Kathleen Chang as the fictional Leung Ken-Sun in The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron (TLTDC) see post on the piece here
The performance artist/actress Kathleen Chang is one of the most fascinating people about whom I’ve ever read. Chang, described as “the daughter of a prominent family of Chinese emigré intellectuals” was married in the 70s to the playwrite Frank Chin, who would later earn much feminist ire by criticizing Maxine Hong Kingston. In the early 1970s, Chang was heavily involved in the Asian American cultural movement. In addition to acting in plays, she was part of a group of individuals in San Francisco involved in crafting an identity around
“Chinese-American”, and to escape an imposed hyphenation/definition by the lackeys, compradors, and apologists of the power structure, and “Moonhunter”, a component of Iron Moonhunter, the legendary Chinaman-built railroad created from stolen Central Pacific Railroad parts that would take them home to China. This is a story unearthed and promulgated by author Frank Chin, and relayed as oral history until Kathleen Chang’s interpretation in book form (The Iron Moonhunter, 1974).
For a while, Chang existed within this tight circle, acting in plays with Chin, and working with others in the community. For example, her husband directed the Play, One, Two Cups, an imaginary dialogue between the playwright Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Chang, “the only person [Berseenbrugge] had ever known who came from the same place as myself.” However, she divorced from Chin in 1976 and seems to have drifted a bit after that.
I’m left with only one document, the 1978 documentary essay by Palumbo and Lacy (later amended to include Chang as an author, so I think she probably wrote at least the one page about Leung Ken-Sun).
In that document, Chang reveals that she was also initially
fearful of using Chinese prostitution as a source; too often it has been exploited as a gimmick to sensationalize, rather than investigate racism.
and worried that
there was Suzanne’s desire to render an idea woman-to-woman relationship , to avoid the stereotypes of women hating women by losing herself in the notion of support which, to me, violated the truth
She noted the disparities in the resources they had to use in investigating the past.
After this I had only my imagination to go on. What did she really think of the missionaries, of prostitution? Suzanne had books to help her, but I had only my fervent desire to know and my own feelings about it all
Chang described her perspective: “I certainly didn’t have to look to hard for ambivalence” and she described a similarly ambiguous experience for immigrant women. As she noted “Asian women immigrants were subjected to constant humiliation and suspicions of prostitution in America.” A caption of a picture in the documentation of the TLTDC pointed out that “some preferred to remain prostitutes” when faced with the option of supporting themselves through sweatshop work.
That is it. At some point, Chang changed her name to Kathy Change. In an undated press release she announced that
In 1978 Change had a revelation which changed her life — she was going to save the world. She soon discovered that this was called a Messianic complex […A]fter passing through New York, Change landed in Philadelphia in 1981 and has “hardly left since” […]
Change lived as a squatter and stage activst performances around Philadelphia for over a decade.
In 1996 Change self-immolated on the campus of Penn (links to her writings here)
to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself.
And me, I’m left to write about her part in a complicated, potentially controversial performance piece that has been far more extensively chronicled by her white collaborator. How to find ways to let her speak, when she can’t anymore? I’ve mined just about every line that could be attributed to her in the 1978 document. Now who is “like” the historical figures? Am I not in the same bind that Chang and Lacy found themselves in? Evidence abounding for the white figure and far less for “the other.”
As Lucy Lippard documents in Mixed Blessings, there was considerable interest in “mixing” by politically active artists in the 1970s. Is there a way to explore inter-racial dynamics by drawing on contmporaneous writings by other “others?” In reading Chang’s document for TLTDC I was repeatedly reminded of the essays in This Bridge Called My Back. Perhaps here is a way?