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Why have Asian Americans recently been depicted as villains in films?(1) Why were Korean Americans depicted mainly as merciless gun-toting vigilante shopkeepers in the Los Angeles riot news? These initial questions led me to pursue this study. In a time when Asian Americans are more and more aware of their portrayals in white-dominated mass media, one is led to ask where these stereotypes came from. To have a deeper understanding of those current Stereotypes, this study of the history of Asian stereotypes in the media will show how they have been controlled by the ruling bloc in this society.(2)
Semiotic and ideological analysis will be applied to portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in U.S. entertainment media. Furthermore, their meaning in society will be contextualized to investigate racial ideology underlying the history of Asian and Asian American stereotypes. The analysis of Asian American portrayal in the media is drawn mostly from films for several reasons. Asian Americans are relatively invisible in entertainment media other than films (see section 6). Furthermore, films are well preserved on videotape and are recycled constantly on television. The period of the historical research in this study ranges from the mid-nineteenth century through roughly the Reagan-Bush era. Among ethnic groups of Asian heritage, Chinese and Japanese Americans are the main focus of this research since they represent the largest segment of the Asian American population and receive the greatest attention from the media.
The term entertainment media (or text) is used to contrast with factual media (or text). Film, drama, and other entertainment-based texts in print media and television comprise the former; news, documentary, and current affairs programs are included in the latter category. The main utility of factual media is to provide information about external reality; that of fictional media is to provide diversion. On the audience's response to a given text, John Corner (1991) makes an interesting distinction between factual and fictional programs. According to him, "In the former, the viewer is often drawn quite directly into a `response' which involves relations of belief and disbelief, agreement and disagreement" (pp. 272-73). On the other hand, after watching a television drama, audiences vary in their interpretation of particular scenes--or the drama as a whole--as well as in their degree of emotional involvement. This point leads us to the debate in audience reception research.
In the past, it was assumed that the power of television and cinema was so great and that the audiences were passive consumers (Fiske 1987, 1982; McQuail 1983). As communication research developed, this view was revised. For example, the popularity of postmodernism put emphasis on audience "activity." It was claimed that the media texts were polysemic, and the audience could make critical/oppositional readings to counter the power of media. Text is a site of hegemonic straggle. It not only embodies an "encoded" or "preferred" reading, through diverse "decodings," but it also enables resistant political formations (Comer 1991; Fiske 1987; Morley 1992). Even so, as Day, id Morley (1992, 31) claims, "The power of viewers to reinterpret meanings is hardly equivalent to the discursive power of centralized media institutions to construct the texts which the viewer then interprets." The active audience argument overextends Stuart Hall's encoding/decoding model, which actually stressed "strategies of textual closure" (Morley 1992, 27). Furthermore, by unduly emphasizing the role of the reader, this perspective caused "a form of sociological quietism, or loss of critical energy," in questioning "the macro-structures of media and society" (Comer 1991,269). Therefore, political economist Robert W. McChesney (1996) came to wonder, "Is there any hope for cultural studies?"
This study focuses not on cultural consumption but on the relations of cultural production. By examining stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans and their effect on the latter, I aim to discover the racial ideology of mainstream media and society. Since the texts arise within the dynamics of socio-politico-economic practices of production, I will explore the sociohistorical contexts that gave rise to the given texts. Sumiko Higashi (1991, 116) remarks on this point: "Contextualization of readings, as opposed to textual analysis that focus on internal logic or processes, would be useful in clarifying issues about ethnicity both on and off screen." Contextualization is a process connecting the text to the social and historical conditions from which it was born.
The six major sections of this study each represent a recurring formula or theme specific to Asian stereotypes in the media or major factors that influenced the representations. Because these formulas or factors are the products of specific historical eras, the first five sections presenting them are in chronological order: Early Asian American Experience and the Appearance of Fu Manchu; Asians--Sexually Distorted; Asian Americans--Swayed by U.S. International Relations; Model Minority Stereotype since the 1960s; and The Reagan-Bush Era. These sections are followed by Asian Americans as the "Other"/The Practice of Yellowfacing and, finally, the Conclusion.
1. Early Asian American Experience and the Appearance of Fu Manchu
Asian immigration began in the mid-1800s in response to a shortage of labor in California created by the Gold Rush. The industry of the region needed workers in diverse fields, and the white entrepreneurs saw Chinese "coolie" laborers as the solution. Chinese immigrants performed most of the labor-intensive and agricultural work essential to the development of local industry and commerce (Sue and Kitano 1973, 84; Tchen 1984).
The Chinese contribution goes mostly unmentioned, and when it is known, it is severely distorted. For instance, Chinese workers made a great contribution to the building of the transcontinental railroad, which was the central element in the social-economic development of the United States from the end of the Civil War through the 1910s. Numbering about 12,000, Chinese workers constituted 90 percent of all labor employed by Central Pacific Railroad by 1867. However, in the photographs commemorating the completion of the construction, there are no Chinese; they were not invited to the ceremony (Hamamoto 1994, 48; Tchen 1984, 5). During the economic depressions of the time, Chinese came to be identified with large businesses and were regarded as enemies of small farmers and workers (Mazumdar 1989, 3; Tchen 1984, 6).(3) As John Tchen (1984, 7) says,
The increased integrated national capitalist economy reeled from periodic
depressions in the 1870s and again in the 1890s.... Masses of unemployed,
militant trade unions, and antimonopoly political rallies punctuated these
periods of economic downturn. Although the much-hated "monopolists" were a
main target of organizational agitation, the Chinese were increasingly often
made the scapegoats for social problems.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese were evicted from their residences and sometimes lynched by whites. The frustrated whites justified their attack on the Chinese by claiming that the Chinese were unassimilable others and that Chinese laborers sent money made in the United States back to China. However, statistics show that Chinese contributions to the discriminatory Foreign Miners' Tax "accounted for at least half of California's entire state revenues from 1850 to 1870" (Tchen 1984, 5).
Penny-press journalism warned of the Yellow Peril, a popular term used to warn that Japanese and Chinese hordes were on the way to take over white America and destroy white civilization. Countless cartoons in the popular press fanned the flames of xenophobia by depicting Asians as grasshoppers attacking Uncle Sam or as subhuman-looking workers trying to take jobs from whites (Lai and Choy 1972; Morley and Robins 1995, 154). Anti-Chinese agitation increased, and both major political parties passed countless discriminatory laws during the 1870s and 1880s, anxious to secure white votes. The intention of the laws was not only to restrict Chinese immigration but also to expel the Chinese from America (Tchen 1984, 7).(4) Both the white ruling class and white workers marched under the banner of the Asian exclusion movement. In race politics, the majority race unites regardless of class lines when its racial superiority and economic interests are threatened. As Hall (1986) notes, before apartheid, the South African state had been "sustained by the forging of alliances between white ruling-class interests and the interests of white workers against blacks." The same phenomenon--white racial unity to protect economic interests--took a renewed guise in the 1980s (see section 5).
The "Chinese Question" was resolved by expulsion and restriction. Chinese were forced to return to China or to retreat to a collective residence called Chinatown. The Chinese found safety in trades in which whites did not disturb them as competitors--laundries and restaurants--and as houseboys (Isaacs 1958, 115). Those residential districts "became more and more a segregated ghetto that kept the Chinese in one area, and whites out" (Mazumdar 1989, 4).
The dark and "exotic" Chinatown intensified the stereotype of Chinese "inscrutability." In his recollection of his boyhood early in this century in a New Jersey town, writer Robert Lawson described the Chinese as follows:
The Chinese, of course, were by far the most foreign and outlandish. They
ran laundries, no work for a man anyway, they had no families or
children, they were neither Democrats nor Republicans. They wrote
backwards and upside down, with a brush, they worked incessantly night
and day, Saturdays and Sundays, all of which stamped them as the most
alien heathen.... We knew that they lived entirely on a horrible
dish called chopsooey which was composed of rats, mice, cats, and
puppydogs (quoted in Isaacs 1958, 109).
In this context, the image of the Chinese as the "unassimilable other" and as the Yellow Peril led whites to create Chinese villain characters. The story of Chinese villains in Chinatowns became a popular genre first in magazines and later in films. During the 1920s, American screens were filled with Chinese crime-and-gangster characters. Chief among these villains was arguably the best-remembered figure, Fu Manchu. First gaining popularity in a novel--The Mystery of Dr. Fu--Manchu by the English writer, Sax Rohmer--Fu Manchu became an extraordinary attraction in films, starting in 1929 with The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (Isaacs 1958, 115-16). Sequels of Fu Manchu films appeared: The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930), Daughter of the Dragon (1931), The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), and The Drums of Fu Manchu (serial, 1940).(5) As an incarnation of evil challenging the sanity of white civilization, Fu Manchu always miraculously reappeared in the next episode. He vanished when the Chinese commanded general sympathy during World War II. As we shall see, the Fu Manchu syndrome gives us …