They stood shoulder to shoulder on the main corridor of campus, all 50 or so dressed in black, and that was what stopped Mike Murase in his tracks.
He had never seen so many African-American students on UCLA’s mostly-white campus before, not together, not like this. They appeared to be demonstrating, their expressions filled with anger and sorrow. Murase recognized a few of his friends in the crowd and walked over. What were they all doing standing around? They told him they were mourning; Malcolm X had just been assassinated. Murase had never heard the name, but he was impressed that one person’s death could move so many. “Who is Malcolm X?” he asked.
It was February of 1965. The Civil Rights Act was seven months old. Congress stood on the verge of sending the first deployment of American troops into Vietnam. Martin Luther King, Jr. was about to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest voting restrictions on African-Americans. Murase was a Japanese-American college freshman studying to become an engineer. That afternoon, seeing those black students in mourning, sparked something in him.
Murase read Malcolm X’s autobiography, published a few months after his murder, and put it down feeling like it was one of the best books he ever read. He heard the Black Panthers’ Eldridge Cleaver speak at UCLA. He read Carlos Bulosan’s 1946 book America Is In the Heart, which depicted the life of Filipino migrant laborers in California. He watched the Vietnam War and its casualties play out on television, unable to understand why the United States was caught up in a war 5,000 miles away. He wondered why he didn’t hear more about the men, women, and children in Vietnam who were also dying—men, women, and children who looked a lot like him. As the historic sights and sounds of black liberation, free speech, and anti-war movements swirled around him, Murase began to wonder where, exactly, he fit in.
At UCLA, Murase met other students who were wondering the same. Many of them were, like him, immigrants or descendants of immigrants, mostly from Japan, China, and the Philippines. (The 1965 immigration reform that passed as part of civil rights legislation abolished quotas that previously restricted non-Northern European immigration, but it would still be decades before record numbers of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and other non-Western countries would arrive.) Many of them grew up in the predominantly working-class Crenshaw district of south central Los Angeles, where thousands of Japanese-American families returning from internment camps settled among African-American neighbors.
Murase and other Asian-American students at UCLA were a minority in a country where being American meant being black or white. Growing up, friends and acquaintances asked them which they were, because they were confused that they didn’t look like either. They seldom saw faces like theirs in the textbooks they read in school, not in the Founding Fathers or the westward pioneers, except maybe the one brief mention of Chinese laborers who in the 1800s built the first railroads connecting the San Francisco Bay to the Missouri River. As historian Karen Ishizuka put it her 2016 book, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, “we too became homesick for a place to call home.”
Their families tried hard to blend in, to assimilate and keep their head down, so as to avert the hate of the people who called them “Orientals,” “dirty Japs,” “ching chong China men,” “Chinks,” “gooks.” Many of the adults Murase knew growing up worked as gardeners, farmers, store clerks, and in the garment factories. They were not yet “Asian-American”—the concept did not exist then. It would be up to Murase’s generation to invent it, claim it, assert it, and fight for it over and over in the decade to come.
Three years after Malcolm X’s death, in the spring of 1968, Murase, then a college senior, and his friends began to hear about groups of students of color protesting at their campuses in northern California. At San Francisco State University, one group of black, Chinese, Mexican, Filipino, and Native American students known as the Third World Liberation Front, had organized sit-ins across campus, demanding that the university establish new departments devoted to ethnic studies, to hire more non-white faculty, and to accept more non-white students. The student strike lasted nearly five months, becoming the longest in US history, and eventually spreading to Berkeley and New York.
Around this time, newsletters started appearing at college campuses across California, from a new student group at UC Berkeley called the Asian American Political Alliance. “We believe,” one of them read, “that the American society is historically racist and one which has systemically employed social discrimination and economic imperialism, both domestically and internationally, exploiting all non-white people in the process of building up their affluent society.”
Murase and dozens of other students approached UCLA administrators about forming its own ethnic studies department. The department would hire faculty and offer courses on black, Mexican, Asian, and Native American history and anthropology. The university said no but granted permission for the students to establish informal study centers without faculty or courses and the black and Mexican-American students soon received funding from the university to start their own publications on campus. Murase and his Asian-American friends asked administrators for funding to start one of their own. They argued that the budding Asian-American community needed a forum for creative expression and discussing the social and political issues affecting them. The administrators replied that they would only grant funding if they could have final editorial say.
Murase and four friends—fellow UCLA students Dinora Gil, Laura Ho, Tracy Okida, and Colin Watanabe—decided to start the newspaper on their own. Each student kicked in $100 for ink and printing supplies, and filled four pages with essays and poems and illustrations. They called the paper Gidra—Tracy, a third-generation Japanese American, made up the name one day while thinking about King Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon-caterpillar known as one of Godzilla’s archenemies.
The first issue of Gidra was released in April 1969. On the cover, a sketch of five Asian children peering through a barbed-wire fence ran alongside an essay introducing the Third World Liberation Front, an organization focused on “the eradication of institutional racism,” and an article criticizing the sudden firing of Thomas Noguchi, the Japanese-American Los Angeles county coroner known for performing high-profile autopsies, including that of Marilyn Monroe and Robert F. Kennedy. LA county supervisors had accused Noguchi of using excessive amounts of drugs and needing psychiatric care, among nearly 60 other charges that United Press International called “some of the most bizarre ever lodged against a public official.” Other Japanese-American newspapers, Gidra argued, had “chosen to ignore the racial issue” in Noguchi’s case. “But how can one ignore it when it appears to permeate the entire system?” A county commission later reinstated Noguchi after finding insufficient evidence to support the supervisors’ charges.
Another article denounced “yellow prostitution” and the subjugation of Asian women in particular: “It is not enough that we ‘kow tow’ to the Yellow male ego, but we must do this by aping the Madison Avenue and Hollywood version of White femininity.” An essay titled “Yellow Power!” opened with a 1857 quote by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass—“Power concedes nothing without a demand”—before launching into the story of a 500-person mob that hanged at least 17 Chinese men, women, and children in Los Angeles in 1871, an incident that some describe as the largest mass lynching in American history. “Asian American history is filled with innumerable racist incidents,” the essay, written by Larry Kubota, said. “Looking back into the past, it is incredible that we have taken so long to confront this problem of racism. We are relegated to second-class citizenship, and adding insult upon injury, we are told to be thankful for our blessings…Today, however, is the dawn of a new era.”
Murase and the Gidra staff handed out the first copies to students on UCLA’s campus and at local community meetings, marches, and speeches. Friends handed out more copies at nearby campuses, including Cal State Long Beach, USC, and Occidental. Within months, letters from readers came pouring in to the staff. “I feel I want to be a part of the Gidra,” one woman wrote. “After I have slowly realized that life is and will be different if you are not Caucasian middle-class type, I began to see frustration because no one else admits or acknowledges it. All of the oriental people I know seem intent on carrying out their life pretending that daily inequalities do not exist…How can you discover your identity if no one seems to accept reality. Are discussions possible? Are answers possible?”
Gidra repulsed some people, like Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, the San Francisco State University president who famously climbed on top of a sound truck during one of the 1968 student rallies for Ethnic Studies and tried to unplug the speakers. A few weeks after the first issue of Gidra circulated, Hayakawa reportedly held a copy in his hand while speaking to 600 people at Disneyland during an annual meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League. The JACL was an influential and controversial advocacy group that had helped Japanese-American veterans fight for citizenship after World War I, but later sided with the FBI during World War II internment. According to an article about his speech, Hayakawa called Gidra the work of a sansei (third-generation Japanese American) “child,” adding that it was “hard to imagine more errant nonsense.” (He was also quoted as saying that young people fighting racism were “fighting semantic ghost fictions made by the process of abstraction,” and that “the Sansei should not be imitating the Negro.”)
A July 1969 letter from a “happy White mother” to Gidra read, “Your all a bunch of hand outs you want your cake and eat it to, without the white man youd all be one hell of a mess…You can’t live without us and you no it, thats why you’re all angry you all feel inferior shame on you that your so little that you have to be so full of pity for yourself I should not want to be anything but white because Im proud of it. Sorry your not proud of your nationality.”
Provocative as it was, Gidra gave young Asian-Americans “a sense of belonging at a time when we really had not seen ourselves in the media, in television, or magazines,” Ishizuka, the historian, told me. “So many of us didn’t know there were others who had the same hopes and fears. It was a lifeline for me.” Gidra became a DIY textbook, a capsule of what Asian-Americans were seeing and thinking at the time. Activists flew in from New York and other cities to pick up copies of Gidra and other centerpieces of the budding Asian-American movement so that they could use them as teaching materials back home. “I had started an Asian-American studies course at Hunter College and our friends were pushing for a department at City College, but we had no curriculum,” artist and activist Fay Chiang said in an interview with Ishizuka. “So I was just collecting all the mimeograph sheets and ditto sheets I could get my hands on.”
By the paper’s ninth issue, Murase and the rest of the Gidra team were printing between 7,000 to 8,000 copies a month. (Gidra averaged a monthly circulation of 3,000.) Its pages burst with stories, poems, cartoons, photos, and illustrations, alongside reports on local activism and historical accounts of racism and abuse in the Asian immigrant experience. The minds of twentysomething Asian-Americans splashed across its pages, Gidra became “a Petri dish for growing oppositional consciousness,” Ishizuka said, capturing “in real time the passions and issues that were affecting people on the ground as it was happening.”
What started with a handful of staff quickly multiplied. In the next five years, more than 200 people would volunteer to produce the paper from month to month, among them students, community organizers, Vietnam veterans, and people who served time in juvenile detention or state prison. One of Gidra’s closest collaborators was Yellow Brotherhood, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to helping Asian-American youth through issues like gang participation, drug abuse, depression, and suicide. Most of the magazine staff were born and raised in Los Angeles, but before long, volunteers arrived from as far as New York and Toronto. “The beauty of us coming together was that we came from such different backgrounds and personalities,” Murase tells me, “but somehow because we had Gidra in common we were friends.”
Murase remembers the buzz of late nights and sleep deprivation. “People would drop by and hangout for hours,” he says. “A lot of times we stayed up until three, four, five in the morning, doing work, but also talking and joking around with each other.” Gidra’s office, which, after the first few issues moved off campus and into a strip mall in Crenshaw, smelled of burritos and Chinese take out. Motown played on the speakers. Chewed-up sunflower seeds scattered over newspapers on the desks and floor. Sometimes there were beach parties or bowling nights, but mostly Gidra staffers were learning, in teach-ins and study circles and protests, about the history of their elders, about capitalism and Marxism and Maoism, about the Soviet Union and the United States’s proxy wars, and about the greed for resources that drew them into such wars. “All of us were learning so much, so fast,” Murase says. “There was a sense of urgency, and our commitment was a 24-7 commitment. It wasn’t like the rest of the time life goes on.”
As a child, Murase lived in an idyllic town in the Okayama prefecture, about 110 miles northeast of Hiroshima. He was born in 1947, after the Second World War had ended, but throughout his childhood he was reminded of it often. Murase’s parents sometimes took him and his older sister on train rides to see Hiroshima—what remained, what was destroyed, and the peace monuments erected in its place. In elementary school, Murase heard his teachers lecture about why war was bad and why peace was good.
Murase’s father was a kibei nisei—he was born in Arizona to Japanese immigrants but moved back to Japan when he was still a child. Murase imagined that his father had a good life in America, because he often talked of going back. Before Murase and his family left Japan for Los Angeles in 1956, his mother bought him two children’s books about America. One told the story of Abraham Lincoln; the other, a book about all-American families, depicted fathers mowing lawns and mothers at kitchen sinks. Everyone in the images was white. When Murase arrived on the shores of San Francisco, the nine-year-old noticed that all the dock workers were black, and all the customs officers were white. Maybe he had misread the story of Abraham Lincoln, he thought. Maybe there were still slaves here.
They were fleeting curiosities then, but as Murase grew older and the war ramped up in Vietnam, these early memories formed the basis of his opposition against the war. By the time Gidra started in 1969, roughly one out of every two Americans knew someone who had been killed or wounded in Vietnam. Murase and hundreds of other Asian-Americans created their own presence at anti-war marches, holding up signs that read “Makibaka!” (“struggle” in Tagalog), “Stop killing our Asian sisters!” and “Remember Manzanar!” referring to one of the 10 internment camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. In Gidra, writer Charles W. Cheng wrote, “Let us not forget that what occurred in Hiroshima is now occurring in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia…We are gooks in the eyes of White Americans.”
For Murase and other young Asian-Americans, Vietnam became ammunition for their war against racism. Gidra reflected their anti-war sentiments, including one cover illustration where an Asian-American soldier stands between his white sergeant and a Vietnamese woman holding a rifle and is ordered to, “Kill that gook, you gook!” They reported on Asian-American soldiers killed or wounded in the line of fire by white American soldiers who mistook them for the enemy. “A former member of the 29th Brigade who had been in Vietnam less than a month was killed there May 11,” one Gidra story stated. “He was 20-year-old Specialist Fourth Clifford Taira. The Army said he was killed when hit by gunfire aimed at the yellow-skinned enemy below from an American helicopter…He was the 192nd Hawaii soldier to die in the war.”
Evelyn Yoshimura, one of Gidra’s longstanding editors, remembers her Asian-American military friends coming back and recounting stories from the war. Drill sergeants made them stand before fellow recruits while explaining this is “what a gook looks like.” As Vietnam veteran Mike Nakayama recalled in one Gidra essay, “Name-calling by drill instructors presented one form of racism, used to single out Third World brothers from the rest of the company…The Asian brothers found themselves being called gook, charlie chan, slant-eyes, etc., which continued after training.” After getting wounded during combat, Nakayama, who had a Bronze Star, testified that he watched medics ignore him while treating others. When he finally got their attention, a medic said, “Oh, you can speak English. We thought you were a gook.”
“We had come of age during the Vietnam War,” Ishizuka wrote in her book about the emergence of an Asian-American identity in the 1960s. “An unholy alliance of racism and imperialism, like nothing before or since, the war united Asians in America who, regardless of our various ethnicities, looked more enemy than American.”
Because the war had such a unique and galvanizing effect on Asian-Americans, Ishizuka wrote, its end in 1975 “had a correspondingly deflating impact” on their fight against US racism at home and abroad. Gradually, the anti-Vietnam War marches came to an end. Much of the solidarity that once brought disparate groups together during the war started to give way to internal power struggles and disagreements that included ostracizing LGBT activists.
The 200-plus volunteers who cycled through Gidra’s office over its five-year run experienced their own growing pains at the same time they were trying to keep up with demanding monthly production cycles. “We struggled through a lot of things in our collective—sexism, chauvinism, how we talked to each other,” Murase told me. Gidra prided itself on running on a non-hierarchy where each member theoretically had equal authority, but the flat structure also meant meetings ran long and disagreements festered without resolution. And many of those who came to Gidra eventually left, moving to another city or taking a full-time job in pursuit of their next chapter. “We shared in adversity and in joy,” Murase wrote in his final essay in Gidra. “That’s what kept the group together for so long.”
Murase graduated from UCLA a year into Gidra’s run—he continued enrolling in classes to avoid the draft until he had so many units that the university asked him to leave. He continued working on Gidra while going to film school at UCLA and then law school at USC, living at home and working odd jobs in between—as a gardener, at gas stations, and in the library stacks. Starting in 1969, he began teaching some of the first classes on Asian-American studies at UCLA and later at Cal State Long Beach.
In Gidra’s 60th and final issue, published in April 1974, Murase reflected back on the evolution of the paper and the people behind it: “We have learned slowly, and sometimes painfully, to do things that had been totally alien to us before, to become aware of ourselves and others, and to look at the conditions around us in ways very different from the traditional view. We were called upon to do things that made us feel uncomfortable at first: participating in marches and demonstrations, speaking before large audiences, appearing on radio and television programs, selling the paper, and sharing with each other some of our deepest feelings and most private thoughts…what needs remembering now is the richness and vitality of this total experience called Gidra, which is much more than just a newspaper.”
Over the decades, Gidra largely faded into obscurity, as did the sense of belonging it gave to Murase and his peers. Inevitably, new generations of Asian-Americans grew up and new waves of Asian immigrants arrived. Today Asian-Americans make up the fastest-growing group of the country’s population, more diverse than ever in the countries they descend from and the languages they speak.
And yet Asian-Americans remain among the country’s most underrepresented and misunderstood: they are still mocked on national television; directors still cast white faces in films portraying their stories; the “model minority” myth still haunts and hurts them. As sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield points out, research shows that the stereotype can deter Asian-American high school students from seeking help when they’re struggling in school, pressure Asian-Americans to downplay incidents of racial harassment, and reinforce the misperception that Asian-Americans are too weak or passive to work in high-ranking jobs. So many Asian-Americans today still feel what Murase and his peers felt when they were young and searching: like foreigners in their homeland.
“Asians are the loneliest Americans,” writer Jay Caspian Kang wrote last summer in a New York Times Magazine story about a death and the search for identity in an Asian-American college fraternity. There is no solidarity, in Kang’s opinion, just a “cartoonish and blurry” sense of racial belonging. “Asian pride is a laughable concept to most Americans… A common past can be accessed only through dusty, dug-up things: the murder of Vincent Chin, Korematsu v. United States, the Bataan Death March and the illusion that we are going through all these things together.”
Kang’s story struck a chord. “Am fucking eviscerated,” NPR journalist Kat Chow tweeted. Many Asian-Americans shared similar reactions, while others found Kang’s characterization of modern Asian-American identity to be unfair. “I disagree,” Jenn Fang, who runs the blog Reappropriate.co, wrote. “For nearly 150 years, the strength and meaningfulness of Asian American identity has served as a central theme of our activism…Of course, I think that many young Asian Americans aren’t aware of our long and storied Movement history, and so they feel disconnected. But that is an issue of lack of access to resources to teach our political history, not a sign that As Am identity innately lacks meaning.” Fang added: “Asian American identity and history is much more than the trope-ish E Asian 1980’s immigrant narrative presented. That is the story of the young men in the essay, but that is not the story of all or even most Asian Americans. We are a diverse bunch.”
Murase is now in his 70s, and he still lives and works in Los Angeles, where he oversees community programs at the Little Tokyo Service Center—a local organization devoted to helping elderly and low-income immigrant families. He and others who made up Gidra’s core staff still get together at dinners and demonstrations. They most recently joined hundreds of thousands of others in last month’s Women’s March in Los Angeles. “We’re like 50 years older now,” he says. “The conditions are very different for young people to get involved in the same way we did.” Young Americans today—Asian or otherwise—face tougher competition in college admissions and job placement than his generation did, for example. And while they have tools that didn’t exist in his day—cell phones, email, social media—Murase senses that young activists today also face a more conservative political climate. “You’re bucking a much stronger opposition.”
Still, Murase remains optimistic. He sees glimpses in pop culture of the irreverence and raw emotions that once defined Gidra. They’re in Twitter hashtags like #NotYourAsianSidekick and #Asians4BlackLives, in blogs like Angry Asian Man, in magazines like Hyphen, Slant’d, and Banana. Between 1999 and 2001, there was even a short-lived attempt to revive Gidra by UCLA students, until they, too, moved on. Murase has noticed a renewed interest in Gidra in recent years, from journalists and museum curators and professors across the country who have asked him to speak about the paper and the era that shaped it. “Each generation steps up in their own way,” Murase says. “But they also have to figure out, what is their path?”
For Asian-Americans past and present, the path often begins with what Ishizuka calls “historical recovery.” Without an understanding of what came before us, she writes, “every generation of activists thinks it is the first. We did.” Even as they fought to forge their identity in the ‘60s, she adds, “we did not realize that early Asians in America had already put our thoughts into words.” Ishizuka came to understand this when she learned of the Chinese immigrants who were held at Angel Island between the 1910s and 1940s upon arriving in the San Francisco Bay—at least three decades before she would march in the streets against the Vietnam War and pick up her first copy of Gidra. “Confined there for months, our soon-to-be grandparents and great-grandparents carved and ink-brushed more than 135 poems on the walls that bear witness to their plight.” One of them read: