There’s something that’s both ethereal and sexual about her that just draws the eye and captures the imagination.
Think of long, black hair swaying gently on her back. The folded fan in her hand that she uses to politely hide her red lips when she laughs. Never too loudly, of course, because she’s better seen than heard.
Depending on what kind you like and how much you actually know about other cultures, you might imagine her wearing a qipao, kimono, hanbok, or if you’re particularly cultured, an ao dai.
There’s really no physical description in that last paragraph that would give her nationality away for certain but you’re already thinking of an Asian woman. Why wouldn’t you? She’s everywhere. You can find her in films, dating advice blogs, and pornography. Each time, she’s being depicted through someone else’s gaze. A sort of elusive ideal of femininity that follows real women throughout their professional and personal lives.
The Asian woman is everywhere and nowhere. Fetishizing her has a deep, complicated history and it’s not stopping anytime soon.
Two Sides of a Coin: Fetishizing Asian Women and Emasculating Asian Men
The fetishization of Asian women has its roots in World War II. Prior to the biggest armed conflict in history, most Westerners, whether European or American, didn’t have a need or a reason to know more about strange cultures on the other side of the globe. Though Asian migration had been occurring before the war, Asian minorities were rarely on the radar when it came to civil rights or general public awareness.
When Asians did finally make a small blip in the dominant culture of Western societies, it was as one of two things: menace or fetish. On the home front, they were branded as the “Yellow Peril” which categorized Asians, particularly Chinese people, as threats to the cultural, genetic, and religious dominance of WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).
Their different attire, non-Christian religious practices, along with labor tensions between Chinese immigrants and working class Americans and Europeans made “yellow men” a target for discrimination and harassment.
Along with his came a narrative that sought to devalue Asian men by depicting them as less virile and less masculine than white men. Differences in how Asian and Western cultures gender various activities only bolstered this perception. Chinese men were willing to do jobs that, to Western cultures, were feminine in nature like working as cooks or laundry washers.
When Filipino immigrants came to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, their presence threatened to topple this smear campaign against Asian men.
The “manongs” — a general term used to refer to older men you don’t personally know — made up the first wave of Filipino immigrants. While most Filipino immigrants today are women, either by virtue of working as nurses, domestic helpers, or marrying (often) white men, Filipino men used to outnumber Filipina women in the U.S by as much as 14:1.
Filipino-American labor historian Alex Fabros describes the manongs as dapper men. “They like to dress up, they like to look good.” With practically non-existent choices among Filipino women in the U.S, the manongs made a big impression in dance halls — and on white women.
The resulting backlash concluded with the proposal of an anti-miscegenation bill that sought to prohibit intermarriage between “white persons” and “Negroes, Orientals, Malays, and persons of Eastern European extraction” because you may as well go all out and exclude anyone who wasn’t a WASP.
Many manongs were already married to white women and their vigorous lobbying efforts led to a victory over the intermarriage ban in 1935.
Fast forward to 1939. It’s the start of World War II and the world becomes divided between the Axis and Allied powers. One of America’s enemies? Japan.
The war saw the decline of Japan’s geisha culture. Hanamachi, which literally means “flower town” and referred to the districts where geishas operated, started to close one by one, forcing the prestigious entertainers out of work.
The disappearance of geishas and the institutions that trained and housed this army of artists allowed for desperate prostitutes to advertise themselves as geishas to U.S soldiers stationed in Japan. This resulted in an association between geishas and sex work which ultimately led to an association of Japanese women and sexualization in general.
When soldiers came home to the U.S, they had a new Asian woman trope to perpetuate in addition to the already existing myth that Chinese women had sideways vaginas. Japanese women were alluring sexual objects.
Though Asian men are portrayed as undesirable because of their lack of masculinity, pointed out by descriptors like “short” or having a “small penis,” Asian women became increasingly cast into the role of exotic lover.
Yellow Fever, White Supremacy: The Racist’s Love Affair With “Submissive” Asian Girls
There’s a form of doublethink at play in how Western culture goes about fetishizing Asian women.
She’s somehow both hypersexual yet virginal. The Asian woman is hypersexual because she’s only ever flirty with her man, specifically her white man, and virginal because she’s a blushing lotus blossom who would never so much as say the word “sex” in public.
The fetishized Asian woman is another incarnation of the exotic non-white lover. Her South American sister is a sexy Latina while women of African descent are Jezebels whose very existence seduced white men away from their women, never mind that the Jezebel stereotype has roots in slavery.
On its surface, the Lotus Blossom seems less problematic. She isn’t depicted as an outright whore and gets at least some cursory respect and awe from the men around her. After all, what isn’t sexy about a woman who’s only hypersexual with you?
It’s no coincidence that the biggest perpetrators of fetishizing Asian women today are dating advice websites.
Sites like Upwork, Fiverr, and Facebook freelance writing groups for writers based in Asia get requests for content relating to “Asian dating” which is never about Asian people dating each other or Asian men dating women of other nationalities.
The requests are always from dating advice sites who are looking for Asian women willing to sell other Asian women with their words.
Look up “reasons to date an Asian” and almost all of the results are explicitly about women. It’s basically a slew of guide after guide on how to start fetishizing your way to the ideal Asian waifu.
Date an Asian girl because she’s smart. Who doesn’t love a model minority you can brag to your parents about? It gets even better. She’s capable at home, too. Benefit from strictly enforced gender roles in Asia by getting yourself an Asian wife who can cook and take care of you. She’s also shy, humble, hard-working, and shorter than the average white woman which makes her the perfect tradwife if only she were white.
But maybe she doesn’t have to be.
White supremacists and garden variety racists have an ongoing love affair with the submissive Asian girl. Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis cop who was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd, was married to a Lao woman at the time. He’s not just a one-off case either. Many other men who became known for their associations with racist groups and ideologies openly date Asian women.
According to Audrea Lim, the alt-right has something of an Asian fetish. It might seem contradictory at first but fetishizing Asian women comes with the territory of being a white supremacist. Racist beliefs about the “submissive” nature of Asian women make them more desirable to this group of men.
For Robert Aaron Long, the allure of the Asian fetish was a bit too desirable for comfort. On March 16 earlier this year, eight people were murdered in what is now known as the Atlanta Spa Shootings. The killer claimed that he had a “sex addiction” and that he targeted Asian-run spas because they were “sexual temptations.”
“How is this not a hate crime?” Eunji Lee, an employee at the Gold Spa, asked. She said that Long made no orders or demands on staff.
When the fetishization of Asian women isn’t getting them killed or involved with white supremacists, it’s reinforcing itself in media as a way to support the discrimination of Asian women in the workplace.
Fetishizing Asian Women Isn’t Just a Porn Thing Either
Fetishizing Asian women is more than a porn trope. It extends to depictions of Asian women in film, television, and even plays. As Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket would say, “Me so horny. Me love you long time.“
The famous scene depicts a Vietnamese prostitute walking up to American GIs to, put simply, offer her services. Later, one of the G.I.s gets up to pose with the Vietnamese woman who flashes her panties at the screen while his companion tries to take a picture. We’ll never know what Kubrick had in mind when he wrote that scene. He’s too dead now to see how the “Me love you long time” trope has been used against women of Asian descent.
Naomi Ko remembers hearing “Me love you long time” directed at her when she was only a high school student. An elderly white man had said it to her. Later in college, the phrase came with a demand to “love me more long time” because she was “ugly.” Other Asian women reported experiences of having “Me love you long time” hurled at them, implying they were sexual objects by virtue of being Asian.
Is that an exaggeration? Maybe. But click on the link to the clip and see for yourself just what “Me love you long time.” has helped in fetishizing Asian women.
But before Full Metal Jacket could run, a stage play had to pave the way for it.
Miss Saigon might be the most popular piece of media that participates in fetishizing Asians. The play features a number of controversial aspects, from the yellow face used by Jonathan Pryce in the 1989 London opening of the show to the central plot of the play: a romance between an American G.I. and a Vietnamese bargirl.
Since Pryce’s staging of the show, no other Caucasian man has played the male lead role in Miss Saigon. Later performances would instead give the male lead to men of Asian descent. Despite this change, the production still immortalizes the U.S Military-Prostitution Complex both for better and for worse.
At least Kim is a fictional woman.
For many Asian women though, the fetishizing of their race continues.
Asian women are often on the receiving end of messages and “flirting” that emphasizes the, ahem, titillating qualities of their Asian features. Vanessa Lee, who works in Melbourne, Australia, says it isn’t unusual to come across men who have an Asian fetish.
She’s even gotten a message in Chinese that said “I want to fuck you” even though she was Malaysian. More innocuous messages would say that Asian women are “cute,” a nod to the infantilization of Asian women.
Asian fetishes on dating apps and Instagram are relatively easy to ignore but have real consequences on the professional lives of Asian women. The perception that Asian women are shy and docile, hence more “desirable,” contributes to the idea that Asian women aren’t leadership material but are “team players” who take care of the rest of the team without being credited for the sheer amount of work they do.
Unfortunately, the trend of fetishizing Asian women is still alive and well. A study on Asian women’s experiences with discrimination showed six different ways that Asian women are discriminated against:
- Being objectified as an “exotic beauty”
- Being passed over for promotions and job opportunities because they’re “not a leader” and “better suited” to support roles
- Expectations that they’ll be agreeable or controllable because of stereotypes of “submissive” Asian women
- Being held to a stereotypical standard of “cute and small” in their appearance
- Feeling invisible or ignored
- Assumptions that they are a service worker, such as a maid or nail technician
Being Asian myself, I’d feign surprise if I could.