Proposals for Global Asias as an emerging field that “bridges” Asian studies and Asian American studies should attend to the residual debris of older understandings of global bridging work. This response explores two motifs for speculating about what bridging work in Global Asias could be: stars, as understood in terms of interimperial constellations, and sandbars, as a metaphor for more local, coalitional, and temporary aggregations.

Among the flurry of organizational emails for the 2021 Global Asias roundtable, one provided, in abbreviated form, a rationale for my participation: “Andrew Leong: bridging work, presented at both AAS [Association for Asian Studies] and AAAS [Association for Asian American Studies].”

The phrase “bridging work” caught me off guard. Thanks to healthy childhood exposure to Japanese ghost stories, I associate bridge construction with morbid folktales about hitobashira, or “human pillars.” Hitobashira are people who have been buried alive or drowned as sacrifices during the construction of castle walls or bridges.1 To be, or become, a bridge is to get “walked over” (Moraga and Anzaldúa 2002, xlvi). A phobic association between bridges and hitobashira means that in my own research on Japanese-language literatures of Japanese diasporas in the Americas, I carefully avoid using bridge-building metaphors. Accordingly, I am wary of describing myself, or any other scholar who presents at both AAS and AAAS, as a “bridge.” Although I am sympathetic to the optimism of envisioning future bridges across multiple fields, any time I hear the word “bridge,” I cannot help but think: Who pays the toll? Who, or what bodies, have to be sacrificed to build this bridge?

I am also aware of the mismatch between the bilateral image of bridging two sides and the spherical ambit of a phrase like “Global Asias.” The inaugural issue of the journal Verge: Studies in Global Asias opened by stating that “Verge aims to bring together research from the multidisciplinary grouping known as Asian studies with the differently disciplinary collocation known as Asian American studies” (Chen and Hayot 2015, viii). Without clarification, this phrasing could be taken to mean that an inescapably US-centric vision of “Asian studies” plus “Asian American studies” operates as the default synecdoche for understanding “Global Asias.” The editors’ attempts to clarify the term “Asian American studies” highlight, but do not resolve, this rhetorical problem of substitution: “We should make clear at this juncture that Asian American studies stands in for a broader commitment to Asian influence—the migration of people, things, and ideas from the region we call ‘Asia’ . . . as globally as possible” (Chen and Hayot 2015, viii; emphasis added). Readers alert to sacrificial logics will recall that “substitution, the use of a ‘stand-in’ in place of an original which then ‘represents’ it, is at the very heart of sacrifice” (Smith and Doniger 1989, 189). Thus, in the Verge introduction, “Asian American studies” looks like a propitiatory substitute or down payment toward what should have been an originary “broader commitment” to global “influence,” “migration,” or, to use another term offered by the editors, “diaspora.” Under this logic, one might wonder why the “Asian American” stand-in needs to be retained at all. Programs such as Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, have already added “diaspora.” Since the ethnic-national category of Asian American is included within the global category of Asian Diaspora, why not drop the vestigial “American” and just sweep it into formations like Asian Diaspora or Global Asian studies?

Cue the fear of sacrifice. Who, or what, gets dropped, buried, or drowned in the drive to build new and improved academic formations?2 Will “Global Asias” require the sacrificial or symbolic deaths of both of our multidisciplines? For Asian area studies, what will happen if the founding partition of “area” erodes into global banality? For Asian American ethnic studies, what will happen if the rationalizing “stand-in” category of American national identity gets swept away by turns to global transnationalism?3 These questions of partition, substitution, and sacrifice haunt my attempt to address the terms of my invitation. For the sake of this one-time invitation, however, I will try to address the speculative question of what “bridging work” in Global Asias has been, or could be.4

By thinking about what bridging work has been, I mean to argue for an ethic of careful archaism in our approaches to “Global Asias.” Instead of imagining a turn to Global Asias as the creation of a wholly new, transcendent superstructure that will somehow fly above and save us from the past constraints of Asian area and Asian American ethnic studies, we might attend to the residues and remains of older visions of the global.

The remainder of my response proposes two speculative motifs for pursuing an ethic of careful archaism and thinking through the older “globals” of Global Asias: stars and sandbars. These two motifs suggest two interwoven models or methods: constellation and aggregation. The first, longer section follows stars as imagined in interimperial constellations and divisions of the celestial globe. The second, briefer section turns to sandbars as figures for coalition building and temporary aggregation across disciplinary and geopolitical divides.

Stars and Constellation

To consider interimperial mappings of the celestial globe, I begin by noting the numerically auspicious occasion of my participation in the 2021 AAS conference. It was my 7-7 or “Tanabata” AAS—my seventh time presenting at AAS, following my seventh AAAS.

The Japanese Tanabata, Chinese Qixi, Korean Chilseok, and Vietnamese Thâ´t Tịch festivals are celebrated on the seventh night of a seventh (solar or lunar) month. Bridging and work are central to the legend at the heart of these celebrations: the tale of the Weaver (Vega) and the Oxherd (Altair). While some readers might associate this legend with fond childhood memories or warm summer nights, on closer scrutiny, the tale raises some disturbing questions. In the version with which I am most familiar, we find ourselves within a celestial order that leaves patriarchal sovereignty unquestioned; enforces gendered divisions between agrarian and craft labor; valorizes tribute production over sexuality or social reproduction; and presumes that nonhuman animals spontaneously give of themselves to serve the needs of human (or astral) beings. Variations of the Oxherd and Weaver tale are legion, but for the purpose of focusing on dynamics of interimperial translation, we might turn to an English rendition provided by the Greek-Irish Japanese national Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn's (1905, 5–6) account of the “popular Japanese version” of the tale is as follows:

The great god of the firmament had a lovely daughter, Tanabata-tsumé, who passed her days in weaving garments for her august parent. She rejoiced in her work, and thought there was no greater pleasure than the pleasure of weaving. But one day, as she sat before her loom at the door of her heavenly dwelling, she saw a handsome peasant lad pass by, leading an ox, and she fell in love with him. Her august father, divining her secret wish, gave her the youth for a husband. But the wedded lovers became too fond of each other, and neglected their duty to the god of the firmament; the sound of the shuttle was no longer heard, and the ox wandered, unheeded, over the plains of heaven. Therefore the great god was displeased, and he separated the pair. They were sentenced to live thereafter apart, with the Celestial River between them; but it was permitted them to see each other once a year, on the seventh night of the seventh moon. On that night—providing the skies be clear—the birds of heaven make, with their bodies and wings, a bridge over the stream; and by means of that bridge the lovers can meet. But if there be rain, the River of Heaven rises, and becomes so wide that the bridge cannot be formed. So the husband and wife cannot always meet, even on the seventh night of the seventh month; it may happen, by reason of bad weather, that they cannot meet for three or four years at a time. But their love remains immortally young and eternally patient; and they continue to fulfill their duties each day without fault,—happy in the hope of being able to meet on the seventh night of the next seventh month.

In the premodern, Chinese-derived cosmography of this tale, the celestial realm of the fixed, eternal stars and the terrestrial realm of mortal beings reflect each other across the plane of a shared sky. Although love in the celestial realm may be “immortally young” or “eternally patient,” this realm is not a timeless one; it, too, has days and nights, or months and years. These intervals are marked through the same solar and lunar cycles as those of the terrestrial realm. The weather is also the same: the summer rains that flood the rivers of Earth also flood “the River of Heaven.” Heaven, in other words, is a place like Earth.5

And yet, it is not quite like the Earth as mapped in medieval Christian or Islamic societies. Although there are severe limits to East-West comparative approaches that remain in the form of “Why did the East lack [insert Western concept here]?” for the purpose of quickly decentering the idea of the Western “globe” as a disciplinary given, historian John B.

Henderson's (1994, 203) broad comparative observation may prove useful:

Chinese cosmographical thought of premodern times was not as concerned as its counterparts with Western civilizations with the overall shape of the world or structure of the cosmos. There is no pre-seventeenth-century Chinese equivalent of the medieval European mappae-mundi or of Western representations of the earth showing its various cosmographical divisions or climatic zones. . . . [T]raditional Chinese cosmographical charts generally represent structures in such microcosmic dimensions as the architectural, the urban, and the agrarian rather than depicting the shape of the earth or the system of the world. . . . Like many Western cosmographical diagrams . . . Chinese charts were generally based on the supposition that there exist correspondences or correlations, which may be graphically expressed, between various orders of existence or realms of the universe, such as those of heaven, earth, and humanity. But in Chinese cosmographical thought these correspondences were drawn less often between macrocosm and microcosm as among various orders of mundane reality.

Despite Henderson's separation of “Western” representation from Chinese, this account of star charts mapping “correspondences . . . among various orders of mundane reality” bears a remarkable similarity to Walter Benjamin's (1999, 696) understanding (or imagination) of astrology among “the ancients [Greeks].” Benjamin proposes “a view of astrology from which the doctrine of magical ‘influences,’ of ‘radiant energies,’ and so on has been excluded” (684). The efficacy of astrology, in other words, is not etiological. Stellar influence or energy does not cause changes in human behavior or character. Its efficacy is formed through mimesis or the human faculty of imitation: “we must reckon with the fact that, basically, even events in the sky could be imitated by people in former times” (692). As Anthony Auerbach (2007) explains, “the similarity between a constellation of stars and a human being, which can hardly be imagined by modern people, Benjamin says, is ‘nonsensuous similarity.’” Auerbach continues by noting that “the corollary of this is that, though the sky might be a closed book to us now, we possess, in language, an ‘archive of nonsensuous similarities.’”

For the purposes of our present discussion of the models or methods of careful archaism, we might elaborate on Auerbach's (2007) assessment of Benjamin's account of “constellation” in the context of the rise of European fascisms in the 1920s:

Constellation, perhaps more accurately a model than a method, hardly seems to promise an overcoming of the archaic allure of the forces which came to threaten Benjamin's own existence. It is remarkable that Benjamin, who was an adamant opponent of such fascinations in its intellectual and its popular manifestations, should develop such an extravagant idea in the face of increasing danger. It is constellation, however, which triangulates the position of the materialist historian and tests his or her ability—in the present—a fleeting (dialectical) image as a signal of revolutionary potential or mundane redemption; to seize the moment invariably missed.

We might attempt our own triangulation of the Tanabata narrative, Henderson's account of Chinese cosmographical “orders of mundane reality,” and Benjamin's idea of seeing through the model of “constellation,” to find a “signal,” if not of “revolutionary potential,” then at least of “mundane redemption.”

To do so, we might question the economy of the celestial realm in the Tanabata narrative from the corresponding vantage of mundane realities. Why, in a celestial domain where both love and gods remain “immortally young,” must the Weaver and Oxherd fulfill “duties each day without fault”? If the Weaver must pass all her days weaving for her august parent, then what does this say about the sovereign's fashion needs? Does celestial immortality not extend to the life span of textile goods? Does the maintenance of endless life somehow require the Oxherd to provide a constant supply of agricultural produce? Perhaps it is a structurally insatiable demand for consumable clothes and foodstuffs that prompts the august parent to prioritize his daughter's and son-in-law's work output over their wedded happiness, and by extension, the reproductive prospect of grandchildren. In this realm of immortal beings, children would be superfluous as heirs or replenishments for labor supply. They would just be more bodies to clothe and feed. In the celestial empire, even wedded bliss, insofar as it entails pursuit of pleasure in something other than dutiful labor, threatens the cosmic order.

It follows that the meetings between husband and wife can only ever be occasional. One might imagine that a realm split by a large river would prioritize the construction of more permanent bridges to facilitate the movement of people and goods. Perhaps the celestial realm suffers from shortages of mundane forms of bridge-building labor and material. Or perhaps the august sovereign simply wishes to maintain border control over the partitions of his domain. Whatever the reason, “bridging work,” when it does occur, can only ever be achieved on a temporary basis, through the extraordinary dispensation of the “birds of heaven.”

As magical as this bridge of birds might seem, there is something dismally ordinary about the idea that bridging or border-crossing requires extraordinary dispensation or sovereign exception. We might reread the Oxherd/Weaver tale, not as an outmoded, premodern narrative unconcerned with the “overall shape of the world,” but consider instead how well it serves as an allegorical image for forms of imperial partition and gendered border control operative in the modern world-system circa Hearn's translation in 1905. In the United States, the Page Act of 1875 “interdicted . . . the entry of Chinese wives” and, in concert with other antimiscegenation and exclusion laws, “worked to produce Chinatowns as ‘exclusive bachelor communities’” (Eng 2001, 17). And while the Pacific Ocean is not the Celestial River, the literal separation of husbands and wives across a great body of water, the extraction of commodified labor, and interdiction of reproductive futurity all combine to make the Tale of the Oxherd and the Weaver seem less like premodern romance and more like modern social realism.

I am not alone in making this allegorical connection to the Tanabata narrative. By the mid-1910s, the image of US immigration authorities separating married people had become so routine as to be immediately recognizable as a poetic image. In a September 20, 1914, haiku contest published by the Nichibei Shinbun, the following submission on the theme of “Tanabata” was penned by a poet submitting under the name Kuniko (洲子):


iminsha no mado no meboshi no hare materi

By an Immigration Station window, I wait for the sky to clear, to see Vega, the Weaving Maid.6

One indication of the power of this correspondence for readers of the Nichibei in 1914 is that this poem received first-prize honors (天). The second- (地) and third- (人) place awards went to poems with more conventional associations: falling rain separating two stars; a plentitude of poems composed during Tanabata. The Nichibei's crosstown rival, the Shin Sekai Nikkan, or “Japanese Daily New World,” also drew upon premodern cosmography in its projection of a modern globe.

The image depicted in figure 1 is part of the masthead design of the Shin Sekai. This Japanese-language newspaper was founded in 1894 as the “house organ of the Japanese Young Men's Christian Association.” Although the Shin Sekai “severed ties” with the YMCA in 1897 (Azuma 1993, 311), there are some features in the masthead's composition that suggest residual associations with Christian iconography. The image's first, foreground layer consists of a central cross formed by the characters 新世界 in vertical orientation and 日刊 in right to left orientation. The character 界 appears to be unusually stylized with the lower four strokes rendered as two x's or crosses. The diagonal orientation of these crosses roughly aligns with the diagonal axes of the image's second layer: a circular projection of the globe that shrinks the Pacific Ocean, eliminates the Southern Hemisphere, and exaggerates the landmasses of East Asia at upper left and of western North America at lower right. The North-South axis of the globe runs diagonally from upper right to lower left. The East-West “equator” seems to have been magically transposed thirty-five to forty-degrees north, now running through San Luis Obispo, Kyoto, and Vladivostok. These transformations have the combined effect of making the northeast-southwest archipelago of Japan appear upright relative to the North American landmass in the opposite lower corner.

The final, background layer of the image aligns Japan with the sixteen-rayed Kyokujitsu-ki or “Rising Sun Flag” at upper left, but inverted from the usual red/dark sun against white/light field as a white sun against red/dark field. The lower right half of the image includes five stars against a black field, a possible reference to the Stars and Stripes of the United States. In a further inversion, we might note that the East-West rotation of the actual Earth means that the iconographic “Rising Sun” would in fact be a sun setting in the east. In concert, the three layers of the Shin Sekai masthead imagine a new world order that seems to be almost divinely ordained. The daily news crosses the Pacific, bridging the upright land of the (rising/setting) sun to the gently inclined land of stars and stripes. Lest we position ourselves, as members of AAS, as somehow being above distorting the globe along the lines of the Shin Sekai, we need only look at our own masthead (figure 2).

To our credit, this logo's distortions of relative size of landmasses are less egregious than those of the Shin Sekai. However, we appear to reside on an alternative Earth in which Iran, Turkmenistan, Australia, the Islands Region of Papua New Guinea, and most of the Commonwealth of Independent States have sunk into a new Panthalassa formed by the merging of the Indian, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. Inexplicably, the Amur River and its outflow seem to have protected Russia's Maritime Territory and Sakhalin from the Great Flood.

The broader point here is not that the AAS should come up with a new logo, but to invite reflection on how the prompt toward “Global Asias” might be understood as something more than just another new approach for Asian studies. We might think of how Asian studies has already, from its inception, relied upon implicit understandings and orderings of the globe. If we take the 1941 establishment of the AAS as a rough temporal marker, we might turn to thinking about how antecedent, pre-1941 understandings of celestial and terrestrial globes work as part of an archive of “nonsensuous similarities” that continue to inform our present imaginations.

As outlined here through a brief constellation of Shin Sekai and AAS mastheads with premodern and modern interpretations of the transcultural Tanabata festival, constellation in general might offer some promise as a model for seeking and describing momentary, but potentially redemptive or revolutionary images of similarity across time and space. However, the bridge work that constellation provides is, by its nature, occasional and unreliable. Like a fleeting conjunction of birds across the Celestial River, the bridge might only be temporary or illusory, a trick of magical thinking. How could these momentary constellations of global imaginaries possibly add up to something more material and enduring?

Sandbars and Aggregation

Embedded in the model of constellation, then, is an ongoing question about the efficacy and limitations of additive aggregation. In the field of Asian American literary studies, Colleen Lye (2011, 484) asks how we can “read for ‘Asian American literature,’ once we accept that neither ethnically aggregative nor synecdochic modes of representing it will do.” This question can be readily extrapolated to Asian area studies: merely aggregating studies of all Asian nationalities, ethnicities, and polities does not produce a coherent account of Asia as an “area.”

While recognizing the limitations of the merely additive, I also want to argue for a more forgiving and expansive understanding of what aggregation can do. First, reading for aggregates can help decompose seemingly singular understandings of “the globe” into a plurality of globes. In the context of a discussion of “Global Asias,” I am aware of how the implicit equation “Global Asias = Asian Studies + Asian American Studies” relies upon a US-centric understanding of the globe. As a US-based scholar, one of the most immediate means I can pursue for decentering the United States as an unquestioned, absolute geopolitical center is to provincialize.7 In this context, decentering and provincializing could include an emphasis on smaller aggregates of the local, nongeneral, but also nonexceptional features of phenomena in the United States.

To return to the case of the Shin Sekai masthead, we might read the image less for its grandiose global projection, and more for the coarseness of its local particularity. Our attention might turn to the fact that more than two months after the San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906, the newspaper still lists its “temporary office” as being located across the Bay, at “574 7th Street” in Oakland. (This location, once in the heart of Oakland's Japantown, is now a parking lot across the street from an Alameda County jail.) Although the Shin Sekai newspaper was able to survive the 1906 earthquake, as well as the Great Depression (through a merger with the Hokubei Asahi), it did not survive past December 8, 1941. The final address of the Shin Sekai Asahi Shinbun was 1618 Geary Street, a building that was demolished in 1960 as part of the massive Western Addition urban renewal project. By March 1968, half the building's footprint would be part of the newly widened Geary Expressway; the rest of the 1600 Geary block was occupied by the Kintetsu Mall, one of six major components of a newly opened “Japanese Cultural and Trade Center” designed by the Japanese American architect Minoru Yamasaki (1912–86) and Japanese architecture professor Yoshiro Taniguchi (1904–79) (Graves 2009, 59; Pease 2007).

In the 1930s, around the corner from the Shin Sekai, twelve people lived in a small apartment in 1539 Webster Street. These twelve Chinese Americans were my paternal grandfather, his parents, seven siblings, and two cousins. This location is now the western terminus of “The Bridge of Shops”—a charming overhead pedestrian passage that links the Kintetsu and Kinokuniya Malls of the Japan Center complex.

A visceral awareness of the toll that charming new bridges require—if not literal human sacrifice, then the sovereign assertion of eminent domain; demolition and displacement of the old—lingers in my wariness about calls for “Global Asias” that highlight newness. In 1968, the creation of one vision of a newly Japan-centered cultural and trade complex required the sacrificial demolition of older, less homogenized iterations and embodiments of “global Asias.” The New World or Shin Sekai of one era becomes the dust and debris of the next.

As a potential alternative to a vision that emphasizes the permanent and ever-new, I wonder whether we can turn instead to smaller, ephemeral aggregates of dust or sand. To do this, we might draw from a canonical text in ethnic studies, Gloria Anzaldúa's lecture “Bridge, Drawbridge, Sandbar or Island: Lesbians-of-Color Hacienda Alianzas.” Anzaldúa (1990, 223) describes the dangers of serving as a permanent bridge: “Being ‘there’ for people all the time, mediating all the time means risking being ‘walked on,’ being ‘used.’” These dangers set the terms why, for Anzaldúa, the “sandbar” seemed like a more appealing mode of alliance building:

At this point in time, the infrastructures of bridge and drawbridge feel too man-made and steel-like for me. . . . I sought and found the sandbar, a submerged or partly exposed ridge of sand built by waves offshore from a beach. . . . Being a sandbar means getting a breather from being a perpetual bridge without having to withdraw completely. The high tides and low tides of your life which help decide whether or where you're a sandbar today, tomorrow. It means that your functioning as a “bridge” may be partially underwater, invisible to others, and that you can somehow choose who to allow to “see” your bridge, who you'll allow to walk on your “bridge,” that is, who you'll make connections with. (Anzaldúa 1990, 223–24)

Transposed with the terms of the Tanabata tale, we might understand the bridge of birds as akin to the sandbar. The power of decision lies someplace other than in the partitioning hands of the august sovereign. It might reside in the elective and temporary affinities of aggregating birds. Like the birds, we might respond to the rains, the ebbs and flows of the River of Heaven and the tides of life and death.

If I must, as the invitation requested, provide a speculative image of what I hope “bridging work” in Global Asias can look like, it would look something like Anzaldúa's sandbar. I recognize the appeal of thinking of “Global Asias” as a brand-new edifice, with all of the initiative and sense of institutional building and renewal that this might entail. However, a gentler and more forgiving course might be to understand it as an aggregate of many old, familiar, worn-down, and discarded things: globes turned to granules and particularities.


In addition to thanking Christine Yano for organizing the roundtable that spurred this essay, I thank the two anonymous reviewers, as well as Christopher Fan, Cheryl Naruse, Grace En-Yi Ting, and Sunny Xiang for their feedback and advice on revising this work for publication.



For an authoritative collection of documents on hitobashira folklore, see Koishikawa (1998). My thinking about associations between hitobashira, ghosts, and state power is also indebted to De Antoni (2019, 273–75).


To be clear, Verge editors Chen and Hayot (2015, xii) are explicit about not attempting to “resolve or downplay the disparities” of Asian and Asian American studies, nor do they “hope to blend the fields into a new, interdisciplinary field of academic inquiry.” The editors do, however, point to logics of partition and boundary making: “The word verge can mean many things: an extreme edge or margin; a border or an enclosing boundary; the space enclosed beyond by a boundary; and the point beyond which an action, state, or condition is likely to begin or occur” (xii).


A touchstone essay for broaching this question is Wong (1995).


My turn to the speculative is inspired by what Aimee Bahng (2017, 315) has called, in the context of feminist science studies, “speculative fabulation, drawn from life unruly.”


My turn thinking about stars and their correlation with the mundane or everyday is indebted to Grace En-Yi Ting's (2021) readings of Ekuni Kaori and Irisawa Yasuo.


This translation is by Makiko Asano, in Egan (2020).


On “provincializing” as decentering, see Chakrabarty (2000, 3–4).

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