Philip Vera Cruz

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[A fantastic photograph of Philip Vera Cruz in later years, found on the great blog https://fromthevcvault.wordpress.com/tag/philip-vera-cruz/]

More often than not, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta are the two people who are most prominently remembered to be associated with agricultural worker’s unionization efforts in the United States. And while they are important in the histories of agricultural labour unions in the United States, the story of the United Farm Workers (UFW) is much larger than them. Rarely if ever does the name Philip Vera Cruz get mentioned in popular histories of the United Farm Workers labour union (UFW) outside of one or two lines, except for perhaps in Asian-American history texts.

Born in 1904 in Saoang, Ilocos Sur, Philippines, Vera Cruz was a critical driving force in unionization efforts amongst a broad racial coalition of agricultural workers in mid-20th c California. At a young age he immigrated to the United States as part of the early wave of Filipinx migration from an American Empire-controlled Philippines, carrying the legacies of American colonial rule to the United States with him. Entering the United States through Seattle in 1926 and later moving to Chicago, Vera Cruz spent his early years in the USA working as a physical labourer and sending money back home to support his family in the Philippines. Following the Second World War, Vera Cruz left Chicago for Delano, California in order to work as an agricultural labourer.

Vera Cruz, along with many other Filipinxs and Filipinx-Americans from his generation became involved in the growing agricultural labour movement after his move to Delano. In the 1950s Vera Cruz became the president of the Delano local of the National Farm Labor Union which represented mostly Filipinxs along with some Mexican and Mexican-American workers. At the same time that he was working in Delano as a farmworker, the demographics of the agricultural workforce were shifting as the Bracero Program (1942-1964) was bringing in thousands of Mexican men, many of whom returned to the USA on a regular basis after their contracts finished or stayed permanently in the USA as undocumented workers.

In 1959, the AFL-CIO organized the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, and within three years César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and other agricultural workers created the National Farm Workers Association. The strike that would ultimately provide the catalyst for the nation-wide (and eventually even international) grape boycott and strike took place in September 1965, when the predominantly Filipinx and Filipinx-American workforce voted to strike against the exploitative grape growers in the broader Delano area. The Filipinx community in the United States “had a strong labor consciousness,” in Vera Cruz’s words, because they had been continuously exploited since arriving in the United States decades before, as it was extremely difficult to leave the United States for the Philippines due to geographic, immigration, and economic reasons. Even more, many had left the Philippines while it was under American imperial control and had therefore experienced American capitalist exploitation from even before their move to the USA.

Vera Cruz would go on to play a major role in organizing Filipinxs and Filipinx-Americans through the UFW, which he helped found, all while attempting to balance the delicate and often difficult racial coalition that existed amongst Mexican, Filipinx, Arab, and Black American agricultural workers in the union. Ultimately, Vera Cruz left the UFW (which he served as second vice president at the time) in 1977 over intense ethical and political disagreements with how Chávez led the union, ignited especially in regards to the visit Chávez undertook to the Philippines where human rights abuses were state-sanctioned at the time. Despite leaving the UFW, Philip Vera Cruz continued to be a strong advocate for the labour rights of agricultural workers until his death in 1994.

Vera Cruz remains an important but often overlooked (at least outside of Asian-American academic circles) historical figure who can teach us a lot about the experiences of colonized peoples under American imperial control in Asia, the attempts of some of the most marginal people in capitalist economies – impoverished, racialized agricultural workers – to unionize, and the difficult yet necessary work that goes into creating racial coalitions and solidarities. The effect of Vera Cruz’s activism and life can be felt today in the United States, even if his name remains relatively unfamiliar to many outside of his community. We hear at the HHBlog tip our hats to Vera Cruz, and we hope you seek out more information about him and his radical work as a labour organizer!

~ M

Bibliography

Fujita Rony, Dorothy. “Coalitions, Race, and Labor: Rereading Philip Vera Cruz.”  Journal of Asian American Studies Vol. 3, No. 2 (June 2000): 139-162.

Lyons, Richard D. “Philip Vera Cruz, 89; Helped to Found  Farm Worker Union.” New York Times, June 16, 1994. Accessed June 9, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/16/obituaries/philip-vera-cruz-89-helped-to-found-farm-worker-union.html.

Scharlin, Craig, Lilia Villanueva, and Elaine H. Kim. Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Philip Vera Cruz

Anna May Wong

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[A black and white photograph of Anna May Wong looking glamorous as all hell circa 1935. Her gaze is focused somewhere behind her and to her right, creating the illusion of ignoring the camera and her onlookers. This photograph is in the public domain, and was found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anna_May_Wong_-_portrait.jpg ]

Today’s post is dedicated to the talented and absolutely fabulous actress known as Anna May Wong. Born Wong Liu Tsong (Yellow Frosted Willow) in Los Angeles early in 1905 to Chinese-American parents who ran a laundry, Wong went on to become one of the only Asian-American actresses of the early to mid-twentieth century in American cinema (Hodges, 1). Beginning her career at a young age, first in silent film and moving into talkies, she worked in the film industry as a renowned actress until her untimely death in 1961.

Her films ranged from 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, 1929’s Piccadilly, 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon, and 1943’s anti-Japanese propaganda film Bombs Over Burma, with her being cast in different “ethnic” roles ranging from Inuit to Mongolian throughout her career. As scholar Anthony B. Chan notes in Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961), Wong’s varied roles were “designed to reveal an exotic, stern, and mysterious Asian being rather than a matter-of-fact person who relished the art of repartee. Her films served to create an aura of aloofness that seemed to encourage a sexual encounter but at the same time pushed aside the possibility of touching and intimacy” (Chan, 193).

Wong was constantly cast as the “ultimate cinematic tease” in Hollywood films (Chan, 193), as a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” in her early years, leading her to leave for Europe in search of more fulfilling roles that did not rely on her playing a supporting “exotic” character. By leaving the United States film industry for the industries flourishing in Europe, she was able to escape being constantly typecast as an exotic supporting role, which came out of a combination of anti-miscegenation laws that disallowed her from having on-screen romances with anyone who was not Asian and from Euro-American actresses constantly being cast in yellow-faced leading Asian roles. Eventually, she was signed on to Paramount in the 1930s and returned to the United States after starring in several European films of varying success. As her fame grew in the United States during the 1930s, she began to advocate on behalf of the Chinese-American community and new Chinese refugees during a time of extreme anti-Asian racism and hostility in the United States that had begun with the California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century and continued on throughout the next century.

Wong’s career spanned a breadth of roles, from stereotypical and offensive to witty and empowering, that constantly subverted Euro-American expectations of (East) Asian-American women. She was an “icon to the people of Chinese North America” who wrote tongue-in-cheek signatures on publicity photos destined for Euro-Americans, such as “Orientally yours” (Chan, xii;  Hodges, xvii). Anna May Wong’s life leads us to interrogate the ways that rebellion and subversion often co-exist with what, at times, appear to be the upholding of oppressive norms. Furthermore, Wong’s “exoticized” beauty forces us to grapple with the ways in which beauty is often weaponized against particular gendered and racialized historical subjects, leading to a forced simplification of an individual’s complexity and humanity. Wong’s sexualized appeal as a racialized subject of White fetishes regarding East Asian women is an essential aspect in understanding the complicated history of media portrayals of Asian women that reverberate into the present day.

We here at the HHBlog have the utmost respect for trail-blazing women like Anna May Wong and hope that in detailing a little bit of her life in all of its intricacies, we have inspired you to think critically about the way women living at the intersections of fetishized and sexualized racism resist, rebel, and survive.

~ M

Bibliography

Chan, Anthony B. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

Tiana (Thi Thanh Nga). “THE LONG MARCH: From Wong to Woo: Asians in Hollywood.” Cinéaste 21, no. 4 (1995): 38-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41687420.

Anna May Wong

Yuri Kochiyama

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[A beautiful photo of Yuri Kochiyama in later years, found on the fantastic blog http://blog.angryasianman.com/2014/06/legendary-activist-yuri-kochiyama-dies.html that everyone should check out. Photograph by AnRong Xu, http://www.anrongxu.com/]

As I’m sure many of you have seen, Google recently dedicated the “Google Doodle” to Yuri Kochiyama in commemoration of what would have been her ninety-fifth birthday. This decision has been met with praise, spurring the writing + reposting of countless articles and blog posts on her life, and with an unfortunate amount of scorn from those who disagreed with her radical politics. We here at the Historical Hotties Blog decided to take this opportunity to add one more post in celebration of her life, in defence of her beliefs + activism, and in praise of the types of solidarity she engaged in with Black communities as a non-Black person of colour (NBPoC).

Kochiyama was born ninety-five years ago to two Issei* in California. During the Second World War, herself and her family along with 120,000 other people of Japanese descent were forcibly uprooted and imprisoned in concentration camps. It was during her time spent in a camp in Arkansas that she began to see the similar ways in which people of colour, in this case Black Americans and people of Japanese descent, were treated by the American government and broader American society. It was also during this time that Kochiyama met her husband, a Nisei* American soldier named Bill Kochiyama.

Although initially involved in more mainstream Civil Rights activism, Kochiyama went on to become involved in the Black nationalist struggle, Puerto Rican independence, and various other interrelated causes. In 1960, Yuri and Bill moved to Harlem with their six children. By this point, Yuri Kochiyama was already in her mid-40s – definitely not the type of person that is commonly imagined as the “politicized young activist” that many associate with the 1960s. In 1963, Kochiyama met Malcolm X and developed a close friendship with him, involving her in the ongoing struggles of Black liberation and against American imperialism. Kochiyama went on to befriend and support the struggles of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and many other radical activists of colour and working class activists across the United States. Due to her political beliefs, Kochiyama was under constant surveillance by the American government, which she was aware of and was conscious to “not bring heat on certain activists in the black liberation movement” (Kochiyama, 1972). By being aware of how her surveillance was affecting Black activists, Kochiyama exemplifies ways in which NBPoC can work with, for, and (when appropriate) on behalf of Black activists without causing further harm to Black communities. Kochiyama’s activism, as an Asian American woman, was therefore never at the expense of Black Americans – an important point to make note of as the “model minority” myth associated with many (East) Asian Americans has been propagated as a form of anti-Black racism.**

Yuri Kochiyama was a controversial figure, to say the least. While many conservatives paint her as an unpatriotic communist and terrorist, I think she embodies what solidarity and active support can look like from a NBPoC with Black communities in the United States. Kochiyama was a self aware freedom fighter who understood the power behind anti-Black racism and how she needed to actively fight against it as a Japanese American woman. She was someone that built ties with people of colour around the world struggling against imperialism, oppression, capitalism, and suffering brought on by systems of power beyond her control. Kochiyama continues to inspire us to this day, and provides us with just one “jumping off point” from which to understand the ways in which we can build community and struggle with each other across different ethnic and racial divisions.

In the words of Yuri Kochiyama, “I didn’t wake up and decide to become an activist. But you couldn’t help notice the inequities, the injustices. It was all around you.” Thank you, Yuri, for fighting against the injustices that surrounded you and continue to exist today.

~ M

* Issei is a Japanese word that refers to people of Japanese descent who immigrated to other countries, such as the United States, Canada, Brazil, Peru, and beyond. Nisei refers to the second generation – the children of Issei – in Japanese diaspora communities.

** For more on the model minority myth and anti-Black racism, please check out this articlethis other article, and lastly this great article as an introduction to why the model minority myth is important to understand in relation to anti-Black racism in the United States.

Bibliography

Kochiyama, Yuri. “The Impact of Malcolm X on Asian-American Politics and Activism.” In Blacks, Latinos and Asians in Urban America: Status and Prospects for Politics and Activism, edited by James Jennings, 129-141. London: Praeger, 1994.

Ross, Janell. “Google commemorates a very controversial civil-rights figure, Yuri Kochiyama.” Washington Post. May 19, 2016. Accessed May 20, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/05/19/google-commemorates-a-very-controversial-civil-rights-figure-yuri-kochiyama/

Woo, Elaine. “Yuri Kochiyama dies at 93; civil rights activist, friend of Malcolm X.” Los Angeles Times. June 3, 2014. Accessed May 20, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-yuri-kochiyama-20140604-story.html

Yuri Kochiyama

Ah Toy

Today’s post pays tribute to Ah Toy, the second recorded Chinese woman to have arrived in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and the first Chinese sex worker (that we know of) in San Francisco. Ah Toy was born in 1828 in Southern China and travelled to the United States with her husband, who passed away en route to California. Born into relative wealth in comparison to many of the Chinese (im)migrants who traveled to the United States during the Gold Rush, Toy quickly became an influential social and economic presence in San Francisco.

Toy was an independent sex worker who established herself before the Tong controlled era of the 1850s took hold of San Francisco and wider Gold Rush California. She gained respect and a substantial amount of control over her livelihood (and wider control in the political scene in San Francisco) due to this. Toy’s life traces the difficulties that Chinese (im)migrants experienced in the United States, and specifically those of Chinese women and Chinese sex workers. The “yellow peril” sentiments amongst the White population forced Chinese women to navigate the stereotypes and violence that resulted from these attempts at securing a White supremacist state amidst the influx of thousands of Chinese workers to California and the broader American West.

Toy was both romanticized by many within the society around her and also stigmatized due to the “yellow peril” sentiments that were taking shape in the 1850s. Toy was able to negotiate the many myths surrounding Chinese sex workers, and Chinese women more broadly, to work in her favour, and was even able to manipulate the court system and vigilante police force, as can be seen by her famed relationship with John A. Clark, a prominent vigilante police officer of the time.

After establishing herself as an important political figure through her sex work, Toy went on to open a series of brothels in San Francisco and became deeply involved in the sex trade, bringing in girls and women from China to work for her. Unfortunately, some of these girls were purported to be as young as eleven years old, demonstrating the intersecting set of power dynamics that Toy and others were complicit in while trying to secure respect and safety for themselves. Toy’s life can therefore serve as a window into a complicated era of settler colonialism, anti-Asian racism, and frontier mythology, wherein the history of Chinese (im)migration to the United States points to the messy and complex negotiations of oppression, survival, and control that were at play during the era in California.

Toy’s place in this history can be looked at from multiple perspectives, but begs us here at Historical Hotties to ask ourselves a difficult and uncomfortable set of questions. How do we complicate narratives surrounding sex work in the historiography of California, the Gold Rush, and Chinese immigration to the United States without resorting to tropes of victimhood or predation? How do we understand someone like Ah Toy, whose lived experiences attest to the power and control she gained from sex work but who at the same time became a part of a tangled system of immigration, sex work, exploitation, and liberation? Where do people like Ah Toy fit in the broader project of settler colonialism in the American West? How has the historiography of Asians in America and Asian Americans served to replicate “yellow peril” myths and stereotypes of submissive East Asian women (for example) that continue to this day? How does a story such Ah Toy’s add to our understandings of racism and patriarchy in the American West, the responses of Chinese women to “yellow peril” racism amongst White settlers, and colonialism as a transnational project involving both people of colour and White people in the United States? Lastly, how can we incorporate and understand histories of sex work/ers as integral to — Capital A, Capital H — American History and treat these histories with just as much nuance as we do the histories of other labourers?

~ M

Bibliography

Gentry, Curt. The Madams of San Francisco: A Highly Irreverent History. New York: Signet, 1964.

Tong, Benson. Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

 

Ah Toy