Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mixed Arts, Mixed Marriage, And Riding The Metal Tiger

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Sun Neen Fai Lok!

HAPA Lunar New Year of the Metal Tiger, my Hip Hapa Homeez. Are you ready to ride the tiger yet? Grrrr, so are we! This Saturday, the planet celebrates Lunar Year 4708 so Your Hip Hapa thought it appropriate to feature painter, poet, author, newspaper arts editor and produce worker Alan Chong Lau. Every single year, no matter where in the world Your Hip Hapa calls home, Alan sends her a hand-painted Lunar New Year card from his Seattle digs.

That’s Alan with his grandmother in the photo here taken in 1955 in California, and below are three of his paintings. The first one, a self-portrait of him working at his produce job, appeared in his book Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal. The second image is called Gods of the People and the third, Bittermelon Achieving Overripeness.

You can find out more about Alan’s artwork by going to the gallery link where Alan’s artwork is featured and clicking his name:

To learn more about his poetry and published work, drop us a line at, and Your Hip Hapa will hook you up with Alan.

Q: How did your family end up in California?

A: My father was originally from a small village in Guangdong Province in Southern China. He left his village as a young boy and lived in Hong Kong with a relative, eventually joining the merchant marines and sailing numerous times to the U.S. One day, he just decided to "jump ship" and when the ship docked for a few days in San Francisco, he got off and never returned. He became one of hundreds of illegal immigrants working the fields as a laborer in the Sacramento Valley. Eventually, he enlisted in the Army when World War II broke out and was granted a pardon for enlisting, becoming a naturalized citizen.

My mother is a second generation Chinese American who grew up in Stockton where her folks had a Chinese restaurant on El Dorado Street. Both of my parents are Haka Chinese. Eventually, my folks settled in Paradise California, which was then a small, conservative, mostly-white retirement community in the upper Sacramento Valley just at the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas--15 miles from Chico. My father often said, "I wanted to start a Chinese restaurant where there wouldn't be any competition."

Q: What was it like for you, a Chinese American, living in Japan?

A: Having an Asian face in an Asian country at first is totally liberating! To go from being a minority in the U.S. where it seems, at times, your every move and action is scrutinized and where you feel you have to explain yourself constantly to being part of the majority where you can just be yourself is initially an exhilarating feeling. But your cover is blown as soon as you open your mouth, or your body language gives you away. “Asian American” was a difficult concept for Japanese to fathom when I was there in the late 1960's to early 1970's. Right away, they try to relate to you by speaking of China; the older folks will speak of the wisdom of Chinese culture or the time they spent in the Japanese army in China during WWII. I lost count of the times I was serenaded by well-meaning old Japanese guys once the sake flowed freely with their rendition of "China Nights" (Shina No Yoru), a nostalgic old song that reminded them of their time spent in China. I think the younger Japanese understood more clearly when you said you were “Asian American”. The way Japanese feel about their place in Asia and their relationship to the U.S. is complicated and definitely colored by history and colonialism. I still remember once, in my morning English conversation class, when one of my students corrected me as I read out his name. He said, "Oh, that's my Japanese name. I am actually a Korean living in Japan." There was dead silence in the room from his fellow Japanese students. I mean, you could have heard a pin drop. Like I said, it’s complicated and something that is being worked out continually.

I spent six months hitchhiking around Japan in 1968-1969 during a leave of absence from San Francisco State University one semester. The second time I ended up in Japan was at the tail end of a trip that took me to Copenhagen to represent my family at my sister's wedding to a boy from Bangkok. They met at the Royal Hotel. He was a busboy and she was a maid. After the wedding, I just kept traveling overland across Europe, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and eventually landed back in Kyoto totally penniless. It was the early 1970's and I ended up staying for 3 1/2 years studying brush painting and meeting my wife Kazuko.

Q: How did you two meet? Were there any cultural clashes between your families?

A: The only jobs most foreigners can get are as English conversation teachers. A friend whom I met on the boat to Japan (my first trip was from San Francisco to Yokohama on a cruise ship) had gone to U.C. Santa Barbara and loved Bob Dylan, becoming a Japanese folksinger himself. He got me a job teaching beginning English conversation at Kyoto Unesco. Students would take the class at 7 a.m. before going off to their office jobs. My wife was one of those early morning students.

At the time, I did not speak much Japanese and her parents spoke no English and through that wall of non-communication, somehow we got along. The first time my mother met Kazuko, she told her, "If my mother were still alive, she would be shocked that her grandson married a Japanese woman like you." She was referring to my grandmother's very real hatred of the invading Japanese army who came to her village in China. She once told me about her memory of seeing a Japanese soldier bayonet a pregnant woman, which haunted her for years.

Q: Do you two eat mostly Japanese or Chinese, and who does the cooking?

A: A little of both and all of the rest, although since I am partially vegetarian (I eat fish once in a while), that limits what we eat at times. Kazuko does most of the cooking although at times it really comes down to who gets home first and who's the hungriest. I pick out the produce at work if I am not in a big hurry to go home.

Q: Is Chinese or Japanese spoken at home?

A: I would have to say we speak kind of a "baby" version of both languages. It's strange, but I can speak more Japanese than Chinese. But I think my comprehension of Chinese (in my own Haka dialect) is more thorough than my comprehension of Japanese. Plus, I probably speak Japanese like a girl since I learned it from my wife and some of my female students. So, sometimes Kazuko will say key words in Japanese and fit them into an English sentence or vice versa. Or, sometimes when we don't want to be overhead in a crowd, i.e., when riding the bus, I might say in Japanese, "Someone just cut a fart. Let's move to the back of the bus."

Q: How do you juggle so many careers—poetry, painting, editing the arts section of a newspaper, being a produce worker?

A: I guess my life is a jigsaw and every piece contributes something to make me whole. I am in awe of poetry and just amazed at the magic and power of words. Poetry in an oral sense may have been one of mankind's first utterances--feelings and emotions put to song, notes going out and up into an empty sky. Painting is something that to me is very immediate. You may not have a clear idea in your head, but you can just start splashing ink on paper and before you know it you follow where the painting takes you and wants you to go. I love that feeling when you can't totally control where the journey takes you. Growing up during the Asian American student movement left an indelible mark on my consciousness. I came away from that experience feeling that some part of what you do has to contribute to society and that you have to give back, if only to give thanks to those who came before you and paved the way. So, working on a non-profit community newspaper like the International Examiner is my way of contributing to that dialogue. Plus, I feel it's important to make sure that people realize the importance of the arts in society. And working in the community, in an Asian produce market, keeps you grounded and keeps you real. Plus, it's a great way to interact with and meet people as they go about one of their most important functions, shopping for food to eat.

Q: Any upcoming exhibits or readings?

A: Current and upcoming projects include the following: I have new work in a group show currently at Francine Seders gallery (which represents me locally) that celebrates the owner's birthday until February 14. I had a recent one-person show there in the fall of 2009. I’m writing poems in response to the work of sculptor Marc Wenet. I have also been asked by American poet Cralan Keldar, who lives in Amsterdam, to do the artwork for his first book of poetry due out later this year. And, my work is being considered for a group show on the theme of artists who live and work in the International District for the fall at Wing Luke Asian Museum. Finally, I have been invited to participate in a group project for Richard Hugo House next year where writers will be commissioned to write and read totally new work around the theme of "Born in the U.S.A."

Q: Every year, you hand paint Lunar New Year cards and send them to all your friends. What’s your inspiration?

A: I got that idea from living in Japan and just thought it was a nice way of keeping in touch with friends whom you may never see again or who live far away or that you don't get to see that often. It's my way of staying in touch and saying, "Hello, my friend! I am still thinking of you and wish you the best for the new year." I do around 300 and each card is hand-painted and it's labor intensive. Every year I say I gotta quit doing it, but I haven't yet. What am I going to do--send everyone a generic email card listing all the things I did in the past year? Plus, there are so many religious holidays that separate us or make us different, but "happy new year!" is a sentiment that has a universal commonality and I like that idea.

We like that idea, too, Alan. So, HAPA New Year Hip Hapa Homeez!

Here’s the usual spiel: Please join our Hip Hapa Homeez group page on Facebook where we keep you posted about the latest news affecting blendies, mixies, transracial adoptees and interested parties. While you’re there, check out our Watermelon Sushi Fan page and sign up. This is where we keep you updated about our film’s progress. We also post dialogue from the Watermelon Sushi script on Twitter. If you’d like to participate, check out our Hapa*Teez t-shirts and earn a rear crawl credit on the film with your purchase.

In closing, here’s what Alan replied to our inquiry about his prediction for the Year of the Metal Tiger:

“Living in the moment is always a challenge. I do feel we can influence part of what happens by our actions, and other things we just have no control over.”


Your Hip Hapa,



Judith van Praag said...

Watermelon Sushi, How lovely to read about Alan's New Year's cards, especially since we've been the lucky recipients for some years and just got this year's version in the mail ourselves. More and more special since most of us rely on e-mail to relay messages. There's nothing like a hand made card. Wonderful that you got to use that sweet picture of Alan with his grandmother. Nice piece! Happy Year of the Tiger to you and your readers!

Yayoi Lena Winfrey said...

Mahalo nui loa, Judith, for taking the time to leave your comments about Alan. Lucky for both of you to have each other's friendship.

Gung Hay Fat Choy!