PRINT May 2021


Chao-Chen Yang, Apprehension, ca. 1942, Flexichrome print, 15 3⁄4 × 12 1⁄2". © Chao-chen Yang Estate.

PHOTOGRAPHY MAY BE AT THE PERPETUAL MERCY of scalar adjustment, but Apprehension is among those images whose intensity remains constant no matter where it is seen. Its central feature is the magnified face of a young Asian man who grasps a telephone receiver as he might a cudgel. Deep furrows are etched into his forehead, and a lock of hair falls across his face. Two errant hairs extending beyond his eye read like fracture lines portending some future dissolution or rupture. Illuminated from an unseen source below, the man’s face is a terrain of shadow and light. His flesh becomes a histrionic play of rose and gold that recalls both the lurid eroticism of midcentury pulp illustration and the imbrication of Baroque religious painting with secular drama. Overripe is the word that comes to mind. Something is about to fall.

Chao-Chen Yang, Young Chinese Guerrilla, ca. 1943, chlorobromide print, 16 × 13". © Chao-chen Yang Estate.

Apprehension, ca. 1942, is the work of Chao-Chen Yang, the Seattle-based Chinese American artist who was also serving as a diplomat in Chiang Kai-shek’s ill-fated nationalist government in the 1940s. The photo’s composition echoes a picture Yang would take the next year titled Young Chinese Guerilla. An example of propaganda afforded a deluxe Hollywood makeover, it is a cinematic performance of uplift. A young man of East Asian extraction with movie-idol looks turns his head to cast his gaze toward an unseen higher authority. Drawing, perhaps, from his time working at RKO Pictures as an apprentice when he familiarized himself with film photography in hopes of a career in the movies, Yang suffuses Apprehension with film-noir performativity.1 Behold the moment when the hero—or suspect—is wakened at an ungodly hour by a shrilly ringing telephone. Bare-chested, he presses the receiver to his ear, and the camera reciprocates in turn, moving so close to his face that it looks thrust into the lens. Blood rushes to the man’s cheeks, and his visage appears to harden into a matrix of unresolved feeling for which the vagueness of a word like apprehension seems entirely appropriate.

Gu Yuan, The Bridge of People, 1948, woodblock print, 8 1⁄8 × 14 1⁄8".

Even at the risk of hewing too closely to the lurid tableaux of pulp covers, Yang was onto something in channeling the melodrama of noir. The young man never fully emerges from the shadows. That is part of the point. He will always be reclaimed by the darkness of suspicion. Two years earlier, Yang was interrogated by Canadian police for taking pictures of local sights in Vancouver as a “Jap” spy.2 That he would remember this incident years later was compounded by the signing of Executive Order 9066 in 1942 that condemned thousands of Japanese Americans to mass internment. Shaded by the words of Seattle mayor Earl Millikin who declared that these “enemy aliens” would “bring on something that would dwarf Pearl Harbor,” the title is a double entendre where apprehension often arises from the fear of being apprehended or seized with the law’s blessing. In many respects the work foreshadowed what in the 1950s would be a perfect storm of Sinophobia in the wake of Mao Zedong’s victory over the Nationalists and China’s entry into the Korean War. Eventually leaving diplomatic service to become a full-time photographer, Yang would be deeply involved in the maelstrom of immigration policy. He was the go-between for numerous Chinese seamen whose treatment at the hands of US immigration officials embodied both black comedy and psychological horror of the acutest kind.3 It may be a stretch to wonder whether the young man in Apprehension is a surrogate for one of these mariners who, despite being promised permanent residency in the US in exchange for his years of government service, lived in constant dread of deportation. But then he may be an anticipation of Yang’s internal state in 1949 when he faced the immanence of his own removal from the US, which, in light of his background and the founding of the People’s Republic in October 1949, could have been tantamount to a death sentence.

The resonance is strong enough to warrant asking whether Asian bodies are visible only in the light of emergency: whirling flashers, raging infernos, the hellfire of bombs, even the overhead glare of an interrogation cell.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Mouth to Mouth, 1975, video, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes. © Regents of the University of California. Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Speculation as to its references aside, Apprehension visualizes how it feels to be in a state of uncertainty about the inevitability of harm. It is significant that the picture’s exhibition dimensions fall somewhere between those of a medium and a large photographic portrait—those considered optimal for picturing couples or small families. Here, only a single man is visible, detached from kin or friends. There is just enough difference between the obsidian sheen of the man’s hair and the duller black of the background to preserve a distinction between figure and ground, but the ambient darkness does not quite relinquish the man’s body. A thin sliver of shadow is a touch too thick to be a mere contour line; it is a reminder of darkness’s claim on the body. The tight cropping of the photograph reads as both an act of sequestration and as a narrative device that induces us to see the man emerging cautiously from the mantle of night.

Page from Life, December 22, 1941.

Well before debates over the artistic status of color photography crested in the 1970s, Yang was experimenting with color in ways that link the handling of light in photographs with that in painting and other recognized artistic media. (The original negative is in black-and-white, and Yang colorized a single print using the then-new Flexichrome process.) The saturated glow we see in Apprehension may be from an electric bulb, but the colors belong to a combustible world marked by explosions both actual and metaphorical. I cannot but think of the coral blasts erupting in the right half of The Bridge of People, Gu Yuan’s storied 1948 woodcut illustrating Mao’s troops running across a makeshift bridge during the War of Liberation, also known as the Chinese Civil War. Yang was on the opposite side during that war, waged between 1927 and 1949, but he likely saw enough combat to ensure that the color orange would never look quite the same again. The strong light that turns the flesh of Yang’s model into dark and bright patches mirrors the explosions wreathing Gu’s panorama of infernal death. I may be overstepping a bit here. But the resonance is strong enough to warrant asking whether Asian bodies are visible only in the light of emergency: whirling flashers, raging infernos, the hellfire of bombs, even the overhead glare of an interrogation cell.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964. Performance view, Carnegie Hall, New York, March 21, 1965. Video still: David and Albert Maysles.

Worry about a future undefined harm is why I think Yang used light to create the half-moon creases of shadow that weight the young man’s face. The lips appear slightly parted, as if he is about to utter a sound or a syllable. But we cannot hear him. He does not speak and thus is a proper subject of conjecture, much like the diagrammed faces appearing in an infamous article, “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese,” published in Life magazine a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. Yet where the Life image attempted to direct American suspicion to the “real” enemy, Apprehension is a searing reminder of the peril Asian bodies in America faced alone, in deadening silence. Picturing the act of listening, the work amplifies the weaponization of hearsay and innuendo. The image sounds the dependence of visibility on what is heard, who speaks, and for what purpose.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1981–1982, ink-jet print, 10 × 15". Performance view, New York. Tehching Hsieh.

In 2008, Apprehension was among the showcase works for the landmark survey “Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1970” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. I sense it was because of how the image approximates the kind of painting for which chiaroscuro is central; Apprehension rightly belongs to a lineage of imagemaking devoted to actualizing time as a series of discrete and irregularly occurring moments. But its prominence also underscored anxiety as the defining condition of Asian America, the decision to make it a centerpiece of the show all too prescient in view of today’s anti-Asian violence. In 2021, Apprehension throws into relief the recursive predicament of Asians in America continuously subject to recidivist insistence on Asian malfeasance. Yang’s work becomes a reset point for another history of artistic engagement with violence against Asians. The young man stares into space like Yoko Ono sitting calmly on an auditorium stage in 1964 as faceless men and women cut and tear pieces of her clothing in what legal scholar Yxta Maya Murray calls “a form of ‘proof’” of assault not yet recognized as a legal claim but that nonetheless represents a toll countless women pay without hope of relief.4 The young man’s eyes stay open for Tehching Hsieh, who shuts his eyes tightly while fiercely struggling against his own apprehension by New York City police, having defended himself from a violent property owner while undertaking One Year Performance 1981–1982. And when Yang’s protagonist picks up the phone, he is paralyzed by what he hears of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose vicious rape and murder in 1982, the same year as Hsieh’s attack, was both a reminder of past brutality and a premonition of tragedy yet to happen. Mimicking the effects of polished wood, the surface of the receiver, as well as its shape, echoes that of a gavel, an object sounded to mark the beginning of a ceremony or the finality of a decision. That its oversize shadow just about touches the chin of the model implies not only the imminence of a verdict but also how its consequences will play out on Asian bodies eternally condemned to the purgatory of supposed guilt. To acquit these bodies and therefore release ourselves from the torment of mutually debilitating suspicion—such is the decision Apprehension urges us to make.

Joan Kee is Professor of the History of Art at the University of Michigan and the Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor at Williams College, and a contributing editor of Artforum.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of David Martin, curator at the Cascadia Art Museum, Seattle.


1. Kazuko Nakane, “Interweaving Light with Shadow: Early Asian American Photographers in the Pacific Northwest,” in They Painted from Their Hearts: Pioneer Asian American Artists, ed. Mayumi Tsutakawa (Seattle: Wing Luke Museum, 1994), 56.

2. Jack Wright, “Artist from the Orient,” Camera 67, no. 8 (August 1945): 19.

3. One such account is addressed in detail in US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Shao Fong Sha, 85th Congress, 1st session, Senate Report 254 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1957), 2–5.

4. Yxta Maya Murray, “Cut Piece: The Art of Yoko Ono and the Law of Rape in the United States,” Law and Literature Journal (forthcoming),