American Monolithic

Sumitra Visanathan, Men’s Review (Malaysia)

October 1996

John Woo and Jackie Chan may be kicking open the doors of Hollywood, but tinseltown’s images of Asians remain as bad as they ever were. Asian American Kip Fulbeck is working to change that, writes Sumitra Visvanathan.

Nothing annoys Kip Fulbeck more than being stereotyped. The independent film-maker’s preoccupation has been the overturning of Hollywood’s stereotypes of the Asian American, whether it’s the caricature of the benevolent old kung fu expert, dastardly Triad kingpin, or starving refugee straight off the slow boat from China.

“Society always sizes you up. If you don’t define your own identity in society, others are going to do it for you,” he says.

As the curator and co-founder of the Asian American Film Festival, Fulbeck was back again this year to present new short films and videos by Asian American makers. Hosted by the American Embassy’s US Information Service (USIS) over two weeks in August, the festival’s second year drew good crowds weeks in August, the festival’s second year drew crowds at both the free screening and workshops, which include a night of previously unseen Malaysian shorts.

The festival presented Malaysian audiences with a glimpse of the challenging and diverse issues of ethnicity in multicultural America. Taking centrestage were the Asian minorities seldom seen or heard in American mainstream media, pertinent as well for Malaysian increasingly bombarded by American media images.

Despite being built on a foundation of global immigration, American’s social emphasis is distinctly Eurocentric. Recent immigration from the Asian continent has thrown up delicate issues of cross-cultural differences, and integration is languorous process. beneath the veneer of color prejudice, Fulbeck believes differences are not insoluble-the key is reciprocal understanding.

“People have to learn that there’s different way of being treated,” Fulbeck says, criticizing Hollywood’s images. “watching stereotyped images of yourself on film and TV is damaging. But a sense of pride in yourself reacts against prejudice in society, which tries to diminish you because of your race.”

The issue of identity is central to Fulbeck’s work. As a professor of Asian American Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, his carefully constructed image is that of liberal academic and anti-racism activist, born of a Chinese mother and an Anglo-American father.

“A sense of identity is important,” he explains. “It’s about developing an awareness about yourself. Race is very visible, it’s always my reference point for defining and identifying myself. A good place to start is the word ‘hapa’, which is Hawaiian for half. And ‘haole’, which means ‘caucasian’.”

By looking to their cultural roots, Fulbeck and an emerging band of Asian American film-makers are seeking to empower their communities with alternative images, overcoming the prevailing stereotypes.

“Some of my students say that they don’t want to do creative work about being an Asian American. But basically anything you do is about being an Asian American as your identity shapes your experience and how you deal with issues. You can’t get away from it. People have to face this and use their heritage to their advantage and not run away from it,” Fulbeck says.

Screening some of this work in Asia, in Kuala Lumpur, helps this process along. For the makers, it was the first time their work had been screened in Asia. “Everyone was really excited at showing in Asia, and the last thing on their minds was royalties,” Fulbeck says.

The films and videos featured during the festival were raw, audacious and sometimes shockingly candid. Capturing personal and family issues on film for public viewing is not something our own film-makers are known for, and several in the audience were noticeably uncomfortable with the brutal honesty depicted (on issues such as HIV/AIDS, domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as filial love and sex).

Fulbeck’s own short, L.A. Christmas, has the unrefined grittiness of a home video. Shot on a Fisher-Price toy camera, it’s a heartwarming and sometimes moving cameo of his relationship with his mother, an immigrant from south China at the time of the revolution. She giggles her son with such pearls as, “You have to be nice to people even if they are not nice to you,” and “You must settle down; you are too choosy!”.

Fulbeck is surprised by the reactions of the audience to some of the films: scenes in which American audience crack up at, Malaysians find only mildly funny, and vice versa—”Go figure!”

I mention the popularity of Asian American authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, and how they have mined their heritage with resulting commercial success. “The Joy Luck Club was well done,” says Kip, “but as an Asian American man, I am disappointed that the men were portrayed as stereotypes.

“The miser (in the film), for instance. I’m suprised that from a white man in the book, he went on to become an Asian man on the screen. Fits in with the whole stereotype of Asian husbands being miserly and controlling …”

Activist and academic, Fulbeck is alternately verbose and articulate, voluble an ebullient, surprisingly at-ease with the forum for action presented by traditional Democratic Party politics in this American election year:

For the record, smoke-free Kip is a Taurean, born in the year of the Serpent, loves his mom and dad, values a woman for her independence and narrowly missed making the Olympic swimming trials in 1988 by two-tenths of a second.

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