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Tag: San Francisco

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How a colony helped found the United Nations

Just to the east of San Francisco’s grand Civic Center, UN Plaza is an unassuming pedestrian mall that hosts farmers’ markets and handicrafts fairs. Were it not for the name of the nearby BART (San Francisco metro) station, Civic Center/UN Plaza, it would be easy to miss UN Plaza among the grander spaces and buildings nearby—Civic Center, City Hall with its gold-trimmed dome, the Asian Art Museum, and the San Francisco Public Library. On either side of UN Plaza, behind the tents of the farmers’ markets, granite pillars are inscribed with the names of all member states of the United Nations, organized by the date of their entry into this global community.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, with City Hall in the background.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, with City Hall in the background.

UN Plaza is located here because it is where the United Nations was founded. With the ratification of the UN Charter in the War Memorial Veterans Building just west of City Hall, the UN came into existence on October 24, 1945 — seventy-two years ago today.

The first pillars in UN Plaza include the names of all fifty-one founding members of the United Nations. The names of the founding members include many names that one would expect to see on the list: Australia, Canada, Denmark, United States, USSR. But there is one name that doesn’t quite seem to fit: India.

How could India have been a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 if wasn’t even its own country yet? India would be a colony of the British Empire for another two years. How could a colony join a community of sovereign states?

The answer lies in the relations forged between India and the United States in World War II.

In March 1941, the US Congress passed the Lend-Lease bill after prolonged debate, enabling the United States to ship supposedly surplus arms to the embattled British Empire, which had been at war with Germany since 1939. At this point, the United States was still officially neutral—and would be until Pearl Harbor nine months later—but the Nazis’ blitzkrieg across Europe had led many American leaders to rethink their traditional stance of isolationism. American industry started to retool for arms production. (Much of the lend-lease aid was actually newly-produced, not surplus.)

As part of the British Empire, India qualified for lend-lease aid. The colony would serve as a staging-ground for the Allied war effort in the China-Burma-India theater. To coordinate aid shipments, the colonial Government of India set up a front office in New York, the India Purchasing Mission, in July 1941. It was the first official, government-to-government link between India and the United States. In 1942, the office was moved to Washington, DC and renamed India Supply Mission (ISM). Throughout the war, ISM coordinated aid from the United States and Canada to India.

When it came time for the United Nations Conference just after the war, India Supply Mission served as the official representative of India in San Francisco. The delegates from ISM would be colonial subjects for a little while longer, but they represented their country in the community of sovereign states.1

India Supply Mission continued to exist after the Indian Embassy was set up in Washington in 1946. After independence, ISM coordinated a different type of aid: development aid. From their office at 2342 Massachusetts Avenue NW, the bureaucrats of India Supply Mission saw to it that their country received the parts, equipment, and loan payments that industrialization demanded.

United Nations Secretariat, New York City, with flags of member states in the foreground.

United Nations Secretariat, New York City, with flags of member states in the foreground.

  1. India had earlier signed the “Declaration by the United Nations,” on January 1, 1942. During the war, the name “United Nations” referred to the Allied powers. After the San Francisco conference, the name acquired its modern meaning. []

Ethnic radio in America

Bolly 92.3, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Bollywood radio station, is a new manifestation of an American phenomenon as old as radio itself: the ethnic radio station.

Radio exploded onto the American scene in the boom years of the 1920s. Radio was the defining consumer product of this consumeristic decade, and listening to the radio was an activity for the masses, not the upper class. Listening to the radio was also a social activity. In the early years of radio, the first family in the neighborhood to buy a receiver set could expect neighbors to come over to listen to the radio. (In much the same way, as I observed eight years ago, houses in the Garo Hills with television sets or DVD players would attract the neighbors to come watch.)

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was effectively unregulated, decentralized, and community-oriented. In Chicago, only 4% of stations were commercial broadcasters; the rest of the stations were operated by labor unions, church groups, and other noncommercial community organizations.1

Radio was also popular among ethnic communities. Before 1924, immigration from Europe was virtually unrestricted, and immigrants flocked to the northern industrial cities. They settled in ethnic communities, where they could shop, worship, and socialize in their native languages. Chicago had German, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, and other ethnic enclaves. In the 1920s, these communities had their own radio stations, which promoted community cohesion by giving people something to listen to in their native languages.

Radio was regulated under the 1927 Radio Act, and at the same time the airwaves began to get more commercialized, with companies sponsoring branded programs. Ethnic radio stations started to disappear as NBC and CBS took over the airwaves. Before long, ethnic neighborhoods began to disappear too, as their inhabitants started to assimilate into the American mainstream.

But neither ethnic neighborhoods nor their radio stations disappeared entirely. The immigrants who began coming to the United States in large numbers after immigration law reform in 1965—such as the Indians of the Bay Area—set up their own radio stations. There is at least one Slavic-language radio station still broadcasting in Chicago, Polski FM. I was happy to run across it on a rental car radio in northern Indiana last month. Whether it is a survivor or a revival (I couldn’t say which it is, since its broadcast and website are naturally all in Polish), it perpetuates a century-old tradition of ethnic radio in Chicago.

  1. All details about radio in Chicago are from Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135-140. []

Bollywood over the Bay

Earlier this year, while driving someplace in the San Francisco Bay Area and scanning on her car radio, my sister-in-law stumbled across Bolly 92.3, a station playing Bollywood music. Even though she had no idea what the lyrics were saying, she thought the music sounded cheery and left the radio tuned to that station.

Bolly 92.3 was the first dedicated Bollywood music station I had ever heard of in the United States, so I was eager to listen to it once I’d learned about it. I got my chance when my brother and I drove from San Francisco to Death Valley in February. We listened to Bolly 92.3 as long as we could, until we drove out of range of the station. In the hour or so before we lost the signal, we heard a range of songs in different styles. I didn’t recognize any of the songs, but I did recognize the musical styles, which included:

  • Movie tunes with harmonium and tablas, and rich Hindustani lyrics. (Hindustani was the common language across North India before Partition, part Hindi and part Urdu.)
  • Hip-hop with simple and dumb lyrics, and a liberal application of autotune.
  • Indie music with guitars and strings, and Hindi lyrics.
  • Romantic nineties movie songs with tablas, flutes, and echoing (and shrill) female vocals.
  • Dance songs with synth and tabla, and very repetitive lyrics.

Bolly 92.3 is a commercial station, and the breaks between every few songs featured advertisements for law firms, realty agencies, and other businesses owned by Indian-Americans in the Bay Area. (Later, my sister-in-law also heard an ad for a stove hood designed to handle the high levels of frying demanded by Indian cuisine.)

For all the diversity of Indian culture, Bollywood is an overpowering, omnipresent cultural monolith, and Bollywood music is part of the background noise of the Indian environment. Spend any time in India, and you will find the same songs following you wherever you go: booming across the neighborhood from marriage gardens, thumping from taxi and bus radios, or playing tinnily from mobile phones at tea stalls or in train coaches. Some megahit songs have a limited shelf life, and are played over and over and over again before disappearing. (There was a time last year when I thought my head would explode if I ever heard this song or this song again.) Other songs are evergreens, enjoying decades of popularity (like this one and this one).

From all the exposure I’ve had to Bollywood music (willing and otherwise), I was surprised not to recognize any of the songs I heard on Bolly 92.3. If I listened long enough, I’d surely hear something I knew. But just my short experience illustrates an important truth: diaspora communities are never the same as the parent culture. Not only do the Indian-Americans of the Bay Area have to adapt to American culture by driving minivans and living in tract housing, they also have a different relationship with Indian culture, for the simple reason that they are not in India.

When it comes to relating to their traditional cultures, members of a diaspora are sometimes more conservative. As the parent culture changes, emigrants try to freeze their culture in the same state that it was in when they left. This is why (as I am told) Gujaratis in Gujarat are content to use costume jewelry at their weddings, but Gujaratis in East Africa would never dream of using anything but gold.

There may be some of this cultural conservatism among Indian-Americans of the Bay Area, and this may in part explain why I didn’t recognize any of the songs on Bolly 92.3. But diasporic communities need not stay frozen in the past, either. They can continue to develop their traditional cultures on their own lines, parallel to but separate from the parent culture. This is happening for Indians in North America; in Toronto, at least, there is a big Punjabi hip-hop industry. Toronto music has even made its way back to India, and not just Punjab. I once spent more than an hour watching surreal music videos from Toronto in a restaurant in Assam, of all places.

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