Writer: Veronica Yung
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul, Maulina Gheananta
A racial fetish is ‘a person’s exclusive or near-exclusive preference for others belonging to a specific racial out-group.’ Often assumed to be harmless, some even say those who are racially fetishized should be ‘flattered’. ‘Yellow fever’ is a common paradigm used to describe the fetishization of East and Southeast Asians, most commonly by white men.
The fetishization of Asians can be traced back to when the Chinese first immigrated to the United States during the California Gold Rush. Women made up a very small portion of the Chinese population, with a female-to-male ratio of 7 : 4018 in San Francisco (1850), and making up only 2% of the Chinese population in 1855. This was a result of men choosing not to bring their wives and children to the USA because of anti-Asian sentiments faced there. Because of this, Chinese men found sexual release in brothels, and as a result, 61% of the 3536 Chinese women in 1870 became prostitutes.
White Americans noticed the large numbers of Chinese prostitutes and claimed that ‘not one virtuous China woman has been brought to this country,’ associating Chinese women with sexual immorality. This led to them being seen as threats to white American virtues, further fueling the Yellow Peril and ultimately leading to the Dragon Lady stereotype.
WW2 was when American soldiers came into direct contact with Japanese women--although the only women they met were geishas and bar girls. Over the course of a century, this caused them [Americans] to only understand Asian women through sex work. In Japan, however, they understood that Asian women, other than simply being sexual beings, could also be made domestic, obedient wives. As a result, over 40,000 Japanese women were brought back to the USA as war brides, instigating the China Doll/Lotus Blossom stereotype often seen in the media.
Asian fetishes were seen all throughout the 1900s, and even until today. Mail-order brides in which women are trafficked from developing countries are commonplace, with most of the victims originating from Asia, although trafficking from Eastern Europe is not infrequent. Asian countries involved include the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Taiwan, Macau, South Korea, Hong Kong and China. The American response to mail order brides was to threaten for the deportation of women within the first 2 years of
marriage, which does not prohibit mail order agencies from working and
men from buying wives. This is seen in the jump in the number of Asians being given fiancé-petitioned visas in the late 70s from 34 to 3428 in 1983.
Questions asked by these agencies include: ‘Do you wear make-up?’, ‘Which underwear do you like to wear?’ and ‘Have you experienced pre-marital sex?’ These questions are abhorrent and evidently show connections between Asian fetishization and mail-order brides, as it plays into the stereotypes of Asian innocence, while at the same still being sexual. This is also a common-enough practice that when ‘Asian mail order brides’ is googled, you do not get information about its history, but instead get agencies advertising mail-order brides.
A more common example of Asian fetishization is seen in Pornhub’s Year in Review (2019), where ‘Hentai’ was the second most searched item in the USA, and ‘Asian’ the fourth.
Asian fetishization has become well-known and prevalent in the media. An example would be ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ (1924) where Anna May Wong played ‘The Mongol Slave’ who assists an evil ruler in taking over the world. This is a portrayal of the Dragon Lady, where Asian women are seen as dangerous, mysterious and seductive. This stereotype is often seen in Lucy Liu’s earlier roles, including Alex Munday from Charlie’s Angels who uses her sexuality for her personal interest with very few other personality traits other than being smart, skillful and sexy, and Ling Woo in ‘Ally McBeal’ who uses casual sex to manipulate men.
Anna May Wong
The China Doll/Lotus Blossom stereotype which portrays Asian women as docile and innocent may be seen in the hit musical ‘Miss Saigon’, which is advertised as ‘the epic love story of our time.’ ‘Miss Saigon’ is based on the 1904 opera by Giacomo Puccini called ‘Madame Butterfly’, a tragedy about a British sailor and a young Japanese girl. This plot was transposed to an
American soldier in the Vietnamese war and a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese girl. ‘Miss Saigon’ does not only glamorize a relationship with a minor, but also portrays all other Vietnamese women as prostitutes. The scholar Karen Simakawa describes how the women are ‘either hypersexualized Dragon Ladies in string bikinis, or Kim, the single Lotus Blossom - shy, passive, virginal in an ersatz Vietnamese wedding gown.’ This musical further perpetuates the idea that the white man needs to dominate and save the innocent Asian woman, who is unable to fend for herself.
Asian fetishization makes many women wonder whether someone is genuinely attracted to them or whether compliments are only based on being ‘exotic’ or a fantasy, causing worsened self esteem and self respect. It dehumanizes and objectifies us, and perpetuates the idea of Western dominance. The idea that Asian women are soft and innocent but sexual hypersexualizes and infantilizes women at the same time. It leads to race-related sexual harassment and being desired by men solely for being a ‘fantasy’.
Furthermore, this fetishization may lead to violence, such as the Atlanta spa shootings which caused 8 deaths, 6 of whom were Asian women, which the shooter claimed was a result of wanting to eliminate temptation as a result of a sex addiction.
As a result of K-Pop gaining popularity, this fetishization is also rising among Asian men, in which they are both hypersexualized and infantilized by white women. This is seen in the rise of Google searches for Korean men. There are also a number of accounts on instagram dedicated to posting images of Asian men.
A racial fetish is different from a preference in features like hair color. For example, in preferring blondes or brunettes, there is not a history of exploitation in these traits, nor are there centuries worth of hypersexualized stereotypes and the idea that they need to be conquered. Racial fetishizations are harmful and degrading, and the heights of its effects can be seen today in the losses of life.
self hating asian woman discusses asian fetishization
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Made in the USA: Rewriting Images of the Asian Fetish
Prostitution in the Early Chinese Community, 1850-1900
Mail-Order Brides: Folded Prostitution and the Legal Response (1994)
East Asian “China Doll” or “Dragon Lady”
Fire Breathing “Dragon Ladies”: Representations of Asian American Women in Media
What’s Wrong with Miss Saigon?
Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetishes
A Century of Objectifying Asian Women: How Race Played a Role in Atlanta Shootings
The K-Pop Boy Fetish