NYU Exhibits 'Yellow Peril' Collection

A new exhibit at New York University, "Archivist of the Yellow Peril," features Yoshio Kishi's gripping collection of Asian Americana. The exhibit demonstrates how images of Asian Americans were formed, and often distorted, over the years. Jon Kalish reports.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up, reaching some rocky emotional musical heights with The Mountain Goats: dark subjects set to amazingly cheerful music. They performed in our Studio 4A.

But first, an exhibit called Archivist of the "Yellow Peril" is open at New York University. On display are all kinds of artifacts from what has been described as the pre-eminent private collection of Asian Americana. The exhibition documents how images of Asians were formed and were distorted by American pop culture over the years. Jon Kalish has this report.

JON KALISH reporting:

The collection consists of books, posters, magazines, films, old radio and TV programs and records acquired over the last 30 years.

(Soundbite of Harry Stewart record track)

Mr. HARRY STEWART (Comic Singer): (As Harry Kari) Hello, Peppie. I feel lucky. Just had a little cup of saki. (Singing) Yes, sir, that's my baby. No, sir, I'm not meaning maybe. Yes, sir, that my baby now.

KALISH: That's comic singer Harry Stewart, who performed as Harry Kari in the 1950s and '60s. This vinyl recording is just one of some 10,000 items in the collection of 73-year-old Yoshio Kishi, a retired New York film editor. NYU will pay Kishi $350,000 for the collection. It's not surprising that Yoshio Kishi wants to transfer his collection. It fills every room in his Manhattan apartment except the kitchen. Rows of brown paper shopping bags have index cards affixed to them to indicate their contents.

Mr. YOSHIO KISHI (Retired Film Editor): Shopping bags is a great invention. It's great for filing, and it's the best way to classify when you don't have shelf space, because as I catalogue the books I label where they are, and I say, `It's in collection bag 123 or whatever.' And, in theory, it can expand as much as possible because there's always floor space. I hope there's always floor space.

KALISH: NYU Professor Jack Tchen runs the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Institute and is one of three curators of the exhibit. Tchen was a college student in Wisconsin in the late 1960s where he endured anti-Asian slurs on campus, so he's intimately familiar with the Asian-American experience of being seen as an outsider.

Professor JACK TCHEN (Asian/Pacific/American Studies Institute, Co-curator of Archivist of the "Yellow Peril"): Even though they may be American--American citizens--they've always been represented as the foreigner--sometimes as a good foreigner--the friendly foreigner. Sometimes the Japanese are our friends and sometimes the Japanese are our evil enemies. Sometimes the Chinese are that way. Sometimes the Koreans are that way. And it's constantly flipping back and forth.

KALISH: Tchen stops in front of a small color lithograph originally used as an advertisement in the late 1880s. It depicts a Chinese man, hair in a pigtail, seated on a bicycle as he spears rats scurrying on the ground. This was a common theme in American pop culture.

Prof. TCHEN: There is a rat killer that was actually produced in New Jersey, and it was called Rough on Rats, and the logo was a Chinese man--a grotesque caricature of a Chinese man--holding up a rat by the tail to his mouth, ready to swallow it whole and alive. This association of Chinese and rats was very common. So to make that connection supported Chinese exclusion and notions of yellow peril in this country.

KALISH: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 formally barred Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Asian immigration was seen as an economic threat by some, sparking the demonization of Asian-Americans in pop culture. Professor Jack Tchen points to a cover of Master Detective magazine dated January 1930.

Prof. TCHEN: Here you have this Chinese man whose face and hand is all green--and you see his profile--and the hand is kind of clawlike with long--very long fingernails kind of looming over this white woman whose looking up in great fear. This kind of image of a man of color violating a white woman, of course, is classic to American history--from Native Americans to African-Americans, of course, and it also was used a lot against Asian-Americans.

KALISH: After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, it was the Japanese who became the focus of cultural stereotypes in the mass media.

(Soundbite of "You're a Sap, Mister Jap")

Unidentified Men: (Singing in unison) You're a sap, Mr. Jap, to make a Yankee cranky. You are sap, Mr. Jap. Uncle Sam is going to spanky. Wait and see, before we're done, the A,B,C and D will sink your rising sun. You're a sap, Mr. Jap. You don't know Uncle Sammy.

KALISH: Co-curator Dylan Yeats went through Yoshio Kishi's collection prior to its transfer to NYU.

Mr. DYLAN YEATS (Co-curator, Archivist of the "Yellow Peril"): "You're a Sap, Mister Jap" was one of the more famous and popular anti-Japanese propaganda songs. And it's a kind of interesting and bizarre fox trot, and it was actually used as the score of a Warner Bros. cartoon during the war. It sort of mocked the Japanese and sort reassured Americans that there was going to be an easy victory.

KALISH: But even Japanese-Americans were now seen as the enemy, and more than 120,000 of them were sent to internment camps. Among them was artist Henry Sugimoto, his wife and their young daughter. Sugimoto painted pastoral landscapes before the war, but during and after his incarceration his work reflected the experience of imprisoned Japanese-Americans. A woodblock print by Sugimoto called "Thoughts of Him"(ph) depicts a Japanese-American mother with a child in the camp. Again, co-curator Dylan Yeats.

Mr. YEATS: To the left of the mother is a framed photograph of her husband next to the letter informing her that he's died in the military fighting against the Japanese. But behind her is the guard tower. She's still in the camp.

KALISH: NYU Professor Jack Tchen notes that cultural stereotyping is not new to American history. He says there's always a danger that this will happen again. The Yoshio Kishi collection, he says, may help reveal how pop culture can keep us from seeing people as they really are.

Prof. TCHEN: It really takes archives like this to correct that, to tell the fuller story. A lot of these materials do not exist in university archives. A lot of them are fragments from the popular culture which are deemed not significant for true scholarly study. But, in fact, they really are indicative of how most people in this country think of Asians and how these stereotypes then have an impact.

KALISH: The Archivist of the "Yellow Peril" exhibit runs through July 1st at NYU's Asian/Pacific/American Studies Institute. Portions of Yoshio Kishi's collection will be available to scholars and the general public at NYU's library. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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