The Yellow Man and the White Woman
Originally posted at Chinese Community Forum (CCF)
March 04, 1998
CCF Editors: Bevin Chu’s essay on the eternal anti-romance between the yellow man and the white woman leads off the discussion.
I would like to stick in my two cents worth regarding the recently raised (or re-raised) hot-button issue of yellow men and white women, and vice-versa. I hope I won’t regret stepping into what could turn into a John Woo bloodbath.
It is impossible for any fair-minded person to take an unflinching look at the evidence and deny the existence of what Mr. Ku talked about regarding the popular media in America, often the most revealing barometer of a culture’s implicit value system. Asian-American actors (and actresses) in Hollywood complain about this constantly. I know. I got to know many of them while I was taking acting classes myself in order to learn how to write film dialog. I could add a hundred examples of my own to Mr. Ku’s laundry list, but I won’t.
Since I am talking about media stereotypes as indicator of statistical cultural norms and not Mr. Meyer’s personal life, I hope that he will not take offense. I do not know him and would not presume to question why he and his wife married other than that they love each other. For the record I have long been an enthusiastic champion of mixed marriages. Nothing would make me happier than if everyone who married in the next generation married outside their race, because the resulting children of mixed marriages would go a long way toward bridging cultures and contribute by merely being to the diminution of racial bigotry. This is why I was so gratified by the public’s unabashed affection for golfing phenomenon Tiger Woods. He represents the future of mankind.
On the other hand I hope Mr. Meyer can appreciate why Mr. Ku is not entirely unjustified in being outraged at the marked lack of symmetry. This need not imply disapproval of Mr. Meyer’s marriage, but merely a desire on the part of Mr. Ku to do exactly the same thing as Mr. Meyer. What’s wrong with that? After all, if Mr. Ku really were a bigot, would he even be trying to get dates with white women, possibly marry one and have Amerasian kids? Mr. Ku’s kids would then be just like Mr. Meyer’s kids, would they not? Surely Mr. Meyer cannot find that objectionable? I am inclined to conclude that Mr. Meyer’s lashing out at Mr. Ku’s alleged bigotry is not entirely fair.
Just why aren’t there an equal number or mixed race couples with the male/female roles reversed? Mr. Ku I feel is on the mark here. Again, this is not a commentary on any specific couple’s perfectly reasonable and emotionally sound marital choice, but rather on a society’s prevailing cultural norms. I assume none of us are talking about legally coerced “affirmative action” measures but rather a hypothetical social ideal. If there were no bigotry tilting the scales why wouldn’t there be a roughly 50/50 mix of Asian male / Caucasian female and Asia female / Caucasian male relationships? This question deserves an answer. It would clearly not be legitimate to demand a reversal of the current arrangement, but is strikes me as entirely legitimate to expect something closer to symmetry. Opposition to a lack of symmetry is not opposition to mixed marriages. This needs to be clarified from the outset.
As a screenwriter who authored two screenplays when I lived in LA, I have done some informal research on the casting of Asian male and Caucasian female leads in film. Nothing rigorous or scholarly mind you, but enough digging around to confirm that Mr. Ku is not terribly far off the mark on this issue. Aside from “Bridge to the Sun,” a 1961 film starring James Shigeta and Carroll Baker, very few Hollywood movies in the four decades since have paired Asian leading men with Caucasian leading ladies.
Far more typical, by many orders of magnitude, is the “Sayonara” or “World of Suzie Wong” scenario with a Caucasian male and Asian female. The latter film noteworthy in that Nancy Kwan, who is Eurasian and who portrayed Suzie Wong, is the daughter of a Hongkong Chinese father and English mother. (In case you hadn’t figured it out from her last name.) The irony being that she is required in the film to play the opposite situation with 50’s hunk William Holden.
This sort of male / female pairing is by no means a recent phenomenon. It goes back to Puccini’s opera “Madam Butterfly” and Leo Delibe’s opera “Lakme.” The former everyone knows about, and I will spare everyone additional commentary. The latter involves an English officer and an Indian (Hindustan) woman, but in a virtually identical scenario. He throws her away with casual contempt after using her as a convenient sexual diversion. The Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang was immensely successful with his long-running hit play “M. Butterfly” in which he pulled no punches exploring this perspective many Caucasian males have regarding Asian females.
John Lone did play an Asian male paired with a Caucasian female in a quirky Alan Rudolph film back in the 80’s, the title of which slips my mind at the moment. Rudolph is an exceptionally sensitive director, but alas this particular film merely confirms Mr. Ku’s allegation, as Lone was relegated to portraying a nasty character who abused and therefore did not deserve the love of his Caucasian wife.
To the best of my knowledge it has taken just about forty years for any admirable Asian male character to be again paired with a Caucasian female. Jason Scott Lee in “The Jungle Book” is a recent example mentioned by Mr. Ku. Russell Wong in “Vanishing Son,” a disappointing made for TV flop, was another. Chow Yun-fat in “The Replacement Killers” in which a dashing Chinese man is paired with voluptuous blonde Amazon (Mira Sorvino) just might possibly be a watershed. We will see. Even here however, the filmmakers soft pedaled this arrangement. The script saw to it that the Chow character was married to a Chinese woman back home and was faithful to her. This spared the filmmakers (including John Woo, one of the producers) the commercial risk of having to show sex between the yellow man and the white woman, thereby alienating many (I want to stress not all) white male action adventure genre ticket buyers. No nude scenes of them in bed together. Only the subtlest implication of sexual tension in some of the dialog between Chow and Sorvino. Sorvino says to Chow at the end something like “I’m going to miss you.” We still have a long way to go to true equality, it would seem.
On the other hand, the “Suzie Wong Syndrome” of white leading men treating Asian female characters as disposable sexual playthings remains all too clearly in evidence. This is why so much was made in the promotional interviews of Michelle Yeoh’s somewhat more assertive role while paired with Pierce Brosnan in “Tomorrow Never Dies.”
The fact is that male sexual power is inextricably linked with power as such, in all its manifestations. Financial wealth, political office, or in its crudest form, military might. Hotshot US Naval aviators stationed in Vietnam and the Philippines during the Vietnam War used to refer to impoverished local women as “little brown fucking machines.” This is a well known fact in the military and not something Mr. Ku made up, however Mr. Meyer might be inclined to attribute Mr. Ku’s bitterness to personal neurosis. It is simply impossible to deny that a nation’s secular power helps imbue the males of its dominant ethnic group with an aura of sexual desirability. One would have to be either naive or dishonest not to see it. When tactfully asked by reporters how it was he managed to date such stunning Hollywood beauties as Jill St. John, portly Henry Kissinger, who knew he was no stud, was remarkably candid and answered bluntly “Power is an aphrodisiac.”
As far as Mr. Meyer’s remark about “what kind of culture views women as commodities to buy and sell anyway?” The answer, sadly, is every culture. I know of no culture, east or west, ancient or contemporary which does not demean women by treating them as things. It is grossly wrong and tragic, but it is a fact. The president of the United States is currently in hot water for acting on just such assumptions about the subservient role of women. One hardly needs to go to Sichuan to find women being bought and sold. In fact, wasn’t this exactly what Mr. Ku was complaining about? That men from nations with greater wealth and power too often get a free ride and abuse this power regarding women from less developed nations.
If by historical accident the situation were reversed, i.e., if brown and yellow nations happened to be technologically more advanced and powerful, and the women of white western nations thereby susceptible to being bought and sold as a consequence of their comparative poverty, would Mr. Meyer be denouncing his own nation with remarks such as “what kind of culture views women as commodities to buy and sell anyway?” or would he be writing letters similar to Mr. Ku’s?
Let me reiterate, none of us knows Mr. Meyer, so we are emphatically not commenting on his marriage in particular. He has no reason to take it that way. Unless of course something has struck home. What is being debated is a sociological phenomenon in the abstract. From this perspective one can only conclude that Mr. Meyer’s rather intemperate response to Mr. Ku’s postings were somewhat excessive. Even if Mr. Meyer feels Mr. Ku was also wrong, two wrongs only compound the error.
Permit me to digress in order to point out that this is one of many reasons why the Dalai Lama does not deserve his inflated public image as some sort of humanist “great soul,” an image Hollywood acolytes have seen fit to bestow on him. This man (he is only a man after all, not an angel from heaven) is little more than a petty tribalist preoccupied with the “ethnic purity” of “the Tibetan People.” (As if being of mixed Tibetan-Han descent constituted “cultural genocide” of “his” people.) Perhaps SS- Oberscharfurher Heinrich Harrer taught him more about Aryan concepts of “racial purity” than Becky Johnston (the screenwriter of “Seven Years in Tibet”) let on. For his information there is no monolithic entity called “the Tibetan People,” of which he is “the spiritual and political leader.” There are only individual Tibetans with individual rights, plenty of whom he does not speak for. The Dalai Lama does not occupy the moral high ground when he condemns Tibetan-Chinese and Han-Chinese for wanting to remain united in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic Chinese “melting pot.” Ethnic separatism is thoroughly contemptible. It is a form of racism. I look forward to the day when all mankind is like Tiger Woods. I have no problem with Mr. Meyer’s children. I think they are the hope of the future.