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  • Tradition and the Movies: The Asian American Avant-Garde in Los Angeles
  • David James (bio)

“What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?”

(from The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston)


During her meditation on the relative importance of the nation and of family idiosyncrasies in the formation of Chinese American identity, Maxine Hong Kingston suddenly interjects an even more confounding uncertainty: “What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” 1 Each term in her antinomy has a spectrum of implications. Will identity be found in Asian—or in American culture (for surely “the movies” refers not to Chinese, but to Hollywood movies); in a premodern, pre-industrial culture—or in a modern industrial culture; in culture that emerges in an organic social process—or culture manufactured as a commodity? Though in Kingston’s formulation, these and other resonances are condensed, when unpacked they form a scaffold of competing images and vocabularies, of competing media systems and modes of cultural production, that all artists in the field must re-assemble in their own ways. And if Kingston herself found her most important sources in Chinese tradition, others have turned to the movies. The works this essay considers in detail—Sa-I-Gu, a video made by Korean American women and The Country of Dreams and Dust, a collection of poems written by [End Page 157] a Chinese American—make their various selections from among the options Kingston’s question implies. But both works were produced on the cultural margins in a way that I will argue can best be designated as avant-garde, and both encounter discriminations in ethnic and other forms of identity more complex than those Kingston envisaged. The essay proposes a spatial and materialist reading of the two works and of the cultural situation they reflect.

Over the past decade, theoretical writing from several perspectives has recognized that the global restructuring of capital and changes in the U.S. immigration laws have produced population movements throughout the Pacific region, transforming both the commonalty designated by the term, “Asian American,” and consequently the cultural activity associated with it. Coined in the late 1960s to reflect nationalistic political initiatives parallel to the black civil rights movement and the Chicano movement, Asian American initially referred to people of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino ancestry who had lived in the United States for many generations (as many as seven in the case of Chinese), and whose recent engagement with the mother nation had been distended or sporadic at best. Since then, there has been a massive influx of new immigrants, many coming from Korea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and other Asian countries that had previously been hardly represented. These new immigrant communities are characterized by an unprecedented flexibility in movement between Asia and the U.S. and hence by newly complex territorial identifications. 2

As a result, the overall category, Asian American, has become de-stabilized, and fragmented into a plurality of subdivisions, producing vertiginous complications in the theorization of structural social division, new obstacles to the building of social commonalties, and new uncertainties about the epistemological capacity of the concept, Asian American. These in turn have precipitated a crisis in the theorization of Asian American culture, more severe than those currently faced by the other ethnic groups in parallel to which it was initially formulated. Los Angeles has emerged as a privileged place for both the production and study of this new and newly complex Asian American culture. The concatenation of reasons for this extend and intensify the tension between the [End Page 158] indigenous traditions of local communities and the entertainment industry that Kingston proposed, as well as concretizing them in the geography of the city.

If, as Walter Benjamin claimed, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, Los Angeles’ situation as the capital of postmodernism and indeed late-capital itself affords it an equivalent status for the present time. The dispersed, polynucleated agglomeration of semi-autonomous communities in the basin proper and in the larger megalopolis that stretches almost unbroken from Santa Barbara to San Diego has become a primary text for postmodern geographers, who have proposed it as the blueprint for the urban transformations of the...

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pp. 157-180
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