The Asian American Movement
- Daryl Joji MaedaDaryl Joji MaedaDepartment of Ethnic Studies, Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race in America (CSERA), University of Colorado
The Asian American Movement was a social movement for racial justice, most active during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, which brought together people of various Asian ancestries in the United States who protested against racism and U.S. neo-imperialism, demanded changes in institutions such as colleges and universities, organized workers, and sought to provide social services such as housing, food, and healthcare to poor people. As one of its signal achievements, the Movement created the category “Asian American,” (coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka), which encompasses the multiple Asian ethnic groups who have migrated to the United States. Its founding principle of coalitional politics emphasizes solidarity among Asians of all ethnicities, multiracial solidarity among Asian Americans as well as with African, Latino, and Native Americans in the United States, and transnational solidarity with peoples around the globe impacted by U.S. militarism.
The movement participated in solidarity work with other Third World peoples in the United States, including the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State College and University of California, Berkeley. The Movement fought for housing rights for poor people in the urban cores of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Philadelphia; it created arts collectives, published newspapers and magazines, and protested vigorously against the Vietnam War. It also extended to Honolulu, where activists sought to preserve land rights in rural Hawai’i. It contributed to the larger radical movement for power and justice that critiqued capitalism and neo-imperialism, which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.
By 1968, Asian immigrants and their descendants had been in the United States for over a century and had engaged in various forms of resistance to racism for many decades. However, the particular ideologies and forms of activism that characterized the “Asian American movement” only emerged with the dawn of Third World movements for power and self-determination in the late 1960s. Previously, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Asian Indians participated in divergent forms of political organizing. Class-based politics aimed to gain better wages and working conditions; homeland politics attempted to bolster the international standings of their nations of origins or free them from colonial rule; assimilationist politics attempted to demonstrate that Asians were worthy of the rights and privileges of citizenship. None of these forms built a sense of common cause among Asian immigrants of different ethnicities, and homeland politics even exacerbated tensions. In the early to mid-1960s, a number of Asian Americans participated individually in various New Left movements—including the Free Speech Movement, Civil Rights movement, and anti-Vietnam War movement—that did not directly address Asian American issues. In contrast to these earlier forms of political activism, the Asian American movement emphasized Asian collectivity, arguing that Asians of all ethnicities in the United States shared a common position of subjugation due to anti-Asian racism, and furthermore, that Asians in the United States should oppose U.S. imperialism abroad, especially in Asia. Drawing influences from the Black Power and antiwar movements, the Asian American movement forged a coalitional politics that united Asians of varying ethnicities and declared solidarity with other Third World people in the United States and abroad. Segments of the movement struggled for community control of education, provided social services and defended affordable housing in Asian ghettoes, organized exploited workers, protested against U.S. imperialism, and built new multiethnic cultural institutions. By the end of the 1970s, the contours of the movement shifted dramatically enough to mark an end to the Asian American movement per se, though certainly not an end to Asian American activism.1
The Asian American movement grew out of two of the most significant social movements of the 1960s: the Black Power and anti-Vietnam War movements. Unsatisfied with insistence on inclusion and civil rights, the Asian American movement demanded self-determination and power both for Asians in the United States and in Asia. The Red Guard Party of San Francisco provides the clearest example of how engaging with Black Power helped Asian Americans build an understanding of their own racial positioning in the United States. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, established in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, rose to prominence as the vanguard organization among radicals of color by the late 1960s. The Panthers melded radical politics with racial pride, advocating community control over institutions such as education and law enforcement in black ghettos and demanding fair housing and employment, while celebrating the aesthetics of black people, black bodies, and black culture. This powerful mélange of ideas impacted Chinese Americans in the ghetto of San Francisco Chinatown, which suffered from substandard education, housing, social services, and employment opportunities, but an overabundance of police brutality. When a group of young people who congregated regularly at the Legitimate Ways pool hall on Jackson Street began to discuss how to address these conditions, the Panthers took notice, visiting the pool hall, inviting the Chinatown youth to study sessions on political theory, and urging them to form an organization. The Red Guard Party that arose was named after Mao’s youth cadre and largely mirrored the Panthers’ ideology and language, but with key adaptations. Where the Panthers advocated power for “black” people, the Red Guards demanded it for “yellow” people, a sign that the largely Chinese American Red Guards had adopted a racial, rather than ethnic rubric. Minister of Information Alex Hing articulated the commonalities shared by blacks and Asian Americans, who both experienced racism and exploitation in the United States, and argued that the Panthers’ example of directly providing social services (such as the free breakfast program) provided a viable model for Chinatown.
Across the Bay, in Berkeley, a graduate student named Yuji Ichioka, who would go on to be an influential historian, coined the term “Asian American” when he co-founded the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) as an explicitly pan-Asian organization in 1968. Seeking Asian Americans with progressive leanings, Ichioka and co-founder Emma Gee pored through the roster of the antiwar Peace and Freedom Party, identifying all individuals with Asian last names and inviting them to join the new organization. AAPA thus included Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans, both American-born and immigrants, from the mainland and Hawaii. AAPA advocated for Asian American solidarity to counter racism and imperialism and declared its camaraderie with other people of color in the United States and abroad. Richard Aoki, undoubtedly the most colorful member of the group, served as a Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party prior to helping to form AAPA.
On the East Coast, the formation of Asian Americans for Action (AAA), in 1969, demonstrated again how the Asian American movement drew together the influences of Black Power and the antiwar movement. Two longtime leftist Nisei (second generation Japanese American) women, Kazu Iijima and Minn Masuda, noted approvingly that the anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics preached by Black Power advocates like H. Rap Brown were also accompanied by a strong dose of racial pride. They saw Black Power as an antidote to the pro-assimilationist fever that had struck many Japanese Americans after their experiences in concentration camps during World War II. They sought ways to convey this sense of pride to the next generation in their own community. Significantly, Iijima’s son Chris urged them to reach out to all Asians, regardless of ethnicity. Iijima and Masuda’s recruitment strategy resembled Ichioka’s in that they organized within the antiwar movement by approaching every individual Asian they spotted at Vietnam protests. The best-known AAA member was Yuri Kochiyama, whose legendary radicalism formed through her relationship with Malcolm X, whom she counted as a personal friend.
Because it arose from encounters with Black Power and antiwar protests, the Asian American movement eschewed the Civil Rights framework in favor of pursuing self-determination for Asian Americans and all other Third World people in the United States, and opposing what it deemed to be a genocidal, anti-Asian war in Indochina.
Activism on Campus
A radical coalitional impulse characterized the Asian American movement from its inception onward, driving it to create multiethnic Asian organizations and pursue alliances with other people of color. The movement’s actions aimed at revolutionizing higher education, clearly displayed this emphasis on building solidarity. Asian Americans participated in student strikes at San Francisco State College (1968–1969) and Cal Berkeley (1969), in both cases as members of Third World Liberation Fronts (TWLF) (although the Berkeley version was inspired by its counterpart at SF State and shared its ideals, there were no organizational ties between the two).2 Students at the largely commuter campus of San Francisco State were politically active throughout the 1960s, protesting against the war, capital punishment, government repression, and racial discrimination. Perhaps most importantly, students operated tutoring and recruitment programs for youth in neighborhoods such as the predominantly black Fillmore, the Mission, and Chinatown. In the spring semester of 1968, three Asian American organizations—AAPA (discussed above), Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action (ICSA), and Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE)—joined the Black Student Union, Latin American Student Organization (LASO), and Mexican American Student Confederation (MASC) to form the TWLF. The largely Japanese American members of the San Francisco chapter of AAPA, which shared the anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics of the original Berkeley chapter, worked on community issues such as opposing urban redevelopment in Japan town. At the ICSA office on Clay Street, members tutored Chinatown youth and recruited them to apply for college. PACE members located their office in the Mission district, where they recruited Filipino high school students and community members to State and organized within the community. Like the other members of the TWLF coalition, all three of the Asian American groups sought to connect the college to the community, increase access for their community members, and transform the meaning of a college education.
The strike at San Francisco State began on November 6, 1968, with the TWLF issuing fifteen non-negotiable demands that collectively promised to revolutionize the college by according Third World people authority over the production and dissemination of knowledge about their communities, in terms of both curriculum and institutional control, and granting Third World applicants much greater access to admission and financial aid. TWLF members picketed campus, held large rallies and marches on campus, and fought running battles with police. At times class attendance dropped by fifty percent as the strike brought the campus to a near standstill. Acting President S. I. Hayakawa gleefully repressed the strikers, calling the San Francisco Police Department’s Tactical Squad onto campus and having hundreds arrested over the course of the strike. Hayakawa, a Japanese American who had emigrated from Canada, presented a particular problem for Asian American strikers, as he positioned himself as a neutral arbiter between blacks and whites, in stark contrast to the strikers who understood Asian Americans to be a racially subjugated group positioned alongside other people of color. Thus, Asian Americans condemned Hayakawa as a “bootlicker” of California Governor Ronald Reagan and decidedly not a spokesman for their communities. After nearly five months of back and forth action and repressive police action, the TWLF signed a settlement on March 21, 1969, that ended the strike and created the first ever School of Ethnic Studies in the United States, comprised of departments of American Indian studies, Asian American studies, Black studies, and La Raza studies.
Students at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley—where Blacks, Chicana/os, and Native Americans made up only 1.5 percent of the student body—drew inspiration from their compatriots at SF State. The Afro-American Student Union (AASU), Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), Mexican American Student Confederation (MASC), and Native American Student Union (NASU) formed the Berkeley version of the Third World Liberation Front. Student activists negotiated with administrators for months, suggesting reforms that would make the university more accessible, relevant, and responsive to their communities. Dissatisfied with the scope of institutional concessions and the pace of implementation, the TWLF called a strike on January 22, 1969. They demanded the establishment of a Third World College with departments of Asian studies, Black Studies, and Chicano studies subject only to community control, recruitment of Third World people in positions ranging from administrators to custodians, and full access to financial aid for Third World applicants. Unsurprisingly, the TWLF strike at Berkeley, famous as a roiling political cauldron from which arose the Free Speech Movement and antiwar protests, featured impassioned picketers and demonstrators, along with violent police repression. The strike ended after three months, when, on March 19, the chancellor announced the formation of a department addressing the experiences of Black, Mexican, Asian, and Native Americans. Both TWLF strikes concluded successfully, in the sense that they forced the establishment of academic units dedicated to ethnic studies; however, in neither case did the administrations grant oversight over the units to students and community members, nor did they cede control over financial aid.
Asian American students at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and Seattle Central Community College also struggled to force their institutions to respond to the needs of their communities. In response to a 1969 proposal by students and community members for an Ethnic Studies unit that would address the histories and cultures of Native Hawaiian people and ethnic immigrants, the University of Hawai’i administration cannily agreed to create it, but only as an experimental program. Over the next eight years, Ethnic Studies was threatened repeatedly with dissolution, only to be rescued by student and community protests. The Board of Regents finally made the program permanent in 1977, but it did not become a degree-granting department until 1995. In Seattle, Alan Sugiyama and Mike Tagawa, who had been a member of the Black Panther Party, founded the Oriental Student Union in 1970. OSU picketed and occupied the Seattle Central administration building, demanding the hiring Asian American administrators, which echoed the calls for educational self-determination in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Honolulu. Today, the fact that Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies are taught at innumerable colleges and universities across the nation provides a testament to the lasting impact of Asian American student activists who collaborated with like-minded allies.
Self-Determination for Communities
From Honolulu to New York, and many points in between, Asian American movement organizations sought to improve living and working conditions in urban ghettos and rural areas by operating “Serve the People” programs that provided badly needed social services, fighting against the displacement of poor people by urban redevelopment, and organizing workers.
In Hawai’i, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino “locals” joined Native Hawaiians in 1970 and 1971 in their quest to preserve the then-rural Kalama Valley, located east of Honolulu. The powerful Bishop Estate that owned the land planned to evict the poor families and farmers who lived in the valley in order to build hotels, high-rise buildings, and a golf course. University of Hawai’i and antiwar activists formed the Kokua Kalama Committee (KKC) to support the residents. Members moved into the valley, erected tents, planted vegetable gardens, and did chores for farmers. Despite these efforts, the residents were eventually evicted. KKC transformed into Kokua Hawai’i, which fought for Native Hawaiian sovereignty from an anti-colonialist perspective, which enabled them to form relationships with other peoples colonized by the United States, including Puerto Ricans and Inuits, and also with Asian American radicals. Urban renewal also threatened Honolulu’s Chinatown, where elderly Asian men lived in cheap residential hotels. A group called People Against Chinatown Evictions (PACE) opposed the destruction of the hotels and succeeded in forcing the city to construct replacement housing.
Asian American activists in Seattle struggled to preserve the International District (known fondly as “the ID”), the traditional home of Asian immigrant communities. Groups like Inter*Im, the International District Youth Council, and International District Drop-In Center vigorously opposed the construction of the Kingdome, a sports stadium that threatened to demolish affordable housing and destroy the character of the neighborhood. Seattle activists, who showed a greater willingness to work with city and federal officials than radicals in other locales, obtained funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to rehabilitate low-income apartments. Three hundred volunteers spent three years cleaning, repairing, and renovating the Milwaukee Hotel, one of the largest residential hotels in the ID. Asian American activists also provided food to the elderly, opened centers that provided counseling and legal services, and obtained state and local funding to establish a multilingual health clinic.
In San Francisco, the Red Guard Party took a cue from the Black Panther Party and started a Free Breakfast for kids program, but transitioned to a Free Sunday Brunch for elders to better meet the needs of Chinatown residents. Following the TWLF strike at Berkeley, in 1970 some AAPA members formed the Asian Community Center (ACC), which ran a drop-in center for elders, operated Everybody’s Bookstore, provided food and healthcare, and screened films. ACC transitioned into the explicitly anti-imperialist Wei Min She (“Organization for the People”) in 1971–1972. The struggle to save the International Hotel is one of the best-known sagas in Asian American movement history. The elderly Filipino men who lived in the decrepit hotel first received eviction notices in 1968, when the owner threatened to raze the building to build a parking lot. Numerous Asian American students, volunteers, and members of organizations including the I-Hotel Tenant’s Association, KDP (see the section “Internationalism and Interracialism”), Wei Min She, and I Wor Kuen repaired the hotel’s decaying infrastructure, communed with the aging “manongs” who lived there, rented office space in the capacious basement, and managed to forestall the evictions until 1977. Similarly, the Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction (CANE) and the J-Town Collective unsuccessfully opposed the redevelopment of Japantown. Both IWK and WMS organized workers in the Chinatown garment industry, most visibly in the fractious Jung Sai strike of 1974–1975, which exposed contradictions within the movement around how various groups understood the relationships among race, class, and nation.3
Los Angeles was another critical site of Asian American struggle in the 1970s. The Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization and the Anti-Eviction Taskforce defended the historically Japanese American enclave of Little Tokyo against redevelopment, which threatened to displace affordable housing units and small ethnic businesses. Yellow Brotherhood and Asian American Hardcore organized among Asian male youth, while Asian Sisters fought drug abuse among young women. The East Wind collective, composed primarily of Japanese Americans, worked assiduously to develop relationships with other people of color. The UCLA Asian American Studies Center functioned as a hub for activists; several UCLA students created Gidra, the monthly newspaper published from 1969 to 1974, which became the unofficial newspaper of record for the Asian American movement. California’s Central Valley saw the formation of the Yellow Seed organization in Stockton, and Asian American volunteers helped to build Agbayani Village, a United Farm Workers retirement home for elderly Chicano and Filipino laborers in Delano.
Although the West Coast—home of the majority of Asian Americans—produced the largest movement organizations, critical activism occurred on the East Coast as well. Beginning in 1971, the Philadelphia organization Yellow Seeds (unrelated to the Stockton Yellow Seed) fought to preserve the city’s small Chinatown, provided translation services, job training, draft counseling, and advice on healthcare. From 1972 to 1977, its newspaper, Yellow Seeds, publicized the plight of elderly immigrants, exposed the role of the Chinese Benevolent Association as a slumlord, and decried the exploitation of Chinatown workers. New York City spawned I Wor Kuen (“Righteous Harmonious Fists”), which took its name from the Chinese martial artists who took on British imperialism in the unsuccessful Boxer Rebellions. IWK aligned with the People’s Republic of China, admired Mao, and argued for Asian American solidarity with other people of color. In Chinatown, IWK screened pro-Chinese films and faced physical repression from goons hired by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), Chinatown’s anti-communist power elite. On the affordable housing front, IWK supported Chinese and Italian American families facing eviction due to expansion by New York Telephone. The construction of Confucius Plaza, an enormous housing project in Chinatown, provided an opportunity for Asian American groups to demand employment for Asian American workers. In 1974, the radical group Asian Study Group (ASG) and its affiliate, Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAFEE), protested against discriminatory hiring practices and also the CCBA’s lackluster advocacy for the community. The police beating, in 1975, of a Chinese American architectural engineer named Peter Yew served as another lightning rod, drawing over 10,000 marchers to City Hall and sparking a sit-down in the middle of Broadway Avenue.
Asian American activism in these diverse locations centered on similar issues: land, housing, social services, and employment. Although the various movement organizations did not always agree with each other, and in fact disagreed vociferously at times, they shared commitments to safeguarding the character of traditionally Asian American neighborhoods, defending affordable housing, and preserving small ethnic businesses. Their “Serve the People” programs directly provided health care, food, legal and counseling services. Finally, they sought to increase access to jobs and organized for better wages and working conditions for Asian American workers.
Internationalism and Interracialism
A critical internationalism deeply shaped the Asian American movement. The nations of left Asia—the People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, and North Korea—provided exemplars that the movement admired; in some cases, Asian political activists played key roles in mobilizing Asian American movement organizations. Tracing the development of the Kalayaan collective and Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP, or the Union of Democratic Filipinos) illustrates one case of how the melding of Asian leftists with U.S. Third World activists produced a new, transnational formation. Philippine student activists associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), who fled the country in the face of political repression, found common cause with Filipino Americans who had cut their teeth in Third World movements in the United States. The Kalayaan collective published a newspaper in 1971 and 1972, and its members formalized their organization as KDP in 1973, following President Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of martial law in the Philippines. KDP held a dual focus, advocating revolution in the Philippines and socialism in the United States. It mustered opposition to martial law, mobilized Filipino American youth by building a sense of Filipino ethnic pride, participated in the I-Hotel struggle, and defended two Filipina nurses, Narciso and Perez, in a famous trial for murder.4
Although most Asian American movement groups did not share KDP’s direct tie to Asian activists, they were nevertheless deeply influenced by and admired Asian radicalism and performed solidarity work on Asian issues, particularly those linked to U.S. militarism. The Vietnam War loomed as the largest international issue confronted by the Asian American movement. Although groups like AAPA and AAA had arisen in part out of the antiwar movement, the Asian American movement adopted a distinctive line against the war. Whereas various antiwar groups opposed warfare in general, the disproportionate killing of black and brown soldiers, or the capitalist and imperialist aspects of the war, Asian Americans protesters objected specifically to its anti-Asian nature. In rallies, demonstrations, leaflets, flyers, newsletters, and newspapers, they criticized the war as genocidal against the Vietnamese people, whom they embraced as fellow Asians. Asian American contingents marched as cohesive groups within larger antiwar protests, flying the flags of left Asia and endorsing self-determination for the peoples of Indochina, whom they characterized as uniformly opposed to U.S. intervention. Demonstrating against the war together created alliances among various movement organizations and enhanced their sense of Asian American identity as a shared multiethnic collective.
The Asian American movement’s line against the war extended to its stance on many other international issues and its interpretation of the history of the Pacific. Every August, commemorations of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki emphasized the U.S. military’s wanton disregard for Asian lives and situated the bombings within the long history of U.S. militarism in Asia, noting the brutality of the U.S.-Philippines War of 1898 and the occupations of the Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, and Korea. Movement groups, even those comprised mostly of Japanese Americans, understood Japan to be a “running dog” of U.S. imperialism and thus opposed the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Pact, port visits by Japanese naval ships, and the expansion of Narita Airport outside of Tokyo. They also viewed Marcos as an instrument of U.S. imperialism and opposed his dictatorship of the Philippines.
In contrast to its opposition to U.S. militarism, the movement admired Asian nations that had thrown off the yoke of western imperialism, viewing mainland China as a shining example of the possibilities of Asian socialism. (Given what is now known about the human toll of the Cultural Revolution and the repressive nature of North Korea, we can say in retrospect that this perspective was based in part upon a lack of plausible information on communist Asia and also required a certain level of overly romantic political naïveté). Several individuals, including Alex Hing of the Red Guard Party, antiwar activist Pat Sumi, and Gidra writer Evelyn Yoshimura traveled to places such as the People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, and North Korea. Their letters and testimonies praising the leaders of these nations and lauding the equality and lack of racism they found demonstrate the intensity of the desire among Asian American radicals to find alternatives to capitalism and imperialism. These longings were shared with radicals of all races during this period, and indeed, Hing and Sumi journeyed to Asia as members of Eldridge Cleaver’s 1970 U.S. People’s Anti-Imperialist Delegation.5
The Asian American movement’s support for anti-imperialist mobilizations abroad reflected its domestic agenda, which linked it closely to social movements for liberation among people of color in the United States. As discussed above, the Asian American movement emerged from engagements with Black Power advocates, and its campus activism proceeded in alliance with black, Chicano, and Native American students. In Los Angeles, Asian American activists lived and worked in multiracial neighborhoods with African Americans and Chicana/os; in New York, they collaborated with Puerto Ricans; in Honolulu, their efforts supported Native Hawaiians. Gidra covered the Black Panthers, Los Siete de la Raza (seven Latino youth charged with murder in San Francisco), the United Farm Workers, which combined Filipino and Mexican workers, the Chicano Moratorium against the war, the Young Lords Party, and Native American occupations of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee. As the 1970s wore on, various Asian American organizations consolidated with a number of Black, Chicano, and Latino radical groups to form multiracial parties, including the League of Revolutionary Struggle-Marxist Leninist, Line of March, and Revolutionary Union.6
Gender and Women’s Liberation
The Asian American movement compiled an uneven record on gender equality. On the one hand, the movement generally admired Mao, who famously stated, “Women hold up half the sky.” It tended to advocate for women’s liberation, took up many women’s issues, and featured women as prominent leaders of key organizations. On the other hand, however, its practices did not always live up to its ideological and rhetorical support for women’s equality, as women often found themselves marginalized to support roles and subjected to sexual objectification. Asian American women caught in this contradiction linked racial justice to women’s liberation, arguing that neither could be achieved without the other. They formed women’s organizations, but located them within the larger Asian American movement rather than breaking away from it.
The Asian American movement addressed gender and women’s issues in both its domestic and international agendas. Many local “Serve the People” programs attended to the needs of women and families, including provision of food, clothing, and healthcare. Asian American women’s organizing has been best studied in Los Angeles, where the Asian Women’s Center offered childcare, counseling, and education and Asian Sisters identified the dual causes of drug abuse among young Japanese American women as racism, which made them feel inferior by enforcing white norms, and sexism, which devalued them within their own communities.7 IWK and WMS stressed in their community work that traditional Asian gender roles oppressed women by subjugating them to fathers and husbands, but criticized in equally vociferous terms the system of capitalism that exploited women as wageworkers and unpaid domestic laborers.
On the international front, the Asian American movement’s critique of the Vietnam War took on a decidedly gendered perspective. The war’s effect on women numbered among the movement’s chief objections, as it noted that the war encouraged American GIs to view all Vietnamese women, and by extension all Asian women, as prostitutes. Conversely, the movement developed a great admiration for Vietnamese women, who personified principled resistance to U.S. imperialism. A drawing published in Gidra, of a peasant woman with a baby in one hand and a rifle in the other, emblematized the belief that women could be revolutionary fighters as well as nurturers. Asian American women also drew inspiration from Vietnamese women whom they met in person at two conferences held in Canada in 1971, at which the Vietnamese women enthralled North American audiences with their explanation of their struggle for self-determination and their staunch resolution to achieve victory.8
Like their sisters in nearly all of the New Left and Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Asian American women battled sexism and male chauvinism, which sought to pigeonhole them as caretakers and support workers rather than recognizing them as leaders, public speakers, and intellectually talented theorists. However, women founded or co-founded AAPA and AAA and rose to leadership positions in KDP and IWK. Even when critiquing the sexism of the Asian American movement, women remained firmly entrenched within it because they understood the interlocking nature of racism and sexism. Even when carving out women-only spaces, they urged their brothers in the movement to reform their attitudes and practices and join in a shared fight to eliminate the overarching formation of racism, sexism, and class exploitation. For example, the International Hotel Women’s Collective, formed by women participating in the I-Hotel struggle as parts of other organizations, called out men who sexualized and patronized women and sought to build both women’s consciousness and leadership skills. In a missive explaining the collective’s purpose, its members invited men to “support us in our goals by building relationships of mutual respect,” which they signed, “With love, your sisters.”9 Thus, despite its significant flaws, the Asian American movement served as an arena in which women developed as activists and honed their abilities as leaders.
One of the signal achievements of the Asian American movement was to create the category of “Asian American” as a political identity that encompassed all Asian ethnicities in the United States. The power of this amalgamation can be seen in the emergence of Asian American art, literature, music, and cultural institutions during the movement period. During the movement period, the folk trio “A Grain of Sand” performed and recorded music that celebrated Asian American struggles for justice and expressed solidarity with black, Latino, Native American, and Vietnamese people. Asian American jazz emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, performed by artists including the jazz-fusion group “Hiroshima,” saxophonist and political activist Fred Ho, and the musicians associated with AsianImprov Records, all of whom sought to articulate Asian American aesthetics, culture, and politics, though with varying emphases.10
Community-based arts organizations fostered artistic expressions that documented and celebrated Asian American history, experiences, and cultures and used art as a way to mobilize and empower communities. Basement Workshop (BW), the most important Asian American cultural institution on the East Coast, began in 1970, in New York City’s Chinatown, but soon incorporated other Asian American writers and artists. Its Creative Arts Program introduced community members to creative writing, music, and visual arts including photography and silk screening, and its Chinatown cleanup program painted street murals. In addition, BW published Bridge, a bimonthly magazine covering Asian cultural and political issues in the United States and abroad, from 1971 to 1978. San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop (KSW) began in 1972, in the basement of the I-Hotel. Like its East Coast counterpart, KSW soon blossomed into a multiethnic organization that integrated arts education and community empowerment. KSW offered workshops in crafts such as making jewelry and stained glass, photography, silk screening, and creative writing. KSW artists painted a block-long mural depicting Asian workers on the I-Hotel and produced the images that became the visual icons of the struggle to save the hotel.
Asian American theater also thrived during the movement period.11 The most significant theater companies included East West Players in Los Angeles, Pan Asian Repertory Theater in New York City, Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco, and Asian Exclusion Act in Seattle. Each of these organizations produced works by playwrights of varying ethnicities and assembled multiethnic casts and audiences. EWP, founded in 1965, fostered Asian American drama with its playwriting contest, produced important plays such as Frank Chin’s Chickencoop Chinaman and Wakako Yamauchi’s And the Soul Shall Dance, and afforded Asian American actors opportunities to act in canonical plays by authors including Shakespeare and Chekov.12 AATW began in 1973, as a summer training program for the American Conservatory Theater, intended to develop Asian American talent in writing, acting, directing, and production. Director Frank Chin encouraged fledgling writers and actors to create scripts and performances based upon oral histories collected from community members, reflecting his aim to have Asian American theater speak from and reflect the cultures that ordinary Asian immigrants and their descendants built in the United States.
Visual Communications (VC), founded by Asian American movement participants in Los Angeles, fused filmmaking with the movement’s radical politics of interracialism, internationalism, and community empowerment. Its early productions examined the lives of poor Asian American workers and sought to counter racist media stereotypes of Asians as exotic and passive. The cultural institutions built by the Asian American movement stand as some of its most lasting legacies, as Asian Improv Records (now Asian Improv aRts), Kearny Street Workshop, East West Players, AATW (now Asian American Theater Company), Pan-Asian Repertory Theater, and Visual Communications continue to foster and provide venues for Asian American creative expression.
The Asian American movement began in the heyday of Black Power and antiwar activism and flourished throughout the early to mid-1970s. By the late 1970s, however, many of the movement’s organizations shifted focus. A number of groups consolidated with non-Asian American counterparts to form multiracial radical parties, while other fruits of the movement became institutionalized as artistic organizations, academic units, and non-profit social service agencies. These alterations marked an inflection point at which the Asian American movement moved away from its signature characteristics of grassroots, community-oriented radicalism. However, even today new forms of action, new issues, and new actors continue to emerge that recall the Asian American movement’s dedication to bettering the lives and working conditions of people of Asian ancestry in the United States and allying with other people of color in the U.S. and abroad.
Discussion of the Literature
In her enormously useful historiographical overview of the Asian American movement, Diane C. Fujino periodizes writings about the movement into the 1960s and 1970s, dominated by activists writing in the moment; the 1980s, characterized by an absence of work; the 1990s, typified by civil rights interpretations; and the 2000s, in which scholars emphasize the radical roots of the movement.13 Her categorization rings true. For example, two anthologies published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Roots and Counterpoint, contained reprints from Asian American movement publications and analytical essays covering the history of Asian migration and labor, contemporary community struggles, education, U.S. imperialism (especially in Asia), and Asian American political organizing. The key anthology, Asian Women, published by UC Berkeley Asian American Studies, connected racism and patriarchy to capitalism and imperialism, arguing that they represented interlocking systems of oppression. During the third period, William Wei published The Asian American Movement, in which he characterized the movement as an outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement and divided it into reformist and revolutionary wings, valorizing the former and demonizing the latter. Since 2000, numerous works have countered this interpretation, locating the Asian American movement as an outgrowth of the Black Power and Anti-Vietnam War movements. These works emphasize the movement’s advocacy of self-determination rather than civil rights, preference for grassroots politics instead of lobbying, and opposition to U.S. militarism in Asia and elsewhere. In The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power, Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai analyze the movement using social movement theory. Daryl Joji Maeda’s Rethinking the Asian American Movement argues that the movement exhibited a radically coalitional impulse that united Asians across ethnic divides, sought to ally with other people of color in the United States, and declared solidarity with Asians in Asia. This extended on his analysis in Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America, a cultural history in which he explained the movement’s twin goals of confronting racism at home and imperialism abroad.14
Alongside these general overviews, several monographs examine particular topics within the Asian American movement. Diane Fujino’s closely collaborative biographies of Yuri Kochiyama (Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama) and Richard Aoki (Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life), reveal the complexities of the lives of two legendary activists, both of whom journeyed from naïve patriotism to critical internationalism and were deeply influenced by Black Power. Estella Habal’s San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement provides a concentrated look at one of the most important and best-known chapters of the movement, explaining both coalitions and contradictions within the struggle to save the hotel. In Radicals on the Road: Third World Internationalism and American Orientalism during the Vietnam Era, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu shows how travels to and encounters with Left Asia impacted not only Asian American activists, but more generally, the Third World left in the United States.15
Both Max Elbaum and Laura Pulido discuss the multiracial movements for power and justice during the 1960s and 1970s and include Asian American activism within this context. Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che examines the transition from related but distinct Third World movements in the U.S. to what he calls the New Communist Movement, a process in which several Asian American groups played integral roles. In Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles, Pulido concentrates on Los Angeles, a hotbed of radicalism by African American, Chicano, and Asian American activists. She concludes that Asian American organizations were the most self-consciously and consistently dedicated to solidarity work among all of the groups she studies.16
The historiography on the Asian American movement remains relatively sparse, as many topics—including organizational histories of key groups, examinations of activism in localities other than the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, and thematic explorations of issues such as labor and healthcare—remain to be fully explored. Elsewhere I discuss the historiographical terrain more fully, explain why the periodization of the movement should be demarcated roughly as 1968 to 1980, and argue that studies incorporating gender, sexuality and internationalism should form the next wave of scholarship.17
Primary sources on the Asian American movement are available in published anthologies and archival collections. These include the contemporary anthologies, Roots, Asian Women, and Counterpoint,18 along with more recent publications such as Louie and Omatsu, Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment, Fred Ho et al., Legacy to Liberation, and Asian Community Center, Stand Up.19 Useful archival collections include the Steve Louie Asian American Movement Collection in Special Collections of the Charles E. Young Research Library at the University of California, Los Angeles; the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Reading Room; the Social Protest Collection in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; the Asian American Studies Collection in the UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Library; and the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives at UC Santa Barbara, which holds papers of the Asian American Theater Company, Kearney Street Workshop, and several Asian American artists and writers, including Frank Chin.
In conjunction with the wealth of extant written primary sources, oral histories can provide unparalleled levels of detail, explanations of particulars not reflected in the written record, and a sense of the sights, sounds, and feelings that infused the Asian American movement. Researchers should collect oral histories with as many movement participants as possible to capture these data. The standard caveats about oral history apply: memories are partial and tend to be sketchy on specifics such as particular dates; recollections are often tailored to support specific perspectives; and oral histories should be understood as meaning-making narratives rather than as transcriptions of events.
Links to Digital Materials
- Elbaum, Max. Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che. London: Verso, 2002.
- Fujino, Diane C. Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
- Fujino, Diane C. Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
- Habal, Estella. San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.
- Liu, Michael, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai. The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.
- Maeda, Daryl J. Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
- Maeda, Daryl Joji. Rethinking the Asian American Movement. New York: Routledge, 2012.
- Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
- Wei, William. The Asian American Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
- Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun. Radicals on the Road: Third World Internationalism and American Orientalism during the Vietnam Era. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.
1. For more elaborate overviews of the Asian American movement, see Daryl Joji Maeda, Rethinking the Asian American Movement (New York: Routledge, 2012); and Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai, The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).
2. On the TWLF strike at San Francisco State, see Karen Umemoto, “‘On Strike!’ San Francisco State College Strike, 1968–69: The Role of Asian American Students,” Amerasia Journal 15.1 (1989): 3–41; and Jason Michael Ferreira, “All Power to the People: A Comparative History of Third World Radicalism in San Francisco, 1968–1974” (PhD Diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2003). For information on the TWLF strike at Berkeley, see Harvey C. Dong, “The Origins and Trajectory of Asian American Political Activism in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1968–1978” (PhD Diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2002).
3. An invaluable collection of documents chronicling WMS/Asian Community Center programs has been published as Asian Community Center Archive Group, Stand Up: An Archive Collection of the Bay Area Asian American Movement, 1968–1974 (Berkeley, CA: Eastwind Books, 2009).
4. Estella Habal, San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007), discusses the I-Hotel struggle and provides valuable perspective on KDP.
5. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Radicals on the Road: Third World Internationalism and American Orientalism during the Vietnam Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).
6. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002).
7. May Fu, “‘Serve the People and You Help Yourself’: Japanese-American Anti-Drug Organizing in Los Angeles, 1969 to 1972,” Social Justice 35.2 (2008): 80–99; Susie Ling, “The Mountain Movers: Asian American Women’s Movement in Los Angeles,” Amerasia Journal 15.1 (1989): 51–67; and Mary Uyematsu Kao, “Three Step Boogie in Los Angeles: Sansei Women in the Asian American Movement,” Amerasia Journal 35.1 (2009): 112–138.
8. See Wu, Radicals on the Road, chapters 8 and 9.
9. International Hotel Women’s Collective, “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” in Asian Women (Berkeley, CA, 1971), 122–124.
10. On Fred Ho and Asian American jazz, see Diane C. Fujino, “Introduction: Revolutionary Dreaming and New Dawns,” in Fred Wei-han Ho and Diane C. Fujino, eds., Wicked Theory, Naked Practice: A Fred Ho Reader (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 7–38.
11. See Esther Lee, A History of Asian American Theatre (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press 2006).
12. Yuko Kurahashi, Asian American Culture on Stage: The History of the East West Players (New York: Garland, 1999).
13. Diane C. Fujino, “Who Studies the Asian American Movement? A Historiographical Analysis,” Journal of Asian American Studies 11.2 (June 2008): 127–169.
14. Amy Tachiki, Eddie Wong, and Franklin Odo, eds., Roots: An Asian American Reader (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 1971); International Hotel Women’s Collective, “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” in Asian Women (Berkeley, CA, 1971), 122–124.); Emma Gee, ed., Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 1976); William Wei, The Asian American Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai. The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008); Daryl Joji Maeda, Rethinking the Asian American Movement (New York: Routledge, 2012); and Daryl J. Maeda, Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
15. Diane C. Fujino, Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Diane C. Fujino, Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Habal, San Francisco’s International Hotel; and Wu, Radicals on the Road.
16. Elbaum, Revolution in the Air; and Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
17. Daryl Joji Maeda, “The Asian American Movement,” in Oxford Handbook of Asian American History, ed. David Yoo and Eiichiro Azuma (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
18. Tachiki, Wong, and Odo, Roots: An Asian American Reader; International Hotel Women’s Collective, “Sisterhood Is Powerful”; and Gee, ed., Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America.
19. Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu, eds., Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2001); Fred Ho, Carolyn Antonio, Diane Fujino, and Steve Yip, eds., Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian/Pacific America (San Francisco: AK Press, 2000); and Asian Community Center Archive Group, ed., Stand Up: An Archive Collection of the Bay Area Asian American Movement, 1968–1974 (Berkeley, CA: Eastwind Books, 2009).