Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chinese Cinema

My interest in the "Pacific" usually focuses upon Pacific Islands and Islanders, or at least that has been the case since I began this blog over a year ago. But my interest in the "Pacific" originally stems from another source: For a much longer time - since 2002 in fact - I have been simply fascinated by Chinese history and culture...and film!

I lived and studied in China for four months in 2004 and returned to China for two weeks in 2006, but I have not been back there since; it has been more than four years now and I am aching to go back (I hope to go in 2014 to re-trace my steps of ten years before; that would be cool!). I was probably at the height of my command of Mandarin (普通话) in 2005 after having returned from Yunnan Normal University (云南师范大学) in Kunming and having enrolled at the Middlebury College Chinese Language School.

On the roof-top terrace of a restaurant in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, in 2004. I lived with the restauranteur's family for a week in this charming Naxi village. This photo was taken by my friend Gladys, a tourist from Northeast China, who I had met at the restaurant earlier in the day or just the day before. She said I looked like "Jesus." :)
It is true that the hair around my face has never been so large!

Alas, my command of the language has slipped so much since those days. But in a few weeks I conclude my Hawaiian language lessons and will return to studying Chinese. Studying Hawaiian has been an incredible journey for me, and I could not be more pleased with the results of my most recent research on Hawaiian guano workers and my use of Hawaiian-language sources to tell these men's unique stories. This experience has, for the first time, really proved to me the importance of learning foreign languages for narrating history - something I have never tried to do with Chinese or any other language before now.

I prepare to spend much of this summer re-learning Chinese, especially working on my reading comprehension skills, in preparation for a foreign language translation exam in the fall. And so my mind naturally turns to Chinese film, too, for these films are great study tools for learning the language, as well as fascinating windows into Chinese history.

Mainland (PRC) Cinema

What I intend to do here is just to briefly review some of my favorite Chinese films, nearly all of which come from the mainland (People's Republic of China) from the most recent two or three decades. As for Chinese film before the 1980s, I know next to nothing. As for films from Taiwan, I know next to nothing. And while I do know that Hong Kong has been a center of great filmmaking for a long time, I am yet quite unfamiliar with the cinema that has come out of that region (now part of the PRC since Britain gave the colony up in 1997).

My introduction to Chinese film took place largely during my four months in Kunming at Yunnan Normal as I took part in a program run by the U.S.-based School for International Training. We watched many films in Kunming that at one time were actually banned in China, and although many of these films are now available to the masses in the PRC - including in pirated versions streaming online - I am nevertheless thankful for the crash-course the we got at the time in radical Chinese cinema.

Or, at least these films were once considered radical. I still think they are. The ones I remember most are the films by Zhang Yimou. From the early 1990s: Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994). Of Raise the Red Lantern, I scarcely remember the story - it has been over six years since I saw it - except that I remember it concerned the oppression of women - multiple wives of a wealthy man. What I remember best is the cinematography - Zhang is a master of color and form: the redness of the lanterns, the gray of the compound where they live. Zhang tells stories by painting pictures, and he reminds us of the true possibilities of the cinematic art - that a story can (or should) be told through the artful interplay of color and sound, not just through dialogue. (The musical score in this and other Zhang films is just amazing!). Of To Live, I remember it follows the story of a man through much of the Mao Zedong era (1949-1976). Actually, I think it even continues beyond the end of the Cultural Revolution into the late 1970s(?). What struck me the most about the story was how this man and his family constantly had to stay on their toes and keep shifting their approach to the state as Mao took the nation on a roller-coaster ride - a ride also artfully told in part two of the three-part documentary series China: A Century of Revolution.

At Middlebury in 2005 I remember seeing other films by Zhang (actually, I can't remember if I saw these in Kunming or in Vermont): The Road Home (1999), Happy Times (2000), Hero (2002). Happy Times, a touching comedy, was an enjoyable film, but not "epic" as I had come to expect from Zhang. And as it turns out, circa 2000 seemed to mark a real turning point for Zhang in his career. His next film, 2002's Hero, seemed to come from a completely different playbook than anything Zhang had attempted in the 1990s. His earlier films were almost always set in the twentieth-century and dealt with interpersonal conflicts set within the context of social and political change. But Hero takes us over two millennia back in time to the end of the Warring States period on the brink of the founding of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). Zhang's beautiful cinematography - his use of color and form in framing artful compositions - plus what I think is one of the best movie soundtracks of any film in the past decade, by composer Tan Dun, make the film visually and aurally stunning and captivating, and the story is fine, too. But I think that the best storytelling about the Qin dynasty period is actually Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin (1998). Indeed, I suppose that Zhang was influenced both by the dip into ancient history by Chen in The Emperor and definitely by the break-through success of Ang Lee's 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to make his own movie about martial arts.

Now, a few nights ago I watched The Road Home (1999) again. It is about a young village woman and the city-educated schoolteacher who comes to her village and becomes the object of her affection. The film is set in the 1950s in the get-go of the communist era. Their small-town love is really all the story of this movie is about. There is also a sub-story that serves as bookends to the 1950s drama: it is about the same woman in the late 1990s after her schoolteacher-husband dies and her persistence that he receives a traditional funeral. The beauty of the film, however, is the interior section set in the 1950s. The cinematography is Zhang Yimou at his best. He truly makes a star out of young Zhang Ziyi, who would later become such a famous actress. There are a lot of slow-motion shots; the color is fat, lush, and vibrate; the soundtrack is monotonous, but that's what makes it so captivating: the lover's theme played on an erhu - sometimes on a dizi - returns again and again and again and our hearts ache too as we watch the young girl wait for her paramour to return from his "political troubles" in the city.

This is a not a trailer per se, but a compilation of some of the richest images and tunes from The Road Home. It gives you a good sense of the pacing and style of the film:

Since receiving netflix as a gift, I have also seen Zhang's 1992 The Story of Qiu Ju (understated, but beautiful as ever, as is Gong Li), and Not One Less (1999). I did not know what to make of Not One Less at first; then I learned that the film was shot on location in the actual rural schoolhouse that the film depicts. Not only that, but all the actors in the film, including the young schoolteacher and all the kids, were actual local kids! Everyone in the film was "acting" out Zhang's vision, but in essence they were also acting out their own story: the story of their small town in the late 1990s and their incredibly sub-standard educational apparatus. There are such poignant scenes in the film that still dart through my mind: when the young teacher (she's just a young teenage girl) makes all the schoolkids go with her to some brickyard to stack bricks in hope of making some money (so that she can afford to travel to the city to find a missing student?). They don't really know what they are doing, but they just mess around with the bricks until the brickyard supervisor finds them and scolds them for messing everything up (a commentary on capitalism/wage labor?). Or when she takes the kids into a small shop because they are all dehydrated (from moving bricks) but she can only afford one coca-cola and so they all have to take little sips and share the one can among all. She eventually does go into the big city to find that missing student, and those scenes of her and the student living on the streets without shelter or food are so moving, not least because they capture what in the 1990s - and still today - was such an important trend in Chinese history: the rural to urban migration which probably constitutes the world's largest ongoing migration at the moment. (Many rural Chinese end up jobless and homeless once they make it to the big city; this was a trend I myself witnessed in Kunming when I was there in 2004.) A great documentary film about this trend is Last Train Home (2009).

Everything Zhang has made since Hero in 2002, in my opinion, has been pretty shallow. Many have accused him of selling out to the government. For example, he was intimately involved in designing the 2008 Olympic ceremony for the state, as many of his critics tirelessly point out. I don't blame him for switching up his style, but nothing will ever match the excellence he produced between Ju Dou (1990) and Not One Less/The Road Home (1999). (I haven't said anything yet about Ju Dou. Actually, it was my favorite Chinese film for many years after returning from Kunming. I'm not sure if it Zhang Yimou at his peak, but it is an incredibly beautiful movie [as always]: great color, composition, great use of sound, and in this one, too, great character development and storytelling. I think that this film really showcases Gong Li at her best.)

Now, there are other great mainland Chinese film directors other than Zhang Yimou! I just think his work from the 1990s is by far the best! I already mentioned Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin. The movie begins with awesome shots of chariots traveling across the barren land, and the rest of the movie really does wonders in terms of showing us life in the third century BCE before China was unified. It also was an early vehicle for one of my favorite Chinese actresses, Zhou Xun, who plays a blind girl whose entire family is murdered and then kills herself. Another well-received movie of Chen's is Together (2002) about a child violinist. I saw the film in 2005 but hardly remember it now. However, Chen is most famous for one of the great Chinese films of all time: Farewell My Concubine (1993). I believe I saw the film for the first time in Kunming, and like many others, I can hardly remember it today (which I guess isn't a good sign). But I do remember that it portrayed the communist-era, but also introduced viewers like myself to the traditional art of jingju, or Beijing opera. I really want to see it again to revive my memory. Finally, Chen's debut movie, Yellow Earth (1984), with a cinematographic debut also by Zhang Yimou, is widely considered one of the great Chinese films of all time - perhaps even more so than Farewell my Concubine. I watched the whole thing in chunks on youtube a few days ago. All I can say is that, even by 1984, Zhang definitely had his "look" down in terms of cinematography. The movie speaks wonders about the young branch of film students (Chen, Zhang, etc.) who came out in less than a decade after Mao's death (1976) and the end of the Cultural Revolution, whereas for many decades before that all films in the mainland were basically connected in some way with the state's propaganda apparatus. I also love Yellow Earth because it honestly portrays the promises of communism for women's rights, at least how it looked to many Chinese in the late 1930s.

Watch the first four or five minutes of the opening of The Emperor and the Assassin to see the great war scene with horse-drawn chariots that I love so much:

Other great films? Wu Tianming's The King of Masks (1996) is great storytelling. It deals with issues of gender, specifically whether or not a young girl is as valuable to the aging street performer (the king of masks) as a son would be. He, of course, overcomes his sexism and embraces the girl. It is a multiple-kleenex movie! Huo Jianqi's Postmen in the Mountains (1999), which I saw at Middlebury in 2005, I really like because it tells a story of rural China. Its depiction of local peoples and villages in Hunan Province reminded me a lot of what I myself saw in Yunnan.

Another great director of the past decade is Lou Ye. His rise to fame was with the 2000 film Suzhou River, which I saw in 2004 or 2005, but again I can hardly remember it now. It showed the gritty side of modern China. And it was a break-out role for Zhou Xun. Lou's Summer Palace (2006), however, is one of the greatest Chinese films I have ever seen. Not all would agree with me on this, but for me, this is a masterpiece. I'm sort of surprised I liked it so much - but the film moved me to tears and chills so many times. It tells the story of an unhappy, lonely, confused college student in Beijing during the late 1980s in the days leading up to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989. That's the first half of the film. Then the second half takes us through the 1990s to the turn of the twenty-first century. We see a girl who had a million and one things to rebel against in the 1980s slowly turn into apathetic mush in the decade following China's crackdown on students. Some of her friends leave for Germany where they imagine they'll have more freedoms, but they seem unhappy there, too. The film is noted for containing enormous amounts of graphic sexual scenes, which is true, but these served as important windows into the girl's life, into what bothered her or what was important to her. I love the bar scenes where we see 1980s China thrown full-throttle into globalization after decades of repression, with European and American music and fashion defining the opportunities the young woman and her friends imagine for themselves and their nation. All this is crushed in June 1989, of course. And the rest of this very long, slow-paced, quiet movie is just sadness as we know that the optimism of pre-June 1989 can never be recovered. Best movie about 1989 hands-down.

I must also say that another one of the best Chinese films of the past decade is Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002) based on the director's own semi-autobiographical memoir of the same name. It tells the story of two very smart, educated boys who are sent out into the countryside during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. There they teach a little Chinese seamstress (Zhou Xun) about the French writer Balzac. It is a simple story, but speaks to the power of learning and knowledge, and arts and literature, and the value of foreign influences, all during a period when the PRC had closed China off to foreign thought, culture and influence. The point might be made a bit heavy-handedly, but I found the storytelling beautiful overall.

I have tried to get into the films of Wang Xiaoshuai, such as So Close to Paradise (1998) about some shady deal gone awry...two guys have to find this Vietnamese night-club singer about something...(I gave up part-way through!). His Beijing Bicycle (2001) I saw at some point within the past five years, and I remember it being at least better than So Close. I have also had a lot of trouble getting into Jia Zhangke's films, such as Platform (2000), which was just too subtle and slow for me! I am interested in seeing his more recent Still Life (2006) about a family from a village along the Yangzi River that will be flooded by the Three-Gorges Dam. I recently saw an amazing documentary about the same subject: Up the Yangtze (2007) which I recommend to anyone interested in learning more about social and economic issues in modern China.

In the past year or so I've also seen Blind Shaft (2003) (about the ruthlessness of unemployment, labor exploitation, and other nasty effects of capitalism in modern China), Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004) (about efforts to stop the poaching of wild animals in Tibet; it's a fictional account, but concerns a true problem. Great for an environmental history course, especially after reading Karl Jacoby's Crimes Against Nature), and Tuya's Marriage (2007) (about a Mongolian woman in modern China - in Nei Menggu [Chinese-controlled Mongolia]; really nice flick). Now, in the past five years, the number of films coming out of China has increased so rapidly, it is impossible to keep up with them. Huge blockbuster films like John Woo's Red Cliff (2008-2009) have made China's film industry into a true rising giant, and I fear this spells the end for the art-house days of the 1990s. (Of course, banned filmmakers like Lou Ye, and other Chinese overseas directors will continue to make good art-house films.) (As for Woo's Red Cliff, I turned it off after 10 minutes; too much ridiculous violence!)

Well, I'm sure I've left out many worthy films. And I know I've left out many unworthy films! For those unfamiliar with Chinese cinema, I hope this post encourages you to check out some of these great films. I myself am reminded that I need to review many of these films, as clearly I have forgotten what many of them are about!! And for those who are connoisseurs of Chinese cinema, I am sure I have given ample evidence here to showcase my true ignorance on the matter, and I would appreciate all your criticisms of my judgements and/or interpretations!!!


Monday, April 18, 2011

After Slavery?


In the Torah is written a timeless story: a story of a people held in bondage in Egypt. These people were my people. Sometimes they are referred to as the "chosen" people, but I don't really believe that. We were not any more "chosen" than anyone else; until we can see that those who held us in bondage were just as important in God's eyes as we were, then we will never be truly whole. I do know that these people were of my blood, of my family line, my great, great, great, great, great, great, etc. (to the hundredth power) grandmothers and grandfathers. These people were held in a system of slavery, living under the rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. A man named Moses courageously led our people out of Egypt, out of slavery. He led us as we were chased into the howling desert, towards a very uncertain and unknowable future. Through shared sacrifice and struggle we became a people: Jewish people. A religion and way-of-life formed that would be alternately celebrated and attacked for the next thousands and thousands of years, all the way down to our present day. Jews around the world may have never fully escaped persecution, but for many of us, especially here in the U.S., we have moved, step-by-step, generation-by-generation, towards a more peaceful coexistence with peoples different than ourselves. Many of us, like myself, descend from a mix of Jews and Christians and non-believers. Faith for me is a matter of choice, not a matter of survival as it was for those who came before me and left their lives behind them in Egypt.

As I type this essay on the first night of Passover, I am munching on my first leaf of matzoh (unleavened bread; a kind of bland cracker really). Peanut butter and jelly style. :) In the desert outside of Egypt, my people did not have peanut butter and jelly. But today we eat the matzoh (however which way we like it!) to remember that when the opportunity came for the Jewish slaves to flee from Egypt, they did not have time for bread to rise. They had to gather their loved ones and a few things to munch on (like unleavened bread) and hit the road as fast as possible. So on Passover we eat matzoh, and refrain from eating leavened grains, for eight days so as to bodily re-experience and reimagine what it must have been like for our ancestors to courageously leave everything behind them and escape from slavery. Eating matzoh is not suffering, not like slavery. In its dry, bland taste and stale texture, though, it reminds us that liberation too can be a period of suffering, a period perhaps just as hard as slavery, a period when the ordered world becomes disordered, and the future appears so uncertain and so unknown that it is scarier than the past. Munching on matzoh makes me want to be just a little bit braver, a little bit more courageous, just like my ancestors were.


On Passover pasts, I, as the youngest child, used to have to ask the four questions. This was part of the tradition of the seder (the shared meal enjoyed on the first night of Passover, a meal that I had no one to share with this year). One question was always "What makes this night different than all other nights?" But this year we should be asking "What makes this year different than all other years?" I would answer: this year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War. Because of this, people are thinking about slavery more now than we have in many decades. Now we want to open up old wounds and ask the age-old question: was the Civil War fought over slavery, or states' rights, or both? (See an interesting poll of Americans' opinions on these sort of questions.) I am not a historian of the war itself, but I feel I can safely say that the war was about a lot of things, and since it has ended it has been reinterpreted to be about even more things. The search for one golden answer - a search deemed necessary by some on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum - is not true to history. History is messy, complicated, and ambiguous. There are no easy answers, and there shouldn't be.

But one fact of the Civil War is certain: slavery was legal before it, but illegal after it. African-Americans got their freedom. Historians of the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) know that "freedom" for these men and women was not all that it was cracked up to me. Blacks made incredible gains in the late 1860s only to see them torn down throughout the 1870s as the country settled into what was a comfortable retreat from radicalism and the embrace of a new system of racial politics called "Jim Crow." But there are parallels to the Jewish "exodus" here. Liberation, as I said, provides its own hardship. It often involves steps forward, steps back, and no consensus as to where the road is heading. In African-American history we can look forward to the 1950s and 1960s and see the incredible Civil Rights Movement as a second "exodus" from slavery. But that liberation, too, had its quagmires. Fits of radicalism are so often followed by fits of conservatism. We get stuck in complacency as we begin to celebrate the past more than we keep pushing forward towards the future. This Passover we might pat ourselves on the back for the successful exodus of African-Americans from slavery and segregation over two long centuries, but where are we now?

A recent book (The New Jim Crow - haven't read it, but heard lots about it) states that more African-Americans are held behind bars in prisons today than were enslaved in the 1850s. An upsetting statistic, no? I myself drove past two prisons - euphemistically termed "correctional facilities" - today on a drive around upstate New York. The Schenectady County Correctional Facility sits on the bottom of a hill below the neighborhood where the highest percentage of black families live. This is in my hometown: Schenectady, NY. I wanted to be able to see into the windowless facility and see the men inside. Why are they spending the first night of Passover in prison? Are they slaves? Serving what master? There is a long history in America of prisoners being used as forced labor - it's called convict labor. It is slavery. Forced labor under penalty of confinement or violence without any compensation goes by no other name here or anywhere else. So as I munch on matzoh, I remember the men and women behind bars tonight. I cry for them because the majority of them are there for sometimes minor offenses (possession of drugs), and those who are there for grave offenses were only led towards committing those offenses because of the poverty and disadvantage of the household or neighborhood they grew up in, or dare I say because of the color of their skin or the accent of their English...because the dominant white society never believed in them, and so they never believed in themselves. I munch my matzoh angrily tonight because more of the taxes I give to my government this month will go towards maintaining prisons rather than teaching tomorrow's potential prisoners the skills they need to fight back against slavery.


Following the U.S. Civil War, slavery was illegal in the United States. It had become illegal in many other developed nations earlier, and by the end of the nineteenth-century, as far as I know, slavery was - at least on paper - illegal throughout much of our world. The end of the African slave trade in the early nineteenth century, and the abolition of slavery throughout the nineteenth century, provided African migrants and their descendants with an "exodus" story to rival that of the Jews. But what happened next? Did all the cotton plantations in the south go bankrupt and turn back into meadows, forests, and swamps? Did all the sugar plantations in the Caribbean turn back into tropical forests? In an age when New World sugar, cotton, and labor made the world go round, who would do the work now that the Africans were "free"?

One of the often untold stories of slavery in the Americas is how quickly African slaves were replaced by Chinese and other Asian "coolies." Chinese had been emigrating across the Pacific in great numbers ever since the late 1840s (to California for gold) and early 1850s (when "coolie" importation began on Hawaiian sugar plantations). This was a time when Chinese laborers were also brought to Peru to mine guano and to Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean to harvest sugarcane. A great book on the late nineteenth century Chinese experience in Cuba is Lisa Yun's The Coolie Speaks, which uses the writings of Chinese plantation laborers to paint a picture of these men's cruel sufferings as"coolies." Being a "coolie" meant working as a contract laborer. The "contract" often involved an agreement whereby the laborer was bound to work for an employer for x amount of years until they could pay off the costs of their transport and other expenses. But coolies soon discovered that under conditions of wage slavery on the plantation they could never raise enough funds to purchase their freedom. Abolitionists who had fought against African slavery in the New World rapidly came to recognize that contract labor involving Chinese, Indians, and others was pretty much the same thing as slavery. Yun writes of Chinese men who suffered so deeply under this system that they threw themselves into the boiling pots of the sugar refinery just to avoid having to live another day as a slave to capitalism.

I recently finished reading another book called The New Chinatown about labor conditions in New York City's Chinatown in the 1980s and 1990s. Through this book I learned that the film I reviewed in my last post, Take Out (2004), was pretty much spot-on about modern-day living and working conditions for Chinese immigrants in the United States. Immigrants from Fujian - especially from the city of Fuzhou - are paying tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled illegally into the U.S. in hopes of making money for their families back home. But the reality - much as it was for Chinese "coolies" who took the same path over a hundred years ago - is that these men inevitably find it impossible to raise that kind of money once they arrive in New York. Immigrant men are hired by Chinese restaurants and women hired by garment factories. Their Chinese employers take ruthless advantage of them - even though it may be construed as their employers giving them a fair chance at work where otherwise they could not fairly compete against English-speaking non-Chinese laborers in the marketplace. But when it comes to breaking U.S. labor laws, this is not a fair excuse. The Fujianese are paid less than minimum wage, receive no benefits, are pressured - sometimes violently - to refrain from unionizing. They work well over forty hours a week. Unions and government officials and agencies alike largely steer clear of helping these men and women because they believe that Chinatown functions as a self-regulating city within a city. But that way of thinking only allows the most powerful elite of the neighborhood to set the undemocratic rules for everyone else. A simple look at a map of NYC census data and we see that the lowest household incomes, the lowest monthly rents, the lowest levels of educational attainment on the lower half of the island of Manhattan are congregated in Chinatown. Therefore, disengagement with Chinatown by those on the outside of the Chinese community does not help those within. It only serves to continue to allow wage slavery to fester in the sores of this city.

I will chew another slice of matzoh now. To remember all the illegal immigrants in NYC tonight who have gotten themselves in between a rock and a hard place and are subjected to the most ruthless exploitation. The men and women from Fujian who came here illegally remain enslaved to the "snakeheads" - the human traffickers who bribed them here in the first place. In turn, they remain enslaved to their employers in the vain hope of earning enough wages in order to one day pay off the "snakehead" so that they may then begin saving for their own future. But in the meantime they are just treading water, living in modern-day slavery in a city that never sleeps, a city that moves so fast that no one notices them here among us, holding together our world of fast cars and bright lights with their aching backs and tired hearts. I don't even know how to lead these men and women out of slavery, or who their Moses will be, or when or why their "exodus" will take place, but this Passover I hope that liberation comes to them - my neighbors - as soon as can be.


Finally, I bite off another piece of matzoh tonight for all the animals enslaved in factory farms. I read a great book in college called The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. When I proposed to my colleagues and administrators that someone should teach a course on the history of animal slavery so that we young folks could go out in the world with the tools necessary in order to abolish this evil practice, I remember one faculty member pulling me into his office where he said that: he appreciated my passion and my ideas, but calling agriculture "animal slavery" was going too far. I disagreed. I still disagree.

I cannot hash out all the arguments that have gone back and forth for decades about whether or not animals are enslaved. I have tried to be careful and considerate in this post in my discussion of prisoners and wage laborers so as not to fully conflate these conditions with actual slavery, but I hope rather to suggest that the similarities between these various conditions might be more significant and useful to our own thought and action than analyzing the differences between them. For many readers, the largest leap might be from considering human slavery to considering animal slavery. On Passover many families will recognize the parallels between our story - the Jewish "exodus" - and the story of African-American history. Fewer, I bet, will think of the plight of Mexican and Chinese immigrants in the U.S. today and the unjust labor conditions under which they work. Many will outright disagree with me when I say that: these people should not be blamed or ignored for coming here illegally, but they should rather be unionized, protected by our laws, educated of their rights - their God-given human rights that transcend the policies and politics of any party, any state, any nation. But how many will join me in calling for animal liberation as well?

When humans are held in slavery, they are confined to a proscribed space and their mobility is severely limited. Their offspring automatically become the property of their parents' master; the reproductivity of the female human fully becomes the productivity of the masters' economy; in what Foucault has called "bio-power" or "bio-politics," the master controls the women's body in order to make her produce more human labor for the benefit of the master's economy. On factory farms, animals are similarly confined indoors and sometimes in cages - such as the battery cages chickens are held in - where their mobility is so limited that they cannot even fully extend their wings or turn themselves around. Imagine being forced to stand in one position for weeks on end. With extreme pain, your muscles slowly atrophy until they can no longer function. Watch a video of a chicken removed from a battery cage after weeks of confinement and you can see that the bird cannot move on its own; furthermore, its bones have become so brittle, even gentle human handling at that point will break them. Consider pigs or cattle: the females' reproductivity is controlled by the master with fine tuning. She is continually re-impregnated again and again until her body can no longer serve that role. She becomes a machine, tuned to the needs of a human economy rather than to the call of her own body.

My definition of slavery is a state wherein a sentient being is held against his or her will and forced to labor for the benefit of someone else. African-Americans did this in the early nineteenth-century South; Chinese did this in late nineteenth-century Cuba; Chinese in Chinatown today do this, although with varying degrees of "freedom." But I am not yet convinced that seeking gainful employment - which is what today's immigrants hope for - is an exercise in "freedom." Is it not just because we live in such a class-stratified society that those on the bottom are forced to work not just one job, but two, or three, to work over forty hours a week, or to accept substandard wages, etc.? Is it not just because of global capitalism and global "savage inequalities" (the phrase is from Jonathan Kozol's book about socio-economic inequality in the U.S.) that certain citizens of the world must break laws in order to find work, to find wages, to somehow keep their families alive? Karl Marx saw things for what they were, and so presciently saw them for what they would become when he described a global system of slavery disguised as a fair handshake between capital and labor in an economic marketplace. But is wage-slavery slavery?

Anyway, I should get back to my point about animals, but the matzoh is beginning to make my mouth dry and I need to get up, stretch, and drink water. Moses and my ancestors did not have the luxury of tap water in the desert. The truth is that they probably had more access to water and good food (like leavened bread) in Egpyt - in slavery - than they did on the long march to freedom. I am reminded once again that liberation can be just as hard as slavery. The point of this essay was to argue just that: that global "liberation" has been a long and arduous march, and in many ways a failed one, too. Liberation did not really occur after African slavery was abolished in the Atlantic World, nor after the "coolie" system was abolished in the Pacific World. The best efforts of Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists in the twentieth-century also did not abolish slavery. And even the best efforts of vegans and vegetarians have made little real impact on the global abolition of animal slavery. So as we remember the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, or the anniversary of the Jewish "exodus" from Egypt that we celebrate tonight as Passover, we must keep close to our hearts the understanding that there was no time in history "after slavery." Slavery still lives with us. Slavery is the history of now. Sex slavery and sex trafficking are perhaps the most well-known examples, but we should also consider the exploitation of illegal immigrants, of prisoners, and of animals as serious threats to justice, equality, and righteousness in our world.

If you are celebrating Passover this week, please join with me in remembering all who are oppressed and all who are enslaved. Also please consider doing something - I don't know what, but be creative!! - to help ease the lives of those living today in slavery, or to help them in their liberation as they head out into the desert.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Film Review: The History of Now: Take Out (2004)

Among historians, I must not be alone in this feeling: I am struck sometimes - like right now - by how irrelevant, how seemingly meaningless even, my own research feels to me. For a moment I step back from the incessant reading, writing, critiquing, musing, trying to be original and creative, trying to push boundaries, trying to add to my CV, and I am struck by the thought that "this is all meaningless." Last time this struck me I wrote a blog post called "Am I White?," trying to see how an application of the critical deconstruction of race that we so commonly do as historians might feel like if I were to actually apply it to myself. (It actually felt quite good I must say; I did not mind being deconstructed; it was sort of cathartic and refreshing, although it wasn't really fair because at the end of the day I still had almost no control over my racial identity; whether or not I constructed myself as "white" or as anything else, when I stepped out onto the street after blogging everyone still saw me the way they wanted to: white man, gay man, gringo, Jew, general "dirtbag"; believe me, depending on what street I am on, at what time of day, wearing what clothes, and surrounded by what people, I have been constructed as all these things and more! I do not believe we have very much control over how we enter history; it is quite often through others' eyes that we live out our lives.)

But anyway, here I am again with that feeling of "so what?" about the whole big thing called "history."

I have been spending a lot of time in Chinatown recently. There is nothing romantic about the place. Yes, it looks, sounds, smells, and tastes different than any other part of Manhattan; I guess that is what attracts so many tourists, even though this is such an un-touristized place. Contrast Chinatown with Little Italy (which now exists in a bubble within Chinatown along a few blocks of Mulberry Street) and the difference between the history of the past and the history of now becomes apparent. In Little Italy there are strategically placed men who "perform" Italian-ness to those who walk by. They are employed by the Italian restaurants to entice customers to come inside. They "look" and "talk" Italian-American, with the thickest Nu Yawk accents, hair slicked back, suave, handsome: everything a non-New Yorker, non-Italian-American expects to find in a New York Italian. Nearby are shops selling shirts and fake license plates commodifying cultural stereotypes about Italian-American-ness, ranging from references to the Godfather, to the Sopranos, to Jersey Shore.

One block to the east runs the parallel corridor of Mott Street. Along Mott the Chinese shop-owners keep ridiculously long and steady hours, selling all kinds of dried fruits, fresh vegetables, and odorous fish that to the non-Chinese sometimes look or smell like something from out of this world. No one is dressed up in stereotypically Chinese costume here; there is no masquerade. Here are simply a sea of men, women, and children of all ages, many of the adults holding red plastic bags full of market purchases. The items are by and large unappealing to the non-Chinese passerby; to them each organism on display is a signifier of an exoticized Chinese history and culture, but to the residents here they are food, they are fresh, and they are yummy. To be fair, some are also signifiers of the homeland across the ocean; others are signifiers of the new world yet to be understood here. Depending on where one stands in his or her own life history, these street scenes appear as remarkably different productions. The language heard here on Mott Street is Cantonese, or Fujianese, or sometimes Mandarin. People live here. People work here. These people have histories; they have stories to tell. There is a great diversity to the Chinese-American experience in Chinatown. Its richness overflows the bounds of whatever we think "Chinatown" spatially or conceptually is. And whether or not "Chinatown" even exists beyond the way we discursively construct it - and who is the "we" here constructing it anyway? - is definitely open to question.

Chinatown, NYC, 2010.
There is not even a single person depicted in my photograph. Yet we think we know what should be happening at street level because of the "foreignness" of the signs hanging from the buildings. The signs then, even when we can't read them, speak to us via our cultural assumptions and stereotypes about what "Chinatown" is or should be. But as much as we strive to "construct" Chinatown, what happens on the street is not ours to fully know. The historian here can have his "Pacific Dreams," but he can hardly be a true witness to the Chinese immigrant's New York life.

The History of Now

What do I mean then by "the history of now." I guess this phrase helps me differentiate between the history I usually concern myself with at school - the history of the past - and that which is taking place right now, right here, that is of the utmost presentist relevance and significance to real people. Now, usually historians shy away from "presentist" concerns, for our relationships with the present here-and-now supposedly threaten to obstruct the supposed "objectivity" we are supposed to bring, and sometimes falsely believe we can bring, to the past. (Note how many times I used the word "supposed" in that sentence.) Some say "the past is a foreign country," but it is equally a creation of the present. And it is sometimes unmistakably familiar to us in the here-and-now in a way that would be completely foreign to past persons if they could see the way we now see them. That is because we make history in the present as we interpret that so-called past, but the history always exists now as we think about it, not back then when it supposedly happened. If you agree with me on this score, then we might agree that the "history of now" is just as fair game for historians as the "history of then." I am not sure yet of what methodologically a historian would have to do differently to make sense of the now versus the past, but we surely have a good tool kit already for dealing with both eras in my opinion.

Take Out

"Take Out" is a 2004 independent film directed by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou. It was filmed in 2003 in New York City using both professional and non-professional actors. (For example, the woman who plays the counter lady at the Chinese restaurant featured in the film is actually a real worker at a Chinese restaurant! But she is also an amazing actor!!). The film is shot in an Upper West Side Chinese restaurant, and we see into the lives of the restaurant's many employees, each of whom had migrated to New York City from China during their own lives. The protagonist, Ming, is a young man who was smuggled illegally from China to Canada, and then into the United States. He took this risky journey because he wants to raise funds for his wife and child back home in China; whether he wants to bring them here to New York, or just return home to China someday (somehow) with cash on hand, is not totally clear. His situation speaks to Chinatown's true "history of now": immigration from mainland China is near an all-time high. Most immigrants coming to Chinatown in the most recent decades have come from the Fuzhou region of Fujian Province. Here in NY they have overwhelmed the previous Cantonese community (from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province) that had once held this Chinatown together since as early as the 1880s. The Cantonese fabric of Chinatown now unravels under the weight of the recent Fujianese immigration; the Cantonese community's long and uniquely American history, dating back as far as the Chinese '49ers who pioneered California ("Gold Mountain"), is rapidly becoming the "history of then," subsumed by a new Chinese-American "history of now."

In 1993, the Golden Venture, a ship carrying nearly 300 illegal Chinese immigrants from Fujian, grounded in the Rockaways in the borough of Queens. The men were apprehended; some were deported; some detained in U.S. prisons for years; some apparently brokered off to other foreign nations as laborers. This event in 1993 helped to raise American public awareness of illegal immigration from China, but today there seems to be little mainstream recognition of this ongoing "history of now." Our mainstream media is so overly concerned about the U.S.-Mexico border, and it is true that Mexican immigration to the U.S. today surpasses all other nations of origin. But Chinese are number two. The borders of New York City - its harbor, its train and bus depots, it streets - are an oft-forgotten frontline of illegal immigration that rivals our border with Mexico. (I am certainly not trying to raise some kind of anti-immigrationist alarm here, because what I see wrong with this situation is not government immigration policy nor the policing of our borders, but rather larger issues of global capitalism and the exploitation of New York's hidden underclass of undocumented workers by law-breaking employers.) Fujianese immigration to New York City has made Manhattan's Chinatown the largest overseas Chinese neighborhood in the world. Queens' Flushing is now a close second. Both neighborhoods have about 300,000 Chinese residents. The number of undocumented residents is not known.

"Take Out" follows a day in the life of Ming, a delivery man for an Upper West Side Chinese restaurant. He owes debt to a "loan shark" who forwarded money to Ming to help him pay off the incredible debt that he owes thanks to his having been smuggled here. Apparently smuggling from China to North America can cost a man tens of thousands of dollars. This isn't too off from the history of the past, too, when Chinese "coolies" signed contracts in Hong Kong in the decades following the Opium War (1839-1842) for work abroad, in California, in Australia, in Peru, in Cuba. They soon discovered that paying off the debts of their voyages, or freeing themselves from their contracts by purchasing their own freedom, was almost a total impossibility. "Coolie" employers stacked the cards against the Chinese workers, trapping them in virtual enslavement. European and American abolitionists fighting African slavery at the time rightly labelled the Chinese "coolie" trade as slavery by another name. This history survives in New York today in the many "Chino-Latino" restaurants serving hybridized cuisine descended from the kitchens of Chinese immigrants to Central and South America, their grandparents and great-grandparents having migrated as "coolies" long ago to take the place of African slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations, for example.

"Take Out" is told completely from the immigrant workers' points of view. The language of the film is entirely in Mandarin. We only hear English from the restaurant's customers, who in typical American fashion mock and insult the Chinese workers for their poor English, "sloppy" dress, or otherwise "foreign" behavior. We see ever-so smartly through the film what the interface between Chinese-America and non-Chinese-America looks like: it exists in the tiny interstices of space and time where a door is partly opened to receive a delivery of fried rice and a meager tip is handed back the other way to the quiet Chinese laborer; it appears at the counter of the restaurant where customers talk in awkward grammar because they think (ridiculously) that talking in bad English will help the Chinese workers understand them better. The subtitling of the film helps us see what we usually can't hear, which is the frustration of the workers as they are insulted, and yet how they mock the customers in return, dishing insults right back at them in a language that the customers cannot understand.

"Take Out" seems so familiar to me, although I won't press that point too far because the gulf between my life and that of Ming's is incredibly wide - what, indeed, could be wider? But I will point out that I love riding my bike around Manhattan, including through Chinatown. When I see Ming riding his bike through Chinatown (as depicted in the film at times, even though the story is supposed to take place in the Upper West Side), I recall having seen guys like Ming riding behind, in front of, and beside me in the bike lanes everyday. Actually, in our neighborhood of the city, most of the bike-riding delivery men speak Spanish. Yet we, too, just like everyone else in this city, receive an ample share of Chinese restaurant menus stuck into the crevice of our apartment door, or slipped underneath it. This film shows us how a worker like Ming tries to fit in slipping menus underneath doors while also transporting food all over the city at the same time. But I never actually see these people. And since we never order delivery, I never get the see the real face of the real Mings living in my community.

All this reminds me that history is taking place right now. Not in my head, nor in my books, nor in this blog I am presently typing - although these are all examples of a type of "history" - but on the streets, on the bikes, plastic bags with smily-faces flailing in the wind hanging from the handlebars, rain pouring down, heavy chain bike locks worn over the shoulder like Mr. T, debts owed, families separated by oceans, neighbors separated by language, each block of this city separated by almost unbelievable disparities of race and class. This is the history of now. And who will say that this story deserves less attention from historians than those only found in library books?

The fact is, for me, that I want to see many histories - then and now, here and there - all alive now. Men and women are acting out roles that have happened many times before, and yet their individual experiences are absolutely unique. "Chinatown" is a construction, no doubt about it. It is constantly made and remade, not so much by theorists or historians, but by each new wave of immigrants or each new generation of Chinese-Americans that live in this space. It is a space that was once Irish and African-American, later Jewish and Italian, and only now is colonized by so many men and women from Fujian. But all these histories continue to be and continue to act upon the now. The buildings on each block represent the architecture of scattered eras; the people on the block represent the consequences of varied trajectories: while the Taiwanese flags flap in the wind outside the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Mott Street, delivery men quietly hold nationalistic pride in the People's Republic they left behind. Born in the era of Deng Xiaoping and the economic modernizations of the 1980s, delivery men like Ming see a different history of China than those who lived through Mao's rise to power in 1949 or through his failed Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Teenage kids who know nothing but life in New York play in Sara Roosevelt Park with white, black, and brown kids of other national and ethnic origins. What does "history" matter to them? And whose history matters? Is theirs a story of America, or of China, or of both? How many people walking these streets think of themselves as "transnational actors," as we would say in our silly academic jargon? Do they really inhabit a "hybrid" space, or a "middle-ground," or are these simply the fictions of us historians? Does the idea of "transnationality" or of "transculturation" have any meaning for them? And if these terms do not have meaning, what then should we be actually writing about? I can read all I want into the historical landscape of Chinatown, but I can't read Ming's mind, nor anyone else's here. The history of now is one thing to me, but what I think about Chinese-American history probably matters little to the way Ming sees his own history. Can we say one perspective is any better than the other? Certainly not.

Columbus Park, Chinatown, 2010.
An eerie scene of emptiness. Where are the majiang-playing men and those who crowd around and watch and cheer? Where are the taiji-devoted men and women synchronizing the movements of their bodies? Where is the lone man playing his erhu? Will Chinatown always "perform" its Chinese-ness as I expect it? No. The truth is that I approach this space seeking a history of the past performed in the present, but the people here are actually living the history of now, and I don't know the first damn thing about that.