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Sunday, July 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Hapas" find a voice in emerging culture

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — In Chinese restaurants, he was always given a fork. In public schools, he was taunted as a "Chinaman" and "burnt potato chip."

Kip Fulbeck, a Santa Barbara artist, filmmaker, athlete and art professor who is of Chinese, Irish, Welsh and English descent, was born at a time when several states still banned mixed-race marriages and the children of such unions were stigmatized.

But 41 years later, as interracial marriages have increased, Fulbeck is celebrated as one of America's leading artists focused on mixed-race Asians known as "hapas."

He recently published a book on hapa identity, "Part Asian 100 Percent Hapa," and has opened a related photographic exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.

The exhibit reflects an evolution in the perception of multiracial people from the freaks and "tortured mulattoes" popularized in film and literature a century ago to simply normal. The term "hapa" — a derogatory Hawaiian word for half-breed — has been embraced with pride.

"Before, people would look at you like you were a science experiment," said Fulbeck, a lanky Fontana, Calif., native. "Now, we're everywhere."

Hapas number 1.6 million in the United States, according to the 2000 census, which for the first time allowed people to claim more than one race. Nearly one-third of the nation's hapas live in California — 11 percent of the state's total Asian-American population and the largest concentration of hapas outside Hawaii.

Hapas and other mixed-race groups have their own Web sites, social clubs, campus groups, films and literature. Their ranks include golfer Tiger Woods, actor Keanu Reeves, supermodel Devon Aoki and musician Sean Lennon. Lennon, son of the Japanese Yoko Ono and the British John Lennon, wrote the foreword to Fulbeck's book.

One international newsmagazine proclaimed Eurasians as "the poster children for 21st-century globalization" a few years ago, touting their ability to bridge cultures in marketing, advertising and entertainment. And, turning racist ideas of "hybrid degeneracy" on their head, Psychology Today magazine earlier this year featured studies finding that Eurasians were regarded as more attractive than whites or Asians and healthier because of their genetic diversity, associated with a lower incidence of some diseases.

All of which makes Fulbeck squirm.

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It's bad enough that hapas share the common stereotypes of Asian-Americans as "model minorities" who are expected to be smart, diligent and well-behaved, he said. "Now we're expected to be superior genetically, too?" asks Fulbeck, chairman of the art department at University of California, Santa Barbara.

Multiracial baby boom

Paul Spickard, a UC Santa Barbara history professor, said three major factors during the 1960s laid the groundwork for today's multiracial baby boom.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the anti-miscegenation laws that remained in 16 states (California eliminated its law in 1948). In addition, the 1960s civil-rights movement and new immigration laws began liberalizing public policies and social attitudes on race.

Fulbeck's exhibit features 80 of more than 1,100 photos he shot across the country of hapas of all ages, sizes, occupations and ethnic mixes.

At Fulbeck's request, all of his subjects bared themselves from the shoulders up and wore little or no makeup, glasses or jewelry. The subjects aren't identified by name but by their striking responses to the question: "What are you?"

It's a question that many hapas constantly confront. Sometimes, other people try to tell them what they are — or aren't. Although most hapas tell him they're proud of their mixed-race heritage, Fulbeck said, he still gets e-mails from those who write despairingly of rejection and angst.

Victoria Namkung, 29, a Brentwood writer of Korean, Jewish and Irish descent, recalls a painful moment when she was 5, watching a St. Patrick's Day parade while wearing a button that said, "Kiss Me. I'm Irish." A man bent down and told her: "You're not Irish, honey. You're Oriental."

Meanwhile, Koreans have told her she's not Korean because she doesn't speak the language or go to a Christian church. Although Jews have assured her she's Jewish, Namkung has figured out her own identity: "100 percent hapa, my whole mom's side and my whole dad's side."

Fully whole

Some of Fulbeck's subjects defined themselves as what they are not: not exotic, not foreign, not half-and-half, but fully whole. One boy wrote: "I am part Chinese and part Danish. I don't usually tell people I am Danish, though, because they think I'm a pastry."

To the Japanese American National Museum, hapas represent the community's future — a key reason it decided to sponsor Fulbeck's exhibit, said spokesman Chris Komai.

Nearly one-third of Japanese-Americans are of mixed heritage, the largest proportion of all major Asian ethnic groups, according to the 2000 census.

"Our community is changing and we need to recognize that," Komai said. "The definition of what it means to be Japanese-American has to be different than it was 60 years ago if it wants to perpetuate itself."

Fulbeck found his voice at UC San Diego in the late 1980s.

Stunned by three events during that time — the death of his best friend, a family conflict and his failure to make the Olympic swim trials — he poured his angst into a video project for school. It was the first time he had gone public with his hapa identity conflicts. He was shocked when the whole class applauded.

Since then, he has written a novel, staged performances and made films about the hapa experience.

His book, aimed at celebrating the diversity of hapa identity, is particularly personal.

"This is a book," he said, "I wish I had as a kid."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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