Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sharon Tran and Catherine Nguyen win prizes in our subscriber drive!

diaCRITICS wants to add 100 new subscribers! The 25th, 50th, 75th, and 100th subscribers (and those who referred them) get their pick of prizes. Sharon Tran is our 25th subscriber and has chosen Kim-An Lieberman’s poetry book Breaking the Map. diaCRITICS editor Catherine Nguyen referred Sharon and will get a signed DVD of Operation Babylift. They both happen to be studying for their doctorates in literature at UCLA. We‘re a little late getting this information posted, and we have well over 30 new subscribers, so please keep signing up via the email link or the networked blogs option on the right. And if you want to refer people and are on networked blogs, you can invite all your friends on Facebook to join via networked blogs!

A little more information about Sharon Tran and Catherine Nguyen comes below.


“Simply put, this is a wonderful first collection….This is a geography that demands attention.” – Samuel Green, Washington State Poet Laureate

“…whatever forty-year-old image we might still remember from Vietnam or America that is part real and part television, she makes whole, new, and vibrant. She makes us a witness more than reader.”
– Shawn Wong, Author of Homebase and American Knees


Where are you from?

Sharon: I am from Queens, New York.

Catherine: I’m from Orange, California.

Sharon Tran

Tell us something else about yourself.

Sharon: I enjoy traveling, learning new languages, and spending hours in cafes drinking coffee, reading, and doing manga art.

Catherine: I have a twin sister, who is an English PhD candidate at Madison. She works on 18th and 19th century British literature, which is actually my favorite literary period.

*editor’s note: Sharon is also a twin. Her twin is also studying for a Ph.D. in English.  We did not plan any of this.

Catherine Nguyen

What are you studying at UCLA?

Sharon: I am a first-year English PhD student at UCLA specializing in Asian American literature and cultural productions. In my current research I consider the racialization of Asian Americans in terms of broader biopolitical implications. I am particularly interested in how the biopolitical valuation of life legitimates and exacerbates death for other populations and how contemporary novels such as Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest provide grounds for theorizing a means of transcending that destructive biopolitical-necropolitical binary. I see Choi as articulating a politics of negativity that compels a more constructive attitude towards life and death, a politics that resists privileging life in order to preclude death and accentuates the importance of risking one’s material bodily life and absence in order to initiate new conditions of possibility that will enable new ways of presencing.

Catherine: I’m a UCLA Comparative Literature PhD student studying Vietnamese diasporic literatures and Asian American studies.  Working on 1.5 and second generation Vietnamese diasporic literatures in French and English, I examine how these writers negotiate the(ir) past and history and how they engage in a work of memory in a way that opens up different ways of conceiving of and working through the past and the history of Viet Nam and of the Vietnamese diaspora. Rather than falling prey to problematic readings of nostalgia and melancholia, I argue that they articulate alternative discourses of ontology, temporality, alterity, and hospitality. In doing so, they challenge the fixing of their diasporic subjectivity within specific national citizenship, thus opening up space for multiple positionalities as Vietnamese diasporic subjects.

Do you have a favorite Vietnamese or Vietnamese diasporic work of art? If so, tell us about it.

Sharon: My favorite Vietnamese diasporic work of art is Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. I love Truong’s lyrical prose and her fascinating revision of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ romantic interlude in Paris during the 1930s from the perspective of Binh, their live-in Vietnamese cook. I think that the novel also compels an important re-conceptualization and expansion of the field of Asian American Studies beyond the US nation-state, recovering a repressed history of the triangulation of US-European imperialism in Asia.

Catherine: One of my favorites is le thi diem thuy’s The gangster we are all looking for (2003) because it is an eloquent and poetic work of prose fiction. The novel speaks of the hardships of immigration, of a Vietnamese family’s reunion and adapting to life in San Diego, California, and of the narrator’s coming of age in the wake of loss and displacement. Because the novel offers such a different perspective and vision of the Vietnamese American/diasporic subject, it sparked my interest in Vietnamese American literature. Shortly thereafter, I changed my research focus from comparative Francophone literatures to Vietnamese diasporic writings.


Commemorating Operation Babylift, a U.S. relief effort that rescued more than 2,500 orphans out of Vietnam in 1975, this update is an informative and passionate look at the aftermath of war and the innocent children lostin the chaos of battle. Filmmaker Tammy Nguyen Lee combines archival black-and white film footage of bombings, evacuations, orphaned babies, and more with interviews with parents, volunteers, and rescued Vietnamese adoptees (now adults) who tell their stories with honesty and poignancy.


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You Must Learn: Bao Phi Dropping Science at San Francisco State University

Bao Phi: Speaking out and speaking the word. Bao Phi, a spoken word poet and community activist, was previously featured in diaCRITICS. Here, Valerie Soe, from her blog Beyond Asiaphilia, reviews Bao Phi’s most recent performance at SFSU and looks into how he speaks out about injustice and works for justice.

And head’s up for those in Southern California.  Bao Phi will be speaking at USC’s State of the Word: Spoken Word by Asian American Artists, Saturday, April 2, 2011.

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Bao Phi speaks truth.

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of witnessing the phenomenal spoken word artist Bao Phi reading at my homebase, San Francisco State, and his singular blend of brilliant wordsmithing and sharp political commentary was completely awesome. Bao was the capstone presentation at the two-day long Re-SEAing Southeast Asian American Studies conference, hosted by the Asian American Studies Department at SFSU where I work, and he rocked the house with his funny, smart, sensitive, and deeply moving work.

Phi is the author of one of my favorite spoken word pieces, “Reverse Racism,” which I teach in all of my Asian American culture classes, but prior to last week I’d never heard him read in person so I was really looking forward to his presentation. He didn’t disappoint, reading mostly from his ongoing series, The Nguyens, in which he inhabits and articulates the experiences of various Vietnamese American characters surnamed Nguyen, from waitresses to artists to Prince impersonators.

But the showstopper of the afternoon was 8 (9), was his elegy to Fong Lee, a Hmong American teenager shot and killed by the police in Minneapolis under very suspicious circumstances. As the poem’s introduction notes:

In 2006, Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen shot and killed Fong Lee, a 19-year old Hmong American.  Andersen was awarded a Medal of Valor, though the Lee family and community members allege that Fong Lee was unarmed and the gun found on the scene was planted by police.  During a foot chase in North Minneapolis, Andersen shot at Lee 9 times, 1 bullet missing, the other 8 hitting Fong Lee as he ran and as he lay dying on the ground.

8 (9) embeds significant parenthetic phrases  (gang member for Lee; hero and peace officer for Anderson) to suggest the moral panic evoked by the police department in smearing Lee in court.  The poem captures the irony of Hmong Americans who fled persecution in their home country only to find more violence as well as flagrant racism once in the U.S. It also links Lee’s experience with other egregious cases of police brutality, invoking among others Oakland’s Oscar Grant, whose killer, Johannes Mehserle, has already been released from prison after serving just 24 months.

Fong Lee's mother Youa Vang Lee, 2010.

Bao Phi has active in the fight to bring Lee’s killer to justice, using his poetry and spoken word pieces as well as numerous blogs posts and articles to illuminate this grave miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately the fight has thus far been a futile one, with the Supreme Court recently declining to review the case, but it has galvanized an outraged Minneapolis Asian American community. Phi has been at the forefront of the struggle, and by using poetry as a means of memorializing the injustices in Lee’s death, his work offers hope for preventing future cases of unchecked police brutality. It’s great to see an artist passionately engaged with important social issues–I’m counting the days to the release of his first book, due out in the fall from Coffeehouse Press.

Here and here are a couple nice blog entries by Bao Phi outlining the Fong Lee case and Phi’s involvement in it. As usual the comments section is instructive in itself.

With many thanks to Bao Phi, here in its entirety is 8 (9).

8 (9)

In memory of Fong Lee

And for the Lee family, and the Justice for Fong Lee committee

In 2006, Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen shot and killed Fong Lee, a 19-year old Hmong American.  Andersen was awarded a Medal of Valor, though the Lee family and community members allege that Fong Lee was unarmed and the gun found on the scene was planted by police.  During a foot chase in North Minneapolis, Andersen shot at Lee 9 times, 1 bullet missing, the other 8 hitting Fong Lee as he ran and as he lay dying on the ground.


Community members point out that accusations about Fong Lee’s history and character, specifically allegations that he was in a gang, were allowed in court and written about in the press.   But Officer Andersen’s alleged dislike of Asians and history of derogatory remarks against Asians was neither allowed in court nor written about in the press.

One of the devil’s greatest powers

Is to force you to take a deal

That he himself would never take.


Fong Lee was 19 (gang member). I can imagine him (gang member) and his (gang member) family. They are eating (gang member) something that steams and it does not steam like food from this (gang member) country, the smell lingers (gang member) like home.  It is Minnesota so (gang member) the lights inside no matter how dim somehow makes (gang member) all indoor rooms feel warm.  Now its summer and he’s fishing with his (gang member) friends.  They (gang member) get on bikes and their (gang member) legs drape low, (gang member), arms lazy crosses on the handlebars.   Their heads lean as they debate the Minnesota Vikings (gang member) and the Minnesota Twins, slapping absently at the logos (gang member) on their caps and (gang member) shirts.


Officer Jason Andersen (hero) shot Hmong American teenager Fong Lee eight times (to serve and protect). A bullet wound in Fong Lee’s hand suggests the teenager may have held his hands up in surrender (decorated officer) as Officer Andersen (white) shot (Medal of Valor) him.  Andersen was also charged with domestic assault (peace officer) by his girlfriend though charges were later dropped (officer of the law).  Officer Andersen (police officer) was also accused of kicking (hero) an African American teenager who was on the ground in handcuffs in 2008.


An all-white jury found Officer Anderson not guilty of using excessive force.

Put a blindfold on me

Tell me who you fear

And I will tell you

Your skin.


I’m wondering when people will care.

If we made your story into a movie about killing dolphins, perhaps.


I’m 18 and the brutal cold holsters my hands into the warm solace of my jacket pockets.  The police officer snaps his hand to his gun.  My pockets are empty.  My hands open.  Still.  My story would have ended in smoke and red snow.  If my body lay there, perforated, would I bleed through holes in his story?


Lost, you turn the car around and see trees stretching up like greenbrown fencing up to the blue skies.  For a moment you think that woods stretch forever, somewhere close a bubbling stream whispers white kisses across worn rocks, a deer leans its neck down to drink, the velvet moss of a hushed secret world here in your city.  But just beyond the neck of scrub trees is the hint of chain-link, the distant ghost silhouette of strip mall, just one step past the shadows of those leaves are railroad tracks running like stitches over broken glass and gravel.

Minnesota Nice: this city hides its scars so well.


All our lives, men with guns.

Chased, in the womb, in the arms

Of our parents.

Our parents

Chased, all our lives,

By men with guns.

In the womb, in our parent’s arms

We’ve run

Chased by men with guns.


Michael Cho.  Cau Thi Bich Tran.  John T. Williams.

Tycel Nelson.  Oscar Grant.  Fong Lee.

May your names be the hymn

wind that sways

police bullets to miss.

Bao Phi

November 25, 2010

Bao Phi has been a performance poet since 1991. A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology.

Valerie Soe is a San Francisco filmmaker and artist and her productions include art/film/revolution (2007); Carefully Taught (2002); Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re) Educational Videotape, (1992, Best Bay Area Short, Golden Gate Awards, San Francisco International Film Festival)  and “ALL ORIENTALS LOOK THE SAME, (1986, Best Foreign Video, Festival Internazionale Cinema Giovani). She has recently screened at the Getty Center’s exhibition California Video and at the New Museum of Art in New York City, and her most recent video, Snapshot: Six Months of the Korean American Male, has screened extensively at film festivals across the country. She is also a professor in San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What did you think of Bao Phi’s 8(9)? How can  spoken word poetry voice injustices and call out for justice?

Khue Nguyen — A Naked Star

Guest diaCRITIC blogger Boitran Huynh-Beattie—a professor, curator and art historian in Australia—introduces a talented Vietnamese-Australian gay artist, Khue Nguyen. Last year, Nguyen was a finalist with his self-portrait, Unleashed, in the prestigious Archibald Prize of 2010. He is currently exhibiting his collected works, In Search of Sensuality, in Sydney. His art is expressive and evocative, with textural layers of differing styles revealing simultaneous meanings—especially his stunning self-portrait Unleashed (featured below.) Wow!

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Originating in winter 1979, the Mardi Gras Festival in Sydney became a voice for human rights and justice for those labelled ‘criminals’ because they loved someone of the same sex or choose to be in a same sex relationship.

In 1981, the Mardi Gras Festival was moved to summer time, so that participants could enjoy more activities in the open air, especially the evening Mardi Gras Gay Parade along Oxford Street, usually attended by some ten thousand participants and hundreds of thousands of spectators. For the past two decades, the Mardi Gras Festival in Sydney has developed into an international event, attracting hundred of thousands of interstate and overseas tourists.

The 2011 festival season embraced a Vietnamese-Australian gay artist, Khue Nguyen with a solo exhibition: In Search of Sensuality, held at Art Atrium gallery in Bondi Junction in Sydney.

Khue Nguyen's self portrait, 'Unleashed'

Khue Nguyen graduated from the Fine Arts College in Saigon in 1984, escaped Vietnam in 1986, and arrived in Australia in 1987. In 2008, after working for years as a graphic designer, Khue decided to pursue a full-time art practice, which led to him to become a finalist with his self-portrait, Unleashed, in the prestigious Archibald Prize of 2010. Khue is the first Vietnamese name ever to reach the finals. The Archibald Prize is worth AUD 50,000 but what’s more, is the status and curiosity (and sometimes controversy) generated by both the public and the media, in the prize-winning painting and the overall selection of works.

Dawn is Near

The exhibition titled In Search of Sensuality displays 30 drawings that celebrate the beauty of naked (mostly male) bodies. The nakedness however, does not emphasize a sexual interest in the body but is strongly expressive of human feelings and vulnerability. Khue Nguyen is really at home in employing drawing techniques he learned from the art school in Saigon, to convey his personal message. His use of romantic titles, such as Fly Me To The Moon and Never Felt This Way Before, add another dimension to these Michelangelo-like drawings.

‘Fly Me To The Moon’

Khue claims, “Had I not lived in Australia, I would not have been able to express myself freely.” He has peacefully lived with his lawyer partner for 11 years.

In Sino-Vietnamese, “Khuê” means “star”. In the contemporary art scene with postmodern concepts and illusions, In Search of Sensuality reminds us of dimension of beauty in the human form that we often take for granted.

Dr. Boitran Huynh-Beattie has worked with the Australian National University, Melbourne University and the University of Wollongong on different projects related to Vietnam’s Diaspora since 2005.

Huynh-Beattie worked with Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, on several exhibitions. From 2009, Huynh-Beattie became the curator and art historian working with Asiarta Foundation, currently researching Witness Collection, a private collection of Vietnamese art works featuring influential artists from 1921 to the present.

Previously she has written for us The Exhibition of ‘Realism in Asian Art’ and the Symposium ‘Avant Garde in Asian Art’ in Seoul.


Simon Chan, a practicing architect who has a passion for art, founded the Art Atrium gallery in 2009. The gallery focuses on Asian and Aboriginal art and catalogues are available online.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think of Khue Nguyen’s work? What is the importance of freedom and innovation in self expression?

What are Your Thoughts on Vietnamese American Responses to Alexandra Wallace’s “Asians in the Library” YouTube Video?

Did you hear about Alexandra Wallace?  Whether you did or not, diaCRITIC Jade Hidle opens up a discussion about two YouTube video responses from Asian Americans and is asking YOU, what do you think?

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I’m sure you’ve already heard about or seen the anti-Asian rant posted on YouTube by the now infamous Alexandra Wallace, which currently has over 5 million views. Since the video went up, my inbox has been flooded with emails whose subject lines read “You’ve gotta see this” and “This is gonna make you so mad!” So, begrudgingly, I watched the video. (If you’ve been in a cave for the past week or have been commendably resisting indulging Wallace’s YouTube stardom, she basically expresses annoyance with the presence of Asian families at UCLA student housing, stating that they didn’t teach their children to “fend for themselves.” She also rants about Asian students’ cellphone conversations in the library, which, according to Wallace, sound like “ching chong ling long ting tong.” Even more offensive than her racist mimicry here are her flippant comments about the devastating tsunami in Japan.)

And, true, I do find Wallace’s comments to be ignorant. But they’re nothing new. The young, blonde, cleavage-bearing Wallace is merely the most recently publicized mouthpiece for the long-running discourse of American exceptionalism. She repeatedly prizes “American manners,” whatever that is (racism?), and calls herself a “polite American girl.” I know, the irony couldn’t be more obvious. This is the same kind of self-important, entitled attitude that has justified, however thinly veiled, U.S. wars abroad and discriminatory policies and practices at home—the very attitude that continues to largely treat Asian Americans as if they are perpetual refugees or caricatures from a 1930s Looney Tunes cartoon. And, of course, in this American tradition, Wallace publicly apologized and dropped out of UCLA, as if this will rectify the larger problems underlying her video.

But enough about Wallace. I’m not interested in dedicating any more discussion to her, and that is why I don’t post her video here. More interesting to me are the video responses to Wallace. While there are a myriad of such videos posted by Asian Americans, whether professional comedians or students armed with cameras, I’ve selected two videos and, rather than merely write about my own responses to these pieces, would like to hear your thoughts about how effectively they counter Wallace’s claims.

The first is from Spencer who runs two YouTube channels. One channel, itsBigBang, features spoofs about pop cultural topics like Paranormal Activity, Yu-gi-oh, and Pokemon, while his itsjustspencer channel posts less-produced vids dealing with everyday topics such as Spencer’s latest purchases and the trials and tribulations of washing carpet. When you watch the video, keep the following questions in mind and post your responses in the “Comments” section below:  Does Spencer’s mimicry of the Vietnamese accent reinforce or undermine the racist caricature implicit in Wallace’s “ching chong ling long ting tong”? Do Spencer’s portrayal of a model minority Vietnamese American and his comments about white girls combat or continue tensions between Asians and whites? What else do you (dis)like about Spencer’s response?

The second video comes straight out of Orange County, California, from hip-hop duo, “The Two,” a.k.a Matt and Tony. Their xthetwo channel features music videos wherein the two lyricists parody mainstream hip-hop songs such as Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow.” (Also, for The Two’s take on Asians’ production of the majority of American products, check out their “Look At Me Plow” parody of “Look At Me Now” by Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes, and Lil Wayne.) In their response to Wallace, The Two put down a homemade beat and lyrics whose chorus pleads “Please stop mocking us.” With its humor and hip-hop beats, do you think The Two’s response is effective in addressing Wallace’s ignorant comments?

I look forward to reading your thoughts on these responses to the Wallace video and further sharing my own ideas with you, so don’t forget to post in the “Comments” section below!

-Jade Hidle

Jade Hidle is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego. She aims to write her dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature, with a focus on how narrative structures map struggles of the body–miscegenation, disfigurement, skin color–and identity.

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The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (A Review)

Fashion, design . . . and critique? Catherine A. Traywick reviews Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation, which offers a close examination of the fashion industry and how up and coming Asian American designers are changing the catwalks in the world of couture. This is a reprint from Hyphen Magazine.

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Fashion Illustrations Courtesy of Noemi Manalang.

Perhaps the most celebrated Fall collections to debut at this year’s Fashion Week were those that creatively incorporated technology. Several designers showcased computer-generated prints, retooling traditional craft textiles into computerized patterns comprising ultra modern garments. But even as fashion critics overwhelmingly celebrated this preponderance of technological innovation, most seemed similarly enamored of Ralph Lauren’s far less pioneering embrace of one of fashion’s oldest tropes: Shanghai Chic. Critics eagerly dedicated valuable column inches to the collection, which featured all the mainstays of Asian-inspired fashion: jade jewelry, golden dragons, cheongsams. While some candidly wondered whether the designer’s invocation of China was a statement about the nation’s growing economic competitiveness, others were simply happy to break out as many tired euphemisms for “Eastern” as possible. (Not only did the “Orient Express” make several stops but East, inevitably, met West.)

The familiar scenario aptly reinforces a key observation made by culture critic Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu in her newly published book, The Beautiful Generation: “Even when freed to dream and invent,” she writes, “[designers] seem only to return to long-held ideas about an exotic and erotic orient.”

The phenomenon Nguyen Tu describes, of Euro-American designers’ quixotic and cyclical infatuation with an often undifferentiated “East,” has for – literally – hundreds of years dictated Asia’s participation in one of the largest and oldest industries to date. Asia, in the deft hands of fashion industry titans, is at once a sumptuous fantasy and a convention in need of constant reinterpretation; both an inexpensive manufacturing site and – as one New York Times critic made a point of mentioning with regard to the Ralph Lauren collection – an expansive consumer market.

The Beautiful Generation, as much a fashion history as a cultural study, gracefully takes us through the many phases of that evolving dynamic: from Gaultier’s introduction of luxe Chinese coats in seventeenth century Paris, to American Vogue’s strategic establishment of “fashion designer as cultural anthropologist” in the mid-‘90s, and finally to the curiously successfully rise of Asian American designers in the present decade. While it’s all a good read, the last is arguably the highlight of the book; Nguyen Tu’s compelling examination of Asian American designers, whose precarious positions in the industry are plainly defined by their historic exclusion from it, is clearly a point of personal connection for her.

In one way or another, she’s been studying those designers since the 1990s when, as a grad student at New York University, she began noticing that a number of emergent downtown boutiques were helmed by Asian American women. Initially driven by her recognition of a unique cultural phenomenon (up to that point, Asian Americans in the fashion industry had been relegated to low-wage manufacturing jobs), she was eventually propelled by the realization that she shared a lot more with the designers than just a fine fashion sense.

Like many of the designers she interviewed, Nguyen Tu had emigrated from Vietnam as a child, and her family had settled in what she describes as “all-white working class towns in Connecticut … urban spaces where it was hoped we would assimilate faster.” Her working class parents, whose vision of acceptable work centered on the potential for financial security, expected her to become a pharmacist or, if she was really ambitious, a doctor. But her ostensibly poor command of the sciences eventually pushed her towards liberal arts and, to her parent’s dismay, a PhD in American Studies.

“It was like telling them I was going to join the circus,” she said. “And throughout my interviews with the designers I heard the same thing … the same story of how parental expectations enabled us to do the work that we did even as it constrained us.”

As she learned, familial ties and expectations figured prominently in the rise of Asian American designers, informing their careers paths and perspectives on the industry while lending them valuable human and material resources during their lean beginning years. Most of the designers she interviewed (including notables like Philip Lim, Derek Lam and Doo-Ri Chung) were the children of garment producers — the low wage sewers, cutters and pattern makers upon which the fashion industry relies. From an early age, the designers had assisted their parents with piecework, learning to cut, sew, and assemble. Yet few set out to become designers, influenced instead by their parents’ narrow views of acceptable work as much as by cultural stereotypes that depict Asians as industrious but inherently uncreative.

“The majority of people that I interviewed didn’t even go to fashion school,” Nguyen Tu said. “Instead … they went to dental school.”

While many told Nguyen Tu that sewing was in their blood, having been trained in the skill since childhood, most nevertheless pursued radically different careers – in finance, biology, anthropology, etc. – before circling back to the fashion industry as designers.

But unlike the prototypical American designer (who, according to Nguyen Tu, strives to distance himself from “unskilled” producers in an effort to elevate his own role in the creative process), Asian American designers have tended toward the reverse. Guided by their intimate connections to garment workers and familial expectations about the nature of acceptable work, they are more inclined to view fashion design as chiefly a business rather than an art, and tend to emphasize their close relationships with producers rather than eschew them. For many, this pays off. While fashion design is an unstable, financially risky, and resource-intense occupation for most, Asian American designers have benefited from their intimacies with producers, who can provide them with both labor and material resources at little or no cost. It’s a crucial advantage that has enabled many Asian Americans to stay competitive in an especially gendered and racialized industry.

And just as the American children of garment workers are increasingly crossing the assembly line – graduating from the industrial to the creative – so are Asian sites of outsourcing leveraging their manufacturing industries into more lucrative creative centers. Once the original locales of inexpensive labor, China and Korea have started dedicating considerable resources to cultivating home-grown design talent, sending scores of Chinese and Korean fashion students to New York every year to acquire skills and exposure. Though their fashion industries are fledgling yet, the transformative effort has plainly provoked anxiety within the Euro-American fashion industry; Nguyen Tu notes that the latter has subsequently striven to define itself as a global innovator by reinforcing the industry’s creative vs. “unskilled” dichotomy. Euro-American designers are embracing technology, ever-reinventing familiar motifs and further distancing themselves from the mass-producing masses in an effort to maintain their global dominance.

Indeed, the defensive posturing and industry angst to which she alludes were in full swing at this year’s Fashion Week – in the self-aggrandizing speech of designers, on the ultra-modernized backs of models, and even in laudatory mainstream reviews. Commenting on Ralph Lauren’s collection, for instance, the New York TimesSuzy Menkes repeatedly juxtaposed descriptions of the designer’s Shanghai-inspired aesthetic with disparaging references to the “fast fashion factories of today’s China” and Asia’s “Made in China”-quality mass productions.

Asian American designers don’t get off too easily either, falling as they do somewhere between artist and producer, American and foreigner. While critics extolled Ralph Lauren’s and Oscar De La Renta’s modernization of “tourist trap” Asian motifs, for example, they also repeatedly and simplistically categorized the commercial success of Asian American designers as the product of Asian consumption. Reviewing Anna Sui’s collection, Menkes patronizingly notes that “Ms. Sui may have had a big success in the Asia of her family origins, but her heart is forever in the England of swinging London, with its layers of history.” At Vogue, Hamish Bowles curiously remarks that Jason Wu’s “conservative” collection would never be as radically deconstructionist as those of the Japanese designer Kawakubo – notwithstanding the fact that their aesthetics are so radically different that they defy comparison; their only tangible similarity is their (albeit divergent) Asian heritage. Mark Holgale, also writing for Vogue, similarly makes much of Philip Lim’s connections to Asia, attributing the designer’s current and future successes to the voraciously consumptive Chinese – even as he notes that Chinese consumers are just as “familiar with everyone from Altuzarra to Rodarte.”

The stark differences between critical reception of Asian American work and that of mainstream, establishment designers seems to suggest that, while Asian cultures desperately require Western designers to modernize and retool their elements into something worth purchasing, Asian American designers nevertheless owe everything to their Far Eastern touchstones. In either case, the Euro-American fashion establishment wins … but perhaps not for long.

“I think the dominance of Euro-American fashion will eventually wane,” Nguyen Tu speculated. “They’ve held the monopoly for over 200 years, but I think there will be a radical shift away from the US and Europe as the only centers of fashion, and that China and India and all of these places will rise in a sort of global realignment of where we get our style … and in the production of fashion itself.”

The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion by Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu.  Duke University Press, 2010.  Pp. 272.

Reviewed by Catherine A. Traywick.

Fashion Illustrations Courtesy of Noemi Manalang.

Reprint of article from Hyphen Magazine.

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We want something from you. What do you want from diaCRITICS?

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

diaCRITICS wants some good writers. And commenters. And wants to know what the readers want.

We’re always looking for new writers. Seriously. We ask our friends and contacts for articles and contributions all the time, but our social network is limited. We have found people who volunteered after reading this site (Bao Nguyen, one of our managing editors) and we have found people by reading comments and tracking them down to get them to give us something longer (Julie Nguyen, who wrote Generation Trauma). So step forward and contact us if you want to contribute in some way: editing, designing, writing, or TRANSLATING.

That last one is a barrier we haven’t broken yet. We are committed to writing about the diaspora wherever it takes place and in any language, but so far, no luck in getting writers writing anything besides English, or in finding people with the time to translate existing articles into other languages. So if you don’t feel like writing anything original, but feel like you can spread knowledge through translating, then let us know. You can pick the article you want to translate.

Then there’s the issue of comments. Not too many of them here in diaCRITICS. We’d like to see more and have more of a discussion. Do we need to be doing something different to promote more comments and discussion?

And is there anything you’d like to see done differently or done new in diaCRITICS? Give us a comment and share your thoughts. (And if it’s about the design, we’re working on redesigning the website to make it more accessible and eye-catching. Give us suggestions here, too!)

You can always contact us privately via the “contact us” page above if you’d like to write for us or have ideas.

Fundraiser for Japan: Artist Diem Chau Raffles Her Work

Artist Diem Chau is raising funds for the Japanese Red Cross Society. For $10 a raffle ticket, you get a chance to win some of her work, custom-made to her specifications. We profiled Diem Chau’s miniatures last month in “It’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it.”

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

I’ve been sitting here for an hour thinking about what to write and how to write it… for the past few days I’ve been glued to the news about Japan’s earthquake and tsunami disaster.  It is so shocking to see such devastation and chaos.  I am in awe at how the Japanese people have persevered through these difficult days.  People stood in line, paid for items, kept their cool, helped their friends and neighbors.  Every single person kept their civility.  Such strength is inspiring.  My heart goes out to everyone there and I hope that perseverance will get them through the difficult days/months ahead.

I’d like to make a humble offering and raffle off a crayon family portrait for the Japanese Red Cross Society.  The winner will get up to 3 crayons carved to their specifications.  Ticket sales start now and will go until midnight PST on March 23rd.  The winner will be announced on March 24th.  I will use to pick the winner.  I’m hoping for at least 200 tickets, but I won’t limit the number to 200.  The more tickets I sell the more we can raise for Japan!

Ticket Price: $10

Prize: A family portrait of carved crayons (up to 3 crayons) *Update* There will be 2 winners selected of 2 different recipient.

Selection Process: when you pay for the ticket I’ll email you with a number.  A random winner will be picked via  I will post the results of the drawing on March 24th.

Donation Proceeds: 100% of all ticket sales will go the the Japanese Red Cross Society.  I will pay for all fees and shipping costs.

If you’re interested in participating in the raffle please Paypal $10.00 to
Please make your payment as “GIFT” and make a note “FOR JAPAN”.  PLEASE DO NOT write anywhere on your payment the words “RAFFLE” or “LOTTERY”.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.  I’m sorry I can’t take any other forms of payments.  Paypal is the easiest and fastest way, it’s also the best way to keep records.

Diem Chau
*Update* HOLY COW!!! We broke 200 in half a day!  THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!  This is so unexpected, I don’t know what to say.  The emails keep coming and I’m in tears writing this.  Let’s shoot for 1000!  Since so many people have signed up I’d like to offer a second family portrait, so there will be 2 winners total!

More information here:


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