Fellowship for Research in Japan, England : Student to Study Punk, Gangs

Times Staff Writer

Imagine receiving $11,000 to hang out with Japanese motorcycle gangs that look like they roared out of "American Graffiti," then jetting to London to mingle with punk rockers.

Occidental College senior Peter Hong did imagine that, and now he's about to see his fantasy come true, thanks to a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.

Established in 1968 to honor the late founder of IBM, the fellowships finance research and travel abroad for 80 seniors each year. The $11,000 grants come with few strings attached and allow winners to accomplish goals such as living with Australian aborigines or climbing sacred mountains in Asia.

Hong, who said he is interested in poetry, punk music and alienated youth, developed a proposal to study Japanese and English subcultures.

'Always Interested'

"I was always interested in the way people deal with rapidly changing environments," said Hong, launching into a small treatise on the social and economic forces that rocked post-World War II Japan and England.

A tall, lanky student who favors button-down shirts and round spectacles, Hong doesn't share his subjects' penchant for leather and Mohawk haircuts. But the affinity runs deeper. Hong said he knows how it feels to be an outsider, like the groups he will be studying.

The 21-year-old, whose parents are Korean, grew up in racially diverse Hawaii, where Asians make up a large part of the population. So Hong was somewhat shocked to arrive at Occidental College in Eagle Rock and encounter what he said was his first nasty dose of racism.

"Occidental was a very white school and people would make a lot of ethnic jokes. There was some name-calling," he said.

Although the school's minority population has not grown significantly in four years--Asians account for about 10%--Hong believes racism has ebbed at the college. Nevertheless, his early experiences helped radicalize him and aroused his curiosity about how people deal with new, sometimes hostile environments, he said.

Disaffected Youth

That sparked the idea to study disaffected youth in two industrialized nations. Hong zeroed in on Bosozoku, or "Wild Drivers," a youth gang with about 30,000 members in Japan's largest cities. Bosozoku ride souped-up motorcycles at high speeds through crowded streets and favor 1950s-vintage American garb.

One subgroup performs ritualized dances in a Tokyo park each weekend to tape-recorded American rock music from artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis.

Hong first heard of the gang through an Occidental instructor who had studied Bosozoku in Japan. He was drawn by the odd mixture of rebelliousness and traditionalism within the gang: Before their weekly dances, gang members obtain police permits to perform in the park.

Hong, a free-form individualist raised by more traditional parents, could relate to the seeming contradiction.

Besides studying Tokyo gang members, Hong plans to meet with university professors who have studied the gangs. To help defray costs, he may teach English. Hong is taking Japanese language courses and hopes to be conversant by the time he leaves for the Orient in late August.

After six months there, Hong plans to travel to London to become a "participant observer" in the British punk movement that coalesced about 10 years ago on inner-city London streets.

Punk's first followers were nihilist youths who thumbed their noses at society and government. Its heroes included singers such as Johnny Rotten, who snarled out discordant anthems like "No Future." With unemployment at 10% and rising, England's punk movement is continuing.

Keeping a Diary

In England, Hong will visit local hangouts and clubs and conduct interviews. Throughout his year abroad, he will keep an extensive diary, take notes and file quarterly reports required by the Watson Foundation.

"I'll be looking at both groups as expressions of the great changes that have occurred in those countries in the past 40 years," Hong said.

But Hong is not sure how he will spend his days or what specifically he will study, in part because the fellowship doesn't require a detailed itinerary or research plan. In his wanderings, Hong said, he wants to look at economics, social changes, the media role in popularizing the two groups and political activism.

Hong, a youth activist himself, has a special interest in politics. At Occidental, he is a political science major and, as a student representative to the board of trustees, he urged that the school divest its holdings in South Africa. The trustees voted not to divest. For two summers he worked in Hawaii and Washington in the office of former Rep. Cecil Heftel (D-Hawaii).

Roger Boesche, Hong's adviser at Occidental, said his pupil has a gift for communicating with anyone from the campus gardener to the college president.

"Peter can listen and learn from virtually anyone. That makes him ideal for the type of research he's going to do in England and Japan," Boesche said.

50 Colleges Nominate Students

Hong said another professor and mentor urged him to begin thinking about the fellowship several years ago. Occidental is one of 50 small colleges selected by the Watson foundation to participate in the program. Each college can nominate up to four students annually, and foundation members select winners based on personal interviews, study proposals and autobiographies.

There were 183 nominations this year. One other student proposed studying punk rockers, said Nancy Bekavac, the foundation's executive director, but it was not accepted. Of the 80 proposals that were awarded fellowships, 14 were from Southern California. Hong was the only winner from Occidental.

Many of the other local winners will be studying equally esoteric subjects: the relationship between villagers and primates in Tibet; medieval Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev; luge sled design in Europe and water pricing in the Solomon Islands.

When Hong returns, he will decide whether to pursue a career in journalism, write poetry or work in developing public policy.

"I feel I must concentrate first on becoming a sensible and aware person," he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World