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A Feeling of Belonging

Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930-1960

Shirley Lim

Publication Year: 2005

When we imagine the activities of Asian American women in the mid-twentieth century, our first thoughts are not of skiing, beauty pageants, magazine reading, and sororities. Yet, Shirley Jennifer Lim argues, these are precisely the sorts of leisure practices many second generation Chinese, Filipina, and Japanese American women engaged in during this time.

In A Feeling of Belonging, Lim highlights the cultural activities of young, predominantly unmarried Asian American women from 1930 to 1960. This period marks a crucial generation—the first in which American-born Asians formed a critical mass and began to make their presence felt in the United States. Though they were distinguished from previous generations by their American citizenship, it was only through these seemingly mundane “American”activities that they were able to overcome two-dimensional stereotypes of themselves as kimono-clad “Orientals.”

Lim traces the diverse ways in which these young women sought claim to cultural citizenship, exploring such topics as the nation's first Asian American sorority, Chi Alpha Delta; the cultural work of Chinese American actress Anna May Wong; Asian American youth culture and beauty pageants; and the achievement of fame of three foreign-born Asian women in the late 1950s. By wearing poodle skirts, going to the beach, and producing magazines, she argues, they asserted not just their American-ness, but their humanity: a feeling of belonging.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-ix

To paraphrase Alice Walker citing Toni Morrison, I wished to create a book that I should have been able to read in school, but had not found.1 Since there were no models for what I murkily envisioned, I considered “acceptable” topics, ranging from the social history of Chinese American women in Los Angeles to a labor/organizational history of Asian Americans and entertainment. After...

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pp. 1-10

Lightbulbs flash. Pop! This way Miss Wong, over here. She smiles, turns, then smiles at the camera from a different angle. Her straw coolie hat is set at a rakish angle. Fashion writers note the details of her cream suit that is cut in the current Western style with Chinese fastenings, her rectangular clutch handbag made in Paris, customized with her Chinese name, Frosted Yellow Willow, in Chinese...

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1. “ A Feeling of Belonging”: Chi Alpha Delta, 1928–1941

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pp. 11-46

Spring 1941. The sun sparkles and the flowers glow against the terracotta-colored brick buildings at the University of California, Los Angeles. Imagine, if you will, that you are a new member of the sorority Chi Alpha Delta. You have just been initiated into membership with your eager pledge class and have just discovered that your sorority has the campus’s highest grade point average.1 For your first Spring Formal dance, your sorors suggest smooth dates...

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2. “I Protest”: Anna May Wong and the Performance of Modernity

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pp. 47-86

In the 1939 movie King of Chinatown, one first glimpses Chinese American actress Anna May Wong putting down her surgical implements, taking off her cap and mask after a successful emergency room operation. 1 King of Chinatown underscores the professional competence of Wong’s character, Dr.Mary Ling, for immediately after the surgery the Bay Area hospital director offers her the position...

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3. Shortcut to Glamour: Popular Culture in a Consumer Society [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 87-120

This chapter examines the paradox alluded to in the above quotations: in the post–World War II era, Asian Americans claimed modernity, cultural citizenship, and civil rights through consumer and youth cultures. According to many cultural critics, dominant hegemonic society uses consumer culture to make society accede to its will, not through coercion but by making its power seem natural and legitimate. Why, then, did the language and narratives...

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4. Contested Beauty: Asian American Beauty Culture during the Cold War

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pp. 121-154

In the post–World War II era, leading Asian American civil rights groups such as the Chinese American Citizens League and the Caballeros de Dimas Alang centered their annual meetings on beauty pageants. As the above Asian American press excerpts show, beauty pageants enjoyed tremendous salience. Other contemporary queen contests ranged from the one that selected the Cotton Queen to the Miss Portrait of Spring of Chicago, and from the Seattle...

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5. Riding the Crest of an Oriental Wave: Foreign-Born Asian “Beauty”

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pp. 155-188

In the span of a little over a year (1958–1959), Miyoshi Umeki won an Academy Award for best supporting actress, France Nuyen graced the cover of Life magazine, and Akiko Kojima was crowned Miss Universe. As Los Angeles’ Japanese American newspaper Kashu Mainichi observed, “in many fields of the arts the U.S. is riding the crest of an Oriental wave.”1 What distinguishes the late 1950s from the early Cold War era is that in the later period foreign-born Asian women gained...

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6. Conclusion

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pp. 189-190

Shortly after the demise of Scene magazine, in 1955 the Saturday Evening Post published an article on “California’s Amazing Japanese” that echoed Scene’s main theme: negating the racial hatreds that brought about internment by demonstrating liberal-democratic ideal consumer citizenship. The Saturday Evening Post profiled model Japanese American citizens and used that as evidence to condemn internment. Mainstream society thus mirrored Asian American aspirations...


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pp. 191-230


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pp. 231-239

About the Author

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p. 241

E-ISBN-13: 9780814765241
E-ISBN-10: 0814765246
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814751930
Print-ISBN-10: 0814751938

Page Count: 252
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 76898855
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Feeling of Belonging

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 1918-1945.
  • Single women -- United States -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • Young women -- United States -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • Asian Americans -- Cultural assimilation -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 1945-1970.
  • Popular culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Leisure -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Asian American women -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
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