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Mixed-Race Asians Find Pride as Hapas

A new book and an art exhibit in L.A. reflect an evolution in perceptions of a multiracial group historically made to feel like outsiders.

June 11, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

In Chinese restaurants, he was the kid who was always given the fork. In his largely white Covina public schools, he was the one beaten up and 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 routinely stigmatized.

But 41 years later, as interracial marriages have exponentially increased, Fulbeck is now celebrated as one of the nation's leading artists focused on work about mixed-race Asians, known as "hapas." He recently published a book on hapa identity, "Part Asian 100% Hapa," and this weekend opened a related photographic exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

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

"Before, people would look at you like you were a science experiment," said Fulbeck, a lanky Fontana native who sports a surfer's tan and a waist-up Japanese tattoo.

"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% 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 websites, 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 forward to Fulbeck's book.

One international newsmagazine proclaimed Eurasians "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 just a bit.

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 UC Santa Barbara's art department.

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.

One parent, for instance, recently wrote for advice about his Korean Mexican child, who had suffered so much social rejection at school that he joined a Cambodian gang.

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 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.

Victoria Namkung, 29, a Brentwood writer of Korean, Jewish and Irish descent, still 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, some Koreans have told her she's not Korean because she doesn't speak the language or go to a Christian church. And although Jews have assured her she's Jewish, Namkung has figured out her own identity: "100% hapa, my whole mom's side and my whole dad's side."

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