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In this episode we connect with Sylvia Chong, Professor of American Studies and Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of Virginia. We discuss the concept of Yellow Peril, or the fear and mistrust of Asian Americans from when they first settled in America in the mid 1800s to the incidents of hate in the wake of Covid19 pandemic. We explore how Yellow Peril was propogated first through print media, and then through film and television, all the way up to our current news cycle and social media.
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Sylvia Chong is Associate Professor in English and American Studies and founding director of the Asian Pacific American Studies minor at the University of Virginia. She received her B.A. in English and Philosophy from Swarthmore College, her A.M. in Education from Stanford University, and her Ph.D. in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (Duke UP, 2012), co-editor of (Re)Collecting the Vietnam War (AALR, 2015), and has written articles and book chapters on American exceptionalism, hopelessness, orientalism, the Virginia Tech shootings, and Samuel Peckinpah. She is currently working on a history of cinematic yellowface and racial performance.
"You couldn't deport people, but you could make it so that the whole time they were in the US, they would be forever foreigners. This is a name of a stereotype people talk about, but it wasn't a stereotype, it was literal. You were a non-citizen no matter how many years, 5 or 80 that you had stayed in the US."
Medium History explores memories and moments through creativity and expression, capturing the cultural ethos of that time and place through storytelling and representation. Visual material culture, such as art, and other multimodal forms can elicit responses, emotions, and opinions—human expressions, tied to temporal and cultural aesthetics. This program explores how creative mediums provide context for history beyond dates, and names, and figures.
Partnering with Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University, this series will explore how comics, comic books, and graphic novels from and about the Japanese American Incarceration following Executive Order 9066, humanize the tragic experience, allowing the stories to live long past the lives of those who experienced it, and ensuring this never happens again. Supported by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, a state-funded grant project of the California State Library, this series is designed to be a companion to the interactive web project, Images and Imaginings of Internment: Comics and Illustrations of Camp.
Guest: Sylvia Chong
Hosts: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by: Past Forward
[00:00:02] Sylvia Chong: The whole time you have the idea of the coolie, this undemocratic, sort of robotic, faceless worker drone, there was always the fear of the power of Asia. This is why at the same time we were trying to ban Chinese labor, we were desperate to open Chinese borders for US trade. There was a real envy and fear and jealousy of the Asian nations. They were rendered despotic, but they were also sort of magical.
[00:00:36] Host: Welcome to Medium History, a collaboration between Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University, and the curious minds at Past Forward. This series is an exploration of history through multimodal art and expression, allowing us to uncover hidden complexities often overlooked by conventional textbooks.
We observe visual material culture, that is the art, artifacts, music, storytelling, fashion, and other expressions of a particular time period, and consider its profound impact on our understanding of the past, going beyond mere dates and names to reveal the multifaceted layers of the human experience. It's about immersing ourselves in the emotions, opinions, and cultural subtleties that mold our world.
In this series, we engage with authors, artists, and educators to cast a fresh perspective on the history of Japanese-American incarceration through the lens of creativity and expression. Specifically, the lens of the comic book and the graphic novel.
I'm your host, Jon-Barrett Ingels, and in this episode, we connect with Sylvia Chong, professor of American Studies and founding director of the Asian Pacific American Studies Minor at the University of Virginia, to discuss the concept and the history of yellow peril in the United States. Specifically, how it has been characterized in film. Thank you for listening.
I think an appropriate place to start with this would be the history of Asian immigration in the United States. We really saw here in America, Chinese as the first larger immigration from an Asian country. I'd love for you to talk about that history of Chinese immigration and how it impacted our country at that time.
[00:02:40] Sylvia: When we talk about immigration, partly, people like to say who was the first, when was the first, but I think more importantly than the first to sort of when do large enough numbers of people come to start being able to form communities and make a social impact, positive or negative, as they're perceived by others.
The Chinese and the Japanese were the first two groups to encounter the US and we have some migrants coming as early as the 1840s, but it's really the gold rush in California. Actually, this is funny. This starts before this is the US because California doesn't become part of the US until 1850, the acquisition after the Mexican-American War.
“The first big movement that draws Chinese laborers is the transcontinental railroads. Just some numbers off the bat, in 1849, there's like 325 Chinese in the US but by 1870, that's after all of this, 63,000 have come. Most of them come after 1852.”
[00:03:23] Host: We're still Alta California at that time.
[00:03:26] Sylvia: Yes, right, Alta California, Mexico, Mexican territories. The Chinese are arriving, as are many other migrants from Russia, from America’s East Coast, to mine for gold in the San Francisco Bay Area. This starts to trickle, but really what brings more people is not the mines, but the acquisition of California by the US and the need to bring transportation to the West Coast. The first big movement that draws Chinese laborers is the transcontinental railroads. Just some numbers off the bat, in 1849, there's like 325 Chinese in the US but by 1870, that's after all of this, 63,000 have come. Most of them come after 1852. People say that the western portion of the transcontinental railroads could absolutely not have been built if it were not for Chinese labor. There was European immigrants, mostly Irish, building the railroads from the eastern side, but they're meeting in Utah and the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific are both building from both sides of the country.
Chinese labor, these first 60,000 or so Chinese to come to the US are largely working for the railroad companies. Then when the railroads are completed, they kind of get dispersed. Some of them go into mining, some of them go into agricultural work. A lot end up in the nascent urban areas of San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and end up doing domestic work, domestic labor, house boys, what we now know as Chinese laundry, not because they're coming from laundry families, but because that was a job that the mostly male laborers on the West Coast needed.
Later on, they start small businesses, grocery stores. They and the Japanese dominate a lot of agricultural, fruit, and vegetable wholesaling in the West Coast for a while. For example, the Bing cherry is named for a coolie called Ah Bing. We have all these sorts of ties to early agriculture, early sardines and canning, and things like that. Chinese laborers were involved in that after the railroads ended.
“Chinese could have joined that part of the working class, but by being set aside as coolies, it was a way of sort of saying, well, they may be working and we may be paying them, but they're not democratic. They're not free. They're not worthy of citizenship. They're not worthy of labor.”
[00:05:52] Host: I want to talk about this term that you just mentioned, this word coolie. When we hear--if we're not-- for any listeners who are not familiar, would you give a description of what that term is and how it turned into a derogatory term?
[00:06:10] Sylvia: I think it has always been somewhat derogatory. No one is entirely sure whether the etymology is Indian or Chinese, actually, because the British had coolies come from the subcontinent to the Caribbeans. The Chinese also worked as coolies both in the US and in the British Empire, the colonies. Some people think that it comes from the Chinese word ku lì, bitter life, bitter work. Some other people say some kind of South Asian etymology but anyways, it usually means indentured labor.
It's not entirely historically correct. Some laborers were indentured like they got paid debts, went into debt, came to work off those debts, and then became free. This was the case for some people, but not entirely all. I think overall, it started to mean a category of laborers who weren't quite like chattel slaves, like the African-Americans that were soon to be free from the Civil War. They weren't in slave labor, but they weren't fully free.
This mattered because if they were free, you would value their labor, you would imagine forming labor unions with them, the sort of the growth of the white working class, which extended to include people that were not necessarily thought of as white at the time. Islamic, Polish, Eastern European immigrants, Irish who were also marginally white Italians.
Chinese could have joined that part of the working class, but by being set aside as coolies, it was a way of sort of saying, well, they may be working and we may be paying them, but they're not democratic. They're not free. They're not worthy of citizenship. They're not worthy of labor. These are the debates that were swirling around the coolie.
The word always meant denigrated devalued labor, just one step above slavery. This became important because what you thought a coolie was affected whether you wanted to allow the coolie the ability to immigrate, the ability to naturalize as a citizen, the ability to join labor unions. The AFL-CIO did not allow Asian laborers to join for many, many years up into the 1920s, '30s, even later.
[00:08:25] Host: This concept, it became almost a stereotype of the way the coolies looked with the hat and the ponytail, like in early depictions, a lot of the early anti-Chinese depictions, that became that stereotypical image of what drew the ire against the Chinese.
[00:08:50] Sylvia: Yes, the queue, the ponytail, that's the name of the ponytail, is especially interesting. You see it in a lot of old political cartoons. Chinese men with queues, partly this was to feminize them and render them foreign, because what American man has queues, not like queues, but they would often shave the front of their head if you see any of the Shaolin monk movies these days, shave in the front, long in the back. It was partly to ostracize, demonize, to feminize Chinese workers, but it was also a political-- it had a true political meaning and also a denigrated, fantastic one.
The queue was a symbol of your obedience to the Manchu emperor. Many laborers did not intend to come to the US and stay for their whole lives. They hoped to make money and bring it back to establish lives, more prosperous lives back in China. The queue was their ticket back. If they shaved their queue, it was essentially shaving their passport off.
In this uncertain era of whether you would be allowed to settle in the US, whether you wanted to settle in the US, many laborers retained their queues rather than, let's say, shaving it off and assimilating straight into American culture. Because it wasn't sure that they wanted to stay. Then after the Exclusion Act, the Exclusion Act of 1882, not only banned most laboring immigration, but also codified that laborers could not apply to become citizens.
[00:10:18] Host: There was a push to bring in this cheap labor when it was needed but was there the idea of like, "Well, we don't need anymore now, send them back home."
[00:10:31] Sylvia: Yes. Well, it was, "We don't need anymore. We would like them to go back home." You couldn't actually send them home. That is the beginnings of Chinese America, all the laborers that did stay and managed to find families. Some with Chinese women, some intermarrying with Mexican-American women, African-American women, Irish-American women, there is some intermarriage during that time.
You couldn't deport people, but you could make it so that the whole time they were in the US, they would be forever foreigners. This is a name of a stereotype people talk about, but it wasn't a stereotype, it was literal. You were a non-citizen no matter how many years, 5 or 80 that you had stayed in the US.
Your children have citizenship, but you would not. If you were a Chinese man, there was a gender imbalance, most migrants were male. Well, if you married a US citizen, I shouldn't say white, but your US citizen wife would lose her citizenship. They made it very inhospitable, but many people stayed nonetheless.
[00:11:34] Host: Well, let's jump ahead a little bit to where we start to see these negative depictions put into moving pictures and moving images. I know that you have a clip you want to play where in the 1930s now, the early 1930s, and this character of Fu Manchu, becomes this villain. They're not the weak, subservient coolies that were shown in those, some of the early newsprints. Now, they're turning into this villainous caricature.
[00:12:15] Sylvia: Yes. Fu Manchu has a really interesting history. He actually wasn't invented by American, but a British writer Sax Rohmer, who I've yet to really understand whether he'd actually seen a China man when he invented this idea of Fu Manchu. You're right, Fu Manchu is not a coolie. He's not this laborer.
There's always been this-- we might call it antimony, a contradictory combination of opposites that somehow yet coexists as part of the same idea. The whole time you have the idea of the coolie, this undemocratic, robotic, faceless worker drone, there was always the fear of the power of Asia. This is why at the same time we were trying to ban Chinese labor, we were desperate to open Chinese borders for US trade. There was a real envy and fear and jealousy of the Asian nations. They were rendered despotic, but they were also magical.
Fu Manchu comes out of this because he's not a coolie but he's the other side of the coolie. Who do you think the coolie keeps his queue for? What or who does the coolie worship or who will the coolie follow when the chips are down? Fu Manchu is this imagined, want to be dictator, but his danger is that he is not only in the East autocratically ruling, which is one, just a side note, this is hilarious because China has a revolution that throws off the Manchu emperor and institutes the beginnings of a democratic culture.
They do this in the early 1900s, but Fu Manchu comes and imagines himself to have high western learning, but also want to bring about the resurgence of Genghis Khan. Let me play you a little audio clip because it's just funny to hear. I should preface, Fu Manchu is not an Asian person, he's Boris Karloff playing [laughs] Fu Manchu in this imperious British accent. This is how Fu Manchu introduces himself and I think it's a really funny combination of things.
[00:14:27] Audio Clip: You’re Fu Manchu aren’t you?
I’m a Doctor of Philosophy from Edinburgh. I’m a Doctor of Law from Christ College. I’m A Doctor of Medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me Doctor.
Oh, I beg your pardon. Well, three times Doctor, what do you want of it?
[00:14:46] Sylvia: Three times, doctor. [laughs]
“Yes, this idea of Fu Manchu attending Harvard, attending Oxford and Cambridge was not unusual. The reason the governments were doing it at the time is that they were westernizing, they were modernizing, they were very keen to send their elites abroad to understand how western governments conducted their business politically and militarily and economically.“
[00:14:48] Host: I think that's interesting. I was putting this together, I was reading about, it wasn't just laborers that were coming from Asia into the United States. We were also taking in students from families that could afford to send their kids to get this western education and then return with these western ideologies to their country.
[00:15:18] Sylvia: Yes. We did this interesting project at UVA, University of Virginia where I teach. Where we looked into the first Asian students to attend UVA. They were Chinese and Japanese. They were in the 1890s, early 1900s. Many of them went back to China, Japan to serve in high positions in the government. Yes, this idea of Fu Manchu attending Harvard, attending Oxford and Cambridge was not unusual. The reason the governments were doing it at the time is that they were westernizing, they were modernizing, they were very keen to send their elites abroad to understand how western governments conducted their business politically and militarily and economically. Thus, we have these early students who are coming to places like UVA, but all over, every major university public and private to study law, agriculture, engineering, medicine.
They're not coming to study art history for the most part, and to go back. Theater. [laughs] Modern dance. Fu Manchu learns medicine and law, the implication is so he can dominate and infiltrate and challenge western nations more directly. It was a funny thing where he's not a coolie, he's not stupid. None of these things are positive traits at the time.
[00:16:46] Host: Yes. I think you have another clip too, of this power and dominance that Fu Manchu wants to display for all Western society.
[00:16:58] Sylvia: The plot of The Mask of Fu Manchu, I'm not an expert on how the movies match onto the novels, but The Mask of Fu Manchu, which was the first really popular Fu Manchu movie, is about Fu Manchus henchman infiltrating the British Museum, which has an archeological dig for the Mask of Genghis Khan.
The British want this for purely intellectual reasons, supposedly. Fu wants this because if he has the mask, he thinks it will magically give him the right to rule over all of Asia. Not just China, but all of Asia. This little clip, which is from the end of the film, he's assembled an audience of people from all over Asia.
They're not identified, but we see bodies of different colors and in different stereotypical national costumes. He has put on the mask and starts to yell at them about how he's going to use the mask to bring them all together to conquer the white race. Let me just play this real quick.
[00:17:57] Audio Clip: Men of Asia! Our skies are gray with the thunderbolts of Genghis Khan! [cheering] They rain down on the white race and burn them. [cheering]
[00:18:22] Sylvia: It was a little hard to hear, but basically, he's trying to rally this huge crowd, a hoard. The hoard metaphor of faceless Asians, which actually probably are mostly white actors in costume to reenact this dynasty building of the war monger, Genghis Khan, against the white race. This is the origins of the idea of the yellow peril, Western nations, European ones, fearful of the political power of the Asian nations that they were colonizing, but were also perhaps vying for power with.
[00:18:59] Host: I want to talk a little bit about the Japanese coming to America and this perception of Japanese culture in the early 19th century or early 1900s, early 20th century. It seems like there was a lot of romanticism about Japan and this futile Japan concept of the play and the story and the opera of Madama Butterfly and The Mikado. You'd see these images of the cherry blossoms and the beautiful outfits. It didn't feel like there was a lot of negative stereotyping at that time of Japanese culture.
[00:19:47] Sylvia: Maybe some of our view is a little obscured. When America first encountered China, it was not as laborers, it was as the sources of goods that the world wanted. Tea and porcelains. I don't think that China was always necessarily negatively perceived. From the beginning of the republic what did successful rich families want like our founding fathers, they wanted Chinese goods.
[00:20:18] Host: That Ming vase and yes.
[00:20:19] Sylvia: Well, not Ming vases, no blue porcelains, porcelain tea sets, to serve tea, which is why the British were in China in the first place to dominate the tea trade. Japan had the benefit of not having its cultural exports immediately eclipsed by its labor exports we should say. During the same time that the Chinese laborers are coming over in the 1850s to 1880s, Japan and China are sending exhibits to world fairs, exhibiting their goods with a similar sense of desirability and refinement.
Japan because it's undergoing the Meiji Restoration, the defeat of the Tokugawa Shogunate happens around 1860s. For some time, there is not a wholesale sending of laborers abroad. In fact, the first Japanese laborers probably arrived to Hawaii, which is a much closer and not US territory yet at that time in the 19th century.
The US proper doesn't see a lot of Japanese laborers until the Chinese are banned. It's not entirely by the Japanese design, but there is a labor shortage, a hole that needs to be filled that Japanese laborers are able to take advantage of once Chinese laborers depart that labor pool to some degree.
Just to give you some numbers, most of the Asians in America are Chinese up to about 1870. When Chinese Exclusion hits there's only 2,000 Japanese in mainland America compared to about 60,000, 70,000 Chinese, but by 1900 the numbers have swapped. There are more Japanese and Chinese on the US mainland, it's in the 70,000s. It's not because the Chinese leave, it's just that now the only new Asian immigrants are mostly coming from Japan.
The other factor that is slightly different and maybe means that there's a slightly less denigration of Japanese, is that the Japanese government is more centralized and exerts its own regulation and power over who gets to migrate. It was not going to let everyone who it needed for the building of its own country out, but it also didn't want the lowest of manual laborers to leave. There was a complex process in which they recruited, and encouraged, and also discouraged people from leaving who didn't have the right skills.
“You have Japanese coming over, that are more educated, wealthier, with more resources, but then also fed a nationalistic ideology that they are better than the Chinese, and they come to the US expecting to be treated better. They find somewhat better treatment, but they also find the wall of racism that they bump into.”
The typical Japanese migrant came over with somewhat more economic standing, merchant class, upper peasant class. A lot of very skilled agriculture labor came to the US from Japan. This is why a lot of the flowering of California, the making of California into the nation's “bread bow” takes place with a lot of the know-how and help of Japanese laborers. Then also smaller merchants, younger sons, lower members of previous samurai class will be allowed over.
You have Japanese coming over, that are more educated, wealthier, with more resources, but then also fed a nationalistic ideology that they are better than the Chinese, and they come to the US expecting to be treated better. They find somewhat better treatment, but they also find the wall of racism that they bump into. Since 1906, there's a crisis where Japanese school children are being segregated from San Francisco schools. Chinese had already been segregated, African-Americans had already been segregated.
The Japanese did not want to be lumped in with these other classes. There was this crisis, it became a diplomatic crisis, and that's where we start getting Japanese immigration restricted. Teddy Roosevelt came to an agreement called The Gentleman's Agreement, which resolved the school crisis in favor of the Japanese school children being schooled with white children, but then Japan voluntarily decided it would start to limit adult male laborers. Seen as more civilized somewhat yes, but as soon as their numbers came to be such that they were challenging white labor pools in agriculture, in small businesses, the pushback started.
[00:24:42] Host: Then everything shifts with World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Then all of the sudden, these Japanese-Americans who were starting to face this pushback pretty quickly after arriving, instantly became an enemy combatants. Well, of course, we have the Executive Order 9066, we have the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, but there's a weird shift that happens because China is our ally in World War II. Talk a little bit about that shift in creating a favorite version of an Asian-American at that point.
[00:25:30] Sylvia: It is somewhat sudden. Although, if you look back, you see the roots of it out there. Japan had been at war with China since the 1930s. Henry Luce, the American magazine magnate, owner of Time and Life magazines, was the child of Chinese missionaries and always had a soft spot for China. You see in American news coverage even before most Americans seem to care, there's coverage of atrocities and warfare in China in a way that paints Japan as an aggressor.
Japan starts militarized during the Taisho era in '20s and '30s. We don't see that as a threat to us but we see Japan invading Manchuria, which is part of China, starting to invade Shanghai, things like that. It trickles out into some movies, so you'll see The Bitter Tea of General Yen. You see a couple of these movies starting to show the Chinese in a positive light in China not in the US.
When war breaks out and there's a lot of talk about whether the US knew that Pearl Harbor was going to be bombed, but when they allowed Pearl Harbor to be bombed and the news broke out, the narrative immediately overnight in the media is like those sneaky Japanese. It's a reversal but it's also not entirely reversal, because all the things the Japanese were praised for previously become part of what makes them dangerous.
That they are adept at modern statecraft. The Pearl Harbor is bombed while there is a Japanese envoy in Washington supposedly negotiating for peace. This is a great cry of the newspapers. Kurusu lied, who knows if he knew that was coming? There are a number of movies-- I'll play a bit and talk about how complicated they are.
That started to try to teach American public who the enemy is, who are we fighting against and whether they like-- the reason I say it's complicated we can talk about is that Japanese-Americans aren't playing them, Chinese and Korean-Americans are playing them.
"Japan was at war of China and had conquered Korea back in 1910. At least Korean-American actors have said to the press, 'I'm happy to play Japanese. This is my part of the war effort in freeing my own country from colonization.'"
[00:27:36] Host: For an actor, what a horrible reason to have this opportunity, but it is an opportunity to start getting work.
[00:27:43] Sylvia: Horrible and also great. My clip is of the Chinese-American actor Richard Loo in a film called Purple Heart. He is one of a number of actors that play a lot of the Japanese roles in World War II. He didn't come out and say this so much but Japan was at war of China and had conquered Korea back in 1910. At least Korean-American actors have said to the press, "I'm happy to play Japanese. This is my part of the war effort in freeing my own country from colonization."
The Chinese-Americans-- well, Philip Ahn, a Korean-American who said this part was partly driven by the political agenda of his father. His father was one of the Korean leaders in exile, Dosan Ahn Changho. The Ahn family was uniquely positioned to be anti-Japanese. The Loo family does not part of a Chinese elite but Richard Loo and there was Benson Fong, there's a number of actors who played the Japanese, sometimes felt like it was somewhat of a patriotic role.
If they could make Americans hate the Japanese more, that would help drive the Japanese out of their homelands. Anyways, Asian actors not Japanese, playing Japanese who are now going to talk about being immigrants as part of a long-range plan to invade the US. This is a clip from the Purple Heart, which is from 1943.
[00:29:14] Audio Clip: ever been in California, Captain?
Lot’s of times.
General, you’re a soldier and an officer and you know as well as I do, I can’t give you any information except for name, rank, and serial number.
I was only curious about Santa Barbara. I lived there for some time. A beautiful town. Worked on a fishing boat. [laughs] I charted every inch of water from San Diego to Seattle. Those charts will be useful someday.
Don’t bet on it, General.
"The other part is business owners had long wanted the Japanese gone from agriculture and groceries and other merchant positions. They were only happy to use that excuse to say, 'We need to push everyone out.' This is not a targeted investigation. This is just push every single person out."
[00:29:48] Sylvia: It's so cliched and over the top but it takes the idea that was prevalent at the time, which and probably drove at least some, not all but some of the impetus for Japanese-American incarceration was that every Japanese person was a spy, potentially, or actually, and that the previous two, three decades of living in the US was just a pretense for gathering information, infiltrating society, placing themselves into important parts.
I say partly because for the most part, there were no large-scale or even mid-scale bits of organized espionage found among Japanese-American communities. This idea of taking the Japanese-American success in the US and turning it into an alibi for a political betrayal becomes a way of cleansing the economy of California.
I said partly, politics is only part of why it was the Japanese-Americans incarcerated. The other part is business owners had long wanted the Japanese gone from agriculture and groceries and other merchant positions. They were only happy to use that excuse to say, "We need to push everyone out." This is not a targeted investigation. This is just push every single person out.
I just want to remind everyone who they pushed out, 80% of the incarcerees in these incarceration camps were Nisei, US-born. Sometimes US-born with barely any ability to speak or function in Japan. The idea of this large-scale espionage is laughable and inconceivable, it becomes a common part of American film.
[00:31:28] Host: To take us home, let's move to our modern times and how this concept of yellow peril still rears its ugly head. I know that the COVID-19 virus brought a lot of negative attention to Asian-Americans, especially Chinese-Americans. Talk a little bit about how that mirrored what was happening in the beginning of the 20th century.
[00:31:59] Sylvia: It's a big jump. The things we're going to gloss over are in the Cold War era and the mid to late 20th century. We see the rise of what-- Japan is defeated, but rises out of the ashes to be a G7, first world economy. The first Asian economy to rise to that level. Also, Southeast Asia, specifically, Vietnam becomes a combat zone, and the spread of communism, supposedly, Chinese communism, although ironically Vietnam hated China, was probably more in bed with the USSR.
All these things are happening that give rise to other types. We talked a little bit about the Samurai type. This morphs into the Sony businessman of the 1980s. That is existing alongside the Vietnamese gook, the scary communist fighter who is dangerous not only because he is a fighter, but we are defeated in that war by what seems to be a pre-modern, it's not actually a pre-modern army. North Vietnamese army was well resourced from Soviet ammunitions, but they're imagined as this crazy, primitive army. That's when Chinese martial arts starts. I'm just connecting a couple of dots before we get to COVID.
"...that mythos of Vietcong/martial artists. They're not the same thing, but they come around the same time, carries through to today where we still think there's something mysterious about Asian bodies, Asian medicines, Asian philosophies. Sometimes it's laudatory, people admire it and want to emulate it, but sometimes it's the source of mystification."
[00:33:27] Host: Sure. There's a lot of-- that anti-Vietnamese, even though we were fighting with Vietnamese against their own country, and I think similar in the Korean War, there's this ant-- We're able to hold onto the anti-sediment instead of seeing that we're actually fighting with them or part of them.
[00:33:49] Sylvia: I am thinking, how do we get the word kung fu as part of our national lexicon? Bruce Lee is the leading edge of a wave of Hong Kong martial arts that comes into US in the early '70s. Martial arts, it's old and it's new. It's the idea of the militant fighter, but it's also the fighter whose weapon is itself, the body.
[00:34:17] Host: Without weapons.
[00:34:19] Sylvia: Without weapons. There's traces of this earlier. We have The Boxer Rebellion against the British in the 1850s, which imagined itself to be able to stop bullets with kung fu. This was not true, but this is what its adherence wanted to believe. It gains new credence in the 1970s because how do you defeat an army with machine guns and helicopters and napalm? It must be some kind of kung fu mojo.
Even though Bruce Lee dies before his Hollywood film is even released, he dies in 1973, that mythos of Vietcong/martial artists. They're not the same thing, but they come around the same time, carries through to today where we still think there's something mysterious about Asian bodies, Asian medicines, Asian philosophies. Sometimes it's laudatory, people admire it and want to emulate it, but sometimes it's the source of mystification. I think that plays a lot into the whole Wuhan virus.
[00:35:22] Host: There's also, I'd say, we're not talking about the female, but there is a denigration of the Asian female into a docile, subservient, weaker, and sexualized character here in America.
[00:35:37] Sylvia: Yes, definitely. Sadly, we see with the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, the manifestation of that. That's the shooting in which eight people died, six of whom were Asian-American. A lot of people were very reluctant to call that a hate crime, because somehow we need hate crimes to be very neat where someone screams, "I hate you because of your race," as they're stabbing you or shooting you.
The shooter targeted Asian massage parlors out of the sense that Asian women were a source of temptation and sexual threat. This has been well discussed, talked about how did Americans come to think that? It's not simply because of the Asian women that came to US, but also US militarism abroad. We fought wars in the Philippines, we fought the war against Japan, not mostly in Japan, but we fought a lot of that in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia.
We fought the Korean War, we fought the Vietnam War in South Vietnam, but also with Thailand and Philippines as stops. In all of these wars, sexual exploitation follows the US Army. It follows other armies as well. I'm not saying other armies are innocent, but how US males encounter Asian females are as exploited or vulnerable sex workers.
I don't want us to think of them not just as exploited women, but as exploited laborers serving all the labor that needs to serve the US Army as it gets stationed in an Asian country. We bring that back, some of it's benevolent because people bring wives home and I know a lot of multiracial families that had real marriages and real families come out of this, but the other consequences are people who see Asian women not as immigrants in this country, but as exploited, desperate peoples abroad.
Spa shooting happened in the midst of COVID, but I think it amplified some of that mystification of what Asia was as a place, as a economic powerhouse, but also a mysterious place of commerce.
[00:37:48] Host: It's an example of that othering of that this is the role of those women, I think which is what led to a lot of this anti-Asian hate, is that those who perpetrate it just see a stereotype instead of seeing a human being. I know you have a clip you wanted to play that launched this or started this or added fuel to the fire of this resurgence of yellow peril.
[00:38:17] Sylvia: I don't want to give him too much airtime, but it's just a reminder, and I'll play just a short part of it. This is from a press briefing at the White House in March 2020. It's just one of many times in which Donald Trump used this language, but I think it's just interesting to remember and hear it in context, so I'll play it.
[00:38:38] Audio Clip: Some important developments in our war against the Chinese virus. I will be invoking the Defense Production Act, just in case we need it.
Why do you keep calling this the “Chinese virus?” There are reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese Americans in this country. Your own aid, Secretary Azar, says he does not use this term. He says ethnicity does not cause the virus. Why do you keep using this?
Because it comes from China.
It’s not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China! That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.
You’re not concerned about Chinese Americans in this country?
I have a great love for all of the people from our country, but as you know, China tried to say, at one point, maybe they stopped now, that it was caused by American soldiers. that can’t happen. It’s not going to happen. Not as long as I’m president. It comes from China.
[00:39:40] Sylvia: The clip goes on. It's hard not to laugh when he says China. We have to remember, Trump came into his presidency years before COVID on a pledge to bring America to some sort of superiority or parity in the Chinese-America trade balance. There was a sense from a lot of Americans that the woes of globalization were caused by China, so all the degradations of the American economy, the fact that workers can't get jobs, everything's being outsourced, everything is bought or manufactured in China, these were longstanding tropes that have been talked about in American politics mostly, but not entirely by the Republican party since the 2010s.
This is the president who said he's going to not let China walk all over us in trade, and he's going to do what Obama and Clinton could never do. He's ready to talk about China by the time the coronavirus comes, and the fact that the virus becomes a global pandemic, partly because we have a globalized economy plays into a little bit of his grievances and his talking points.
I don't want us to simply laugh at what he's saying, but to think about how the China virus [chuckles] is not just wrong and we refute it on some factual basis. Viruses don't have ethnicities. I don't think that's the point. I think it's the idea that the virus is a vector for economic and political anxieties that we have already had about China diminishing the US' status as an economic and political world power.
I think in pop culture, a lot of times we get hung up on, "Is something a stereotype, and how do I disprove it?" I disprove it by being better than or different than, or other than. I think taking the long view, is this a stereotype, but like, "What purpose does this serve? What does this tie into?" There are actual Asian martial artists. There are spiritual beliefs from many cultures that--
I hesitate to even call them Asian because that's not imprecise. They're different from every place they come from. There are differences, but are those differences not true or false or authentic? Or not authentic, but what purpose do they serve? I think that's why it was good that you had me go through the history of, "Why are coolies here?" It's not just like, "What is a coolie and how did they get denigrated, but also, how are they brought here?"
When we get to the kung flu [chuckles] or something like that, it's also not, "Why is that wrong? It's not a virus from China." I don't actually know or care whether it's a virus from China or Wuhan. It's like, "Well, what does that metaphor lasts on people to talk about?" When we talk back at them, are we speaking the same language? It's a conversation about power and economics and not just about positive and negative depictions.
[00:42:45] Host: We'd like to thank Sylvia Chong for her time, her expertise, and her passion. Medium Historyis produced by Chapman University's Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and Past Forward. For more socially conscious content, visit pastforward.com or follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you podcast.
Past Forward is a curiosity company dedicated to educational accessibility.
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