Tag: Asian Americans


East of East

by Wendy Cheng

The global cosmopolitans of suburban LA

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Wendy Cheng’s essay “East of East” from our Spring 2015 issue. 

Welcome to the San Gabriel Valley—America’s first “suburban Chinatown.”1 A typical-looking twentieth-century suburbia a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley—or SGV, as residents call it—has been transformed in recent decades by ethnic Chinese investment and settlement from both sides of the Pacific.2 In some parts of the valley—places such as Monterey Park and Rowland Heights—more than half of the population is Asian, and English is often a secondary—or tertiary—language in the plentiful strip malls that line the main thoroughfares. It’s a regional and global hub for Asians from all over Southern California and the world. Then there’s the restaurant scene, which is how many Angelenos have come to know the valley. You will find some of the best Chinese food in the world in the San Gabriel Valley.

But while true in many respects, the well-known image of the SGV as a global Asian suburb obscures a vital fact: the valley is a vibrant, sprawling, mixed-up multiethnic community with a complex, layered past.3 In those majority-Asian cities, almost one-third of the population is Latino, making the valley as a whole more than 80 percent Asian and Latino now. In other SGV cities, such as El Monte and South El Monte, the balance flips: Latinos constituting the majority and Asians the next largest group. It is that mix that makes the San Gabriel Valley a revealing place for seeing the Pacific world as an Asian-Pacific-Latino world.

Consider this: A comedy hip-hop group called the Fung Brothers sings about the SGV, “Let me tell you about a place out east / Just fifteen minutes from the LA streets / Hollywood doesn’t even know we exist / Like it’s a mystical land, filled with immigrants.”

And this: A small, local, street-wear brand based in Monterey Park called SGV has produced a T-shirt with a design that blended the elements of the flags of the People’s Republic of China, Mexico, and the United States. The brand’s website states: “The SGV is a region of America where a lot of Chinese and Mexicans have learned to live together, most of the time in harmony. Welcome to Chimexica.”4

Or this: Other SGV brand designs have featured repurposed logos for Sriracha, a well-known hot sauce created in Rosemead by an ethnically Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant, as well as Tres Flores, a hair cream popular with working-class Chicano youth, and woven sandals popular with older Asian immigrant men.

And this: Another T-shirt features curse words in Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Tagalog.5

This diversity is not always harmonious. As the SGV brand creator Paul Chan, a child of immigrants from Hong Kong who moved to Alhambra as a young child in the 1980s, told a reporter, “I…learned quickly that in the SGV you play your position and don’t over step your boundaries. I’ve always had a huge appreciation for that. The way those unwritten rules work….It was part of survival to know about all the different cultures so I don’t end up disrespecting people and getting my ass kicked.”6

Yes, you’ve got to have a clue, but for the most part these playful pop culture expressions of cosmopolitanism embrace living together, coexisting, with mutual respect for difference, without denial or exclusion. The SGV is a great place to experience the emergence of this new global cosmopolitanism.

Paul Gilroy, a cultural studies scholar who has studied the multiethnic dynamism that came out of the reach and subsequent collapse of the British empire around the world, has publicly wondered about how such an everyday cosmopolitanism “from below” could be magnified and given greater purpose: “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather that imposing it downward from on high provides some help in seeing how we might invent conceptions of humanity that allow for the presumption of equal value and go beyond the issue of tolerance into a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness.”7

This is a cosmopolitanism that does not look to states or nations for the realization of its hopes, but “glories in the ordinary virtues and ironies—listening, looking, discretion, friendship—that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding,” Gilroy writes,8 It is a “radical openness,”9 a “planetary consciousness”10 made even more real and important by its awareness of the harms done by racism and inequality. Ideally, it does not stop at awareness but rejects xenophobia and violence, and “culminates in a new way of being at home in the world through an active hostility toward national solidarity, national culture, and their privileging over other, more open affiliations.”11

Gilroy, whose work has largely focused on cosmopolitanism and diaspora across the Atlantic,12 could come to the SGV to see similar patterns playing out around the Pacific Rim. In the SGV today, I found a similar sense of cosmopolitanism among many residents while working on my book The Changs Next Door to the Díazes. It is also increasingly apparent among artists, writers, poets, scholars, and activists who are beginning to express their own visions of the valley and in the process creating a collective, imaginative vision and language that may well have the power to alter what it means to be American. Their vision is of a suburban, cosmopolitan ethos that will be increasingly relevant to broader swaths of the United States, and it challenges long-held associations of whiteness, middle-class, and suburban as normative ideals that were tightly bound together. At its best, this is an explicitly antiracist cosmopolitanism that does not gloss over differences between cultures or violent histories to create a false universalism, but instead reckons with formative histories and still-present realities of racism and colonialism.13

The South El Monte Arts Posse, an arts collective led by historian Romeo Guzmán and artist Caribbean Fragoza, is one organization playing with the possibilities of an emergent SGV identity, one that they refer to as “east of east.” The “east” to which the collective known as SEMAP identifies itself as “east of” is East Los Angeles, long the symbolic and political core of Chicano Los Angeles. Reflecting on this geographical adjacency, iconic Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga, who grew up in the SGV, has written of that state of being near, but separated from, the Chicano Movement in East LA, “just ten minutes from my tree-lined working class neighborhood in San Gabriel.”14

Similarly, SEMAP sees itself as adjacent to, but distinct from, the urban core sensibilities of East LA. “East of east” is “everything that exists outside the reach of the city of Los Angeles,” Fragoza told me when I spent the afternoon recently with her and her partner Guzmán to explore the role of artists, writers, and activists in this emerging SGV cosmopolitanism.15

“East of east” sounds as if it could be a description of this new cosmopolitanism emerging on the West Coast, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, east of East Asia. But the phrase also has a defiant local edge. This interpolation of the global and the local is a characteristic of these new cosmopolitans. Guzmán grew up visiting relatives in South El Monte from his home in Pomona, even further east. He and Fragoza remember starting to use the phrase when they were both undergraduates taking Chicano Studies classes at University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 2000s. As Fragoza told me, in “Chicano rhetoric, everything would happen in East LA.” There were “a lot of people that I met there who were from East LA and that were very proud of it,” she added. “And then they were like, ‘Well, where are you from?'” When Fragoza responded that she was from El Monte, she would be met with derision. She would then respond emphatically, “‘Dude, we’re so down, we’re east of East LA!’…So I think that’s at least how I started using it.”16

Guzmán added that they would “sort of get annoyed….It’s like, to make culture you have to go to East LA. But why? Why do we all have to go there? Why can’t we do stuff where we’re from?”17

SEMAP’s home terrain, the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, have emerged as key nodes in the burgeoning SGV arts and culture scene. “People from El Monte are really into El Monte,” Guzmán told me.

“Yeah, we are,” Fragoza laughed. “But I still feel like we’re SGV, we’re part of the SGV.”

In the past fifteen years, street wear brands, literary novels and short stories, a mystery set in the world of Asian American parachute kids, and comedic rap songs have all emerged from the SGV.18 This past fall, a play about Toypurina, the Gabrielino woman who led a failed revolt against the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission, was mounted at the Mission Playhouse, and a feature film set in El Monte is in the works.19 These developments signify the coming of age of a multiracial, majority-nonwhite, place-specific culture, on its own terms. As a region apart from central Los Angeles, large portions of the SGV have been able to retain their class heterogeneity and multiracial, majority-nonwhite populations for multiple generations now, without suffering the degree of gentrification and displacement to which central city neighborhoods are vulnerable.

Like the members of SEMAP, writer Michael Jaime-Becerra, who grew up in El Monte and still lives there now, balances multiple sensibilities at once. His outlook is deeply local and connected to a specific place, but he also has an expansive openness to the complexities of the SGV in the world. His world is El Monte, but it isn’t only El Monte. In his two books set in and around the city—Every Night is Ladies’ Night (2004) and This Time Tomorrow (2010)—Jaime-Becerra renders the mundane landscapes of the SGV with tremendous love, name-checking places and streets without commentary throughout his narratives, as though to assert to readers that they should know these places. While his characters are primarily working-class Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans—truck drivers, mechanics, forklift operators, fast food workers—they are always also Goth teens, former prisoners, brothers, sisters, uncles, lovers, and dreamers.

While earlier generations of Chicano writers were writing with justifiable urgency about “field labor, immigration, our parents’ struggles to feed the family,”20 growing up in El Monte as the son of a union meat-cutter and an elementary school clerk, Jaime-Becerra realized that he could “hang with low riders and skateboarders, groove to Juan Gabriel and Siouxsie and the Banshees.”21 Like so many Latinos and Asian Americans in the SGV, he was able to carve out an ethnic identity apart from dominant ideas about race: “Everybody around me, they were either Mexican or Mexican American or Vietnamese,” he has said. “I didn’t really identify in terms of race in LA.”22

There is freedom in the ambiguity that comes with loosened cultural boundaries, where old stereotypes aren’t used to keep people in place, and where people are comfortable crossing cultural lines to find their place in a community. The place where they feel they belong, not where they are told that they do. This is the “east of east” ideal, in which working- and lower-middle-class people of color are able to simply be—and be seen by the wider community—in their full and complex personhood.23 This is what Jaime-Becerra described as his coming-of-age experience and is apparent in the world he creates for his readers.

El Monte writer Salvador Plascencia also riffed on this theme in his 2005 novel The People of Paper, set in the author’s hometown. His “meta-fiction” was intended “partly as a parody of traditional immigration narratives”—or as one reviewer put it, is “part memoir, part lies.”24 This is how Plascencia introduces the locale: “The town was called El Monte, after the hills it did not have.”25 A page later, he elaborates: “El Monte was one thousand four hundred forty-eight miles north of Las Tortugas and an even fifteen hundred miles from the city of Guadalajara, and while there were no cockfights or wrestling arenas, the curanderos’ botanica shops, the menudo stands, and the bell towers of the Catholic churches had also pushed north, settling among the flower and sprinkler systems.”26

The transnational migrants settled among the suburban “flower and sprinkler systems,” but they made the landscape their own. Throughout the book—which also playfully busts genre conventions with scribbled-out words, blocked text, blank pages, and graffiti—an assortment of vivid characters including migrant lettuce pickers and gang members battle against the godlike Saturn, who is gradually revealed to be the author, Salvador Plascencia. Saturn/Plascencia loses control of his characters and the narrative because he is languishing over a break-up with his girlfriend, who has left him for a white guy. Plascencia’s El Monte is both grounded and surreal, his portrayal of its denizens heartfelt and absurd. “In a way,” Plascencia has said, both he and Jaime-Becerra “are trying to talk about an El Monte that’s not the news copter, watching a cop kick a gangster in the head.”27 That is El Monte as a place grounded in its true range of subjectivities, experiences, and imaginative possibilities, not constrained by externally imposed stereotypes and power hierarchies.

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Details from El Monte Legion Stadium Nocturne and In the Meadow courtesy of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

1. See Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), and Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).

2. See Min Zhou, Yen-Fen Tseng, and Rebecca Kim, “Rethinking Residential Assimilation: The Case of a Chinese Ethnoburb in the San Gabriel Valley, California,” Amerasia Journal 34: no. 3 (1 January 2008): 53–83); among others.

3. This dates back hundreds of years to indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva settlement in the area and travels through Spanish colonization, the Mexican period, and US conquest, each of these with its concomitant, racialized regimes of land dispossession, and labor exploitation.

4. Former SGV brand website, http://www.sgvforlife.com, accessed July 2012. To see the SGV brand’s current website, go to http://sgvforlife.bigcartel.com/ (accessed 24 November 2014).

5. Ibid.

6. Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life.

7. Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 67.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., xv.

10. Ibid., 75.

11. Ibid., 68.

12. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

13. Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia. Also see Michelle A. McKinley, “Conviviality, Cosmopolitan Citizenship, and Hospitality,” Harvard Unbound 5: no. 1 (1 March 2009): 55–87.

14. Cherríe Moraga, “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe,” The Last Generation (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 146.

15. Interview with Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán, El Monte, California, 12 October 2014.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. These include: Alex Espinoza, Still Water Saints (New York: Random House, 2007); Michael Jaime-Becerra, Every Night Is Ladies’ Night (New York, NY: Rayo/HarperCollins Publishers, 2004); Michael Jaime-Becerra, This Time Tomorrow (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010); Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006); Denise Hamilton, The Jasmine Trade (New York: Scribner, 2001). Also see Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life, accessed 15 October 2014; and the Fung Brothers website, http://fungbrothers.com, accessed 15 October 2014.

19. Mission Playhouse website, http://www.missionplayhouse.org/event/toypurina, accessed 15 October 2014; and “Varsity Punks” website, http://varsitypunks.com/, accessed 15 October 2014.

20. Vickie Vértiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra,” 6 December 2014, Tropics of Meta, http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/el-monte-forever-a-brief-history-of-michael-jaime-becerra/, accessed 10 October 2014.

21. Reed Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra share a city and common inspiration: El Monte,” 25 April 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/entertainment/la-ca-el-monte-20100425, accessed October 10, 2014.

22. Ibid.

23. On complex personhood, see Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

24. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”

25. Plascencia, The People of Paper, 33.

26. Ibid., 34.

27. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”


The K-Town Dream

by Colin Marshall

California in Korea, Korea in California

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

A few minutes’ walk from the apartment I rented on my first trip to Seoul, I happened upon a branch of the Novel Cafe, a restaurant I know well from my life in Los Angeles (though the ones back home don’t advertise “California Cuisine since 1999”). Then, a few blocks later, came a shop called Who A.U. California Dream, selling clothes and accessories emblazoned with names and images of places such as Yosemite, the “Surf City” of Huntington Beach, and simply “California Farm Country.” Although it is an international brand, Who A.U. rode a particularly high wave of popularity across South Korea in the summer of 2014. Even in the biggest American cities, you hear the media agonizing over fashion trends long before you notice those trends in real life (if indeed you ever do). In Seoul, however, the latest trends confront you right there on the street, immediately and constantly. On the sidewalks, in cafés, and riding the subway, the youth of South Korea presented me with constant invocations of my own current hometown: of USC and UCLA, of the Lakers and the “Dodgers Baseball Club,” of “Homiés South Central” and “Berkeley California 1968,” of Venice Beach and the LAX Theme Building, of the “California Road Trip,” and of Los Angeles itself accompanied by the inexplicably chosen zip code 90185. Young people the world over have dreamed of California for decades, but the sheer number and variety of California clichés invoked on the streets of Seoul reached a whole other level.

The mystery as to why deepened the closer I looked. Late one night during that trip, after the customary first round of drinks and food—and the equally customary second round of dinner and drinks after that—I found myself sharing a dimly lit booth at a bar with my Korean-born girlfriend’s cousins, two sisters in their twenties. We’d drunk halfway through our hefty copper pot of greenish makgeolli, a fermented rice wine long written off as a poor farmer’s drink that is now enjoying a well-deserved renaissance, when the older cousin’s boyfriend turned up to help finish it off. He wore a bright, white polo shirt decorated with the words “SAN DIEGO IN CALIF.” Looking quite literally for common ground, I asked him, as best I could in my still-shaky Korean, when he’d spent time in San Diego. He explained, with what I’ve come to think of as a characteristically Korean mixture of pride and embarrassment, that he’d never left his homeland. The California dream burns particularly bright, it seems, within those who’ve never come near the state. On a group bike ride through Changwon, a suburb of Busan (South Korea’s second-largest city), I struck up a conversation with a woman a few years out of college and employed at a local department store. When I told her I’d come from Los Angeles, she let me in on her own California dream. “I want to live there,” she explained. “I want a big house—and a dog.” She longed for the idea of a traditionally Californian lifestyle somehow as alien to me, someone born and resident in the state, as any lifestyle I saw in South Korea. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, at least as far as I can see in Los Angeles, the dream of the “big house,” and indeed its viability, has entered a slow but inexorable downward slide. (The market for dogs, on the other hand, does look strong.)

A large part of my reason for coming across the Pacific had, in fact, to do with a search for alternatives to a traditionally Californian lifestyle. Although I live in Los Angeles—and, to the shock of so many unfamiliar with the city, like it—I’ve come to realize that I don’t live in the Los Angeles that outsiders picture. My Los Angeles does have palm trees—usually listing uneasily and growing in the most incongruous locations—but rarely do I navigate my city with a car, and I almost never see the beach. Many, if not most, Angelenos inhabit this city, an exciting one for a devotee of urbanism such as myself. But it is certainly not the place conjured by the California dream so ubiquitous on Korean T-shirts.

Visiting Koreans in particular may feel startled to find Los Angeles populated so thickly with, well, Koreans. When one of them asks why I’ve spent so many years studying their language—which some seem to regard as a secret code, forever impenetrable to the efforts of any foreigner, a notion my own efforts do little to disprove—I usually tell them that because I live in Los Angeles and more specifically in Koreatown, it comes in handy on a daily basis. Then again, I say the same about my study of Spanish. But that surprises Koreans too; making conversation with my girlfriend’s younger cousin, I casually mentioned the near-necessity of Spanish back home, not realizing that I would have to explain how many Latin Americans live in Los Angeles.

Still, none of that tells the whole story. While it makes good sense, to my mind, to learn as many languages as possible in order to navigate a city that speaks so many of them, it is that very linguistic environment that drew me to Los Angeles in the first place. I study Korean in order to engage with the city, yes, but I chose to live in this part of the city in order to engage with Korean. Koreatown’s five square miles offer not only immersion in the language but in countless other aspects of Korean culture, from food and movies to after-hours drinking and smoking. You could live an entire life in Koreatown ignoring that you were otherwise surrounded by the rest of Los Angeles and the United States of America. Indeed, some of Koreatown’s older residents have managed to do just that for decades.

With the age of the buildings, the homeliness of the signage, the streets of mostly low-rise apartment buildings, and the scanty but growing subway system, Koreatown reminds my Korean friends of how Seoul looked and felt twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Whether life in Koreatown has prepared me to see this bygone Korea in Korea today or whether an obscure desire to experience this bygone Korea has fueled my love for Koreatown, I can’t say, but nearly as soon as I arrived in bustling modern Seoul, I began asking where I might find a piece of this past. This line of inquiry ultimately took me to what would become my favorite place in all of South Korea, an underground “LP bar” not far from the city’s most prominent art school, where the 1960s didn’t so much end as get mixed up with the 1970s, and then the 1980s, and all three decades live on as DJs spin old vinyl into the night.

Those thirty years saw enormous emigration out of South Korea, to the United States in particular, to California even more particularly, and to Los Angeles even more particularly than that. A great many of the Koreans who came over in those days, now middle-aged and older, have, no matter how grandly or humbly they’ve lived their own California dream, never seriously looked back. Some react incredulously when I tell them of my own plan to spend a few years living in South Korea—a sort of Korea dream, if you like—remembering not just the fierce, gray, freshly and painfully divided land they left behind, but just how far an upward step they felt they’d taken by making it to the United States. “Korea?” I imagine them thinking. “Doesn’t he know he already lives in America?”

Yet in that “old country,” I encountered several of this generation’s sons and daughters, the Korean Americans who, often out of nothing more imperative than curiosity, traveled to South Korea and decided to stay. When their parents came to visit, sometimes under protest, they discovered a country transformed, or at least a country not nearly as unpleasant as the one they left. One Korean American in his early thirties living in Seoul, a New Yorker who now runs a popular website offering both a guide to and a satire of Korean culture, told me of his native-born father, long enthusiastically Americanized, who, no sooner than he took a look around what the city had become in the twenty-first century, decided to buy a house there.

Others have done the same, whether out of astonishment at South Korea’s self-reinvention, a kind of nostalgia for their youth in an earlier era, or some combination of both. Then again, nostalgia works in its own way among Koreans, especially those who’ve left the country. When I first took an interest in South Korean folk and rock music of the late 1960s and early 1970s—movements that, despite straining to imitate their Western equivalents, nevertheless ended up slightly askew and therefore interestingly distinctive—I noticed that Koreans in the United States, who must have grown up with this music, rarely listen to it today and often claim not to know who I’m talking about when I bring up Shin Jung-hyeon or Kim Jung-mi, two of Korean folk rock’s leading lights.

They don’t need to dream to come to California. The California dream has come to them.

I slowly built a theory around all this: no middle-aged Korean could seriously argue that they don’t enjoy a better life today than in, say, 1970, a time when many South Koreans still couldn’t get enough to eat. This is in stark contrast to middle-aged, middle-class Californians, many of whom keep in rotation nothing but the records they listened to in high school. This is especially true in Los Angeles, where residents of a certain vintage lament the loss of the laid-back city they remember. As far as I can tell, though, they tend to remember not a city, but a Beach Boys song (get down to their concrete recollections and, given the comparative ease of parking and light freeway traffic of those days, you’ll find actual concrete).

A South Korean of the same generation might also have memories of concrete, albeit usually bad ones, like the forests of colorless, hastily designed and built twenty-four-story tower blocks differentiated only by stenciled numbers that arose so suddenly in Seoul. Any built environment in California would have seemed a heavenly respite from the South Korean capital that could barely handle its own explosive growth. For most of the past fifty years, it experienced repeated high-profile infrastructure failures. By the time I set foot in the city, Seoul’s expansion had slowed, as any booming city’s must—the year before, its population actually shrank—but it had retained its orientation toward change, toward development, and toward the future. The assumption still underlying not just Seoul but all the Korean cities I visited held that what came next would, in the final reckoning, bring better things than what came before.

The cities of California labor under no such consensus. When Southern California seriously developed in the early twentieth century, it did so in a way that offered an antidote to the old, crowded, dirty, industrial metropolises of the East Coast; however, beginning at least forty years ago, the cure started to look worse than the disease. For many years now, the vision of dystopian Los Angeles, the disconnected, smog-and-traffic-choked megalopolis, has been just as frequently seen as the dream town of sun and fun, beaches, and Hollywood stars. Los Angeles has lately drawn the attention of the rest of the United States for its achievements in rapid transit and the resurrection of its downtown, but in these and other aspects I find it has much to learn from a city like Seoul. Some of these lessons manifest in miniature in Koreatown, long one of the densest, nighttime-friendly, classically urban neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Spending time in Koreatown, that displaced chunk of a long-ago Seoul, and then visiting Seoul today, gives me a thrilling sense of what Los Angeles could become if it unreservedly embraced its future as a city where density, connectedness, dynamism, and a rich cultural stew define the urban experience.

Yet a certain California dream, very much rooted in ideas of the past, persists, even in South Korea. Ask around any major South Korean city, and you’ll find more than a few people with their sights set on a big house and a dog. Watch South Korean television commercials, and you’ll see testimony to an automotive fixation fast on its way to becoming as debilitating as the one we have in the United States, a force powerful enough to hold back Korea as much as any brand of social strife, political squabble, or financial disaster. Despite growing up in New York and living in Tokyo before Seoul, my Korean–American friend who writes guides to Korean culture admitted to me that he now wants nothing more than to move someplace quiet with a yard.

One American professor and longtime South Korea resident told me that many of his students profess a desire for that whole range of American trappings, but in a context that remains thoroughly Korean. Perhaps they imagine their California dream playing out somewhere in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a place they often see on TV, preferably near top-ranked schools. Like older Beach Boys–nostalgic Angelenos, these young Koreans dream of a soft-focus, homogeneous California lifestyle that never really existed in the first place. They don’t need to dream to come to California. The California dream has come to them.

I plan to live in Korea someday soon, but I’ve returned to Los Angeles for now, in no small part because, in my mind, if Los Angeles offers one thing of truly world-class value, it is the opportunity to shed this kind of cultural context, where dreams are able to travel around the world without the dream or the dreamers changing. Los Angeles offers every opportunity for dreams and cultural contexts to come into creative conflict. If Seoul showcases the kind of modern urban experience that Los Angeles would do well to adapt for itself, Los Angeles harbors its own culture of internationalism, of a variety unsurpassed anywhere in the world, as an example for the globally aware but still essentially culturally homogenous Seoul. The question of whether residents of the two cities could ever learn from and adopt each other’s urban strengths may remain unanswerable for decades to come, but my experiences of Korea in California and California in Korea lead me to think that, over those decades, we’ll have no choice but to try.

Perhaps I’m echoing what I heard from so many of the American expatriates I met in South Korea: if only they could find a balance between their adopted homeland and their actual homeland, it would make for the perfect country. I have little time for a pursuit as futile as one for the perfect country, but during my own coming expat years in South Korea, I’ll spend as much time as possible thinking about these things in my favorite LP bar, amid chain-smoking middle-aged men who remember all the music played through its vintage amplifiers, its relative youngsters who’ve grown weary of high-gloss K-pop, its foreigners brought there by everything from simple curiosity to the specialist obsession of the collector. You’ll find me dreaming of Koreatown in Seoul, while enjoying a plate of tofu and kimchi, sipping a Long Beach iced tea beneath an unapologetically fake lit-up palm tree and an old poster of a blue plane soaring past an orange sunset, advertising a trip to Santa Monica.


Illustrations by Hannah K. Lee.


The Pacific in California

by Suzanne Fischer

Objects from a collection

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

“Facing West from California’s shores, / Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound, / I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar, / Look off the shore of my Western Sea—the circle almost circled…”

Walt Whitman’s searching verses on the Pacific gaze were made concrete at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. The words, inscribed on a piece of monumental didactic sculpture, the Arch of the Setting Sun, in the spectacular Court of the Universe, in the fantastic sudden city, proclaimed that San Francisco, and America, had risen, and was rising.

Bilum (string bag) from late nineteenth century Papua New Guinea. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.

“Pacific” was the key term in the exposition’s name. The fair presented a vision of an increasingly unified Pacific region under the control of American economic and political power.

“We may see in [Whitman’s] lines,” wrote a guide to the fair’s inscriptions, “the poet speaking as the personification and representative of the Aryan race—the race which, having its origin in Asia, has, by virtue of the spirit of conquest, the desire to be forever ‘seeking what is yet unfound,’ finally reached the Western edge of the American continent, whence ‘facing West from California’s shores,’ Aryan civilization looks ‘toward the house of maternity, the land of migrations’ from which it originally sprung.”1 “The circle almost circled” was the new frontier of American conquest. Of course, San Francisco’s Pacific connections didn’t begin in 1915. California had been part of a coherent Pacific region for hundreds of years, as a place that facilitated exchanges between indigenous people of the coasts and Pacific Islanders, a launching point for trade with Asia, a link in the global chain of whaling and sealing, and, increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, a magnet for migrants from the Pacific Islands and Asia.

For fair organizers, “Pacific” mostly meant Asian. (The conceptual erasing of the Pacific Islands in the rush to get to Asia has been described by historian Bruce Cumings as “rimspeak.”) They saw China and Japan as critically important to America’s prosperous Pacific future—and to the success of the fair. Because the fair was mostly locally funded, organizers personally invested in its success. They campaigned against California’s anti-Japanese Alien Land Law, worried that it would stop Japan and China from participating in the fair. Although the law passed in 1913, both countries still participated in the fair in great numbers. Japan and China not only created official pavilions encouraging trade, but also encouraged merchants to exhibit their wares in the main palaces. San Francisco’s Chinese American communities enthusiastically joined in the festivities; the fair was such a heterogeneous, multivalent, expansive space that despite its imperial tone, they found room to celebrate their cultures and argue for inclusion as equals in the grand narrative of global destiny.

Despite the Asian emphasis, other peoples of the Pacific attended the fair. “Pacific” could also mean Latin America, especially with the fair’s focus on the Panama Canal. Argentina’s pavilion, for instance, highlighted the nation’s modernity and growing political power.2

America’s new oceanic colonies—Hawaii, the Mariana Islands, and the Philippines—were also on display. Strategically valuable to the United States both for their own natural resources and as waystations for ships crossing to Asia, they also served as emblems of the country’s new role in the world as an empire with overseas territories. These colonies had been recently acquired: in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and, in the case of Hawaii, through a cabal of American businessmen and politicians that overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani.

The cultures of these oceanic colonies were displayed in frankly exploitative contexts. For example, Hawaiian culture appeared in three different places at the fair: the official territorial pavilion, a cafe and music venue in the Palace of Horticulture, and a concession on “the Zone,” the fair’s midway. Like other world’s fairs, the Panama-Pacific included “ethnographic village” exhibits, which included a Hawaiian Village as well as a Samoan Village and an Australasian (Maori) Village. (Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the New Zealand Building: “We saw the ugly native islanders that used to be the cannibal tribes in Australia and New Zealand.”3) The territorial government objected to the Hawaiian Village Zone concession. Territorial officials worried that its emphasis on the primitiveness of Hawaiian culture, and especially its highly sexualized version of the hula, undermined the official territorial government’s goals of promoting tourism and establishing Hawaiian culture as assimilable, romantic, and nonthreatening.4 The third venue, the pineapple-company-sponsored Hawaiian Gardens, featured Hawaiian music and helped start a national craze for the ukulele. These venues, although focused on promoting specific messages about Native Hawaiians and about white American imperial power, nevertheless also gave dancers, musicians, and artisans space to preserve and celebrate traditional aspects of their cultures. They also gave many fairgoers their first personal exposure to Pacific cultures.

Maori artisans from the Rotorua area made this patu paraoa (whalebone club) for exhibition at the New Zealand pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase.


Facing the Pacific was a key orientation for both the fair’s organizers and visitors. The fair was a pivot—not a point at which everything changed, but a point at which longstanding, evolving messages and relationships crystallized for a world audience. This centennial vantage point is a golden opportunity to evaluate the consequences of “the circle almost circled” for Californians and our Pacific neighbors.

This Marquesan porpoise tooth peue ‘ei (headdress) was made around 1885. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.


Waseisei whaletooth necklace, probably from Fiji, late nineteenth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.


Model canoe from Samoa, around 1900. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Mrs. Howard L. Osgood.


This kava bowl was made in Samoa in the late nineteenth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.


Fishhook and cordage from Pulusuk Island, Micronesia, 1910s. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Cdr. Kearney.


A shell trumpet from Manus, Papua New Guinea, early twentieth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Lt. Cmdr. C. T. Budney.



1. Porter Gamett, The Inscriptions at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (San Francisco: The San Francisco News Company, 1915), 10–11.

2. Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 52.

3. Laura Ingalls Wilder, October 14, 1915, West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco 1915 (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 105.

4. Markwyn, 58–59.

Fair Labor

by Abigail Markwyn

Constructing an idealized Pacific city

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

The message was supposed to be simple and clear: San Francisco was the new queen of the Pacific world and a flagship city for commerce in an empire that extended west across the ocean. Planners and publicists for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition depicted the fairgrounds as an ideal city, an efficient place where everything hummed smartly along and businessmen could not help but invest in its future. This ideal city would embody the ideals of their Progressive Era. But to make it so, they had to carefully control the tensions and politics at the center of the Progressive Era, as these tensions were expressed in the production of the fair, at a time when challenges to the lines delineating class, race, and gender were steadily gaining traction in the United States.

The boosters set themselves up for an impossible challenge. San Francisco might have been queen of the Pacific, but the city was part of the United States. Conflicts emerged at the fair almost from day one. To construct their ideal city, officials placed stringent restrictions on fair employees. But workers often had different ideas about what was right. Culinary workers clashed with traditional union bosses, white female cashiers pushed the boundaries of propriety, black female washroom attendants fought for tips and personal respect, and immigrant performers in the fair’s midway Joy Zone faced deportation after demanding back wages and fair treatment.

Why look back at these tensions during the centenary celebration of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition? The fair was supposed to celebrate all that was new, hopeful, and inspiring: technology, light shows, global connections, trade, and the nation’s new Pacific-spanning empire. But underneath the surface celebrations were deeper tensions. Looking back at this distant mirror, we might see anew some of the tensions today in technology, gender, labor, and immigration. As we continue to try to reframe and redefine California’s place in the Pacific world, some of the very close-up, personal, even mundane seeming conflicts on an ideal fairground a century ago are a reminder that constructing California’s image abroad entails real work at home, with real costs.

Modeling crew at work on Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


In 1915, boosters dreamed of establishing San Francisco as the undisputed economic center of the Pacific world. To make it so, the leading businessmen who composed the exposition board realized that they needed an agreement with labor leaders to ensure smooth construction of the fair and to keep labor upheavals from scaring away exhibitors, visitors, or future investors. National manufacturers dedicated to antiunion, open-shop conditions feared doing business in a city with potential for labor unrest, high wages, and union shops, while union leaders were afraid low-paid workers would flood the grounds, undercutting their power in San Francisco. The city already had a burgeoning antiunion, open-shop movement, brought to greater prominence by the founding in 1914 of the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association of San Francisco. To alleviate concerns and to demonstrate their support for a venture that would bring business and jobs to the city, the city’s two leading labor organizations, the Building Trades Council and the San Francisco Labor Council, entered into an informal accord with the fair.

Labor made numerous concessions, most importantly agreeing not to disrupt the fair with labor stoppages.1 This was never a formal legal agreement, despite rumors to the contrary.2 Nonetheless, the accord was widely publicized and soothed the nerves of both manufacturers and labor unions concerned about unrest at the exposition, as did extensive publicity that depicted the city as unmarred by labor disputes. The pact was dubbed the “Pax Panama Pacifica.”

The peace prevailed during construction, but a month after opening day, trouble was already beginning to brew on the fairgrounds. Dan P. Regan of the local culinary workers union complained that restaurants in the Joy Zone were failing to pay their workers and resisting employing union labor. “The papers have been lauding to the skies that the Fair was built under union conditions, but it does not state the rotten conditions under which the members of the culinary crafts have to work.”3

Unfortunately for culinary workers, pre-fair negotiations focused on the workers involved in physically constructing the exposition. Culinary workers soon learned that the fair was not, in fact, friendly to unskilled labor. By mid-March, union organizers complained that very few culinary workers were being paid on the grounds, and one local had gone so far as to “levy attachments” on vendors to force payment of wages to members. Moreover, some employers actively refused to allow their workers to unionize. Regan pleaded with John O’Connell, secretary of the San Francisco Labor Council, for aid in publicizing the problem. “It is all very well,” he argued, “for the men…that helped to build the fair [to] crow about how thankful Labor should be…but how about the unskilled man that has to work under the rotten conditions imposed upon them by the concessionaries.”4

The problem persisted even after fair officials got involved.5 In mid-April the labor council considered a request from the Cook’s Union to declare three cafes on exposition grounds “unfair.”6 The next week, the joint board of culinary workers requested a boycott of several cafes on the grounds.7 By late April, union organizers were becoming frustrated. The waitress local lodged a complaint against the Waffle Kitchen because the manager had let “all the union help go and gives our Business Agent no encouragement in regard to straightening out the house and enforcing Union conditions.”8

In early May 1915, local labor leader, former mayor, and fair director Patrick McCarthy finally stepped in to address the issue. Reminding fair officials that many labor groups were meeting in San Francisco during the fair, he threatened that the labor council would ask union supporters to stay away from the offending concessions if labor concerns were not resolved.9 Not long after his intervention, the Labor Clarion reported that the Waiter’s Union secured a raise for workers at banquets at the Old Faithful Inn and that the restaurant was employing union members only, and the union was working to win the same conditions at the Inside Inn.10

While these disputes were apparently successfully resolved, waiters and waitresses enjoyed no ongoing labor peace at the exposition. The agreement between the fair and the labor and building trades councils, informal as it was, applied to the powerful building trades unions, not the unskilled workers on the grounds. Lower wage cooks, waiters, and waitresses wielded little power in San Francisco’s labor community. An influx of workers to the city, drawn by the promise of fair jobs, limited the bargaining position of unskilled workers. Socialist influence in culinary unions may have motivated labor leaders to ignore their interests, since the traditional trade unionists had their own internecine battles with the socialists.11

The Labor Clarion briefly reported on these disputes, but overall reporting on the fair continued to be unrelentingly positive, indicating the warm relationship between labor elites and the exposition. Even the editors of the Labor Clarion did not see fit to indict fair management for failing to keep the grounds friendly to organized labor, nor did they call for action in support of the culinary workers.

The story of labor at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition reflected the story of labor across America in 1915. Progressive Era politics sought to limit the power of unions, but often did so by fashioning agreements with union leaders, bringing them into the fold of the technocratic elites that Progressives believed could best manage an increasingly complicated society run by big institutions.

The work that went into producing the fair day-to-day also provides a window into the changing role of gender and race at work in the early twentieth century.12 The exposition espoused progress as the highest value, and the artwork and rhetoric of the fair often symbolically encoded many of the central ideas of social Darwinism and scientific racism, which were rampant in America at the time. The employment structure of the fair reflected these gender and racial hierarchies. White men regulated behavior, white women upheld moral order, and people of color performed menial jobs—janitors, washroom attendants, drivers—or performed as exotic attractions in the Joy Zone.

On a cool February morning in 1915, more than nine hundred young white women reported for work to sell postcards, silver spoons, and refreshments to the throngs of tourists and locals who soon poured onto the fairgrounds from the huge opening day parade. Clad in simple blue, asexual serge suits, they served as symbolic foils to the sexualized and racialized women who performed on the Joy Zone.13 Like the white, male exposition guards, their appearance reassured visitors that despite the multitude of foreign people and products, the fair was a safe space with a recognizable racial and moral order.

Telephone switchboard in service building at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


Still fair officials closely scrutinized the women’s comportment, worrying that any misbehavior among the cashiers might call the moral order of the fair into question. Less than a month after opening day, the department of concessions and admissions found it necessary to remind female cashiers of the expected standards of behavior. No “animated or extended conversations” with either employees or guests in front of their booths would be tolerated. Most importantly, cashiers were not to “be seen arm in arm with Male employees” or to frequent any of the numerous dance halls of the fair. They should spend their break times “eating their meals and attending to their personal comfort.” They were absolutely forbidden from associating with other fair employees or visiting other concessions, either while on duty or during their lunch and supper hours. This memo suggests that male and female employees in the Joy Zone had been consorting and perhaps even visiting dance halls together. The guards also received a copy of the memo, along with a note reminding them that these rules would “save these young ladies some embarrassment,” and that “cooperation upon the part of male employees would perhaps save these young ladies their jobs.”14

If these young women wandered the fair dressed in their work uniforms, dancing, drinking, and flirting with the male guards, they would reaffirm the concerns of those who feared a debauched and immoral fair in San Francisco. San Francisco’s reputation as the home of “the notorious Barbary Coast, where the lowest forms of vice and sin, show themselves, in all their hideousness and deformity” concerned fair officials and made them vigilant to emphasize San Francisco’s safety, both from physical danger and notions that might upset the social order.15 Such reassurances helped to maintain a boundary between the sexually suggestive shows of the Joy Zone, and the rest of the fair and city. If young white cashiers could work near these shows and continue to act as chaste young women, then the racial and gender lines of the fair remained in place. If they did not, then the exposition’s carefully constructed image of a respectable world’s fair might begin to crumble, and San Francisco could regain its reputation as an uncivilized frontier outpost, unsuited to be the global economic center leaders yearned to create.

But young women did not always accept these restrictions on their behavior. As more young men and women entered the urban labor force in the early twentieth century, new sexual mores emerged that challenged old ideas about female chastity and public sexuality.16 Away from their homes and families, young working-class women spent their hard-earned money on dance halls, movies, and fashionable attire, often to the horror of middle-class reformers.17 Reformers targeted brothels, prostitutes, and dance shows, and rushed to regulate the behavior of unchaperoned young people in cities across the United States.

Simmering conflicts over public sexuality and gender roles erupted at the fair as some young white female employees engaged in behaviors that shocked reformers and flouted the rules set out by officials. Exposition guards twice discovered one young Joy Zone employee occupying a back room at the ’49 Camp. Although she claimed to have permission to sleep there, after a guard discovered a man in the adjourning room the second time, the woman was escorted to the chief of concessions and immediately dismissed.18 She had failed to live up to expectations of female moral behavior at the fair. The incident revealed both the high degree of surveillance under which fair employees lived and worked, and the ways that some women attempted to circumvent the expectations of fair directors and reformers.

Asserting San Francisco’s preeminence in the Pacific world also meant demonstrating that racial lines remained firm in a newly imperial United States. In California, on the edge of the continent facing the Pacific, sexual relationships between white women and nonwhite men were a source of great anxiety. When a black employee made “insulting remarks” to a white female worker, he was sent to the exposition guards for disciplinary action.19 Another young male Hawaiian Village employee accused of paying excessive attention and making “insulting remarks” to white women also lost his job.20 Fair officials refused to tolerate racial transgressions by nonwhite men, which, like sexual transgressions by white women, threatened the public image—and potential profits—of the fair.

African Americans had hoped to use the fair to demonstrate their status as US citizens and to establish pride in their race.21 But the entry fees were high, jobs were few, and no collection of exhibits at the exposition honored their heritage or place in California. The Progressive Era—and the year 1915 in particular—was one of heightened anxiety about race relations across the country, with the release of the film Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. African Americans were relegated to the position of primitive “other” at the fair either in sideshows or as menial laborers. They demanded the meager benefits their demeaning positions offered, using everyday actions to resist white supremacy.22

In late July, an exposition guard brought Helen Castro, a black matron in the women’s lavatory in the Palace of Horticulture, and Lovinia Johnson, a white employee of the building’s Pine Apple Concession, into the guard headquarters.23 The two women had engaged in a physical dispute over payment of a restroom fee.24 Johnson claimed that she had paid the fee, but Castro demanded another payment. Johnson refused and Castro “caught her arm” and Johnson “then struck the maid in the face.” Castro maintained that Johnson had refused to pay and that she only grabbed her after Johnson had hit her in the face. In response, Castro’s employer, the Western Sanitary Company, vowed to fire her.25

This odd conflict over personal space in a public washroom was not an aberration, but one of a number of similar incidents that point to racial tensions on the grounds.26 Just a week before, Castro had been reported for overcharging and insulting an army captain’s wife, a charge for which she was supposed to have been fired.27 During the nine months of the fair, white patrons accused black lavatory attendants of hitting them, grabbing them, accusing them of not paying, or insulting them, in toilets in the Fine Arts Palace, Education Palace, Horticulture Palace, Palace of Mines, the Liberal Arts Building, and in locations near Van Ness Avenue, the Tower of Jewels, and in the Joy Zone.28 Both male and female visitors reported similar conflicts, demonstrating the strange prevalence of these incidents. No other conflict between employees and visitors was reported to the guards with such regularity. The relatively large number of these encounters suggests that they should not be dismissed as simple misunderstandings, but were rather manifestations of larger racial tensions.

Japanese tea pickers inside the Palace of Food Products, Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


Although service employees like the cashiers and washroom attendants engaged with visitors daily, Joy Zone performers were some of the most visible laborers at the fair and the most prone to being policed for transgressing their prescribed roles. Although fair visitors might have viewed them solely as performers, they were workers, subject to the same kinds of regulations as the exposition guards, cashiers, and washroom attendants. Hundreds of people worked in the Joy Zone, many appearing to visitors as living exhibits rather than workers—the Indians of the Grand Canyon concession, the Somalis of Somaliland, and the Samoans of the Samoan Village among others. Although their work might have been disguised as traditional dances or traditional ways of living, these workers faced, in many cases, more intense restrictions on their behavior than did those employees whose work was more recognizable to contemporaries as actual labor.

Remarkably, one group of performers went on strike, although the race and immigrant status of the participants obscured the nature of their protest for contemporaries. During the spring of 1915, after their employer failed to pay their wages, thirty-one Somali men and women of the Somaliland concession stopped working and refused to vacate their houses. The concession was already floundering just a month after opening, so the concessionaire canceled his contract with the villagers. The exposition took over the show, but the Somali workers refused to perform because they had not been paid. After the exposition disbanded the show, the impoverished Somalis insisted on remaining on the grounds. In mid-May, the Examiner reported that fair officials had ordered them to vacate the premises. But Ahaoun, their representative, told the paper: “I sent word to Mr. Bryan that if we were removed they would have to call upon the Exposition guard to do it. They haven’t put us out yet, but of course they will tear our houses down.”29 As Ahaoun predicted, immigration officials assisted the exposition in forcing the Somalis out. Exposition guards “loaded the dark strangers on a Fadgl train, and escorted them to the Yacht Harbor, where a Government tug awaited them for Angel Island, whence they were…deported.”30

The Somali labor conflict demonstrates the difficulties that faced the employees of many Joy Zone concessions. As immigrant workers, often colonial subjects brought to the United States solely as performers, these men and women depended on their employer for everything from wages to housing. If their act was unpopular, they had no choice but to follow the concessionaire when he closed up shop. As poor African immigrant performers, the Somalis had little to no bargaining power. Despite their attempt to stage a strike—to both refuse to dance and to vacate their dwellings on the grounds—they proved no match for the power of the exposition and the US government. The exposition controlled the land they occupied and had the authority to tear their houses down once their presence became an obstacle to the spectacle of the exposition.

When the Somali workers ceased to participate in the spectacle and demanded fair treatment from the exposition, they challenged the fair’s racial hierarchy and colonial message. As colonial subjects, the Somalis’ appearance at the fair justified the imperial system by juxtaposing their “primitive” ways of life with those of white Americans and Europeans displayed in the fair’s exhibit palaces. As colonial subjects, however, by definition, they could not stage a strike, so their actions threatened the fair both financially and ideologically. Although the Somalis’ actions probably went unnoticed by many fair visitors, the episode highlighted the race and class system that governed employment on the Joy Zone. White waiters and waitresses and cashiers might have their own frustrations with their working conditions, but their racial status, nationality, and terms of employment gave them a degree of power not granted to the black Somalis.31

Fair planners staged an international exposition to declare California’s ascendance as an economic stronghold in the Pacific. But the staging itself involved work that was inexorably bound with local, domestic, class, race, and gender conflicts in the Progressive Era.

While exposition officials scrutinized the behavior of all workers—culinary workers, guards, cashiers, washroom workers, and Joy Zone performers alike—to ensure that their actions reinforced the fair’s social hierarchy, the fair did not always work in the way that officials expected. Unskilled workers fought to organize, while their employers fought for an open shop. Young men and women flirted and danced and circumvented the rules laid out by fair officials, therefore threatening the fair’s claim to be a morally clean space. African American men and women fought for the meager profits offered by their employment at the fair and their behavior engendered resentment by angry white visitors. Joy Zone performers, like the Somalis, attempted to live their lives in the public venue and found it impossible to escape racial attitudes and expectations of their behavior and place in society. Progressive Era anxieties about class conflict, the regulation of female sexuality and gender roles, and the maintenance of white supremacy permeated the fair’s veneer of labor peace and threatened to reveal the real contradictions upon which the Pax Panama Pacifica was built.

Samoan dance and the golden Buddha of Japan at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


This material appears courtesy of the University of Nebraska Press. It is drawn from Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

1. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, (New York, 1921), vol. 1, 325–330.

2. Charles C. Moore to Labor Council and Building Trades Council, 7 September 1912, Labor Conditions – corres. re.:, Carton 36, Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (hereafter PPIE-BL).

3. Dan P. Regan to John O’Connell, 19 March 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

4. Dan P. Regan to John O’Connell, 19 March 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

5. H.D.H. Connick to John O’Connell, 31 March 1915, SF-PPIE, Carton 16, San Francisco Labor Council Papers, Bancroft Library.

6. “Synopsis of Minutes of Regular Meeting Held April 9, 1915, SFLC,” Labor Clarion, 16 April 1915.

7. “Synopsis of Minutes of Regular Meeting,” Labor Clarion, 23 April 1915.

8. Laura Molleda to John O’Connell, 29 April 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

9. P.H. McCarthy to H.D.H. Connick, 3 May 1915, Labor Associations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

10. “Minutes of SFLC,” Labor Clarion, 21 May 1915.

11. Robert Edward Lee Knight, Industrial Relations in the Bay Area, 1900–1918 (San Francisco: University of California Press, 1960), 270–271.

12. On the imperial nature of the fair, see Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

13. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2 (New York: Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company. 1921), 279.

14. 14 March 1915, copy of bulletin to cashiers, Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards March-April 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

15. Frederick P. Church to Moore, 18 February 1913, Liquor and Red Light Abatement, Carton 23, PPIE-BL.

16. On changing public sexuality, see John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

17. Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

18. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards for August 4, 1915,” and “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards for August 20, 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards August 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

19. “Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards, March 31, 1915,” Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards, March–April 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

20. Frank Burt to Cumming, 3 September 1915, Corres. re: complaints, Carton 8, PPIE-BL.

21. Lynn Hudson,”‘This Is Our Fair and Our State’: African Americans and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” California History 87(3), 2010, 26–45; Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

22. See Robin D.G. Kelley, “We Are Not What We Seem: Rethinking Black Working Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” The Journal of American History, 80 (1993): 75–112, for a discussion of the ways in which African Americans in the Jim Crow South asserted their identities through these kinds of interactions.

23. The report describes Castro as “colored,” a term that could mean African American. Nonetheless, given that her surname was a Spanish one, it is also possible that she was of Hispanic descent. Nonetheless, it remains clear that she was perceived as nonwhite, like the other attendants whose actions are described below. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 25 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

24. A system of free and pay restrooms existed on the grounds, with quite a few more pay than free toilets, causing confusion for visitors as to whether or not they should pay for use of the facilities.

25. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 25 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

26. It is worth noting that washroom attendant was one of the few positions available to blacks on the grounds, and these reports suggest that a large number of these attendants were African American. The same was true at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Christopher Robert Reed, “All the World is Here!” The Black Presence at White City (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 76.

27. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 18 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards July 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

28. See Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

29. “Somali Natives at Fair ‘Broke,'” Examiner, 14 May 1915.

30. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, vol. 2 (New York, 1921), 375.

31. Todd, Story of the Exposition, vol. 2: 375.


Clement Street

by David Lee

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

A transect of change.

Chinese are leaving the Chinese city of San Francisco at the very moment that San Francisco has become, spectacularly, America’s most important Chinese city, with all the political prestige and potential pitfalls that ascendance implies.

Read ethnically or racially: San Francisco resembles Gold Mountain, the city of Chinese immigrant legend and myth. Read economically: San Francisco is becoming a city of new wealth, no longer a city for the middle class and those poorer, regardless of race—and as the recent FBI investigation of Senator Leland Yee and alleged Chinatown mobster “Shrimp Boy” Chow makes clear, illicit money is no stranger to politics in the new Chinese city.

In stories that the city’s natives tell about what is happening, there is always a new landlord or a consortium of landowners scheming to evict long-term tenants from apartments or shops, to make room for tenants who can pay rents that are three or four hundred percent greater. The new landlords are not interested in making San Francisco a more Chinese city. Their interest is in making their buildings into homes for tenants who can pay big money.

The irony is that as Chinese buyers acquire more property in San Francisco, it is often the Chinese American tenants who are taking a hit. In this new Chinese city of San Francisco, also a hipster city, one sees more white young people and fewer small Chinese shops and shopkeepers that cater to working-class Chinese.

Consider Clement Street in the city’s middle-class Richmond District. Clement Street is losing its Chinese character, even as the streets are full of the city’s Chinese, young and old. A Chinese Vietnamese immigrant, known along Clement Street as “Big Sister,” is planning to close her Quan Bac Restaurant on nearby Geary Street. The good reviews on Yelp are the least of it. The crowds, particularly at lunchtime, happily slurping pho, cannot dissuade her from leaving San Francisco for Daly City. “Too expensive, losing too much money,” she tells a visitor.

Photograph of Clement Street by Tito Perez.


From its Gold Rush beginnings, brash San Francisco—wide open to every sort of outsider—has maintained a special admiration for and a deep anxiety toward the Chinese. In the 1850s, San Francisco mayor John Geary could praise Chinese work habits—but it was those same work habits that caused the Irish immigrant nativist Denis Kearney to parade through the Gold Rush city, gathering resentments, when the economy grew bad. His slogan to the rabble band: “The Chinese must go.” When the economy turned robust, Kearney faded away. But just a few years later, the city named Phelan Avenue, which now borders City College, after a notorious anti-Chinese mayor.

Quan Bac’s Big Sister says today that her garbage bill has just doubled. “Now they want to increase the minimum wage to fifteen dollars! Forget it!” She is applying for a job with the city; she hopes that maybe she will find work as a janitor at the airport. “My sister works at the airport, and she just bought a house in South San Francisco.”

In the frontier city, the Chinese were restricted to Chinatown. They were preyed upon by other immigrant groups, such as the Australian toughs called “Sydney Ducks.” A hundred years later, it became a joke in San Francisco that “Chinatown” was spreading to neighborhoods to the west and the south of downtown. Clement Street in the Richmond district, twenty years ago, became a Chinese street. Now it is becoming less and less Chinese as San Francisco becomes more and more reshaped by mainland Chinese money.

Americans have never quite been able to get a fix on the Chinese. Local nativists knew what they thought of Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese (during WWII), and Russians. But what about the Chinese example? Were they the model minority (for working so hard) or were they unfair to native-born Americans (by working so hard)—familial and entrepreneurial at the same time?

In Pacific Books and Arts, a small shop nestled next to the larger, well-known Green Apple Bookstore on Clement, Mr. Li, a small man, a scholar of an almost monk-like disposition, says that soon his store will be closing. This is in itself not news—the Internet has succeeded in making fewer serious readers, and those readers who survive want to buy their books online.

Mr. Li’s store pride was its ability to import books from Taiwan. Young people and old people alike came to the store. His store will soon be put out to lease, the sixth storefront in the neighborhood to go dark, even as rents are going up all over the city.

In genteel Pacific Heights drawing rooms, not so long ago, there was talk of a coming takeover of “their” city by Asians generally and the Chinese particularly. “Sampans in the harbor,” genteel people said distastefully (the word “sampan” comes from the original Hokkien term for boats, sam pan, meaning three planks). Nowadays, with the dawning of the Chinese century, nothing is so common in San Francisco as the literal marriage of the non-Chinese city with Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants. Doctors marry scientists; a tech millionaire marries another tech millionaire. Facebook billionaire and San Francisco resident Mark Zuckerberg marries longtime sweetheart, Chinese American doctor Priscilla Chan.

At Chapeau, a lively French bistro owned by a Frenchman and his Chinese American wife, there are crowds every night. Up the block at Citikids, a Chinese family-owned store that has sold strollers and every sort of baby-related accessory, is closing. Mothers-in-law, checkbooks in hand, could quiz the salesclerks in Mandarin or Cantonese. But a new generation shops in box stores or online. Soon Ace Hardware will move into the space because Ace Hardware lost its lease up the block.

Today, the city’s mayor is Chinese American, as is the head of the Board of Supervisors. Four others on the board are Chinese Americans. The president of the school board is Chinese American. Asian Americans occupy leadership positions in virtually every level of the city’s political family and, with 18 percent of its registered voters, represent the single most important voting bloc in this Democratic city.

In the mid-1980s, as corporate titans such as Bank of America and Standard Oil moved their headquarters out of San Francisco’s downtown, city stewards bemoaned the shrinking future. “Carmel by the Bay” was the prediction—a cute parody of a city where tourists would come to buy trinkets at Chinese shops or eat chop suey at Grant Avenue restaurants.

Today, the Chinese American/Asian American political ascendance coincides with the city’s ascendance as one of the most desirable places to live on the globe—to which the influx of technology companies and their legions of tech workers attest. It is also now one of the costliest. Rent increases alone outstrip those of any other city in the country—already triple the national average, as of December 2013. And now that the city is the far-northern outpost of Silicon Valley, its income gap is among the widest in the country.

What city leaders in the 1980s could not have predicted is that the very Chinese American merchants and shopkeepers whose neon signs they worried were transforming San Francisco into one big Chinatown are themselves slowly being squeezed out of the new Asian city. City Hall was quick to respond when the face of skyrocketing rent evictions under the Ellis Act became that of 73-year-old Mrs. Gum Gee Lee and her husband, who had lived in the same apartment with their disabled son for over thirty years. City Hall is now pressuring for a new state law that will prevent speculators from buying up apartment buildings, kicking out tenants, and flipping the units for sale. But commercial rents are totally vulnerable to free market forces—there is no rent control for such properties. As the owners and operators of 40 percent of the city’s small businesses, Asian Americans are foremost among those taking the hit.

Last year a farmer’s market sponsored by the Agricultural Institute of Marin from across the Golden Gate landed on one end of Clement Street. With city approval, the market closed off part of the busy street to cars on Sundays so that a few dozen vendors could introduce sustainable honey, vegan sausages, artisan nondairy cheeses, and organic vegetables to the mix of Chinese meat and produce stores. At one organic produce stand, three organic garlic cloves sold for $5, basil leaves sold for $8, and a bunch of organic bananas went for $11.

Down the street at a Chinese produce store that spills out to the sidewalk, these same items cost a few dollars less. But price differentials did not deter the hip shoppers flocking to the street market to buy. “I’m willing to pay more for organic produce that supports responsible farming practices,” explained one customer, incredulous that anyone would ask. Nor, she added, did she feel comfortable buying from an “Asian” store where she didn’t know where the food came from.

Further down Clement, new clothing stores and coffee shops with free Wi-Fi vie for customers with the old Chinese bakeries and noodle shops. Last year, a harbinger of the city’s laid-back youth culture—a parklet—replaced scarce street parking with outdoor cafe-style seating in front of a new bakery specializing in designer cupcakes.

No new demographic data has emerged to update 2010 Census figures on how the city’s population is changing. Public school figures have traditionally failed to capture white population statistics because 25 percent of white parents send their children to private schools. But one recent trend that the school system has spotlighted is a progressive decline in the number of births to Asians and a steady increase in the number of white births. “The percentage of births that were to white mothers living in San Francisco increased substantially between 1980 and 2008—from 29 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2008,” according to a recent report. “The number of white births has increased more than births from other ethnicities.”

Middle- and lower-income Chinese Americans may be responding to the city’s affordability crisis by having fewer babies or by moving to the suburbs. But in an equally potent trend for the city’s future, overseas Chinese investment activity in San Francisco’s real estate is at a fever pitch, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report on the Chinese international property website Juwai.com.

“In San Francisco, power is like hot sand,” observed a long-time politician in the city. “You can try as hard as you can to hold onto it, but sooner or later it will slip through your fingers.” And so it has been for many groups that have come to San Francisco as immigrants. That was the story for the Irish, Italians, and African Americans.

What no one doubts in San Francisco—in either the corridors of power or in the small shops along Clement Street—is that the city is now the great American Asian city. What we are just learning is how economics trumps race or ethnicity. The capital city of Asian America is becoming too expensive for many Asians.


What We Are Reading

Birds of Paradise Lost, by Andrew Lam (Red Hen Press)

These short stories by Vietnamese-American essayist Andrew Lam open doors on unexpectedly intimate scenes, moving stories, told in surprising voices. In his nonfiction, Lam has plumbed the depths of his own experience as a refugee who came to the United States as a young boy and grew up gay in San Jose’s conservative Vietnamese émigré community. He has used his own hard-won insights to write widely and wisely about immigration, culture, politics, identity and so much more. His own voice is a true gift to California and the world. Here he brings to life other Vietnamese-American voices, their Californias, their worlds. Lam’s fiction weaves the pitch-perfect perceptiveness of his nonfiction, with slightly cracked characters all the more believable for their idiosyncrasies, and a touch of magical realism that may or may not be the result of living fully, simultaneously between worlds, with the past ever present.

Jon Christensen


Hayakawa Among the Conservatives

by Gerald Haslam

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Stranger in a strange land

When the famed author, editor, and lecturer Dr. S.I. “Don” Hayakawa, joined the faculty at San Francisco State College in 1955, his presence seemed to elevate the college’s reputation. It also led to a series of events that would make Hayakawa arguably not only America’s best-known citizen of Japanese ancestry but also, according to journalist Ed Salzman, “The only folk hero to have emerged from American higher education.” My own acquaintance with Hayakawa stretched over decades, in a relationship that never quite revealed who or even what he was, other than controversial.

The professor, a Canadian native who had only recently become a citizen of the United States, much impressed his colleague Manfred Wolf, who wrote: “It was fitting that after years in the Midwest he should have come to perform on the brighter, brasher stage of California.”

Hayakawa’s unusual academic specialty, general semantics, stimulated considerable buzz in the Bay Area, and his evening course in the subject enrolled an overflow 300 students. General semantics had been formulated by Count Alfred Korzybski as “an integrated science of man” through the understanding of symbols and their use in human affairs.

By 1973, Hayakawa was an ex-president of San Francisco State University contemplating a political run. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

There was far more to Hayakawa than “GS.” Over the years he had been a poet, a columnist, an editor, a jazz maven, and even a fencing coach. Most of all, he and his talented wife, Margedant Peters, had been noted liberals, quick to embrace causes and eloquent in defending them, whether endorsing co-ops and racial equality or attacking anti-Semitism and price gouging, they seemed to be exemplars of progressive politics.

But Don Hayakawa, who had not been confined, was also a sometimes apologist for the World War II internment and relocation of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans. “Whatever the heartbreaks and losses created by the wartime relocation, there were unforeseen benefits… . almost all Nisei and many Issei were thrown out of their ghettoized Japan-town existence into the mainstream of American life… . “1 That position, and the frequency with which he repeated it, troubled many.

The “brighter, brasher” stage of California turned out not to have as much room for general semantics as originally seemed possible. As a result, Hayakawa’s dream of a “GS” major at San Francisco State was frustrated due to the opposition of colleagues. By 1966, when an editor of San Francisco State’s student newspaper wrote a column making fun of efforts of SFSC’s professors to organize a union, Hayakawa, who was then teaching only part-time, wrote him a note saying, in part, “Basically, I agree with you … . there are a lot of lazy, oververbalized bores in any college faculty, including our own—people unfit for any other work but drinking coffee and chewing the fat with their juniors.” He, of course, refused to join the union, and some colleagues wondered if he was festering over earlier rebuffs.

Sensator SIH and President Reagan at the White House in 1981. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

As student dissent began to crest in 1968, Hayakawa helped form a campus group called Faculty Renaissance that urged resistance to student demands. He contacted Chancellor Glenn Dumke then and, as a result of events that have never been fully explained,2 Hayakawa was offered an appointment as acting president of San Francisco State. Conservative Governor Ronald Reagan reportedly said, “If he’ll take the job we’ll forgive him for Pearl Harbor.” It was a statement that would not have surprised Hayakawa, who felt Reagan had great political instincts but was often poorly informed. He took the job, and on December 2 of that year, Hayakawa (and his signature plaid Tam’-o’-Shanter) became symbols of resistance to student rebellion when he ripped out speaker wires on a sound truck and stopped an illegal demonstration—or denied First Amendment rights—or both. Many faculty opposed his actions, but the public, sick of academics capitulating to rude students, embraced him as the only college administrator with guts.3 Meanwhile, many in the general public also asked for the first time, who is this guy?

Samuel Ichiyé Hayakawa was born to immigrant Japanese parents in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, on July 18, 1906. When he and his younger brother were in their teens, their parents returned to Japan, leaving the boys in Canada.4 Samuel eventually graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1927, earned an M.A. from McGill University in 1928, and completed a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1935.

In that time of anti-Japanese sentiment,5 he could not find a tenure-track college teaching job, frequently losing out to white candidates who had no doctorates. He didn’t bother to complain, but dug in and by 1938 had published enough to be considered a solid literary scholar and a promising poet. The young Canadian, then an instructor at the University of Wisconsin Extension, read Stuart Chase’s book The Tyranny of Words and was enthralled. He then read Chase’s inspiration, Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, and decided to study general semantics with its developer, setting in motion events that would lead him to fame, to fortune, and finally to frustration.

Left to right: Otoko Hayakawa, Marge and Alan Hayakawa, Great-Grandmother Hayakawa, SIH; Marge, Alan and Don visit Don’s family in Kusakabe, in Yamanashi City, Japan, 1953. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

In 1941, only days before the Pearl Harbor attack, his own book on general semantics, Language in Action, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and became a best seller. He embraced the sudden notoriety and would no longer be considered a literary scholar or a poet; he was a “famed semanticist.” What he couldn’t know is that GS would never penetrate the academic mainstream and neither would he, despite enjoying a degree of celebrity.

During World War II, while Japanese Americans on the West Coast were being interned and relocated, he was on the faculty at Illinois Tech in Chicago, where he and his wife remained prominent on the cultural scene. In the 1940s he became a popular lecturer nationally, the editor of a quarterly journal, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, and a columnist for the Chicago Defender; his wife was a major figure on the co-op scene and an editor at Poetry magazine, as well as the mother of three young children.

By the 1950s, though, all was not well. S.I. Hayakawa had resigned his tenured position at Illinois Tech and was unhappy teaching only part-time for the University of Chicago evening division. Then his wife discovered that he was involved romantically with one of her associates at Poetry. Hayakawa had a standing offer of a professorship at San Francisco State College, where he had taught summer classes. Despite reservations about California’s anti-Asian history, and with his marriage on the line, he relocated to SFSC in 1955.

Six years later, my new bride and I drove to San Francisco State College from the Central Valley where I’d been working as a roughneck on a drilling rig. We hoped to begin a life that would offer more choices than the oilfields did. I met the famous professor in 1963 as a first-semester graduate student enrolled in his seminar on general semantics, a course based on a reading of the daunting Science and Sanity, which we discussed in detail. The professor listened intently to students, and then his comments revealed what seemed to me to be an extraordinarily broad base of knowledge.

In 1966, the strike erupted at SFSC. Hayakawa had favored some of the reforms demanded by students, such as the development of an Ethnic Studies program, but he opposed the tactics of strikers and their demand for total autonomy. Many of his colleagues, in turn, opposed Hayakawa’s efforts, and each felt betrayed by the other. When the smoke finally cleared after 167 days, the immediate winner in the strike settlement was Hayakawa, whose great popularity among the general public—not merely conservatives—opened doors. But the tide of history was on the side of the young; eventually they would be the establishment, and many of their best ideas would be implemented while they outgrew others.

Senator S. I. Hayakawa with the Cambodian refuge kids at the holding center for Kampucheans in Thailand, in 1980. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

Hayakawa was for a time rudderless, due to rejection by his old liberal and progressive allies, but he had to decide how to use his popularity. Earlier in his life he had considered politics, and by 1973 his ambitions matured. When his aide Gene Prat asked Hayakawa what he hoped to accomplish in office, he replied, “To be a statesman.” To accomplish that, he switched parties, becoming a Republican in 1975, and the next year ran for the United States Senate against Democratic incumbent John Tunney, even though he still held some of the liberal positions that had once led him to be called a “pinko.”6

In what seemed to be his greatest triumph, he won the Senate seat. During the years that followed I sent him letters complaining about this vote or that, and at first he replied, but finally I no longer heard from him—although I kept sending missives, because it seemed to me that he had become, politically at least, a mirror image of the man I had admired.

His largely conservative voting record in the Senate was deceptive. He at times seemed to be voting against liberals rather than for anything. Never really active in California’s amorphous New Right, he soon learned that lone wolves accomplish little in Congress, so he joined the luncheon caucus of the Senate’s New Right, with colleagues such as Jake Garn, Orrin Hatch, Paul Laxalt, and Jesse Helms. Still, he was not easy to categorize, since his positive votes on public funding for abortions and on returning the Panama Canal to Panama, as well as his insistence on the privacy of behavior between consenting adults, perplexed liberals and conservatives alike. A few journalists began to refer to him as a libertarian.

During his stint in Washington, an unacknowledged sleeping disorder undid his image. Friends had long noticed that he seemed to doze at unlikely times; I once saw him fall asleep mid-conversation. Johnny Carson soon picked up the sleeping-Senator theme. Carson, whose Tonight Show dominated late-night television, began joking about Don—”What would S.I. Hayakawa’s personalized auto license plate be?” “ZZZZZZ.” But Carson also offered the new Senator the opportunity to appear on the show in 1977. In addition to his skill as a speaker, Don was an engaging personality and on the national A-list of lecturers then. Members of his staff advised against an appearance on Carson’s show, a decision that would haunt them. One aide later explained to Hayakawa, “I think it was felt [by staff] that as a US Senator, it would not be appropriate for you to be going on ‘The Tonight Show’ as a guest.” As a result of that decision, many in the public came to know only the caricature.

When his Senate term ended, Don acknowledged that it was not considered successful. Asked what he’d be remembered for, he told Los Angeles Times reporter Cathleen Decker, “Sleeping, I guess.” An unlikely chain of events had brought Don Hayakawa the possibility of great success, and he had grasped it only to become its victim. This irony, of course, gave Hayakawa’s considerable list of enemies reason to rejoice and to mock him.

His post-Senate activity as spokesperson for US English and its campaign to declare English the national language resonated with a segment of the public. He perhaps exaggerated the need for a national language because he had seen his own immigrant mother trapped by a lack of English skill. Hayakawa’s more important work as special advisor for Secretary of State George Schultz, especially on MIAs in Southeast Asia, went largely unnoticed, subsumed under chuckles about “sleeping Sam.”

Nevertheless, Hayakawa never ceased promoting diversity and assimilation. As he once explained, “Who said being American—or Canadian—meant being white? Look at our vocabularies, look at our dining habits, our styles of dress, and increasingly our theological and philosophical concepts … look at our children and our grandchildren … those are by no means exclusively Anglo-Saxon.” He remained committed to a multiethnic American identity.

By the late-1980s, the ex-senator was a spokesman for U.S. English, an advocacy group. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

In the late 1980s, I received a phone call from him and, sounding as though we’d played poker just the night before, he said, “Gerry, would you and Jan like to join Marge and me for lunch next Wednesday? I have something I’d like to discuss with you.” I was surprised, but also intrigued, so we accepted, and enjoyed a “reunion” meal. He asked if I’d like to collaborate with him on a new edition of Language in Thought and Action, but I had to defer because I was at work on a book on the Central Valley. Nevertheless, that lunch reestablished our relationship.

In 1991, I was reading from a new collection of stories at The Depot Bookstore and Café in Mill Valley when I noticed the Hayakawas slip into the back of the room, Don pulling a portable oxygen tank. Following the festivities and with two of my old SFSC professors, Thurston Womack and John Dennis, who had been strikers at San Francisco State, I greeted Don and Marge. That led to an invitation to their nearby home for a drink, which we three accepted.

Once there, though, Womack was startled when Don, who was clearly failing, looked up and asked, “Who are you, again?” Thurston, once Hayakawa’s commute partner, identified himself, and then Don said, “Thurston, do you know I wasted six years of my life in the United States Senate?” That was the last time we three ever saw him.

S.I. “Don” Hayakawa was undone by a combination of his own limitations and by events beyond his control. He had a kind of hubris; his son Alan said S.I.H. could never understand why everyone didn’t agree with him if he was given a chance to explain his position. He also put all his eggs in the general semantics basket, and they ended up broken due to lack of acceptance in the academic mainstream. The success of his first book made him famous but limited his academic options, and his term in the Senate revealed flaws that bordered on caricature. Nevertheless, the sum of his accomplishments marks him as memorable; exactly how he’ll be remembered in the long run may depend on which version of his life one cares to believe.


1. Written in “‘Farewell to Manzanar: An unorthodox view of the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans,” TV Guide, 6 March 1976, 13.

2. Including the resignation of President Bob Smith.

3. Apparent capitulations at schools such as Columbia, UC Berkeley, SUNY, etc., were creating a negative image of administrators and faculty alike. Herb Wilner and Leo Litwak, both pro-strike professors at SFSC, acknowledged that “it was a revelation to discover that we were among the bad guys, damned by eighty percent of the public … .”

4. SIH’s father had offices in Japan and Canada. He kept a mistress in Japan, and his wife in Canada found out, so she took her two young daughters to Japan to confront him, leaving the boys (who were barely able to speak Japanese). The senior Hayakawas remained in Japan thereafter.

5. The 1930s were a period of growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States and Canada as Nippon became ever more aggressive: 1931—occupied Manchuria; 1933—withdrew from League of Nations; 1937—invaded China (Rape of Nanking followed); 1940—invaded French Indo-China.

6. Even two FOIA requests (one supported by the ACLU, the other by Representative Lynn Woolsey) could not force the US Department of Justice to open its files on Hayakawa. His kin, friends, and old neighbors reported that he had been called names, especially after he wrote a devastating critique of arch-conservative Superintendent of Schools Max Rafferty. He was also identified with Friends of KPFA, the co-op movement, and racial integration. This author personally heard him called “comsymp,” “parlor pink,” “pinko,” and other epithets in the late 1950s and 1960s.


Checking In

by Michael Ziser

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel
Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, 2010)

Many members of this year’s multiethnic college-freshman class were born in 1993, the year before Newt Gingrich and John Boehner’s Contract with America, the blueprint for today’s interlinked and seemingly unstoppable abandonment of the public welfare investments of the New Deal, the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, and the sexual revolutions of the 1970s. Even the most precocious and politically aware of these students will likely date their political awakening to sometime during the second term of George W. Bush. They will not be able to vote in their first national election until 2012. When they arrive on campus, however, many will encounter syllabi in American culture and politics courses shaped by the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, that bitter era of reckoning with the new attitudes toward race, class, gender, and sexuality that bloomed with the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomers. What their older professors regard as existential questions about the validity and utility of the multicultural accommodation forged in those years, today’s freshmen are likely to view as a mystifying archive of arguments with few clear connections to their own historical context of national economic decline, global warfare, and the surveillance state. For them, the New Left might as well be the Wobblies.

Although few would suggest that the new generation should simply get with the Aquarian program, the loss of political and personal memory from one generation to another presents a serious challenge for the fragile American tradition of leftist political dissent, and the gap between the Boomers and Generation Z is one that must be carefully bridged in the few years left before the Boomers retire from public life. This is not a question of persuading freshmen to declare allegiance to the politics of Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver), Sexual Politics (Kate Millet), or The Revolt of the Cockroach People (Oscar Zeta Acosta); rather, it is the more difficult task of freeing them from the flattened and narrowed representations of their parents’ politics as retailed in pop culture while encouraging them to imagine themselves as similarly empowered political agents.

So, despite the evident surplus of superficial and self-congratulatory Boomer memorials to their youthful radicalism, there is still a crucial place for writing that captures both the feel and the historicity of a politically open moment. Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, in a genre all its own somewhere between historical fiction and creative nonfiction, is an inventive attempt to re-present such an era in a way that is simultaneously heuristic and available to the imaginations of the young.

The historical core of the book comes out of Yamashita’s decade-long research into the rise of multicultural politics, particularly the Asian-American Movement, in the San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s and early 1970s, gathered out of various libraries, archives, geographies, and living memories. From that material, Yamashita has produced a sort of roman à clef of the major and minor figures responsible for the consolidation of Asian-American identity and political power from 1968 to 1977. Readers knowledgeable about the place and time will easily recognize many of the figures thinly disguised behind her pseudonymous and composite characters (Ling-chi Wang, Takeo Terada, Florence Hongo, Richard Aoki, Mo Nishida, S.I. Hayakawa, and dozens of others) as well as actual events (the student protests at San Francisco State, the demolition of the International Hotel, the occupation of Alcatraz, etc.). Those for whom this history is new will be drawn toward traditional historiography of the period (Erika Lee and Linda Yung’s Angel Island; Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai’s The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism; and Estella Habal’s San Francisco’s International Hotel would make a great trio of background reading).

Reminiscent of her two previous historically-based works about Japanese diaspora communities in Brazil, Brazil-Maru (1993) and the Circle K Cycles (2001), I Hotel naturally lacks the zanier plot elements of Yamashita’s early magical-realist novels, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990) and Tropic of Orange (1997)—no mysterious plastic substances, trialectics, or portable latitude lines here! What I Hotel lacks in the fantastic, however, it more than recoups through its unorthodox form. Composed of ten independent but interlinked novellas, one for each year from 1968 to 1977, I Hotel tells its story through an astonishing variety of technical means, ranging from first-person narration to screenplay to graphic novel (the last achieved with the aid of illustrators Leland Wong and Sina Grace). The multitude of perspectives may preclude the deep psychological insights readers sometime expect from novels, but on the other hand it is not difficult to read I Hotel as a radical form of autobiography (Yamashita was born in Oakland) limning the rooming-house consciousness of the author herself.

Rather than try to locate a single dramatic narrative that condenses the entire experience of the time, as less venturesome novelists might, Yamashita opts to tell ten distinct but overlapping narratives, each involving three different main characters and each told from differing narrative points-of-view, with subchapters delivered in different styles ranging from first-person limited to teleplay script to surveillance file. Each section is primarily set in its given year, beginning with the 1968 tale of a Chinese young man, Paul Lin, whose father has died and left him to inherit the seemingly irreconcilable traditions of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Bohemian intellectual and political scene coming to prominence in the 1960s. As it turns out—in both Yamashita’s narrative and in the history upon which it is based—the cultures of Portsmouth Square and Sproul Plaza are not so incommensurable after all. This Paul learns when he meets Chen Wen-guang, a Chinese ex-pat professor of Chinese literature at San Francisco State University (then State College). The professor serves as a connection between the young Paul and many of his fellow SCSF students (Edmund Lee and Judy Eng most prominently) and as a link to the radical politics of the 1940s. (After being expelled from the United States for his connections to Communism, Chen headed to China to fight alongside Zhou Enlai during the early Chinese revolution; in the 1960s he remains, despite small misgivings, committed to Maoism). His political experience makes him a natural mentor for students caught up in their own smaller moment of rebellion, and it opens Yamashita’s novel to the broad back-story of the Chinese diaspora in California and its complicated transnational status.

But Yamashita well understands that her story must embrace ideologies outside the Left and Asian-American ethnicities beyond the Chinese. In the first chapter, the complexity of the moment is expressed through the figure of S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist and traditional Republican Japanese-Canadian-American president of San Francisco State. His crackdown on student protesters, including the infamous incident in which he literally pulled the plug on a student PA system, helped propel him to a single, troubled term in the United States Senate on a wave of the same antiradical and antistudent sentiment that made Ronald Reagan into a nationally recognized conservative leader. He too is a part of the story of Asian California, albeit ultimately a marginal one.

In later chapters, Yamashita goes on to explore the Japan-Town Collective, a radical San Francisco community organization, and the Third-World Liberation Front, a Berkeley student group advocating curricular changes in support of the world’s indigenous peoples. For 1970, we are thrown into the International Hotel of the title, an aging single-room occupancy hotel (at the edge of San Francisco’s old Manilatown and Chinatown) catering mainly to aged Filipino farmworkers and dockworkers. Slated for demolition by its Japanese conglomerate owner to make way for the construction of the massive highrises that now house the firms of the Financial District, it becomes a squat and an important mixing place for Yellow Power and Black Panther radicals. Later chapters range from a highly experimental meditation on the enmity between the twin origins of contemporary Asian American literature, Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin; the connection between the organized Filipino Left and the budding Mexican farmworkers movement; the Native American occupation of Alcatraz; the advance guard of Vietnamese refugees; the Coit Tower murals painted by a Nisei Communist who was for a time the roommate of Paul Lin’s father; and an uproarious pig-roasting contest between Filipino and Pacific Islander cooks.

The novel ends with the forcible eviction of the International Hotel residents and activists and the leveling of the building itself. By this point, the symbolic significance of the hotel is clear: it serves as the crucible in which the many varied traditions of Asian immigrants were temporarily united in defense of the poorest among them. As one activist with a strong sense of the novelty of the “Asian-American” identity produced in that moment remarks: “Goes to show, you can weld anything to anything” (p. 480). Although there is a utopian moment of solidarity, when the I Hotel (wired up with microphones as part of the public protest) becomes a “gigantic organic voice-box of our own making,” Yamashita’s book is equally committed to presenting the shearing and centrifugal forces at work, the divisions and disagreements that remain part of the structure of any particular history and of any individual psyche that emerges from it (p. 580).

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (p. 605)

Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Yamashita manages to capture the combination of continuity and contingency in the making of cultural and political identities, offering dozens of historical rooms (taken, abandoned, and unclaimed) into which her readers, especially younger ones looking for a way to connect to the political past without being smothered by it, might check the unfinished fragments of their own lives.