Half Asian – 100% Kip
Hapa Pioneer Kip Fulbeck
As professor of art at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Kip Fulbeck has received the university’s Distinguished Teaching award and has been named an Outstanding Faculty Member five times. He is also a published author, pioneering artist, spoken word performer, filmmaker, avid surfer, guitar player, ocean lifeguard, pug enthusiast, and multiple-time US Masters national swimming champion. He is, as he says on his website, a complete overachiever, despite being only half-Chinese. It is this latter fact (he is also mixed English, Irish and Welsh) that lead him to create The Hapa Project, a multiracial identity art project spread over a range of mediums, including a published book, traveling photographic exhibition, satellite community presentations, and online communities.
The 2001 project saw Fulbeck traveling the US, photographing over 1200 self-identified hapas. The subjects are shot in a minimalist style with no visible clothes and neutral facial expressions, and each photograph is accompanied a handwritten response to the question, “What are you?”
Fulbeck was recently in Vancouver, where he received a community builder award at the 2014 Hapa-palooza Festival Hip Hapa Hooray event. His exhibit, Half Asian, 100% Hapa, is running at the Nikkei National Museum until January 4, 2015.
With files from discovernikkei.org
On how and when he came up with the idea for the Hapa Project.
The idea actually came to me as a kid, sometime in elementary school. I just thought it would have been cool to know there were other people around going through what I was going through, other people who couldn’t answer the “check one box only” question honestly.
Since then, I had always wanted to produce a book and project like this, but never got around to actually doing it because it seemed like so much work and organization (the latter of which is not my strong point).
Sometime in my 30s, I mentioned it to a girlfriend of mine and she convinced me to do it. It was a ton of work, but definitely a work of love.
On what surprised him about doing the project.
Many things surprised me about this project. The first is the way it’s been embraced. I had no idea it would take off the way it has, and I’m very thankful for the wonderful outpouring of support I’ve received from so many people.
Every day I get emails from people who have found the book or seen the show, telling me it’s the first time they actually felt part of something – be that a shared identity of not fitting in, some sort of intangible community, or even a discussion. For many of us, when it came to discussing ethnic identity, we were never offered a seat at the table.
Which is why the Hapa Project is more than a project about race or ethnicity. It’s a project about identity.
On how he picked who went in the book.
I originally culled 250 portraits from the original 1200 I shot. We (Chronicle Books and I) planned to use one person per page including their statement. But when I started to lay it out, it seemed much too visually compressed. The pages didn’t have any breathing room and the book felt too tight. So artistically I made the call to cut the number by 50% and put one person/one statement per every two pages
Trouble was, I was too attached to each image to cut any more – every single photograph represented a relationship to me, albeit often a short one, but a valid and real experience nonetheless.
Adding to that, I actually found every person’s image and statement interesting on their own terms. It was hard enough cutting down to 250 and now I was supposed kill off half more of my kids? So I threw up my hands and told my editor, “I can’t do it. You figure it out how to edit it down.”
Eventually, what happened was we laid out 250 images across all these tables at Chronicle Books in San Francisco. Then, three editors and myself walked around with 30 little stick-on red dots each, placing them on each image we chose individually.
It was a bit surreal … quiet and thoughtful, everyone in their own little worlds picking images. Until after about 15 minutes, my editor Bridget exclaimed, “I have a confession to make. I haven’t picked one hot girl!”
The rest of us (three men) stopped, then admitted that we hadn’t picked any hot girls yet either. It turned out we were all being careful of not making this the “hot” hapa book, the hybrid-vigor-all-hapas-look-like-Devon-Aoki book. So we laughed at our collective vigilance and decided to pick a couple hot girls to include.
On how he found the subjects for the book.
It was actually very easy. They were all volunteers from around the country. I’d just post a shoot on the website and people would come out of the woodwork. I did a shoot in San Francisco that was scheduled from 6:00-8:00. I got there at 5:00 to set up and there were thirty people waiting outside. I think when you’ve gone your whole life not fitting into these boxes, you’ve got a lot to say about it.
On patterns that emerged.
Easily, at least two-thirds of the participants were part Japanese American, maybe more. I wasn’t able to photograph one person who was part Cambodian or Hmong before the book went to press. Also, the overwhelming majority of the volunteers were female. At some shoots the ration of women to men would be 20:1
It’s the same in the identity seminars I teach at the university of California, Santa Barbara. Women are much more open and interested in talking about their identity than men in this country. I have a lot of theories about why that is.
Identity is, at its core, a deeply personal and individual decision, and a mandate of this project for me was to never tell anyone else what they were or could be or could not be. Identity is something for each individual to decide … which is why the project includes people who don’t always fall into the conventional definition of hapa. The way I looked at it, if you want to be a part of this project, then you’re part of this project. Race is a social construct anyway – we’re all essentially African.
On a larger scope, the project has helped push the idea of ethnic identity and the whole concept of multiraciality further into the public discourse and that’s valuable. All these intangibles feed me as an artist and as a teacher and as a person
I can’t imagine doing any other job. So when your kid tells you they want to be an artist, maybe it’s an idea worth listening to.