Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Speaking of Asian Guys...

...anyone seen the Old Navy "Scarves" commercial that parodies an awards show? They show the winner for "Best Reaction to a Scarf": a couple: "Kate" and "Jeff," are opening Christmas presents. Kate pulls an Old Navy "shimmery scarf" out of a box, looks at Jeff and says, "Are you asking me to marry you? YES!" and throws her arms around him, the scarf flying in his face. A stunned-looking Jeff can be heard muttering, "It's...a scarf..."

Oh, and: Jeff is an Asian guy.

So I can interpret the look on Jeff's face in one of two ways.

Guy reaction: It's...a scarf...

Asian Guy reaction: Oh my god, a white woman is hugging me...on television...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Memento Morita

Well-intentioned but slightly disappointing piece by Lawrence Downes in the NYT today on the death of actor Pat Morita. Since I'm currently teaching two Asian American studies courses, I can testify to the extent to which Downes seems to have absorbed the conventional Asian Americanist critique of Hollywood, as it limits Asians to caricatured, pidgin-speaking, sidekick roles; he even notes that there's an especially poor choice of roles for Asian American men.

But the article would have been a great opportunity to point out some actual achievements in film by Asian American directors, writers, and actors. Even if you just start counting at Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing (1982), that's over two decades of films to choose from. Instead, Downes settles for describing a new Asian American-directed film as coming from "an unusual perspective, by past or current standards," and lamenting an "utterly forgotten" Asian American cast of a film of the 1950s (without naming any of them).

I'm certainly no expert on Asian American film. But last week I was reading Anne Cheng's The Melancholy of Race, which includes a slightly revisionist reading of the 1961 film of Flower Drum Song, which is remarkable for featuring an all-Asian American cast. I confess to never having seen it, but Cheng suggests that the curious attraction/repulsion many Asian American viewers experience towards the film (as opposed to the more conventional dismissal of the film as perpetuating orientalist stereotypes) is part of the work the film does: showing Asian Americans joyously embracing the American ideals they can never quite comfortably inhabit.

Then there's Wayne Wang's whole oeuvre, which ranges from the b/w indie Chan to big-budget tearjerkers like The Joy Luck Club (not to mention Smoke and Maid in Manhattan--c'mon, grad students, let's see some Asian Americanist readings of those), or Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, and in the last few years films like Better Luck Tomorrow and Alice Wu's Saving Face. That's just the tip of the iceberg: those of you who have greater experience with Asian American film, please enlighten me.

What's missing, I guess--and this is something that Asian American viewers seem to crave as much as Downes does--is a "mainstream" male Asian American star, one who could be cast in a role not merely marked as "ethnic" and ring up big change at the box office. Would that be progress? Well, while we're waiting for Hollywood to figure it out, there's no reason not to see what Asian American filmmakers are actually doing.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Oh Good! My Parents' Congressman Isn't Scared of Me

From Tenth Dems, an organization of intrepid Democrats on Chicago's heavily Republican North Shore:
Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk was at an event last weekend at Northwestern University when he was asked about the difficulties of the visa process for immigrants. He was quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times as saying: "I'm OK with discrimination against young Arab males from terrorist-producing states. I'm OK with that."

"I think that when we look at the threat that's out there, young men, between, say, the ages of 18 and 25 from a couple of countries, I believe a certain amount of intense scrutiny should be placed on them," the Highland Park congressman was quoted as saying. "I'm not threatened by people from China. I'm not even threatened by people from Mexico. I just know where the threat is from. It's from a unique place, and I think it's OK to recognize that.''

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Uncle Wang

Currently laughing my tail off reading short fiction pieces by Australian writer Tom Cho, fantastic bits about identity and pop culture. The story "Suitmation" imagines that everyone in the family wears Godzilla-like suits that turn them into perfect replicas of celebrites. It's followed by an image of Tony Danza with the caption "Uncle Wang."

Better yet, Tom has a blog.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Headless Indians and Other Art

There's a feature story in the Toronto Star today about a new exhibit by Canadian artist Charles Pachter, best known for his "queen-on-a-moose" paintings. Pachter's exhibiting paintings done on a recent trip to India, where he said "even the poor people looked exotic and beautiful."

In the photo from the Star, Pachter is standing next to a painting of an Indian woman in a sari. The painting is nearly photorealistic, but for one thing: the woman's head is erased, replaced with a large red dot located where her forehead would have been. This, Pachter says, is "reality-based but moves on to abstraction"; he says he erased the head because he wanted to focus on the colors of the sari. Indeed, according to the article, all the faces of Indian women in the show are erased. (Men obviously don't get the same treatment; there's a man's head in the background of the Star photo.)

The result, to me, isn't beautiful but disturbing. As suspect as Pachter's gloss is, I'd be inclined to give it more credence if the image were framed differently. But since the painting is framed like a conventional portrait, the absent head becomes the focal point. Actually, that's not right: it's the bindi, retained as the pure signifier of exoticism, that becomes the focal point, literally erasing the person who is wearing it.

A few weeks ago I was at a conference and saw a paper on Leslie Scalapino's The Tango, a large-format book illustrated with color photographs of orange-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks. I asked whether race ought to be a factor in interpreting the text. The response, in part, was that the pictures were probably selected as studies in color and movement--in other words, that the clothes we were seeing should be regarded as empty, bodiless. I wonder if such a reading could have been supported if the photographs were all of white women in flowing bridal gowns, or of male African Americans in football uniforms. The Asian body was easily aestheticized--which is to say, rendered invisible.

Isn't Pachter's painting doing that, literally? Indeed, it's arguably quite a bit worse: the erasure of the head, and its replacement with the red dot, makes the Indian woman's body nothing but a marker of foreignness--an exoticism that ultimately becomes not some means toward abstraction but the point of the picture itself.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


I, too, caught that New Yorker profile of John Ashbery. Josh and Jack quite rightly take issue with its failure to offer anything particularly helpful in reading Ashbery's work. That didn't surprise me; I instinctively cringe when I pick up any New Yorker writer profile/puff piece and am usually glad if I don't come out on the other end hopping mad.

My guess is that Larissa MacFarquhar thought she was being quite clever, not in the content of her piece (it has almost none) but in its form. Ashbery is rarely, if ever, quoted in the piece; instead, MacFarquhar folds any material she must have gleaned from interviewing him into an omniscient, third-person, present-tense ramble that seems to want to portray Ashbery's process as if from the inside. It would be laughable to do this to, say, David Mamet or Matthew Barney--and it's pretty silly here--but I think MacFarquhar must have thought it was a kind of journalistic version of New York School writing: a "he does this, he does that" celebrity profile.

Ron Silliman: The Early Years

A few days ago Ron Silliman posted an early, quietudinous poem on his blog, while noting that most of his other juvenalia was, alas, locked up in the Archive for New Poetry at UCSD.

It so happens that a few years back I did some research there, and lo and behold, digging through my notes I've found that I have a huge cache of transcribed early Silliman poems, largely dating from 1964-68. Should the public demand it--and should, of course, Ron permit it--I'd be happy to post a couple here. A few titles: "Chow Mein," "Freshmen," and "One Thousand Years in an Opium Den."

Monday, November 07, 2005


November 8, 2005
Fulton Recital Hall at The University of Chicago
1010 E. 59th Street, 4th Floor

Poet Susan Howe and musician and composer David Grubbs will present the United States premiere of “Thiefth” on November 8, 2005 at 7:00pm at Fulton Recital Hall on the University of Chicago campus. The performance, one of only two to take place in the US, will include electroacoustic performance versions of Howe's poems "Thorow" and "Melville's Marginalia" for voice, computer, and piano. For this performance, Susan Howe will read, accompanied by David Grubbs at the piano and computer.

Drawing from the journals of Sir William Johnson and Henry David Thoreau, “Thorow” both evokes the winter landscape that surrounds Lake George in upstate New York, and explores collisions and collusions of historical violence and national identity. “Thorow” is an act of second seeing in which Howe and Grubbs engage the lake’s glittering, ice surface as well as the insistent voices that haunt an unseen world underneath. "Melville's Marginalia" is an approach to an elusive and allusive mind through Herman Melville's own reading and the notations he made in some of the books he owned and loved. The collaging and mirror-imaging of words and sounds are concretions of verbal static, visual mediations on what can and cannot be said.

For more information about the collaboration and for bios of Howe and Grubbs, visit:

The performance, which is free and open to the public, is being made possible through the unique collaboration of a group of area institutions. Support for the event comes from: the Chicago Poetry Project, Chicago Review, The Poetry Center of Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The University of Chicago Committee on Creative Writing, and The University of Chicago Poem Present Reading and Lecture Series.

Fulton Recital Hall is located on the fourth floor of 1010 E. 59th Street, Chicago, IL 60637. Attendees should enter through the courtyard entrance.