Hawking Gidra in Tiananmen Square
photo collage and essay, 2016
In 1973, Andy Warhol made a series of silkscreen prints on canvas of Chairman Mao, one of which would find its way into the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was the first place I ever saw Mao’s face, massive and impassive and cartoon-colored at fifteen feet tall. I would see it again on the cover of a children’s biography book in my elementary school library and I figured that this Pop icon might make an interesting subject for my 6th grade research paper. Following my cheerful announcement at the dinner table, my father initiated me that evening to our family history: his birth at the dawn of the Chinese Communist Revolution, the public executions that my grandmother was forced to witness, that time he got in trouble for wearing his red ‘kerchief as swimming bottoms at the local watering hole, the anxieties caused by neighbors reporting on each other to the local party official, the engorged children’s bellies during the famines of the Great Leap Forward, the campaigns encouraging women to have countless babies to serve the revolution, how families were obligated to melt every scrap of metal from their homes into abject ingots, how landlords would be hung by their thumbs from door frames as examples. “Let one hundred flowers bloom” invited Chinese intellectuals to openly share their criticisms of the nascent regime; many of those outspoken individuals would find themselves summarily executed. I jotted notecard upon notecard with anecdotes and dates and names from my primary source in precise handwriting. We laugh now about how I cried inconsolably the night before the paper was due. My father had edited–rather, rewritten–entire passages of my immature prose that had been littered with historical errors and omissions. Our mining process would continue, with more and fewer tears, a caring and urgent negotiation, in a cyclical process that would repeat every few years thenceforward to today.
The tears belonged to my parents the night of the “June Fourth Incident” in 1989. The urgent monotone of the American foreign correspondent, the disheveled university students soaked in blood and sweat, the chaotic tumult caught in the glare of the prime time evening news camera lights. I was seven, we were up late, and I had never seen those stricken expressions on my parents’ faces before. We watched the massacre unfold, the students demanding democratic reforms in the square named for the gate of heavenly peace. I would later wear a white t-shirt that was produced by the Chinese student organization at UIC that read in red, We stand with him., under an artist’s rendering of the man who stood alone before the tanks. I wore the shirt like a uniform until it was almost threadbare. Years later, I was looking through a photo documentary book of the massacre in our home and it was the inexplicable image of a man (a guard? a student?) collapsed against the side of a tank with pale pink entrails spilling out from his middle that would cause me to violently retch.
Over the years, whenever I went to the Art Institute, I would glance over as I passed the looming orange-faced bogeyman on the way to visiting my favorite Miró. The galleries have since been redesigned and Mao is not currently on view.
My Sculpey avatar hawks Gidra in Tiananmen Square in broken Mandarin as Warhol’s Mao looks on.
Remaining copies of the Los Angeles-based Asian American Movement community newspaper, which ran from 1969 to 1974, have yellowed with age but contain multitudes: pan-ethnic Asian American solidarity, the Vietnam War through the lens of the Third World Movement for liberation, demands for inclusive narratives in the ivory tower, advertisements for Japanese American-owned businesses on Crenshaw, Amy Uyematsu’s “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America,” and facet upon facet of consciousness that was passed by hand from one reader to another. The paper’s mascot would appear on the cover or inside every issue: a comically grimacing cartoon caterpillar wearing a conical hat and brandishing a pen, ready to vanquish the xenophobes, the war mongers, the roots of oppressive self-negation so symptomatic of assimilation.
“The newspaper took its name from King Ghidora, the villain from the popular film Godzilla. Ghidorah was a three-headed winged monster, an enemy of the public. While portrayed as the antagonist, Ghidorah should not be blindly vilified but recognized as an entity resisting an oppressive system that sought to eradicate his existence. Likewise, these Asian American youth were a growing force opposing a society that oppressed them.” –Yoshimi Kawashima, Discover Nikkei
I’ve started reading the Gidra archives with some friends. It galvanizes us but we are constantly asking each other, “How have we never seen this before?” “How have we been denied this history–these heroes who look like us?”
We are so very far from being a stone’s throw away from the last stone thrown. We are waking. We are waking.
(Tiananmen Square photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons)