Exploring Race and Identity, Plus Minneapolis's Lost Metropolitan Building
It's Minnesota Alumni's quarterly books roundup.
Growing up Asian American in Minnesota isn’t easy, and it was especially alienating for Wing Young Huie (B.A. ’79), raised in lily-white Duluth in the 1960s and ’70s.
The only sibling of six born in the United States, Huie grew up relating more easily to American popular culture—TV, basketball, pop music—than to the traditional Chinese world of his mother, who never learned English.
Huie’s father, Joe Huie, ran a successful eponymous Duluth restaurant for more than 20 years. All six kids worked there, though as the youngest, Wing Young was granted more freedom, and ultimately grew up to become an artist—an important Twin Cities photographer.
As he grew older, Huie’s identity struggles became more pronounced, struggles he wrestles with in his book Chinese-ness (Minnesota Historical Society Press). In the prologue, speaking of the pop culture images that formed him, he writes, “The everyday realities of my family and myself were seldom reflected in that visual landscape, to the point that it caused my own parents to seem foreign and exotic, while I became a stranger and a riddle to myself.”
Traveling to China for the first time in 2010, he says, only compounded the confusion. Like so many Asian Americans before him, Huie felt foreign in the country of his parents’ birth.
This book is his beautiful attempt to explore, though photography and prose, how “Chinese-ness collides with Minnesota-ness and American-ness” for him and the other Chinese Americans featured within its pages. In the section “Other Lives,” he includes portraits and profiles of a wide variety of Chinese Americans, mostly Minnesotans, in which they discuss how they relate to their ethnic heritage.
In the section “Because You Are Chinese,” Huie looks at such disparate groups as the students in Yinghua Academy, a St. Paul Chinese immersion school increasingly filled with non-Chinese; the Philadelphia Suns, an all-Chinese amateur basketball team; and young Chinese adoptees raised by white parents.
Huie also includes a fascinating section called “Motherland,” in which he photographs Chinese men—a photo studio owner, a barber’s customer, and a passenger at the Guangzhou Railway Station, among others—then photographs himself wearing their clothes and standing in the midst of their lives.
Toward the end is a particularly moving exploration of the descendants of “paper sons and daughters,” Chinese immigrants who took on false identities in order to move to the United States. These paper children pretended to have relatives living in the U.S. as citizens—the only way they could gain entry during six decades of the Chinese Exclusion Act, repealed in 1943.
For many years, the children of “paper sons” Harry Chin, who worked in the downtown Minneapolis institution Nankin Cafe, and Fred Moy, who with his wife owned and ran Hoe Kow Chow Mein in North Minneapolis, knew very little of their fathers’ histories. The pride the children and grandchildren of Chin and Moy (who were brothers) take in the life stories of their brave forbears shines through in Huie’s intimate words and photographs.
As the mother of two young adults born in China, I found Chinese-ness to be a vital addition to the identity exploration literature written by Asian Americans.
However, I suspect this book will be of great value not just to Chinese Americans and their families, but to anyone interested in learning more about the meanings of identity and the nature of belonging, especially what Huie calls “the stuff that falls into the cracks or resides in the back of the mind.”
And . . . the roundup
Has any Minneapolis structure been more keenly mourned than the Metropolitan Building? This 1890 office tower, known for its dazzling 12-story iron and glass court, succumbed to the urban renewal wrecking ball in 1961, despite the passionate protests of local historic preservationists. In Metropolitan Dreams: The Scandalous Rise and Stunning Fall of a Minneapolis Masterpiece (University of Minnesota Press), architectural writer Larry Millett does a thorough job of conveying the beauty and uniqueness of this lost landmark, and its role in helping ignite our country’s preservation movement.
Another lost Minnesota fixture is the centrist Republican, a breed once legion in our state. For a close look at one such politician, pick up a copy of When Republicans Were Progressive by Dave Durenberger (J.D. ’59) with Lori Sturdevant (Minnesota Historical Society Press). The retired three-term U.S. senator looks back on his own career as well as those of the progressive fellow Republicans—including former Governor Elmer Andersen (B.B.A. ’31), to whom the book is dedicated—who preceded him.
A far less positive historical chapter in our state plays out in The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity 1860-1876 (University of Minnesota Press) by William D. Green (M.A. ’76, Ph.D. ’76, J.D. ’89). Green takes an exhaustive (500 pages!) look at four white champions of African Americans in Minnesota who slowly turned to other causes as the forces of hatred and prejudice won out.
The story of how Native Americans were treated in Minnesota is, of course, equally dismal, and two of its ugliest chapters concern the removal of Indian children from their communities and the disappearance of Native women. In the Night of Memory (University of Minnesota Press), a new novel by UMD professor Linda LeGarde Grover (B.A. ’88, M.E. ’95. Ed.D. ’99), covers both these topics through the story of Loretta Gallette and her daughters Rain and Azure, who are bounced among multiple foster homes before finally being reunited with their Ojibwe family.
Farther from our home state but absolutely central to the American psyche is the borderland between the United States and Mexico. Reams of reportage have been produced about this border and the immigrants who seek to cross it, but for a more poetic take on this iconic landscape, turn to Cutting the Wire: Photographs and Poetry from the U.S.–Mexico Border (University of New Mexico Press). The large color photographs by Bruce Berman and the poetry by Lawrence Welsh and University of Minnesota creative writing professor Ray Gonzalez work together so well, you’ll probably never think of this land in quite the same way again.
Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis editor, writer, and book reviewer.