Bao Phi

Bao Phi has been a performance poet since 1991. A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. Read more about Bao Phi.

Posts about Government

Cambodian Son: Minneapolis Screening and Q & A with director Masahiro Sugano on April 15

Posted by: Bao Phi Updated: April 9, 2014 - 10:55 AM


TUESDAY // APRIL 15, 2014 // 7-9 PM 

Director Masahiro Sugano will be in attendance for a post-show Q and A.

From the website: Cambodian Son documents the life of deported poet, Kosal Khiev after receiving the most important performance invitation of his career—to represent the Kingdom of Cambodia at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Kosal would travel to London having only taken two flights prior; first, as a 1-year-old refugee child whose family fled Cambodia and, then as a 32-year-old criminal “alien” forcibly returned to Cambodia in 2011. The film follows a volatile yet charming and talented young man who struggles to find his footing amongst a new freedom that was granted only through his deportation. Kosal’s London representation is a triumphant moment for many people in his life, both in America and Cambodia. The film traces the impact and significance of this moment for Kosal, his friends, family, mentors and a growing international fan base. Armed only with memorized verses, he must face the challenges of being a deportee while navigating his new fame as Phnom Penh’s premiere poet. After the performances end and the London stage becomes a faint memory, Kosal is once again left alone to answer the central question in his life: “How do you survive when you belong nowhere?

I was able to exchange some emails with Anida Yoeu Ali of Studio Revolt about the film, in anticipation of the premier here in Minnesota on April 15.

1) What drew you to Kosal Khiev and this project?

Masahiro (director) and I were introduced to Kosal by a mutual friend, another Khmer Exiled American (KEA) I knew in the US. Our mutual friend raved about Kosal’s poetry and said that we should really meet him, especially since I was also a spoken word artist once upon a time in Asian America. (Masa’s personal telling about his first encounter with Kosal is very touching, so feel free to read it here:

Then one night Masa comes home and tells me that he just heard Kosal’s life story in one sitting. He was moved by the whole experience and he said this guy has something special and that I should really take the time to hear him kick a poem. Being the jaded old school spoken word artist that I was, I didn’t really believe Masa but then I remembered that Masa doesn’t usually rave about spoken word poetry so Kosal must have moved him deeply. On another night, Kosal came to visit us and in the middle of my living room I asked if he would kick a poem. That poem was “Moments In Between the Nights” and it grabbed my guts and shook me teary eyed. Since that moment sometime in July 2011, our paths have intertwined into both a journey and collaboration.

We believe Kosal represents something bigger than himself – ideas around compassion, the transformational power of art, and justice.

2) As it is National Poetry Month, what is it about poetry and spoken word that makes it a useful vessel for such a heavy subject?

Spoken word woven with musicality, theatricality and the raw energy and charisma of Kosal offers an element of entertainment that enables a mainstream audience typically unsympathetic to the deportation of convicted felons to have a new guide into the issue.

Kosal has a voice and it’s powerful and inspirational. We truly believe that his story and poetry should be heard on an international scale. We believe he has the power to unite and open up minds and hearts. He became a reformed man inside the US prison system as a result of arts programming. This means that reform is possible and art can be transformative. Kosal is living proof. We don’t need more punitive forms of justice but rather options that are restorative and transformative.

3) What is the goal of this film?

Our goal is to reach millions with this film. Laws can only be changed if we can change the culture which created the policies. We want people to humanize the issue of deportation through Kosal’s story. We want people to experience his story in order to tap into compassion and a sense of justice. Kosal’s story is complicated and has everything to do with history, geo-politics, war, circumstances, and failed systems which created him, then destroyed his life, and now rebirthing him once again.  

4) Where can readers learn more about deportation?

Please read the “issues” section of our press kit and/or our movie’s website for this information:


The race card and stacked decks

Posted by: Bao Phi Updated: September 22, 2011 - 12:18 AM

 A few hours after they accuse you of playing the race card for merely mentioning the word race, the powers that be execute a Black man, Troy Davis, though there seems to be ample room for doubt that he was the one who committed the crime.  Nevermind, for the time being, your opinions on the death penalty and the criminal justice system as a whole.

Instead, if they want to talk about facts, let’s examine some facts:


In 1982, two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, murdered Vincent Chin with a baseball bat in a racially motivated hate crime.  They blamed “japs” like Vincent Chin for the declining American auto industry, though Chin was Chinese American and had nothing to do with the auto industry.  This act was witnessed by two off-duty police officers.  Ebens and Nitz, to this day, have not spent a single night in jail for Vincent Chin’s murder.


In 2006, Officer Jason Andersen, an officer with a troubled record, shot and killed Hmong teenager Fong Lee.  Officer Andersen claims Lee had a gun.  There has been inconsistencies regarding the case, including lack of forensic evidence linking Lee to a gun reported on the scene, video footage analyzed by a video expert stating Lee did not have a gun.  Officer Andersen was acquitted of use of excessive force.


In 2009, Oscar Grant was executed point blank by Officer Johannes Mehserle, while he was prostrate.  He was unarmed.  The murder of Oscar Grant was witnessed by dozens and caught on cell phone cameras.  Officer Mehserle was sentenced to two years minus time served.


A few hours ago, Troy Davis was executed for allegedly murdering an off-duty police officer.  7 of 9 key witnesses against him disputed or recanted all or parts of their testimony.  Some asserted that they had been coerced by police. The murder weapon was never recovered.


My people, we know that they accuse us of playing the race card because they always stack the deck in their favor.

If you look at this logic, it’s clear who is really playing the race card.  Our unfortunate history, and our struggle, tell us this.


But this is not about them.  They get to voice their opinion all the time. Their comfortable hate already takes up too much room.  They are the only ones responsible for their hearts, their souls.  Let this space not be about them, but something else.  Dare I say – let this small space, and any small space that you may have, dear friend, be a space for us.  Take a breath.

Like you, I don’t quite know what to do, or feel.  It’s a sad night, in a history thick with sad nights.  Forgive me, all I have is this, my thoughts and my writing.  And this little space.  But it’s yours.  

The Spin on Your World

Posted by: Bao Phi Updated: September 20, 2011 - 11:43 AM


I was 17 when I got hit by a car.  I don’t recall seeing my life flash in front of my eyes.  I did see the world spin.

I had borrowed my older brother’s mountain bike to go riding with a friend of mine by the Mississippi, and then dropped by Cedarfest to hang out with friends and see some of them play in bands.  I was riding the bike home when the car came out of nowhere on Franklin and hit me.  I was about 4 blocks from my house.


I seem to remember grunting in surprise, and the world tumbling, lopsided and fast, in every which way.  Then a thump as I landed in the street.  Then the squeal of tires, and a crunch, which I would later realize was the sound of the car running over my brother’s mountain bike as the driver took off.


On the asphalt, I remember being dazed and feeling strangely fine – wondering what just happened.  There was some bewildered curse words in there too, which I won’t print in this family friendly paper.  A Native American woman was the first to find me, reassuring me that someone had called an ambulance, that I was young and handsome and that I’d be fine.  What a strange thing to say, I thought to myself.


On the ambulance ride, I was sad that my brother’s bike was ruined by the driver.  Then the adrenaline wore off and the pain set in.  And there was my father cursing me on the hospital bed for being careless and my uncle urging him to take it easy, my militant sister wondering if I was hit on purpose and if it was racially motivated. 

All in all, not a fun experience. 


Let’s not make a big deal out of it, but the difference in a couple of seconds, a couple of feet one way or another, and that could have been the end of it all for me.

For being struck by a car in a hit and run I was relatively lucky.  Small fracture in my collarbone, muscles bruised to the bone, some scars that are still faint on me to this day.  But no serious permanent injury, and I had health coverage through my dad’s work – and I was introduced to the dubious modern miracle called doctor prescribed pain medication.  To top it off, my brother was pretty cool about his mountain bike getting run over.


The driver was never caught, though I doubt anyone looked too hard for him or her.


I remember being pretty angry at whoever hit me, then took off.  I remember feeling guilty that I made my mom cry and my parents take off from work to see me. 


Now that I’m older, I drive carefully, because over the years I’ve also thought to myself how terrible it would be to hit someone with a car.  What a terrible thing to live with – that you are responsible for tons of metal and rubber, this symbol of modern times and years upon years of science and engineering and progress, propelling it towards something as fragile as another living being.  That something many of us take for granted everyday could mean grievous harm, and even death, to another.


A friend of mine sent me the article about the tragic death of Anousone "Ped" Phanthavong, in a hit and run.  Days later, it was revealed that the True Thai cook was killed by someone driving a vehicle owned by former Minnesota Viking, restaurant mogul, and sports broadcaster Joe Senser.


Recently Anna Prasomphol Fieser, co-owner of True Thai, recently wrote an impassioned and frustrated blog posting about the case, which you’ll find here:


(thanks to Leslie Ball for originally posting this a while back)


I’m glad that the Star Tribune did the right thing and eventually published Anna’s blog.   I don’t have much to add – I think Mrs. Fieser’s blog entry is an important alternative perspective and has a lot of insight.


As a community member, I’ll be watching this case with great interest.  Here, in this specific blog entry, I am not going to write about any theories or inconsistencies. Nor debate the legal aspects, of which I am not knowledgeable enough to contribute to a reasonable discussion.   What I am very interested in, is how this case plays out.   

Race and class may have nothing to do with the unfortunate tragedy of a man, successfully turning his life around, only to be killed in a tragic accident close to the place where he worked, the killer for whatever reason speeding off into the night dragging his body to paint an exclamation point in red on the asphalt.   Race and class probably have nothing to do with the tragedy itself.


We have yet to see if race and class have anything to do with public perception, media coverage, and how this case plays out in the judicial system.  Unfortunately, not every case gets the same treatment.  All these things are impacted by race, class, gender, in ways obvious to some and not-so-obvious to others.  Those who know, know.  You don’t need me to explain a thing.  We can hope for better, but not expect it.


Above all else, I hope the family members of the late “Ped” Phanthavong can find some peace, and some justice, if that is possible, in however and whatever shape it takes for them.


Celebrating Courage

Posted by: Bao Phi Updated: March 17, 2011 - 12:50 PM




There is a lot to read, and worry about, in local and world news.

Today I want to celebrate courage.  Real courage.  The story of the Fukushima 50 humbles me.  Here is one link to their story.  I wish them the best.  I wish them luck.  I cannot imagine what it is like to be in their situation.


I also want to give props to Rep. Mike Honda, who recently made a bold stand and statement against the hearings against Islam led by Peter King, drawing parallels to what happened during to Japanese Americans during World War 2.  It would have been easier to just "go with the flow" or stay silent, especially as a politician.  It is brave to make a stand, especially one that can make you unpopular with the status quo.  Thank you for inspiring us, Mr. Honda.


(Thanks also to Angry Asian Man for posting this, keep up the great work brother!)


Last but certainly not least, a student by the name of Alexandra Wallace recently put up a Youtube of herself delivering a racist, ignorant screed against Asians and Asian Americans.  Sadly, some of the responses, though perhaps justified in their anger, can be seen as counter-productive, sexist, and ignorant.  However, my buddy and all-around awesome performance artist Beau Sia responded with his own video, a persona poem that digs deeper into the root problems.  Bravo Beau!




Homefront: a game that stirs up yellow peril?

Posted by: Bao Phi Updated: March 10, 2011 - 2:36 PM




(The children awaiting execution in the photo were part of the Daejeon massacre of a re-education collective.  The photograph is from the US National Archives.  It was taken by US military advisor, Major Abbot, and was a “top secret” photo until recently.)


Being a relatively dedicated gamer, I was more than a little concerned when I heard about this game called Homefront.  Written by the same scribe that wrote the 80's cult movie Red Dawn, in which Russians invade the U.S. ("Wolverines!"), the game imagines a future where the U.S. is somehow invaded and occupied by North Korea.  As silly, paranoid , and racist as this seemed, I also wondered how it would be perceived by mainstream audiences.  I also wondered if anyone in the mainstream press would write about it.  At this point it seems no one in the gaming press has addressed any possible racism or yellow peril used in the images and advertising for this upcoming game.

I've always been interested in socio-political issues in video games (and gaming in general), but unfortunately I am woefully ignorant and misinformed about Korea and the Korean War.   As luck would have it, my friend and fellow gaming enthusiast Sajin said he had been following the development of the game and had been working on an essay about it..  So here is a guest post from him.  I found it to be highly educational and a much needed alternative perspective.  I read it, and learned a lot, and it made me think.  I hope it does the same for you.






Homefront, the upcoming military combat game from THQ, is set upon the premise that a united Korea, under control of the North, invades and occupies the United States.  The game promises to break new ground in the genre by providing a story that makes players emotionally invested in the action.  Specifically, it promises to arouse anger and indignation in players as they watch Koreans commit atrocities towards American civilians. 


North Korea has been riding a tide of negative publicity ever since the end of WWII, and continuous hostilities with the US and South Koreamake North Korea a country that is hard for most Americans not to hate.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that North Koreans are cast as the villains in a video game with American protagonists.  At the same time, the game’s storyline is deeply troubling because it is rooted in historical ignorance and revisionist rhetoric about the Korean War.


Clearing up the Historical Record

Most Americans think that the US liberated Korea after the Korean War and established democracy, freedom, and human rights in the South.  This “freedom fighting” perspective might make a game like Homefront seem relatively harmless.  However, in light of the truth about US involvement in South Korea -the astronomical civilian death tolls and the US-backed totalitarian governments in the South- this game’s premise becomes deeply troubling.


Advertisements for Homefront feature CGI clips of Korean soldiers bulldozing American bodies into mass graves and brutal reeducation camps for the remaining American civilians. Bound Americans have bags placed over their heads as they are dragged away.  Another scene depicts faceless Korean soldiers tearing an American family apart as individuals are forcibly herded into camps.  Firing squads kill civilians.  Bodies hang from posts.  This is the dystopic picture painted in the game.  However, all of these things did happen to Korean people under the US command in South Korea. 


Understanding the US military’s role in the violence that occurred to Korean civilians provides critical insight into how disturbing Homefront is.  This violence began from the US occupation of Korea after WWII (1945~1950), continued in the Korean War (1950~1953), and exists to this day in a period of Unending War (1953~present).  During all of these periods, the United States military has maintained operational control of the South Korean military.  For decades, the US armed and outfitted South Korean soldiers, and US military authorization is required for troop deployments and military engagements.  Even today, South Korea does not have sovereign control over its own military. Thus the US bears responsibility for both the violence it committed directly and the violence committed through its South Korean proxies.


Conquest, not Liberation

It is critical to insert complexity into the typical narrative of “American freedom fighting” in order to understand the egregious nature of Homefront’s decision to cast Koreans as aggressors, and American civilians as victims.  From the beginning, Korea’s relations with the US were rife with problems.  For example, in 1882, the United States signed a treaty to protect Korea from foreign invasion, but in 1905, the US made a secret agreement with Japan consenting to the Japanese colonization of Korea.  This act helped initiate Japan’s militaristic expansion which culminated with World War II. 


During the Second World War, Koreans continued to fight against Japanese domination, while the US claimed to fight for the liberation of Japanese-occupied countries.  However, once the war was over, the leader of the US occupation in Korea, General John Hodge stated that “Korea is an enemy of the US and will be treated accordingly.”  Subsequently, the US occupation of Korea seemed like a betrayal to a nation that perceived the US as an ally and a liberator.  Upon arriving in South Korea, the US military promptly dismantled local democratic governments, reinstalled Japanese collaborators to power, negated all egalitarian land reforms, and wrested factories from the workers, placing control ofboth farming and industry in the hands of pro-Japanese Koreans.  Leftists who opposed Japan during World War II were jailed, tortured, and executed during the US occupation.  The remaining anti-Japanese activists were forced to join “re-education collectives.”  The brutal prison camps of Homefront recreate these conditions, but in reality, it was Korean civilians in the South who suffered at the hands of the US and their Korean proxies.


Homefront portrays an atmosphere of despair in which totalitarian Korean forces bully and brutalize a downtrodden US population.  This fantasy inverses the reality of US-occupied Korea.  In Korea’s Place in the Sun, Bruce Cummings quotes former ACLU leader Roger Baldwin who toured Korea in 1947 and noted, “[T]he country is literally in the grip of a police regime and a private terror; you get the impression of a beaten discouraged people.”


Imagery from Homefront advertisements shows the burnt-out husks of American cities and dead bodies strung up from telephone lines.  Although this fictional imagery is solely intended to provoke, it doesn’t come close to matching the scale of death and destruction that actually occurred on Jeju Island.  In 1948, Jeju Island residents resisted US-sponsored “democratic elections,” after political opponents of the US were imprisoned, executed, or assassinated.  A campaign of terror was launched to put down the resistance.  Indiscriminate killing and a scorched earth campaign ensued.  A 2000 Newsweek article (“Ghosts of Cheju”) gives this survivor’s account,


[S]oldiers arrived by moonlight and took away 150 men and ‘then picked out about 20 pretty girls’… the men were moved to a beach and executed four days later.  Soldiers allegedly gang-raped the girls over a two week period then killed them.


In the end, 30% of the island’s population was wiped out.  230 out of 400 villages were burnt to the ground.  Human bones can still be found washing up on the island to this day.  Such acts would test the limits of believability even in a game as far-fetched as Homefront.


The Korean War

Homefront promises a compelling storyline that unflinchingly presents the brutal truths about the effects of war on civilians.  But, the game’s brutal truths are actually based on the fiction of “freedom fighting,” both in the future and in the past.Although in reality, Korean civilians suffered and died due to US acts, this truth cannot co-exist withthe game’s rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” and has therefore been erased.As a result, Homefront’s story looks less like an inversionof the past than a logical continuation of a fight for freedom.In this way, Homefront perpetuates ignorance about the reality of the Korean War, obscuring the suffering of Korean civilians.


The mismanagement of the US occupation set the stage for one of the bloodiest civil wars of the 20th century.  The Korean War was a disaster, with countless civilians slaughtered (estimates place civilian deaths as high as 10% of the total population), untold atrocities, a scorched earth campaign designed to "leave no building standing outside of the Pusan perimeter," and a cease-fire instead of a peace treaty. 


At the time of the war, Pyeongyang had a population of 400,000, and the US dropped one bomb on the city for every inhabitant, plus 20,000 more for good measure.  Hospitals, orphanages, and every other civilian structure in the city weretargeted.  Not a single building was left standing.  Civilians were also victims of US napalm attacks.  In Haunting the Korean Diaspora, Grace Cho notes that “US bombers dumped as much as 600,000 tons of napalm over the Korean peninsula… this was more than had been used against Japan in WWII and more than would later be dropped over Vietnam.” In addition, the Associated Press also broke various stories detailing US attacks on Korean civilians.  The story of US soldiers receiving orders to fire on refugees at Nogun Ri won a Pulitzer prize for journalism, and their follow up story about the US Airforce Policy to strafe civilians demonstrated that the US had a policy of targeting non-combatants.


The worst of the wartime atrocities occurred under the watchful eyes of American supervisors as the leftists that were forced into “reeducation collectives” (Bodo Yeonmaeng) were systematically executed.  Since many local governors were pressured to fill quotas for these groups, they forced non-leftists including children into the re-education collectives as well.  Civilian estimates place the number of dead from these massacres as high as one million, while the most conservative estimates place it at 100,000. 


The reality of American-sponsored mass executions during the Korean War stands in sharp contrast to Homefront’s depiction of American civilians being massacred by Koreans. In an interview about the game, Rex Dickson, lead level designer for Homefront noted,

”You’re gonna see a lot of scenes in the game of these poor passive (American) civilians who don’t have the means to defend themselves (against Koreans), and these horrible things are happening to them… either they are getting shot (by Koreans) or they are being brought to these internment camps… When war (initiated by Korea) comes to the homefront it is really horrible for (American) civilians.”


Unending War, Quagmire, and Brutality

As Homefront pushes forward with its commercial blitz, the truth about war crimes is still being uncovered, questions remain unanswered, and even today, more than 28,500 US soldiers continue to occupy South Korea.  Since no peace treaty was ever signed, the US is still at war with North Korea.  A cease-fire was signed in 1953, but hostilities continue today.  From the time of the ceasefire, the US has supported various undemocratic military despots, directly participated in the trafficking and prostitution of more than one million women, fathered and abandoned endless children, and committed crimes ranging from murder, to drug trafficking, assault, rape, and theft.  These acts contradictpopular American notions about “freedom” and “democracy” in South Korea after the cease-fire.


A Blunt-Force Appeal to Violence

Violence towards Korean civilians was rationalized by the rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” and Homefront’s narrative is solidly grounded in this ideology -both in its use of history, and in its imagined future.  As Homefront continues to blur the line between fantasy and reality by juxtaposing the fictional game narrative with real life events, the distinction between truth of civilian deaths and “freedom fighting” rhetoric becomes less and less clear.  For example recent tragedies, like the exchange of fire at Yeongpyeong Island, served as a springboard to launch press releases for the game.  These press releases speculated that the threat of a North Korean invasion is real and the fictional events in the game could actually become a reality. As Homefront blurs the line between fiction and reality, andas it exploits the continuing tragedies of the Korean War, the war’s toll on Korean civilians get pushed further and further into the background. 


In addition to obscuring the past, games like Homefront allude to the possible repetition of these tragedies in the future.  Popular gaming site Kotaku featured this headline about Homefront: “Get Excited to Kill North Koreans with Homefront’s new ‘Resistance’ trailer.”  The headline fails to distinguish between North Korean civilians and the North Korean military, with a flippant attitude towards Korean lives. It is an attitude that underlies Homefront’s entire promotional campaign, which included a recent anti-North Korean rally held at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco.  These promotions make repeated, blunt-force appeals to American contempt towards Korea, with the promise of a bloody catharsis and violent wish fulfillment through the game.


This ultimately makes Homefront an appeal to violence towards North Korea.  Given the US’s history of violence on the Korean peninsula, these appeals reflect the trauma, death, and war that happened in the past and continues to this day.  The truth about this violence has been buried for decades beneath revisionist rhetoric about “freedom,” and “democracy.”  This same rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” in turn, drives the narrative of Homefront and its appeals to violence towards North Korea.  As the game shows Koreans brutally massacring Americans and bulldozing them into mass graves, one cannot help but feel that the dismissal of Korean War atrocities continues today with the same rhetoric, the same rationale.


Kwok Sa Jin is a Korean Amerasian activist focused on Korean social justice issues in the USA and South Korea.  In 2003, he coordinated a study for the South Korean National Human Rights Commission, "The Status of Korean Amerasians."  In 2009, he traveled to North Korea as part of the DPRK Exposure and Education Program.  He is currently based in Seoul, where he works with the Korean Amerasian Alliance for National Reunification.






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