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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Asian America through the Lens: History, Representations, and Identity
Jun Xing

(Walnut Creek, Ca.: Altamira Press, 1998)
248 pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 27.00; ISBN 0-7619-9175-1. Pb.: 12.99; ISBN 0-7619-9176-x.

Jun Xing has written an interesting, informative, and thought-provoking book on Asian American independent films. He attempts to accomplish three broad goals: (1) to inform the reader of the achievement, creativity, and productivity of Asian American cinema; (2) to provide a critical concept for analyzing the ways in which Asian Americans have been represented in the media; and (3) to examine the historical and cultural contexts under which Asian American cultural productions were made and the role of Asians in American film history.

Xing begins with a discussion of Asian American cultural identities, arguing that conflicts about Asian American identities emerge not from essentialism but from various sites of representation. The first two chapters lay out the theoretical framework, guiding the analysis of the emergence and development of Asian American cinema. He addresses the debate on 'what is Asian American filming' in Chapter 1, identifying three contested approaches - the essentialist, the activist, and the aesthetic. He points out that the relationship between power and representation underlies the essentialist approach, which has grown out 'a long period of frustration and anger among Asian Americans over the degradation of their images on the silver screen' (p. 35). He then demonstrates that, because of persistent institutional racism against Asian Americans, Asian American filmmaking has become a powerful tool in achieving an agenda political agenda for minority rights and social change. Xing argues that, while the essentialist and activist approaches focus on identity and power, the aesthetic approach is more inclusive of the critical elements of Asian American films, that is, 'an authentic Asian American point of view, a sensitive portrayal of Asian American characters and communities, and a set of culturally specific artistic innovations' (p. 45). Xing goes on to provide a historical overview of Asian and Asian American images in Hollywood in Chapter 2. He contends that cinematic Asian representation should be analyzed not only in terms of stereotyping, but also in the contexts of institutional control over representation and the racial stratification of role playing.

Xing classifies a selected group of representative Asian American films into three categories - social history documentation, family dramas, and avant-garde films by Asian American women - and offers an in-depth discussion of each category in chapters 3 to 5. He shows how these films reflect on the various aspect of Asian American experience and on the often conflicting views and orientations of Asian and Asian American filmmakers and film critics. Xing devotes a chapter to examining the impacts of marginalization and white racism on Asian American cinematic strategies and practices. He asserts that both the internal tension among Asian American filmmakers over integrative strategies (aiming at popular acceptance) and oppositional strategies (oriented toward self-determination) and the fight against marginalization imposed by Hollywood are characteristic of Asian American filmmaking. In the concluding chapter, Xing illustrates parallel trends of diversity and globalization in Asian American cinema.

The book includes a list of selected filmography. Xing carefully selects the films and videos that are original products with significant Asian American or Asian immigrant involvement in the creative process as screenwriters, producers, or directors and with Asian American or Asian diasporaric-related themes. This list provides a valuable source of teaching material for instructors in history, anthropology, sociology, and the varying sub-fields of Asian American Studies. By any measure, this book is extremely informative and well balanced, contributing significantly to our understanding of the complexity and intricacies of practices and strategies in minority representation.

Min Zhou
University of California, Los Angeles

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