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Transpacific Worlds: Visualizing Asian America in Chan is Missing and Dim Sum

  • Edward Tang


In a 1990 interview for the Bill Moyers television series A World of Ideas, the Asian-American writer Bharati Mukherjee assessed the cultural experiences of Asian immigrants in the Americas. Playing on the rhetoric of 19th-century Manifest Destiny, she asserted that Asian immigrants should come to America to “conquer” it, to possess the nation and make its ideals their own. After all, she argued, many of the original Euro-American pioneers and settlers had been “hustlers” capable of great violence in their westward conquest of the land and native peoples. Arriving from the East, Asian immigrants metaphorically would have to do battle to make the nation more inclusive, and actively overthrow their colonized images as “outsiders” or “Orientals” that have dominated American culture to this day. Doing so, however, requires that these newcomers to the West also “murder” their old selves. In her novel Jasmine (1989), Mukherjee elaborates: “There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself. We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams.” Because America represents a “stage for transformation,” as she tells Moyers, these dreams of hope, of having choices and opportunities, are being claimed and reinvented continuously as different waves of new arrivals modify or challenge the rules of interaction. Asian immigrants must therefore cast off their stifling Old World traditions, ones that perpetuate “cynicism, irony, and despair” when reconstructing and negotiating through a cultural order now altered by their very presence in the United States.



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1. Bharati Mukherjee, interview by Moyers, Bill, “Conquering America,” in A World of Ideas (Public Affairs Television, 1990; and Films for the Humanities, 1994). For a discussion on images of Orientals in American culture, see Lee, Robert G., Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999).

2. Mukherjee, Bharati, Jasmine (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989), 29.

3. Ibid, 241. See also Wong, Sau-Ling Cynthia, Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 5355; and Tapping, Craig, “South Asia Writes North America: Prose Fictions and Autobiographies from the Indian Diaspora,” in Reading the Literatures of Asian America, ed. Lim, Shirley Geok-lin and Ling, Amy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 285301.

4. Wang's film versions of San Francisco's Chinatown offer specific case studies that might bridge the tensions and paradoxes between transpacific and local orientations that Asian American studies is confronting. Arif Dirlik summarizes this quandary, noting that adopting a transpacific identity challenges exclusionary ideas of the nation-state. But this expanded identity may also serve to marginalize ethnic minorities more because of its lack of any base from which to organize and resist oppressive structures and acts. On the other hand, the growth of Asian American political consciousness that emerged from the 1960s, situated to fight the history of U.S. racism and other inequities, now fails to take into account the diversity of the new immigrants from Southeast Asia. These newer immigrants often have closer ties to Asia than America and are more economically distinct from each other than earlier immigrant groups. Dirlik sees the need to accentuate local, everyday experiences in terms of how Asians negotiate the American environment in a global context (see Dirlik, Arif, “Asians on the Rim: Transnational Capital and Local Community in the Making of Contemporary Asian America,” in Across the Pacific: Asian Americans and Globalization, ed. Hu-DeHart, Evelyn [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999], 2960).

For other views on how hybrid, transpacific identities complicate Asian American cultural politics, and vice versa, see Lowe, Lisa, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 6083; Buell, Frederick, National Culture and the New Global System (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 177216; Wong, Sau-Ling C., “Denationalization Reconsidered: Asian American Cultural Criticism at a Theoretical Crossroads,” in Adaptation, Acculturation, and Transnational Ties Among Asian Americans, ed. Ng, Franklin (New York: Garland, 1998), 225–51; and Chun, Gloria Heyung, Of Orphans and Warriors: Inventing Chinese American Culture and Identity (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 97153.

5. Dialogue on Film: Wayne Wang,” American Film 11 (07/08 1986): 18. Although Wang specifically mentions how the triangular relationship came about in Dim Sum, the idea can be applied as well to Chan is Missing, since Chan Hung is, after all, a character in his own right who influences the interactions between Jo and Steve.

6. Francia, Luis H., “Inventing the Earth: The Notion of ‘Home’ in Asian American Literature,” in Hu-DeHart, , Across the Pacific, 204.

7. Ibid, 205.

8. Howe, Joyce, “No More Suzie Wongs: Chinese Women in the Movies,” Village Voice 30 (08 27, 1985): 6061. See also Hwang, David, “Are Movies Ready for Orientals?New York Times 134 (08 11, 1985), sec. 2, p. 21. Hwang makes a similar remark about the wondrous experience of seeing familiar images of “relatives” on screen.

9. Francia, , “Inventing the Earth,” 195, 199.

10. Ibid, 202.

11. “Dialogue on Film,” 18.

12. Sakamoto, Janice, “‘Of Life and Perversity’: Wayne Wang Speaks,” in Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts, ed. Leong, Russell (Los Angeles: UCLAAsian American Studies Center; and Visual Communications, Southern California Asian American Studies Central, 1991), 72.

13. For a wider context in which Wayne Wang created his independent projects, see Xing, Jun, Asian America Through the Lens: History, Representations, and Identity (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira, 1998), 2028; Hamamoto, Darrell Y., “Introduction: On Asian American Film and Criticism,” in Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, ed. Hamamoto, Darrell Y. and Liu, Sandra (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 120.

14. Hall, Stuart, “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” Framework 36 (1989): 7072.

15. Lowe, , Immigrant Acts, 65.

16. For discussions of transatlantic communities, from which I appropriate, see Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). See also Chambers, Iain, Migrancy, Culture, and Identity (New York: Routledge, 1994); and Xing, , Asian America, 206–7.

17. Wills, Garry, Reagan's America (New York: Penguin, 1988), 926, 103–11. See also Jeffords, Susan, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 315; Nadel, Alan, Flat-lining on the Field of Dreams: Cultural Narratives in the Films of President Reagan's America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997); Slotkin, Richard, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 643–54; and Engelhardt, Tom, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (New York: Basic, 1995), 263–82.

18. Wills, , Reagan's America, 448–60.

19. For overviews, see Tajima, Renee, “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking, 1970–1990,” in Leong, , Moving the Image, 1033; and Xing, , Asian America, 175–98.

20. Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993); and Jen, Gish, “Challenging the Asian Illusion,” New York Times 140 (08 11, 1991): sec. 2, pp. 1, 12. See also Fung, Richard, “Seeing Yellow: Asian Identities in Film and Video,” in The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s, ed. Aguilar-San Juan, Karin (Boston: South End, 1994), 161–71.

21. Balio, Tino, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939, vol. 5 of History of American Cinema, gen. ed. Harpole, Charles (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993), 316, 317; Jen, , “Challenging the Asian Illusion,” sec. 2, p. 12; and Daniels, Roger, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 149–52.

22. Hawley, Sandra M., “The Importance of Being Charlie Chan,” in America Views China: American Images of China Then and Now, ed. Goldstein, Jonathan, Israel, Jerry, and Conroy, Hilary (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1991), 137–38.

23. Biggers quoted in Hawley, , “Importance of Being Charlie Chan,” 136; and Kim, Elaine, “Asian Americans and American Popular Culture,” in Dictionary of Asian American History, ed. Kim, Hyung-Chan (New York: Greenwood, 1986), 105–7.

24. Kim, , “Asian Americans,” 107.

25. Jerry Sherlock quoted in Gok, Forrest, “The Canning of Charlie Chan,” Bridge: Asian American Perspectives 7 (Winter 19811982): 32.

26. Canby, Vincent, “Charlie Chan Back Wearing a Ustinov Mask,” New York Times 130 (02 13, 1981): C6

27. Davidson, Cathy, “Commentary on Alice Kessler-Harris, ‘Cultural Locations: Positioning American Studies in the Great Debate,’” in Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline, ed. Maddox, Lucy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 350.

28. Engelhardt, , End of Victory Culture, 365.

29. Renee Tajima and Lew, Walter, “Will It Play in Peoria? Wang on Chan,” Bridge: Asian American Perspectives 8 (Summer/Fall 1982): 41; and Dittus, Erick, “Chan is Missing: An Interview with Wayne Wang,” Cineaste 12 (1983): 20.

30. Sandra Liu, “Negotiating the Meaning of Access: Wayne Wang's Contingent Film Practice,” in Hamamoto and Liu, , Countervisions, 108, fn. 27.

31. Jeffries, John, “Toward a Redefinition of the Urban: The Collision of Culture,” in Black Popular Culture, a project by Michelle Wallace, ed. Dent, Gina (Seattle: Bay, 1992), 163.

32. Gok, , “Canning of Charlie Chan,” 32, 41.

33. Drinnon, Richard, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), 255332; and Okihiro, Gary Y., Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 2728. Manifestations of the Pacific world appeared earlier in the 18th-century American mind-set (see Leon W., M. Consuelo, “Foundations of the American Image of the Pacific,” Boundary 2 21 [1994]: 1729).

34. LaFeber, Walter, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), 6372, 8095; and Drinnon, , Facing West, 219351.

35. Connery, Christopher L., “Pacific Rim Discourse: The U.S. Global Imaginary in the Late Cold War Years,” Boundary 2 21(1994): 3056; and Connery, , “The Oceanic Feeling and the Regional Imaginary,” in Global / Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary, ed. Wilson, Rob and Dissanayake, Wimal (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 299303.

36. Takaki, Ronald, Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (New York: Penguin, 1989), 419–32.

37. For extended discussions of these two films, see Lee, , Orientals, 196203; Marchetti, Gina, “Ethnicity, the Cinema, and Cultural Studies,” in Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema, ed. Friedman, Lester D. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 285–96; Studlar, Gaylyn and Desser, David, “Never Having to Say You're Sorry: Rambo's Rewriting of the Vietnam War,” in From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, ed. Dittmar, Linda and Michaud, Gene (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 101–12; and Gregory A. Waller, “Rambo: Getting to Win This Time,” in Dittmar and Michaud, , From Hanoi to Hollywood, 113–28.

38. Hwang, , “Are Movies Ready for Real Orientals?” 21. For other reviews that note the disparity between Dim Sum and Year of the Dragon in visualizing Asians, refer to Denby, David, “The Chinese Connection,” New York Times 18 (08 26, 1985): 101–4; Howe, , “No More Suzie Wongs,” 6061; and Sarris, Andrew, “Films in Focus: Dim Summer,” Village Voice 30 (08 20, 1985): 53.

39. Ritchie, Donald, Ozu (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), xi, 12.

40. Ibid, 1, 39, 235, 247.

41. “Dialogue on Film,” 18. See also Corliss, Richard, “Crosscutting Across Cultures,” Time 126 (08 5, 1985): 71; and Canby, Vincent, “Screen: ‘Dim Sum’ by Wang,” New York Times 134 (08 9, 1985): C14.

42. Maland, Charles J., Frank Capra (Boston: Twayne, 1980), 101–4; and Carney, Raymond, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 336.

43. Wong, K. Scott, “Chinatown: Conflicting Images, Contested Terrain,” MELUS 20 (Spring 1995): 4. Historically, the Chinatown community also has been shaped by the exclusion of Asian immigrants to the United States. See, for instance, the collection of essays in Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882–1943, ed. Chan, Sucheng (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991); and Wong, K. Scott and Chan, Sucheng, eds., Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities During the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998). Refer also to David Palumbo-Liu, , Asian / American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 4378.

44. Wong, , “Chinatown,” 11.

45. Chen, Yong, Chinese San Francisco, 1850–1943: A Trans-Pacific Community (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 3.

46. Ibid, 148–61. See also Armentrout Ma, L. Eve, “Chinatown Organizations and the Anti-Chinese Movement, 1882–1914,” in Chan, , Entry Denied, 147–69.

47. For a discussion of the class dynamics within Chinatown, see Kwong, Peter, Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor (New York: New, 1997).

48. Dittus, , “Chan is Missing,” 1819. Wang reveals that he initially had intended on including a black character in the film, but, for more structural cohesion, incorporated aspects of that character into Steve.


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