Art

Setting the Record Straight on the Asian American Experience

A young woman pays tribute to Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb victims at a candlelight memorial in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, August 8, 1972.
ALAN OHASHI/VISUAL COMMUNICATIONS PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVE
A young woman pays tribute to Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb victims at a candlelight memorial in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, August 8, 1972.
Nearly 50 years before Crazy Rich Asians, a group of UCLA students began documenting the Asian American experience on film.

When Crazy Rich Asians broke box office records last year, much was made of the fact that it had been a quarter century since Hollywood had produced a feature film starring Asian American actors (1993’s The Joy Luck Club) and, well, how come? Was it the industry’s propensity to whitewash? Producers who only cast folks they knew? Or a more unambiguous form of racism? Largely missing from the discussion were decades of Asian American indie films and documentaries that, while not picked up by Warner Bros., had nevertheless captured scenes of Asian American life in ways that director Jon M. Chu’s film—an otherwise delightful rom-com about Singaporean 1 percenters—never could have.

Among the most prolific chroniclers and champions of the Asian American experience is the Los Angeles–based media collective Visual Communications. Best known as the longtime host of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the organization has been documenting aspects of California life for nearly half a century that few filmmakers or photographers have thought to depict. Over the years, VC has told the stories of first-generation Filipino immigrants in the Central Valley and Samoan American teens in 1970s Carson, south of L.A. In 1971, VC cofounder Eddie Wong told the story of the Imperial Dragons, L.A. Chinatown’s premier drum and bugle corps; in 1980, cofounder Bob Nakamura directed Hito Hata: Raise the Banner, likely the first feature film made by and about Asian Americans.

VC’s grand history is celebrated in the exhibit At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America. Presented at the Japanese American National Museum, in L.A.’s Little Tokyo (through October 20), the show is part of the run-up to the collective’s 50th anniversary next year, and includes films, photos, and artifacts culled from VC’s enormous archives. To keep things manageable, the curators focused on 1970 to 1990, the group’s formative years. One of their chief goals is to show how VC documented life during those decades and, in the process, helped define Asian Americans as a political and cultural force. “They captured this transition from ‘Oriental’ to Asian American, this whole political identity and renaissance, and cultivated it as well,” says Karen Ishizuka, chief curator at the museum.

Visual Communications filmmakers Eddie Wong, Bob Nakamura, and Alan Kondo line up a shot, Los Angeles, circa 1972.VISUAL COMMUNICATIONS PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVE
Visual Communications filmmakers Eddie Wong, Bob Nakamura, and Alan Kondo line up a shot, Los Angeles, circa 1972.
UNTOLD STORIES TOLD

Three UCLA film students—Nakamura, Wong, and Duane Kubo—and visual arts student Alan Ohashi founded Visual Communications in 1970. Nakamura had already enjoyed a successful career as a photographer, publishing images in Life and Look and designing exhibits in the Venice studio of Charles and Ray Eames. The four met as the university was aggressively working to integrate its film school, and they bonded over their mutual interests in visual storytelling and the then-burgeoning Asian American movement. They rented a small office in L.A.’s Crenshaw district. Nakamura, then in his 30s, was the lone adult in the room. “We were 19, 20, just having fun,” says Wong. “Bob was an elder, a mentor. When we saw his work in Life magazine, we were like, ‘Man, this guy’s a professional!’ And he had a car, too.”

Despite the group’s film-school roots, VC’s first creations weren’t films at all. Its inaugural project, America’s Concentration Camps, consisted of 32 stackable cubes, each side emblazoned with images from the Japanese American internment camp experience: a 1944 photo of three boys behind barbed wire at Manzanar; an infamous Life article from 1941 titled “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese,” ostensibly published to keep well-meaning Americans from shooting the wrong neighbor. Five copies of the art piece traveled across the country. “I think we got a couple of bomb threats,” Nakamura recalls.

The following year, in 1971, the group produced the “Ethnic Understanding Series,” a set of educational materials to teach grade-school kids about Asian American history and culture. There were step-by-step instructions on how to write Chinese characters, cutout versions of go (the ancient board game), and recipes for banana poi. There were also profiles of Asian Americans one might meet in everyday life, sort of a Mister Rogers–style project, if Mister Rogers had had any Asian neighbors. “One was called ‘Dr. Jenny,’ and it was the story of a Filipina woman doctor,” says Kubo. “Most people hadn’t seen Filipina doctors before, so we were trying to humanize all these different ethnic groups.”

The movies soon followed, many of them documentaries chronicling stories from within the filmmakers’ own communities. Wong directed one about his father, a laundryman in the L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake (Wong Sinsaang), while Kubo profiled the Japanese American jazz-fusion band Hiroshima in his 1975 film Cruisin’ J-Town. “I was a fan of the band,” Kubo says. “There are scenes in the film where we’re all eating burritos together.” Constantly low on bodies and cash, VC members pitched in on one another’s productions. A director on one film might handle sound on another and be the grip on a third. “We were inspired by Argentina’s Grupo Cine Liberación, who were experimenting with the idea of a filmmaking collective, that films could be made without a director or a hierarchy,” says Nakamura. To save money, they roomed together, took turns going on unemployment, and used UCLA’s cameras to shoot their projects. “I stayed an extra year in film school,” says Nakamura, “just so we could keep using their equipment.”

The group documented the first Asian American anti–Vietnam War march in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, organized by Asian Americans for Peace, May 11, 1972.ROBERT A. NAKAMURA/VISUAL COMMUNICATIONS PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVE
The group documented the first Asian American anti–Vietnam War march in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, organized by Asian Americans for Peace, May 11, 1972.
LOOKING BACK

VC had been tossing around the idea of a retrospective exhibit for years, more actively as the group’s 50th anniversary neared. And then, in 2016, the cofounders were at Nakamura’s house watching the election returns come in, waiting to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s victory. “There was stunned silence among all of us,” says Kubo. “We all knew then that we needed to step up and do this, to make a connection between VC’s history and today’s activism.”

Enter the exhibit and you see Little Tokyo’s main drag, East First Street, circa 1972. The image is 8 feet high and 18 feet long, with video screens mounted in the shop windows. Peek inside the Far East Café and Mitsuru’s Children’s Shop (both businesses long gone), and you see reels of period footage—taiko drummers, antiwar protesters, Asian American folk musicians and hippies—drawn from the cofounders’ 1970s films. Photos pulled from VC’s collection of more than 300,000 still images line another wall, highlighting Asian Americans in senior citizens’ groups and at car wash fundraisers, Save Little Tokyo anti-gentrification rallies, and candlelight vigils.

The exhibit also includes many of the books and other publications VC has produced over the years—like 1977’s In Movement: A Pictorial History of Asian America—and an “analog station” highlighting the group’s pre-digital history. There, aspiring cineasts can see VC’s original splicing blocks and darkroom equipment and imagine how OG filmmakers and photographers survived in the days before Final Cut Pro.

For a section called “From the Archives,” Kubo and Wong created mini-documentaries based on old VC photo essays and films, tracking down and interviewing former organizers and activists from those projects. In one, we see Chinatown’s vibrant, kid-filled Chung King Road, decades before art galleries moved in; in another, shot at L.A.’s 1972 Nisei Week Parade, Asian American teen activists burn a Japanese imperial flag in the middle of Little Tokyo to protest Japan’s role in the Vietnam War. “A lot of those projects just started out as photo shoots, just Bob telling us, ‘Go out and practice,’ ” says Wong.

The exhibit ends where VC began, with the 1970 art piece America’s Concentration Camps, its title still provocative after five decades. Nearby, clips from several of the group’s earliest films run on a loop, cut together by Tadashi Nakamura, Bob’s son and an award-winning director himself. “There are shots of Grand Central Market when it was actually just a market,” he says. “It’s cool to see L.A. in another time, but with Asian Americans in it.” That’s one of the exhibit’s great joys: being transported to an era when a film like Crazy Rich Asians was even rarer than it is now and seeing Asians everywhere, from the East Bay to Fresno, from Compton to Griffith Park.

VC has never been busier. Its film festival celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, having expanded from 20 films shown over a single weekend at L.A.’s Japan American Theater to more than 200 films spread out over nine days and seven venues. Armed with a Camera, VC’s fellowship program for young filmmakers, is now in its 17th season; alumni include solo theater artist Kristina Wong (Wong Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and director Evan Leong (Linsanity). The group also teaches Asian seniors how to create short films in its Digital Histories program.

Wong’s ambitions for the retrospective are twofold. “If you’re a young person, hopefully you’ll come to the exhibit and go, ‘Wow, these people who are now in their 70s and 80s did some shit!’ ” he says. “And I want them to draw parallels to today. We’re still living in a time where there’s anti-immigrant hysteria and a rollback of all these civil rights gains. One of the goals of the exhibit is to have younger people interact with this history and these images and say, ‘How are we going to tell our own stories moving forward?’ ”

Robert Ito is a journalist based in Los Angeles. He writes about film, television, and theater for the New York Times.

AT FIRST LIGHT: THE DAWNING OF ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICA

• Through Oct. 20
• Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles

RECOMMENDATIONS

Exhibits exploring the WWII Japanese American internment camps

Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII: The longest-running exhibit at Sacramento’s California Museum includes a re-creation of a camp barracks interior and a video introduction by actor George Takei, who was imprisoned at the Rohwer and Tule Lake camps as a young boy.

Gaman: Enduring Japanese American Internment at Gila River: When internees from Los Angeles and the Central Valley poured into this concentration camp within an Arizona Indian reservation, they created the fourth-largest city in the state. This exhibit in Chandler includes wartime documents signed by FDR and thousands of origami cranes created by present-day members of the community. chandleraz.gov/explore/arts-and-culture

Prisoners at Home: Everyday Life in Japanese Internment Camps: The Digital Public Library of America’s online exhibit explores what it was like for thousands of Japanese Americans to live, work, worship, and raise a family inside places like Tule Lake—a camp for internees deemed “disloyal” or politically dangerous—and Manzanar, which was named a national historic site in 1992.