Hapa: The Face of the Future
“Have you met Kip yet?”
While screening my latest animated Hapa short film, “What Are You Anyways?” at the 2006 Newport Beach Film Festival, in California, every filmmaker I met asked me if I had met Kip Fulbeck, an artist, writer, filmmaker and photographer extraordinaire. Kip is America’s number one Hapa rights advocate and has become quite the celebrity. “Hapa” has become the buzzword used to describe people of mixed racial heritage with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry. Derived from the derogatory
Hawaiian term “Hapa Haole”, meaning half white foreigner, Asians of mixed race have started using Hapa as a pride word to describe their beautifully blended backgrounds. Everyone I talk to knows someone who is of mixed Asian decent, and while Hapas currently only make up 0.6% of the total population of the Greater Vancouver District, the mixed-race population is growing at impressive rates. Expanding so fast, that in the not to distant future, Vancouver could find itself with a mixed-race majority. With the rate of interracial marriages on the rise, Hapas are the future faces of the 21st century.
Like myself, Kip Fulbeck is an Asian and Euro-mutt hybrid. Kip, a mix of Cantonese, English, Irish and Welsh, lives in California where he has been making films, art and books on the Hapa experience for over 16 years. I first discovered Kip about a year and a half ago after completing my Hapanimated film. I decided to embark on a quest to seek out the world of Hapa. The one thing I discovered from Googling “Hapa” on the internet was that most people of mixed-race face identity issues, racism and cultural confusion. After more searching, I came across Fulbeck’s website (www.seaweedproductions.com), which ninja-kicked me in the face. Kip is an avid and accomplished filmmaker who created many influential short films about Hapa issues, such as the landmark videofilm, Banana Split (1991), and Lilo and me (2003), where he compares himself to a variety of “ethnically ambiguous” Disney characters such as Pocahontas, Aladdin, Mowgli, and of course, Lilo. The result is an honest and hilarious look at the qualms of being a Hapa. Kip is currently living up to his reputation as the “It” Hapa with his recent launch of a new photo book, Part Asian – 100% Hapa. The launch of his book couldn’t have come at a better time.
Hapas are a recent trend in the media. The appeal of Asian mixed-race models and actors, with their almond-shaped hazel eyes and freckled tan skin, lies in how they represent the everyman. Intrigue is also provoked when someone’s background is ambiguous. Furthermore, there is an exoticism in being multiracial, and Hapas ask us to question issues of purity, racism, and self. Prominent Hapas, such as Keanu Reeves and Tiger Woods, can be found throughout film, television, the arts, and sports, but ultimately there is little mainstream awareness focusing on issues of mixed-race and identity. Considering Canada is the land of multiculturalism, shouldn’t there be some focus on the kids who are the product of this diverse intermixing?
Fulbeck’s battle is to develop a concrete identity for the koala bear haired, perma tanned Brandon Lee loving, Hapas of the world. Why do multiracial people even need an identity? I grew up in Kelowna, BC, being a mixed Japanese and Euro-mutt. In other words, Hapa. Learning the term “Hapa” has given me an identity after years spent dealing with people always asking me what I am and living with the nickname, “Super Nip”. My entire life has been spent insisting to people that I am not Mexican, Aboriginal, Brazilian or Hawaiian but half-Japanese. Most Asian cultures have their own derogatory words for us halfers. In countries like Vietnam, con-lai means half-breed and Bui doi, is used to describe half-White, half-Vietnamese individuals, although when translated, it means “dust of the earth”. People of mixed blood are called ‘hue xue’ in Mandarin and ‘honhyeol’in Korean. Even in North America, people use words like Haafu to describe half-Japanese kids or Chindian to describe those who are half-Chinese and half-Indian. Some Asians of mixed decent use words like Halvsies, Halfers, Multiracial, Biracial, or Eurasians to describe themselves. If mixed-race Asians and part Asians have to be called something, it might as well be a word that we can use to unite us. Hapa is just that word.
While on my first visit to Kip’s website, I noticed a link to “The Hapa Project”, a photography project. In sheer wonderment, I gazed at amazing photos of Hapas of all ages looking intensely into the camera that I could see their life stories reflected in their eyes. Each photo is framed from the shoulders up – raw, naked, void of expression – against a glowing white background. Under each photo each participant answered the question, “What Are You?” in their own handwriting. Each response is completely unique, emotional, creative and beautiful.
In particular, one photo of a young boy, who was of Filipino, Mexican and Irish decent, struck me. He answered in broken cursive writing, “I am a very little boy in 5th grade that has no friends.” I sat at my computer and cried. I knew his sadness because I was that same boy with hair that would never lie flat. Looking through the photos, I was suddenly struck with a realization: I had finally found my tribe - a tribe of exotic, ethnically ambiguous mutts.
Currently, Kip has developed “The Hapa Project” by releasing the book Part Asian – 100% Hapa. The book is filled with over 100 photos of Hapas with different experiences being of mixed Asian decent in America. Kip travelled around the US photographing over a thousand Hapas. He even captured some famous ones such as actress Amy Hill, musician Sean Lennon and members of the band POD. For Kip, it was a book he always wished he had growing up: “an introduction to the rest of the world and an affirmation for Hapas themselves, it presents the individuals and their growing community to the world, a reality that will no longer be ignored.”
For me, Kip is important because he makes it known why people should care about the presence of Hapas. If basketball players strive to be like Mike, I, as a Hapa spokesman, strive to be like Kip. So, while at Newport, I had to jump at the chance to meet him. While schmoozing at film festival, I met filmmaker Robert Horsting, who put me in touch with Kip, a very busy man. Not only is he touring around the US promoting his book, but Kip is also the Professor and Chair of Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition, he is also a national level Master’s swimmer, an avid surfer, photographer, stand-up comedian, performance artist, guitar player, ocean lifeguard and soon-to-be husband. But Kip and I finally met in Santa Barbara, his hometown, on my way up the coast.
Fulbeck looks like a 6’1” version of Mowgli from Disney’s The Jungle Book: long dark hair, dark skin, big smile – only fully clothed and not riding on the back of a black panther named Bagheera. He mentioned that he was excited to watch my film, the first of its kind to present issues surrounding race and identity for Hapas through animation, and that he is also interested in screening it during his Hapa Project exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in LA next month. He asked me if I was going to continue making Hapa films, but I responded that I would like to expand and move away from the subject. Kip notes that no matter what I make, it will be a Hapa film because I am a Hapa filmmaker. I never really thought of it like that before, but I agree.
As we continued our conversation I found out that the next day would be his 41st birthday. It was hard for me to believe because Kip looks and acts like he’s in his late twenties, with his laid-back surfer mentality and casual clothes. During the middle of the conversation he took off his sweater, revealing two full-length sleeves of traditional Japanese tattoos - not something you’d expect from a university professor and chair. He says his youthful appearance and attitude must be because he’s Hapa.
We began discussing the emails we get from Hapas in response to our work. Kip mentioned that due to his busy schedule he doesn’t get to respond to as many emails as he would like. As artists we have to remember that our work is going to inspire, enrage, entice, and liberate people. I told him about an email I received recently from a half-Japanese girl who lived in a very white-supremacist place in Pennsylvania. She had seen my film online and wrote about how her Hapa brother had committed suicide because of his friends always calling him Chink and Gook and his co-workers called him Al-Qaeda. She mentioned how my film cheered her up a little and how she enjoyed my Hapa story. By making the film, it made me feel like I had done some good in the world. But the next bit took me for a loop: a couple days later she emailed and mentioned that she too was going to commit suicide because she had no friends or support from the community and missed her brother. She was really reaching out for help. She then mentioned that this might be the last email I would receive from her. Kip looked at me weirdly and asked, “So how’d you handle it?” I told him, I sat at my computer for a long time wondering why supporting her was even my responsibility. After all, I just made a film. Then I thought, it might just be a movie, but it’s touched the life of someone who is now reaching out for help. I wrote her back a positive email telling her never to loose hope and as Hapas, we must take pride in our blended heritage. It took a few days for her to email back but she did and thanked me for helping her understand the value of life even in the darkest moments.
Even though I partied with Bai Ling, hung out with comedian Will Ferrell and ate Wahoo’s fish tacos for lunch all week, meeting Kip Fulbeck was definitely the highlight of my California trip. After another hour spent with Kip talking about life, art, film, and the future, we parted ways by saying our good-byes, taking a picture to commemorate our first meeting, and having him sign my copy of the Hapa bible, Part Asian – 100% Hapa, by writing “For Jeff – Hapa Brother!”
Jeff Chiba Stearns is an award winning animator and filmmaker. His hapanimation, “What Are You Anyways?” is available on DVD by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out www.meditatingbunny.com to watch a trailer of "What Are You Anyways?" or read about his filmmakering adventures at www.hapanimation.com