MTV’s Franchesca Ramsey came out with an amusing, but facile video, “The Weird History of Asian Sex Stereotypes” which is mostly correct, but shows very American prejudices.
First, Asia is a continent which is home to several races, from those who can pass as white, to those who are classified as black, but not African, to those who are considered brown or yellow. Originally, Orientalism attempted to classify them all in the same manner. As socio-political attitudes changed, so did the stereotype. Ramsey presents the stereotypes as if they were one long, logical continuum.
For women, Asians have been presented as submissive but have hypersexuality (Yes, this is misspelled in the video. Shame on the editor(s)). However Asian women, including East Asian women, haven’t always been presented as submissive. They have been presented as predatory dragon ladies that are far from docile.
The video mentions the novel, “Madame Chrysanthème,” which was set in Nagasaki, but doesn’t mention the name of the author, Pierre Loti. Loti is the nom de plume for Louis Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923). His first semi-autobiographical novel was about his relationship with a harem girl in Istanbul, “Aziyadé.” The novel that inspired the Puccini opera “Madame Butterfly,” was his eighth novel. At the time, the Orient referred to the regions from North Africa to the Pacific islands. Asia, as a continent, begins with the intercontinental countries of Turkey and Egypt and then go east.
During the time of high yellow perilism, Asian men were seen as threats to the purity and chastity of white women. They were also hypersexualized. According to Henry Yu in his “Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America,” anti-Asian activists in the West Coast were “enraged over the subject of interracial sex” and the possibility that “dirty Orientals” might be “lewdly fondling white women.” “This was perhaps best realized in the fictional character of Fu Manchu that depicted “Orientals” as “Scheming, sinister men with long fingernails, waiting to ambush and kidnap white women into sexual slavery.”
The video does mention anti-Asian immigration acts, but comments that “Asian men” were legally unable to owning property. This is only half true. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land and this applies to Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Asian Indian immigrants both male and female. As the immigration was predominately male, in practice, this applied mostly to men. Alien land laws were also enacted in Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington. During World War II, Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming followed suit. Even though China was a U.S. ally during World War II, the federal government passed the Magnuson Act (Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943) which permitted some Chinese immigrants to become natrualized citizens, but still denied Chinese American U.S. citizens property ownership rights. The Magnuson Act was not fully repealed until 1965.
If Asian Americans were denied a place in heavy industries (which include steelmaking, artillery production, locomotive erection, machine tool building, and the heavier types of mining) in the U.S., East Asian countries do engage in heavy industries at home and in transplant companies (e.g. automotive industry such as Toyota and Hyundai). That has changed with the influx of transplant companies such as Toyota, Honda and Hyundai moving in to North America.
While Ramsey notes that movies and TV programs such as the 1984 “Sixteen Candles,” the Warner Bros. sit-com “Two Broke Girls” (2011-present) and “The Hangover” movies (2009, 2011, 2013) have mocked the masculinity of Asian men, Ramsey fails to note the more sinister movies such as the 1915 Cecil B. DeMille “The Cheat” where Sessue Hayakawa plays “the sadistic Burmese ivory king Arakau (originally a Japanese money lender named Tori)” according to Jun Xing’s “Asian America Through the Lens: History, Representations, and Identity.” D.W. Griffith gave a more “sympathetic treatment of the Asian character” in the 1919 “Broken Blossoms” where the Chinese man is “dreamy, frail, but lustful” to Lucy (Lillian Gish) who has been beaten by her father.
While Ramsey notes that three wars fought in Asia possibly meant that U.S. men were first introduced to Asian women as prostitutes who were basically compliant sexual objects, she forgets to add that the Asian men were dehumanized as the enemy. Jun Xing felt that the 1985 movie “Year of the Dragon” as well as the Karate Kid series continued this threat of the lustful Asian male by using the “threat of rape as their subplots.” Fu Manchu has not totally been forgotten. Jun Xing counts Michael Crichton’s 1992 book “Rising Sun” which became a 1993 American crime film as “a clear reincarnation of Fu Manchu who competes with white in a fashion not unlike the incarnation of evil.”
Fu Manchu as a character was a supervillain created by British author Sax Rohmer in 1913 with “The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu.” In that novel, Fu Manchu had an Arab slave woman. The 1932 MGM movie “The Mask of Fu Manchu” depicted the titular character telling Asian Indians, Persians and Arabs that they must “kill the white men and take their women.” The last English-language movie about Fu Manchu was produced in 1969 (“The Castle of Fu Manchu”) with Christopher Lee playing the evil doctor. Yet the character of Fu Manchu continues to exist in literature in novels such as the 2009 “The Terror of Fu Manchu” and the 2012 “The Destiny of Fu Manchu.” Fu Manchu might have been part of the Yellow Peril, but the Orient also had the “Black Peril” which “referred throughout Africa and much of the British empire to the professed dangers of sexual assault on white women by black men” according to Ann Laura Stoler in her “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule.” To the British, Asian Indian and Arab men were considered black.
Before one criticizes the recent Chinese detergent ad, one has to stop and ask: Are we doing any better?
Fu Manchu is a legacy of imperialism and Orientalism that continues today. The delineation of stereotypes isn’t a simplistic history as Ramsey suggests. The polarity between the lustful raping Yellow Peril menace (or the Black Peril) and the neutered asexual wise man or geek should tell us something about the anxieties of the minds of people who wish to perpetuate those stereotypes. Like Goldilocks, these stereotypes of Asian men seem to divide men racially into three categories: One is too hot, one is too cold, but one is just right.