On the old TV hit show “Ally McBeal,” Lucy Liu bares her slender shoulders in a provocative lace halter top, eases her ruby red nails into Greg Germann’s dirty blond locks, then whiplashes him with her serpentine tongue. As the camera pans upward, Liu’s obsidian eyes meet our gaze in a mixture of lust and connivance, danger and mystery; she is the dragon lady of the East, an Asian vixen who is sweet maiden one moment and lethal siren the next. Liu’s role as Ling Woo, the Chinese-American attorney on Fox’s most popular legal drama series, perpetuated the two Asian-American female archetypes in Hollywood: the submissive lotus blossom and the predatory dragon lady.
Asian-American males have tolerated an even worse fate. Castrated and relegated to the category of the bespectacled, wimpy nerd, they have suffered a social stigma that has cast a pall over their masculinity, so much so that some Asian women won’t date them. How have these stereotypes been perpetuated, and why should we care about how this group is represented?
For six centuries, beginning with the Portuguese, Western European countries colonized Asia, seeking to plunder its riches, exploit its strategic trading ports, and “civilize” its people. During the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, Britain drugged an entire nation and barred its citizens from living anywhere but the slums, where dejected octogenarians puffed opium pipes in rusty shacks. This ingrained attitude of colonization naturally led to viewing Asian people as possessions, from which emerged the image of the delicate, self-sacrificing Chinese girl – the lotus blossom stereotype. In fact, the first Chinese-American movie star, Anna Mae Wong, played a character named Lotus Flower, after which she became so tired of playing prostitutes and blossoms that she fled to Europe in the 1920s just so she could play a human being. “I think I left Hollywood because I died so often,” Wong lamented, reflecting on her 40-year career.
Even today, the stereotype of the self-sacrificing Asian girl has not died. In the Broadway musical “Miss Saigon,” a young Vietnamese prostitute kills herself for her white American soldier husband so that their son may lead a better life. Caught between the stereotypes of the chaste, hapless virgin and the devious, assertive whore, the Asian-American woman has no middle path.
In America, Asian women are so constantly and condescendingly dehumanized and objectified that they’re even likened to food. In the popular 1961 musical film “Flower Drum Song,” a lighthearted story about immigrant life in Los Angeles, the waif-like Nancy Kwan prances along lantern-lit Chinatown streets, cheerfully chirping that “the girl who serves you all your food/is another tasty dish!” Several years later, the 1967 James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” opens with Bond in bed with yet another sexy companion, the blunt-banged Chinese siren Kissy Suzuki.
“Why is it that Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?” Bond asks.
“You think Chinese girls bet-tuh, huh?” Kissy replies in her broken English.
“Not better, just different … the way Peking duck is different from Russian caviar, but I love them both,” Bond says.
“Dah-ling, I give you very best duck.”
Then Kissy deftly leaps out of bed as her two suit-clad, machine-gun-toting cohorts burst into the bedroom to mow Bond down. Clearly, Asian women have been portrayed in the media as very dangerous dishes.
Perhaps, however, it is better to be represented poorly than not at all. Because of historical anti-miscegenation laws that outlawed interracial intimacy and marriage, for years U.S. directors did not cast Asian actors in films, even those starring Asian characters. For example, directors of the 1937 film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, a romantic novel about Chinese farm family life, defied Buck’s request to cast Chinese-American actors. Instead, the movie featured white actors Paul Muni and Luise Rainer, complete with squinty-eye tape and yellowface makeup. Although these divisive laws were finally repealed in 1967, Asian-Americans, long conditioned into being invisible in the media, still only played 3 percent of characters and appeared in just 1 percent of opening credits as recently as 2002.
Asian-American invisibility in the media can be attributed to several factors. Hollywood fears a predominantly white audience will not relate to an Asian cast. This is a chicken-and-egg problem; it is hard to relate to that which you do not see. Hollywood needs intricate, engaging, genuine Asian characters, but who will write these characters? Asian parents should encourage their children to become artists and screenwriters, directors and producers so that the people behind the camera can write for those in front of it. For example, many animators for Pixar’s “Up” were Asian, and this behind-the-scenes influence led to the crafting of a half-Asian lead character.
With China’s new openness to the West, Hollywood has been desperately courting the 1.4 billion-person movie audience that China offers. China is now the second biggest box office market in the world at $2.75 billion in 2012, and by 2020 will be the largest. Hollywood now wants to cast more Asians in movies and tell Asian stories, as evidenced by the bidding war over who would get to turn Asian-American author Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians into a film. Clearly, capitalism and corporate greed are ironically eradicating Asian racism in America.
Since Asian-Americans make up only 4.4 percent of the U.S. population, why should we care? Because it is always a wise idea to see other races as human beings, not stereotypes. Seeing those who are different from us as our equals allows us to learn from them and grow because of it. Just as black Americans shrugged off their blackface stereotypes in film by showing us their talents, Asian-Americans should flaunt their skills too. China invented everything from paper to football, from gunpowder to the compass, and now they are giving us an opportunity to tell their stories. Perhaps we should let them.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.