Yellow Seeds newspaper collection

August 11, 2010

When I worked for the Asian American community organization/non-profit Asian Americans United in Philadelphia, the Executive Director graciously agreed to let me photocopy original newspapers of the Yellow Seeds that she had for a paper I was writing on Asian American anti-imperialist organizing for a political sociology course. Considered an important precursor to progressive Asian American political activism in Philadelphia, Yellow Seeds was an Asian American anti-imperialist organization established in 1971 that focused on the local Chinatown as well as city, national, and world affairs.

According to Dandan Liu, “the earliest use of the Chinese newspapers in activism in Philadelphia’s Chinatown was related to a radical social change group, Yellow Seeds” who “published their own newspaper, Yellow Seeds (1972-1977), during their ‘Save Chinatown’ movement in the early 1970s.” While future research may reveal Yellow Seeds as an inheritor rather than originator of Chinatown newspaper activism in Philadelphia, the organization and its newspaper are nevertheless significant to historical accounts of U.S. anti-imperialism activism, a history in which Asian American anti-imperialism is relatively absent.  This absence, which is increasingly being addressed by Asian American scholars, is noticeable for several reasons.

First, many African American veterans of the Civil Rights and Black Power era, some of whom inspired or organized with Asian American anti-imperialists, have celebrated Asian American figures such as Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Mo Nishida, and Richard Aoki.  Indeed, one wonders if these individuals would be remembered as well or have become as significant to today’s Asian American left if it were not for Black support or the work they did in and with Black communities.  Despite African Americans’ efforts to emphasize the import  of such individuals even in the face of questionable directions in Asian American politics—or perhaps because of it given how Black politics and Black people are often intellectually neglected or pathologized by non-Blacks—radical Asian Americans continue to be relatively absent from most scholarly and popular accounts of anti-imperialist movements.

Second, as indicated in the growing scholarship and in important collections such as Asian Americans: The movement and the moment, as well as in memoirs of veterans of Asian American anti-imperialism, some of whom continue to be part of radical and progressive activism, many Asian Americans were critical of U.S. actions at home and abroad and organized for decent housing, work, and living conditions, provided services to the community, and protested against racism, the draft, police harassment, gentrification, and war.

Third and related, the relatively recent passings of Asian American activist Kazu Iijima and people’s historian Him Mark Lai engendered publications and commentary reflecting on the significance of their work and their relevance  to today’s politics and approaches to studying Asian America. Also, Arizona’s recent draconian policy against ethnic studies as well as a climate that supports such gestures among other states and their universities have been the subject of op-eds regarding the purpose and future of ethnic studies.  Current debates about whether Asian American Studies and  Asian American politics will or can maintain an oppositional posture in the face of increasing cooptation generally trace the origins of Asian American Studies to the anti-imperialist ethos that animated third world and ethnic studies strikes at California colleges; such moments of reflection often measure ethnic studies’ status and relevance by its degrees of separation from the field’s anti-imperialist roots. Basically, the spirit of (Asian American) anti-imperialism that girded Asian American Studies is on enough people’s minds, but with few exceptions, this history is generally neglected by non-Asian scholars studying anti-imperialist social movements or community organizations.

Finally, the absence of Asian Americans in accounts of the anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s and 1970s is a bit egregious given that Asian Americans were deeply affected by the Vietnam War. Some of those affected served in the U.S. military that sought to slaughter Asians overseas. While being the face of the enemy was not a new situation for Asians, Asian American soldiers found themselves serving in integrated ranks; many of these Asian American veterans suffered from high rates of PTSD partially informed by the anti-Asian racist treatment they received from other soldiers as well the psychic toll of being trained to kill other Asians. The unwillingness to kill “other yellow people” and support the war machine led many Asian Americans to protest (in) the U.S., and in the case of Asian American men of military age, resist the draft and organize draft resistance locally. Additionally, many Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in concentration camps a generation earlier during WWII organized against the Vietnam War due to the connection they felt to the Vietnamese as racialized peoples subject to U.S. state violence.  Yet most anti-imperialist accounts produced by non-Asians depicts Asians as valiant resistors of U.S. empire in Asia but not here in the United States. The support shown by different groups to Asians in Asia during the Vietnam War, sometimes at great risk of criticism, repression, arrests, and incarceration, is a significant and highly appreciated gesture. Yet the ways in which Asian Americans were active participants in anti-imperialism, often in local ethnic contexts that required creative approaches to expressing anti-capitalist or Communist politics as well as in multiracial coalitions, has received little attention among the non-Asian left. This absence in leftist studies and films also contributes to an image of an Asian America who did not physically exist in the U.S. until after the Vietnam War was over, serves to ethnicize Asian Americans and thus ignore gestures of panethnic racial solidarity among Asians predicated on critiques of state violence, anti-Asian racism, U.S. domestic and foreign policies, and the military, and promotes a hegemonic image—which too many Asians unfortunately embrace as a positive one—of passive Asians who remain silent or do not express political opposition to the state and capital.

To be sure, the unfortunate wholesale embrace of conservative or neoliberal politics among many of today’s Asian Americans probably makes it difficult for some people to imagine Asian Americans as social justice advocates.  Yet somehow, perhaps because they control the left media and publishing houses, progressive whites have been able to sidestep such correlations where being absent in intellectual accounts of radicalism is due to empirical examples of bad politics among the racial group. In other words, there is no shortage of examples of white radicalism found in the history books about the 1960s and 1970s.  Whatever the case, while the absence of radical Asian Americans in historiography doesn’t cause the bad politics among too many Asians today, it isn’t unrelated to a general categorization of Asian Americans as model minorities.  By documenting and critically engaging political struggles in which Asian Americans were on the side of social justice, we can better interrogate the model minority image as a historical and political development (as opposed to a “natural” comportment) with real life consequences for Asians and other groups, notably African Americans.

In the collection of Yellow Seeds, one will read about Asian American efforts to resist the model minority myth as well as opposition to the Vietnam War and other acts of state violence, white supremacy, and capitalism. Yellow Seeds was published in both Chinese and English and featured updates on Yellow Seeds’ programs such as its Program for the Elderly and know your rights stories on issues such as deportation. It also published stories and editorials on anti-Asian racism, living and working conditions of the Chinatown working-class and poor, class tension among political factions in Chinatown, Asian American feminism, conflict between Blacks and Asians in the United States and the Caribbean, third world unity, city planning and its impact on Chinatown, the occupation of Palestine, labor, and again, U.S. policy and warfare in Vietnam.

As someone deeply moved by Asian American anti-imperialist activism and appreciative of the growing attention on the topic among scholars, I wanted the Yellow Seeds’ papers to be more readily available to the public. A few years back I contacted the Asian/Pacific/American Institute of New York University and asked if they would be interested in making copies of the paper for its collection. The Institute was. They were gracious enough to give copies of the pdfs they made from scanning the originals and thus made it easier to share the papers with the public.

These papers will hopefully serve as a source of documentation and “data” that contributes to the growing study of Asian American anti-imperialism. Such scholarship is a welcome addition to a debate regarding the Asian American past and its relevance to the future of Asian American identity and politics. This debate concerns Asian Americans’ relationship to the color line, the state, and capitalism as well as the acceptance and defense of white valorization, anti-black racism, conservatism, neo-liberalism, Christian dogma, and free market ideology among many of today’s Asians in the U.S. and elsewhere.   Also part of the debate is how leftist Asian Americans remember and narrate the radical past so as to situate and justify our current political claims, especially as it relates to multiracial coalition and calls to go beyond black and white. As such, a critical engagement of Asian American anti-imperialist critiques and politics as well as a re-examination of the path from there to here may be useful for better understanding the limitations, ethical obligations, and possibilities of Asian American discourse and activism in the 21st century.

Please note, given Liu’s aforementioned dates of publication (1972-1977), the collection available here is incomplete as it only includes editions from 1972-1975. The collection does include some Chinese-language versions, which are denoted by the term (Ch). Also note that when printing the newspapers, pages are large (11 by 17).

Yellow Seeds by volume and number:

  1. Rob Yanagida
    August 13, 2010 at 1:12 am | #1

    Thanks for the wonderful opportunity to read “Yellow Seeds” again. I was based in NYC’s Chinatown in the early ’70s and worked, on occasion, in solidarity with Yellow Seeds activists in Phila. I helped lead the effort in NY for construction jobs for minority workers in the building of Confucius Plaza. This was covered in “Yellow Seeds”, Sept. ’74. It was special then to be part of a vigorous, militant activism among Asian Americans, POCs and the left. The challenges seem different now with even more potential. I’m looking forward to the activism can be continued and further sustained by work like yours.

    P.S. For a great fictional take on that period, check out “I-Hotel” by Karen Tei Yamashita, published a few months ago.
    And take a look at the impact of Grace Lee Boggs, at 95, at the U.S. Social Forum 2010 in Detroit. http://boggsblog.org/2010/08/02/1693/

    Rob Takashi Yanagida

    http://wiki.ussf2010.org/wiki/Rob_Yanagida

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