“Have you noticed that America doesn’t like Asian singers?”
This observation, made by a colleague years ago, has stuck with me without resolution. Although anger over erasure is merited, it is much harder to take another look at those Asian singers and musical creatives who are afforded generous visibility and, in our dismissal of them, reach a different kind of disappearance. My generation will never forget the Hong Kong-born American Idol contestant William Hung, who became a national laughing stock in 2004 after giving a strongly accented and off-key performance of Ricky Martin’s song “She Bangs.” Even encouragements for Hung to be outspoken afterward, including eventual parody-like albums and live concerts, seemed to advocate an entirely contradictory message, that yellow faces should just keep quiet.
The exhibition “The Moon Represents My Heart: Music, Memory and Belonging” at the Museum of Chinese in America offers us an opportunity to study this enduring silence-cum-visibility. Co-curated by Hua Hsu, staff writer at The New Yorker, as well as Herb Tam and Andrew Rebatta from MOCA’s curatorial team, the ensemble of over fifty artists surveys a Chinese American history in which a disciplined muteness can be felt: from Yoyo Ma’s perfected recitals of Western classical music to C. Spencer Yeh’s rebellious improvisations against this tradition. But this weight could just as easily apply more broadly to others not in the show; I also thought of Mitski’s escape into ulterior identities (“Be the Cowboy”) and Rina Sawayama’s stylized cyborgian fit (“Cyber Stockholm Syndrome”).
The musically attuned exhibition takes its name from perhaps the single-most recognizable Mandarin song abroad. The music video for Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart” (1977), along with other numbers by Teng, play on a projector screen that beams over the exhibition. Familiar subtitles bleed from white to blue, and that’s your cue to sing along to a tune that was once banned in mainland China. In rejecting lyrics like, “You ask me how deep my love is…the moon represents my heart,” the hope was that selfish angst could be displaced into nationalist allegiance. It reminds us of a time when, in a way, even China did not like Asian singers. In this context, Teng’s soft ballad encapsulates an Asian American fear of generalized Asian suppression — an anxious world view that extends an affectionate, often unreciprocated concern to Asia at large. So important is this song and sentiment to diasporic identity that Teng’s tender crooning can be heard in the background of scenes in the recent and highly contentious “Asian American” cinema, Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians.
In a country where Black music is the driving force of modern sound, the place of Asians within a market so exploited by non-black producers and imitators cannot be unconditionally championed without a more critical eye. Thankfully, the exhibition continuously reminds us of this great debt: Cantopop’s roots in jazz, 1970s anti-war songs inspired by Black and brown liberation struggles, and how Asian rappers like Jin could not have made headway without help from producers Wyclef, Kanye West, Just Blaze, and Swizz Beats. For a rigorously researched exhibition devoted to music by descendants from China, it is easy to leave feeling that the history of Chinese American music really owes more to Black culture than roots abroad. Rather than rehash arguments around appropriation, but without excusing or justifying them, the exhibition lent me a chance to think through what conditions have instigated this imbalance. How can we responsibly challenge what we think we know about “yellow” sound?
With an ambitious timeline and scope, the exhibition’s strength is beginning its chronology from the earliest examples of Asian exhibitionism in the United States to uncover an otherwise buried ontology. In 1930, Mei Lanfang introduced New York to Peking Opera at the National Theater. His Chinese-to-English translators sold his act as a “female impersonator.” The New York Times described the performance as not only highly decorated and beautifully costumed but also as “pantomime” and “a convulsive falsetto, thrust against the teeth, and hardly more pleasant to the ears than the orchestra.”1 Mei serves as an origin story of yellow sound in America: a feminine and ornamental overabundance so powerfully distorted that obscures, indeed mistranslates, an opera singer into a theatrical mime.
Nearby is a display of the illustrated sheet music for Billy Johnson and Bob Cole’s “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon” (1987). Not only is this unsightly racial coupling a source of comedy, but so again is the ineptness (dareisay impotence) of Chinese sound. While debating which cultural authority should join them, the Chinese priest or the Black preacher, the Black side of the family begins brandishing razors. The next verse reads: “Now what were they to do Chinese preacher lost his cue / The coon Parson joined the Chinee and the coon.” Our contemporary reading would presume that the Chinese preacher simply missed their signal to speak. A historical ear would tell us that authority was relinquished when his long braid—his “queue”—was severed. To me, the homonymic expression can exemplify just how much Eastern aesthetics obfuscate Eastern voice; perhaps this is what Anne Anlin Cheng meant when she observed, “We are both more and less than the ornaments that unavoidably mark our skin with such mute insistence.”2 Racialization of the Chinese requires a muzzling that invites someone else to be reinstated. Here, even African American composers Johnson and Cole have naturalized a matrimony between racially denigrated subjects that we now are quick to call “stereotypes” as shorthand for the frequency of their occurrence: the more capable, emotive, Black machismo compensates for the perceived deficiencies of the highly decorated, cloaked, effeminate Oriental.
These illustrations helped me revisit, less presumptuously this time, the Chinese rapper Jin’s sole hit “Learn Chinese” (2004), which was heavily criticized for perpetuating Orientalist tropes in the lyrics and music video. While accusations of stereotype help identify redundancies, they do not quite account for why familiar signifiers like Chinatown architecture, martial arts, or silk gowns have become a reliable punchline and mainframe from which Asiatic sound can be understood. Without acknowledging this history, usual critiques of non-black privilege fall short when Asian rappers are not quite able to attain the commercial success of their black counterparts.
The regret, envy, and melancholy that looms unspoken over these sections in the exhibition shares sentiments with Salima Koroma’s documentary Bad Rap (2016), featuring Asian American rappers like Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina. A critical moment in the documentary debates whether Asianness is a hindrance when it comes to navigating the world as an aspiring artist of Black music. Nevermind that Black musical genres like jazz, rap, and hip hop are frequently resuscitated as the primary scapegoats for antiblack dogma: uncreative hypotheses that Black culture is the real culprit for subjugated condition, rather than produced in spite of it. Nevermind that it is Black youth who are implicated, who risk the most, when others find solace in taking up the posture. Of course, when money and fame are the primary barometers for success, it coaxes us to nevermind. Marketability becomes dangerously confused with identity privilege, even inspiring spurious logic that the “Asian female” has it much easier than the “Asian male.”3
The history of how Asiatic performance has relied on bloated aesthetic prosthesis in order to both be heard and speak to an imagined community, shows us not only what it takes to survive, but also what it looks like to “make it.” Taking this into account helps us consider why in 1960s Manhattan Chinatown, a girl band willingly took on the Orientalist name The Fortune Cookies, or the rise of contemporary Asian/Pacific/Queer collective Bubble T, a community best expressed through and perhaps most adored for their opulent fashion and impressive thespian buildouts (one of which is on view).
For others with different intentions, there were less abbreviations taken and, correspondingly, also less public recognition than deserved. Emily’s Sassy Lime, a 1990s teenage feminist group from Southern California that included the later eminent visual artist Amy Yao in addition to Wendy Yao and Emily Ryan, produced music to disobey the rules of “civilized” suburban life, the pressures to assimilate to white utopia. Their songs, where guitar riffs marry gruff retorts, still ring timelessly as girlish vigilante anthem. In the same decade, C. Spencer Yeh improvised with violin strings to produce experimental music for Burning Star Core. Their sounds are more covert disruptions than trendy tunes: noisemaking with frequency turned so low that it flew under the radar.
Arthur Jafa once encapsulated the unevenness in black cultural production by remarking, “I want to make black cinema with the power, beauty, and alienation of black music.” It could be said that Asiatic cultural producers, in a sense, face a reverse problem — that their music needs to catch up with the power, beauty, and alienation of its overladen visuality. Wedged between Hello Kitty’s mouthlessness and Kiyoko’s voicelessness in Ex Machina, yellowface and the vaudeville, “The Moon Represents My Heart” provides evidence that yes, Asiatic things did defy their imposed silence. At times, the sound waves were lost to time and space. It didn’t stop us from coming together to dance under the pulsing pink light.
“The Moon Represents My Heart: Music, Memory and Belonging” at the Museum of Chinese in America is on view now through September 29, 2019.
1.Brooks Atkinson, “CHINA’S IDOL ACTOR REVEALS HIS ART,” in The New York Times, Feb. 17, 1930.↩
2.Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism. (Oxford University Press, 2019).↩
3.“I definitely think it’s easier to market an Asian female rapper than an Asian male rapper. Um, ‘cause look at everything else. You know, like, if you look at porn.” — Dumbfoundead↩