Conference to Examine Asianness in WWII America

May 1 event includes curatorial tour of photographic exhibition documenting life in Manzanar

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The inaugural Wong Forum will examine how World War II shaped the way Americans viewed Asian identities on the battlefield and the home front.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – With the entry of the United States into World War II, Americans were suddenly asked to mark distinctions of Asian race and identity. This required a shift from longstanding stereotypes that combined all East Asian cultures under the umbrella of the “yellow peril” to a more complicated understanding of Chinese, Filipinos and others as wartime allies, and Japanese as enemies. The ensuing dialog shaped how the nation viewed Asian identities on the battlefield and also on the home front, where Asian American immigrants and citizens represented an important component of the population.

A UC Riverside symposium, “Allies, Enemies, and Citizens: Figuring Asianness in World War II America,” will explore those issues on Friday, May 1, at UCR ARTSblock, 3834 Main St., Riverside. A curatorial tour of the exhibition “Interrogating Manzanar: Photography, Justice, and the Japanese American Internment” in the morning and the afternoon conference are free and open to the public.

The symposium is the inaugural event in The Wong Forum on Art and the Immigrant Experience series, named for the late Voy Wong and Fay Hing Lee Wong, Chinese immigrants and Riverside restaurateurs. The Wongs’ gift to the UCR Department of Art History created an endowment more than a decade ago and now supports the forum that bears their name.

“The Wongs were a founding immigrant family of Riverside, and it is appropriate that the inaugural forum take up an issue that was central to their personal experience, and to Asian Americans generally,” said Jason Weems, associate professor of art history and organizer of the symposium. He also is co-curator of the exhibition at the California Museum of Photography documenting the physical, cultural, and psychological conditions of life in Manzanar, a relocation camp on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada mountain range where more than 11,000 Japanese Americans were sent during the war.

The May 1 event begins at 10 a.m. with a curatorial tour and discussion of the Manzanar exhibition, which features the work of four leading American photographers — Ansel Adams, Clem Albers, Dorothea Lange, and Tōyō Miyatake.

The symposium is scheduled from 1 to 5 p.m. and will include presentations by: Gordon H. Chang, professor of history and Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University, “Asian Americans, Race and War: Visualizing the Indeterminate”; Amy Lyford, professor of art history at Occidental College, “Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism and the Politics of Japanese American Internment”; Shipu Wang, associate professor of art history and visual culture, UC Merced, “Alien at Home: Making Sense of the Japanese American Internment through Art”; and K. Scott Wong, James Phinney Baxter III Professor of History and Public Affairs, Williams College (Williamstown, Mass.), “World War II and the Transformation of Chinese America.”

Weems said the symposium and exhibition “remind us that it is a significant thing to deprive people of their freedom and to make judgments about them – especially if based on race and cultural heritage – in the heat of conflict situations. We hope that people who attend the forum and see this exhibition take away a more humanized sense of what it means to make decisions about the loyalty and freedom of fellow citizens in times of war. There are lessons to be learned from history about who we are, who we aspire to be, and what we value.”

The Wong Forum is funded by the Voy and Fay Wong Endowment, with in-kind support provided by UCR ARTSblock and the UCR/California Museum of Photography.

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Jason Weems

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