Yellow Pearl

“I am a yellow pearl
You are a yellow pearl
We are the yellow pearl
And we are half the world…we are half the world…”
Iijima/Miyamoto, 1970

It began with a handful of songs and a circle of activists and artists in the dark bowels of a New York Chinatown cellar we called BASEMENT WORKSHOP. It was the place that YELLOW PEARL was birthed, a collection of poems, graphics, and songs, stacked in a yellow box the size of a record album (33rpm) that would disintegrate over time. (now a collector’s item) That box contained the fury and joy of a young generation finding its voice for the first time. We were defining ourselves…we were Asian American…and we were a movement. Part of the fun of making YP and being in the movement was there were no roadmaps or recipes, we were creating as we went along. And we were definitely thinking outside that box, the system that had discriminated against us, labeled and kept us minorities. So when we sang, “we are half the world, we are half the world” back in the day, it was a declaration of liberation!

Now, almost 40 years later, Charlie Chin and I have returned to New York City, to sing for a reunion of Basement Workshop. It was held in the lofty digs of the Asian Pacific American Institute at NYU. Time has elevated our status. We’re surrounded by familiar faces, the other ‘yellow pearls’, who now are gray hairs, like us, but still look very cool. They’re gathered with some of their children and even Charlie’s feisty mother, staff and students who have this center because of the amazing community work that’s been done over the last 40 years in NYC and beyond…beginng in that dingy BASEMENT WORKSHOP.

“and I see us growing stronger
building something new, building something new
and I knew, I knew there was something different about me today….”

After our music set, APA Institute’s director Jack Tchen, brought up some of the folks whose revolutionary ripples flowed up from that ‘basement’. Fay Chiang poet, and spiritual mother of Project Reach, which serves a mix of communities in the lower Eastside; Rocky Chin, board member of Asian American Theater Alliance; Bob Hsiang and Corky Lee celebrated photographers whose images document our movement; Henry Chang reading from his beautifully written Chinatown mystery novels; Larry Hama, creator of GI Joe comics (yes, his graphics are in YP), remembering Alex Chin, our Chinese American Otis Redding, who created the iconic emblem of Yellow Pearl; Tomie Arai, artist who’s artwork peppers NY including at the new Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), designed by Maya Lin; and Takashi Yanagida and Liz Young whose work ripples to the west coast and even internationally.

Jack Tchen wants to collect and document what has been done for the next generations to see what they are connected to. We can’t give them a recipe or a road map. Their challenges are different than ours were. But we ‘yellow pearls’ planted our seed as an anchor for those who continue to venture out side their box.

A next generation musician Taiyo Na, played with us that day. He’s a spoken word artist who wields a guitar and soulful singing voice. I always miss Chris, who was traditionally on my left and Charlie on my right. But now I hear Taiyo. Together we sang one of Chris’ songs, “War of the Flea.” I was amazed how it stands up through these 40 years with this youngblood’s voice. It made me know our ideas of community and social change, would continue to be sung in new ways through new voices, for a new day.

“Song of the night, war of the flea
Deep inside the jungle you will find me…”
Chris Iijima

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