Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics


LAAPFF '12: Can an Asian Fetish Lead to True Love?

In college, I co-directed a student group called The Women of Color Caucus, a branch of the leadership council for students of color at my fairly conservative Jesuit Catholic university in New England. We put on events that dissected the objectification of women of color in music videos; hosted dynamic speakers on race and femininity; sponsored an art show supporting victims of domestic violence; led talks in dorm rooms about The Exotic “Other,” Sarah Baartman and the abysmal results when you Google Image search “Asian women.” I wore t-shirts that read “This is what a feminist looks like” and “I <3 my body." There wasn’t a questionably sexist advertisement, song lyric or comment overheard in the dining hall that didn’t make my blood boil, or incite my railing against the patriarchal society we are stuck in. The more I learned about injustice, racism and sexism, the more I saw it everywhere around me, and the more I begrudged the privileged ignorance and power that men, and especially white men, held over the state of things.

Which is why when I recently came across Debbie Lum’s film Seeking Asian Female, about a white American man’s quest to find his perfect, exotic young bride from China over the internet (cue eye roll), it was with measured hesitation, assurance from trusted film friends and a few background checks on its makers before I pressed play. Why would I want to watch this older man oogle “beautiful Chinese girls” on the internet at 2am? C’mon, that’s just gross.

                           Stills courtesy of the filmmaker

But thanks to Lum’s masterful meta-narrative, fully aware of the tricky waters she wades into, and the undeniably compelling personalities we get to know on screen, Seeking Asian Female manages to be hilarious, unsettling, heartfelt and just plain icky all at the same time, while diving headfirst into the issue of yellow fever in a complex and character-driven way.

How could I dismiss all men with Asian fetishes as scum when here was Steven, a hardworking 60-year old in search of love, a sort of oddball with a “broken filter,” speaking very openly about his desire for a Chinese woman who will cook for him and take care of him (yes! that openly)? How could I not enjoy his goofy and sweet demeanor, or feel a pang of sympathy for him when the fantasy disappears and materializes in the form of Sandy, a 30-year old woman from rural China who as it turns out is a living, breathing, and independently thinking woman? She too, speaks openly and honestly to Lum’s camera, and you feel for her journey and alienation from anything familiar.

                                      Stills courtesy of the filmmaker

Together, Steven and Sandy must deal with the language barrier and financial hiccups while figuring out if they’re in a relationship that can actually work. Lum is drawn in to serve as translator and relationship counselor, making her question the ethics behind her film and meditate on the ways that the filmmaking process, especially one this personal, can influence the outcome of the story. Is she most concerned about the film and her subjects’ story arcs, or the feelings of her new friends? Lum, who is producer, director, writer and co-editor of the film, is also valuable and necessary as the vehicle through which viewers like me can see themselves, and relate to the story. Through Lum’s unlikely friendship with Steven and Sandy, the audience gains access to minds you’d never believe you want to hear more from. Steven starts off being like that guy in the grocery store who stops you in the fruit aisle to make a strange joke about your nice shoes (read: RUN!), and ends up being like your weirdly verbose uncle whose opinion you value because it's at odds with most things you believe in. How did Lum come to meet him? Craigslist, obviously.

At its core, Seeking Asian Female is a thoroughly entertaining relationship story, dare I say romantic comedy, and left me with a few takeaway questions to chew on. If it works out for Steven and Sandy, does that validate his means of finding her? If yellow fever at its base is about sexualized stereotypes, domination and power, how do you judge it when the beholder gets to know the object of desire in a genuine way, and starts to see her with depth and agency? Who am I to judge what someone’s dream girl looks or acts like? Are Steven’s online dating tactics so much worse than how my friend's filter through OK Cupid? The film does not put its stake in the ground one way or another, but opens up the opportunity for real dialogue around these questions. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that for every Steven there are hundreds of disgusting dudes looking for Asian ladies for all the wrong reasons (at which we need to holla back). But maybe the next time a man compliments my dark hair or asks where I’m from with a subtle smirk of excitement, I won’t automatically condemn him to hell. But if he dares asks me out for sushi or, worse, a massage, then that’s it, it’s over. This China doll is gettin’ angry.

***

Before watching the full-length film, I had the privilege of meeting Lum, and asking her a few burning questions about Seeking Asian Female.

You received rave reviews at South by Southwest last March. What was it like world-premiering your film there?

It was overwhelming and amazing. There were some really big films there, so the fact that my small film got so much attention is really amazing. And people really came out for the screenings! In Austin, I was looking for Asians but I don’t think I found them. I have to remember that in other places outside of the Bay Area, Asian Americans are much more of a minority. But the film really speaks to people on different levels.

How did this project start?

It started as a fictional screenplay about a white male and Asian female, and my plan was to include real life interviews with men I found on Craigslist who had an Asian fetish. It turned out there was just so much material with the real life men, all seeking Asian wives. With Steven’s story, I didn’t think it was going anywhere, and when it started to, part of me didn’t even want to film it. I feared Sandy was going to be a stereotype, and I had assumptions of my own and didn’t want to portray that. But my advisors convinced me to keep the cameras rolling, and Sandy turned out to be totally different from what I ever imagined.

Asian American audiences might be turned off by the topic of your film before even seeing it. What do you have to say to them?

It’s true. If I heard of a film about yellow fever, I’d probably think, “how many times do I have to hear that disgusting story?” It’s a hot button issue, but most people just glide the surface of it. My film digs deeper. A lot of people talk about yellow fever, like in Stuff White People Like, it’s a running joke that white guys like Asian girls, and usually it's just seen as “oh, kind of messed up.” But Asian American women really have to deal with it. I believe yellow fever is an integral part of Asian American identity. It’s not always the extreme we’re dealing with like western men who go on sex tours throughout Asia, but the more subtle exotification of Asian cultures. You can’t get outside of that, and it was so interesting to explore in this film. Usually when we talk about it we just get angry, but what’s that worth?

What do you want people to take away from this film? How would you use it change the discussion around yellow fever?

I did not want to simplify the story or the way it affects people. The film really drives discussions, and it gets so personal that people take sides. It’s not just man vs. woman or white vs. Chinese.

It’s currently an 80-minute film, and we’ll be cutting it down to an hour for the tv broadcast. I could really see this film being used to start conversations among ESL learners and immigrant communities. Sandy feels so isolated, and she and Steven are low-income earners, which makes it much harder on her transition.

What was it like directing your first feature-length film?

I’ve made a career editing for long-form Asian American documentaries such as A.K.A. Don Bonus and Kelly Loves Tony, and worked with great people like S. Leo Chiang and Deann Borshay Liem. Now I feel like I was spoiled having all that footage just coming to you. You learn how hard it really is, all the different ways you can set up a shot; it was a painful but wonderful process.

Seek for yourself:

  • Seeking Asian Female will be screening at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (tonight!) Friday, May 11 at 7 pm and Saturday, May 12 at 3 pm. 
  • This is the first Asian American film festival and West Coast premiere for the film. Click here to buy tickets and get more information.
  • Seeking Asian Female will also be screening on PBS Independent Lens during the upcoming 2012-2013 season.
  • For more information go to: www.seekingasianfemale.com
  • Click here to watch the trailer.     

6 comments

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soupstock wrote 1 year 51 weeks ago

asian girl perspective

i have a radar for the typical asian fetish guy, you really have to ask yourself, "is this guy just into me because im asian" and you can usually tell right away, like is he really into anime and stuff? does he know more about your culture than you? haha but at the same time i also like the attention i get from it, tons of guys ask me for my pictures online, and i often oblige. http://fiverr.com/soupstock/send-you-20-cutesexy-self-taken-photos

Eddie wrote 2 years 17 weeks ago

Thoughts

Funny the comments defending the rationale behind these unions.

Let's not marginalize and redefine the term fetishization to make ourselves feel better. I would not want any of my two daughters to be involved with any male who has an irrational, baseless preference strictly for asians. Certainly 'love' can develop from these unions, but considering the high rates of divorce among these marriages and the obvious gender, inferiority/superiority racial dynamics at play it's time to stop looking at these people as just a running joke.

Oh as for the VN lady who made the comment about no men in VN, well I've heard the same thing from white, black and hispanic women here for decades.

Ben Quick wrote 2 years 20 weeks ago

RE: Reply to: LAAPFF '12: Can an Asian Fetish Lead to True Love?

Reply to: LAAPFF '12: Can an Asian Fetish Lead to True Love? 1 day 17 hours ago

"Ben,
you hang with asian women with self hate issues because well thats types would be around " YOU" as white male."

In other words, you advocate for segregation. I have no way of knowing your gender, but if you identify as male, you would be advocating for segregation of white men and Asian women, two groups of people that do not include yourself. Let me remind you: the year is 2012. Do you have a problem with interracial coupling in general, or only when the woman in question is of your specific ethnic background?

A few questions: When you invoke the term Asian, what do you mean? Turkish? Indian? Nepalese? Sri Lankan? Vietnamese? North or South Vietnamese? Mongolian? Thai? I imagine what you really mean is Asian-American, not Asian, as the title of this journal would suggest.

BTW: We all carry some degree of self-hate. My friend Thuy probably carries less than most. She's a successful journalist, filmmaker, businesswoman, and philanthropist in Ha Noi, not exactly a egalitarian city. Incidentally, our relationship has always been platonic and based on mutual interests and respect. Thank you for your words though. I now have a better understanding of the reasons for the Viet women's saying "There are no men in Viet Nam."

RIc wrote 2 years 20 weeks ago

Ben, you hang with asian

Ben,

you hang with asian women with self hate issues because well thats types would be around " YOU" as white male

LTE wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Love is like parchuting out of an airplane

"Does that imply the presence of fetishes? I'm not sure it matters as long as the two people in the relationship are fulfilled."
.
For kicks I would ask one of several woman I know why does she love her boyfriend or husband. After a sometimes worthy list of whys, I'll ask, Okay, what is the real reason you love him? The answer usually is, I really don't know.
.
There's no real sense to it. It's a state of being.
.
If Steve can still want Sandy after she threatened to cut his finger off, it's love.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqG0E82rv9I
.
Good luck Sandy and Steve!

bnquick74 wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

Yellow Fever or Ivory Tower Feminism

This piece had some great insights, and the movie sounds like an ambitious film worth watching. You had me until the last paragraph:

"If yellow fever at its base is about sexualized stereotypes, domination and power....." Is it? According to whom? This may be the current ideological strain of thought running through gender studies programs at elite universities. But the student body and faculty in these programs almost always represent a degree of socioeconomic privilege that can't help but distort the views and oversimplify the motives of those beneath the academy's higher reaches. Academic feminism is a non-contact intellectual exercise that generally, like all theoretical disciplines, keeps participants from the difficult work of rigorous self-examination.

"Who am I to judge what someone’s dream girl looks or acts like?" Good question. I'll answer with a question: Who am I to judge what someone's dream guy looks or acts like? I am no-one. That is who.

"I still believe that for every Steven there are hundreds of disgusting dudes looking for Asian ladies for all the wrong reasons..." Really? That comes out to more than 99.5% of dudes looking for Asian ladies. Current research, literature, anecdotal evidence, and my own time in Viet Nam suggest otherwise. We all have our "type" of partner. If a man's ideal type happens to be physically and culturally well-represented in Laotian women or among Thais or Filipinas, that's his business. Women have their preferences, too. As human beings, we are all drawn toward "the other" in ways we can't fully explain but likely as not have to do with the evolutionary drive toward genetic diversity. Most Asian women I know--though Asia is too large and diverse to corral like that--prefer Western men, and were it not for parental pressure to date within their culture, I'm pretty sure we;d see even more mixed race couples. Does that imply the presence of fetishes? I'm not sure it matters as long as the two people in the relationship are fulfilled.

Life is short. Compliments--even awkward or culturally ignorant compliments--are blessings. So, if "maybe the next time a man compliments my dark hair or asks where I’m from with a subtle smirk of excitement, I won’t automatically condemn him to hell." Good. Be grateful for your hair. I'm sure it and you are beautiful, and I'm just as sure a whole lot of other women would love to be in your shoes. But "...if he dares asks me out for sushi or, worse, a massage, then that’s it, it’s over. This China doll is gettin’ angry." Try and cut him some slack. You might be surprised at the outcome.

Peace!
Ben
ben-quick.com

PS--A good female friend of mine from Ha Noi once told me the women in VN have a saying: "There are no men in Viet Nam." Ouch!

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About The Author

Nicole Wong

Nicole Wong is a senior editor for Hyphen living in San Francisco. By day, she's a media engagement strategist at Active Voice, tackling social issues through the creative use of film.

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