Archive for July, 2009
Just got back from a long weekend in Vegas, but I didn’t do any gambling, see any shows or go to the Liberace Museum (though I did eat at a couple buffets). Instead I spent most of my time consorting with a crowd of fired-up labor union activists at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) convention. Equal parts awards ceremony, strategy session, and revival meeting, the APALA convention rocked the old-school trade unionist rhetoric with more than 300 delegates from across the country. I got a crash course in union acronyms—represented at the convention were IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), SEIU (Service Employees International Union), AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), IFPTE (International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees), and CWU (Culinary Workers Union), to name just a few. I met homecare workers, teachers, electricians, lab techs, hotel and restaurant workers, longshoremen, nurses, ironworkers (not to be confused with steelworkers, who were also in the house), and straight-up union organizers, all of whom were dedicated to the cause of uplifting and honoring the worker and making sure we all get paid a living wage.
Some of the convention’s most interesting aspects were the various forms of creative expression, both subtle and overt, that repeatedly surfaced during the weekend. Songs and poetry by labor unionists go way back, and one of the convention’s speakers, Johanna Puno Hestor, referenced this long history by quoting from a poem by famed Pinoy farmworker and organizer Philip Vera Cruz. Chants and unions also go together hand in glove and one of my favorite moments was when John Delloro of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute let rip with a full-throated rendition of the old picket-line chant, “We Are The Union,” getting the whole convention to swing it with him. Several other times during the proceedings a speaker would spontaneously bust out with a rousing chant in various languages including Spanish, Tagalog, and Mandarin as well as English.
The connections between art and activism were further explicated throughout the convention. Rapper Kiwi, formerly of Native Guns, and Geo Quibuyen, aka Geologic, aka Prometheus Brown, blogger and a member of Seattle’s isangmahal arts kollective and one-half of the rap duo Blues Scholars, led a standing-room-only workshop entitled “Cultural Activism and The Fight For Workers’ Rights,” which looked at the work of sansei singer/songwriter Chris Iijima, Pilipino filmmaker Lino Brocka, Tupac Shakur, and writer Carlos Bulosan, linking their creative work to issues of human rights and social justice. Rick Rocamora gave a slide show of his luminous and evocative black-and-white photographs from “Filipino World War II Soldiers: America’s Second-Class Veterans,” his book about the Pinoy soldiers’ struggle to receive benefits from the U.S. government. On the filmmaking tip, Tam Tran screened “Lost And Found,” her poignant short documentary (see below) about Stephanie Solis, a UCLA undergraduate and undocumented immigrant who entered the U.S. as a child. Both Tran and Solis spoke in support of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would facilitate legal status for many young people who are, due to the peculiarities of U.S. immigration law, in permanent non-citizen limbo.
All in all the convention was pretty informative and enlightening, with much more lively speeches than the dry-as-dust presentations I’m used hearing at, say, your standard academic conference. I enjoyed the convocation being referred to as “sisters and brothers” and it was fun to hear the boos and gasps of shock when particularly nefarious employers were called on the carpet for their various transgressions (ten-hour work day! no lunch break! no overtime!). The topics discussed were particularly relevant to me since my own union, the California Faculty Association, just voted on whether or not to accept work furloughs equaling a 10% pay cut. Trade unions may seem outdated and retro but with the Republican policies of the last presidential administration resulting in the current economic meltdown, maybe there’s something to be said for fairer labor practices and a return to honoring workers instead of exploiting them. In the end, it’s all about doing right by as many people as possible instead of only looking out for yourself, which really isn’t a bad thing at all.
A few fun facts:
Only 12% of U.S. workers are union members, with only 9% of the private sector unionized.
All of the hotels on the Vegas strip save one (The Venetian, boooo!) are union shops.
It took more than six years to unionize the MGM Grand Hotel.
Here’s Tam Tran’s short about Stephanie Solis and the DREAM Act.
UPDATE: May 16, 2010: Terrible news–Tam Tran was just killed in a car accident in Maine today when a pickup truck crossed the meridian and crashed head on into a car she was riding in. I’d only met Tam once, after she showed the above video, and she was a promising young filmmaker and activist. All thoughts to her family and friends.
UPDATE 2: June 6, 2010. More incredibly bad news–just found out today that John Delloro died of a heart attack yesterday. This is quite shocking to me since John was an incredibly vibrant person who was literally bursting with life. I’d only met him once, at the APALA convention last year, but I was more than impressed with his incredible energy, dedication, and optimism. The Asian American community has lost a a potentially great leader who has passed long before his time. We can only hope that in his memory we will all continue his work toward peace, justice, and the betterment of the world for all.
And for good measure, the lyrics to Which Side Are You On?, written by Florence Reece in 1931 during a strike by the United Mine Workers of America in which her husband, Sam Reece, was an organizer.
Which Side Are You On?
Come all you good workers,
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
My daddy was a miner,
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I’ll stick with the union
‘Til every battle’s won.
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can?
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?
Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.
I’ve known for a while that Shah Rukh Khan’s newest movie, My Name Is Khan (MNIK), would be filming in California this summer and I was amused to think that the King of Bollywood, as well as his equally fabulous co-star, Kajol, would possibly be within a few hundred miles of me sometime this month.
When the movie shoot finally arrived here I realized that, according to various Bollywood fansites, MNIK was not only filming in California but in San Francisco, within miles of my house. Like the good otaku that I am, I tried to track down the production in hopes of possibly seeing SRK up close and in person.
At first I tried to trace SRK’s whereabouts via twitter, but the news was always a little too late—I found out he was at the Palace of Fine Arts a day after the shoot there; he was at Dolores Park on a Friday but I read about it the following Sunday; the movie crew was in the South Bay for a couple days but it was impossible and insane for me to drive two hours in the hopes of crashing a closed set to catch a glimpse of him. Then by chance I ran into an Indian couple at my excellent local video store, Four-Star Video, and chatted with them in front of the store’s newly inaugurated Bollywood section (full disclosure: I helped Ken Shelf, the store’s awesome proprietor, pick out several of the movies therein and wrote the blurbs for him, too). The Indian couple mentioned that they’d just been extras on MNIK and that the production was probably still seeking people for the last couple days of filming. So I raced home and looked up the information about becoming an extra, emailed the casting agency, and within a couple hours had received a call back to work on the very last day of the shoot.
It sounded great at first, but then I found out that the location was in Healdsburg, which is about 1.5 hours north of where I live, and the call time was 6 pm, with shooting to possibly go up to 4 am. Would I be able to keep my eyes open? (I hadn’t pulled an all-nighter in many a year, especially without extreme chemical assistance). Would my kids freak out if I was gone that long? Where the hell would I sleep once the shoot was over?
In a panic I posted on facebook—what to do? As expected nearly everyone who responded urged me to do it, but I was still undecidedly fretting about it the next day. Finally I figured out the logistics (take a nap earlier that day, don’t let the kids know I’d be gone all night, sleep at a friend’s place), but when I called the casting agency back, they’d already filled their quota for extras! Ah, the irony! but they put me on the backup list in case there was a cancellation. I sulked for a few hours, then the casting folks called back and told me I was in.
So at 6 pm the next day, after fighting holiday rush hour traffic up Highway 101, I signed in at the location with 300 other extras and settled down with a book (The Golden Compass) and my iPhone (to live-tweet the whole event) and waited the extra wait. As anyone knows who’s worked as talent on a movie, there’s a whole lot of sitting around interspersed by brief bursts of shooting activity, then more sitting around, repeated ad infinitum. True to form, the extras weren’t bussed to the set until three hours after we’d arrived—by then filming had started and things were jumping.
Myself and a few other eagle-eyed fans quickly spotted Kajol, MNIK’s beautiful, violet-eyed lead actress, near the edge of the shoot as she hung out shooting the breeze with the natty, baby-faced Karan Johar, the film’s director. I was disappointed to see that Kajol had tweezed her famous unibrow but she looked great nonetheless. Since this was one of the last days of filming there was much back-slapping and souvenir picture-taking amongst the cast and crew. I managed to fire off a couple of surreptitious, fuzzy pictures on my iPhone and post them on twitter before one of Kajol’s handlers asked me to stop.
More waiting around, then we extras, or “background,” in Bollywood parlance, were pressed into action. I was envious of the fancy lighting rig, including a huge, helium-filled china-ball lantern that floated many feet above the crowd, and two twenty-by-thirty foot scrims to diffuse the giant lights that lit the scene. This was a top-notch, high-end production, with a crew of about 200, and as complex and professionally run as any Hollywood set I’ve been on (which, admittedly, have been very few).
After a while filming without any of the principle actors, I was standing near the edge of the set when a ripple went through the crowd. And there he was, cigarette in hand, strolling up the path with an entourage of about 15 people, five feet from where I stood. He was wearing a white caftan and looked quite kingly, in a casual sort of way. Needless to say I was overcome by fangirl recklessness and, with a tiny shriek, called out, “Shah Rukh!” SRK waved lazily in our general direction and continued on his way. As he passed by us another, much louder series of screams and calls came from the other side of the plaza where we were shooting and I realized that a good-sized crowd had formed at the perimeter of the location, held back by several wary-looking security guards and a ring of caution tape. Apparently every Indian in Sonoma County had gotten wind of the filming and had trekked to Healdsburg in hopes of spying Shah Rukh Khan, and now that the man himself had arrived they were very vocal in expressing their delight.
The crowd, seemingly consisting of entire families, stayed on until well past midnight. At one point SRK waved directly at the eager onlookers and they shrieked in admiration, but whenever the AD called “Silence!” (Bollywood-speak for “quiet on the set”), they quickly fell into rapt quiescence. Amongst the extras, however, the majority were unfamiliar with SRK—a few people asked me who he was and which of his films they should watch (all of them!). There were some clued-in folks, though, including one (non-Indian) couple who had driven down from Washington State to be near their idol, and many others who kept up a constant low chatter in Hindi and boldly snapped photos of King Khan and Kajol despite the ADs stern admonitions not to do so.
At one point SRK stood about ten feet from me in the crowd, but I was too cowed by the constantly prowling ADs to try to take a picture, for fear of being thrown off the set. But I did live-tweet most of the night and early on, before I lost my nerve, I shot and posted some blurry photos. This was quite fun and helped me to stave off boredom, especially when several people began following and tweeting back for more information.
In person SRK looked exactly like he does onscreen, though perhaps a bit more slender and compact. He’s also very focused when he’s performing, though between takes he was pretty chill, taking lots of ciggie breaks and chatting with assorted paparazzi. Likewise, Kajol didn’t have any diva moments and hung out on set most of the time with the rest of us peons instead of hiding in her trailer. Altogether it was a pretty tightly run ship, without any star-drama or untoward extra-abuse. We were allowed to watch the filming, sit down, or wander about between takes, we got decently fed at the appropriate hour, and no one on the crew yelled at us just to vent their emotions.
When we finally wrapped at about 2.30 am, the extras were instructed to head toward the bus that would take us back to our staging area a few blocks away. But about fifty people bolted in the opposite direction, swarming after the departing Shah Rukh Khan as he left the set. Security tried in vain to divert us but the extras, many of whom were South Asian, weren’t about to miss their chance after standing in the cold for six-and-a-half hours. Luckily SRK was really cool and allowed several people to take pictures with him, as well as signing many autographs. I got a couple of blurry but reasonable photos of him, though I was hampered by the lack of a zoom lens or a flash on my iPhone. And so my fangirl night was complete—
UPDATE: Ironically, Shah Rukh Khan was just detained by while trying to enter the U.S. at the Newark (New Jersey) airport for almost two hours for unclear reasons. Speculation is that his last name (which is common among Muslim Indians) set off alarm bells at the airport.
According to the New York Daily News, after the incident SRK texted to reporters, “I was really being hassled, perhaps because of my name being Khan. These guys wouldn’t let me through.”
I can just imagine the exchange in the Customs interrogation room:
SRK: I’m the biggest movie star in India!”
SRK: I’m here as to lead a parade celebrating Indian independence!
Customs: Sure you are.
SRK: A billion people recognize me by sight!
Customs: But we don’t. So tell us the real reason you’re coming to America, MISTER Khan.
Although his travel papers were in order, at first Shah Rukh Khan wasn’t permitted to use his cell phone and, despite being recognized by several fellow travelers, he was only released after he was allowed to call the Indian embassy and an official vouched for him.
There’s a huge discussion on twitter about it and some wags speculate that it’s all a publicity stunt to promote MNIK. Whatever the truth may be, you can be sure that the shrewd and canny SRK will be milking for all it’s worth.