Stereotypes of East Asians in the Western world

Stereotypes of East Asians in the Western world

Stereotypes of East Asians are ethnic stereotypes found in Western societies. Stereotypes of East Asians, like other ethnic stereotypes, are often manifest in a society's media, literature, theater and other creative expressions. In many instances, media portrayals of East Asians often reflect a dominant Eurocentric perception rather than realistic and authentic depictions of true cultures, customs and behaviors.[1] However, these stereotypes have mainly negative repercussions for East Asians and East Asian immigrants in daily interactions, current events, and governmental legislation. East Asians have experienced discrimination and have been victims of hate crimes related to their ethnic stereotypes, as it has been used to reinforce xenophobic sentiment.


Orientalism, mysticism and exoticism

According to Edward Said, orientalism refers to the manner in which the West interprets or comes to terms with their experiences and encounters with the foreign or unfamiliar Orient, or the East. Said claimed that "the Orient" was a European invention to denote East Asia as a place of exoticism, romance, and remarkable experiences and also as a concept to contrast (commonly negatively) against Western civilization.[2]

The effects of orientalism in Western cultures includes the "othering" of East Asians and East Asian Americans; their cultures and lifestyles perceived as "exotic", in stark contrast to "ordinary" Western customs.[2] While Western cultures are perceived or believed capable of change and modernization, East Asian cultures are considered (in contrast) ancient. [3]

Stereotypes of exclusion or hostility

"Yellow Peril"

1899 editorial cartoon with caption: "The Yellow Terror in all his glory."

The term "Yellow Peril" refers to a White apprehension, peaking in the late 19th-century, that white inhabitants of Australia, Canada or the United States would be overwhelmed and swamped by a massive influx of East Asians; who would fill the nation with a foreign culture and speech incomprehensible to those already there and "steal" jobs away from the white inhabitants. During this time, numerous anti-Asian sentiments were expressed by politicians and writers, especially on the West Coast, with headlines like "The 'Yellow Peril'" (Los Angeles Times, 1886) and "Conference Endorses Chinese Exclusion" (The New York Times, 1905)[4] and the later Japanese Exclusion Act. The American Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of Asians because they were considered an "undesirable" race.[5] Australia had similar fears and introduced a White Australia policy, restricting immigration between 1901 to 1973, with some elements of the policies persisting to the 1980s. On 12 February 2002, Helen Clark, then prime minister of New Zealand apologised "to those Chinese people who had paid the poll tax and suffered other discrimination, and to their descendants. She also stated that Cabinet had authorised her and the Minister for Ethnic Affairs to pursue with representatives of the families of the early settlers a form of reconciliation which would be appropriate to and of benefit to the Chinese community." [6] Similarly, Canada had in place a head tax on East Asian immigrants to Canada in the early 20th century; a formal government apology was given in 2007 (with compensation to the surviving head tax payers and their descendants).[7]

Perpetual foreigner

In many periods of America's history, Asian Americans have been perceived, treated, and portrayed by many in U.S. society as "perpetual" foreigners who are unable to be assimilated and inherently foreign regardless of citizenship or duration of residence in the United States.[8] A similar view has been advanced by Ling-chi Wang, professor emeritus of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Wang asserts that mainstream media coverage of Asian communities in the United States has always been "miserable."[9] He states, "In [the] mainstream media's and policymakers' eyes, Asian Americans don't exist. They are not on their radar... and it's the same for politics."[9]

According to Jose Antonio Vargas, writer for the Washington Post, there's a game he likes to play called WTAG: Where's the Asian guy? In 2007, there were hardly any apart from Daniel Dae Kim, co-star of ABC's "Lost." Never mind that he speaks only Korean on the show.[10] A study by UCLA researchers for the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), Asian Pacific Americans in Prime Time, confirmed that there had not been a tremendous amount of progress for Asian-American actors, on network TV. While Asian-Americans make up 5 percent of the U.S. population, the report found only 2.6 percent were primetime TV regulars. Shows set in cities with large Asian populations, like New York and Los Angeles, had few Asian roles. One out of five people in the New York City borough of Queens is Asian, but CBS's "The King of Queens" had no Asian characters through its nine-season run.[11] This is a series that had over 13 million viewers at its most popular and had been released in over 29 countries.[12]

Actress Ming-Na, who plays an FBI agent on the Fox show "Vanished," noticed that about Orange County, California, where the show "The O.C." is based. In an interview with "20/20": "I don't know what Orange County that show is representing. But there is not one single Asian in that show. And I am sorry, that is just wrong. It would be like having a show take place in China and not having one Asian represented." [13] It has been noted that, in reality, while Orange County has traditionally been one of California's richest, whitest, and most conservative counties, demographic trends suggest the County's white population is downright geriatric. Some 875,000 Orange County residents are Latino, according to Census 2000—just under a third of the total population of 2.8 million.[14] The county also hosts the nation's largest Vietnamese population (145,000) and attracts significant populations of Filipino, Japanese and Indian Americans. Collectively, Asian Americans are the County's most affluent segment, buying homes valued at twice the county average. It is also home to UC Irvine, a prestigious university in which Asians actually outnumber Whites 2-1 (54% to 28%). Including white Hispanics, White Americans are nominally 64% of OC population but it fields barely 44% of public school enrollment. This was never reflected in the series.[15]

Model minority stereotype

Asian Americans have also been stereotyped as a "model minority"; that is, positive traits are applied as a stereotype. Asians (as a whole) are seen as hardworking, politically inactive, studious, intelligent, productive, and inoffensive people who have elevated their social standing through merit and diligence. This label is given in contrast to other racial stereotypes which routinely accuse minorities of socially unwelcome traits: such as laziness or criminal tendencies.[16]

However, many Asian Americans believe the model minority stereotype to be damaging and inaccurate, and are acting to dispel this stereotype.[17] Scholars, activists, and most major American news sources have started to oppose this stereotype, calling it a misconception that exaggerates the success of Asian Americans.[18][19][20][21][22] According to those trying to debunk this belief, the model minority stereotype alienates Asian Americans from other minorities and covers up actual Asian American issues and needs that are still not properly addressed in America today.[23] For example, the widespread notion that Asian Americans earn higher-than-average income obscures issues such as the "glass ceiling"/"bamboo ceiling" phenomenon, where advancement into the highest-level managerial or executive positions is blocked,[24][25][26] and the fact that Asian Americans must acquire more education and work more hours than their white counterparts to earn the same amount of money.[27] The "model minority" image is also seen as being damaging to Asian American students because their assumed success makes it easy for educators to overlook Asian American students who are struggling academically.[28][29][30][31]

For example, 25.2% of Asian Americans over age 25 hold a bachelor's degree compared to only 15.5% of the general American population, thus giving the impression of Asian American success. However, only 6.9% of Cambodians, and 6.2% of Laotians in this age group in America hold bachelor's degrees- albeit attributed by researchers due to poverty and severe mental health issues due to these nations' civil war.[32] [33] Despite this stereotype of supposed Asian American success, there is a high 80% unemployment rate among the Hmong Americans and other Asian Americans groups from refugee backgrounds.[27]

However, examples of criminal and unethical behavior are in contrast to the model minority construct.[34][35] In 2007, Asian Americans were implicated in cheating scandals, shooting sprees, and political corruption. Most notable is the Virginia Tech massacre by Seung-Hui Cho, which led to the deaths of 33 individuals, including Cho himself. The shooting spree, along with Cho's Korean ethnicity, stunned the Asian American community.[36] Other scandals which made headlines were the arrests of Norman Hsu, a former campaign donor to Hillary Clinton, Ed Jew, the former San Francisco Supervisor, and Kim Kyung Joon, a former Los Angeles City Commissioner who served as a business partner to current South Korean president Lee Myung-bak. Also in 2007, 34 MBA students, primarily of East Asian descent, were caught in a major cheating scandal at Fuqua School of Business of Duke University. Of those 34 students, 9 were permanently expelled, 15 were suspended for one year, and the rest received failing grades.[37]

Archetypal East Asians in American fiction

Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan are two important and well-known fictional East Asian characters in America's cultural history. Both were created by white authors, Sax Rohmer and Earl Derr Biggers respectively, in the early part of the 20th century. Fu Manchu is a sardonic, intelligent, yet evil Chinese murderer with plots of world domination, an embodiment of America's imagination of a threatening mysterious East Asian people. Charlie Chan is an apologetic submissive Chinese-Hawaiian detective who solves cases while politely handling the many racist insults hurled at him by white American characters, and represents America's archetypal "good" East Asian. Both characters found widespread popularity in numerous novels and films.[38]

Fu Manchu: "evil" East Asian

Thirteen novels, three short stories, and one novelette have been written about Fu Manchu and Sir Denis Nayland Smith, the British agent determined to stop him. Millions of copies have been sold in the United States with publication in British and American periodicals and adaptations to film, comics, radio, and television. Due to his enormous popularity, the "image of Fu Manchu has been absorbed into American consciousness as the archetypal East Asian villain."[38] In The Insidious Doctor Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer introduces Fu Manchu as a cruel and cunning man, with a face like Satan, who is essentially the "Yellow Peril incarnate".[39]

Sax Rohmer inextricably tied the evil character of Fu Manchu to all East Asians as a physical representation of the Yellow Peril, attributing the villain's evil behavior to his race. Rohmer also adds an element of mysticism and exoticism to his portrayal of Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu contrives unnecessarily elaborately creative and cruel methods of murdering his victims, replete with allegedly East Asian methods or elements in his murders such as: "death by silk rope"- none of which have any basis in reality. Despite Fu Manchu's specifically Manchu ethnicity, his evil and cunning are pan-Asian attributes again reinforcing Fu Manchu as representational of all East Asian people.[38] Blatantly racist statements (note: not considered so at the time the novels were published) made by white protagonists such as: "the swamping of the white world by yellow hordes might well be the price of our failure" again add to East Asian stereotypes of exclusion.[40] Fu Manchu's inventively sardonic methods of murder and white protagonist Denis Nayland Smith's grudging respect for his intellect reinforce stereotypes of East Asian intelligence, exoticism/mysticism, and extreme cruelty.[38][41]

Charlie Chan: "good" East Asian

Screenshot of television program starring fictional Chinese-Hawaiian detective Charlie Chan.
Warner Oland, a Swedish American Actor portraying Charlie Chan, a Chinese Hawaiian detective.

Charlie Chan, a fictional character created by author Earl Derr Biggers loosely based on Chang Apana (1871–1933), a real-life Chinese-Hawaiian police officer, has been the subject of 10 novels (spanning from 1925 to as late as 1981), over 40 American films, a comic strip, a board game, a card game, and a 1970s animated television series. In the films, the role of Charlie Chan has usually been played by white actors (namely Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters).[42][dead link]

In stark contrast to the Chinese villain Fu Manchu, East Asian American protagonist Charlie Chan represents the American archetype of the "good" East Asian.[38] In The House Without a Key, Earl Derr Biggers describes Charlie Chan in the following manner: "He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting."[43] Charlie Chan speaks English with a heavy accent and flawed grammar, and is exaggeratedly polite and apologetic. After one particular racist affront by a Bostonian woman, Chan responds with exaggerated submission, "Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind. Friendly co-operation are essential between us." Bowing deeply, he added, "Wishing you good morning."[43]

Because of Charlie Chan's emasculated, unassertive, and apologetic physical appearance and demeanor he is considered a non-threatening East Asian man to mainstream audiences despite his considerable intellect and ability. Many modern critics, particularly Asian-American critics, claim that Charlie Chan has none of the daring, assertive, or romantic traits generally attributed to white fictional detectives of the time, "bovine" and "asexual",[44] allowing "white America ... [to be] securely indifferent about us as men."[45] Charlie Chan's good qualities are the product of what Frank Chin and Jeffery Chan call "racist love", arguing that Chan is a model minority and "kissass".[46] Instead, Charlie Chan's successes as a detective are in the context of proving himself to his white superiors or white racists who underestimate him early on in the various plots.[38] His character also perpetuates stereotypes as well, oft quoting supposed ancient Chinese wisdom at the end of each novel, saying things like: "The Emperor Shi Hwang-ti, who built the Great Wall of China, once said: 'He who squanders to-day talking of yesterday's triumph, will have nothing to boast of tomorrow.'"[47] Fletcher Chan, however, argues that the Chan of Biggers's novels is not subservient to whites, citing The Chinese Parrot as an example; in this novel, Chan's eyes blaze with anger at racist remarks and in the end, after exposing the murderer, Chan remarks "Perhaps listening to a 'Chinaman' is no disgrace."[48]

Stereotypes of East Asian men

Emasculation and asexuality

In the mid 1800 Chinese laborers were given an emasculated image due to the physical appearance of these laborers and the fact that they did what Westerners considered to be "women's work." The Chinese workers sported long braids (a queue) and sometimes wore long silk gowns.[49] Because Chinese men were seen as an economic threat to the white workforce, laws were passed that barred the Chinese from many "male" labour intensive-industries, the only jobs available to the Chinese of the time were jobs that whites deemed "women's work" (i.e., laundry, cooking, and childcare).[49] It has been noted by some[50][51] that Hollywood stereotypes East Asian men as supergeeks or asexual martial artists who have no love interest in films.[52] The character of Long Duk Dong in the 1984 cult classic "Sixteen Candles", is often considered offensive.[53] Roger Ebert, however, defended him, writing that Gedde Watanabe "elevates his role from a potentially offensive stereotype to high comedy".[54] In the documentary The Slanted Screen, Gene Cajayon, the Filipino American director of the 2001 film "The Debut," the first Fil-Am movie to be released nationwide in the United States, talks about the revised ending for the action movie "Romeo Must Die," a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" where the R&B star Aaliyah plays Juliet to the Chinese actor Jet Li's Romeo. The original ending had Aaliyah kissing Li, which would have explained the title of Romeo, a scenario that didn't test well with an "urban audience." [55] So the studio changed it. The new ending had Trish (Aaliyah) giving Han (Jet Li) a tight hug. According to Cajayon, "Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an East Asian man portrayed in a sexual light." [10]

Predators of white women

American anti-Japanese propaganda poster from World War II depicting a Japanese soldier threatening a white woman
Other posters depicted Chinese soldiers as allies

East Asian men have been portrayed as threats to white women[56] in many aspects of American media. Depictions of East Asian men as "lascivious and predatory" were common at the turn of the 20th century.[57] Between 1850 and 1940, both U.S. popular media and pre-war and WWII propaganda humanized Chinese men, while portraying Japanese men as a military and security threat to the country, and therefore a sexual danger to white women[38] due to the perception of a woman's body traditionally symbolizing her "tribe's" house or country.[58] In the 1916 film Patria, a group of fanatical Japanese individuals invade the United States in an attempt to rape a white woman.[59] Patria was an independent film serial funded by William Randolph Hearst (whose newspapers were known to promulgate threats of the yellow peril), in the lead up to the United States' entry into World War I.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen portrays the way in which an "Oriental" has power over white women. The film portrays Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) coming to China to marry a missionary (Gavin Gordon) and help in his work. They become separated at a railway station, and Davis is rescued/kidnapped by warlord General Yen (Nils Asther). Yen becomes infatuated with Davis, and knowing that she is believed to be dead, keeps her at his summer palace.


Another stereotype of East Asian men is that they are misogynistic, insensitive and disrespectful towards women. They are commonly portrayed as male chauvinists. [60] Although Amy Tan's book, The Joy Luck Club has been widely praised by critics, it has also been criticized by noted Chinese-American author Frank Chin for allegedly perpetuating racist stereotypes.[61][62] Chinese-American director Wayne Wang was impressed with the story and managed to create a film version of the novel.[63] Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) said that in Joy-Luck Club, white men (were) presented as more suitable romantic interests than East Asian men.[64]

Changing perceptions of East Asian males

"How To Spot A Jap" (1942), produced by the United States Army.

More recent media depictions of East Asian males are at a seeming variance with traditional stereotypes. Study findings from an analysis of the TV show Lost suggest that increased globalization is responsible for providing a more multidimensional and complex portrayal of East Asian males in televised media.[65] Asian Americans have taken strides to pluralize the representation of East Asians in the media by creating and supporting independent films like Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow and Chris Chan Lee's Yellow.

Stereotypes of East Asian women

Hypersexuality and the Dragon Lady

East Asian women have been portrayed as aggressive or opportunistic sexual beings or predatory gold diggers using their feminine wiles.[66] Western film and literature has continually portrayed such stereotypes of East Asian women: depicting East Asian women as cunning "Dragon Ladies". This is contrasted with the other stereotypes of servile "Lotus Blossom Babies", "China dolls", "Geisha girls", war brides, or prostitutes.[67]

In contemporary times, the Dragon Lady stereotype is personified by Ling Woo a fictional character in the US comedy-drama Ally McBeal, (1997–2002) portrayed by American actress Lucy Liu. Ling was a cold and ferocious[68] Chinese American lawyer who spoke Mandarin[69] and was knowledgeable in the art of sexual pleasure unknown to the Western world.[69][70] At the time, she was the only significant representative of East Asian women on television[70] (besides news anchors and reporters),[71] leaving no one else to counteract this prominent stereotype.[70] Thus, the portrayal of Ling Woo attracted much scholarly attention.[71] University of Wyoming Associate Professor Tracey Patton sees Woo as the embodiment of the East Asian fantasy woman, the seductive temptress expert in eroticism who is knowledgeable in the art of sexual pleasure unknown to the Western world.[70] Darrell Hamamoto, Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, describes Ling as "a neo-Orientalist masturbatory fantasy figure concocted by a white man whose job it is to satisfy the blocked needs of other white men who seek temporary escape from their banal and deadening lives by indulging themselves in a bit of visual cunnilingus while relaxing on the sofa." Hamamoto does maintain that Ling "sends a powerful message to white America that East Asian American women are not to be trifled with. She runs circles around that tower of Jell-O who serves as her white boyfriend. She's competitive in a profession that thrives on verbal aggression and analytical skill."[72]

"China doll" stereotype

According to author Sheridan Prasso, the China [porcelain] doll stereotype and other variations of this submissive stereotype exist in American movies. This includes the "Geisha Girl/Lotus Flower/Servant/China Doll: Submissive, docile, obedient, reverential; the Vixen/Sex Nymph: Sexy, coquettish, manipulative; tendency toward disloyalty or opportunism; the Prostitute/Victim of Sex Trade/War/Oppression: Helpless, in need of assistance or rescue; good-natured at heart." [49][66]

An iconic source of images of East Asian women in the 20th century in the West is the 1957 novel and 1960 film, The World of Suzie Wong, about a Hong Kong woman.[73] UC Berkeley Professor of Asian American Studies Elaine Kim argued in the 1980s that the stereotype of East Asian women as submissive has impeded their economic mobility.[74]

Another is Madama Butterfly (Madame Butterfly), an opera in three acts (originally two acts) by Giacomo Puccini, with an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is the story of a Japanese maiden (Cio-Cio San), who falls in love with a white American navy lieutenant. The Japanese girl and the officer have sex, resulting in a child. The American seaman leaves while Cio-Cio San blissfully awaits his return, who arrives back in Japan with his American wife in tow. The heartbroken Japanese girl bids farewell to her callous lover, then kills herself.

There has been much controversy about the opera, especially its sexist and racist themes.[75][76][77] It is the most-performed opera in the United States, where it ranks as Number 1 in Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America.[78] only helps to perpetuate the notion of the dominant white male over the subdued East Asian female who can be cast aside[79] as described by Sheridan Prasso in her book, The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient published in 2005.

A contemporary example would be Miss Saigon, a musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, a modern adaptation of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly. This musical has received criticism for what some have perceived as a racist or sexist overtone, including protests regarding its portrayal of East Asian men, East Asian women, or women in general.[80] It banked a record $25 million in advance ticket sales when it was opening on Broadway.[81]

Stereotypes of physical attributes and traits

Darrell Y. Hamamoto argues that a pervasive racialized discourse exists throughout Western society, especially as it is reproduced by network television and cinema.[82] Critics argue that physiological caricatures of East Asians found in western media include the epicanthic fold—positively described as "almond-shaped" or negatively as "slant eyes"—and many that are worse, are common in portrayals of the East Asian population, yellow-toned or brown skin referencing colorism, negatively contrasting 'coloured' Asian-Americans against the white Europeans in North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; as is a stereotypical hair-type: straight dark (or shiny "blue") hair, commonly in a "bowl cut" hair style (boys) or overgrown bangs (girls).[82] Critics point out that Asians are often stereotyped as having inherent skill in the martial arts,[83][84] and that Asians are often stereotyped as having poor English language skills.[53][83]

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External links

  • Hollywood Chinese Hollywood Chinese, a 2007 documentary film about the portrayals of Chinese men and women in Hollywood productions.
  • The Slanted Screen The Slanted Screen, a 2006 documentary film addressing the portrayals of Asian men in American television and film.

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