TGNR: When you look at who Duke Ellington was and what he means, he is truly a shinning figure in terms of what it means to be an American. How do you believe Ellington’s legacy can inform the racial discourse of the nation today?
BT: Ellington was never elitist. One of my favorite quotes of his was- a reporter asked him, “Duke, do you do the music of your people?” To which he said, “All people are my people.” What Duke truly realized was that he was an American, and that while his race was important, he was part of a bigger picture.
Duke showed that one can always demonstrate a demeanor of respect and integrity, and he had an enigmatic aloofness that went with that. I think that when you look back then – once again- looking back at a body of work, and being impressed and inspired by it. As opposed to saying ‘well, this is problematic.’ Ellington is not problematic. He is strictly inspiring. I think that every work is brilliant. He was always in search of the melody, and always put in the sweat ahead of everything else.
TGNR: Ellington was quoted as saying, “You have to find a way of saying something without saying it.” Based on your scholarly work and study of the man, how do you feel Ellington accomplished that particular ethos?
BT: Well Ellington didn’t lecture people, he didn’t proselytize. He’s actually a man of relatively few words, and when said they were very discretely put. Sometimes a little too much. So, I think what Ellington did was lead by example.
TGNR: The only kind of leadership…
BT: Yes, he basically wrote “Black, Brown, and Beige.” He didn’t have to say, ‘ah look, this is what this means!’ He didn’t really have to do that any more than a song-writer like Bob Dylan has to give a discourse on what Masters of War means. When you do that, you ruin it. You ruin it. Ellington says, ‘its on the wall, you figure it out.’
TGNR: Historians are often fond of saying, ‘nothing in history is inevitable.’ With that in mind, how do you interpret the events of the 1917-1920 period? As a historian of Jazz, how do you see Jazz evolving from a novelty to an art form at that time, in your mind? How would you explain that history? How it made that transition, and why it could at that time? Putting aside the broad strokes of the opportunity through birth of the Speakeasy, and accompanying hot music with enjoying an illicit pastime.
BT: It was the liberal educating of America. It was an America at that time that was extremely naive. Then suddenly there was a black migration. Entering places like Chicago and New York, and they bring this music with them. What that music did was not solve our racial problems, but it introduced us to each other. By introducing us to each other, without placing a moral lesson there, it put us on the road to becoming a better version of ourselves in a democracy. Of course, as you know, we’re still trying to work through that now. But it got us started, it got us onto the turnpike, and got us going.
TGNR: Say Duke Ellington had been born in 2007, and did so under similar/parallel circumstances within a modern context. Would he have succeeded? If so, how would it have looked? How would he have done it? Given that he was known for his ingenuity, making opportunities, a singular charisma, and being such a hard worker.
BT: The game has completely changed now, Paul. So, its a great question, but a very hard one. He would have had a very different life, and very different career since what was in place then is no longer in place. It’s completely changed.
TGNR: Could you elaborate?
BT: Back in those days you performed live all the time. You played for dancing, you played for popular music. You’re lucky if you’re recorded. If you got on the radio, and if you had an original sound, you maybe had a career that would start to open up. So the opportunities were very much live music oriented. We still have live music today, but it has changed. So we produce music in a totally different way now. Not everybody, but most people do. The game has changed to the point where, yes- there is still music with integrity, but its harder and harder to shine through.
Though remember Ellington was a good businessman. He probably would have been a hip-hop producer, a mogul. With his kind of talent today, he would not have said, ‘let’s put a big-band together.’ He wouldn’t have done that. He would have found another way, using the materials of the day to get through.
TGNR: But he would have still found a way?
BT: I think someone who is that talented, whether its him or Stevie Wonder, or whoever it happens to be, is going to take what they have, and they’re going to mine it. They’re going to dig. The tools just change. Though the process of creation is really kind of the same.
TGNR: Say Duke Ellington was sitting at the table with us now. He is in his prime, though also knowing of all the events in the world since his passing. Really the ultimate hypothetical question here: If you could ask Duke Ellington one question as Brian Torff the Jazz musician, the Professor, the historian. What one question would you ask him, right now?
BT: That’s tough… I don’t think I would ask him a question. The reason I wouldn’t ask him a question is because I think his life and his work speak for itself. It is so vivid that I couldn’t think of a question I would ask that wouldn’t sound stupid, because I think its all there.
I wouldn’t say, ‘Hey Duke! How’d you work those saxophones in there?’ I just don’t think I would. I think what’s important is that the life example is so vivid, so clear, that I would just want to shake his hand! I don’t think I would really need to do more than that. Anymore than you go up to a writer that you admire and say, ‘Y’know, Hemingway… how come you…’ Right?
TGNR: I totally understand.
TGNR: Where do you think Jazz is going?
BT: I think there is a bigger question, I never know where anything is going. I think, ‘where’s our culture going?’
TGNR: I understand prophecy is one of life’s less fruitful endeavors, but in this case I defer to your expertise. By all means…
BT: I think there will always be a wellspring of creative artists doing interesting material. I think that we’re in some kind of a vortex in the industry. Structures have collapsed, but that doesn’t have much to do with the music. The music will continue. It will continue to grow, take on different influences, and it will still be meaningful throughout the world. It won’t have the kind of numbers that pop-music does, even Rock music doesn’t have the numbers that pop-music does, and that’s O.K.
I don’t see myself as a preservationist, because I don’t think something that’s great needs to be preserved. It just needs to be carried on with honesty and hard work.
TGNR: As both a musician and teacher, a very interesting combination of things, you get to relay a lifetime of unique experiences to people who are young, and don’t have that many experiences themselves. In your career, and to your students, once they have handed in their final at the end of the semester, and go on to the next thing, what’s the message you want them to take from your time with them?
BT: When the course is over, I still want them to go on and live a full life. That no matter what it is they end up doing, they still incorporate the arts into it for themselves, and for their children. The arts are there as a metaphor for their own lives, and you can give them that. Give them the spark that will eventually make them pick up this book, or go to this concert, buy this recording, so they can take that and pass it on to their children.
If they do that, I have succeeded. I won’t bat 1.000, it won’t work that way. I feel that giving them the gift that we’re studying whatever it happens to be, Ellington for example, his life is a metaphor for what you can do. A metaphor for what is inside you. Are you going to be Duke Ellington? No. You’re going to be you. But maybe this can guide you towards whatever realization that may be. You try.
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“Name Explain”: How YouTube’s Patrick Foote Made Etymology Cool Again
Its no small accomplishment opening up interest in etymology and linguistics outside of the select cadre who call it their profession, nor is it the only thing that Mr. Foote has gotten right.
This past March, TGNR’s Managing Editor Paul K. DiCostanzo interviewed creator and host of the channel Name Explain, YouTube’s Patrick Foote. Name Explain is a channel dedicated to unraveling the etymological and linguistic origins of many notable places, people or subjects that define the world. Through his channel Mr. Foote has popularized linguistics and etymology – traditionally viewed as dry and pedantic subjects by many – to a large and constantly growing audience. How does he keep viewers clicking “subscribe?” Simple: Name Explain makes these subjects accessible in a way few others have seldom accomplished. Patrick chatted with Paul about the origins of Name Explain, his background, and the challenges of building a new channel from its very foundations.
What is in a name? That is a rhetorical question that has been posed throughout the history of the English speaking peoples – perhaps most notably in Shakespeare. Patrick Foote, creator and host of YouTube’s Name Explain, is answering that very question. Human beings think and understand the world in language. However, the significance behind the words and names human use to comprehend this world are often far more interesting than the average word monkey gives credit. Cue Patrick Foote, as this is precisely where Name Explain takes center stage.
YouTube’s Patrick Foote – A Name Explained
Patrick Foote’s passion for linguistics and etymology is a more recent discovery. The 23 year-old from southwest England first encountered this fascination when choosing an additional subject for his UK A-Level exams. The choice was a serendipitous personal revelation that revolutionized his entire life.
After briefly attending university for linguistics, Foote found the experience unfulfilling and moved on. What might have appeared like an ending at the time was actually a beginning.
Like many young Millennials, Patrick had prior YouTube experience in his adolescence. As such, the platform served as the ideal forum for his major foray into original creation – answering the question, “Where is Old Zealand?”
The video was precipitated by a family trip to the continent. While riding in the car, Patrick saw a sign for the Dutch province of Zeeland. That moment became a catalyst for Foote, an experience that yielded a chain reaction, which ultimately lead to his 2+ year YouTube project.
Professional vs. Autodidact Specialist
In speaking with TGNR‘s Paul K. DiCostanzo, Patrick Foote emphasized that he is not a professional linguist. However, with the modern democratization of media, Foote is reaching a considerable audience on a subject few others in history have been able to popularize. Like most successful YouTube creators, Patrick offers answers to unique questions; specifically he answers questions people didn’t realize they wanted answered. That being said, Name Explain is tackling this erstwhile dry subject in a singular style.
By combining original animation drawn on Foote’s iPad, with his own narration, Foote uses a well-honed voice and look to tell the history of each selected “name”. In a blend of well researched information, dry wit, and the authority only a British accent could assume, Name Explain has evolved into its own unique experience – staking a worthy claim to the growing genre of “edutainment.”
The World of Edutainment
In the YouTube universe, the genre of “edutainment” is experiencing exponential growth. There is considerable demand not only for new, high quality original content but there is also a blended insatiable desire for knowledge in a very digestible form. Channels such as The Great War, or AlternateHistoryHub are prime examples of those who have pioneered this approach on YouTube. When it comes to the vast sphere of linguistics and etymology, Patrick Foote is among those pioneers staking claim. In doing so, Foote is highly insightful in how he has made it so.
“If one person likes something, a million can also like it. If one person finds something funny, there is a continent of others who will also laugh.” – Patrick Foote’s advice to new or aspiring YouTube creators
It is no secret that creating original content for mass consumption is a complex process. Both in effort and the emotionally complex quagmire of putting oneself out there – it can be daunting. When asked what his mindset is when creating ones own content, Patrick Foote operates by the maxim that, “If one person likes something, a million can also like it. If one person finds something funny, there is a continent of others who will also laugh.” A simple and direct approach that is far from simplistic. Yet in a modern context, one requires more than excellent content and a fan base to continue making new content.
Like many fellow YouTube creators, Name Explain supplements its channel revenue through the crowd funding platform Patreon. Patreon operates on the basis of monthly donations from a creators fan base. With numerous possible monetary denomination options for supporters, creators reciprocate to their benefactors based on the amount they give. For example, Name Explain patrons that donate $5 a month, Patrick creates a unique drawing in the channels animated motif specifically of that patron. For $10, he will send a Name Explain postcard to any address in the world.
Within this arrangement, Patreon serves both the aim of generating revenue to support ongoing work, as well as being a medium that builds community between creators and fans. The interactions between creators and their contributors over time has constructed an intimate sinew that not only generates revenue, but also builds an unprecedented bridge between creators and fans in highly celebrated fashion.
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Becoming a Professional
Despite Patrick Foote’s assertion that he is not a professional linguist, he is indeed becoming a professional. As recently announced on Name Explain, Foote is transitioning to making his YouTube production a full time profession:
Patrick Foote is one of many who through their initial creative efforts has found his vocational calling. Such an opportunity is a very unique opportunity created by modern mass media, and is a new hallmark of possibility previously unknown. It is a tremendous journey into the unknown like any other major change in profession. Name Explain has anted up and is going all in.
When it comes to answering questions people didn’t realize they wanted the answer to, Foote is demonstrating undeniable skill. When it comes to answering the most important question all creators ask, “What if I do something different?” Foote’s response is clear. It is a question all of his 100,000+ subscribers are very pleased how Patrick Foote has answered.
Enjoy the video below “Why Do Austria & Australia Have Such Similar Names?” and checkout Name Explain for yourself!
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Keye Luke: An American Son
Following an in-depth look at American actor/playwright, the late Sam Shephard; Cadrecinematique examines another American film icon, Keye Luke.
Keye Luke and Philip Ahn, two of early Hollywood’s biggest Asian American movie stars, wound down their careers portraying Zen masters on the popular TV series “Kung Fu”. Almost fifty years had passed since anti-miscegenation laws had prohibited Asian actors from playing romantic leading roles opposite white women, and Luke and Ahn were once again playing Asian stereotypes in support of a white actor in yellowface. As playwright Frank Chin asks, “From Fu Manchu to ‘Kung Fu’ – Is that progress?”
However, unlike Frank Chin, Keye Luke was genuinely satisfied with his Hollywood career and what he viewed as the transitioning representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood films. Interviewed by the New York Times in 1985 Luke stated that he was satisfied with the progress of Asian representations:
“The Chinese laundryman and the Japanese gardener may still be with us, but most Chinese and Japanese now find themselves in the mainstream of American life.”
Keye Luke was not the first Asian star in Hollywood. Sessue Hayakawa, a favorite actor of Cecil B. DeMille, roared to stardom in 1915. Hayakawa’s performances, like those of other Asian American actors of the early studio era, were valued for their intrinsic otherness. Hollywood played up the exoticism of American born Asian actors such as Anna May Wong who was cast as the proverbial ‘Dragon Lady’ in such films as Daughter of the Dragon (1931).
Keye Luke, although an actor of the same generation, never embraced these stereotypes. Throughout his studio era film career Luke always remained a distinctly American presence. In a career that spanned sixty years and over a hundred films, Keye Luke transitioned from playing brash young Americans to more traditional Hollywood representations of Chinese. This implies that identity is conceived through binary oppositions. One can only be Chinese or American. Keye Luke believed progress in the cinematic portrayal of Chinese and other ethnic groups would be incremental.
Towards the end of his life Keye Luke remarked that no role was ever more satisfying than his role in “Kung Fu”; he was finally able to share Chinese philosophy with the general American public. Keye Luke transcended the dichotomy of being trapped between two dissonant cultures. He remains the exuberant boy next door and the kindly paternal sage for a society in which identity is not solely conceived through race.
Keye Luke: An All-American Boy
Keye Luke was born in Guangzhou, China in 1904, but grew up in Seattle. Luke studied architecture at the University of Washington, dropping out in order to work, after the death of his father. A gifted artist, his first job was designing sheet music covers for a local Seattle music shop. He soon moved to Los Angeles and began working as a newspaper illustrator. His illustrations were highly praised. In a 1928 Los Angeles Times article written by art editor Arthur Miller; Lawrence Binyon, the director of prints and drawings for the British Museum, was quoted as saying,
“I expect that in vitality of line, Mr. Keye Luke altogether surpasses Beardsley… but I confess I fear for the future of this young artist if he remains in the West… I would like to see him back in China bringing new life and inspiration to Chinese art.”
Although critics hold Luke in high regard, few publishers had hired him as an illustrator for Western stories. Miller would ask a question of Luke’s art that holds true regarding his work in film,
“Can oriental and occidental art be blended successfully? It remains for Keye Luke, perhaps, to be the proving ground for or against this question.”
During Luke’s time in Los Angeles he also painted several murals in the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. In 1930, after returning to Seattle to paint murals for department stores, he was hired by Fox West Coast to draw artwork for their theater chain. Soon he was moved to the publicity department where he ironically drew illustrations for early Charlie Chan films. In 1931 he moved to RKO where he drew advertising art and billboards. At RKO he illustrated the press-book for King Kong.
In 1933, Lou Brock, an RKO producer, was packaging a sequel to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger vehicle Flying Down to Rio, and wanted Luke to play a love interest for Anna May Wong. Keye Luke remembers turning to Brock and saying, “Lou, I am an artist not an actor.” In a 1934 interview with the LA Times, Luke admits being immediately hooked on the idea of becoming an actor. He believed that his performances could have a positive effect on the Chinese American experience,
“This is something that I suppose -that I hope-I’ve always been headed for…I think I can accomplish much more as an actor than as an artist, because of the wider reach of the medium. I want to play good, representative types, so as to help clear up the debris of misunderstanding and misconception of the Chinese which Americans may have, and vice versa. And I want to be a real credit to the industry…”
Brock did cast Luke in a series of short subjects. Luke’s eloquent command of the English language led to being cast in The Painted Veil with Greta Garbo and his future Charlie Chan co-star Warner Oland. Luke recalls that doors suddenly started opening for him,
“The thing that helped me so much was that all my former advertising bosses and so on opened doors for me. And the newspaper columnists – like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and Jimmy Starr – they gave me lots of publicity because I had done artwork for their columns.”
Number One Son
After filming The Painted Veil he was called by one of his former publicity bosses at Fox, who said,
“Come out here and we’ll see what we can do now that you’re a Cantonese ham.”
Luke headed down to the older Fox studio on Western Avenue, and was greeted by Jim Ryan, a casting director, who said,
“Keye, do you know we’re going to put a Number One Son in the Charlie Chan pictures and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t play it.”
This meeting was his big break. Fox signed him to a contract. Luke would work opposite Warner Orland in eight Charlie Chan films. Warner Oland’s worsening alcoholism and failing health prompted him to leave a ninth Charlie Chan collaboration which was re-written as a Mr. Moto film albeit with Keye Luke’s Lee Chan playing a large role.
Luke subsequently left the Charlie Chan series when the title role was recast. He respected Warner Oland, and over the course of their eight films together, the Swede had become his mentor. He jumped from Fox to Monogram where he starred in the low budget serials The Green Hornet and The Phantom of Chinatown.
A Chinese Andy Hardy
After those serials ended, Monogram cast him as a supporting character in a series of comedies built around their star Frankie Darro. The success of the Darro pictures prompted MGM to sign Luke and cast him as a young All-American intern in the Dr. Kildare films. His character, Dr. Lee Wong How, is a revival of Luke’s Son Number One star image – brash, enormously positive, and sweet. He also appeared as Dr. Lee in Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, which is fitting because Lee Chan’s all American relationship with Charlie Chan parallels Andy’s relationship with his father, Judge Hardy.
The Dr. Kildare series ended in 1947 with Dark Delusion. Luke returned to Monogram and was cast once again as Lee Chan, playing opposite Roland Winters as Charlie Chan, who was six months younger than Luke. The film roles began to dry up for the youthful looking, but middle-aged actor. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Luke shifted to television work and voice acting; although, in 1958 he performed on Broadway in The Flower Drum Song to critical acclaim. Nonetheless, it was not until the 1970s that he experienced a career resurgence.
Keye Luke was cast as Master Po in “Kung Fu” which ran from 1972-1975. The show was extremely popular and his character was a pop-culture sensation. For the first time in his career, Keye Luke’s visage was adorning lunchboxes.
In 1984 Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante cast Luke as the wise Grandfather, Mr. Wing in Gremlins. His last role was as the sage herbalist in Woody Allen’s Alice. In effect, Son Number One became Charlie Chan. Keye Luke, who played highly energetic All American characters for the first half of his career, ended his career by playing a series of traditional (some would argue stereotypical) Chinese characters.
Just as these old men sought to teach Confucianism and natural order to their students, Keye Luke sought to share Eastern philosophy with mainstream America. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke contends that he was never happier than when performing these traditional roles,
“I was giving the actual sayings of great Chinese philosophers like Confucius for dialogue. It worked for me on every level.”
Within the Chinese-American community Keye Luke’s career is divisive. He is recognized as the Chinese-American actor best known to American audiences. As a contract actor in the studio era he played many different types of characters. Many Chinese-Americans lauded him as a man who broke through a racist system and demonstrated that Chinese-Americans were little different from any other Americans.
“I have played many…. characters in the mainstream. Because of my appearance, or because of my personality, or whatever it may be, I was always put into good Boy Scout roles — lawyers, doctors, business executives and tycoons, the nice Chinese guy down the block.”
However, some Asian-American scholars have demeaned him for appeasing institutional racism. Television scholar Darryl Hamamoto decries that:
“With few exceptions, Keye Luke’s outstanding career was predicated upon his ability to portray the stock array of Asian domestic servants, laundrymen, mystics, gangsters, and enemy soldiers.”
While it is true that Luke has played stock characters over the course of his long and varied career, the Chinese launderer in Manhandled and an evil communist soldier in The Bamboo Prison as examples, these excursions do little to diminish the distinctive American-ness of his star image for the first thirty years of his career. Hamamoto is correct to label Luke’s television output as more problematic. During the 1960s Luke was forced to play an array of stock Asian characters. These roles were all that were available to a middle-aged Chinese American actor at that point in Hollywood’s history.
Focusing on these roles is to ignore Luke’s achievements. For the majority of his career he played characters “lawyers, doctors, businessman,” that were strong role models for young Chinese Americans.
Allan Luke, Keye’s nephew and a theorist studying multi-literacy linguistics at Queensland University of Technology understands Hamamoto’s position but defends his uncle,
“…my Uncle was no dupe, no sellout, no Uncle Tom, no Banana… He was many things. He was a mirror. He was a prism. …And perhaps like so many migrants – he was an actor… he worked to survive in good faith, within and through a fundamentally racist medium.”
The Charlie Chan films are not inherently racist. Charlie Chan is a character of the highest ideals. He is intelligent, resourceful, respected, and modest. He is a family man and shares a strong bond with his eldest son. He is also played by a white man. This did not bother Keye Luke. He understood this type of casting was a commonplace at that time. To Keye Luke, what was important was the portrayal of the Chinese ethic.
In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke was asked about his opinion on yellowface in classical Hollywood films. He replied,
“I didn’t see anything odd about it at the time and I still don’t. Acting is an art that transcends race and color. When I came to Hollywood there were only a few Chinese here and no other Orientals.”
A Real American Icon
The Son Number One character was first introduced in 1935’s Charlie Chan in Paris. Lee Chan does not appear until almost twenty minutes into the film. After investigating a crime scene, Charlie Chan returns to his room. The door, which he left he open, has been locked. He unlocks the door and hears a sound from the bathroom. He pulls out his gun, and in his stereotypical manner says, “Come out, please.” A man comes out, a towel covering his head. Keye Luke finishes drying his hair and pulls away the towel. He looks up at his father and smiles, and immediately begins speaking in an upbeat unaccented machine-gun Hechtian cadence,
“Hello pop! What’s the matter? Did I scare you?”
The character is unlike any other in Hollywood film of the time. He is Chinese sans otherness. As soon as he speaks, the surprised audience pictures a sort of Andy Hardy-esque teenager. The proverbial boy-next-door. Ethnicity is transcended.
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To Hear, One Has Only to Listen
At the end of his career Keye Luke began playing sage older men, similar to Charlie Chan. The two most famous of these traditional characters are Master Po from “Kung-Fu” and the Grandfather in Gremlins. Both characters allowed Luke to channel Eastern philosophy to the American masses. A famous scene in “Kung Fu” revolves around Caine (David Carradine) meeting the blind master for the first time. As they talk, Master Po asks Caine if he can hear the grasshopper at his feet. Caine responds, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?” Luke responds, “Young man, how is it that you cannot?” Luke was satisfied that this type of dialogue conveyed aspects of Chinese philosophy.
Critics like Frank Chin disagree, “The more brilliantly meaningless the lines, the more wooden, stilted and archaic the English, the more Chinese they (Americans) think it is.” It is pointless to argue whether these lines themselves have meaning. On the screen, infused with Luke’s warmth and humanity, “To hear, one has only to listen,” can inform a generation, no matter if it was written by a Confucian master or a Hollywood hack.
Towards the end of his life, Keye Luke was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, directly across from Grauman’s Chinese theater, which he helped design more than sixty years earlier.
Keye Luke belonged to the first generation of Asian-American actors. However, he stood out. Within a racist industry, Luke created a purely American star-image.
Keye Luke should not be demeaned for the demands of the studio system. He should be remembered for opening the door for a generation of actors that will never have to endure classical stereotyping and institutional racism.
Write to David Sporn at email@example.com
 Frank Chin. “Kung Fu is Unfair to Chinese” The New York Times
 Arthur Miller. “ROMANCE WEAVES AURA AROUND WORK OF YOUNG CHINESE-AMERICAN ARTIST” Dec 16, 1928
 The Sequel to be called Ho for Shanghai never materialized. Brock was fired off the project after studio in-fighting.
 Ken Hanke. Charlie Chan at The Movies. History, Filmography, and Criticism
 Los Angeles Times July 22nd 1934
 The New York Times. Keye Luke, Actor, Is Dead at 86; ‘No. 1 Son’ and ‘Kung Fu’ Master
 Darryl Hamamoto. Monitored Peril
 Allan Luke. “Another Ethnic Autobiography”
 In 1972 Keye Luke voiced Charlie Chan in “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan” an animated series by Hanna and Barbera. He fittingly became the first person of Chinese descent to portray the character.
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J.J. McCullough or: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Canada (*But Didn’t Know Where to Ask)
Recently Paul K. DiCostanzo sat down and spoke with J.J. McCullough. J.J. is a popular Canadian political personality, YouTube vlogger, contributor for the Washington Post’s Global Opinion section, columnist for National Review Online, and a digital Canadian cultural ambassador. Among the myriad endeavors for this Vancouver native, J.J. is the sole creator, contributor and editor for the internet’s ultimate source of Canadian insight online, The Canada Guide.
Mr. McCullough has recently finished a successful Kickstarter campaign to completely renovate this popular internet encyclopedia answering questions to all things Canada. J.J. spoke to Paul about this undertaking, and his greater role as a cultural ambassador for Canada to the digital world.
TGNR Paul K. DiCostanzo: I’m here with J.J. McCullough of “JJ’s Guide to Canada”. Thank you for joining me.
J.J. McCullough: Thanks for having me.
TGNR PKD: What year specifically did the Canada Guide begin?
J.J.: So, this project began when I was in high school. So it would have been in the early 2000’s. Back when I was starting to talk to a lot to people on the internet, starting to make a lot of internet friends that were mostly Americans, who didn’t really know a lot about Canada. I was kind of keen to help, do what I could do to educate them, or at least do what I could to answer the most commonly asked questions that I got.
From there I just started to take the project a bit more seriously. I started adding more and more information to it. I kept learning more about Canada myself in order to expand it. It’s gone through a few renovations since then. I mean the most substantial one was in 2009, which was when I basically revised the site into what it looks like today.
Of course now I’m undergoing another major revision in which I’m doing a lot of editing, and redesigning the site. It is what I believe to be the fourth major renovation. So yeah, it’s been a project I’ve been working on for certainly more than a decade.
TGNR PKD: We’re going to get back to that in just a moment. Something we were speaking about the other day – what sparks your desire to learn and share so much about you country in this depth and fashion? On a fundamental level, where did this spark come from to ultimately explore your country as you have? Specifically on a level that engages readers on such a vast scope and depth found on the site?
J.J.: I mean part of it is just a basic desire to educate other people. I think that a lot of Canadians by nature enjoy explaining Canada to people. I think that is a common cultural trait. I think there is a particular interest in explaining Canada to Americans that a lot of Canadians have interest in doing.
One of the best ways to become an expert on a topic is to focus on how you would teach that topic to someone else. So in order to become a good educator, you really have to focus on educating yourself. I just kind of view that as a positive end unto itself.
TGNR PKD: Would you consider yourself a cultural ambassador, and if so, why?
J.J.: I would like to think so. Another part of the motivation is that I do think that a lot of the conventional explain-ers, so to speak, on Canada are just not very good. I do think a lot of them are very biased. They are often very political, very partisan, very ideological. You know I’m a political, partisan, ideological person like everybody else, but at the same time I understand that conveying realities about Canada through that prism is not always the most helpful approach. It is not always the most useful, and does not always give an accurate picture of the country to people who are genuinely interested in hearing the real deal. They don’t only want to hear one side of the story.
So, I guess in the sense that I’ve tried to be a cultural ambassador, I’ve tried to be one that tells the truth about Canada, its imperfections, and its controversies. It portrays an honest picture of a place that’s not perfect, and that is not completely captive to only one side of the political spectrum. Or any of these other conventional narratives about Canada that you tend to hear.
So I’m trying hard to portray an image that is accurate, and is deep in a way that I think a lot of other information about Canada is not.
TGNR PKD: Now I was going to save this more for the end, but you seem to have crossed this bridge in a way. If there is one thing you could choose to teach people about Canada that they don’t know, what would it be?
J.J.: Oh, that’s a very good question! I suppose one thing I like to focus on when I teach other people about Canada is just the nature of the Canadian political system. It is very complicated, very distinctive, idiosyncratic, and cannot be easily generalized.
In the sense that I think there is a conventional sort of narrative about Canada. Certainly in America that Canada is just this very liberal country; that it’s very left wing in contrast to America. It has a lot of policies that are a lot more to the left. And that is true to a degree, but it’s always very important to understand why that is so, and the roots of that are more complicated than Canadians being disposed to one political opinion more than the other.
It has to do with how Canada’s parliamentary system works, and the way in which there are fewer checks and balances in Canada than there are in America. Canada is much more dominated by a strong leader; by the Prime Minister. The federal government is much more dominant vis-a-vis the provincial governments than the American federal government is vis-a-vis the state’s.
So there is a lot of complex power dynamics that go on in dictating how Canadian policy is crafted. And I mean, this is before we go into even more complicated things like the fact that Canada has the existence of a bilingual sort of ruling elite and the different ways that manifests.
So it is a complicated country whose governed in a complicated way. I think that is often lost in conventional telling.
TGNR PKD: Now regarding the project itself from a purely technological, digital standpoint: Specifically, how are you planning to upgrade the site?
J.J.: Well, I’ve raised a lot of money on Kickstarter for the redesign. Most of that money is going to hire a professional web designer, and you know the design is pretty much done. I’m now in the process of migrating the content. But the new look I want has a lot more photos, which are a lot larger. It has a lot more info-graphics, and visual display of information.
It is just a much more visually appealing site than it used be, which I think is important. When you’re learning about a new topic such as a new country, and the complexities therein like how the governance system works or things like that can be quite intimidating. I think it’s important that it has an attractive, accessible face. So that was really my first priority. That’s really what I think is going to be the biggest difference between how it is now, versus how it will be in a few months when I release the new version.
TGNR PKD: On a content level, how do you wish to expand?
J.J.: Well, I am certainly re writing a lot of it. I am re writing a lot of passages of it. Ultimately getting more information to make it more accurate. The fact is my own knowledge of Canada has improved since the last major redesign. There are some passages that are not entirely accurate, or perhaps somewhat lacking insight that I now have. So, the writing quality will be better, and the education quality should improve.
There’s a really cool new feature that I am quite excited about – the history of Canadian elections. We will really have a breakdown of every Canadian election. You know, maps with political parties and where they won their seats, with all 44 elections that we’ve had. That’s been done in a very visually attractive ways, in a way that really has not yet been done. There will be an election map or breakdown of elections that is as comprehensive as anywhere elsewhere available. I am most excited with that because its the most indisputably groundbreaking thing that will be introduced to the world.
TGNR PKD: You have said that most of the people that visit your site are Americans. You have also spoken about how Canada and the United States are incredibly similar on the whole. That being said, what do you believe are the most important similarities between the two nations? As well as the biggest differences?
J.J.: That’s a very good question, and that’s a very deep question that has consumed Canadians since the two countries existed.
I think the most important similarities, for all intents and purposes, is we share a culture. We speak English, and thus we consume English speaking media. We watch the same movies, we listen to the same music, play the same video games, read the same books, and all the ways that those sort of things impact Canadian and American culture are influenced in a similar way, and we have the same tastes.
You know, things like what is funny, what is gross, what is beautiful, what is ugly, what is scary. All of these cultural beliefs are pretty much the same. A Canadian can move to America, or an American can move to Canada, and you don’t feel as if you’re in a foreign place. That is very underestimated, because there are very few countries where you can go between the two of them with as little difficulty as Canadians and Americans do.
The biggest difference I think are entirely political. Almost entirely structurally political. The different ways Canada has organized its elections, or has organized its constitution than America has. That is really the root of the difference, which is to say they’re almost entirely political or entirely legal with the different ways the government has been organized. It makes it so different laws that can be passed, and their effects on the society.
There are people who try to argue it the other way, and say cultural differences percolate up to the government. I disagree with that argument. I think the differences peculate downwards, and the effect does not come from the bottom up.
TGNR PKD: Now, you’re a noted YouTube vlogger, one that I have found very poignant and funny. You’re also using it as a platform for cultural exchange. That being said, why have you chosen the topics you have? Moreover, you do not sit there simply ranting on the screen. I seem to remember an episode where you explored the Canadian “bag of milk” trend, and then called grocery stores all over Canada to test the so-called trend, and included it in the episode. Why have you chosen these topics and approach, and what has been the feedback from your audience?
J.J.: It’s all rooted in this Canadian desire for Canadians to explain Canada to Americans. I think that is a very deep seeded desire that many Canadians possess. It sparks competition in any Canadian whi has some public profile, or any degree of public forum.
So, this is rooted in how I see other Canadians trying to explain Canada to Americans. I see the kind of things that they emphasize, or don’t emphasize, and thus I have a desire to push back against that, and correct falsehoods as I see them.
One of them you see a lot is when you Google, “how are Americans and Canadians different?” Something that comes up again and again is that Canadians drink their milk in a bag, and Americans don’t! This is a very popular topic on YouTube. As I see in the video, that isn’t actually true! In all of western Canada, nobody drinks their milk out of bags, it is entirely an Ontario phenomenon. With Ontario being the largest province, and with Ontarian’s being – not to put too fine a point on it – somewhat sheltered from the rest of Canada. They tend to overgeneralize their ways to the rest of the country.
I like to push back against that and say contrarian things, and portray more nuanced things that are not being covered by other channels. I think its rooted in a Canadian desire to be the one authoritative figure about Canada. Ultimately to be the great explainer in telling Americans what Canada is all about.
TGNR PKD: Regarding the response you have received for your work, has there been any really memorable feedback regarding what you do?
J.J.: Certainly from the Canada guide website, I have received a lot of feedback from elementary school aged kids in the United States. I remember doing this kind of thing in school too, where you have a project on a foreign country. So today kids go on the internet to learn, and some kids come across my website, and thank me for my work. It’s fun, its easy to use, and so on and so on. That’s always very flattering to me because I see myself in some of those responses.
You know I see a desire to learn about foreign countries and stuff. I get emails from teachers that say similar things, and that’s very flattering and encouraging as well. It motivates me to make something that is high quality. I think there is a dearth of high-quality non-fiction writing on the internet as well. I find it to be a massively untapped market. Because its difficult to do quality non-fiction writing. It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of research. When it does what it aims to do, which is helping to educate people in a way that people regard with credibility, that’s a real reward.
TGNR PKD: Now, you’re certainly a public figure J.J., and right now what is the next big thing you want to take on?
J.J.: That’s a good question. Once this new revised Canada website is launched, I definitely think I would want to create another major comprehensive website. One that I would spend a lot of time and money on, just like I have with the Canada guide.
I don’t know exactly what topic it would be, I have a few ideas kicking around. I think it might be interesting to do another country, I don’t know what country that would be yet. As I don’t have a country that I know as much about as Canada. That might require reaching out to writers, or people who know a lot about said country. I would like to approach it from an editorial role.
Or perhaps on some other topic. I have often thought that a topic having to do with science would be really cool. A real in depth look into something in the science field that really needs more in depth understanding, in an accessible and visual way. I am not an expert in scientific realms either, but I can certainly see the need for it.
So I think going after my next topic I have to ask, ‘what is the demand?’ ‘What do people want?’ What would be a useful educational resource on the internet that would fly? As opposed to specifically what I would want to do myself.
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TGNR PKD: You have traveled the United States a lot, as well as being a Canadian cultural ambassador. As we wrap up, what do you believe is one thing you would want your fellow Canadian countryman to know about their American neighbors to the south?
J.J.: I think there is a sense in a lot of other countries that Americans are ignorant about the rest of the world. You know, there is some truth to that. I think that it is important to realize there are few people that are more curious than Americans are. I have met people who are more curious about Canada, or more curious about me, and are more determined to correct whatever ignorance may exist through education.
I think Canadians should be a bit more forgiving when they come across Americans who don’t know things about Canada. So when an American is ignorant about that, they’re very self-conscious about that, and are eager to improve themselves in that way. So I think to be more patient and more tolerant would be a good thing.
There are a lot of things about Canada that Americans don’t know. There is also a lot of things about America that Canadians don’t know. So I think we should be a little less condescending, and a little more open exchanging knowledge and information about our two countries.
TGNR PKD: Thank you for chatting with me this morning, JJ.
J.J.: Thank you!
You can find J.J. on YouTube, Loonie Politics, Facebook, Twitter, and of course J.J.‘s Complete Guide To Canada.
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