By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“The narrative around race relations can be quite polarized,” ventured activist Daniel Tam-Claiborne, at Thursday night’s gathering for the launch of “Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out,” a series of short films aiming to include Asian communities in American racial discussions.
“Communities of color are often [portrayed as] quite antagonized,” elaborated Tam-Claiborne, co-producer of the series. “But there’s another narrative, that we’re always living in this harmony, all together. Neither [narrative] is true. We need to acknowledge the tensions that are there, but explore how to reconcile differences.”
The launch and discussion, held at Capitol Hill’s Northwest Film Forum, featured the three films, each one running roughly eight minutes.
“Bridging the Divide,” directed by Titi Yu, explores tensions, violence, and ongoing attempts at unity, between Blacks and Asians in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eddie Zheng, a former gang member who spent more than 20 years in prison, emerges as a crucial figure through his New Breath Foundation.
“A Seat at the Table,” directed by Andy Schulman, features Americans who are both Jewish and Asian. The film covers folks grappling with two different sets of deeply-ingrained prejudices, and the creation of the Lunar Collective, an organization designed to fight such prejudices, while exploring identity, tradition, the weight of the model minority myth, and other issues.
The final film, “From Kingston to Queens,” directed by Titi Yu once more, details the remarkable life and work of Patricia Chin, born in Jamaica to a Chinese father and an East Indian father. She fell in love with reggae music at a young age, and co-founded VP Records with her late husband, after a move to New York City. Over more than 40 years, she’s turned it into one of the biggest labels for Caribbean music worldwide.
Five panelists joined Tam-Claiborne in a discussion after the films. Kathy Hsieh, employed by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, and active in Seattle theater, reflected on how tensions and discussions had grown and changed over the past several years.
In local arts communities, commented Hsieh, “A lot of stuff started to happen, after the murder of George Floyd, and later the Atlanta shootings [attacking Asian-staffed massage parlors], a lot of Black theater artists started to speak up, on a lot of the inequities. In solidarity, a lot of Asians started supporting that work, too. A number of us, Black and Asian, met regularly during the pandemic.”
She also reflected on changing standards in Hollywood productions.
“Oh, now white people are making Black people the good guys, but they always need a bad guy. And the Filipinos are all of a sudden the bad guys.”
Regina Sassoon Friedland, regional director of the American Jewish Council, reminded the audience to concentrate on individual personalities, and stories, while keeping broader themes in mind.
“So often we focus on differences, we forget what we have in common as people,” she commented. It’s so important to remember that, and get off the broad-stroke labels. Individuals are so key.”
JM Wong, a nurse, writer, and organizer, felt special affinity for the Atlanta victims, because they work with the MPOP (Massage Parlor Outreach Project) based in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID).
“Who is responsible?” Wong pondered. “What are the origins of the crime? I don’t think calling it a hate crime made things any safer for sex workers.”
Multimedia storyteller Thanh Tan, panel moderator, mentioned the model minority pressure she faced, a constant need to be “the perfect refugee, the perfect Asian.”
Kathy Hsieh recalled the controversy over Justin Lin’s film “Better Luck Tomorrow,” from 2002. “Asian communities protested the films, saying, ‘You finally got your foot in the door and you made a film that doesn’t make us look good.’ That stereotype is that we’re all perfect.”
Cambodian activist Bunthay Cheam put the emphasis back on the personal, to work through the political.
“What I’ve witnessed is people just breaking bread together, just sharing space,” said Cheam. Just spending time together. I believe the most marginal oppressed people end up being the ones doing the heavy lifting. To free themselves from oppression, and to free their oppressors from oppression.”
Hsieh shared a crucial behind-the-scenes angle, from attending pig roasts with old-school Seattle equality activists.
“I was doing a theatrical tour of the CID, and one year I wanted to focus on the women [activists]. And I looked up in history books, online, and I could not find out anything about these women, except for their obituaries.
“The men [told me they] would come to the protests, because they wanted to meet the women! And the men ended up getting the credit.”
“Thank you all so much for your attention,” concluded Tam-Claiborne. “I think we brought it up that [the series] is really just three stories.
“We need more storytellers out there, we need more creators. Trying to see the humanity and hopefully beginning to work towards something greater together.”
To watch the “Between Black & White” films, and for more information, visit pbs.org/wnet/exploring-hate/.