September 16, 2007

China Blues

author_cn By C.N. Le

For the past year or so, stories and articles about China have been prominent fixtures in the national news media, whether they relate to China’s continuing political emergence and human rights repression, hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, or contaminated and dangerous consumer products imported into the U.S. In other words, almost all of that media and public attention directed at China lately has been unflattering. 

To add more fuel to the fire, the Washington Post recently described the controversy surrounding the upcoming memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. to be placed in Washington DC. Long overdue, a monument celebrating Dr. King’s life is scheduled to be completed and placed in The Mall, close to the other prominent monuments Washington DC is known for. That part is certainly not controversial. Instead, the controversy centers on the sculptor of the memorial -- he is from China:

For China’s artists, the selection of [Yixin] Lei as the lead sculptor for the project, to be unveiled in 2009 on the Mall, is a triumphant moment. It is a recognition of how  rapidly their status has progressed in the generation that has grown up since the repressive years of the Cultural Revolution.

Not everyone feels this way. Atlanta resident Lea Winfrey Young says the “outsourcing” by U.S. companies and organizations to China has gone too far this time. She and her husband, Gilbert Young, a painter, are leading a group of critics who argue that an African American -- or any American -- should have been picked for such an important project.

“Dr. King’s statue is to be shipped here in a crate that supposedly says ‘Made in China.’ That’s just obscene,” Winfrey Young says. By awarding the contract to a Chinese artist, the foundation financing the project has touched on sensitivities at the core of U.S.-Sino relations: nationalism, racism and worries about what China’s emergence as an economic and cultural world power means for America. . . .lei-mlk

In Lei’s hometown of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, talk of the controversy in the United States draws not anger but bewilderment. Wasn’t it King’s dream to end all racism? Lei asked. “He has always dreamed that people from all over the world will not be judged by the color of their skin -- that we would all be brothers and sisters and enjoy equal opportunity. Now I have the luck to get this opportunity,” he said.

To be fair, I can understand where those who criticize the choice of sculptor are coming from. The Civil Rights Movement was a defining moment not only for American society and history, but particularly for the African-American community. It was a proud and shining instance in which they collectively showed their strength, determination, and pride after centuries of brutal oppression. Their most important leader of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Since he was the most visible public figure from such a socially significant time period and is an almost God-like hero to the many African Americans, I can see why so many people feel insulted that the sculptor for a monument to their leader was not “one of them.”

As someone who specializes in Asian American Studies, I can easily recognize that there are parallels in the Asian American community, such as in the examples of “yellowface” where White actors are cast to portray Asian characters, the most recent example of which was Brian Dennehy playing Kublai Khan . This “yellowface” casting is a very sore spot for many Asian Americans, as it should be.

At the same time, Lei’s supporters are absolutely right when they say that one of Dr. King’s most enduring legacies is that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters. In this case, the sculptor was chosen for the quality and impact of his creative work. 

diversity9a In recent incidents about the sub-par and even dangerous quality of goods made in China, Americans certainly have a right to complain and to be wary of such Chinese “products.” But in this case, Dr. King’s memorial is not being “outsourced” overseas like it is some kind of t-shirt, toothpaste, or running shoe. The memorial is being created by a world-renown artist who happens to be Chinese.

Some of the same criticisms were leveled at Maya Lin when she won the competition to design the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC more than two decades ago. Many veterans were insulted and offended that the lead designer was not “one of them,” (a White male), or at least someone who fit the conventional picture of an “American.”

But as it turned out, the Viet Nam War Memorial is the most popular attraction in Washington DC and Maya Lin’s simple, elegant, and poignant design has proved incredibly moving and healing to millions of Americans from all backgrounds.

My sincere hope is that this issue does not turn into another wedge that will ultimately divide Asian Americans and African Americans. Dr. King’s legacy was to unite and integrate, not to accuse and vilify. With that in mind, I hope that the African-American community and all Americans in general give Yixin Lei the same opportunity to come through with an equally impressive tribute.


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A major point being missed by those criticizing our protest is that China is an incidental player, circumstantially involved by the MLK Memorial Foundation. They failed to allow a fair and open process after accepting $10 Million in federal funding. The capacity to produce this project well in the US was purposely and willfully neglected by the MLK Foundation. Our protest concerns our right to interpret our own history as we are well capable of doing.

Lei may be a good man- I've not met him- but he is no more American than I am Chinese. Neither one of us should be ashamed of our heritage nor expected to relinquish it without protest.

I have been accurately quoted in the media about being heartbroken to see what conditions granite workers in China must suffer. Death by silicosis, common in such silica dust-laden work environments, is agonizing. My family knows it well, having endured such injury over the past 117 years in the US Granite Industry. It can be readily managed, but is generally not in many parts of the world outside the USA- including China. Their craftsmen and women are my peers and need not suffer.

I am Clint Button, US Granite Industry to King Is Ours. I am also a full time US Granite Industry Sculptor www. carolinasculpturestudio. com, one of a dozen left in the USA. Working with Gilbert Young, we stood in Barre VT on Nov 8, 2007 surrounded nearly a dozen US Granite Industry Master Sculptors and Carvers- including the three who carved the 24 ft tall statue serving as backdrop for our Press Conference. MLK Foundation CEO Harry Johnson responded by saying "It's a lost art, if you will." Denied maybe- but not lost. Not yet. No one there ever got a chance to bid on the project.

On MLK Day, Jan 21, 2008, Gilbert Young and I will stand in Elberton, GA- the Granite Capitol of the World- with US Granite Industry African American Stonecutters. They are infuriated that, although they work not two hours from Dr. King's home in Atlanta, their region was never even contacted to bid on the project. Stone Mountain region visits claimed made by the MLK Foundation are a sham- no quarries have operated there since the 1970's, with all manufacturing operations reverting to Elberton by mutual agreement at that time. Furthermore, no quarries in the US operate on Sundays.

Now it is said US Parties will have opportunity to bid on the leftovers- the sidewalks, benches and walls. The most important part, the 28 ft tall feature statue, will still be 100% Made in China with 100% Chinese granite- quarried/produced under virtual slave labor conditions. Of the projected $100 Million budget, $10 Million was appropriated by Congress in June 05. Federal money means an open and fair process which NEVER occurred.

US artists, artisans and companies still get to sit wherever we like- as long as it's in the back of the bus, we're quiet and don't make any trouble. This is as wrong now as it was decades ago.

Granite Sculpture typically involves reproduction of an artist's design (done in clay) into larger scale in granite by media-fluent industry artisans. To render such a design from an African American artist or artist team into granite using American Master Artisans is the ideal scenario. It will be a multi-ethnic team of Americans producing our interpretation of our history.

This memorial even provides viable opportunity for training a new generation of granite sculptors, learning under 30- and 40-yr veterans of the industry. Aside from the multi-ethnic make-up, such scenario offers possibly for thousands of Americans to strike the stone and participate in Dr. King's memorialization, while growing the very best into the next generation of artistic leaders. Instead of the MLK Foundation's representation that it cannot be done in America- we will all look back upon what we did together. Can there be a more appropriate memorialization to Dr. King than that?

Do something more than simply talk before it is too late. Sign our petition, linked at www. kingisours. com Contact your State and US Congressional reps to demand 100% US Labor and 100% US Materials. Demand full transparency of the entire process from those responsible. Google Gilbert Young, King Is Ours, King Memorial Protest, Clint Button, etc and understand the full truth- not the racist spin and partial truth being pedaled by the MLK Foundation and segments of the media.

Following the lead of King Is Ours, the US granite Industry, CA NAACP, VT Congressional Delegation and many more are already pursuing what is right. But more help is needed. What can each person reading this do to help?

This will be the last great statue on our National Mall. Repatriation of this memorial could happen easily, if not for the egos of the MLK Foundation leadership. They will be heroes or will forever taint Dr. King's legacy. Do not let them corrupt our shared American history.

It is time for even the executives of the MLK Foundation to be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character- not just their critics. They are deliberately destroying our history to their own selfish good fortune- just look at their tax returns at www. guidestar. com. Expenses, in comparison to tangible results, are staggering. They have also failed to admit/report that one of their touted African American Artists Consultants tendered his resignation over two months ago, yet they still represent in subsequent interviews that he is part of their efforts. They must be held accountable.

Join us. Do what it right before it is too late. King Is Ours.

Clint Button
King Is Ours- US Granite Industry Liaison
Gilbert Young
King Is Ours- Founder and Executive Director
www. kingisours. com

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