One of the most enduring images of a Vietnam War protester is the controversial photograph of Jane Fonda, with short brown hair, sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam. Dubbed “Hanoi Jane,” Fonda’s face is often among the first that comes to mind when we think about the anti-war movement. Today, activists who continue to tell their stories are often white. The Asian American anti-war rabble rouser however, seems to hardly exist—there are virtually none on the list of interviewees in Ken Burns new highly-acclaimed Vietnam War documentary.
Yet two months before Fonda’s trip to Hanoi, a radical Asian American newspaper called Gidra viscerally undermined this idea. On the cover of their May 1972 issue was an illustration of a white officer ordering an Asian American soldier to “kill that gook, you gook!” Inside the paper was a piece detailing the participation of Asians in a recent march in Los Angeles, part of protests drawing out some 100,000 people across the country. In the familiar tone of an activist who was no stranger to marches, Steve Tatsukawa recounted procedure: “A sleepy Asian contingent met at Bronson and Eighth … [it] was one of seventeen in the march and someone had worked it out so we would be third in line right behind the Chicanos and the GI Vets.”
Gidra—whose name is a misspelling of King Ghidorah, a kaiju from the Godzilla franchise—ran for five years, from 1969 to 1974. It was started by five students from UCLA who decided to each pitch in $100 of their own seed money (“a huge amount for students at that time,” according to Mike Murase, one of the Gidra’s founders) to ensure that the paper would have editorial independence from the university. It ran pieces on everything from the war and the drug crisis among Japanese American youth to recipes and diagrams on how to fix your toilet.
Today, “Asian American” has mostly become a demographic signifier, but it was originally conceived as a political identity. Gidra was there to document this conception.
“It was the first voice of the Asian American movement,” Karen Ishizuka, author of the book, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, told me. “You really see it unfolding in real time, the concept of political identity and how it was created.” In the newspaper’s first issue, Larry Kubota wrote in an article on yellow power: “This is a new role for the Asian American. It is the rejection of the passive Oriental stereotype and symbolizes the birth of a new Asian—one who will recognize and deal with injustices.”
Perusing through the pages of Gidra, what I noticed most was its voice—irreverent and clever, proudly Asian and radical. Here was a political history I was vaguely familiar with but had never really seen laid out before me, an incarnation of unabashed Asian American radicalism so different from the image of the head-down, hard-working immigrant that dominates the mainstream.
The paper’s politics stood firmly in solidarity with groups like the Black Power and the Chicano movement, believing that Asians could only achieve equality if racism against all minorities was eliminated. Gidra also brought to light racism against Asian Americans that would have likely flown under the radar. This included things from the firing of a Japanese-American L.A. county coroner, a decision that was eventually reversed, to exposing the dual racism and sexism embedded in American soldiers’ perceptions of Vietnamese women. (One Asian American G.I. recounted how they were taught in boot camp that Asian women’s vaginas “were slanted, like their eyes.”)
Today, anti-Asian racism may have evolved—and is certainly not felt on the same level as anti-black and anti-Hispanic racism—but it has not disappeared. As we hear Trump declaring to cheering crowds that China is “raping our country” and that the Chinese have committed the “greatest theft in the history of the world” by stealing our jobs, we are reminded that our place in the racial hierarchy of America remains conditional. And as the administration deploys ICE officers to churches and schools, Trump encourages police to be “rough,” and a prominent Trump supporter references Japanese incarceration as a “precedent” for a Muslim registry, the anti-police-state politics of Gidra seems as relevant now as they were then.
It’s hard to tell how much impact Gidra had; it only had a press run of 4,000, but because it was run by an ever-rotating cast of volunteers, hundreds of people were involved at some point in its production. While Gidra did have its limitations—it was run mostly by Japanese-Americans and had a male-dominated staff—the paper served as an incubator for Asian American activists, many of whom have gone on to do other work in the larger community over the past decades. Two Gidra editors I spoke to, Mike Murase and Evelyn Yoshimura, both continue to work at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a non-profit that provides social services to the Asian American community in Los Angeles. Like the scattering of seeds, the paper was grassroots at its most elemental.
I came across Gidra almost entirely by chance. The unusual name, nestled in a footnote of a something I was reading for another piece, caught my eye. When I first clicked through to the digital archive, meticulously preserved by the Densho Project, I was sure I had never seen anything like it. But when I was interviewing people about Gidra I almost felt ashamed admitting it was new to me. Here was a newspaper many referred to as the “voice of the Asian American movement.” As a young Asian American political journalist, I’m supposed to know about these things, but I had never heard of it.
Gidra was the road map I wish I had as a kid. As my own politics have developed over the years, I’ve often felt like I am blundering my way into a tradition of Asian American political activism. I grew up comfortably middle-class and in a nearly all-white rural town in the Northeast. My mother, who moved here from Taiwan as an adult, knew just about as much about this country’s politics and history as I did, often by reading my middle school textbooks at night.
And in those textbooks, Asian Americans are rarely portrayed as political activists. Growing up, we learn mainly about Japanese incarceration and Vietnam War protests (often led by non-Asians). If we are lucky, we might learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act or perhaps the redress movement. Having more nuanced conversations in public school—say, about how light-skinned and dark-skinned Asians are treated differently in America—seems almost unthinkable.
Once we start reading the news, we hear about the apathetic and apolitical Asian voter. Or, when stories do focus on organized Asian Americans, it’s often when they are for conservative stances, like those against affirmative action and sanctuary cities. Googling “famous Asian American activists” gives you a whopping three names.
This is not a benign erasure, but rather one that serves to prop up racist hierarchies. The Asian American political identity is one that has been crippled by a thousand silences. The prevailing narrative is still that of the model minority—that we have successfully overcome a history of racism through education, hard work, and keeping our heads down. It is a tactic used to both vilify other minority groups like black Americans (if Asians can prosper in America, why can’t they?) and to flatten a population consisting of numerous subgroups—not just the East Asians we usually think of—that continue to suffer from racism and poverty.
Take, for example, the narrative of how Japanese Americans persevered after World War II incarceration. As historian Ellen Wu detailed in an interview with The Washington Post, “Japanese Americans aren’t perceived to be doing any kind of direct action, they weren’t perceived to be protesting. A bad thing happened to them, and they moved on, and they were doing okay. These stories were ideologically useful. They became a model for political cooperation.”
Gidra didn’t play along. In 1971, it printed the story of Mary Kochiyama (better known today as Yuri Kochiyama), who had lived through Japanese American incarceration. Her father, who ran a fish market, was one of the first people to be rounded up the day after he returned from an ulcer surgery. A month later, he was returned home in an ambulance only to die the next morning. According to Kochiyama, the FBI told them that anyone attending her father’s funeral would be surveilled. Following her account, the paper warned: “It has happened here. It can happen again—to you,” and sounded a “call to action” for all repressed people to rise up against the American police state.
“Gidra shows that there has always been that history of Asian American people fighting, coming together, and trying to change things,” Nina Wallace, communications coordinator at Densho, told me. “Not just kind of being the little quiet Americans that we try to think of.”
Even Gidra itself was combating the model minority stereotype decades ago. In his article for the first issue, Kubota wrote that “traditionally, yellow people have spent a great deal of time observing the behavior and mannerisms of white people. We have tried to act like them, speak like them, look like them, and be like them in every way...It is time we understood that white people cannot be taken as models.”
But the stereotype has not gone away, even today. Just this April, in response to claims of anti-Asian racism against United Airlines dragging victim David Dao (one of them by me), New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan dismissed the idea, writing, “Today, Asian Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it?”
It’s an argument that reads almost exactly the same as the ones in 1960s newspapers, like one article from US News that stated, “Visit ‘Chinatown U.S.A.’ and you find an important racial minority pulling itself up from hardship and discrimination to become a model of self-respect and achievement in today’s America.”
An uncomfortable truth is that Asian Americans, especially East Asians, have historically both promoted and benefited from the model minority stereotype that puts them adjacent to whiteness. As Wu noted in The Washington Post, “The model minority myth as we see it today was mainly an unintended outcome of earlier attempts by Asians Americans to be accepted and recognized as human beings.”
The result is a community that often reveals itself to have what Jay Caspian Kang has termed a “stunted language of a people who do not yet know how to talk about injustice.” This usually comes up in debates around affirmative action and was most prominently seen recently in the case of the protests last February around NYPD cop Peter Liang’s manslaughter conviction in the shooting of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man. Chinese-Americans saw racism in the fact that Liang was the first cop to be convicted in New York in the line of duty in nearly a decade, holding protests that featured signs that read “Peter Scapegoat.”
On one hand there was truth to the claims; white cops have always been afforded an impunity that does not necessarily extend to minority cops. But the fact that the first major political outcry heard from Asian Americans in years were protests against the conviction of the police shooting of a black man revealed a crude modern political identity.
But if the Asian American political identity is stunted, it’s not necessarily because a radical identity has never existed, but rather because we are told that it hasn’t. Some of this is due to the community’s own silence; as Kang writes of the Liang protests, “because it’s historically been in the best interests of people like me to never discuss these things, even in private, I lack the vocabulary to discuss it.”
Part of it is also due to the fact that many of our parents were not born here and thus lack a lived understanding of racial history in America—73 percent of today’s adult U.S. Asian population was born in another country (as opposed to 48 percent of the adult Hispanic population). “I think the fact that there is a larger percentage of first generation people tends to affect the entire discourse,” Murase told me. “It’s almost like re-creating the model minority and faith in it.”
But, perhaps most critically, it is because it has benefited those in power to tamp down this identity over the decades. Today, it’s clear that the model minority myth is not only untenable when it comes to combating white supremacy and fostering solidarity across races, it is also ineffectual as a survival tactic. Donald Trump’s rise and rhetoric reveals that another pernicious myth—Asians as a yellow peril—persists as well. As Trump terrorizes the undocumented community, it’s worth thinking about the fact that Asians are the fastest growing group of undocumented immigrants. And while there is scarce data, that which does exist indicates hate crimes against Asian Americans are increasing, part of a larger rise in the Trump era.
Documents like Gidra remind us that a full-throated radical Asian American political identity built on inter-racial solidarity does and can exist. “When I was a younger person I found Gidra very inspiring,” Brian Niiya of the Densho Project told me. “Just knowing that there was someone before you who was doing this kind of thing.” Many activists are already working in that vein, whether it’s the former Gidra staffers or the young people organizing for black lives and writing letters to their parents about the importance of standing with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Gidra was born in the beginning of the Asian American movement,” one former staffer wrote in the paper’s final issue in April 1974. “Does its death mean the end of the movement? I hope not.” But decades later, it seems the biggest danger to the movement isn’t the death of papers like Gidra—it’s that we might not even remember they existed at all.