II when they heavily relied on his brain power, but then in the 1950′s he and other scientists — some Jewish American scientists who had been active in socialists clubs in the ’30s — were suddenly accused of being Communists and possibly spies despite all of their contributions to this country. Tsien was interrogated by the FBI and then put under virtual house arrest, not really allowed to leave the country and then suddenly against his will deported to China. Because he was swapped for some American POWs. Here is an example of someone who was just a pawn in this whole chess game of international politics. But the story is so compelling because the intent of the government was to heighten and preserve national security, but the irony is that by deporting him they risked national security. Tsien went back and founded the ballistic missile program in China.” This made China a nuclear power in the United Nations, and the world had to reckon China as a first-world nation.

Upon hearing stories about Nanking from her grandparents, Iris wrote the celebrated The Rape of Nanking published in 1997. In Nanking about 300,000 Chinese civilians suffered many atrocities under a force of 50,000 Japanese soldiers. To write the book she lived with many dead photos hanging in her room, reliving the history. Through her research, she uncovered the diaries of John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who set up a safe zone for the panicked Chinese civilians in Nanking. This diary was eventually published. Iris Chang and Ignatius Ding, who heads the Cupertino-based Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, attempted to seek Japan’s acknowledgement of and an apology for these atrocities committed during World War II. An article by SF Gate read, “Chang not only believed that the horrible event was in danger of being forgotten but also accused Japanese society of collective denial about it. Translated into many languages, her book galvanized a redress movement in the United States. It was lauded in the U.S. media, drew criticism from several U.S. scholars on Japan and was vilified by right-wing publications in Japan.”

Japanese Americans have received reparations for being interned in concentration camps in America during World War II, however, Japan refutes the deaths and dismisses these atrocities as part of a “propagandist” game.

The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, published in 2003, is an intensively researched, spanning 150 years. Chang describes the Chinese Diaspora to America from her own perspectives in contrast to the Whiteman’s objectivity. Again, quoting from Robin Birnbaum’s interview, I find Iris Chang’s passionate words explain why there is a continuum of racial experiences:

RB: The things you cite took place in the late 20th century. People are still viewing Americans of Chinese descent as foreigners.

IC: That’s right, and even congressmen are not exempt from this. Congressman David Woo when he wanted to give a speech at the Department of Energy –ironically to celebrate Asian History month — they stopped him. They wouldn’t let him in. This was shortly after the Wen Ho Lee scandal and even after he showed a congressional identification, they wouldn’t let him in. The reason I brought up these stories was to show that these episodes of racism occur in cycles. There is a perception that the Chinese started out downtrodden and abused in the 19th century and gradually rose to the top of society as model minorities, and you see them winning Nobel Prizes and getting into our best colleges. But it is not a linear progression. Things don’t always get better. Sometimes they get worse. I find that they occur in cycles. The pattern of acceptance and abuse is closely linked with economic and political realities of that era and the state of Sino-American relations. Often when times are good and when the US is on good diplomatic terms with China, the Chinese are viewed as a bridge between the two countries. [Chinese] Americans are seen as honorary whites and as cultural ambassadors. You saw this in WW II, when China and the US were wartime allies. Also, in the mid-19th century when the US had a severe labor shortage and desperately needed Chinese manual labor. You also see backlashes at different times, such as the Korean War, when Chinese forces clashed with American forces. You saw it in the late ’90s — not a coincidence that it occurred after the disintegration of the Soviet Empire because China then became the second greatest superpower in the world, and there were concerns in the media of China rivaling the US militarily, economically and intellectually.

Later in the interview, Chang explains how she became a success:

I started off majoring in math and computer science and then majored in journalism because I knew I wanted to become a writer one day. I felt I needed the life experience and the discipline of daily journalism to get me started. And after working as a journalist I went to a writing program at Johns Hopkins. It was interesting because it was neither journalistic nor historical, but it emphasized writing style, and afterwards I was asked to write my first book, \italic{The Thread of the Silkworm}, and then I proposed \italic{The Rape of Nanking} to the publisher. \italic{The Chinese in America} is a much more ambitious project in terms of its scope, and I have learned a lot even though I don’t have any formal historical training. I have certainly amassed many historical research gathering skills in the process. I received an honorary doctorate for my work. Maybe one of these works is considered the equivalent of a Ph.D.

However, I found a website that specializes on the history of Chinese in America where Iris Chang’s book is analyzed almost sentence and determined to be poorly researched. By challenging her professionalism, this website invalidates her arguments with documents from the time and visual evidence that contradict testimonial resources. Thus her book becomes a generalization that evokes page-turning emotions of our mistreatments by mainstream society.

Check it out, and see if it matters whether she is correct.

Iris Chang was born in Princeton, New Jersey and grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Her parents were professors at the University of Illinois. She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and worked briefly as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Associated Press before entering a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University in 1990. She eventually resided in San Jose, California.

To a Chinese New Yorker like myself, Iris’s life in California represents a successful middle-class life. After a whirlwind book tour of 30 cities in one year for The Chinese in America, Iris decided to write a fourth book on the American POWs in the Philippines during WWII. As she delved and immersed herself in the research, more stories of atrocities and dead photos accumulated on her walls; Iris suffered a breakdown in June. She was released from the hospital after a four-months stay. Refreshed and renewed, Iris went to Kentucky to do further research where she broke down again and was hospitalized for three days. According to Ding Ignatius in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Chang’s current project of videotaping the former U.S. prisoners of war had been emotionally taxing for her …. She, was doing research recently in Kentucky and ran into some problem,” he said. “She got really upset, and she flew home.” He did not know what kind of problem Chang might have encountered or whether it was a factor in her death. He noted that she “took things to heart” and usually became emotionally involved in the tragic stories she wrote about.

The article continues:

Iris Chang, the prominent Chinese American author and journalist … .was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said Wednesday. She was found in her car by a commuter about 9 a.m. Tuesday (November12) on a rural road south of Los Gatos … . According to County sheriff’s office of Santa Clara, Chang’s white 1999 Oldsmobile sedan was found on an isolated private road west of Highway 17 near the Cats Restaurant. She apparently had died from a single shot from a handgun.

“There was evidence that was recovered that corroborated and was consistent with a suicide,” said sheriff’s spokesman Terrance Helm, who wouldn’t disclose the nature of the evidence or if there was a suicide note. An autopsy is scheduled …

Upon further perusing the Google results for “Iris Chang,” I discovered that there are over 3,000 entries, and we get the impression that she is a perfect role model for many Asian Americans. After her sensational Rape of Nanking, she became a literary celebrity and an advocate for human rights.

Here are a few choice websites describing her career and death:

Forgotten Holocaust (Interviewed by David Gergen)

Chinese American writer found dead in South Bay

San Francisco Chronicle refused to publish Iris Chang’s rebuttal to July 26, 1998 article by Charles Burress

Iris Chang dead at 3

Author described as ‘exhausted’ before she was found dead

The damage has been done … and it is a lesson for future Asian American writers who delve in such history. One would even suspect another unsolved conspiracy, but I defray from speculation even though I question why she had a gun in her possession.

May she rest in peace

Om Padma Hum.

Susan L. Yung

December, 2004

Frances Chung: A “barrio” Role Model for Chinatown & LES or A Chinese American Woman’s Plight

15 Jun

“Plenty” in her short life is what she wrote, knowledgably. She was emerging as a public figure to become a spokesperson for life in Chinatown, which is the Chinese immigrant story as reflected like the Jews of Lower East. In 1977, inside a “slum” ghettoized neighborhood, Frances prepared her first manuscript that she had “written a secret book entitled “Crazy Melon”.[1] She submitted to various funding sources for publications and routinely, had been rejected. It would be a social class problem where at that time, (is the norm) … to be reckoned as amateurish writings by elite writers like Kimiko Hahn, graduate of Columbia University, or Kenneth Roth. Nevertheless, by 1980, Frances began to receive a poetry grant from New York State Council on the Arts-Creative Artists Public Service (NYSCCA CAPS) in 1980-81; A New York Times Co Foundation scholarship (1986); and a NYSCA Writer-in-Residence fellowship (1987-1988). This gave her confidence to submit her second manuscript, “Green Apple” for “conventional poetry competitions”[2] such as the publication Walt Whitman Award sponsored by the Academy American Poets in NYC. Her brief poems, short vignettes and prose reflect her precise selection of words. Her sparse lines describes a single Asian woman’s (maybe feminist) subtle thoughts during the Ethnic (Black, Hispanic and Asian) Civil Rights movement of the 60s-80s. Her work is “not prophetic, but the creation of deeper silences in which to safeguard personal or community thought, feeling and relationships from the onslaught of real estate speculation, … exploitation by the garment industry, and the ideology of a nation at war against yet another Asian populace, the Vietnamese.”[3] She never joined union, NGO organizations or participated in Chinatown worker’s issues. Her sole participation had been in women’s writers groups of LES ore whenever they had blossomed in the late 70s. Eventually, such women’s intellectual groups diminished in late 80s. Maybe, she lacked political motivations or her fragile strength limited her from participating in any activities such as attending marches, rallies, demonstrations and other radical/revolutionary changes.

In Frances Chung’s 40 years, she poetically, with a touch of sardonic humor, described the boundaries of NYC’s Chinatown from Canal St to the diverse culture of Lower East Side during the years of 1966-1990. She died in 1990. However, there is only one posthumously book that has been published by Wesleyan College and edited by Walter K. Lew, a poet and Korean-American scholar. He had total access of her two manuscripts to print this singular book entitled “Crazy Melon & Chinese Apple-the Poems of Frances Chung”. The book came out in 2000; 10 years after her tragic death and it took me twenty years later to find the book to peruse. By now, any trace of this poet’s qualitative experiences are forgotten and there are more writers of Asian American descent in NYC capable of writing about the same perpetual struggles as experienced in the 60s & 70s.

The paperback book has 144 pages of Frances’ poems, vignettes and prose writings with 30 pages of Walter K. Lew’s afterwords with titles of “Commentary”, “About the Text” and “Appendix.” His intensive research and faithful chronology of her writings portrays the writer’s development from adolescent to a matured woman with speculative lovers as a person. He even directed her cover design that trivializes her manuscript into a small illustration. Frances’ intent is to utilize a Chinese wrapper’s design where she had scotch taped for her front manuscript, “Crazy Melon”. The wrapper enclosed dried sweet plums where Westerners are unfamiliar with its tart sweet taste and flavor. (Hard to explain.) I would prefer if the artwork had been blown-up full size to appreciate the candy wrapper’s artistry since it reflects the art of Asia. The cover’s design is important for marketing of the book’s contents especially if it is a foreign culture to an ignorant mainstream American culture.

Luckily, I had survived NYC’s various stereotypical labels and can enumerate or reflect the similar experiences as well as go beyond the melding compatibilities or incongruences of Eastern (mainland China) and Western cultures due to my various travels to third world nations. I seem to complete the cycle of growing up in a Chinatown and returning to the same ghetto/barrio problems that are inherent throughout the world.

Frances and I were classmates in Junior High School and High School. I had moved into the Chinatown neighborhood at the age of 12 from 2 years in the Bronx and 10 years in Portland, Oregon, my birth state. NYC’s cultural shock had affected me grandly since my family in Portland, Oregon were the only Chinese living within a mile from another Chinese family. The NYC culture of finding Asian families of 7-10 people living in close vicinities crammed in three room apartments can be disorientating and especially in a classroom of 30 Chinese students who were highly smart with competitive grades. In addition, most of my classmates went to Chinese schools to learn reading and writing calligraphy as well as speak Cantonese from 3:30-5:30 at the Consolidated Benevolent Association on Mott St. Thus their capacities to be studious, smart, intellectually observant, lacking leisure time to enjoy competitive sports, artistic activities, attending social functions and events such as rock concerts, dating, dance mixers, and other social activities to mold their futures and become the model minority for other ethnic groups in NYC. These were high achievers whose parents were employed in the laundries, restaurant businesses and garment factories. There were some students whose parent’s were from Chinatown’s small businesses that lined the streets of Chinatown retaining the village traditions of Mainland China. Rarely, were their parents in the professional professions such as MDs, PhDs, lawyers, professors, architects, engineers, corporations, etc. Thus, the environment and experiences that Frances Chung grew up motivated her to be a role model for her classmates. Being a straight “A” student enabled her to escape a future of poverty. She expresses her hopes, childhood traumas, and “observations” of the local, residential eccentrics and/or eccentricities. She traveled as a tourist or “was it a jet-setter lifestyle”? Upon her return to Chinatown as her home base, Frances makes comparisons of her world wind travels and her life in provincial Chinatown, as cited in the following lines:

The echoes of the night trucks
bouncing off the cobblestones
on Canal Street play on the
silences in my bones. Playing
games with the red and green
light on the corner of Mott and
Canal, we find an excuse to run—
we who know that those  who are
brave cross Mott Street on a
diagonal. (page 4)

Her quick terse observations become humorously timeless. She purposely focused on her subjects depending on quick descriptions that embodies the brief moment, lingering the experience with unforgettable words different from her mother tongue. Her sensitive observations can, to a Westerner, be considered neurotic. She could be bipolar, a schizoid silently suffering the contradictions while developing a voice contrary to the Chinese traditions, as well as develop a vocabulary to emote feelings and subtly suggest a precocious mind.

…the young man stopping her in the street  to say “Arigato” and then looking hurt when she explained she was not Japanese. And then the man whisered as she walked past on Mott Street “do you ever play with yourself? You and me … I could really sock it to you.” 
Friends wrote from Europe wishing her a Happy Valentine’s Day. (p. 41)
  … mannequin eye. Some brides stood proudly without
heads, one-armed, even one naked bride with no nipples. (p. 34)
 He will jump out of his hospital window. Before
you leave, he will ask you to bring toothpicks the next
time you come. (p.70)
the Mexican night
fresh smell of el campo
luciérnagas (p.118)

Her sharp wit encompasses the years of living in a confined, stifling community describing bitter hardships and taboo traditions that need broken as in:

There is a group of Chinese-American men who think of
themselves as Chinese warriors. They are beautiful
anachronisms. They study the martial arts, practice
calligraphy, consult the I Ching and go to sword flicks to
blow their minds. (p.61)

The reader can decipher double innuendos subtly expressed with select words as in

“…see her taking care of teacups in the
association. She seems imported.” (p.67)

These lines suggest the dormant domesticity of an immigrant woman. Frances abhors the servitude by highlighting the activity and ending in a simple statement. The word “association”, for a Chinese person, automatically indicates the family’s village name of colloquial China and their patriarchal history of migrating to America. It is the alternative social services provided in an insular community behind the gift shops, restaurants, & grocers familiar to tourists. However, due to the Exclusion Act of 1864 the sojourner men had to organize a methodology to legitimize a system of protection for their assimilations and survival in White dominating America. These family associations provided loans for small businesses, shelters for family arrivals, filed paper works for citizenships, provide translators, keep records of village members with same name sakes, locate separated family members, etc.

Often, Frances references the exotic teas, foods: Hispanic and Chinese as only some readers can experience due to their individual family upbringings. She reminisces her childhood of identifying peculiar actions as normal such as “banging on the kitchen table” and observing roaches scattering in seven directions which she states “I must reread “Metamorphosis” She describes stealing a snail from a grocer’s stall and once in the apartment, “spraying drops of water from our fingers to see if it was home.” (p.28). These childhood memories are unusual little moments of joy for a ghetto child to ruminate.

Frances’ quick observant words express feelings that many Asian artists and writers lack. Most major AA writers only write about their ID crises whereby they are constantly dependent and too busy finding a role model to emulate. For example: for men it would be “Bruce Lee” and for women “Suzie Wong”. There are other occupations to be pre-occupying as filmmakers, photographers, writers, or musicians, poets etc. So in American history Asians will be portrayed or considered as some form of enemy as oppose as just American. Maybe it becomes rites of passage to call a Chink “Chink”, Japanese “Jap” whatever…. Thus we’ll be stuck as a template Bruce Lee and Suzy Wong characters, a fundamental stereotype for Americans to fall back on and thus stalemating the cultural definitions of Asian Americans. In the following poem, Frances indicates her rebellious attitude, minimizing the words:

We use newspaper for a
tablecloth.  And when I
want to make my mother
sad I tell her that I’m
going to cook American
food when I get older. (p.52)

In the book’s afterword, Walter Lew did an intensive research of Frances short-lived life where many of her poems express the static turmoil of living/growing up in a ghetto and her desires to go beyond the boundaries of Chinatown as well as travel before settling into a sedate profession.

Frances had prepared two manuscripts for publications, “Crazy Melon” and “Chinese Apple”. The latter has “a richer conception of the scope and achievement of Chung’s writing” as described by Lew. He footnoted and charted France’s chronological progress of writing each poem, prose etc. This can be quite obsessive and stringently limiting for further interpretations since we will never witness Frances’ full maturity through her writings. Her early form of expression and early writings of an Asian American woman is obliterated by other living women writers. Frances Chung’s sensitive works precedes the west coast notables Maxine Kingston Hong and Amy Tan. These two women write about the first generation Chinese coping with an unfamiliar culture in a new country while Frances reflects the struggles of living in a ghettoized neighborhood. Her subtle words slowly stings with angry. Unfortunately, she never expressed it through participatory demonstrations, joined any grassroots organizations, became a political activist or bona fide artist. She just became a teacher in the Lower East Side and slowly submitted her ms to various funding sources. It took awhile for recognition but by then it became too late.  To know the source of her brain tumor … was it from too much overuse in being a straight “A” student or the adult stresses of being Asian in a Hispanic community or never understanding a loved one?

In her poems, Frances’ last lines as experienced in the ghetto, constantly stings the mind with ironies that reaches a certain level of timeless miseries. Often it can be stifling and her escape route would be

“…every cockroach that runs across
my mind
whispers that I haven’t seen Peking.” (p. 44)

Here are a few other extracted last lines:

“everything in life being guesswork
cooking without teaspoons
eternal windowshoppers
we women were sometimes like children (p.60)
 Chinese New Year …….Banners
across Chinatown. So many dragons to
follow. Oranges to cut. Shrimp chips
flowering. (p. 24)
 When I went to JHS 65 on Forsyth St, many of my friends were fascinated with Frances’ straight “A” grades and her competitiveness to outshine their intelligences. I seemed to only surpass her with my math and history grades. However, I felt her quiet complacent solitude disturbing as an introvert incapable to speak out or make complaints as I became rebellious to NYC’s education system and often spoke my mind to various teachers. Even when we were in Washington HS, an all girl’s school, Frances kept to herself and achieved all the straight A’s. After graduation, she managed to go to an elite school, Smith College with scholarships while I attended Hunter College. After college, I participated in a non-profit cultural organization, Baasement Workshop to become an expressive artist. Via this organization, with other peer groups of identical begrudges, we were able to culminate in a Confucius Plaza demonstration as our civil rights movement.

However, Frances shied from such demonstrative activities and would submit her manuscripts to the Basement Workshop in the hopes of publication. The organization was too busy dealing with internal logistics of mobilizing volunteers into a collective consciousness and administering an arts space to prevent street gangs rather than finance a publication. At that time, she had finished her 2 years foray in the Peace Corps situated in Central and South America. In addition, she taught in LES as a trilingual teacher, Spanish, Chinese, & English. Poetry became her outlet of expression and she taught poetry at St. Mark’s Project and Henry St. Settlement. She was able to receive 3 poetry awards: NYSCA CAPs (1980-81), NY Times Co. Foundation scholarship (1986) and a NYSCA Writer-in Residence fellowship (1987-88). Besides South America, she traveled extensively to Europe, Asia and Africa. Frances was slowly becoming acknowledged until she was overtaken by her brain tumor. Thus after her death does her poems become a significant testimony to a life style that is slowly disappearing due to encroaching gentrification of Chinatown after LES’s final gentrification.

I find myself falling into Frances’ affinities and identify closely with her struggles that it often becomes painful to reflect how our lives are parallel of self-destruction and resurrections. However, in the late 80s, Frances fell a victim of an institution’s negligence. Once diagnosed, she underwent surgery. While in a coma, Frances was injected with antibodies that the doctors had unknowingly been unaware of her allergies. During her unconsciousness, she died with the poison burning through her veins. I also had the same allergy reaction when recuperating from surgery and luckily; I was conscience to complain the burning sensation coursing through my veins. The doctors were able to counter the poisonous drug with the correct antibody.

As Frances relies on selected words to describe a lifestyle in Chinatown, I tend to record with a camera, stills and videos. Thus, I been able to also travel, record and compare similarities of foreignness and isolated observations on the hopes that social changes would be evitable, especially in the socio-economic improvements. However, little has evolved through such expressions in the arts to expedite these social changes. As Asians in America, we are still imbued with stereotypical labels due to mainstream resistances. Recently in the past year of 2008, there had been a rash of fires and evictions occurring in Chinatown. For example, in 2008, on a very cold winter night, prompted by a landlord’s complaints, the Department of Buildings evicted 50 Chinese men from their SRO rooms and relocated them up in the Bronx. These men were unable to read or speak English and were alienated in a Hispanic community. With the assistances of the young determined community activists of Chinese Americans Against Anti-Violence (CAAAV) and the rallying efforts of Chinatown Tenants Union (CTU), it took a year for the men to return to their familiar environment-Chinatown.

There are more Chinese bums
in the neighborhood now. No
one knows where they come from
but they appear with crazy
smiles and unshaven faces.
One of them looks like a poet. (p.19)

The following poem written much earlier describes a similar plight:

the winter wind sits in the living room
so we huddle in the kitchen
in our winter coats looking silly
and too cold to do anything
but light a candle eat melon seeds
as I wonder
what do we wear when we go outside? (p. 25)

Did ALL these poems caused her brain to develop a tumor? Was it the wait and frustration of submitting her ms to publishing houses and the constant rejections? Or the wait until other Asian friends could print them in “another Asian” collective anthology every 10 years. She had been a member of Ordinary Women, Basement Workshop, St Marks Poetry Project, and Henry St Settlement. Like Iris Chang’s tragic suicide in 2004 (a well known published writer of Chinese American History who died at the age of 38. See my written article entitled: Iris Chang: A Deceased Role Model Minority). Both died in the same age range, which can be suspiciously speculative. Frances’ goals were the same … to explain 20th century modern hardships in order to become an artistic entity as a writer & poet. In the 21st century, Chinatown is being gentrified where many prime properties are converted to skyscrapers leaving nothing to be preserved or become historic landmarks, to retrace and hide the miseries of the still inherent oppressions of an ethnic immigrant slum life.

Frances Chung subliminal speculative poems & prose writings describe the barrios/ghettoes like Jacob Riis’ photos of LES. She praises or glorifies no mentors, persons, or spiritual beings. The reader is introduced to a lifestyle that Luc Sante, writer of “Low Life”, might write if he was Asian. Frances might be described as the sweet, romantic Asian American “muckracker” who unlike the anarchist, Emma Goldman, wrote about her present situation in the hopes of being published as a contemporary writer.

Like an American pioneer, Frances Chung’s writings are before her time. Her narrative voice preludes the writings of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. Frances’ enduring words have historic significance as her voice transcends and echoes the 20th Century innocence of life in a slum/ghettoe/barrio during an era of restitution and reconstruction of an American eye sore called “oppression and racism” which leads us to our present situation of Age of Terrorism and Anarchism. As gentrification encroaches and eradicates areas of ol’ Chinatown starting from Park Row’s middle class neighborhood to Mott St’s small businesses, Frances words will haunt my generation while the next generation welds with the New Recession of unemployments, scapegoatings, glass ceilings, inflationary rent increases, lack of labor skills, lack of artists reflecting a minorities’ subculture.

RIP, Frances Chung

[1]1. Chung, Frances, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple Lew, ed.,Walter K. Lew (Wesleyan University Press, 2000) p. 148.

[2]2. Ibid p. 151. Unfortunately, Walter Lew did not expand. I extracted from his commentary”Chinese Apple”, unlike “Crazy Melon”, contains no prose poems or vignettes, and it could be suggested that this is one perhaps negative consequence of the manuscript being prepared for a conventional poetry competition.”

[3] Ibid p. 171


reprinted from Tribes website, check out other articles:


For Sachiko Ito, Homeless in 2010

Woke up again, snow

blankets courtyards

dead silence.

snow melts,

you are found.

Looking For Work

The garment factories has been outsourced and closed, leaving many Chinese women unemployed.

She is collecting bottles and cans for 5 cents redemptions

She is near City Hall which is near Chinatown ... Is this an eyesore or not?


26 Feb

For Sachiko Ito, Homeless in 2010

Woke up again, snow

blankets courtyards

dead silence.

snow melts,

you are found.

Looking For Work

The garment factories has been outsourced and closed, leaving many Chinese women unemployed.

She is collecting bottles and cans for 5 cents redemptions

She is near City Hall which is near Chinatown ... Is this an eyesore or not?