The year 2019–20 marks a commemorative moment for Asian Pacific American media, honoring the fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries for arts institutions, ethnic studies departments, and special exhibitions so crucial to the forging of an Asian Pacific American cultural identity and political consciousness. An array of recent projects offer an occasion for reflection as well as a rallying cry. To name a few, the five-hour PBS-WETA documentary series Asian Americans; Film Quarterly's dossier and two-part symposium “Asian American Film at Fifty”; and actor-activist George Takei's graphic memoir of his internment experience, They Called Us Enemy, explore the richness and polyvocality of Asian Pacific American history with an eye toward the critical uses of such history today.1
The exhibition At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America constitutes a landmark event within this broader wave of activity. The show celebrated fifty years since the birth of Visual Communications (VC), the pioneering Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific American media arts organization. The show ran from May 25 to October 20, 2019, at the Japanese American National Museum, just a few blocks from VC's headquarters in Little Tokyo.
As the pandemic and racist declarations from America's highest office have led to widespread xenophobia and attacks on Asian Pacific Americans, At First Light's contemporary resonance feels all the more palpable. The show insists that the struggles that animated acts of solidarity and resistance, particularly during the social movements of the late 1960s and ’70s, remain urgent. The show was a collaborative effort, drawing on the expertise of curator and scholar Karen Ishizuka; core VC founders Duane Kubo, Robert Nakamura, and Eddie Wong; filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura; designer Daryn Wakasa; and archivist and programmer Abraham Ferrer. The exhibition's three interlocking narratives stretched across three central rooms. Together they provided the opportunity to learn about the history of VC from its founding through its formative first two decades, the important role it played within the pan-ethnic Yellow Power movement, and the organization's dynamic relationship to the minority liberation struggles across the country and around the world. The multimedia approach to curation not only shined a light on long-neglected aspects of American history, but underscored just how essential homegrown media was to the movement. Film, photography, poetry, and graphic design comprised what Ishizuka calls the “arts of activism,” which gave aesthetic shape and power to the social organizing.2
Illustrated placards helped museumgoers glean VC's development within a broader institutional context. Founding members met by way of UCLA's Ethno-Communications Program (established in 1969), an affirmative action filmmaking program that also included working-class Black, Latinx, Chicano, and Native American students. The charge of Ethno-Communications was to align cultural production with endeavors both personal and political, to make media to serve a social purpose rather than to generate profits.3 Program participants, in close collaboration with local activists, members of the radical publication Gidra, and affiliates of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center (also established in 1969), incorporated as Southern California Asian American Studies Central.4 Taking the name Visual Communications signaled the group's emphasis on community dialogue as well as their opposition to the Vietnam War. Their political stance was of course all the more pronounced when they decided to go by the initialism “VC.”5
In the exhibition, VC films were prominently displayed in an intimate theatrical installation as well as on mounted flat screens. While VC is perhaps best known for its short personal documentaries, the compilation of excerpts foregrounded the collective's embrace of a diverse range of cinematic styles as well as the issues around which the Yellow Power movement coalesced. The observational portrait Wong Sinsaang (1970, by Eddie Wong), explores the daily life of the filmmaker's father, a Chinese laundryman in Hollywood whose meticulous practice of calligraphy and martial arts serve as a kind of resistance against racist clientele. The experimental city symphony City City (1974, by Duane Kubo and Donna Deitch), offers a fast-paced, from-the-dashboard view of the multicultural metropolis. The music documentary Cruisin’ J-Town (1974, by Duane Kubo) follows the jazz-fusion band Hiroshima, whose hybrid Asian-Latinx-Black sound created new forms of interethnic solidarity. The expository compilation film Manong (1978, by Linda Mabalot), draws on archival photographs and interviews to tell the history of Filipino immigration to the United States, highlighting how bachelor farmworkers fought discriminatory labor laws. The verité-style Omai Fa'atasi: Samoa Mo Samoa (1978, by Takashi Fujii) captures the community-building efforts of Samoan youth in Southern California and the challenges they face in the school system. The feature-length fiction Hito Hata: Raise the Banner (1980, by Duane Kubo and Robert Nakamura) portrays a range of Japanese American experiences over the course of the twentieth century, including the trauma of World War II-era internment and contemporary battles over downtown displacement.
These works were but part of a much wider constellation of media that VC experimented with and mobilized. At First Light demonstrated how the organization was more than a filmmaking operation. For example, the Camp Cubes Photo Display (1969–70), one of the foundational projects that led to VC's formation, received significant attention. Spearheaded by Nakamura for a campaign to repeal the “Emergency Detention Act” of 1950, the sculpture's thirty-two 12 x 12-inch blocks are covered in archival photographs of internment camps along with images taken from the first Manzanar Pilgrimage. The Camp Cubes Photo Display (later retitled America's Concentration Camps when it toured to Japanese American Citizens League chapters) was at once a work of recovery, “re-surfacing” an event that had received little-to-no public mention, and a call to action for the Asian American community.
VC went on to use photography as its main aesthetic tool of historical inquiry and community representation. Photography was also the primary way that the organization kept a record of itself. At First Light showcases the astounding breadth of VC's Asian Pacific American Photographic Archive, which contains over 750,000 images either acquired or taken by such members as Ed Ikuta, Patricia Lau, Betty Chen, Janice D. Tanaka, Keith Lee, Kaz Takeuchi, and Linda Mabalot. These images both captured revolutionary acts of protest and registered fleeting moments of leisure, mundane tasks, family bonding, and personal introspection.
VC's photo books, which were shown as works of art in their own right, present a striking array of images. As Franklin Shoichiro Odo writes in his introduction to In Movement: A Pictorial History of Asian America (1977), the following pages aimed “to give visual identity to Asian American history” and “to analyze Asian American immigration in the context of the economic and territorial expansion of Western nations into the Pacific and Asia.”6 Captioned photographs along with political cartoons, maps, illustrations, and poems flesh out stories of Chinese railroad laborers, Japanese fisherman, and Filipino farm workers, as well as the increasing number of Asian American white-collar professionals after World War II.
VC engaged with pedagogy explicitly through their K-12 curriculum kits. The creation and dissemination of these kits played a critical and often unacknowledged part of VC's activism. Asian American People & Places (1972) included elaborately illustrated day-in-the-life diaries of a cross-section of Asian Pacific American professionals, including Lagofaatasi Sialoi (Samoan ship worker), Jenny Batongmalaque (Filipino doctor), and Peter Hon (mathematician and community organizer). The East/West Activities Kit: Ethnic Understanding Series (1972) featured posters that detail the origins of Chinese characters and a diagram on the particular signification of bananas in American, Chinese, Filipino, and Samoan cuisine.
At times At First Light transformed media into the material fabric of the exhibition itself. The mural FSN 1972 covered the entirety of the south wall of the introductory room, placing spectators within a bustling, human-scaled Little Tokyo circa 1972. The expanse of First Street North featured the IDA Market, the Mitsuru's Children's Shop, the Far East Café, and the Queen Hotel. Embedded within the detailed composition were small screens that looped never-before-viewed VC footage. Scenes of the 1969 Asian American Community Picnic and the Kinnara Taiko drumming ensemble performing at the Senshin Buddhist Temple flickered throughout the black-and-white mural. The immersive experience stressed the close relationship between artistic production and social geography.
The exhibition could have more directly gestured toward Asian Pacific American media created before and then developed contemporaneously with VC—for example, early twentieth-century filmmaking, exhibition, and moviegoing practices as well as peer collectives located in Northern California and New York City. Additionally, while At First Light did well to position VC within the minority liberation struggles, the exhibition could have more clearly highlighted the institution-building efforts of Chicano, black, feminist, and LGBTQ media makers within and beyond Los Angeles.7
No doubt more time, space, and resources would have helped with this endeavor. To be sure, At First Light emphasizes how public money was and still is essential to the resource and tech-dependent practice of making media, even as projects themselves offer trenchant critiques of state power. Grassroots pressure led to the expansion of academic programs at UCLA as well as funding opportunities through the Emergency School Aid Act, the National Endowment for the Arts, and eventually the California Arts Council.
One of At First Light's virtues was its ability to reach beyond the exhibition's physical location and temporal span. As signaled by the exhibition's concluding display, “The Light Continues,” the concepts of “Change,” “Commitment,” and “Community” are important to understanding not only the past lives of Asian Pacific Angelenos, but also the present-day challenges faced by marginalized communities.
To this end, parts of At First Light are being made available online. The installation of testimonials, Video Stories from the VC Archives, now appears as an open access database.8 The website contains interviews from movement participants where they reflect on past events, often with the aid of images or film clips. Individuals talk about anti-Vietnam War protests, the Little Tokyo People's Rights Organization's battles against corporate development in Little Tokyo, the destruction and revival of the Bunker Hill-based Manilatown, and the late-night shifts of workers at the LA City Market. These efforts dovetail with VC's wider aims to expand their digital footprint, which facilitates how local residents as well as filmmakers, students, artists, and the broader public can interact with their holdings.
A robust lineup of programming also helped to expand the exhibition, connecting the institutional space to Little Tokyo and the cultural landscape of the city. A pop-up show housed in an East First Street storefront displayed 1970s-era snapshots of the neighborhood. It also included events such as an artist talkback with Hollywood editor Harry Yoon and presentations by associates of Nikkei Progressives about the legacy of the redress fight concerning internment. Beyond the pop-up show, the panel “Building the Asian American Movement: Then and Now” featured an intergenerational conversation among activists. The program “At First Site” invited members of Sustainable Little Tokyo and the Cog·nate Collective to share their current efforts to support social services and affordable housing, and check corporate redevelopment. The multimedia Reflections/Refractions performance hosted literary artists who delivered spoken word poems inspired by images from VC's archive. These events modeled the kind of creative institution building as well as alliances that are so urgent in our contemporary moment.
Around the latter end of At First Light's late 1980s to early ’90s purview, the Los Angeles Mayor's Office published its “Strategic Plan.” Titled LA 2000: A City for the Future, the document described the “flourishing” city as the “centerpiece of an enormous, and still growing megalopolis, already the leading international marketplace for goods, services and new ideas.” It spoke of the desire to help expand the city's economy and support the freedoms and opportunities of its diverse citizens.9 However, the boosterist report was more the stuff of Hollywood fantasy, touched by the afterglow of the Olympics, which was held in the heart of the city in 1984. For all its discussion of supporting green policies and enhancing the professional and educational prospects of residents, the document contained little about the systemic racism, forced displacement, unchecked corporate greed, and widespread deindustrialization that shaped everyday life for the city's working-class communities of color. At First Light, and the ongoing work of VC, are not simply more engaged with the social reality of Los Angeles's past, but give form and vision to a more inclusive and just future for the city. It's a future worth fighting for.
The author would like to express a heartfelt thanks to Abraham Ferrer and Eddie Wong for generously sharing insights about At First Light and the history of VC. See the official PBS website for Asian Americans to learn more about the series: https://pbs.org/show/asian-americans; B. Ruby Rich and Brian Hu, “Dossier: Asian American Film at Fifty,” Film Quarterly 73, no. 3 (Spring 2020): 28–33, https://filmquarterly.org/2020/02/27/an-introduction-2; and George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, art by Harmony Becker, They Called Us Enemy (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2019). The year 2019–20 commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Asian American Studies programs at such universities as UCLA, San Francisco State, and UC Berkeley. The Center for Asian American Media and Asian CineVision celebrate their fortieth anniversaries. For more on this moment of critical reflection, see VC's website: https://vcmedia.org, along with the “ezine” of VC founder Eddie Wog, East Wind: Politics & Culture of Asian Pacific America, https://eastwindezine.com.
Karen L. Ishizuka, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties (London: Verso, 2016), 133–63.
To be sure, Ethno-Communications had a different charge than that of the AFI Conservatory, which welcomed its first class of (white, male) students to its Beverly Hills-based film school in 1969.
Back issues of Gidra can be found online at the Densho Digital Repository: densho.org/gidra-now-available-online.
For more on VC films, see David James, “Popular Cinemas in Los Angeles: The Case of Visual Communications,” in The Sons and Daughters of Los: Culture and Community in L.A., ed. David James (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 231–50; Russell Leong, ed., Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 1991); Jun Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movements (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 12–38; Ming-Yuen S. Ma, “Claiming a Voice: Speech, Self-Expression, and Subjectivity in Early Asian American Independent Media,” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ed. Lori Lopez and Vincent Pham (New York: Routledge, 2017), 11–26.
Franklin Shoichiro Odo and Visual Communications, Asian American Studies Central, Inc., In Movement: A Pictorial History of Asian America (Los Angeles: Triangle Lithograph, 1977), 6–7. VC members also contributed to major edited volumes such as Amy Tachiki et al., eds., Roots: An Asian American Reader (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1971).
For the earlier history of Asian Pacific American media production and filmgoing practices, see scholar Denise Khor's forthcoming book Transpacific Convergences: Race, Migration and Japanese American Film Culture before World War II. For comparative media histories, see David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Joshua Glick, Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958–1977 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018). Also, see Louis Massiah, Patricia Zimmermann, and XFR Collective's expansive project, We Tell: Fifty Years of Participatory Community Media, www.scribe.org/wetell/we-tell-fifty-years-participatory-community-media.
Video Stories from the VC Archives, https://vimeo.com/showcase/6015209.
LA 2000: A City For the Future, Final Report of the Los Angeles 2000 Committee (Los Angeles, 1988), 8–13.