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Issue 132

Model Minority
by Shellie Zhang

Since 2009, Toronto’s small and efficacious Gendai Gallery has programmed exhibitions and events with the goal of cultivating dialogue through contemporary art from East Asian perspectives. In 2014, Gendai published Model Minority, a compilation of essays, articles, readings, ephemera and archival material compiled from the gallery’s year-long programming series under the same name. Chock full of contributions from Canadian artists, academics and writers, and the first Toronto-based East-Asian-centered arts publication I have come across, Model Minority bridges the void in defining Asian-Canadian dialogues against the larger and often overshadowing Asian-American discourses. In discussing Asian identity, statements of homogeneity are not uncommon due to the erasure and generalization of our histories. Model Minority dispels this homogeneousness by presenting an array of historical and contemporary strategies, models and voices of resistance– a testament to the power of one small but resilient unit, itself a defiance against the very paradigm for which it’s named.

In 2012, Gendai closed the doors of its workstation after an active year and reorganized to carry out its activities through a flexible nomadic structure, opting to engage the public through collaborations and partnerships with artists and organizations. Model Minority opens with an honest statement from the gallery’s team expressing a reflective period during which Gendai grappled with the fact that they are funded under the umbrella of state multiculturalism, while working to challenge the failures of multiculturalism, white supremacy and colonialism through their programming. By acknowledging their place in settler-colonial multiculturalism, Gendai hoped that its work could be “mobilized towards the cultivation of alliances, solidarity and support of subjects within, beyond and against the violent settler state.” As such, the book – co-published by Gendai and Guelph’s Publication Studio – is intended to function as a resource for all those interested in workshopping the model minority concept.

Often broadly ascribed to East Asians, the model minority myth is the stereotype that hard work in the face of adversity allows a marginalized group to achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success. The term is sometimes used to suggest there is no need for government intervention against discrimination. Historically and presently, it is used to protect institutionalized white supremacy and validate anti-Black racism and xenophobic beliefs. Model Minority tackles the model minority myth in four parts. First, reference texts provide a background to which the model minority archetype can be seen alongside landmark developments in Canadian history, such as the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II and the establishment of the Multiculturalism Act. Second, media clippings provide evidence of the dissemination of the model minority. When examined with a critical eye, these archival materials highlight how East Asians are consistently portrayed by the press as succeeding against all odds while the structures of oppression that persecute them go unaddressed.

Third, the commissioned texts and projects in Model Minority centre the publication strongly in a contemporary Canadian context. Tings Chak’s analysis of Chinese-Indigenous solidarities through oral histories looks to how Indigenous peoples and early Chinese migrants in British Columbia banded together in times of oppression on a colony “built on free land with half-priced labour.” Calling for more acknowledgement that Canada is a colonial state from Asian communities, Chak addresses the need for immigrant and migrant communities to “know where you came from, and know whose lands you now live on.” A transcript of Will Kwan’s video piece If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks like A Nail portrays subtle racism and micro-aggressions through an imagined encounter between a white real estate agent and a Chinese client, painting a clear picture of “Canadian friendliness,” while challenging the assumptions that arise. Alvis Choi reflects on the Chinatown Community Think Tank project with Gendai, which used space in Whippersnapper Gallery to survey Toronto’s Chinatown community regarding what they were looking for in a gallery. Through a meticulous and critical analysis of their own practice and conduct, Choi questions the strategies of engagement that they employed and shares the learned experience that social engaged art requires transparency outside of the gallery with the people a project seeks to engage.

Model Minority ends with a plethora of resources to consult. Originally, Model Minority was a program series of workshops and screenings that took place between 2013 and 2014. The book includes a detailed listing of Gendai’s programming, including the challenges, encounters and thinking that occurred behind the scenes. Finally, enclosed throughout the book are zine-like inserts – called “counter-models” – that refer to the work and life of artists and activists like Jesse Nishihata and The Asianadian. My only wish was that they had included more local collectives and groups such as the Project 40 Collective, Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture and Asians 4 Black Lives – Toronto. Perhaps for a future edition, fingers crossed.

Politically, Asian Americans and Canadians often occupy an incredibly dualistic position. Recent projects such as Letters for Black Lives Matter (a crowd-sourced resource of multilingual letters aimed at creating a space for and dialogue about racial justice, police violence and anti-Blackness in our families and communities) attempt to bridge generational and language gaps in an effort to preach intersectional support and solidary. Model Minority is a toolkit and foundational resource for beginning to tackle issues of where Asian-identified folks can stand – how we can navigate the precarious terrain of our own identities while fighting for the liberation of all marginalized groups and voices. Without having to elaborate on why these issues are important and valid, as many discussions about social justice sometimes can fall prey to, Model Minority starts on the path of mobilizing and acting.

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