“Distance, homelessness, anonymity, and insignificance are
all part of the Internet literary voice, and we welcome them.”
—YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES,
“Distance, Homelessness, Anonymity, and Insignificance”
In November 2020, Danielle Wong and I had the opportunity to commission YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES (YHCHI) to produce two artworks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic relating to themes of Asian racialization, vulnerability, and Canadian migration histories. Formed in 1999 as a Seoul-based web art group consisting of Marc Voge and Young-Hae Chang, their artistic practice is characterized by unique text-based animation synchronized to an original musical score, presented in multiple languages. In the commissioned artwork CHARLIE CHAN AND THE YELLOW PERIL (2020), an Italian-dubbed version of the American film Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1939) is used as a filmic background—the images reappropriated and decoded so that divergent signifiers and narratives flicker and surface. The reworked film exposes an alternative interpretation of the Italian-dubbed American movie and reimagines Charlie Chan, a historically hackneyed stereotypical character created by Earl Derr Biggers in his novels about a Chinese American detective, for the artists’ own contemporary art distribution purposes.
The plot of CHARLIE CHAN AND THE YELLOW PERIL follows a young man immigrating to Vancouver, BC, with the goal of finding fortune, marrying a white woman, and procreating mixed-race children. The primary narrative of the artwork takes place on a boat, with the principal story involving a love triangle with two white women seemingly falling in love with Chan’s Asianness (humorously represented by his smooth, hairless body) on the boat. This irks the white men who are also on the ship and who ostensibly cannot compete with his defined otherness.
Figure 1. YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES, still from CHARLIE CHAN AND THE YELLOW PERIL, 2020, original text and music soundtrack, courtesy of the artists.*
Plucking cultural capital from iconic films, literature, and their own art canon, YHCHI transforms the original Charlie Chan in Honolulu filmic sequence into an alternative rhizomatic narrative that can be thought of in terms of what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have described in Franz Kafka’s work as a “castle with multiple entrances” containing “innumerable main doors and side doors that innumerable guards watch over” and “entrances and exits without doors” (3). In this short reflection, I read CHARLIE CHAN AND THE YELLOW PERIL as a minoritarian discourse, specifically as a musical counterpoint to the racist and anti-immigrant narratives that have been made more mainstream in Eurocentric colonial societies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari introduce the term “minor literature” to theorize the relationship between language and power, and the possibility of subversive forms of enunciation that contest domination. Engaging with Deleuze and Guattari, I suggest that the minor key in CHARLIE CHAN becomes a part of a deterritorialized soundscape—one in which references are continually being destabilized or rerouted.1 Of particular note in all of YHCHI’s artworks is the music that accompanies the text. The artists have mischievously refused to define the jazz-like harmonic accompaniment to their visuals as music, and instead refer to it as sounds, disavowing the claim of being musicians. However, one cannot help but be seduced by the first bass note heard in CHARLIE CHAN AND THE YELLOW PERIL—a pure, intense, sonorous material in a minor key vibration that sonically fragments the piece and, through disjuncture, opens up the possibility of new significations.2 That deterritorialized musical sound, a cry that escapes signification—a composition, song, words—is sonority that ruptures in order to break away from a chain that is still all too signifying, a sounding note in the minor key (Deleuze and Guattari 6). This minor key is the thesis and genesis of YHCHI’s artworks that pursue alternative narratives that are hidden in our cultural systems. CHARLIE CHAN destabilizes conventional narratives about Chinese migration to North America by portraying the character of Charlie not only as vulnerable and othered, but also as sexually desirable. This figuration reveals how discourses of cultural and physical contagion that are often tied to the figure of the diseased foreigner—narratives that have re-emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic— are part of historical anxieties about miscegenation and cross-racial intimacy.3
N. Katherine Hayles reminds us that in electronic literature and on the World Wide Web, digital textuality is not composed of durable, stable marks inscribed on the page, but rather of what she defines as “flickering signifiers” that involve “the fascinating and troubling coupling of language and machine” (35). The relationship between screenic text and computer code in YHCHI’s artwork has been discussed by Jessica Pressman as representing a metaphor for the translated acts of compilation and transformation that happen beneath the screen. The flickering signifiers of CHARLIE CHAN are found not only in the artists’ flashing poetic text set to a rhythmic bass, but also in the medium of digital inscription brought to us on our own personal screens that mediate the message. The artists interrogate the original film and subject matter in the context of a racialized pandemic with a nascent identity refigured through media technologies and filtered in a way such that race and racism are electrically charged through the flashing words onscreen. The mediation between reality and screenic identity has particular significance during COVID-19, as society adapts to more profound isolation under social distancing and is increasingly dependent upon mediated, screenic realities for information, community, and storytelling.
The contrapuntal story elides onscreen, allowing the trespassing of alternative storylines to emerge from the film’s plot. CHARLIE CHAN repositions the original film in a contemporary, digital milieu to demand a reassessment of Asian representations in film and, in particular, of the figure of the Asian man, whose masculinity is identified, and also misidentified, in the film. Charlie is motivated by his desire to be flawless in his performance, adopting various identities such as the potential Chinese Canadian husband and the immigrant, who aspires to marry a white Canadian woman in order to put into relief social and national anxieties around Chinese contagion and the future of biracial children in Vancouver. These desires are conveyed in the short story as a vehicle towards “the good life,” ultimately playing to the film’s denouement in the epilogue and credits that wrap up all of the characters’ lives in a speedy coda, yet continue to gesture towards the endless possibilities of additional elongated narratives. The artwork repositions broad themes of stereotypes, masculinity, vulnerability, and aesthetic histories by reminding us that computers, their operations and codes, and the ways in which they are discussed are never separate from but always embedded in human contexts, cultures, and constellations of power.
1 Here I am referring to Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, in which Deleuze and Guattari delve into minor literature, not simply as it relates to marginalized literature, but also by playfully referencing the minor key in music.
2 A comparable example might be the rap song “Shook Ones, Pt. II” (1995) by rap duo Mobb Deep, a song about territorial gang warfare and early death. The lyrics in verse one, “Your simple words just don’t move me / You’re minor, we’re major / You’re all up in the game and don’t deserve to be a player,” are accompanied by the harmony shifting from major to minor key.
3 For more on how epidemics are inherently racialized, see Briggs.
Briggs, Charles L. Stories in the Time of Cholera: Racial Profiling during a Medical Nightmare. U of California P, 2003.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan, U of Minnesota P, 1986.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. U of Chicago P, 1999.
Mobb Deep. “Shook Ones, Pt. II.” The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995.
Pressman, Jessica. “Reading the Code between Words: The Role of Translation in
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’s Nippon.” Dichtung Digital, 2007, dichtung-digital.
de/2007/Pressman/Pressman.htm. Accessed 30 Nov. 2020.
YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES. CHARLIE CHAN AND THE
YELLOW PERIL. Vimeo, uploaded by Vancouver Art Gallery, 12 Nov. 2020, vimeo.
com/479122701. Accessed 14 June 2021.
—. “‘Distance, Homelessness, Anonymity, and Insignificance’: An Interview with
YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES.” Interview by Thom Swiss, 2002.
Conifer, 15 May 2017, conifer.rhizome.org/ariadean/young-hae-chang-heavyindustries/
feature/younghae/interview.html. Accessed 30 Nov. 2020.
*Note: Images have been removed due to publishing restrictions. See full issue to view.
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