Visual Communications: Reinterpreting Asian American History

Despite the fact that Asian Americans have played an important part in the city's growth since its beginning, L.A.'s most famous industry historically has not accurately represented what is now the nation's fastest growing ethnic group. Even in today's supposed post-racial culture, Hollywood often deals with issues such as Asian characters becoming white ("The Last Airbender", "21"), or allegations of yellow-face ("Cloud Atlas").

In the early days of the industry, when there were far fewer Asian Americans in the city, two of Hollywood's most popular stars were Asian: Japanese American Sessue Hayakawa and Chinese American Anna May Wong. They were the era's biggest stars -- yet they weren't immune from being typecast, or even marginalized (at least in their characters) due to their racial background. Hayakawa often had to play the conniving exotic, while Wong's roles were often reduced to the "Dragon Lady" type.

By the '70s Asians in film and media were basically limited to kung-fu masters or evil masterminds. Various Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu lead roles were played by white actors in yellow face; well-respected actors like Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and even John Wayne, icon of the American West, weren't opposed to "going Asian." Mickey Rooney's embarrassing bucktoothed appearance in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was still fresh on the frustrated minds of Asian Americans who believed that Hollywood should know better.

Meanwhile, around the same time, Asian American students were beginning to change the role of ethnic studies in the media. Many of their parents had experienced the horrific events surrounding WWII, but most refused to talk about it. Their children -- second or third generation Asian Americans -- decided that they had to face the issues that had affected their parents based on their race, and set out to change the way they were represented in the media -- in turn change the way Asian Americans are perceived by the public.

Visual Communications was founded in 1970 by UCLA students Duane Kubo, Robert Nakamura, Alan Ohashi, and Eddie Wong. The collective began with the aim to accurately portray and raise awareness of Asian Americans and their place in history through media arts. Using film, videos, and photographs, Visual Communications has not only entertained but also educated the public at large about issues that affect Asian American life.

Since its inaugural 1970 photographic exhibit "America's Concentration Camps" brought to light the then-taboo topic of Japanese Americans' shared experiences at the internment camps, Visual Communications has evolved along with the changing needs of the Asian American community.

Now located inside the historic Union Center for the Arts, today Visual Communications is not only a film and video production company, but a full-service media arts center. In addition to organizing the annual Asian Pacific American Film Festival, they also offer programs to teach youths and members of the community about film, animation, and other forms of digital media -- all through the lens of awareness-raising activism. They are also home to the largest archive in America of films and images related to Asian American life.

In the videos above, Abraham Ferrer, Director of Exhibitions at Visual Communications, discusses the history of the organization, the need for ethnic studies programs, and the importance of representation of Asians and Pacific Islanders in media arts.

Reinterpreting History
With little representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in popular media, founders of Visual Communications set out for change.
Serving the Need for Ethnic Studies
As students in the emerging ethnic studies program became more aware of their history, they sought ways to translate those stories for greater, public consumption.
Representing Asians and Pacific Islanders
After establishing itself as a conduit of Japanese American history, Visual Communications began tackling material outside its immediate community.
The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
Abraham Ferrer illustrates the foundations and renovations in the "house of ethnic cinema."
Explore the related interactive mural

About the Author

Yosuke Kitazawa is the Site Editor of KCET Departures.
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