A letter to the San Diego Opera regarding yellowface in their production of “Nixon in China”

In 2014, the San Diego Opera reached out to us at Pacific Arts Movement about helping them promote their production of “Nixon in China.” We had a meeting with them during which they explained to us that Mao would be played by a white actor. With that, we declined. To their credit, the opera invited us to write a letter to their staff and board about why we could not support yellowface. Honestly, I groaned at the whole thing and wondered why we had to waste mental energy on this age-old debate. But I wrote the letter, and years later I’m pleased that it became an important document for our organization internally.

At Pac Arts, we had originally toyed with the idea of publishing this letter publicly, but decided not to. Well, in case it’s useful to anybody today, here it is.

To the staff and board of the San Diego Opera,

First off, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to express our thoughts and concerns about the San Diego Opera’s upcoming presentation of Nixon in China. It tells us that the Opera is open to dialogue about issues important to the Asian American community, as well as to diversity in the San Diego region more generally.

Much of what I have to say is probably very familiar to the Opera, as it touches upon some of the central debates of American theater of the past few decades. That debate first came to a head in the late 1980s with the casting of Miss Saigon. Eyes shaped slanted by prosthetics, skin yellowed by bronzing lotion: Broadway saw the collision of yellow peril visual culture with the sordid history of blackface. More recently, we have seen similar controversies over the Nightingale at the La Jolla Playhouse, in which yellowface was defended on the grounds of artistic license, and yet the power dynamics of “color blindness” were clear: whites could play Asians but not the other way around. This year, a performance of The Mikado in Seattle sparked debate over whether yellowface could be defended on the grounds of historical preservation.

The very recourse to “historical accuracy” or “color blindness” indicates that by now, the theater community knows that yellowface is a stain in American theater that needs a new framework to think about acting, makeup, casting, and adaptation.  The conversation surrounding Nightingale and The Mikado raised important points about how this new framework might look, and all parties, including Asian Americans, understand the importance of artistic license and cultural preservation.  However, tensions still arise because the playing ground continues to be uneven.  Why are white producers always the only ones evoking artistic license?  Why are the only histories being preserved the histories of white theater?  This new framework cannot simply be devised to protect the interests of white theater artists, their stories, and their traditions.  Non-white communities like Asian Americans can feel when their voices aren’t taken seriously, even when they are offered a seat at the table.

Whether on film, on TV, or in the theater, the history of Asian American performance in the United States has been one of erasure.  Superstar Anna May Wong was denied a role in Hollywood’s high-profile adaption of The Good Earth, and was ultimately driven to Europe and Asia to seek out work.  Budding actor Bruce Lee was passed over for the lead in television’s Kung Fu in favor of a white actor with eyes taped back.  And repeatedly, Asian American theater actors see the most high-profile roles – especially lead roles – go to white counterparts donning yellowface.  This history is as tiring as the controversy that’s trailed it over the decades.  It reminds Asian Americans of their larger erasure from American life: Japanese American incarceration not being taught in schools even today, the significant populations of Asian Americans under the poverty line kept in the shadows thanks to mainstream perceptions of Asians as the “model minority,” the so-called “bamboo ceiling” that continues to keep Asian Americans out of positions of corporate and civic leadership.  Put in this context, any evocation of “color blindness” is as laughable as any proclamation of America being a “post-racial” nation.  Asian Americans groan at the thought of color blindness because every day they are the object of a racialized gaze.

As an artistic director, I take artistic license seriously. It is the lifeforce of creativity and a bastion for freedom of speech. But so rarely is the spirit of artistic license used to push the limits of expression; instead it has become a refuge to hide behind and justify what is actually artistic regression. I’m excited about the possibility of cross-racial casting. The centrality of race in the conversation of American life and history means we should find ways to evoke race that are playful, incendiary, strange, or impassioned. But the conversations we’ve seen with Miss Saigon or The Nightingale don’t excite me. They make race less interesting, more status quo. They aren’t artistically adventurous and demean what it means to have artistic license.

The case of Nixon in China doesn’t get me that worked up, in part because the San Diego Opera hasn’t resorted to claiming artistic license and has, to us anyway, owned up to the fact that the final cast is a compromised one.  But given this long history of erasure and the continued suppression of Asian or Asian American voices – even when Asia is being presented, as is the case of Nixon in China – we are unable to extend our support of the production, nor are we in a position where we can in good faith encourage anybody to see it.  The history of western opera is full of orientalist discourse (Madama Butterfly, most famously) and it pains us to think that the only contemporary productions revolving Asians do little to change that.

Again, many thanks for hearing us out.  We support the Opera because we love opera as an art form with the potential to bring people together, enlighten and entertain, and thrust us into some of the most awe-inspiring music humanity has ever known.  So let’s keep this dialogue going so we can further understand what terms in which the greater San Diego community in fact wants to come together and be transformed.


Brian Hu

Drive-By Cinema

Back when I first started at Pacific Arts Movement, then-Executive Director Lee Ann Kim would laugh recalling how the former Associate Festival Director George Lin used to joke about buying a mail truck and driving it around San Diego projecting films. Lee Ann just wanted to highlight George’s madcap ways. I, on the hand, steeped in film history, experiential art, and political performance, saw in George’s inspiration something that was not just doable, but fundable and exemplary of what we as an Asian American media arts organization can and should be doing. So Lee Ann and I whipped together a grant application to the James Irvine Foundation’s Exploring Engagement Fund, and got the project, entitled Drive-By Cinema, funded for two years.

Part of the grant was to publicly present our experiments in arts engagement, so we published a hardback picture book with a tongue-in-cheek how-to guide in mobile film presentation as well my curatorial essay, reprinted below. It’s just one of many forms of writing Drive-By Cinema took, which also included Tweets by poet Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi and our legendary three-line press release that announced nothing and everything.

U-Haul trucks were made to move. Even in their post-corporate afterlives, as empty scrap metal boxes sitting on worn rubber in need of a tune-up and a makeover, movement awaits their rusty gears. The haul: an HD projector, multiple makeshift movie screens, a popcorn machine, assorted witches and gurus, lab coats, and a generator. The route: a Marauder’s Map full of secret passageways and ghosts who sometimes take the passenger seat. The goal: moving minds through flashing lights and creative cartographies.

Drive-By Cinema takes its cue from the fabled (the pied piper, the flying circus, the ice cream truck jingle, Bakhtin’s carnival, Takeshi Kaneshiro’s soft-serve-mobile in Fallen Angels) and the historical (the traveling shows of the silent days, the legendary “cinema vans” of mid-century Britain, the mobile film units of 1950s China that brought cinema to rural populations). But DBC really came from the jungles of Thailand where our mad scientist cut his teeth (and who knows what else), the streets of Oakland and Chicago where our digital nomads built schools and formed guerrilla educational initiatives, and in the spidery poetry that our social media guru morphed into 140-character breadcrumbs. The motley crew of know-how and guile not only knew how to make a truck move and how to assemble a movie space, but they knew what movement was for: to bring folks together, to soak in stories, to paint a town in lights, especially neighborhoods that have for whatever reason (but probably racism) gone dark.

They say people don’t watch movies in theaters anymore and I’m sure “they” have data to back that up. But it’s possible many neighborhoods don’t even have theaters anymore, and equally possible people in those neighborhoods don’t have the hardware or the broadband to stream films in ways the experts say are the trend today. The rush toward “new media,” both in the for-profit and non-profit worlds, sharpens the digital divide in the name of progress. It also uses the concepts of interactivity and digital community to obscure opportunities to build and elevate actual communities. There’s R&D money now in developing and tracing the aesthetics of virtual spaces. But what of the brick-and-mortar neighborhoods? They’re relegated to 100-year-old solutions like the mural. The driving principle of Drive-By Cinema is to reinvent these spaces with the cinematic, even if it means reinventing the cinematic in the process. Let the passerby, the area businesses, and the neighborhood community associations decide what to do with a 1970s sci-fi film or an Asian American sports comedy. The rule was always that there were no rules. Patrons could talk and eat, come and go at will, even ignore the film altogether. It’s not necessarily a lawless space, but one where the rules of engagement – and indeed the social meaning of public art – are structured by those curious enough to step into the flickering light.  The traditional concept of the movie theater was built on upper-middle class discipline (silence, stillness, consumption), and the digital community is being rebuilt today along the same lines. DBC finds inspiration in pre-theatrical cinema, when films were cheap inner-city entertainments consumed by immigrants and the working-class. However, the intention was never to return to the past, but to figure out how digital technology can awaken analog pleasures deemed backward, unengaging, and primitive by the trendsetters and experts.

One of the best drive-outs took place at Linda Vista Plaza, allegedly the first mall-type shopping center in the United States, and now one of the most important retail plazas for Vietnamese Americans in San Diego County. The DBC team cautioned the area restaurants and security personnel, and caution-taped a couple of spaces in the parking lot. A Vietnamese restaurant offered chairs. A security guard took interest in protecting the space. At sunset, DBC projected a mad-cap mahjong comedy, the sort that Hong Kong studios used to mandate had a set-piece per reel. Popcorn was set up, though it couldn’t compete with the area banh mi. The usual DBC followers showed up and stayed for the entire feature. Cars would slow down to peep the antics. And as retail hours ended, grocery workers, waiters, and neighborhood restaurateurs stopped for a second on the way to their cars. The film was a blast, but it was the sense of impromptu festivity that turned a mundane weekday night into something else, be it a momentary diversion, an art-school oddity, a family night out, a tribute to a neighborhood, or a better Tuesday than last.

Some nights fared better than others. The Korean comedy didn’t work under the palm tree by the beach. A security guard foiled plans for a surprise serenade of Filipino lolos hanging out at Starbucks. We slowly learned how short films could be the medium of the streets, just as they had become the medium of YouTube. We also learned to program Asian cinema outside of the safe space and self-selected audience of the Asian film festival. How do you use Asian and Asian American content to spark pedestrian interest in the streets of San Diego without playing only Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies? Action, experimental, and animation played the best in most environments. Once again, the “cinema of attractions” beat classical narrative, as they have since the silent days, especially once cinema was liberated from the confines of the theater.

And if the streets were the theater, then the truck, illuminated in green and magenta, was usher, concession stand, and projection booth in one. The DBC crew named the vinyl-wrapped hunk of metal “Humb’lin,” after Pac-Arts’ late associate festival director George Lin, who first imagined a fleet of cine-mobiles when he saw a USPS truck for sale on eBay. Humb’lin’s most famed ride was the one where he shared the spotlight with another giant urban monster. During Comic Con, San Diego’s rowdiest event of the year, the DBC team secured the rig so that the projector could run while the truck was in motion. It was a tricky set-up, with wires through windows and blu-ray players in laps, and an even trickier route to map, with one-way streets, inebriated pedestrians, and height clearance warnings. Traffic was at a crawl, which was horrible for commuters, but perfect for Godzilla to roam the streets on Humb’lin’s back, and perfect for onlooking geeks to stop, point, and cheer as Tokyo’s monster made its way around San Diego’s skyscrapers. Godzilla screamed through the tinny loudspeakers like a Taipei politician campaigning out of an old jeep. Cars honked, celebrities tweeted, and cops sighed. For a truck better used to riding incognito in less prominent parts of town, it was a rare treat to be on the yellow brick road. And for the DBC team that gave this tin van a heart, it was a sweet victory lap – at least until the next adventure.