Disenfranchised Souls

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“Have you ever heard of Dunning?”, I posed this question to a few of my friends in their fifties and above. All of them answered with a resounding “Yes!”. Dunning, to them, represented as sort of a mythological folklore that their parents told to them as kids.

“If you were bad,” they warned, “you get sent to Dunning.” It became associated with those that are permanently labeled as “criminally insane” or “mentally unfit” or “too poor and sick” for society.  That ominous threat from parents was a reality for many folks who once inhabited the Dunning area, located on the Chicago Portage Park neighborhood in the Northwest Side. It served as the site of one of the most prominent mental asylums in Illinois (Chicago Read Mental Health Center currently exists), and strategically located away from the heavily populace of downtown Chicago. Through the years, that area has undergone a transformation with major housing and retail development as the stories about Dunning have largely gone untold and forgotten by many. It wasn’t until a recent story a few years back on Chicago’s WBEZ site that ignited renewed interest about Dunning’s dark past, and the current national dialogue concerning mental health. It would also reveal that 25 years ago, a large number of bodies in unmarked graves were discovered in the midst of developing land for housing, retail, and Wilbur Wright College.

Dunning was originally built as a farmhouse for the poor who were unable to obtain a job in the city. As Chicago’s population grew during the massive migration wave towards the turn of the 20th century, the city faced overcrowding, fewer job opportunities, and heavy poverty. The farmhouse would take in many more poor folks, and eventually bring in those with mild to severe mental health issues. This would eventually lead to the formation of the Chicago State Hospital which covered a vast 300+ acres.

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Mental health treatment in those times were often neglected and barbaric as dangerous medical experimental procedures were often performed on patients. The facilities were overcrowded, the living conditions were horrid and unsanitary, and the lack of attention and care from the medical staff made it impossible for residents to get the treatment they badly needed. Like many mental asylums, Dunning was a permanent prison for these residents with almost no hope of being released. Mental hospitals were not seen as treatment, but as a place to ensure that those who were seen as misfits or outcasts from society would be kept away from them permanently. These patients would soon be discarded and forgotten, and live out the rest of their lives in isolation and confinement. 20160402_131718.jpg

Many of the Dunning patients had little to no family support. When they had passed on. there was no financial assistance for a proper burial. Instead, they were buried with other corpses in unmarked graves with no public knowledge that there was even a graveyard on the facility grounds. It is told that there could be an estimated 38,000 human bodies buried there which included unidentified / unclaimed victims of the Chicago Fire of 1871. With incomplete and vague record-keeping of patients who lived and died in these grounds, the full narratives of these lives will remain an eternal mystery. Recently, there’s been renewed interest in improving the awareness and honoring those buried in Dunning such as this Facebook page.

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VISITING DUNNING

On April Fool’s weekend, I decided to pay a visit to the Dunning site. After reading the article on WBEZ (posted earlier on this page), I became drawn to learning more of the place that housed so much suffering, and the patients that were rejected by society when they were living, and in death. I thought about our nationwide struggles in understanding mental health issues, and most certainly, in Illinois where it has ranked last in mental health funding. I still wonder about the well-being of people that I had once been connected to that have struggled with mental issues. Perhaps, visiting the memorial would give me a more intimate reflection towards the lives that were left abandoned into eternity.

The memorial park, located on Belle Plaine Avenue by Wilbur Wright College, is surrounded by middle-class suburbia. There were no street markers leading up to the memorial. In the background is a view of the bleak industrial buildings. This small land, about half the size of a little league baseball field, stands vacant and devoid of human interaction. Slightly overgrown grass, less than half a dozen damaged gravestones, a few round concrete grounds (that resembles a satanic circle) with memorial plaques commemorating those buried in these grounds, a park bench, a tiny narrow gravel path around the park, a tall naked tree, and a garbage can that stood by the entrance are all that is present at Dunning Memorial.

Five minutes into my visit, the calming winds soon turned blusterous. Snow flakes furiously pelted across my face as the winds resisted my advances to move forward. It’s as if these souls were telling me to leave them alone. I acquiesced , and left the park in the midsts of an unusual April winter storm. As I drove, there was a street sign called “Bittersweet Place,” a symbolic irony that for years, Dunning was a place for those considered to be misfits and outcasts of society, and now, it’s a bustling middle-class neighborhood with a senior residence building and community college in its presence. Though the park lacks the proper honor and dignity for those lives, there is something to be said that those souls lying in those grounds are now sharing their space with their living neighbors. I can only imagine that they are finally back in a community that they have long been rejected from, and perhaps, there is some kind of solace that comes with that.

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All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim

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A Refugee’s Souvenir

 

 

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My aunt pictured here with my uncle during a family trip to Niagara Falls (Summer 1991)

Years ago, as a kid, I went down to Florida to see my family on my father’s side. Aunt Phanh, who was my favorite aunt & mother figure, always enjoyed a good laugh, and played with my brothers and cousins when we were all kids. For all her jolliness, she ran a tight ship, enforcing rules in her home to make sure we weren’t causing mischief. The tall bamboo cane was there in her presence, in case one of my more troublesome cousins decided to test her boundaries. One evening, she asked me to massage her back and apply lotion to her. As I open up the back of her shirt, I noticed that there was a distant brown scar across her back. I asked her, “what is that?” My aunt softly murmured, “they used to hit me.”

 

“Who did?”, I asked. She didn’t reply to me, so I decided not to go further. A few years later, my aunt would be stricken with illness, and her health began to deteriorate. One night, her son Shawn took me aside and quietly said, “I gotta tell you something about my mom. She’s tough. She’s had to be tough her whole life. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be here.”

 

The scar came from her stay at a Thai refugee camp. She, along with her family escaped their homeland in the Khmer Krom (the land that was once a part of Cambodia, and now Vietnam) by boat due to the ongoing Vietnam War. Their communities, destroyed, desecrated, and offered little in the way of hope. Perhaps, just maybe, the ground that absorbed so much blood in their home, they can finally see a ground that breeds for the living.

 

The guards hovered over the camp site, and ordered the adults to be separated by gender, with the kids staying with their mothers. Any hint of disobedience or unfulfilled responsibility by one of the refugees would result in group punishment.

 

My cousin Shawn remembered one particular chilling moment. The guard hysterically yelled out, “Who did this?” pointing to a few grains of rice dropped on the floor. The ominous silence pervaded through the room. Heads hung low. The guard commanded the women to stand facing the wall. Then, the bamboo cane cracked through the backs of each woman. Some cried in pain, one fell to the floor. My aunt stood there, shaken and holding back tears. Her 3 kids all under the age of 10 had to witness their mother getting beaten. For weeks, they lived through the physical abuse, imprisonment, and being reminded that their existence was to be punished.

 

In the midst of living in refugee hell, their parents reminded themselves that if their journey for their family’s liberation could handle just one more long, traumatic, death-defying course, then maybe their children wouldn’t have to be buried as children.
As the family permanently settled in the US, the scar tissues that lie across my aunt’s back served as a souvenir of that refugee life. The tears, the fears, the restlessness of it all, are filled in the surface of that very scar.

 

All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Body Sessions

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Contemplating between home & the outside world: My purgatory

Contemplating between home & the outside world: My purgatory

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Body Sessions

Earlier this year, I collaborated with my trusted friend, Mary Hauser. After enduring another harsh Chicago winter season, we did a photo project that celebrated the end of winter, and the rebirth of Chicago coinciding with the arrival of Spring. Being reinvigorated through our collaboration, we decided to come together for another project for this blog.

This time, I wanted to connect my narratives into photographic images. I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to peel my own vulnerability that are stacked in layers by way of creating, and hoping that towards the end of the process, a feeling of liberation will take place.

Collaboration is an intimate, creative process that involves a high level of trust, sensitivity, and understanding. To do a project requires understanding each other’s narratives, passions, fears, and mission.

I’ve long been drawn to black and white photography. With color, we capture what our eyes could see. We see the beauty, the invitation, destruction, and violence through our subject(s). With black and white, there are a series of gradations of light and shade that impacts what is revealed and what remains hidden. Vulnerability is my motif. Through the black and white medium, I wanted to capture parts of my vulnerability through my own space / my sanctuary. With it, comes the various degrees of shade / darkness that brings about the process of slowly coming to terms with certain aspects of myself. Originally, I looked at this project specifically from a black and white perspective, but decided to add in the color shots as I am in a more comfortable process of overcoming certain barriers with my own body and self. While there is light revealed in these specific parts through the b & w medium, there are more still to be uncovered through the abundance of darkness.

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“I am guided by the light above as I stare into the darkness.”

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Staring at the unfulfilled dreams from an immigrant son

Representing What We Wear

On an unseasonably warm November Saturday morning, I prepared myself for our full-day photo shoot in my studio apartment. I wanted to express my lifelong insecurity about my own body, and the everyday angst of having to choose clothing that acts as some sort of agency for my identity. The photo shoot had been marinating in my mind for months. I was going to reveal myself in a way that I never would have envisioned.

Our first shoot was done in the hallway of my apartment floor. Whenever my mom would stay with me, weeks at a time, I thought about how often I would go out, sit by the stairwell, having a phone conversation with my friend, and then using that space when my own safe space is already being compromised by someone I love dearly. Whenever I would come home from a day’s work, I would stand by the stairwell for several minutes to have my own brief moment of solitude before having to greet my mom at the door. The hallway / stairwell has almost become my purgatory between the outside world and my own home.

Then, I prepared for my next shoot. I went into my bathroom, got undressed and wrapped myself around my blue towel. Mary asked me a few times if I was okay, and each time, I said “Yes, I’m good to go.” I plopped down and stared straight into my messy closet. Mary has never seen me in the buff before and she made a few catcalls along the way. Several of my clothes were on the floor. I channeled my inner anxiety of what I wanted to wear.I thought about growing up as a working-class immigrant child, and how one’s visibility was scrutinized by my peers through the kind of clothes we wore to school. I was far from being the best-dressed, and my parents were not inclined to buy me the NBA starter jackets, to the Tommy Hilfigers and Nautica brands just so I can appease my peers.

When I started working my part-time jobs in high school and college, I became increasingly conscious about what I wore each day. I wanted to earn respect which I struggled to do growing up. I was anxious to prove that I was a man of good taste, someone that would be desirable to date, and as a reflection of my intelligence.

When I had lived abroad in Korea, I taught in a poorer part of Busan, its second largest city. Fashion is prominent in that country. Korean actors / actresses, pop singers and models grace every billboard, cell phone store and LCD flatscreen TVs. I was a tad too heavy by Korean, let alone, Asian standards as my clothing sizes were a hard find at many of the stores. Some store employees would gesture the large “X” mark with their hands when I entered into their store. In the next several months, I began to lose weight, and when I did, I immersed myself onto the fashion scene, donning vests, hats, tight blue jeans. My students would be in full envy whenever I got into “fashion beast mode.” They oohed and ahh’d with whatever I was wearing. Sure, it gave me an ego boost, but soon thereafter, I realized that many of them did not have the luxury of having nice clothes. I was also reminded of my own past when obtaining name-brand clothing was scarce in my family.

I also thought about the times when I used to go to a formal work function, or put on a new pair of glasses, and a colleague or two would come up to me, and say, “you look so smart”. It’s as if you have to spend more resources on your appearances in order for your peers to validate your intelligence.

I think about how the clothes I wear each day represents a partial piece of my personality, my narrative, or associations of past memories. I think about how our clothes affect our relationship with the people we come in contact with. I think about how each layer of clothing we put on makes us choose what parts of our identities we feel most comfortable in revealing.

In the process of being captured in my own nakedness, I felt a sense of that liberation. Prior to the shoot, I had been uncomfortable with my own body for weeks because of my weight battles. I decided that if I wanted to express that insecurity, that vulnerability, it would be in a place that I should feel most safe in.

I stared into my bathroom door mirror, and Mary asked me to hold a blanket to my chest. I thought about my future. That I am now holding onto my youthfulness and being scared to let go. I thought about my family whose health has been problematic, and wondered if I would be next. I closed my eyes, embraced my blanket, lovingly wrapped my arms around my waist, and reassured myself that I’ll be safe.

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“My Body is a Barrier”

“I’m half child, half ancient”—Bjork

My mind is restless, constantly envisioning imageries of utopia. Pleasures abound with Herculean lovemaking conquests, triumphant declarations of justice, limitless movement between existent spaces, and achieving the greatest prize of all, immortality, are the kind of magical dreams that conjure up during my nights of rest.

Immortality, humankind’s greatest fantasy, still remains defeated against Father Time. Even in our heroic efforts to keep it at bay, we inevitably fall to the decay that leads to our eventual demise.

As I am into my 3rd decade of existence, I have been a witness to the cruelty that Father Time has afflicted upon to older members of my family. My grandma, from my mom’s side as well as the only living grandparent on both sides, has been struggling with dementia. On my mom’s side, my aunt passed away in 2010 in her upper 50s from cancer. From my father’s side, my youngest uncle died in 2012, only a few years shy of 60 while my oldest uncle has been fighting off mini strokes and diagnosed with Parkinson’s for the last decade, and more recently, my other uncle was diagnosed with Stage 1 colon cancer. For my parents, it has also been an ongoing battle. My mom, a few years ago, suffered a massive stroke, and is disabled, while my father (a Khmer Rouge survivor) has experienced a number of mental health issues. In all of these recent times, my family has been besieged by health problems over the age of 50.

Growing out of my youth, and into adulthood, I am faced with the reality that the folks who have been mentor figures in my life are now aging and slowly deteriorating.

As I look into my bathroom mirror, I started rubbing through the smooth layer of my skin, and touching the palm of my face, and I thought to myself, “What will become of me 20 years from now? What will the process of aging look like for me?”

“Am I going to be faced with the same, premature illnesses that have greatly affected members of my family? “

I never feared death, but I admittedly fear the process of dying. The loss of functioning, freedom, movement, expression, and having choices are all part of our interactions with mortality. Will I go blind? Will I be able to remember my trips to other countries or of my loved ones? Will I be confined to a wheelchair at the end of life? Though I am not mentally consumed by such future potential physical / mental downfalls on a daily basis, I start to ask questions about my quality of life. What are my ambitions? What are my barriers? How can I preserve the physical and mental foundation of my body?

I dream of waving my F-You finger to my family DNA that is ready to detonate inside of me at any given moment. I want to fight off Father Time a bit longer in battle, and not have to lose limbs before I finally give in.

The only chance I stand of reaching my immortality is living. Living to create. Creating for what I can leave behind that will stay in writing, in capturing, and in sharing. The body machine may break down, but Father Time can’t erase the miles I’ve left behind on this journey.

Today, I am in combat. Maybe this time, I will let my imagination guide me when my body can’t.

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My silhouette reflection

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For more on Mary’s work, please visit her site:

http://www.portfolio-of-maryhauser.weebly.com

Photography and Editing Credits: Mary Hauser

Additional edits: Randy Kim

All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim 2015

Dad, Stop Running

 

I need you to stop running. I am out of breath.

Don’t fear, for I am here

Because you are who I have left.

I used to wake up whenever I heard you scream

Only to realize you are imprisoned in this eternally, haunting dream.

You told me stories of how you walked past the remains of flesh and bones

As you heard the distant echoes of ghostly moans.

Phnom Penh, the home you once knew

Now became a sight of bloody carnage taking place in its view.

The small grain of rice you held in your hand,

Along with the guiding stars at night helped you get to Thailand.

You wanted to end the Khmer nightmare, and tried to make the American Dream,

So you created my brothers and me

But the images of death, fear, and guilt are experiences that you still can’t unsee.

You tried to see your father who lived in Vietnam. For when it was time to reunite,

Your father died just before you were to take that flight.

It could have been a reunion of 20 years…

Instead, for the first time at the age of 9, I saw your only tears.

During the day, in our old home, when I sat in my bed,

I hear your random yells in the kitchen, saying how much you want all those American, Vietnamese, Khmer soldiers dead.

At your best, you were a loving, caring dad

But deep inside, your lifelong traumas that have confined you

Have now driven you mad.

As I remain silent from you,

I never stopped wishing that your liberation from darkness will one day come true.

You don’t ever need to run

Because standing right next to you is your son.

 

 

All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim 2015

The Unbreakable Icon

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Entering her 4th decade, Janet Jackson has set the barometer of pop music success since her musical debut in 1982 at the age of 16. Along with her brother Michael and fellow peers Mariah, Madonna and Whitney, their work have often been referenced by current pop stars today. In recent years, Janet has disengaged herself from the public eye following the death of her brother. She has since been married and living a relatively low-key affair, until she reappeared this past summer to surprise fans with her upcoming album and a world tour (both for the first time in several years).

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This week has greeted Janet’s arrival to the Windy City for a 3-date show at the iconic Chicago Theatre. As a longtime Janet fan, I would finally get the chance to see her live for the first time in concert. In her last two tours, I was either unemployed (2008) or living in Korea where she didn’t make a stop there (2011). Growing up as a kid, I recalled hearing songs from the “Janet” album in the mid 90s such as her dance-rock workout “If” and her tearful ballad, “Again” dominate the B96 airwaves in Chicago. I was entranced by her futuristic sci-fi take on her collaboration with her brother in the music video, “Scream.” As the years went on, I connected parts of her music to certain events in my life. The song “Control” was Janet’s declaration of independence from her domineering showbiz father which resonated with my own problematic relationship with my father. Then there was the “Velvet Rope” album which took on depression and a pro-LGBTQ stance that came at a time when I was discovering my queer identity in high school, and the “All for You” song that I danced to on prom night that eventually got me voted as the Best Dancer in my senior class.

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With Janet soon approaching 50, she has taken a different approach with her new album “Unbreakable.” Unlike her last few albums, she is more focused on creating an adult-contemporary, R&B driven sound, rather than following the current trends that Rihanna, Ariana Grande are on now. She is back with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and she has shunned herself away from doing interviews and public appearances to promote the album aside from her tour. With the new album and her tour, she is unconcerned about making new fans and reaching out for the teenage audiences, but instead, doing it for her longtime fans and reminding them as to why she was more than just Michael’s little sister.

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I arrived early at the Chicago Theatre at 6:30 pm with my ticket in hand. A small crowd calmly gathered by the entrance as folks were eagerly snapping selfies by the theatre’s sign illuminating the arrival of Janet Jackson. As I was about to have my ticket checked, I was asked if I was a part of the VIP list which had me do a double take. I was asked if I got the tickets to a presale and pre-ordered her new album which I said yes. I was told that it would qualify me, and they asked me for my name which was on the list. Much to my surprise, I could barely contain my excitement as I soon found out that I could visit the private Janet room containing many of her memorabilia (I.E. MTV VMA awards, Grammys, wardrobe). The theatre itself had a magical aura surrounding it through the opulent staircase, the bright tall chandeliers, and the lavish artwork around the walls. I got myself a t-shirt and a program which came with 2 copies of her latest album.

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The private Janet room featured wardrobes that came from her most memorable music videos and tours which included “Rhythm Nation”, “Scream” that also included a framed photo of the star with a handwritten message from Michael, and “All For You.”  Suspiciously missing from the room was the infamous “SuperBowl” wardrobe that led to the FCC uproar and the term, “wardrobe malfunction.” I also did a photo op which the Janet team made into a GIF and had it featured on their Twitter page. Fans were in awe and doing their selfie shots as they gathered around her costume displays

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I walked up 3 flights of stairs to find my seat located at the balcony level. Despite being located in the upper level, the view from the stage was clearly visible, and the venue’s intimate environment ensured that concert-goers would be able to feel emotionally engaged throughout the show.

As I was tweeting live updates about the concert, a young woman wearing a Janet t-shirt and lanyard approached me, told me that they would like to make a change to my seating arrangement. Puzzled, I asked “Why?” To her reply, “So we would like to have you sit in the front row, would that be okay?” Instantly, my mind froze and my conscience reacted like the grown-up Kevin from the Wonder Years. I started to stutter and dropped my jacket. She said, “I think you dropped something.” My instant reply, “That was my heart.” She gave me a new ticket, and suddenly, I was trembling with excitement. The tears started rolling down my cheeks. I grabbed my belongings and ran down several flights of stairs. I couldn’t process what had just happened.  I AM GOING TO BE STANDING IN FRONT OF JANET, MY CHILDHOOD IDOL!!! This was a bit too much for me to take in.

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I was escorted by the usher to my seat. There, I was warmly greeted with several hardcore Janet fans. I was busy wiping the tears off as a few of the fans were playfully teasing me. I was stoked; I have never been in a VIP section in all my concert-going years. The DJ opened his set and was playing a remix of Janet songs. Folks around me were dancing and taking in the atmosphere. I eagerly posted on my Facebook / Twitter / Instagram almost simultaneously.

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The legendary Miss Jackson took the stage at about 8:45 am. The speaker to the right of me was on full blast. The floor started vibrating as the bass was infiltrating through the ground. There, she appeared as a dark silhouette until she revealed herself as she sang her new song “BurnItUp” with a video cameo by Missy Elliot. The crowd cheered on wildly as she started working her way through the stage followed by her dance crew and her band. She briefly welcomed the crowd, and went right into her signature hit song, “Nasty”.

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For the first 45 minutes, Janet took on a furious run at her classic dance songs by giving them shorter abbreviations or short medleys such as “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”, “All For You”, “Love Will Never Do Without You”, “Escapade”, and bringing out the chair dance to “When I Think Of You”. She launched an assault of non-stop choreography reminiscent of her younger days, leaving nearly no time for her to rest in that span. Her charm was present, and her fierceness reminded folks of what made her one of music’s great performers.

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During the 2nd half, she allowed herself time to breathe as she sang some of her old ballads. She engaged the audience to sing the first verse of “Again” before she tearfully sang through the ballad. She struggled to finish the song as she wiped the tears off and would throw her handkerchief at a lucky fan. She continued to warmly slow down as she sang “Let’s Wait Awhile”, “Come Back to Me” before she got into her groove to sing her new hit song “No Sleep.” Janet paid homage to rapper Kendrick Lamar as he used his Janet-inspired song “Poetic Justice” and intertwined it with her 1993 hit, “Anytime Anyplace.”

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The tempo picked up as she went into her heavy dance numbers, “Throb”, the rock-driven “Black Cat.”  The steam machine blew up right in front of me, and nearly deafened me during her “IF” performance. She paid tribute to her brother as she sang part of “Scream” before turning into her innovative dance hit, “Rhythm Nation”, and managed to pull off one of her toughest choreograph numbers.

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In her encore, she focused on her two songs from her “Unbreakable” album proving that she is still focusing on her future, and reminding fans that she’s not restrained by her own past success. “Shoulda Known Better” is her current call to social justice and an answer she found 25 years ago when she heeded that call during “Rhythm Nation”. “Unbreakable” was her way of reminding people of how far she’s come along from the days of a child TV star, to the young adult making a name for herself, to the 90’s sex icon, and emerging from the aftermath of the Super Bowl mishap.

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In a show that lasted over 90 minutes, and surprisingly with no costume change, Miss Jackson kept the show flowing, keeping her fans mesmerized and moving. Unlike Madonna, Kanye West, and other stars who rely on using visuals, costume changes, and thematic elements, Janet kept it simple without the bells and whistles, and focused on celebrating her past while welcoming her present and future on her own terms.

After celebrating a night that had its unexpected twist and turns for me, I came home feeling honored to have been able to finally see an icon on stage, and gained personal access to her past works that played a soundtrack to my life.

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All Rights Reserved

Copyright by Randy Kim 2015

All Photo Credits by Randy Kim

A Night of Madonna in Chicago

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As a 30+ year old Madonna fan, others may consider that fairly young for her fan base. Ironically for Madonna, that age may be past her dating requirements, considering her recent dalliances with 20-something year olds ever since she became liberated from the British housewife era from Guy Ritchie. However, time has not been so kind to Madonna recently when her new album, Rebel Heart was ignored by the general public, and with her public mishaps with the #Capegate, #Drakegate, #Instagramgate sagas. Critics alike were ready to shove the Queen of Pop into a museum, and finish off the final chapter of her long-storied career. However, since she started her Rebel Heart Tour this past month, she has been able to steal that pen away from her critics, and add a few fresh pages to her current chapter.

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Earlier this week, Madonna rolled into Chicago, determined to keep her pop culture crown for the international world to see through her worldwide tour. I bought my tickets back in early March, but with slight trepidation that she may not be able to live up to her remarkably high standards set from her previous tours at the now age of 57, and that her constant mishaps on social media (appropriating hip-hop culture by donning gold grills in her teeth is one that comes to mind, or talking to a sock puppet in her videos) would become a distraction in her shows. Having been to her tours from Drowned World (2001) through the Sticky and Sweet Tour (2008), I have been a witness to many of the greatest stage performances ever from an artist / band, and it ranks much higher on any of my other concert-going experiences from the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, U2, Beyonce, R.E.M., AC/DC among others. The costumes, the elaborate stage set, her top-flight dancers, her long-time backing band, the visual effects on the big screen, and the unpredictable nature of Madonna herself have formed all the right ingredients into making her live shows one of the hottest ticket in demand.
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Since I was growing up, I have admittedly been one of those die-hard fans that have had to weather ridicule from friends, my brothers, and peers alike who couldn’t understand what I could possibly find appealing about Madonna. With her publicity acts, and her tendency to invade people’s consciousness (consent or not), there is no doubt that Madonna is one of the more polarizing figures in pop culture for the past 30 years. Having to deal with my own growing pains through my teenage years, I took comfort in her music along with Janet Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, artists that I connected with to survive. Her free-spiritedness, directness, and ambition became qualities that I felt were lacking in my own life. She became instrumental in adding a little bit of that personality in my life.

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At the United Center in Chicago, the crowd, generally ranged from folks in their mid 30s to late 50s, came into the show, hoping for a nostalgic dose of classic hits that they grew fond of listening to in their high school / college years, while Madonna is still busy chasing after their kids to add to her fan base, though with little success and backlash to her brand. Is it necessary? Certainly not, given her 3 decades of Top 10 hits, and iconic fashion trends, and the never-ending influence she has on many of her younger contemporaries, she can easily rest on her laurels, and play mentor with the younger stars. Like Joan Rivers, she sees the younger ones as her competitors, no matter how much they have cited her as their inspiration.

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The moment came when the background music of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something” disappeared from the loud speakers, then the arena lights turned off. The large “Rebel Heart” drape cover came off the stage, and there stood a video screen depicting Madonna as the Joan of Arc getting ready to fight off the warriors as Mike Tyson made his video appearance declaring victory and defiance. Madonna entered in full view, locked in a cage to wild applause. Decked out in a heavy red warrior outfit as her warrior dancers drew their weapons towards her while she sang the new song titled “iconic”, which would lead into her next single, “Bitch, I’m Madonna” snapping her fan similar the way she did “Vogue” at the MTV VMAs back in the day. She took off the warrior garb, grabbed her electric guitar, and launched into a spirited throwback version of “Burning Up,” an early hit from her debut album. Meanwhile, folks behind me were loudly complaining that they weren’t hearing her old hits as she was playing “Burning Up”. This prompted me to turn around, and tell them, “This is one of her first songs.  Too bad you’re not a real fan.” The inner fan in me threw the shade down faster than the solar eclipse. When you spend $100 just to sit in the upper level, and then waiting months in anticipation for the concert, the last thing I need is to have my evening interrupted by a bunch of folks demanding what songs they want to hear. I thought to myself how much I would have enjoyed being in the general admissions floor, and to be around die-hard fans who know her songs in unison, rather than be stuck in the upper level with folks who know a couple of big hit songs, or those that were dragged to the show by their loved ones. Too bad, my income isn’t as big as my enthusiasm to shell out the several hundred dollars to be in that sought-after section.

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To close out her first set, Madonna and her dancers became nuns as they gyrated on the Catholic cross poles to the song “Holy Water” mixed in with “Vogue”. This is once again, vintage Madonna where the combination of sex and religion are put on display to provoke, which has been her repetoire throughout her career.

Never one to shy from flirting, the Queen of Pop made the moves on some of her well-sculpted male dancers in “Body Shop.” While she stayed the course with promoting songs from her new album, Madonna left enough room for nostalgia to appease her fans. With a ukulele in hand, she finally engaged the crowd to sing along to her old classic hit “True Blue”, a song she hadn’t performed live since 1987. Most notably, the song was originally dedicated to her then-husband Sean Penn. It was in that moment that she started to relax and joyfully take in the sentiments of her past where in previous tours, she would openly resist singing some of her most well-known hits to prove that she wasn’t glued to her past. This particular set would also bring back more nostalgia as she did “Deeper and Deeper”, an early 90s hit and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, a largely forgotten 80s ballad for the first time live. She would then take on an updated version of “Like A Virgin”, and much like her first performance at the MTV music awards, she freely solo-danced through the stage, and writhed on the floor to the drum beats.

The Queen of Pop displayed her long-held affection for the Latino culture in nearly each of her tours. She came in with the cape during “Living for Love” and didn’t have to revisit another cape mishap. She pulled off the matador role which played beautifully into one of her favorite songs, “La Isla Bonita”. With a quick costume change, she adorned a colorful, flamenco dress as she did a medley of “Dress You Up”, “Into the Groove”, and “Lucky Star”. She continued to engage with the audience, and made jokes about marriage. She revisited “Who’s That Girl?” as an acoustic version, and much like what she did with “True Blue.” she happily got the audience to sing along with her. Her vocals continued to shine in her acoustic sets, as she became visibly happy and at times, emotionally raw in those intimate moments. One of the criticisms of her previous live performances is that she tends to keep her distance at arms length from the audience, and keeps her dialogue with them brief in order to remain focused on the technicality of her show. This time, she opted for a more refreshing appreciation of her audiences as she didn’t hesitate telling them how thankful she is for their support, and thanking the fans who made drawings of her that were put on video display during her upbeat acoustic guitar-driven song, “Rebel Heart.”
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The dancers were on full beast-mode between sets. Particularly memorable was the dancers lifted on a high-end pole and being yo-yo’d back and forth into the crowd. It was a dizzying array of display and brought gasps from the crowd. It brought enough momentum for Madonna to introduce the 1920’s mafia-inspired set which started with her dressed in a classic flappergirl look singing in a seductive, slowed down version of “Music” before it transformed into its original version with her dancers dressed as classic gangsters from the Al Capone era. She briefly stopped, and asked for the crowd’s approval before finishing off the song, and displayed the intense choreography that very few 50+ year old performers would have trouble accomplishing. At times throughout the show, her dancing has finally started to show some wear and tear, as her movements are not as quick and powerful as in years past, but nonetheless, understanding her limitations and working with what she’s got, which is plenty more than what one can say about other performers much younger than her, like Britney Spears who is now resorting to doing Las Vegas shows in her 30s.

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As the show started nearing its close, she performed her classic “Material Girl” and was covered in a wedding veil with a bouquet jokingly yelling out, “Who wants to get married?”, and then throwing the bouquet to a fan who couldn’t hold onto it which prompted her to remark, “I guess you don’t want to get married. Don’t worry. It all goes downhill from there.” She took on a daring cover of Edith Piaf’s legendary song “La Vie En Rose” in French which turned out to be well-received from the crowd. Before breaking out into “bitch-mode” for “Unapologetic Bitch”, she exclaimed, “I don’t smoke, but I like to start fires.” During her performance of that song, she brought out a fan cross-dressing as Britney Spears onstage, and proceeded to give a playful spanking. At the end of it, she jokingly mentioned that she wasn’t going to kiss her again, but instead gave her a prize for her participation with a gold necklace that says once again, “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” She came out for her final encore to “Holiday”, and was playfully living it up with her dancers until she was lifted in the air from the stage to finally say her goodbyes and thank you’s to the crowd. The show’s closer lacked the energy that was needed to match the intensity of her opener, but after 30+ years of show business, she did more than enough to secure her place as one of music’s greatest icons. Time may be selfish in robbing people of their abilities as they age, but in the present moment, Time decided to leave her alone. For the fans’ sake and for the younger generations, we can only hope that they can leave her alone for a little while longer.

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From the Heart of the South Pt. 1

Thoughts that have come up during my brief road trip to the South:

My Grandma

In the last couple of years, my grandma has continued to decline as her dementia progressively worsens. I last saw my grandma two years ago as she still knew me then. She was already showing significant physical and mental decline at the time. Despite the setback, she was eager to see me. She was still her normal, shy, overprotective self, and would ask me in Vietnamese of where I’m going and when I’ll be back. As I left her home, she hugged me, and slipped $30 in my pocket for gas money on the way home. I knew then that this was the memory that I wanted to hold onto because it would not be long before her collection of memories began to disappear from her body.

When we arrived on Monday morning to her home, she opened the door and gleefully smiled as she saw my brother, and asked my mom if it was her. She seem pleased to see us, but as I made eye contact with her, she looked past me. She made no reaction when she saw me, not even a “Who are you?” remark from her. From her reaction, it’s almost as if my 6 ft, 200 lb frame magically turned itself into a ghost as she didn’t acknowledge my presence. She asked my mom if Andy and I were her two sons. My grandma barely communicated with us, as she spent most of her days sitting on the coach watching TV, or randomly going outside picking at the weeds even when she’s been told countless times to not go outside. I had learned a great deal about Alzheimer’s and dementia through my recent work with seniors, and would try to educate my family about how to deal with my grandma’s condition, yet it still did not prepare me for the reality that my grandma could not remember me. I became afraid to go near her for fear that I would scare her. As her memory continues to fade, our family is faced with the uncertainty of how to prepare for her end-of-life care.

The lack of accessible senior care in the rural South in addition to the lack of language / cultural needs have made the process of finding quality care for my grandma that much harder, and puts the burden on immediate family members to fulfill their caregiving roles. The generations-old Asian tradition of taking care of your elderly parents seems almost daunting now as many adult children are working longer hours and unable to provide the level of quality care their parents deserve.

My grandma is the only living grandparent I still have. On my father’s side, both of my grandparents have passed. My dad’s mother died when my dad was little, and his father died when I was 9 years old in Vietnam but I never knew him. My grandpa on my mom’s side was the grandparent I bonded most with, but died a month before my 13th birthday. My grandma, despite living into my 30s, was one I knew little about. We lived almost a 1,000 miles apart between Chicago and Bayou La Batre, but my mom had a sometimes estranged relationship with her which led me to not be able to see her for 11 years in 2011. It was having that decade-long gap of not seeing her that I personally feel sadness and shame with. I wonder how is it that I let so many years slip past me that I couldn’t see her. Why did I not advocate hard enough to my mom about letting me see her? Why was I so frightened by my lack of ability to speak in my grandma’s native tongue that it would prevent me from making that trip? How could I not allow my grandma to play more than just a mere backdrop in my life? Those are questions that I have to ask myself when I see my grandma in her current state.

Despite the many years that I did not see her, my grandma loves me and my brothers in our recent visits. Her gleeful expression at our arrivals erased our concerns that she would begrudge us for neglecting her. I admit that my just recent visit didn’t provide me the quality time I should have spent with her, but as I left, she smiled and wrapped her frail arm around my waist. As we were set to depart, my grandma looked on from the porch and waved us goodbye. Even as she sees us as strangers, she can still remember how much she is loved by us.

Liquid Healing Space of Chicago

I have taken a series of photos along the scenic Chicago lakefront over the past 2.5 years when I first moved into Rogers Park. Going back to my globe trotting times from several years ago, I have found peaceful refuge being in the near presence of water. It is a form of therapy for me. Drinking, bathing, feeling, and breathing the vapors of h20 is what settles me in times of angst and anxiety. As I walk through the lakefront stretching from as far as Evanston to Montrose, I have made it my own sanctuary, my escape, and as a place to inhale the freshness and exhale the negative toxins that tend to plague me. Everyday, I am thankful that I can live in a place where I can experience such beauty, calmness, and serenity.

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All Photos Taken By Randy Kim

All Rights Reserved © Randy Kim 2015

Tears of a Rainbow

The LGBTQ community recently secured a victory from the US Supreme Court this past week on its legalization for marriage equality. For many in the LGBTQ community, as well as a growing number of straight allies, this was a historic milestone worth celebrating, just in time for Pride weekend across the nation. However, for others in the LGBTQ community, there are growing concerns on the number of issues that are still left on the table, or have yet to be acknowledged by the community as a whole, and what direction the LGBTQ community will take moving forward.  For some including myself, this historic day has triggered some unhealed wounds from our past during a time when we were in the process of coming to terms with our identity, and the fears that the other LGBTQ issues will not be as supported or advocated now that the marriage equality has come to pass.

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, I became visibly emotional, not so much out of joy, but in recalling many of the pain that I endured as I was struggling to come to terms with my Asian-queer identity. I first thought about the countless generations of LGBTQ folks that have passed on having never lived to see the ruling, never having the opportunity to see the stronger queer community spaces that’s become more accessible, and that they have had to endure a lifetime of secrecy, disownment from their family and community, public ridicule, imprisonment, and violence.  There are those whose lives ended prematurely because of the power of the homophobia / transphobia resistance had / still has towards our community, which has led to suicide or hate crime violence. Those are people that we cannot bring back, and that their lives are forever attached to the lifetime of hurt & cruelty of their identity(ies) from a society that believes could not co-exist with the accepted hetero space.

I recall the years of childhood and young adult angst of growing up in a predominantly white suburb, coming from a family of immigrant refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. I remembered the struggles of being socially accepted by my peers as a minority, while at the same time, facing pressures from my family to succeed academically and having to uphold my family culture through that process. As I hit puberty, I remembered feeling mortified when I started to have attraction towards men. I heard the voices of my male peers yelling out the words, “faggot”, “homo”, “you like to suck dick” amongst themselves. I think about the time when my high school English teacher brought up Matthew Sheppard, a gay man that was murdered in a hate crime in the late 90s, and some of my classmates’ responses were downright visceral, “He deserved to die”, “Oh, that’s what he gets for being gay” as they said while others laughed and nodded in unison. I sat quietly in my desk, slowly slumping over knowing that I was already an outcast. I was fearful for my own life for the first time. I could be the next victim. I was so upset with my English teacher for bringing his name up as she stood quietly and did little to interject or disrupt my classmates’ hatefulness. She didn’t realize how much I needed to feel supported, but instead it only validated that my existence was never going to be respected. My parents suspected and raised concerns over my sexuality, and insisted that I should not become that way. I had spent those years into my adult years being forced to “straight-act” and to quiet any suspicions of my own sexual identity. It was for my own survival. Even today, as open as I have become, I still resort to moments of downplaying my identity when I meet with older folks, certain past and present colleagues, and with my own mom whose disability has put me in the position as a caregiver along with my brothers.

I fear the losing of allies and the growing division of the LGBTQ community on issues that are ongoing in the racial, social, gender, economic inequality spectrum. Yes, marriage equality is essentially important as it not only validates same-sex couples’ union, but to receive benefits, to have a family, to have equal rights when their spouse is sick, or facing end-of-life. However, it’s a megabyte among the terabyte of the community’s concerns. We still have hate crime violence issues, especially among transgender folks of color, high LGBTQ homelessness, employment discrimination, immigration, lack of proper healthcare access, gender profiling, hetero / cis-gender sexism towards trans folks, and the list continues to go further. Will any of our other issues hold any weight and momentum on the mainstream level, but more importantly, from within the community whose interests and issues are differed and varied? Will there be a time and space where our community will begin to properly heal from the post-traumatic wounds from the discrimination, violence, shaming, and marginalization that folks have experienced?

My experiences as an Asian-identified queer have made me naturally leery of straight folks that have supported the recent Marriage Equality rights. Were these the same folks that openly shamed LGBTQ folks in my life which have caused me to retreat into an identity that wasn’t me? Would these folks still be there when we need to have another important legislation to pass when we need to once again validate our need for equality? Would they ever take the time to understand and validate the struggles that my queer friends and I still care about? At the same time, I also think about the number of straight allies who became my friends who were the first ones to lovingly support me. They, along with my LGBTQ comrades, were the ones that listened, consoled me, empowered me as I was stammering out the words, “I’m queer,” and reinforced the kind of loving community I have surrounding me.

Within the LGBTQ community is a growing divide. For years in my bisexuality, I remembered hearing ridicule from the gay and lesbian community telling me that there’s no such thing, or it’s just a denial. Having to hear that kept me more in the closet, and contradicted the inclusion and protection that the gay / lesbian community was supposed to bring in. In the mainstream gay circles, we are not recognizing gender pronouns, agender / gender queer, cis / non-cis gender identities. Heck, I learned about gender pronouns only 2 years ago. So the distrust and disconnect is still there in the community, and with it, comes the reality that our current barriers may never be able to change when we are unable to recognize and give light to the severity of these issues, and how we address it on a universal level.

I can’t undo the trauma that I lived through being a queer-identified Asian minority where my queerness, Vietnamese and Cambodian, disabled (left-eye blindness) identities became my barriers, sometimes altogether at the same time. I am mixed in between the eternal optimist who has seen the progressive changes where I can now tell my 14 year old self that it’s okay to come out of hiding, and the eternal pessimist who is still shouting to be heard, and watching his fellow community folks suffer great disappointment. Today, those worlds have collided with the tears of joy and pain rolling off my cheeks.