Review: Chains of Babylon

Chains of Babylon cover

In Chains of Babylon by Daryl Maeda looks at the history of the Asian American Movement, focusing on the creation of the Asian America identity. Chains see this evolution in relation to the dominant white culture and the emerging Black power movement. This identity was further developed by its solidarity with other oppressed groups globally, most notably with the Vietnamese then fighting a war for liberation against U.S. forces and their South Vietnamese allies.

In telling this story, one great strength is the details that Maeda fleshes out the lives of important figures in the Asian American Movement such as Pat Sumi, Alex Hing and Joanne Miyamoto. One sees these activists' growth, the tensions even as they advanced through a white culture, their stirrings of rebellion, and evolution as activists. Maeda also reaffirms the political character of the Asian American Movement - its anti-imperialist character and its solidarity with the African American community. It also documents the Movement's essentially critical nature toward the social structure. Such contributions alone, in an academic environment that has ignored such anti-establishment roots, make reading Chains important for those who want to understand the Movement.

Its primary weakness comes from looking at the AAM from a cultural studies approach. This is evidenced in the selection of the subjects through which to interrogate the AAM. 

Among the first profiles is that of S.I. Hayakawa, a linguist who became the chancellor of San Francisco State and enthusiastically opposed the strikers. While S.I. Hayakawa symbolized the antithetical Asian American actor that AAM activists detested, an in-depth analysis of his views of lingustics and race relations is only marginally relevant to the growth of the Movement. AAM activist opinions of those views was unknown to them and hardly animated anyone.

Chains of Babylon also profiles writer Frank Chin and singing trio A Grain of Sand alongside the Bay Area Asian Coalition Against the War and the Red Guards of San Francisco but, in giving life to the Movement, why devote half the book to cultural actors? For all their significance, cultural work was seen significant in their support of organizing but not the center. Even the Red Guards is portrayed in a peculiar manner that is primarily framed as performance. Why not also tell the stories of organizing and advocacy groups such as San Francisco's Asian Law Caucus or the Chinese Progressive Associations in various cities, whose effects are more wide-ranging as those of Chain's chosen cultural actors.

Maeda's view is that the Movement ended in 70s, a typical assessment that the recent history, Snake Dance of Asian American Activism, has challenged and documented as short-sighted in failing to deeply evaluate struggles such as many Asian American workers struggles led by Movement activists, Redress and reparations for Japanese Americans, and enclave development struggles. 

Nevertheless, Chains argues forcefully and convincingly about the political nature of the Movement and should be read.