An Introduction

“There’s always someone already working on the problem.

adrienne maree brown

Tools to Transform is a workbook grounded in a sharing of insight, knowledge and practice already in existence within Asian diasporic organising across Europe. It is a workbook of celebration, amplification, documentation and connection. In a time of overwhelming work to be done across multiple urgencies and frontlines, we take heart and pay attention to what is being done, how we can better connect across struggles, and where we can learn and grow with one another.  In this first edition, through a call-out to artists, educators, community leaders, activists and curators, we have collated a selection of strategies and practices that are being used to organise by Asian diaspora across Europe.

We acknowledge that the cultural, civic and academic sectors, where many of us work, are rife with contestation over terminologies and issues of representation. For Tools to Transform, we acknowledge the terms we use are complex.

We use the term ‘organising’ with its different applications across art, activist and pedagogical contexts without necessarily aligning with a specific methodology. Instead, we are interested in the many ways we can bring about transformative change, on a personal, interpersonal and structural level. As part of this, we have consciously sought applicable wisdoms, or ‘tools’, that consider daily practices to understand how we can each embody and enact change.

While we do centre the often overlooked labour and knowledge of practitioners engaged deeply with Asian diaspora communities and contexts, we recognise that the framing of ‘Asia’ and ‘diaspora’ holds within it an unresolvable, rich and fraught heterogeneity. It is beyond the scope of this project to unpack this. Instead, we use ‘Asian Diaspora’ strategically to conjure our shared relations across generations, geographies and disciplines to stake a claim in public consciousness.

Tools to Transform was seeded in a conversation between Joon Lynn Goh and Annie Jael Kwan before Asia-Art-Activism was launched, regarding the concerns around the absence of easily accessible Southeast and East Asian narratives for art and activism in the UK. Understanding lineage is a question of history, as well as the future; because if we cannot know past protagonists or relationships of solidarity, we will constantly reinvent the wheel. The erasure of diverse histories normalises the status quo, and minimises the possible futures imagined by our ancestors, ourselves, and those yet to come.

As part of this questioning, Joon Lynn and Annie organised a series of workshops titled Making Time: A Collective Timeline of Asian and Diaspora Art and Activism led by practitioners whose work made visible these legacies. In these gatherings, we scratched the surface of how Asian narratives were and continue to be entangled with global dynamics of power and capitalism, racist and xenophobic immigration laws, intra and inter-community survival strategies, and culture as diasporic identity-building. In particular, we reflected on how the brutal racist murder of Vincent Chin in the USA galvanised the Asian-American community.  Similarly, Tools to Transform, made in partnership with seven grassroots Asian diasporic networks across Europe, seeks to contribute to the critical work of building solidarity in Europe, in the time of a global pandemic where there has been an alarming spike of anti-Asian racism and violence.

In this workbook you will find Asian diasporas across Europe, which speak to communities and associations as diverse as Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Philipino, Punjabi, Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani, which intersect with differing queer, gender, class, labour and immigration experiences. Within this multifaceted diaspora, the ten offerings are acutely aware of ancestral and historical knowledge that has been lost, that is being reconnected with, or being rearticulated across generational displacements and migrations.

Asian diasporic organising takes place in multiple locations and across elongated timeframes. Organising happens in public spaces (public transport, parks and playgrounds), intentionally created spaces (chosen families, queer safe spaces and WhatsApp groups) and within ourselves (our bodies, memories and imaginations). Jee Chan reflects on the practices of care they individually and collectively took to sustain themselves through a two year complaint process regarding institutional racism.  

This workbook shares ways in which organising requires the healing, building and strengthening of intra and inter-community solidarities. Claire Doran reminds us that “how we negotiate or perform, particularly in moments of conflict, can shatter or strengthen our solidarity within and across our communities”. She invites us to explore our role in building peace, and as part of this, building the non-negotiable skills of conflict transformation. Daikon reminds us that it is equally important to think about what strategies we use and what we choose not to. They explore why an abolitionist perspective on hate crime, specifically from the position of East Asians confronting Covid-19 racism, is vital to reducing harm towards Black, Muslim and migrant communities that are disproportionately impacted by policing systems. Maya Bhardwaji brings together a year’s worth of shadowing and interviewing queer South Asian and Indo-Caribbean activists in the UK, to share suggested practices for South Asian movement building rooted in a solidarity between South Asian and Black organisers. 

This workbook shares examples of the different ways in which Asian diasporic organisers are building community, leadership and political analysis, often through creative means. Joyce Jiang reflects on the key organising principles of Voices of Domestic Workers, which is rooted in grassroots leadership, participative democracy and art as a safe space for communal knowledge. Amal Khalaf reflects on the work of Implicated Theatre, a migrant led theatre project, and the use of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed methodology as a way for people without shared language to engage in political analysis and direct action. Inspired by Nabarun Bhattacharaya, a Bengali poet, activist and philosopher, Mo’Halla shares a ‘small time chaos’ guide for Asian immigrant femmes to microdose on political agency and power; creative acts of which include shoplifting makeup and manspreading.

Moving away from activist burn-out are strategies for queering care, and healing with ancestral knowledge. Bitten Peach share their daily practices in building safer spaces for Queer Asians via a ‘Chosen Family’ structure that incorporates communal empowerment and intergenerational knowledge. Understanding that the food of her elders is a tool for healing, Vicky Truong shares a set of recipes rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine and her family’s heritage, to address anger, sadness and emptiness and to nurture care and empowerment. Alexis Covento shares writing exercises for diasporic individuals to imagine, recall and reclaim their roots. By bringing our attention towards the patterns between our personal behaviours and ancestral narratives, she also asks us what we want to bring forward. 

This workbook is a reflection of the richness of Asian diasporic organising that is happening on the ground now. We hope it is of service to you. 

May 2021

Tools to Transform is a project initiated by Joon Lynn Goh & Annie Jael Kwan from Asia Art Activism, in partnership with Sarnt Utamachote & Rosalia Namsai Engchuan from un.thai.tled; Farzana Khan from Healing Justice Ldn; Thao Ho from DAMN* Deutsche Asiat*innen, Make Noise!; Dr Joyce Jiang from The Voice of Domestic workers; Litchi Ly Friedrich from House of Saint Laurent Europe; and Nguyễn Thanh Thủy & Stefan Östersjö from The Six Tones. In this first iteration we are thankful for the European Cultural Foundation’s Culture of Solidarity award, University of York and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), that makes possible the bridging of the contexts of London, Berlin and Malmo and the editorial team’s respective transversalities across Asia.