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Image Comics' 'The Good Asian' starts an overdue conversation about blue-collar Asian Americans (and much more)
While some comics are pure escapism, others can serve as conversation starters. That's certainly the case for The Good Asian, in which hard-boiled Chinese American detective Edison Hark hunts down a killer in 1936 Chinatown. While he comes from a place of privilege, raised by a white family, Hark's being used as a tool by a racially charged police force to rough up Chinese immigrants. Will he get past his own self-loathing to bring help to his community, or will he be no different from those who cut his checks?
This fictional story is set within a factual period of American history, during the fallout of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and Page Act (1875), which respectively prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers and banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States. They are the only laws to have ever been signed and implemented that banned all members of a single ethnic group from immigrating to the United States.
Racism against Asians didn't stop there, though. Americans who colonized the Philippines in the early 1900s demonized the Filipinos and their hygiene as a "contaminated race" yet still ruled the country as a territory until 1946. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, incarcerating people under "suspicion" to Japanese Internment camps. Canada too, had its own anti-immigration acts against the Chinese and internment camps for Japanese Canadians. The SARS outbreak in 2003 triggered anti-Asian racism in Toronto, Canada, and since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, anti-Asian actions all across the globe have been steadily on the rise, amplified by world leaders spreading "yellow peril," a racist ideology that paints people of Eastern Asian descent as threatening, unsanitary, lower class citizens.
In The Good Asian, Pichetshote and Tefenkgi construct an instant heavyweight contender, wherein the weight of America's sordid history is felt with each turn of the page. So in Part One of SYFY WIRE's interview with co-creators Pornsak Pichetshote (Infidel) and Alex Tefenkgi, we spoke about Asians being labeled "model minorities" and what a "good Asian" means today, subverting the Asian male stereotypes, and the creative process. Now, in Part Two, we discuss the inspiration of Edison Hark, the loyalty Asians have to their roots, the silencing of blue collar Asians, and ongoing anti-Asian violence.
At the end of the first issue, you explain some of the inspiration came from Charlie Chan, who is ultimately inspired by Chang Apana, a real-life Chinese Hawaiian policeman in 1957. Were you following these breadcrumbs to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 or did you feel like this was the place to set The Good Asian?
Pornsak Pichetshote: I'm ethnically Thai Chinese, but I self-identify as Thai American. The reason I do that is because my father had parents come from China, but he grew up in Thailand. As a result, we'd always consider ourselves Thai, especially after my father passed away. Part of me dealing with that, I found myself drifting back into my Chinese roots and I made a visit to China. Normally in that story, you hear about what I learned about Chinese culture, mythology, but because I'm so interested in Americana, I ended up drifting towards Chinese American history. That's when I read about the Chinese Exclusion Act.
I felt really embarrassed that I was a grown-ass adult and never heard about this before, or the immigration act in 1924 that limited the amount of Asians and Arabs that came into the country. Again, was I a bad Asian for not knowing this? That's a huge part of our history. That was rummaging through my head and I had memories of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, then they collided. Wouldn't it be interesting? Why not take some of the DNA, some of the inspiration of Chang Apana, and examine what that character would have to be. Chang Apana became a police officer because of the patronage of a white woman. There's no place aside from Hawaii where you could be a Chinese American police officer. The only way you could do that was with a certain amount of white privilege.
You have a lot of immigrants from Central and South America and one thing they have common is language, but as Asian Americans, we don't even have that, right? It's this wide group of people lumped together. What does it mean? What do we have in common? All of that led to talking about the Chinese Exclusion Act, America's history, whether it was anti-Asian American history or being very suspicious of Asians at a time there's also an Asian police officer — all of that was very rich to me.
Asians who are either born or come to live in America are often torn as they try to quickly acclimate to the culture, but at home are often told by older generations to not forget their roots, language, and ways. It's hard to know what to lean into being first and second generation Asian Americans. So with Edison Hark, there's a struggle there of helping where others can't. Or does he just do what's necessary to keep his station?
Pichetshote: I hope that when we talk about it with Edison, it externalizes it. I love what you just said about the loyalty you have, the concept of America versus your roots as an Asian. For Edison, that becomes literal in terms of becoming a cop to do good, but when the laws don't look at his people as equal, he realizes that "part of me being a Chinese cop means policing Chinese people. They only want me so that I can help them police Chinese people and are propagating the racism of that time."
Am I bad if I am good in terms of [a] white America that says that all of these things are bad, and treating people that I know that are like me is good in this way? What is my identity that still tries to remain true to both of these things? Part of being Asian American is this balancing act of West and East that seems completely in contradiction with each other.
The phrase, "An American was killed in Chinatown" stuck out to me in the first two issues, where amongst Asian Americans, "Americans" is oftentimes the term used for white people. When you look at the systemic racism and who wields the power and control, you see just how much America is built for whites. For many around the world, Americans are white and that speaks to how insignificant minorities can feel about their cultures thriving here.
Pichetshote: It was definitely part of my research that I couldn't find any documentation to white people or Asians referring to white people as "white." It felt like that happened later on in the development of our racial consciousness talking about race. In Black literature you'd read "white people," but it was often written from their perspective. White people never referred to themselves as "white people," it was always as "Americans." So that aspect of it, like a lot of parts of [The Good Asian], is a facet of history. It provides such a clear picture of what race relations were like at the time.
The American experience is not equal because of race and/or economic class. But the Asian American experience in this country is so varied too, right?
Pichetshote: You're totally right. The American experience is different; the Asian experience is different. After writing a lot of the book, one of the things that's happening in the book is a conversation about class amongst Asians. When you look at these recent attacks, while the conversation about Asians has changed in the last 100 years, the conversation about poor Asians, blue-collar, working Asian Americans hasn't really changed at all. We don't talk about them; they're still kind of invisible in the media. If you see them, they're usually being interviewed in an episode of Law & Order to get to the bad guy because they saw something.
There isn't a conversation about them and it's not an intention coming into the book where I wanted to talk about them, it was just trying to be true in the moment and I went, "Wow, in the last 100 years, this piece hasn't changed."
Alex Tefenkgi: The experience I have is being mixed race. When I was young in school you could call me "mixed," but they really don't know from where. It was part African and part something else. This something was a bit unsettling for them. I had problems with that, where kids would call me "Miyagi's kid" [referring to The Karate Kid] even though at the time I didn't know I was Asian. For me it was weird to hear. On the other side, sometimes because I was half African, I wouldn't get bullied. It was difficult because I didn't know where to stand. When I went back to Vietnam, I was still considered a foreigner. It's like I'm part of a community, and part of no community at the same time.
Pichetshote: A lot of what Alex is saying resonates with me because I don't know if I'm the right person because the experience is so vast, I worry about that. I think about the line from The Souls of Black Folk, that says "measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." When I talk about it, I'm measuring it, I'm trying to figure out where I fit along the scale even as I talk about it. Do I meet the height requirement? And if I don't meet it, I feel like I have to preface my thoughts more.
Let's move toward the hate crimes being done to Asians and mistreatment of immigrants in this book. You don't want to date the book, but it's hard not to feel like this 1930s noir story is so current.
Pichetshote: We worked through this book through 2020 and we've watched the rise in the number of Asian hate crimes pick up. It was happening, and it was quiet in the news and media so you only heard about it through friends and relatives. You thought, "Is it as bad as you think?" because surely if it is as bad as it sounds, you'd hear about it more. You don't want to be anachronistic, but again, it's been 100 years and we don't talk about the lives of blue collar-class, working Asians.
If anything, what happens in the book portrays a less brutal account of what happened to Asians at the time than in real life only because there's no record of it. [Hate crimes against Asians] made national news because Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu put up a very expensive campaign for advocacy and Olivia Munn heard something that happened to her mother's friend. It's taking rich Asians talking, and people caring about those rich Asians, to talk about poor Asians. It was almost too easy to talk about it.
Tefenkgi: The Asian community in France is not vocal about what's happening to them. When I was with my friends in Vietnam, it was all hush-hush. It's never spoken about and they're not vocal. With social media it's changing, slowly. I feel like there's a scale of comparing one's pain and suffering with others and whether it's right to speak up. Maybe some Asians think of what the Black communities are and what have been going through too and think it's not as severe. But it shouldn't be about the level of pain or suffering you got, you should just be vocal about it to stop everything.
Lastly, The Good Asian has opened up doors for the two of you to collaborate again on DC's Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration anthology, which comes out soon. What can you tell us about that?
Pichetshote: It's a four-page story about Ryan Choi's the Atom, with an appearance by Bruce Wayne, using the themes of the character to talk about one aspect of the contemporary Asian experience.
Tefenkgi: I'm really proud to be a part of this anthology! I'm deeply honored I was asked to draw with all those talented Asian creatives. To be a part of this celebration [and The Good Asian] pushes my confidence in my Asian heritage forward. It's a significant step, that has a particular echo, as an artist and a person.
The Good Asian #1 is out now and is a nine-issue miniseries published by Image Comics.