Not what you are but who you are

Cynthia Dea, Los Angeles Times

June 8, 2006

As a kid, Kip Fulbeck found it almost impossible to fit in because of his ethnic background: His mother is Cantonese; his father is English and Irish. Strangers thought it perfectly appropriate to ask, “What are you?”

It’s a question he still encounters, but he’s channeled it into the photo project “Kip Fulbeck: Part Asian, 100% Hapa” at the Japanese American National Museum. The show, opening today, has 80 portraits of multiracial people along with poignant, angry and humorous answers.

“The project is based on refuting the idea that other people get to define you. I’m trying to give hapa people a chance to explain who they are,” Fulbeck said.

“Hapa” means “half,” from a derogatory Hawaiian term referring to those who are half Hawaiian, half white. It’s since been embraced by many of mixed ethnicity.

The portraits were taken in the manner of a passport photo, but without clothing, accessories and facial expression. In one print, a young woman’s response reads, “What am I? Shouldn’t you be asking my name first?”

In a photograph of cartoonist Lynda Barry, who is part Filipina, Norwegian and Irish, she writes, “People can’t believe I’m Filipina. In family portraits, my brothers and I look like we’re some neighbors who just dropped by for some really good food and San Miguel beer.”

The response to his work has been bigger than Fulbeck expected. In San Francisco, more than 30 people lined up half an hour before the shoot—impressive, considering the call for models was posted only on his site http://www.thehapaproject.com .

“Most hapas are searching for identification because they don’t have classification in the mainstream,” Fulbeck said. “It turns out a lot people are looking for this kind of stuff.”