Russell Leong

Editor’s note: Professor Russell Leong was editor – from 1977 to 2010 – of Amerasia Journal, the premiere academic collection of scholarly papers in Asian American studies, established in 1971. Leong has taught for the English and Asian American Studies departments at UCLA and also at Hunter College, CUNY. He is author of Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories (University of Washington Press, 2000) which received the American Book Award. Russell Leong designed the cover of Linking Our Lives. This interview was told to William Gow on March 29,2022 by Zoom, and edited by Samuel Yee.

Like a Small Village

I grew up in San Francisco Chinatown in the 1950s, during the McCarthy era. I attended a school called Commodore Stockton, which was previously called the “Oriental School”. It was 99 percent Chinese from the Chinatown community, as the school was set up after a famous case [Tape v. Hurley, 1885] was brought up by Joseph Tape – or Jeu Dip, about getting equal education for Chinese children. However, the teachers were almost 99 percent White. Many Asian Americans were part of this “orientalist project”, at least a century before Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism (1978). Most people only use one part of Said’s book: they talk about representation. But an important part of Said’s book is about the hierarchies of knowledge and the way people are culturally and politically colonized or imprisoned. That grammar school was like a prison. Reflecting back, we were still the “heathens” that were there to be educated in the English language and in American morals and norms. That was a part of my childhood growing up in San Francisco Chinatown in the 1950s.

I didn’t even know Chinatown was a ghetto until I read about it in the newspaper. The paper said that Chinatown was one of the most densely populated communities in America, and it had a very high tuberculosis rate. Almost everybody tested positive for TB. Testing positive didn’t mean that you had the disease; it just meant that you were exposed. It was a very crowded place. It was like a small village. Once I crossed the tunnel to the downtown commercial area, there were other kinds of people: White people, Black people. I really identified with the Jewish kids, because they could talk nonstop about almost anything, while the Chinese were a little bit more reserved. The Jews seemed to have a certain self-confidence and poise that I lacked.

Strike! At SF State

In the late 1960s, I went to San Francisco State as a college student. It was the first semester of the strike for ethnic studies and terms like “Black” and “Yellow” appeared and took on a certain kind of political and cultural power. We all wore green army jackets because they sort of looked like Mao jackets. There was the ascendance of New China. We didn’t go to class too much, as we were marching at the front entrance. The strikes were bigger than all of us. A couple of my friends threw rocks at some buildings, and they went to jail for a day. It was a period in which I really got to make friends and get to know other groups of people: Latinos, Chicanos, Native Americans, African Americans, and non-Chinese Asians, like Filipinos and Vietnamese. It was an eye-opener.

I would go to a protest, and then later on I would be in Chinatown looking through books from New China and see the socialist posters. They would have a yellow face, a brown face, a white face, and a pink face – with rifles in their hands. I was living in the Fillmore area; I would see an African American and a Japanese American area. The grocery stores were mainly Chinese, small little corner grocery stores. Panthers were selling cookies and pies on the street corners. It was a very mixed type of lifestyle, as it was in various local communities. San Francisco is a very small city, so you can go from Chinatown and Filipino town to J-Town to the Fillmore to the Mission pretty quickly.

At that time, we were aware of other things that were happening in the world. Most of us were fairly curious or well-read, so we were quite aware that the world in 1968 was undergoing political change. There were movements in France; China had its own movements; many countries in Africa had just become decolonized. There were literary movements as well, with rediscoveries of African American writers and concepts like Negritude, the Harlem Renaissance, and so forth. At the same time, materials from the People’s Republic of China became available in English. A lot of us could not read Chinese and the simplified characters. I think that all fueled our curiosity more.

Even though you could see the SF State strike as a local movement, we were influenced by folks like Lucian, Frantz Fanon, Pablo Neruda, Albert Memmi, James Baldwin, Camus, and so forth. Most of these people wrote about their own communities, either under colonialism or after colonialism. They provided a type of analysis, whether they were political or literary, of what it means to be a subordinated, colonized people. So, it was not only the strike, but the classes that came about like Asian American studies, Mexican studies. I took a class in Mexican philosophy, and we read writers like Octavio Paz. The ethnic studies movement and the education and pedagogy that followed gave us a much more internationalist and cosmopolitan viewpoint. The movement might have been local, but the implications and the references and the intellectual markers were transnational.

After I graduated from SF State, I went to Taiwan to study. I got myself into Taiwan National University and studied for a year and a half. I went there on a romantic mission, but I ended up with no money. Then I came back, got a job at KPFA Pacifica Station in Berkeley, and I was an editor of The Folio, their program guide. I noticed that while the programming was called “Third World”, they really did not include Asians at all in their print material. I published authors like Toshio Mori, Lawson Inada, and Alan Lau so that Berkeley would get exposed to such writings. Berkeley was always liberal, but that kind of “liberal” still did not include Asian Americans.

Newspapers, Networks, and the Asian American Studies Center

All my jobs in my life have been through a newspaper. I saw an ad in the Chinese American East-West newspaper. Amerasia Journal started in 1971. There weren’t that many issues when I applied for the editor job in 1976. I did my homework, and I got the job at UCLA in 1977. I then hired my assistant editor, Gary Okihiro. The person who actually hired me was Professor Alexander Saxton, who was the interim director of the Center at the time. He was very pivotal in analyzing the role of 19th century Chinese labor. He had an old-school type of demeanor, and he respected people of color as equals. We got along because I was the literary type.

I stayed with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center for over thirty years. Under my editorship, about ninety issues came out, three issues a year. One of the reasons I stayed was because I decided I should go back to grad school and, as an employee, I got a huge discount. I applied to film and television grad school at UCLA, and I got my MFA in film.

I came to the Center when people like June Kuramoto worked there. June lived in the Crenshaw area and was working on the book, Counterpoint, part-time. She was so fast on the IBM Selectric typewriter. She played the koto for the Japanese American jazz band, Hiroshima. A lot of other people had come through the Center, folks like Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, and Amy Uyematsu. Yuji and Emma were heavyweights and mentored many people, like the late Alan Moriyama and David K. Yoo, a Korean American who grew up in Torrance. Just among them, they put out some of the first Asian American books and publications like Roots (1971) and Counterpoint (1976). Jesse Quinsaat and Cas Tolentino put out a book called Letters in Exile (1976). That was one of the first books on Filipino Americans.

At UCLA, we collaborated with a lot of community organizations. We put out a book with the Okinawan Club entitled History of the Okinawans in North America (1988). We worked with a scholar named Ben Kobashigawa. He was at SF State, and his father was a landscape gardener in the Sawtelle area. I went to many of the Okinawan Club kenjinkai picnics. Some were “Shin-Okinawans,” the newer immigrants. The Okinawan Club consisted of working class, and they were pretty involved in the landscape and gardening business. When I work with people, I try to listen to them and attend their cultural activities so I get an idea of the people themselves and also make friends.

Another organization I collaborated with was Visual Communications. We did the first book on Asian American media [Moving the Image, 1992]. A later book was with Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Stewart Kwoh [Untold Civil Rights Stories, 2009]. Since the Asian American Studies Center was kind of like a sister and brother to the other ethnic studies centers at UCLA, we could see that there were already many African American, Chicano, and Native American publications with discussion about gender, history and so forth, but much less on Asian Americans.

Linking Our Lives

Linking Our Lives was UCLA’s collaboration with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. After Alex Saxton, Lucie Cheng was my boss. She was a tough one, but we kind of respected each other, even though we didn’t always agree. I was also working very closely with a researcher called June Mei on the Sun Ning Railroad Project, which was about a Chinese American person who donated money to China to build one of the first railroads in Southern China. Early on, Lucie brought a transnational aspect to community studies. She knew the Chinese languages, as did June Mei, who was born in New York but raised in Hong Kong. Suellen Cheng was from Taiwan, Susie Ling was raised in the Philippines, and Sucheta Mazumdar was from India. From the get-go, community projects like Linking Our Lives had a transcultural aspect. There’s all this invisible transnational stuff underneath the local community.

Munson Kwok helped to facilitate that publication, including the book cover; he made editorial suggestions. I don’t believe I had much input on the content. The project had been sort of owned by the various women who were contributors. That was a good thing. That continues the tradition, because many women were actually seminal in terms of the Center’s publications. Amy Uyematsu [Tachiki] and Emma Gee, who’s a damn good editor, helped to edit many of the early publications.

It was really the coming-of-age for a generation. Helen Zia calls it “MIH”, missing in history. A lot of the things we produced were missing in our own education. I believe that these projects we produced were for ourselves, things that we wanted to read or know about but were not taught to us. If we did not produce them, they wouldn’t exist. In that sense, we were trying to shape a certain kind of identity based on alternative political and cultural premises from our parents and from mainstream culture and politics. They were for the community, but I think of ourselves as part of the community.

Thoughts on the Future of Asian American Studies

When Asian American studies started at SF State, we recruited many instructors who were community activists. A lot of them were professionals in various community groups, people like George Woo or Moon Ng. Dudley Yasuda taught Asian American psychology and was also a practicing psychologist. A lot of these people had lives outside of the classroom and in the community. If there were class projects or field work, they were very encouraging because they knew people in the community that students could interview. Now, Asian American studies has become professionalized. It’s not only a M.A. or MFA, as you’d also have to get a Ph.D. and then you had to have a certain number of publications independently authored, and on and on and on. Campus administrations are not going to give tenure to community people who are teaching classes. At these Asian American studies conferences, you have graduate students meeting with publishers to get their books published. It became a factory. Now, in cultural studies, they tend to look at things as a text. No matter what it is, they try to dissect it analytically as an object or artifact. In a sense, they’re not dealing with hands-on reality. Their bodies are not in the community. They’re not doing any observation. They’re just looking at some report and trying to analyze it as allegory or a symbol for something else. Cultural studies have been somewhat harmful on that level.

We have to look at community studies in a broader way. I think about people like Peter Kiang at UMass Boston. He linked the University to the primary K-12 system and utilized Asian American studies. He mentored both students and teachers, and some of them actually have become professors in Peter’s program. They came from the community through the K-12 system. It’s less a matter of producing books or studies but of getting people into the educational and political pipeline. I think that Peter Kiang’s model is good, and along the way, they do put out some kinds of publications. Here are innovative ways that people are trying to still focus on community. With social media and the internet, community studies are morphing. Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s a bad thing. I just think it’s taking on new forms. Later on, you might just find this is old wine in a new bottle. There are different forces now that are transforming how people think, how people communicate, and how people want to put their ideas into practice. There are different paths toward community studies now.