Archives: Abolition, Not Assimilation
Updated: May 23, 2021
Alongside a retrospective of some of the films that Christine Choy made with Third World Newsreel, film critic, lecturer and playwright Peter Kim George gathered a number of panelists to talk about Choy's work and the ideas it raises for contemporary viewers. Here, we present a partial transcription of that excellent conversation, which featured filmmaker Christine Choy; Sarah Ahn of the Flushing Workers Center; Devika Girish, co-deputy editor of Film Comment magazine and a Talks programmer at the New York Film Festival, and author; Ju-Hyun Park of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development and JT Takagi, ED of Third World Newsreel and codirector of Bittersweet Survival and Homes Apart. The event was curated and moderated by Peter Kim George, who provides the written introduction to our excerpt of the conversation that follows below, and the panel can be watched in full here.
Though Christine Choy is often recognized for directing Academy-nominated Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), there is an equally important moment in Choy's filmmaking. As co-founder of Third World Newsreel in 1972, an activist and filmmaking collective, Choy built relationships with third world movements and communities, arriving at root causes with issues concerning class, race, and US colonialism.
With the coordination of VC Media, TWN, and in partnership with A/P/A Institute at NYU, I curated the series Abolition, Not Assimilation: A Retrospective of Christine Choy and Third World Newsreel, presenting films that speak to Choy's organizing history with the Black Panthers and her guerilla, mixed-media documentary style. Teach Our Children (1974) captures the abolitionist spirit of the Attica Prison Rebellion; From Spikes to Spindles (1976) gives voice to Chinatown labor organizing around sweatshops and gentrification; Bittersweet Survival (1982) and Homes Apart: Korea (1991) the destructive legacy of American empire and militarism in Vietnam and South Korea. Rather than asking what it takes for Asians to be good Americans, these films interrogate the legacies of incarceration and imperialism that all Americans inherit; rather than assimilation, these films point us to the necessary abolition of prisons and military bases. Choy’s lens never loses sight of what is human and universal, whether it is the loss of a loved one or searching for home—but these things are never subordinated to the political, nor can they be thought of outside of a political context. In this way, Choy’s films are a valuable lesson in how to think productively about identity and politics today.
-- Peter Kim George
Peter Kim George: I have been thinking about polling data in the Washington Post that showed that one third of Asian American voters voted for Donald Trump in 2020; there was also a 36% increase in Asian American votership in 2020. There is an idea that being an Asian American means you are progressive, or have some relation to a progressive politics, but this has been a flashpoint to the question of the hashtag #StopAsianHate which some people do not use because it suggests more policing, more sentencing. I wanted to ask how, in your practice and personal belief system, you square this circle and think about “Asian American” as a productive political identity, and, in instances when it is not, how do you reconcile that?
Devika Girish: [...] In terms of #StopAsianHate, the word “hate” makes me wary as it contributes to this idea of racism being a psychological response. It builds into the idea that anyone who has committed an act of violence that is racially motivated has a hate in them. If you ask anyone, they will always say that they don't hate anyone, and it leads to this obsession over whether there is racial bias in an act of violence. I think it is more important to talk about imperialism and to talk about exploitation. In my opinion, it is more important to talk about what made the victims vulnerable to violence than what made the perpetrator commit this act. [..] The word “crime” also makes it uncomfortable because it is a status, and it is a legislative term. There is a limit to how much we can trust the state, or judicial mechanisms, to tell us what is right or wrong. I don't think our struggle can be demanding that the state recognise what acts of violence should send people to jail because that is what we are saying when we ask things to be recognised as “crime”. Our thinking and organizing needs to be abolitionist and anti-imperialist for it to really serve Asian American communities, so we need to be careful about how we deploy these terms.
Sarah Ahn: This whole #StopAsianHate slogan is not just a secondary impact of the policing that targets the Black and Brown communities, but it's actually something that is directly sowing racial tension among our communities as well, because it actually is putting all of our attention to violence that only happens on the street. Saying that the hate and violence can only exist there really obscures the fact that the most egregious violence comes from the hands of the system. It is imposed on us. [...] One of the home attendants who spoke at our protest last month said that, though there have been some tragic deaths, if you get attacked on the street it hurts for a moment, but this is a visceral violence that hurts us day after day, year after year. This violence that we face at the hands of our employers, our landlords, and the state, is killing us slowly. At the protest, we actually said that we should stop racial violence to highlight that this is affecting many different communities of color, and that we have to unite against our common enemy.
Ju-Hyun Park: I’m really resonating with that, and I thank you for bringing these points to the fore. The problem with #StopAsianHate is that it doesn't come with a political programme, which is something you have both been speaking to. It makes it a question of a hatred that is out on there in an ether, and the state and the capitalist system have become very good over the last fifty years at retooling white supremacist ideology to present itself as the solution to a lot of these problems. They pose it as a question of hate because if it is just a question of hate then you can fix it with love, and you can fix it by uplifting or celebrating people who are denigrated within the culture. I say that because I logged into Netflix and it took me to a special AAPI Heritage Month menu where I had to flick through all these terrible movies to get what I wanted to watch, and I’m getting targeted Stop Asian Hate ads from Wells Fargo, and I don't even have a Wells Fargo account, so I don’t know why that is happening. We live in a time where capitalism is demonstrating that it can also do identity politics, and we need to question this moment because it is about defining what counts as anti-Asian violence. The violence of the employer, the violence of the landlord, the violence of the military, all do not count, but these random incidents that become spectacular viral moments are presented as the totality of anti-Asian violence and that this is the only problem we need to fix. The way that both the problem and the solution are constructed is very intentional because it brings us back to the idea that we can rely on the system to correct itself and if we just apply for the right businesses, watch the right Hollywood movies, change our hiring and admissions practices, and really just keep playing the game, things will eventually correct themselves.
We should be very skeptical at this moment and consider that this visibility around anti-Asian violence and racism may not be a good thing because the ideology that undergirds it is not one that really presents any kind of challenge to the existing system and therefore does not offer us solutions to the problems that we face. I think that if we consider what it really means to be Asian American and what it will take for Asian Americans to be liberated - with all the complicated ethnic, linguistic, national, and religious divisions that come with that - we still get to this core answer that we can’t really address anything without looking at Asia and the Pacific as regions, and the imperialist and colonial conditions in our homelands that led to the creation of Asian America.
We can't have a political program that is just celebrating identity, we need an actual political program that is trying to accomplish things. To liberate Asian Americans, we need to liberate the Asia Pacific. We need to get the US out of our homelands and restore political and economic sovereignty to the region. We need to address the lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander diasporas that are not just about random violence in the street. I’m not saying this isn’t a problem, but there are whole other ways that we are made vulnerable: the immigration system, through the jobs we work at, through the medical system, through prisons, police, and surveillance, and the spotlight is not being put on these things because they are the ugly side of a system that is trying to court us and tell us that it can actually fix the problems it created.
Peter Kim George: How do you think people today can learn from these films? What do they inform us about our current moment?
Christine Choy: I make films about people who do not have a voice partly because of my own personal background. I’m half Korean, half Chinese, with some Russian or Mongolian blood too. [...] Among Asians, we have a lot of discrimination between nationalities, so lumping us together is problematic in itself. I hope the new generation is able to have a different perspective and articulate our histories in a different way. I also partially became a filmmaker because I got pissed off seeing that there were no Asian images in the mass media. I remember Jack Chen from the Chinatown History Project and myself being invited to give a talk about Asian America at the University of Pennsylvania. [...] We had to present the images of Asian Americans, and Jack did a lot of research into the historical depiction of Asian populations and I looked into the mass media. In the mass media, you’ll see ridiculous images of how we have been depicted because we are replaceable. Japanese can play Chinese, Chinese can play Koreans, and the American public had no clue. That particular part of the education - or non-education - had affected me a great deal. I want young Asian Americans - or young Asians in America - to understand their own nationality and how their own personal motherland became a part of the overall fabric of the Asian community. I’m so happy that young Asians - whether they are young Indians, Koreans, Philippines, Vietnamese, or anything - are beginning to speak out about their own experience.
Devika Girish: The films made me think about a couple of things. Firstly, there’s been a lot of conversations recently about anti-Asian violence. I’ve been reading and thinking about why it is difficult to rally politically around anti-Asian violence, and I think there are a couple different things there. As Christine was pointing out, the term Asian, or Asian American, is so broad it doesn't often feel specific enough to coalesce into a coherent form of organizing. I’m Indian, and my historical and contemporary experiences, growing up in India, and as an Indian-American immigrant, are very distinct from those of other Asian countries. There are also complex relationships between different Asian countries. There are complexities between India and China, or between India and other countries in South Asia, for instance. That’s one thing, and the other thing is that there is much historical awareness of the history of Asian migration to the US, and the US’s relationship with Asian countries. A lot of times, especially in the present day, Asian immigrants are viewed as a professional class that immigrated to the US for certain kinds of opportunities. What these films demonstrate is the long history of Asian immigration to the US that has been rooted in both the history of imperialism and the history of labour trade. Watching From Spikes to Spindles and Korea: Homes Apart really reminded me that the direct intervention of the US in Asian countries is responsible for the Asian diaspora in the US. This seems an obvious thing to say but it is often not remembered that the realities we live in were often created by imperialistic or capitalistic histories. Similarly, From Spikes to Spindles shows the fact that anti-Asian violence is not some kind of psychic hatred that a random individual has on the street towards a person, but instead part of a long history of exploitation of labour and the way that has been presented, and not addressed in our public education.
Even though these films were made in the moment, they are so important as historical artifacts that remind us to draw these historical connections that are often overlooked. The final thing that I will say is how they made me think how the term Asian American can be glib, and it can be an umbrella term that can get in the way of organizing effectively or paper over nuances, but at the same time the diaspora can be such a productive force of solidarity. There are the kinds of solidarities that you can build in the diaspora that might not be possible in our motherlands. In my case, India has a history with Pakistan and there’s the Indian partition, which is sort of similar to the division in Korea, and coming to the US has allowed me to build relationships with individuals and communities and organizers from other diasporas that maybe I wouldn't have had a relationship with had I stayed in India. It allows us to think of the category of Asian American as an effective political tool for collective solidarity against imperialism and against exploitation. The whole Third World Newsreel project was embedded in ideas of solidarity across racial and national lines that at the same time were not ahistorical.
Ju-Hyun Park: Speaking on these historical connections, something that I really appreciate about these four films is that they really ask us to consider both the conditions that Asian Americans come to the US under and the condition of this country itself, The US often positions itself as a saviour of Asian people, usually in the context of US wars in our homelands, so how does Attica disrupt that narrative, and how does The Korean War and the Vietnam War contradict that narrative? When we begin to ask these questions we can understand the links between the prison complex and the military, and see them as domestic and international faces of the same sort of colossus. When we realise that we understand that the movement for Black lives and for demands to defund and abolish the police are fights against the same enemy on a different terrain. I think that it is important for us to be aware of this history as we live in a time when the idea of being Asian American can be very watered down. It’s often very divorced from its original political context as a coalitional term with a very intentional politic behind it, by which I mean an anti-imperialist politic. I think being able to narrate Asian American stories that don’t just begin in America, but do include the conditions in Asia and the Asian Pacific that create our diasporas, allow us to begin to understand the political legacy and the responsibilities that we have.
JT Takagi: I’m glad that people are talking about this as it is the whole reason why Third World Newsreel does what it does, which is to connect the activism of the past with what is happening now, as the issues have remained the same. What is interesting about these earlier films that Christine Choy made is that when I saw them I didnt feel aware of people being able to be active, and I didn’t feel that people were empowered to document ourselves. Talking that bold step at a time when there weren't many Asian American filmmakers, and filming topics that were not popular, really opened my eyes, and a lot of people's eyes, about how it is possible for us to take voice, to document, to make change, and have films that inspire others to organize an.