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Yellow Power

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This Clio Chang essay on a radical Asian-American newspaper she ran across is a good reminder that the history of Asian-America is not one of the modern stereotypes of “the good immigrants who assimilate” or whatever racist stereotype Andrew Sullivan wants to deploy to compare them to other racial minorities. It’s also a history of great oppression and, in the 1960s and 1970s, radicalism equal to that off Black Power, AIM, or the Chicano movement. That we forget this as a nation is on us not taking our history seriously.

One of the most enduring images of an Vietnam War protester is the controversial photograph of Jane Fonda, with short brown hair, sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam. Dubbed “Hanoi Jane,” Fonda’s face is often among the first that comes to mind when we think about the anti-war movement. Today, activists who continue to tell their stories are often white. The Asian American anti-war rabble rouser however, seems to hardly exist—there are virtually none on the list of interviewees in Ken Burns new highly-acclaimed Vietnam War documentary.

Yet two months before Fonda’s trip to Hanoi, a radical Asian American newspaper called Gidra viscerally undermined this idea. On the cover of their May 1972 issue was an illustration of a white officer ordering an Asian American soldier to “kill that gook, you gook!” Inside the paper was a piece detailing the participation of Asians in a recent march in Los Angeles, part of protests drawing out some 100,000 people across the country. In the familiar tone of an activist who was no stranger to marches, Steve Tatsukawa recounted procedure: “A sleepy Asian contingent met at Bronson and Eighth … [it] was one of seventeen in the march and someone had worked it out so we would be third in line right behind the Chicanos and the GI Vets.”

Gidra—whose name is a misspelling of King Ghidorah, a kaiju from the Godzilla franchise—ran for five years, from 1969 to 1974. It was started by five students from UCLA who decided to each pitch in $100 of their own seed money (“a huge amount for students at that time,” according to Mike Murase, one of the Gidra’s founders) to ensure that the paper would have editorial independence from the university. It ran pieces on everything from the war and the drug crisis among Japanese American youth to recipes and diagrams on how to fix your toilet.

Today, “Asian American” has mostly become a demographic signifier, but it was originally conceived as a political identity. Gidra was there to document this conception.

“It was the first voice of the Asian American movement,” Karen Ishizuka, author of the book, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, told me. “You really see it unfolding in real time, the concept of political identity and how it was created.” In the newspaper’s first issue, Larry Kubota wrote in an article on yellow power: “This is a new role for the Asian American. It is the rejection of the passive Oriental stereotype and symbolizes the birth of a new Asian—one who will recognize and deal with injustices.”

Perusing through the pages of Gidra, what I noticed most was its voice—irreverent and clever, proudly Asian and radical. Here was a political history I was vaguely familiar with but had never really seen laid out before me, an incarnation of unabashed Asian American radicalism so different from the image of the head-down, hard-working immigrant that dominates the mainstream.

Part of us forgetting about Asian-American radicalism is the geography and the numbers. In the aftermath of the World War II concentration camps, the Japanese-American population dispersed out of the West Coast after 1945. That left smaller numbers there, along with significant Chinese and smaller Korean and Filipino populations in LA, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, and not really too much else. Of course that has changed since the Immigration Act of 1965 and especially in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But it’s also important that we remember these histories and not fall into stereotypes ourselves.

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