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usaJim Kemp


usa chinatownsThis is the story of a young American sent to war in Vietnam and how that journey opened a door that changes his life.

Today, almost four decades later, he plays the role of a cultural agent teaching about Asian culture as well as building and researching an impressive collection of talismans.

How did you become interested in Asian culture?

I became interested in Asian culture when I was sent to Vietnam in 1967 in the US Navy. I worked closely with Vietnamese and I was the "honcho (boss) over 45 Vietnamese laborers. I was 20 years and only a high school graduate and I had not even been to a Chinese restaurant! In 1968 I went to Singapore from Vietnam for five days.

While there I bought my very first book on Chinese culture: Religion in Chinese Society by C.K. Yang. I'm looking at it now and it cost SD 10.50 in 1968.

This book greatly aided my understanding of how things worked socially in Vietnam which had many similarities to Chinese society.

So that opened a door for you?

Yes, indeed. Yes, it helped me understand things that I could see, but not understand.  

After my service I started college in 1970 and I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies at Florida State University in 1973.

Then I went to Taiwan to study Chinese 1973-77. I also have a Master of Arts degree in East Asian Studies from Florida State University in 1979.

What do you do now?

I am an Asian Humanities professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville. In my China section I introduce aspects of Chinese folk religion that combines Confucian ideals and Taoist and Buddhist practices among the common folk.

I use the documentary, A Month of Hungry Ghosts, to show how vibrant these traditions are stll alive in a vibrant, modern, and hi-tech Singapore.

I then introduce portions of my talismans from, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, and Nan Yang (South East Asia) as both folk art and religious expression. This combination allows my students to close the distance from text material to personal experience.

I have also used Chinatownology in class via the internet to show this aspect of Han culture is very wide spread and alive in the world today. It also helps to balance my students ideas about Han Culture separated from Kung Fu movies.

I do use the movie, Red Cliff, all five hours, in the class room, to show again the combination of Confucian and Taoist ideals, customs, and expression in pre-Buddhist China.

I am 65 sui (years old) and the students are not like when I went to school. The very much relate to visual materials, dvd, and internet. My trips to Nan Yang in 2008, 2009, and 2011 also allow me to share my own photographs, related talismans, and anecdotes to the classroom.

Tell us about your talisman collection.

My interest in talismans began when I was a student in Taiwan 1973-77. I loved to visit temples quite frequently and notice them being distributed.

I obtained several over a span of weeks and noticed they were all different. I began to collect more until I had about 700. I then tried to arrange them in types and styles. I then began to try and understand the symbols and meaning.

This was quite a project that lasted for several years and was the foundation of my Master's thesis. Later, I added more than 300 from Japan and about 200 from Korea. I added a few more from China in 2008. I then was able to collect more in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

I was also able to obtain 25 very large talismans from Vietnam for burying the dead that combine both Buddhist and Taoist elements.

These Vietnamese talismans follow the Chinese Buddhist Esoteric tradition and combine Sanskrit and Chinese characters.

They are from woodblocks made in the 17th century. Because they are for burying with the deceased person, they have been seldom seen, even by the family members.



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usa chinatownsUSA


Jim on his research trip in Vietnam

Jim with Master Lee, Taoist Mission Singapore

Jim Kemp collection, Talisman of Guan Gong

Jim with his students

Jim Kemp collection, Mazu talisman

All images copyright of Jim Kemp
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