Asian American (im)mobility: Perspectives on the college plays 1937-1955

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Selected works from the student-authored collection of College Plays 1937-19551 have been hailed by some as the first "Asian American" writing for the theater, and recent interest in Asian American theater and performance has begun to renew interest in this largely forgotten set of works.2 The ten-volume set of plays written for the classes of English professor Willard Wilson at the University of Hawai'i provides a unique perspective on what might be called "Asian American" playwriting.3 Given Wilson's directive to the student "to write of real people like himself," these plays provide intriguing examples of dramatic writing seemingly free from commercial and aesthetic constraints on expression.4 The plays significantly precede the Asian American theater work of the 1960s and 1970s, and they correct views of Asian American writing-particularly writing for the theater-as limited to the mainland.5 Yet, although the timing of this inquiry invites immediate comparisons between these plays and more recent works of drama by mainland Asian Americans, we should be suspicious of any "kinship" that we assume. The lived experience and felt identities of Asian Americans must be distinguished from the political agendas and cultural imperatives set by the more recent Asian American movement; these plays exhibit little of the pan-ethnic solidarity, racial self-consciousness, or radical aspirations that many might see as defining more contemporary instances of Asian American theater.6 Rather than attempting to read these plays as reflections of a nascent Asian American consciousness, in other words, one should see them as depictions of and contradictions to the social relationships and issues of ethnic identity that were being redefined both in Hawai'i and on the mainland during the crucial period before, during and followingWorld War II. The plays in Volume I from Wilson's class were written during the fall semester of 1936;Volume II begins with the postwar year of 1946-47; subsequent volumes pick up with subsequent years of the postwar era. Taken together, the ten volumes delineate a time when the social status of Asian Americans in Hawai'i was clearly in flux. In Hawai'i as on the mainland, Asian immigration in large part was spurred by economic hardships in Asia and the demand for cheap labor in the United States; immigrants and their descendants were systematically exploited and victimized by institutional discrimination, oppression, and prejudice. The years between 1937 and 1955 might be remembered in terms of the anti-Japanese paranoia inspired by the attack on Pearl Harbor, wartime martial law, and the internment of Japanese Americans-and in terms of the grim racism inspired by postwar anti-Communist fervor. At the same time, this period also saw significant gains by Asian Americans in Hawai'i, marked especially by the end of plantation feudalism and the political dominance of the largely haole Republican party. In the years followingWorldWar II, the status of certain Asian American groups in Hawai'i has changed to the extent that "in the minds of many in the local community, Asians are more central than marginal"(Morales 1998, 116). The social status of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans in Hawai'i, as measured in terms such as income, home ownership, education, and political visibility,7 has clearly risen since the 1950s. However, at the present moment, social stratification in Hawai'i in terms of income level, land ownership, access to education, and political representation continue to belie the island's reputation as a multicultural paradise; Noel Kent argues that "the transformation of the old kamaaina [in this case, the traditional white elite] corporate complex in Hawai'i from local sugar agencies to medium-sized transnational corporations with far-reaching interests has not-contrary to prevailing wisdom-acted as a force for genuine economic development and political liberation in Hawaii" (1983, 121). This social inequality is still very much defined along ethnic and racial lines; such divisions, as Jonathan Okamura suggests, present an ethnic hierarchy: "An overall ranking of groups in the ethnic/racial stratification order would have Caucasians, Chinese, and Japanese holding dominant positions. . . . The midrange of the ethnic/ racial stratification order is occupied by Koreans and, to some extent, by African Americans. . . . The lower levels of the ethnic/racial stratification order continue to be occupied by Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, and Samoans, a situation that appears unlikely to change in the next generation" (Okamura 1998, 200-201). Current concerns about native Hawaiian autonomy also complicate the perception of Asian American success and "progress."8 In this light, postwar changes in social status for Asian Americans might be interpreted as a perpetuation of economic inequality and social hierarchy-only this time with particular Asian ethnic groups, such as the Japanese, "on top." Rodney Morales describes the 1950s as "a time of sweeping change," which he describes in ways that suggest that "privileged"Asian American groups-especially Japanese and Chinese-perpetuate exploitative power structures at the expense of not only native Hawaiians but also other less economically successful Asian ethnic groups, such as Filipinos9: In 1954, a group of Democrats, mostly of Asian ancestry, many of them Japanesewhohad fought for America inWorldWar II, came to power. As a result, the haole-dominated, mostly Republican Big Five lost the total dominance that they had held over Hawai'i's economy and people for more than half a century. The Japanese and Chinese citizens who came to political power, however, sought economic wealth. . . . By the 1980s, Japanese and Chinese, along with descendants of earlier boatloads of Koreans, were among the wealthiest groups in the Islands. (Morales 1998, 124) As former Lieutenant Governor Thomas Gill reflected, "Making the old order over became less important than simply making it"(Wright 1972, 239). Such charges allow us to turn to the College Plays with an even greater curiosity about what they reveal. If it is true that artists of Asian descent in Hawai'i do not articulate a unitary "minority voice" in a white-dominated state,10 and if constructing theater history as "Asian American" cannot, as Stephen Sumida argues, simply celebrate "the process of forging a new national identity through politics, economic strides, and the raising of our own voices" (1997, 278), then how might we interpret the dramatic texts of College Plays? One way might be to concentrate on how Asian American social mobility (or the lack thereof) is depicted. In these plays, we can see not only the immediate economic and political effects of this transformative period-particularly how Hawaiian economic and military development opened up business, farming, and educational opportunities to Asian Americans- but also the ideological constructions that helped pressure such changes into being. The College Plays depict not only the evidence of Asian American social mobility, but also the fantasies that construct racial and ethnic identities in relation to economic success and technological progress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRecovered Legacies
Subtitle of host publicationAuthority and Identity in Early Asian Amer Lit
EditorsFloyd Cheung, Keith Lawrence
PublisherTemple University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9781592131181
StatePublished - Dec 1 2005


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