Volume 4: Number 1, May 1 2000
Fan Mail: A Dossier
As part of this issue’s focus on culture and cultural politics in South
Asia and its diaspora, we solicited our readers to submit brief personal
reflections on cultural figures and works that matter to them. The following
pieces came in response to that invitation. We have called this special
section (only slightly flippantly) “Fan Mail,” because we are conscious
of the variety of ways in which culture and politics intersect in our
experience. Our critical, intellectual, and political responses to art
and culture tend to co-exist and intermingle with emotional, passionate,
or enthusiastic responses. In each of these pieces our contributors
write both as critics and activists and
as fans, telling us why works that matter are also works they love.
Or, in some cases, works that they love to hate!
Dime a Dance, Dollar a Day
By Sunaina Maira
Rick wipes his glistening forehead and clamps his straw hat firmly down on his head. He picks up his guitar, strums a few chords. Perry bounces over, dirty dungarees and spotted T-shirt flapping, and picks up his harmonica. Their song is gentle, hopeful, and full of the incredible relief of the end of a long day of work, a longer week of picking asparagus and harvesting lettuce in the California sun.
Boy, can Wayland dance. He swishes his imaginary partner in the air, holding her carefully, swirling her around him with long strides. He holds her hand at the end of the dance, and asks, “Marian, I'll see you next Friday, right? Right?” Rick and Perry repeat their haunting words of caution, watching the longing on their Pinoy brother's face: “How could something so wrong/feel so right?”
Rick Ebihara, Perry Yung, and Wayland Quintero are SLANT, the New York-based performance group that made headlines with their first show, “Big Dicks, Asian Men.” Tonight, they are performing to an excited crowd at the East Coast Asian Students' Union (ECASU) conference. They also re-enact a piece, humorously titled “The Yellow KKK,” that they had performed at Youth Solidarity Summer '98. The participants at YSS went wild because they had never seen anything like it before, or heard songs for railroad laborers belted out by immigrant conductors on the New York subway.
The performance at ECASU remembers the Filipino men in 1920s and 1930s California, young men who came as U.S. “nationals” to the metropole, but who were not allowed to vote, to apply for citizenship, to buy homes, or to own land, like other Asian immigrants at the time. Some worked in service jobs as dishwashers, bellboys, or busboys; others worked in the salmon fisheries of Alaska; but most toiled in the fields of California, replacing the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian immigrant labor that had been excluded.In Stockton and Los Angeles, Filipino men flocked to spaces that allowed them an evening of pleasure: the taxi dance halls which offered them dances for a dime. Most earned only one dollar a day. Unlike Indian, Chinese, or Japanese men, Filipino men courted and sometimes married white women, in defiance of anti-miscegenation laws. Furious that Filipinos were not only “taking their jobs,” but also their women, four hundred white men attacked a Filipino dance hall in Watsonville in 1929 and instigated a four-day riot.
In 1934, the “menace” of Filipino immigration was effectively controlled when the U.S. granted the Philippines commonwealth status and so withdrew any privileges of entry they had had as colonized subjects. SLANT’s performance of “Miscegenation Blues” reminds us of the intricate and painful intersections of sexuality, immigration, and imperialism. The trio uses music, dance, and theater to do more than simply explode stereotypes about Asian American masculinity. They suggest a complex story about the politics of popular culture, the way sexual longing is intertwined with race politics, citizenship, colonization, and diaspora.
“How could something so wrong feel so right?” This goes out to SLANT, for a question we need to ask ourselves every day.