Global Hapa: A Conversation with Kip Fulbeck

Nina Melendez Ibarra, Kyoto Journal

March 25, 2008

Kip Fulbeck, known for his eye-catching popularization of “Hapa” identity in the United States, has brought his mission to Asia with his groundbreaking “The Hapa Project” — a collection of photographs accompanied by personal, handwritten statements about identity of over 1,200 American Hapas. Fulbeck turned his project into a book, Part Asian, 100% Hapa, now available in Japan through amazon.jp. Kip’s new book Permanence: Tattoo Portraits also explores identity “from the outside in,” and will be released on amazon.jp in April.

The term “Hapa,” Hawaiian in origin, is a derivative of the word “half” and signifies a part-Asian, part-Other ethnic background. Despite objections from some Hawaiians who believe the term only applies to descendents of part-Hawaiian mixes, Fulbeck suggests the term is a useful way for people of mixed heritage to explain themselves to anyone posing the intrusive question, “What are you?”

Not only serving as an informal tag of identification, the term “Hapa” has become a title facilitating solidarity between a wide and diverse group of people—Afroasian, Japanese Hapas, and everyone else under the mixed heritage umbrella. Factors such as colonialism, globalization and, more recently, greater social tolerance, have resulted in an increase of inter-marriages, thus an increase in Hapas in Asia.

In Hong Kong, Macau, India and other colonial cities, Eurasians have long been a part of their societies. Attitudes towards Hapas have changed dramatically since the early twentieth century when Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon had to hide her Asian background to get ahead in Hollywood. Nowadays, the former Princess Alexandra of Denmark appears even more glamorous because of her Chinese-European ancestry.

In Japan, the Hiragana Times counted 36,039 interracial marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese in 2003. Quite naturally, these marriages have resulted in more Japanese Hapas. And the Japanese Hapa phenomenon is one of many shifts that defies the postwar ideology of a homogenous Japan. In addition to uncountable part-Japanese/part Asian mixes that make up Japan’s heterogeneous population (part Korean actress Matsuzaka Keiko and part Chinese Softbank Hawks manager Oh Sadaharu), Hapas in Japan are not difficult to find — media star and Goodwill Ambassador Mari Christine, supermodel Devon Aoki, pop singer Olivia, and sumo star Taiho Koki, among others.

The U.S., as well, is a hub of part-Asian mixes, on the West and Northeast coasts. Among more commonly-known Hapas are champion golf player Tiger Woods and broadcast journalist Ann Curry, but other less obvious Hapas include Anthony Brown (Berkeley percussionist and composer, Choctaw/African American/Japanese), Johnny Damon (Boston Red Sox center fielder, White/Thai), and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (folk-rock musician, Japanese/Anglo/Puerto Rican) grandson of folk music icon and human rights activist Pete Seeger.

Despite this, Hapas remain an underrepresented, even invisible minority in the United States. Just a few decades ago, ignorance surrounding ethnic hybridity has been a source of identity conflict for many Hapas. Kip Fulbeck grew frustrated when asked over and over again in applications, surveys, etc. to check the one box that describes his ethnic heritage. “For me,” he says, “that was like saying choose mom or dad.” So Kip made the book he wished he owned as a child, Part Asian, 100% Hapa, which celebrates Eurasian/Amerasian/Afri-asian hybridity and identity, doing away with the stereotypes attached to it and the “check one boxes’s.”

A native of California, Kip is slam poet, artist, author, activist, and film-maker who currently teaches Art for the Asian American Studies and Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he was awarded Outstanding Faculty Member four times. “The Hapa Project” is a compilation of photographs and attached personal statements of over 1,200 Hapas around the United States.

On March 10th his latest exhibition, “Kip Fulbeck: part Asian, 100% Hapa” opened in New York at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute of New York University. The Japanese American National Museum’s “Discover Nikkei” website helped sponsor this exhibition, as part of its outreach to Nikkei and Hapa around the world. The multilingual (Japanese, English, Portuguese, and Spanish) site is engaged in an open and creative exploration of Nikkei (and Hapa) identity.

In this interview, Kip Fulbeck talks about Hapas in the United States and Asia:

Nina Melendez Ibarra: Can you explain the Hapa identity and how you’ve transformed a term that once insinuated impurity to mean something positive?

Kip Fulbeck: The word “Hapa” comes from the Hawaiian word “half” which is in itself a form of the English word half; Originally used in the term “Hapa Haole,” it referred to someone who was half white/foreigner and half Hawaiian. At some point, it was a pejorative term, implying that one was not pure but by the time I heard it in the early 1970’s, it had come to mean someone who was part Asian/Pacific Islander and part something else. Many people argue about what word means, but in terms of language, no one “owns” anything.

Some people I’ve met tell me “Hapa” means only Japanese/Caucasian. Others say it’s only Hawaiian/Other, etc. I just think it’s a nice, casual way of describing being mixed. A lot less clinical than Eurasian or Amerasian. And it has no pejorative attachment, like “Ainoko.”

NMI: What were your objectives and concerns that eventually brought about “The Hapa Project?”

KF: My main objective, selfishly, was to make the book I wish I owned when I was a kid. I never knew anyone else like me, going through things I went through, not fitting in, always having to choose sides.

I also wanted to give Hapas a forum to describe themselves in their own words, and to choose their ethnicity in their own terms. Identity is a personal process and I’m adamant that it should be a personal decision, not one made by a community, a government or others.

NMI: Do you think that identifying oneself by one’s ethnic heritage is negative or positive?

KF: I don’t think of it as negative or positive; it’s what it is. I think taken to an extreme it can be negative, as in ‘I’m going to vote for Obama because he’s half African and I’m part African.’ The problem is that the world identifies you by phenotype, race, and ethnicity. I would love not to have to make this book, but the reality is that every day people are looking at you and making assumptions based on what box you fit in … and for multiethnic people, these boxes are often blurry.

The boxes are there to categorize other people in order to simplify social complexities; it’s a social mechanism. But why the “race” category? And if the categorization of people is an inevitable social impulse, how should we do it?

For the record, race is not a scientifically sound assumption. For example, there is no DNA difference between human beings. We are all African. Biologically, race does not exist. It is a social and cultural construct.

The U.S. is a country with a long history of social genocide (Native Americans, African slavery, etc.) and this was all due to the seeming differences we attributed to race. Yes, it is very convenient to categorize people according to race. It is also extremely inaccurate, however.

Right now, with our election, I watch CNN and they talk about the Latino vote, the Asian vote, the Black vote, etc. Obama is a “Black” candidate when in reality he is multiethnic (as are probably Clinton, McCain, etc. if you go back far enough in their genetic lineage.) Am I part of the Asian vote or the White vote? The whole ignorance of multiracial/multiethnic people is ludicrous.

NMI: In your Hyphen Magazine interview, you mentioned being Hapa as being “soup du jour.” How can we keep this from happening?

KF: You can’t really. And I’m not really sure you should even try. At some point, we are just animals, and all fashion is , when you get down to it, is silly trends. One decade we like straight hair, another curly; women should be voluptuous or waifs, men should be hairy or hairless; And then we spend $300 on jeans that have a different cut so we can be in fashion again.

I’m as guilty of this as the next. I think it’s a good idea to be aware of it though and not take yourself too seriously. That’s something I see in a lot of younger artists and activists, myself included.

NMI: Do you think there is a cool trend in being ethnic these days?

KF: Yes, certainly in Japan and the U.S. There is a public thirst for mutli-ethnic models. In Japan, the Hapas I have seen, however, are almost always Asian/Caucasian mixes. I think it’s a bit of the exotification of the difference; Being different enough and yet not too threatening.

NMI: Can you explain the effects of colonialism in Asia in regards to Hapa-ism? How has/does colonialism factor in Asia’s Hapa experience?

KF: I think colonialism is alive and well, and not just because the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Spain, etc. traveled by ship long ago, but because Universal, Microsoft, Rupert Murdoch, MTV, etc. are all in the U.S. and have American points of view. We can’t win an ill-conceived and illegal war in Iraq, but we’re still able to put Britney Spears in most every household in the world.

NMI: Do you think the growing awareness of Hapas in the U.S. and in Japan as well will help abolish xenophobia in these countries or contribute to it?

KF: I think it’s a long way from anything. There is barely a growing awareness here. Xenophobia isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I actually think it has more to do with education and media than anything. As long as we are being fed corporate propaganda about what is or isn’t newsworthy we are always going to slip into the easy/lazy route of thought (witness the whole internet campaign against Obama because his middle name is Hussein).

NMI: If enough attention is given about Hapas in Japan to make a splash, how it would be received. Any thoughts?

KF: I think it would be received with positive stereotypes (oh look, they’re so kawaii, etc.) which is why in my project I include all sorts of Hapas. The book is full of all sorts … fat, tall, ugly, short, beautiful, weird, etc.

NMI: So how would you go about doing a Hapa project in Asia? What awareness issues or stereotypes—if any—would you address?

KF: I’d leave it all open to them. All my subjects are volunteers, so I’d see what they’d want to come up with.