What does it mean to be of mixed race in America? A new book and exhibition aim to answer

Bonnie Tsui, Los Angeles Times
April 6, 2018

hapa.me press image

Natalie Coughlin and Nathan Adrian are best known as world swimming champions — Coughlin as a 12-time Olympic medalist and the first woman to swim the 100-meter backstroke in under a minute, and Adrian as an eight-time Olympic medalist and a top freestyle sprinter for the U.S. national team. On a recent Saturday morning, they dropped those identities for a lesser-known one.

“Being hapa — that’s a big part of my identity,” Coughlin said, as she and Adrian each sat for a portrait by photographer Kip Fulbeck at a makeshift studio in Oakland.

Fulbeck started photographing people of mixed racial heritage in 2001. Hapa, a Hawaiian word for “part,” has been adopted by some as a way to describe themselves. After each sitting, Fulbeck asked participants to hand-write responses to the question: “What are you?”

It’s a loaded question that each person already was confronting on a regular basis. It was meant as a provocation.

This eventually became the Hapa Project, a collection of the words and images of more than 1,500 volunteer subjects from across the country, most with partial roots in Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry. In each spare, luminous frame, a person looks directly at the camera. Each subject has no name, no clothing, no jewelry. All that accompanies is what people write about themselves.

Recently Fulbeck tracked down the original participants, reshooting and reinterviewing them for a new book titled “Hapa.me: 15 Years of the Hapa Project,” released this month in conjunction with an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A.

Scroll to Top