Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that disparaging terms can be federally registered as trademarks. It was a victory for the Slants, the synth rock band made up of four Asian American members. For eight years, the Slants had been fighting the law that kept names like theirs from being trademarked. This legal battle had made them possibly the only rock band to tour law schools in addition to concert venues and, uh, anime conventions.
This case has been most people's introduction to the Slants, and some people's introduction to the racial slur "slant," a term that originated when English speakers sought an abbreviated form of "slant-eyed," which is as old as the 1860s. But the Slants aren't the first Asian American rock band to reclaim a racial epithet. The ska punk band the Chinkees, who the Slants have shouted out as an inspiration, began releasing music in 1998.
The Chinkees are the brainchild of Mike Park, a sort of punk rock Renaissance Man. Park's an activist, reverend, head of independent label Asian Man Records, which was also responsible for the popular 1999 benefit CD Anti-Racist Action, a compilation that united everyone from Napalm Death to Less Than Jake in its message. He's also a member of about a million bands. These include, at present, the folky duo Ogikubo Station and power-pop group Kitty Kat Fan Club.
In regards to the Slants, Park tells Noisey, "I'm all for the Supreme Court's decision to allow the trademarking of their name. But I realize it's a sticky/fine line of what is deemed offensive. Would I be stoked if a white supremacist group trademarked the name KILL THE GOOKS? Probably not, but I do believe in free speech. As for the Chinkees, the name was meant to be offensive. It was meant to make you feel uneasy and to question why you felt uneasy."
That word, and the band's reclaiming of it, shows why words and labels matter. As for people who don't get the power of a slur like "chinkee" or "slant," Park says, "I don't think they grew up in an all-white grade school where they were one of nine kids of color and experienced racism daily, to the point where I would go home and cry and wish I was white. Can you imagine feeling this way? Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words fuckin' hurt just as bad."
This intensity comes through in the songs of the Chinkees. Where the Slants are Killers-esque, the Chinkees' sound is more reminiscent of the Specials (who Park is still listening to these days, along with ska legends like Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster). As part of the third wave of ska that produced bands like Less Than Jake (who would go on to back Park in the Bruce Lee Band), the Chinkees made songs that were as bouncy as those by more mainstream bands, even if Park wasn't the most natural singer.
But The Chinkees stood out in their own ways. They were punkier. They were more given to experimentation, as in the Public Service Broadcasting-style sound collages that closed their albums Peace Through Music and The Chinkees Are Coming. These combined snippets of racist dialogue with accounts of hate crimes and samples galore. For instance, "Our Country," which opens The Chinkees Are Coming, features a recorded segment from a self-righteous woman imploring Mr. Park to show that he likes Americans, since "we were nice enough to let them into our country."
The Chinkees were an Asian American band in the late 90s and early at 2000s, a time when, in general, Asian American musicians would have to look to Asia for role models. But past the first generation of Asian American immigrants, Asia could feel more alien than white America and bands in Asia weren't necessarily relatable, especially if they performed in languages other than English. In the US, Asian rock fans looking to be reflected on stage would scratch our chins, sigh, and concede that there was at least that quiet Japanese dude from The Smashing Pumpkins, or that quiet Indian dude from No Doubt.
Park wasn't just a quiet dude, and the Chinkees weren't just Asian folks picking up guitars. The songs are infused with a hybrid cultural sensibility. Several of their songs contain titles or lyrics in Korean, and they even produced a ska version of the Korean lullaby "San Toki," about a rabbit that does random Korean mountain things like collect chestnuts. Along with the typical punk themes of disaffection, the Chinkees sang about mahjongg and broken English. And they brought humor to their takedowns of clueless racists. On the title track of The Chinkees Are Coming, for example, Park sings, "You called me a chink today… But if you want to use the proper racist term / Don't call me a chink." The song taps into the common perception that all East Asians look alike, and mocks the racists who couldn't even get their slurs right, by calling the Korean American Park a Chinese pejorative.
The Chinkees also weren't afraid to take on the Asian American community. "Japanese Exchange Student" is about a letter from a student who told Park he should stop mentioning racism in the US. "How brave to live with blinders on / You're living in a drunken college fairyland," Park retorts. One of their best songs is "Asian Prodigy," about rebelling against Asian family expectations. "I don't want to be a doctor," Park sings. "Sorry I can't be your Asian prodigy… There are things I need to share." This is painfully familiar to Korean and other Asian Americans.
More generally, this attitude—mocking vapid white people, questioning the constraints of filial duty—was eye-opening. It's hard to talk in generalities across the vast group that is Asian Americans, but if there are any justified generalizations, this one is at the top: Asians in the US are expected by ourselves and others to fit a certain template: go to good schools, work hard, keep our heads down. We're certainly not likely to start record labels or rock bands, or to be outspoken. If we want to dabble in music, the only acceptable forms are religious or classical music. This expectation of timidity largely explains why Asian immigrants and their descendants are overrepresented in educational qualifications, but underrepresented in politics and leadership. Park challenged this template and inspired Asian American musicians and rock fans in the process. It's also fascinating to see the Chinkees as a microcosm of musical globalization. Ska travelled from Jamaica via groups like Toots and the Maytals, to the UK via groups like Madness, and on to the US to be popularized by groups like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It wasn't a natural inspiration for an Asian American band.
But the Chinkees' influence persists not just on American bands like the Slants, but overseas as a counter to saccharine and non-confrontational K-pop, which is East Asia's dominant musical export. Korean pop punk band Whatever That Means, for instance, has a fantastic cover of "Asian Prodigy."
Sure, this influence is of a small-but-mighty sort. Park is humble about what the Chinkees accomplished. He reflects, "If we had been a more active touring band, I do believe we could have had more of an impact, but at the time I had already been touring nonstop since the late 80s and I was just burnt out and a lot of my focus was on running Asian Man Records. Were we pioneers? If so, it was on a small scale. More than anything I wanted to play music with people of color and hang out with other Asian Americans and just hang out with someone who looked like me."