It’s Asian Pacific Heritage month, and a new documentary film, “A Song for Ourselves” by Tadashi Nakamura is a timely reminder of the beginnings of the Asian Pacific American movement. The film profiles the life and too-early passing of a figure from the movement – Chris Iijima. A Japanese American born in NY, Chris, along with Nobuko Miyamoto and “Charlie” Chin, became known as the “voice” of the Asian American movement in the early 1970s. Their group, Yellow Pearl, which produced the 1973 album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America, was an important part of the development of an Asian American identity at that time. Yellow Pearl would travel to different cities and communities, singing at meetings, schools, rallies and protests, making visible and ear-catchingly audible, the voice of a progressive Asian American movement that was aligned with the anti-Vietnam war movement, pro-Black and Latin power movements, that stood with Korean progressives calling for U.S. troops to get out of Korea, and more. This was at a time when the term “Asian American” was just coming into existence. In fact, Chris’s mother, Kazu Iijima, a long time activist herself, was one of the founders of NY’s first Asian American activist organization, Asian Americans for Action (Triple A) in 1968.
Chris, Nobuko and Charlie, whose Yellow Pearl songs are featured in Nakamura’s film, talk about becoming activists. As Nobuko states, “the Vietnam War was the most powerful magnet – that illustrated who we were in this world and how we were treated – we were constantly seeing images of people who looked like us, who were being abused and annihilated.” “Charlie” Chin says, that when he first heard Chris and Nobuko sing, he thought: “What are they singing about? Rah, rah, rah, the masses, the people… wow, I’ve been hearing about this stuff, but I’ve never heard Asians carrying on like this!” He goes on to say about their group- “it was never a musically driven group – it was a group driven by this idea that to be an Asian American was to refute what the mainstream was saying – and what the mainstream was saying is ‘this is not your place and this does not belong to you’”. For many, hearing Yellow Pearl was a revelation –as Asian Week columnist Phil Tajitsu Nash wrote, “From Boston to Chicago to San Francisco to Honolulu, Asian-derived people who had been classified in the Census as “Other” suddenly realized that they had an identity, a history, and a place at the table.” But as Chris himself stated, talking and developing an Asian American identity, was “originally meant to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It was as much a mechanism to identify with one another as [it was] to identify with the struggles of others, whether African Americans or Asians overseas. It was less a marker of what one was and more a marker of what one believed.”
As time went on, Chris Iijima went on to teach, marry and have two sons, eventually becoming a law professor at the University of Hawaii, working with student groups and writing articles that addressed issues that he had previously sung about – on racism and resistance. Sadly, he died in 2005 after a long and rare illness, amyloidosis, at the age of 57. Nakamura’s film, “A Song For Ourselves” pays tribute to Chris Iijima and highlights a movement and period that gave birth to the current generation of APA activists.
We are the children of the migrant worker
We are the offspring of the concentration camps.
Sons and daughters of the railroad builder
Who leave their stamp on America.
(from We are the Children, on the “A Grain of Sand” album)
”A Song for Ourselves” screened at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May.