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A Leftist View of Asian Americans in Popular Culture


Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture

Robert G. Lee

Temple University Press; Philadelphia; 1999

ISBN: 1566397537


Review by Jerry Winzig


Before I began this book by Robert G. Lee, Associate Professor of American Civilization at Brown University, I was a little put off by it's title, Orientals.  My outlook wasn't helped when my Korean-born son made a face when he saw the book's cover and said he found the title offensive.  But I was optimistic; after all, the jacket cover said that the author "seizes the label "Oriental" and asks where it came from."


Unfortunately, the jacket cover overstates the case.  While Lee does offer several interesting insights into how American culture has viewed Asian Americans over the years, I still wish he had chosen a different title for a book that you probably won't find it interesting or appealing unless you enjoy left-wing polemics.


Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture starts out well.  Lee's story about what happened in San Diego after the 1996 board meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies is a telling one, capturing as it does the failure of many white Americans to accept Asian Americans:


After a long day of discussing the mundane affairs of state in the academic profession, academics from half a dozen universities across the country adjourned to a nearby Thai restaurant where the conversation was relaxed and lively.  As the food arrived, another patron of the restaurant, a silver-haired, Caucasian gentleman in tweeds, strode over to the table and asked the inevitable: "Where are you from?"  After a moment of acute silence, the answers rolled back: "New York, Chicago, Providence, Ann Arbor, Irvine, San Diego."  Clearly bewildered that these Orientals did not understand his question, their fellow American shook his head in disbelief before exiting.


Later, he reports how, when Matthew Fong, a fourth-generation Californian, ran as a Republican candidate for Secretary of State -- a position his mother, March Fong Yu had held for the better part of two decades -- he was asked by news reporters whether his loyalties were divided between the U.S. and China.  (I would guess that Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich, a second-generation Minnesotan, was never asked whether his loyalties were divided between the U.S. and Croatia.)


In these examples, Lee is at his strongest, because his stories illustrate the pain and lack of acceptance that many white Americans inflict on Asian Americans.  But Lee quickly undermines the power of these stories by lapsing into left-wing polemics:  "The Vietnam War is replayed in popular culture as the narrative of American decline in the post-industrial era.  The received wisdom of the Vietnam War narrative is that America's defeat in Southeast Asia was brought about by a faceless and invisible Asian enemy, aided and abetted by an American counterculture."  "American decline"?  To the contrary, many Americans today believe that the colossus of the American economy dominates the world.  And there are many conflicting views of the Vietnam War in our culture, but I'm not sure that defeat by a "faceless and invisible Asian enemy" is all that common.


At times, Lee lays it on pretty thick:


The transformation of the social relations of production and the organization of work and segmentation of the labor market have profound effects on the structures, relations, and meaning of families, gender, and race.  At each stage of capitalist development, new "emergent" public spheres are constituted and new demands arise for participation in the dominant public sphere.  The popular discourse of race in which these constructs of the Oriental were produced and deployed is not a transparent or unmediated reflection of the economy, but rather an expression of social contradictions drawing on images of the present, visions of the future, and memories of the past.


Huh?  Even now, as I write this, I'm not sure what point Lee is trying to make.


Lee also places heavy emphasis on racist historical figures, giving them greater weight than they deserve.  He singles out Lothrop Stoddard, "a popular advocate of eugenics and racial geopolitics," for attention.  Hinton Rowan Helper, a 19th-century white supremacist, is portrayed as a major influence who wanted to start a Herrenvolk republic.  I had never heard the term Herrenvolk republic, but it apparently was to be built on the artisan labor of  free whites in California.  Lee also claims that Hinton's 1857 book, The Impending Crisis of the South, "is credited as much as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin with bringing about the Civil War."  Wouldn't most historians point instead to the unequal provisions for blacks and whites in the original U.S. Constitution as the true causes of the Civil War?


Lee is also fond of rather obscure academic interpretations of culture.  In discussing the ethnic Chinese Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, who toured with Barnum & Bailey's circus and other theatrical productions in the 19th century, Lee says:


Human bodies, their parts and functions, are always culturally constructed.  Mary Douglas has argued that as a cultural construction endowed with social meaning, the body can be read as a representation or map of the social system.  She observes that the body becomes a particularly salient symbolic referent in the context of boundary crises.


However, if you can set aside Lee's polemics and academic interpretations, you may find a story worth reading.  He tells us about how culture was often used in not-so-subtle ways to establish and perpetuate prejudice against Asian Americans.  He cites a popular 19th-century anti-Chinese song called "Twelve Hundred More."  He examines how Asian Americans have been portrayed on stage and in film.  He points to a comment by Lee Iaccoca, the former president of the Ford Motor Company: "Right now we're in the midst of another major war with Japan.  This time it's not a shooting war and I guess we can be thankful for that.  The current conflict is a trade war.  But because our government refuses to see this war for what it really is, we're well on the road to defeat."  These aspects of American culture need to be addressed.



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