Saturday, September 13, 2008, 2:25 AM ET | Watertown/Cambridge/Boston, MA
So I arrived home safely a few hours ago after my first Cambridge gig at the supercool East Meets West Bookstore: what a special, historic place. I can’t sleep because I’m still fired up from the good vibes in the space (Eric Chin brought Taoist good energy in the room with everyone breathing to puff up his origami — it reminded me of the energizers I usually do on the 1st day of classes, but MUCH more chill). Anyway, I thought I would start off my blog about the performance, the people, and the place. And a BIG SHOUT-OUT to the BOSTON PROGRESS ARTS COLLECTIVE (B-PAC)!!! YAY!! THANKS YA’LL!!
LUGAR / THE PLACE: EAST MEETS WEST
East Meets West Bookstore, 934 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA
The East Meets West Bookstore is a down-home, hole-in-the-wall kind of place in Cambridge, on Massachusetts Avenue, less than a mile east of Harvard Square. When I walked in, I immediately felt at ease. It looks like one of the stores in Seattle’s (and Detroit’s) old Chinatown, complete with a back room that looks like one of those secret card rooms, except it has a two-way mirrored window. (I kicked myself for not bringing my mah-jong set.) One wall is covered with endless bookcases of what must be rare Chinese texts and across from that is a showcase of hard-to-find Asian American CDs, books, and zines. I kept thinking how the Asian American students in Michigan would buy all of this material right up if we had this store in Detroit or Ann Arbor. There are big “HELLO MY NAME IS” posters on the back wall signed by guests from all over, three small red paper lanterns hanging from a corner ceiling, and then huge speakers on the floor that looked out of place, maybe because they look like the ones the student union uses (hmmmm). The bookstore even had almost the same scent as the old On Leong office on Peterboro in Detroit, a mixed whiff of not-yet musty encyclopedias, left-over take-out boxes, and a hint of firecracker incense dust hidden in the cracks of the gated door. It reminded me of when we opened up one of the doors in the back of Mrs. Wong’s old Cass Corridor warehouse and found a box of stale fortune cookies from 1982. (Last night, Giles found beer in the bookstore’s back room. I didn’t catch if he drank it?)
As I sat down and breathed it all in, I thought, “This is what the old Kearny Street Workshop space in San Francisco’s old Manilatown must’ve been like 35 years ago.” BPAC’s use of the space for the last 3.5 years is kind of like what our Detroit Chinatown Revitalization Workgroup tried to do at the old On Leong Building back in 2004, except Cambridge obviously doesn’t suffer from the post-deindustrialization fall-out that Detroit does. At the old On Leong in Detroit’s abandoned Chinatown, even though we made that
Detroit Chinatown Mural, on Peterboro & Cass, 2003
beautiful mural, painted two buildings, and started having events there (the same space they used to organize the Justice for Vincent Chin movement 25 years ago), after the ceiling, heat and electricity went out, we just couldn’t keep it up. Luckily, the mural is still up and our Detroit Asian Youth Project still survives, but access to the performance space doesn’t. That’s why this Cambridge space is so inspiring and important, and I’m not sure if everyone here even realizes it.
East Meets West’s retail/performance space is about as big as my flat’s living room (which isn’t that big), but really, really cozy. There’s a couch and then folding chairs. When I arrived, about 20 people were already there trying to get a seat or setting up (mostly BPAC folks) and by the time I went up to perform, there were 50 people packed in there, SRO. On the West Coast, 50 people might not sound like a lot, but what I’ve learned from being in Michigan the last eight years, is that east of California, any Asian American public event that has more than 20/just the core, is truly an accomplishment. What was so impressive is that most of the audience were regulars, people who’ve shown up every 2nd Friday of the month since 2005. I mean, there was so much steam on the windows from all them warm heads; we were probably violating some kind of — oh let me scratch that before I get them in trouble. Anyway, at the end of the night, Giles emptied out the de-humidifier and there must’ve been about 3 gallons of water spilling all over Mass. Ave. (“It’s to protect the books,” Eugene said. Ah, yes. The archivist in me should know that.)
MEETING THE BPAC FAM: PERFORMANCES & PEOPLE
The after-crowd, some members of Boston Progress Arts Collective
The Open Mic was really like none other than I’ve seen (and I’ve been to A LOT of open mics all across the country). First of all, almost every single one of the dozen or so performers was Asian American, of all ethnicities, truly pan-Asian. It’s a trip when you meet one with a Boston accent. Second of all, how many open mics have you been to where a seemingly low-key young culinary-school-trained chef who’s about to move to L.A. gets up there and quietly tells his childhood wannabe superhero stories with deep metaphors about scars (like wrinkled paper) and finding home again (like cranes) and folds origami in the air???? Eric Chin is deep. Never mind that he was only 3yo in 1989 (and showed us a picture to prove it). [Note toTuesday Nights at the Café peeps in L.A: keep an eye out for this young brotha.]
The other performers -
Albert: “an Asian man talking about the difficulties of being an Asian man in a poem, that’s meta,” MC Ash said. Word.
Kenny: who was able to play after Joey B went to get his guitar from his car in the rain. Nice.
Bonnibel: just moved from Austin, TX this week (!) spit two poems “Sesame Street” (which my daughter Tula would’ve loved) and “Passion”, was able to groove to any beat.
Kundiman fellow Mike Keo: pulled a couple of yellow pieces of paper from his back pocket, wet from the rain, shared one poem on genocide and then another called “Condoms”. (Mike later told me that he knows my poet-friend Matt Olzmann of Detroit and that he once picked up my hero-friend Ismael Ileto from the airport for a conference at UConn.) Really, 2 degrees of separation.
BPAC core member Theresa: described B-town’s streets to a T in her journal “Intervention”. (In the summer youth program she runs, they used game design to reactivate public space – like we did in DAY Project, yup yup. Kindred spirits!)
Joey B: kicked a piece about listening and imagining, from his creative writing class portfolio. YES, from his Creative Writing class portolio. (Bless all those Asian Americans in creative writing classes: where were you 20 years ago when I needed you?
Pinoy brotha Pedro: used an audience member’s Blackberry to download song lyrics that remind him of his 2 moms singing, his birth mom and adoptive mom. Sweet.
Next up was Tu Phan. Remember that name: TU PHAN. That brotha will take the slam scene by storm if he hasn’t already. He just started as a freshman at Northeastern U, but you would’ve never guessed that. When he stood up there wearing his black t-shirt sporting 3 versions of the Virgin Mary: “Before, After, Way After”, with the Blessed Mother’s face silk-screened in black, brown, then white skin tones, I knew this cat was deep. TU PHAN performed a piece about birth in a straight jacket, clasping his arms around his torso and tilting his head from side to side, while spitting a riff on the constitutional right to bear arms yet being armless and just wanting to be able to touch and be free. Deep… 18yo.
At the end of every open mic portion, some of the resident MCs freestyle.
David Kong started to beat box and I thought it was just one of the CDs playing background beats forever, but it was David. For real.
Then PEN (yes, his name is Pen) grabbed the mic, rappin’ about stinky tofu and being from West Philly like Fresh Prince. Hilarious.
Next was Ash, who Giles gave a shout-out to earlier because he’s moving to NYC, dropped a rhyme about “stay[ing] out of the rewind”. Amen, Amen.
David brought up his friend Ahman and the crowd threw him some crazy words to freestyle like “hippopotamus” and “Pokeman”, but Ahman spit it just about as good as any neighborhood cipher I’ve seen.
Emily Lawsin performs at East Meets Words, Cambridge 9.12.08. Photo by Stephanie Kao.
So after the Open Mic, I performed 4 or 5 of my “classic” poems, but I’ll let others blog or comment on what they thought of the performance. (Please comment below!) I sold out of my books, and one elder in the crowd who bought one, came up and said he was moved by my “No More Moments of Silence” poem, and “mad” that it wasn’t published somewhere yet. I’m workin’ on it, I’m workin’ on it. (You can see/hear portions of an earlier version of the poem in the Philippine Studies Endowment video here.)
MANY THANKS to everyone who showed up last night: it was so heartwarming to see you! Isangmahal/One Love to all the organizers, especially founder/performer Giles Li (long live Giles Li!), who invited me to feature, gave me all the low down, and has been incredibly helpful in our transition to this new place; Van, who answered all my questions; David, who showed me the space and lit up the room when he smiled; Eugene, who recorded the show and was kind enough to give me a last-minute lift home; Ash, who gave a fabulous intro as emcee, even right after being winded from his freestyle performance; Sejal, who greeted me and told me some of the cool stuff they’re trying to do at Wellesley; Pedro, who spoke to me using the reverent Filipino “po” (so sweet); Pen, for all his energy, skillz, and his perfect name; Theresa, for welcoming me, thanking me and echoing my sentiments of “feeling blessed”; to Delia & Tae, for coming all the way to Cambridge even though it was probably past Tae’s bed time, and for welcoming me even before I moved; to everyone who designed and posted flyers/emails, to Stephanie Kao for bringing her whole house and taking pictures, and to anyone else I may have missed.
I feel so blessed to be able to now live in the same area as the Boston Progress Arts Collective! Your bookstore, your bprlive.org radio station, your collective of community conscious people, and the fact that you’re doing all of this with absolutely no money in a major East Coast, predominantly white metropolis, are all incredibly inspiring to me. (Never mind that the bookstore is down the street from the oldest and most prestigious university in the country, the same esteemed university which doesn’t even have an Asian American Studies program: that’s a whole other post/struggle.) I sensed that some of the BPAC members are worried about a few of the core people moving on, or being able to retain their bookstore space, and I just kept thinking to myself: if art and music are the avenues to one’s soul, then the beat will go on. The movement will go on. BPAC and “East Meets Words” will go on! Mabuhay B-PAC / Long live B-PAC!! Word.
MARAMING SALAMAT/MAHALO/ARIGATO/THANK YOU SO MUCH for allowing me to feature at East Meets Words. I will never forget it. Looking so forward to working with ya’ll even more.
Makibaka! Fight the Struggle!
Mahal, Salamat, at Ingat / Love, Thanks, and Take Care,
P.S.> See my next post: FROM BOSTON TO DETROIT SUMMER: A LOVE LETTER TO INVINCIBLE