A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930-1960

A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930-1960

A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930-1960

A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930-1960


"A Feeling of Belongingyields fresh insights into Asian American women's participation in U.S. popular culture. Drawing on a rich array of sources, Shirley Lim illuminates young women's efforts to claim citizenship and gain access to social and economic opportunities, whether in the 1930s film industry or ethnic beauty pageants of the Cold War era. Her study highlights both the emergence of Asian American women as significant symbolic representatives of their communities and the complexities they faced in fulfilling this role." - Valerie Matsumoto, UCLA

"A Feeling of Belongingbreaks new ground in examining the cultural practices of Asian American women in U.S. popular culture. By uncovering their activities in sororities, the movies, beauty contests and magazines, it considers how these women negotiated places for themselves as ethnic Americans in an era dominated by race and Cold War politics. In the process, it expands the study of race, gender, culture, and citizenship." - Shirley Hune, editor of Asian/Pacific Islander American Women: A Historical Anthology

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.


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. 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 uncovering previously unexamined historical sources such as actress Anna May Wong's Chinese American Paramount Studio films and the papers of the Chi Alpha Delta sorority, my topic finally resonated with me and evolved into an analysis of Asian American women's reworking of American cultural practices during an age of racial segregation and immigration exclusion. As an Indonesian American woman, which signifies that I come from a numerically small American racial minority group, I did not grow up with Asianethnic community practices and was fascinated when I discovered their historical prominence in the mid-twentieth century.

My own life history influenced how I understand the importance of cultural practices for female racial minorities. Having lived outside the United States for most of my childhood, I became acutely aware that despite my being born in the United States, people were not willing to grant me my birthright of cultural American citizenship. Rather, I had to earn it. the way I proved my Americanness on the playgrounds of Scotland and Libya despite my Asian face was to speak the latest American slang and show that my lunch box contained Kool-Aid and Toll House cookies, to wear Wrangler jeans. By showing my Americanness through my cultural knowledge, I gained prestige on those playgrounds. My successful displays of being American resulted in my entire class at the Oil Companies' School in Tripoli, Libya, voting me the coveted title of seventh-grade Valentine's Day Dance Queen. As the daughter of people who had come of age under Dutch colonialism and subsequent Indonesian independence, I

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