So What Are You? JANM Show Questions Identities and Seeks to Demystify the Term ‘Hapa’

Tami Mnoian, Los Angeles Downtown News

December 14, 2006

I’m not saying this is the end-all-be-all of experiencing hapa,” artist Kip Fulbeck announces. “This is my experience.”

Fulbeck is sitting in a low-key Santa Barbara coffee shop as he makes this statement, but his words resonate to Downtown Los Angeles and beyond.

His current project, part asian, 100% hapa, is both a recently published book and a new exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum (it runs through Oct. 29). It explores assumptions of race and ethnicity and seeks to demystify “hapa,” the Hawaiian word for half. Despite its derogatory history, hapa is embraced by people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Part asian is like a hapa coming-out party, and Fulbeck is the host.

The exhibit is simple in format: a collection of more than 80 headshots taken from the collarbone up, no glasses, no jewelry, no smile. A handwritten answer to the question “What are you?” sits opposite each photograph, along with a self-declared list of the subject’s racial and ethnic background.

The inclusion of this simple query is inspired by the forms—a standardized test or a college application, for example—that ask people to choose between their ethnicities. Part asian allows them to freely affirm who they are.

The responses land all over the map, literally and culturally. One Japanese-German-Romanian-Russian man confesses (responses written as they appear in the exhibit), “Many of my ex-girlfriends were habitual half-asian daters. These women considered half-asian men ‘exotic,’ ‘sexy,’ and ‘just-like-Keanu Reeves-in-the-Matrix. I consider these stereotypes appropriate because I got laid.”

A Chinese-Palauan-Austrian woman says that Palau is “an island nation between Guam and the Philipines. If I only had a dollar for every time I had to explain that.”

A part-Chinese, part-Japanese man writes, “I have this big jar in my kitchen which I fill with a mixture of Corn Flakes, Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and sometimes granola. My breakfast is a daily statement on the excellence of mixture.”

These testaments are personal evidence of part asian‘s significance in a world where, like the abovementioned breakfast selection, mixture is on the increase. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, almost 7 million people described themselves as being of two or more races.

“It’s been a subject, I think, that nobody has actually sat down and tried to tackle,” said JANM spokesman Chris Komai. “That’s why this is the first of a series of programs that the museum intends to do in the future.”

Consistent Theme

Fulbeck, 41, has been deconstructing his identity for most of his life. He is Chinese, English, Irish and Welsh, and was raised in a Chinese household in Covina, Calif., then a predominately white Los Angeles suburb.

“My siblings are 100% Chinese, so I grew up in this family where I was the white kid,” he remembers. “Every weekend we were in Chinatown and I was the one who didn’t fit in.”

Fulbeck has a varied career as a filmmaker, writer, photographer, professor and chair of art at UC Santa Barbara. Yet ethnicity is a consistent subject in his work. His 1991 award-winning short film Banana Split focuses on being hapa, as does Paper Bullets, a novel Fulbeck describes as a “fictional autobiography.”

Part asian is a departure in that Fulbeck doesn’t take the stage, but rather sets it up for others like him. Though he notes, “The book isn’t just for hapa people. It’s for anyone who’s dealing with identity.”

Fulbeck laments that he didn’t have a book like part asian while growing up, which is when the idea first took root. He says that his artistic and professional commitments made it easy to postpone a venture of this size. But, he recalls, in 2001 a friend warned, “If you don’t do this, someone else will. And they’re going to do it the way you don’t like, so you might as well do it.”

At a hapa issues conference in San Francisco that same year, Fulbeck took his camera and put out a sign that read “Hapa Project.” He hoped to photograph five or 10 people.

“That day I shot 60,” Fulbeck smiles. In ensuing years he traveled all over the country snapping mugshots of willing participants. “They were all really excited,” he says. “It’s this kind of thing where you’re around your tribe.”

Avoiding the ‘Hot’ Girls

Fulbeck ultimately documented more than 1,000 subjects. Then came the difficult cutting process.

Fulbeck and three editors laid out the pictures on a giant table and made their selections. One editor chose only people with “cool hair,” says Fulbeck, and unconsciously or not, everyone tried to avoid picking the “hot” girls.

“All of us didn’t want it to be the Devon Aoki book,” says Fulbeck, referring to the Japanese-German-English model and actress. “Yes, there are some hot girls in there, but I didn’t want to add to the stereotype that all of us are gorgeous and smart and have good figures.”

Ultimately, Fulbeck wants the word hapa to be known by those other than hapas themselves. “I would like hapa to be a term that people understand,” he says, not wanting to offer up a laundry list of famous hapas every time the subject comes up: Keanu Reeves, Tiger Woods, Apolo Ohno, Michelle Branch, Eddie Van Halen.

“I just want people to be aware that we’re a really multiracial society and deal with it.”

On Saturdays during the show, JANM visitors will be able to take a Polaroid of themselves and respond to the question “What are you?” in an interactive display area. With the audience’s participation, part asian will grow throughout the next few months. It’s also an effort to celebrate the past and the future.

“If you look at the history of the United States, and you look at most ethnic communities,” Komai cautions, “eventually, they just sort of disappear. What we believe is that people should have a choice. If they want to be part of the mainstream and just be considered American, that’s fine, their choice …

“If, on the other hand, they feel like there’s a link they want to continue, then there ought to be a way that they can do that and institutions like the Japanese American National Museum will be part of their ability to pass that down to their children and grandchildren.”