A week before his wedding In 1982, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit by two white men who mistook him for a Japanese and vented at him their anger at the demise of the American auto industry. Although the perpetrators pleaded guilty to Chin’s beating death, a white judge sentenced them only to probation, thereby initiating the political mobilization of an entire Asian American community. Eventually, the murderers were found guilty of the racially motivated crime in a federal civil rights court in 1984, only to be acquitted upon appeal three years later by a mostly white jury in Cincinnati. “Vincent’s soul will never rest. My life is over,” Vincent’s mother wailed upon hearing the final verdict.
Through moving stories like these, Helen Zia chronicles the Asian American struggle for civil rights in her first book, Asian American Dreams. Each chapter of Asian American Dreams offers a tale from a different ethnic community.
Bong Jae Jang, the Korean owner of the Red Apple Market in Brooklyn, was arrested in 1990, for example, after Jiselaine Felissaint, a Haitian immigrant, accused him of beating her. The African American community in Brooklyn boycotted the Red Apple and other Korean stores. The lack of political will on the part of New York Mayor David Dinkins made it possible for the standoff to continue for seventeen months.
Interspersing these tales are brief autobiographical essays chronicling the author’s passage from her childhood in a working class Chinese family in New Jersey, to medical school, to the auto assembly line in Detroit, and finally, to her current life as a social activist and writer.
The Vincent Chin case explains Zia’s initiation in politics, since she happened to be living in Detroit at the time and was instrumental in organizing the Chinese community there.
The chapters in the book open up like petals of an Asian water lily; from stories of individuals battling against personal discrimination and prejudice, they progress to stirring tales of civic struggles in which entire neighborhoods, cities, and communities are involved. These stories might have taken on maudlin overtones, had they not been fortified with rigorous accounts of the legal, social, and political activism springing fourth in their wake.
A case in point is the saga of the migrant Filipino workers seeking redress for segregation and hardship they faced in the salmon canneries of Alaska during the early part of the twentieth century. The story becomes especially poignant because of the strong political clout exerted in Washington by Wards Cove, the only cannery to resist settlement until the end. In this tale, as in many others, the politics in the immigrants’ native country comes into play as well, since, ironically, the Filipino workers’ union was directly in conflict with the Marcos loyalists in America.
Not all the pictures Zia paints can be seen in such black and white tones, however. There is the story of the fifteen-year-old girl Natasha Harlins, shot and killed by a Korean shopkeeper in South Central L.A. on suspicion of robbing a bottle of orange juice. The account of the subsequent Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict will bring goose bumps to most readers, particularly since the white establishment’s indifference to the destruction of one minority at the hands of another is unmistakable.
The struggle moves on to a much broader stage, literally and figuratively speaking, when Jonathan Pryce arrives on Broadway to play an Asian pimp despite protests by Asian American actors.
Alas, Hollywood style happy endings are not in store for the major players in these stories. Most do not deliver impassioned speeches after stunning victories in court, nor do they walk out of their inner city ghettos and into a Beverly Hills sunset. Instead, it is through the very defeat of their specific causes that a larger change in American attitudes and institutions is often brought about. Asian American actors alone would play Asian characters on Broadway in future, for example, and the racist content of shows like Miss Saigon would come under increasing scrutiny.
Zia shifts gears as she discusses the successful affluent South Asian immigrant community. Her observations about the class distinctions within the Indian immigrant community are astute, as are her remarks about the conflicting demands faced by women and girls in the group. Zia points to Hindu role models many young women are asked to imitate, while also fulfilling the high academic expectations of their parents. She uncannily notes the rise in domestic violence and the recent spurt in Indian women’s organizations to combat it.
Silicon Valley Indians might feel offended by Zia’s indictment of The IndUs Entrepreneurs (TiE) for their failure to embrace social and political causes. It is ironic, she notes, that the very people who became entrepreneurs and millionaires as a result of the discrimination they faced in the form of glass ceiling in the Silicon Valley refuse to act against it. Her comments are so much on the mark that one wonders why she is not equally incisive about internal conflicts within her own Chinese American community.
The closing chapters of the book are devoted to a chronicle of the Asian American struggle for legalization of same-sex marriages. Unfortunately, as Zia reveals her own sexual orientation as a lesbian, the reader’s interest waivers and the book peters out, even as the author makes a convincing case that the banning of same-sex marriages is akin to the refusal of equal rights for Asians in prior decades.
For a weighty non-fiction book engaging in a serious discussion of law and politics, readers will find Asian American Dreams a moving, at times disturbing, but on the whole an inspiring book. Every Indian American must read this book and realize that the opportunities we have in this country might seem limitless but they are of relatively recent origin and cannot be taken for granted. operates on three levels; the microcosm of Zia’s own life, the challenges that the communities involved in the specific cases face, and the broader issues of race, gender, and ethnicity that put them in context. Zia proves herself a skillful narrator as she stages these tales against the bigger backdrop of national and international politics. begins with a well-documented history of the first immigrants to arrive in America from China, Japan, and India, only to be treated as slaves. Unable to own property, to vote, or to bring wives into this country, they persevered, to eventually participate in the civic life of America.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED