All photos by Marion Aguas. 

14 Powerful Portraits Showing the Diversity of Asian-American Feminism

These artists and activists can't be contained by the "model minority" myth.

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Sep 10 2018, 10:30am

All photos by Marion Aguas. 

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

I’ve always felt at home in my Asian-Americanness and my feminism, but there was a time when I felt like the two identities didn’t fit together. My parents, Taiwanese immigrants raising three children in a foreign country, didn’t exactly prioritize activism. And at times, I felt like we also bought into the “model minority” myth, which presumes that we, as quiet, hard-working Asians, should just keep our heads down and stay out of trouble by supporting the status quo.

Media representations of Asian Americans tend to bolster that stereotype. In recent years, it feels like the only Asian-American activism that makes headlines in major publications is from one end of the political spectrum—mostly East Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action, favor standardized testing, and support officer Peter Liang. But I know that the people behind those movements aren’t nearly the only Asian Americans doing activist work in the US; there is a whole spectrum of people pushing back in ways that defy the “model minority” narrative.

Asian Americans have long fought for intersectional inclusion and equity. Over five decades before Constance Wu called out Asian fetishization at the 2018 Women’s March in Los Angeles, Yuri Kochiyama was one of 600 people arrested for protesting in demand for jobs for Black and Puerto Rican workers during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1969, Asian-American radicals at UCLA published their first issue of the Gidra, a magazine that tackled racism, sexism, and white supremacy. In the 1980s, queer journalist Helen Zia fought against anti-Asian violence in the wake of the murder of Vincent Chin. In 2012, Cambodian refugee Chhaya Chhoum co-founded Mekong NYC, fighting for the rights and livelihoods of Southeast Asians in the Bronx. There are so many underreported movements and overlooked figures, I can’t possibly list them all here.

Now, I’m one of the founding members of the Asian American Feminist Collective, which is launching this month in Brooklyn, and I’m constantly surrounded by other Asian Americans doing rad, intersectional creative and activist work. So, my co-founders and I teamed up with Filipinx photographer Marion Aguas to try to shift the media’s focus away from Crazy Rich Asians and Harvard lawsuits, and instead showcase some of the New York City Asian-American feminists who are reclaiming the narrative surrounding Asian-American activism. — Tiffany Diane Tso

Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Denise Chan, 29, she/her
Chinese American, Asian American
Student

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
My work is centered around using stories to evoke empathy. Most recently, I created a digital storybook that showcased 30 conversations around race and otherness. I was interested in exploring stories of otherness to extract common themes that extended beyond race and gender.

What are some misconceptions about Asian Americans you’d like to dispel?
My biggest pet peeve is when people try to simplify the Asian-American experience by comparing it to “being white." It's not true and is oftentimes in reference to the economic status or privileges of a small subset of the Asian-American community. When such a reductive statement is casually made, it tends to erase an entire community's unique cultural and historical experience.

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
In pop culture, Ali Wong is killing it right now by talking so openly about the her sexual and motherhood experiences in her sets.

Furay, 31, they/them
Taiwanese American
Human

How did you come into feminism?
Coming into my transness has guided me slowly into feminism, because there are overlaps in the struggle that marginalized identities encounter. I believe that building coalitions in movement building is critical.

How do your Asian-Americanness and your feminism intersect or clash?
These are both part of my identity, however sometimes it’s hard for both to harmonize. Being trans and Asian American, there is always a “pick your battles” type of mentality, considering how much gender plays a role in an Asian-American household. This is accentuated especially when there is a generation gap along with cultural and language barriers.

What are some misconceptions about Asian American feminism you’d like to dispel?
That it’s just for cis folks, that it’s only for East Asians, that there is no room for queer/transness.

Julie Ae Kim, 27, she/her
Korean American
Leadership Committee of Asian American Feminist Collective

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
I have worked on the development and launch of the Asian American Feminist Collective for the past two years. In addition, I’ve worked in the intersection of immigration, local government, and Asian immigrant communities in New York City.

What are some misconceptions about Asian Americans or feminism you’d like to dispel
That Asian Americans don’t need feminism. That there are no queer/trans Asian Americans. That we need to adhere to feminism that doesn’t include Asian Americans.

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
Ai-Jen Poo, founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance!

AC Dumlao, 27, they/them
Filipino-American
Advocate / Educator / Artist, Call Me They

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
I’m the creator of the social justice news Facebook page “Call Me They” and the genderfull fashion and self-care Instagram @menswearselfcare. I’m also the Program Manager at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, where I run the Name Change Project, which connects low-income transgender and non-binary individuals with lawyers providing pro bono representation for legal name changes.

How did you come into feminism?
While I was exposed to the concept of feminism in high school, and took a Women's Studies 101 class in college, it wasn’t until recently—maybe the last five years—that I’ve “come into” the feminism I subscribe to: one that centers sex workers, trans women, incarcerated folks, undocumented folks, disabled folks, the underserved, the underrepresented. My feminism’s future is not “female,” it exists beyond the Western patriarchal binary.

What are some misconceptions about Asian Americans you’d like to dispel?
The “AAPI” (“Asian-American and Pacific Islander”) acronym and all of its variations are imperfect and contribute to the erasure of Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, and Indigenous people.

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
Transfeminine Filipinx artist and “Call Out Queen” Mark Aguhar (1987-2012), who made art out of being queer, trans, fat, femme, and brown.

Senti Sojwal, 27, she/her
Indian American, South Asian American
Leadership Committee of Asian American Feminist Collective, Interviews Columnist for Feministing, Reproductive Justice Advocate

How did you come into feminism?
I am not a feminist because I overcame my immigrant roots, but because being a transnational, bicultural person and constantly negotiating my identity attuned me to my potential and gave me a lens for intersectional advocacy. I came into feminism in many different ways, but always the most important one is that the women in my family, especially my mother, taught me what power and love look like.

How do your Asian Americanness and your feminism intersect or clash?
Growing up, I thought to be a feminist meant to reject my heritage. I have had to unlearn so much to fully embrace and love my brownness and create new modes of being in a culture that celebrates only the most narrow definitions of beauty, worthiness, and power. To me, being an immigrant daughter means my feminism is intimately tied to class oppression and anti-capitalism, and to building bridges among communities of color so that we may lift each other up and create political solidarity that moves beyond sentiment to tangible action.

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
She’s Indo-Canadian, but Vivek Shraya is a multidisciplinary trans artist with South Asian roots, and her body of work is just stunning, delightful, and truly intersectional at its core.

Lucy Sweetkill, 33, she/her
Vietnamese American
Professional Dominatrix and BDSM Guide, Co-creator of La Maison du Rouge

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
I co-created a company called La Maison du Rouge with my friend and colleague Dia Dynasty. La Maison du Rouge is focused on expanding the BDSM experience by discussing, educating, and informing our audiences about the intersections of kink, wellness, sexuality, spirituality, and social activism.

How do your Asian Americanness and your feminism intersect or clash?
The Vietnamese women in my family are some of the strongest, most outspoken and resilient women I know, but can be very closed off to different sexual identities and races. The conversation around sexuality and sex in general is almost non-existent in many Vietnamese households. So as I grew up, I struggled with my own bias and judgement around sexual freedom for women. However, as a first generation Vietnamese-American sex worker from a low-income family, my experience with layers of marginalization has helped shape my feminist views to be much more inclusive.

Rachel Kuo, 30, she/her
Taiwanese American
Doctoral Candidate at NYU, Leadership Committee of Asian American Feminist Collective

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
I bring feminism to my teaching because I came into my own feminism through learning and connecting what I learned to current issues and events. In my courses, we start the semester with intersectionality as a key framework to better understand intersectionality as not just a buzzword or lists of identities... Creating a syllabus makes me think about who is at the table when it comes to knowledge production, especially in an institution and discipline that often reinforces whiteness as an undisputed and unexamined frame.

What are some misconceptions about Asian Americans and/or feminism you’d like to dispel?
I'd like to dispel the myth that the end-game and pinnacle of justice for Asian Americans is merely empowerment and visibility through being represented in institutions like Hollywood and Silicon Valley. I think reflecting on the political stakes and implications of “representation” in mainstream arenas will be crucial to developing stronger coalitions and more equitable political agendas.

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
Minju Bae, Melissa Phruksachart, Vivan Truong and Diane Wong, who exemplify for me what it means to be an Asian-American feminist scholar and to be committed to politically grounded work.

Diane Wong, 28, she/her
Chinese American
Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
I am currently writing about the intersections of race, gender, and the gentrification of Chinatowns across the country. As a first-generation Chinese-American femme born and raised in Flushing, Queens, my research is intimately tied to the Asian diaspora and urban immigrant experience.

As a multimedia storyteller and cultural organizer based in New York City, I work closely with many women-led grassroots organizations like CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Chinatown Tenants Union, Chinatown Art Brigade, and The W.O.W. Project on issues of displacement and dispossession.

How did you come into feminism?
I came into feminism through the ancestral histories and life stories that my 94-year-old 奶奶 (paternal grandmother) has told me over the years. They always featured women as healers, herbalists, mystics, guides, prophets, and warriors. My 奶奶 is a Chinese medicine practitioner; she herself was part of a feminist collective in her hutong in Shanghai, China that brought together three generations of women to organize around gender oppression in China. Later on, I began to learn about the feminist collectives here like Unbound Feet and the writings of Asian American women like Nellie Wong, Merle Woo, Mitsuye Yamada and other third world women thinkers.

What are some misconceptions about feminism you’d like to dispel?
There continues to be the dominant narrative that feminism is for women, but in the words of bell hooks, “feminism is for everyone” — it's for your aunties, uncles, cousins, brothers, grandpas, grandmas... I deeply believe that the weight of the work begins in intimate spaces like our homes. How can we make the knowledge we have about feminism more accessible to those in our communities who do not have the same institutional privileges or language capacities? It is critical that we do not reinforce existing power relations, feminism as praxis allows us to imagine a broader liberation agenda for everyone to get free.

Shahana Hanif, 27, she/her
Bangladeshi
Co-founder of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective, Director of Organizing and Community Engagement with City Council Member Brad Lander

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
I am a co-founding member of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective, a closed space that serves as a healing, thinking, and resting political home for a tight-knit NYC-based group of women-identified organizers and activists.

I currently work in my birth neighborhood [Kensington], the largest Bangladeshi enclave in Brooklyn, with City Council member Brad Lander as director of organizing and community engagement. In my role, I focus on making city services and organizations accessible to Bangladeshi, Muslim, and immigrant constituents; advise and respond to immigration policy changes, and create opportunities for working-class Bangladeshi New Yorkers to know and participate in electoral politics and local legislation around housing, jobs, and community development.

How did you come into feminism?

My politicization and critical feminist thinking occurred during diagnosis with Lupus at age 17 from a disability justice perspective, took off at Brooklyn College where I pursued an interdisciplinary track of Women’s and Gender Studies, and sharpened while tenant organizing at CAAAV.

Wen Liu, 31, she/her
Taiwanese
Assistant Professor at University at Albany, State University of New York

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
I teach introductory and graduate level courses on transnational feminist and queer politics in college. As a scholar and educator, I think my primary task is to uncover the often-erased histories of women and trans [people] of color in building intersectional feminism, and to think with students about how we can build new strategies going forward by relearning the past movements of transnational and cross-racial solidarity.

What are some misconceptions about Asian Americans and/or feminism you’d like to dispel?
Asian Americans are obviously not homogenous. While the majority of the energy has been spent on disputing the "perpetual foreigner" myth and declaring belongingness to the US, it is also important to remember the transnational commitments of the communities. As migration becomes much more transitory and politically charged, Asian-American politics should be working on opening borders instead of closing off the existing, already narrowly-defined citizenship.

Dia Dynasty, 41, she/her/hers
Chinese American
Professional Dominatrix, Co-creator of La Maison du Rouge

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
I co-founded La Maison du Rouge, a lifestyle brand that has become a resource for education and information about the intersections of alternative sexuality, wellness, spirituality, and social activism, which includes women’s rights and sex worker rights.

How did you come into feminism?
I believe that I was raised inherently feminist, by my single mother and my grandmother. Without a father, grandfather, or any male in my formative years, females were always simply the ones in charge, completely independent, self-sufficient, and highly capable of providing everything. To me, women didn’t need men for much.

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
Margaret Cho!

Aenea Liang, 29, she/her
Taiwanese-American
Illustrator/Graphic Designer

How do your Asian Americanness and your feminism intersect or clash?
My grandmother is the smartest and strongest woman I know. She survived the bombings in Taiwan during World War II, started working at the age of 11 at the local textile factory to help contribute to her family of 11. She built herself a pretty sustainable tailoring business, which she ran from her teens ‘til her early twenties, but was forced to close it down in favor of marriage. Even after marriage, she and my grandfather built a very successful business, which they still run today. I look to her as a source of strength and determination every time I'm feeling down and helpless. And yet when I was 19, she pulled me aside and told me, "女人吃得最苦" (translation: "Women eat the most bitterness.") She meant this as a warning for me, to show me how unfairly the world works. That women will always be second class to men, and will always draw the short-end of the straw. She did not like it or agree with it, but this, she told me, was how the world works, and will always work.

To me, this is how my Asian Americanness and feminism clash and intersect.

What are some misconceptions about Asian Americans you’d like to dispel?
Asian Americans are not the model minority, and we are not all studious. (I, for one, was not a very bright student. Straight Cs, baby!)

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
Amy Tan! Watching The Joy Luck Club as a kid and then reading her books really opened my eyes to my identity as an Asian-American woman.

Yin Q, 44, they/them/she/her
Chinese-American
Writer, BDSM Practitioner and Educator, Sex Work Activist

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
My work in BDSM [and writing] involves dismantling shame around kink sexuality so that people of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds can access, explore, and claim agency over their sexual orientation. This is particularly important in the Asian-American community because so much of the sexual representation of both male and female roles have been flattened by a long history of commodification and Orientalism, whether through war, media, or illegal sex trafficking. There are so many layers of shame around sexuality in the first place, but when compounded with these racial and ethnic issues, the struggle to live out authentic desire (or to even be able to identify it) is even greater.

I also produce media that portrays Asian Americans in different fields of the sex industry. My current project, “Mercy Mistress,” is a web series based on my experience as a dominatrix. The show delves into the complexities of being a queer, feminist sex worker and first generation Chinese American—the chasm between sexuality, agency, language, cultural identity, and familial expectations.

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
I’d like to shout out the current Asian-American women in media who are shaping how Asian Americans are portrayed today—Constance Wu, Cathy Yan, and Vera Miao to just name a few.

Thahitun Mariam, 27, she/her
Bangladeshi-American
Poet, Activist, and Community Organizer at NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs

What kind of intersectional feminist work are you involved in?
It isn’t that Bangladeshi immigrant women do not desire political or social education ... but truth be told , these spaces for certain immigrant women’s mobilization haven’t been available, or highly prioritized. That’s why it is important for me to center Bangladeshi women in my organizing work, and bring political education to marginalized folks in my community. This is what I prioritize in my work with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

I am also a founding member of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective.

What are some misconceptions about Asian Americans or feminism you’d like to dispel?
As a Bangladeshi-American, we are often hidden and on the marginalized end of the “Asian” definition in America. Even within “South Asian,” there are nuances of each national identity within South Asia and their connection to migrating and settling in the states. Our communities have very different issues, and I think for me it is important to identify the background of Asian American when speaking about feminism in order to fully understand how different threads of migration to the US impacted how quickly communities assimilated, grew, prospered, and did well for themselves. The privilege of earlier migration must be addressed. For Bangladeshis in NYC, our community is still very working class, and thus the feminist issues I must address (in my creative work and activism) are very different from other Asian-American feminists’ struggles.

Who is an Asian American feminist you’d like to shout out?
I would like to give a huge shout out to all my sisters in the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective: Chaumtoli Huq, Kazi Fouzia, Shahana Hanif, Farzana Karim, Sharmin Hossain, Zahida Raj, Rabeya Akter, Navila Rashid and Tania Rashid.

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