Chris Karnadi is a culture and religion writer currently studying at Duke Divinity School. His bylines include Presbyterian Outlook, Yale’s Glossolalia, and DJBooth. Follow him on Twitter

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Hollywood's Golden Age of Racism

by Chris Karnadi 12-19-2019
How early cinema nativism led an Asian American actor to success—and how the church helped crash his career.

Sessue Hayakawa in Daughter of the Dragon / Getty Images

IN THE EARLY days of Hollywood, Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1973) was an icon. In the context of racist U.S. policy and increasing nativism in Hollywood, he was arguably the first non-Caucasian actor to gain international fame and the first person of Asian descent to become a leading man in the movie industry.

His overall career, however, is a story of race’s shadowy relationship with success. Orientalism, Yellow Peril, and America’s fear of Japan both helped and hurt his career. The Catholic Church’s eventual oversight of Hollywood also played a part in his troubles. The only way Hayakawa thrived in the industry was by playing into the structures of racism that set up his stardom.

“Such roles are not true ...”

IN 1915, WITH actress Fannie Ward, Hayakawa had the first on-screen interracial kiss.

Well before the Motion Picture Production Code outlawed interracial romance in 1930, the silent film The Cheat (1915) shows Edith Hardy (Ward) as a wife who takes money from the Red Cross, loses the $10,000, and then struggles to repay her debt. As she reels from the news of her loss in a semiconscious state, an acquaintance, Hishuru Tori (Hayakawa), assaults her and steals a kiss before she comes to her senses.

The silent film continues as Hardy describes her debt to Tori. Tori writes a check from his exorbitant wealth—he is described by title cards as a Japanese ivory trader—but not for free. He expects something from Ward.

When Hardy goes to repay Tori after her husband makes a hefty return on an investment, Tori locks the door and assaults her a second time. He brands Hardy with a circular seal; after she falls to the ground, the camera focuses on the stark black mark on her white shoulder.

The branding scene caused uproar in the Japanese American community. A Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles denounced Hayakawa, his sinister character, and the character’s appearance as a harmful stereotype. (Hayakawa reportedly had asked Cecil B. DeMille, the director of The Cheat, to change the clothing and mannerisms of his character, but DeMille disregarded him.) The backlash was enough for the film to be re-released in 1918 with Hayakawa’s character changed to a “Burmese king,” presumably because the studio believed Burmese people would have less volume to their voices of dissent.

“Such roles are not true to our Japanese nature ... They are false and give people a wrong idea of us,” said Hayakawa in 1916. “I wish to make a characterization which shall reveal us as we really are.”

Don't Tell Her

by Chris Karnadi 11-22-2019
The emotions of “The Farewell” may be universal but the specific cultural scripts belong to each of us.

From The Farewell

You may know 別告訴她 by its English title: The Farewell.

The second feature film from director Lulu Wang stirred audiences with a story from Wang’s family. In the film, the main character, Billi, joins her family in China as they convene a wedding as an excuse to say goodbye to her grandmother, who has a terminal illness but does not know it.

At the wedding, the grief of imminent loss peeks through the haphazard nuptials. In some of the film’s most memorable moments, toasts take heartrending turns into breakdown, and a drinking game provides space to drown sorrows with alcohol and laughter.

In the game, Billi’s family is seated at a round table. Chanting in Chinese, one person repeats a phrase while flapping their arms like wings, then looks to another person, who takes over the chant. Whoever makes a mistake takes a shot. The general mechanics of the scene are clear, but unlike most of the film, there are no English subtitles.

Singer Mitski Doesn't Owe Us Anything

by Chris Karnadi 09-23-2019
Her performance is a powerful inversion of expectations for Asian women in America.

Mitski's fifth studio album, Be the Cowboy / Dead Oceans

IN A SMALL VENUE, I watched Mitski perch on a white chair behind a white table, fold her hands, and start to sing emotional ballads.

The 29-year-old musician was performing in Carrboro, N.C., from her fifth studio album, Be the Cowboy. It’s one of my favorites from 2018 and plays with the American cowboy mythology in its loneliness (“My God, I’m so lonely ... still nobody wants me,”) and longing (“I just can’t be without you”).

I expected a typical concert, hearing favorite songs and seeing Mitski’s personality. But I was jarred by the lack of emotion she showed. The entire time she sang, her face was resolute and hardened, a seeming contradiction with her heartrending lyrics.

Second, she danced sensually, even while her face remained impassive. She wore nothing “sexy”—a white T-shirt, biker shorts, and kneepads—as she executed carefully choreographed sequences. But she leaned forward, slanted her hips, and flicked her hair. She climbed onto the table and spread her legs toward the audience. Yet she never broke a smile, never performed the emotion of eroticism.

Whiteness Determines Which Artworks Can Be ‘Masterpieces’

by Chris Karnadi 07-03-2019
We've had enough ‘masters.’

Detail of “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa,” by Katsushika Hokusai / Apple’s wave emoji

WHEN I TRAVEL to a city, I find art museums and their masterpieces: “Sunflowers” in Amsterdam, the “Prodigal Son” in St. Petersburg, “David” in Florence. Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo. These are masters, according to some cultural imagination.

But it wasn’t until this past April that I encountered an Asian master and masterpiece: Katsushika Hokusai’s “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa.” The print is better known as “The Great Wave”—you know, the Apple wave emoji. Why is this the first Asian masterpiece that I’ve seen?

Respecting the Spirituality Behind Marie Kondo's 'Tidying Up'

by Chris Karnadi 01-29-2019

"Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" on Netflix.

Kondo focuses not on the aesthetic or the number of things; she instead focuses on the owner’s relationship to the object itself, whether or not it “sparks joy.” She advises, “Take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” This relationship to objects is crucial to Kondo’s method and hinges on her Shinto background. Though KonMari is self-help, it’s self-help rooted in a Shinto spirituality. 

Childish Gambino Offered Me Religious Experience, Not A Product

by Chris Karnadi 10-02-2018

Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino has become a cultural icon. From his comedic work in Community to his acting in both Marvel and Star Wars franchises to his writing and producing of the critically acclaimed show Atlanta, the versatile Grammy-nominated artist is a creative force. Throughout all of this commercial and critical success, Donald Glover has refused to frame his work as a product; instead he wants to offer a participatory experience, a religious experience even.

Asian Representation Needs Both 'Crazy Rich Asians' and 'Sorry to Bother You'

by Chris Karnadi 09-07-2018

The rift between rich and poor runs deeply through the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. A recent Pew study reveals that Asians, as a whole, “rank as the highest earning racial and ethnic group in the U.S.” But the top 10 percent of AAPI persons earn 10.7 times the amount of those in the bottom 10 percent.