Book Review – Serve the People

Making Asian America in the Long Sixties by Karen L. Ishizuka

Verso, 20 Jay St., Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Review by A. Iwasa

Jeff Chang starts off Serve the People with a strong foreword, immediately challenging the Model Minority Myth and connecting it with the era many of us who rally around the slogan, Yellow Peril Supports Black Lives Matter, trace much of our politics to.

But Chang doesn’t dwell on or lionize the 1960s very long. Chang moves quickly and critically through the “five decades of reactionary backlash” both slamming the questionable and giving props to those who have continued the struggle.

Ishizuka follows a similar trajectory in the Introduction, before writing up a comprehensive list of books about Asian America (in the United States) with descriptions ranging from middle class and reformist to revolutionary in their outlook, then describing her entrance into the Movement in 1969. This flows into her explanations of the interviews she carried out for the book, “believing that the makers of history are often the best historians.”

Act I, entitled American Chop Suey, plays on the explicitly US American roots of Chop Suey. Like Fortune Cookies, it’s something completely Asian American, though thought of as Asian.  Thus the liminal space we are also assigned:  neither white nor Black in a racist society dominated by binary thought.

Ishizuka does an excellent job alternating between the larger political stories such as those of migration and racism and the personal accounts of people both positive and negative trying to navigate these circumstances.

Ishizuka goes on to write about the origins of the Model Minority Myth, which turns out to be classic race baiting of the divide and conquer variety. Emerging just “six months after the Watts uprising—with the article ‘Success Story, Japanese-American Style’ by sociologist William Peterson in the New York Times Magazine.”

Like most myths, this one has a lengthy historical trajectory from which it sprang, that Ishizuka methodically wades through. Working her way back to the early 1970s, she goes on to write how Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chen had theorized the formation of the Model Minority Myth as an example of racist love, as opposed to racist hate!

Although my POC credentials come from being half Japanese, I never understood the Model Minority Myth, though never wondered where it came from either. Similarly, I never understood and have always been uncomfortable with Occidental fetishization of my father’s culture, so it was refreshing to read how Ishizuka could contextualize all this historically and theoretically, citing sources to boot.

I understand rebellion against linear stories, but was exhausted by the frantic, whirlwind like, historical time and place jumping of the book. I think the various stories and concepts are really treated too briefly before the author moves on.

Though in defense of Ishizuka’s rapid subject changing, especially by the 1960s and ‘70s there was so much happening all over the place, the nature of the topics covered easily gives way to a manic style of writing not unique to her coverage of the New Left.

Possibly the highlight of the book for me was when Ishizuka wrote about the Asian American movement’s 1950s and ‘60s predecessors in the form of “’social bandits’–prepolitical insurgents who flouted authority and championed the masses against oppression a la Robin Hood and Pancho Villa.”  I found this particularly interesting since much of the New Left had this sort of focus, such as the Young Lords and the Young Patriots in Chicago.

In the final chapter, Ishizuka uses her own generation’s examples of disconnection with the Old Left, and the possibility of lessons lost by what Diane Fujino calls “intergenerational discontinuity.” It’s a fair warning, and a good note to end on.