I was born in Honolulu Hawaii in 1950. I have a small story to tell, but it’s part of a large history.
As a child I was part of a sizable Chinese community in what we felt was a backwater territory of the United States. It was the fifties and there were a lot of things you couldn’t do. Achievement was important, but it was considered nearly impossible to become a leader of “typical Americans” or an independent cultural voice not tied to one’s ethnicity. This was so even though my parents were fluent in English and admired Jackson Pollock, and though my grandfather was a self-educated electrical foreman at the sugar plantation.
I studied science at UC Berkeley because science was considered practical, got a masters in biological diversity, which in the marketplace was equivalent to a liberal arts degree. Thanks to a good general education, I made my career as a claims representative for the Social Security Administration. Had the same job for 35 years, then retired in 2011. Got a comfortable steady wage and a pension. Sounds like the American Dream, security and comfort in exchange for hard work.
But then I got very lucky, and times had changed. In 1998 I’d become connected with people who loved paper dolls, and welcomed the challenge of drawing and designing characters, outfits, and publications. Out of the blue, my paper doll set about the Mexican Day of the Dead was picked up by Dover Publications, and beginning in 2009 this work was distributed worldwide. Wow, I was a Chinese-American allowed to interpret Mexican culture for a mass audience! And after that came Voodoo, Twisted Fairy Tales, and Speakeasy Paper Dolls, which were journeys into the Louisiana swamp, north European folk cultures, and the scariest of all, secret hideouts of mid-American white people.
In 2013 Dover released Chinatown Paper Dolls, a capsule history of Chinese-American clothing and costume. The research came after the death wave of our family’s oldest generation. I tried for authenticity if not accuracy. I still wonder if, despite the writeups, the people who open the book all understand that those pictures portray American history. But we’re a diverse, mixed-in bunch, so maybe.