Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sai-i-gu and Hip Hop Response

"Ynot.. let me tell ya a story//Okay it was a black man a white man and a Chinese man//The black man of course he was po' (yeah)The white man... he was rich (uh-huh)//And the Chinese man, he owned a sto' (aight c'mon)//Okay the black man lived on Beat Street//The white man lived on Wall Street and at the Chinese man's store is where they all meet//Not really on the good foot "- Common, Chapter 13 (Rich man vs. Poor man)

On this 1994 track, Common, a self-labeled "conscious rapper," assigns the role of shopkeeper to the Chinese man. He goes on to rap about a fight that is ignited by the rich white man's disgust for the poor black man and how this causes the Chinese man, fearing for his safety, to abandon and subsequently lose his store. When I first heard this verse, it surprised me how narrow Common's portrayal of the Chinese man was. The main focus of this verse (as well as the theme of this song) dealt with the conflict between white and black; the Chinese man acts as a sort of buffer, providing the arena for this fight. In the end, the white man is still rich, the black man now owns the store, and the Chinese man is left with nothing. Watching Sai-i-gu flashed my memory back to the layout of this verse, especially when one of the interviewees denounced the riots as an aftermath to the tension between black and whites. The movie implied that the Asian businesses were drawn into the turmoil just like the fictional Chinese man, though both seemed to try and resist any part in the conflict.

In many other hip hop songs, Asians are usually also associated with stores and property. In MC Eiht's 1993 hit "Streight Up Menace ," the Compton rapper spits, "Gyeah, I'm kickin it with the homies and they got the straps//Off to the corner store, owned by the fuckin Japs (subsequently bleeped out in later versions)//See a bitch in the right lane so I comes with the mack//Astro Bam pulls a motherfuckin jack from the back//Now he's got the strap to my homie's head" It seems like this Asian-owned store is a common structure in the hiphop and ghetto backdrop; the store ,however, is not looked upon favorably, but rather with disdain. Maybe this is parallel with the hip hop generation's overall dissatisfaction with establishment (which is expressed by these stores). However, in the songs much of the intangible aspects of establishment are associated with whites, while the concrete elements (like property) are associated with asians. Perhaps this is what that one interviewee meant when she said that the conflict was a black and white affair and the Koreans were caught in the middle. Whereas the first wave was lashing out at establishment in general and because the Korean stores were tanglible symbols of establishment, they were targetted during the riots. On a related note, before this movie, I was not aware of Asians' roles in the LA riots. I heard about Rodney King and I remember a history textbook showing one white truck driver being rescued by two African Americans after he was attacked by rioters. The interviewee claimed that the media tried to make it a Black and Asian affair; more than 10 years later however, it seems that the general public is unaware of how Asians played into it.

Many posters have criticized the movie for not providing more depth into how the LA riots were provoked; though I find many of these points to be true, I also found the movie informative, perhaps not so much by its spoken narrative, but more by its images. It still surprises me how the government failed to acknowledge the loss of many businesses in Korea Town, even after the huge demonstrations shown in the movie. I cannot help, but feel as though the government overlooked the Korean community because it would not make for good PR.

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