Black Chinese: History, Hybridity, and Home

By Thompson, Wendy Marie | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Black Chinese: History, Hybridity, and Home

Thompson, Wendy Marie, Chinese America: History and Perspectives

(Original Title: Black Chinese: Historical Intersections, Hybridity, and the Creation of Home)

In entering into the twenty-first century, one might affirm that the face of Chinese America has changed or has it? Chineseness has been constantly conceptualized through the measure of phenotype, the quantity of blood, the preservation of language, or the possession of surname. But what happens when African American bodies and other nonwhite cultural sites are introduced into dialogue with Chineseness and Chinese American history in order to create a different story?

It is true that due to cultural, linguistic, and perceived citizenship differences, the historical extent of nineteenth-century interaction between Chinese immigrants and African American residents was somewhat limited, but in geographically mapping Chinese and African American communities in large metropolitan cities, one will find that many Chinese quarters across the United States were situated next to or on the fringes of black neighborhoods. And too, in the realm of labor, many employers whose staff was predominately African American would occasionally hire Chinese or "Oriental" men as strikebreakers and cheaper labor replacements in the transportation industry, as in on trains as porters or as field workers on agricultural estates.

That said, my primary focus in looking at situations of African American and Chinese overlap is on what came from it: the creation of hybrid spaces between people. In this paper I use four key visual images to uncover the sporadic sexual, working, and living relationships that culminated between Chinese and African Americans during the late nineteenth century and into the twenty-first.

My choice in using visual images is rooted in my personal belief that an image--photography, video, portrait, postcard, comic book--serves as a multidimensional tool that preserves and contests: it preserves a particular social, political, cultural moment in time while contesting other narratives that stand as the singular strand, the prevailing story.

But when there is a lack of a visual record (or a written one for that matter), there arises a condition that leads people to assume that such events--social, political, cultural, racial, communal, tribal--did not exist. With the following images, I am both bringing forth and attesting to a mixed race communal existence and using these artifacts as a lens that will help us visualize a different kind of Chinese America.

However, I would like to begin this paper at the crux of the late-twentieth century and the sudden boom of chic black/Asian mixed-race representations in popular culture as seen through a contemporary American gaze. The physical embodiment of African American and Asian American intersections were for the first time made widely accessible through figures on television or in the entertainment industry, represented in part through part Thai and part African American (or more popularly stated "Cablinasian") golfer and consumer endorsement icon, Tiger Woods; native Floridian and African American Filipina, Melissa Howard, who starred on MTV's the Real World: New Orleans; and African American Korean R&B singer Amerie Rogers.

Additionally, the American public became versed in films and visual landscapes which featured the mesh of humor, culture, and the absurd in such parallel worlds of Chinatown/ Hong Kong and urban working-class urban black America with the films Rush Hour and Romeo Must Die. Concurrently, the commercial hip hop scene was graced with the lyrical spitting of Chinese American rapper Jin the Emcee who was able to utilize a particular racialized urban vernacular on the Black Entertainment Television program Freestyle Fridays to win rap battles against black opponents seven consecutive times in a row before going on to be signed with Ruff Ryder Records.

From these cultural scenes, a seeming cultural fusion was on the verge of happening between blacks and Asians in the United States after a rough period of conflict (the zenith arrived with the intense rioting and civil clashes between Korean small-business owners and urban black residents in Los Angeles, California). …

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