Fever Dream: An Asian American Girlfriend’s Take on Yellow Fever
What About Us? Wong Fu Productions’ “Yellow Fever”
In my last post, I discussed yellow fever and the trend of interracial relationships composed of a white man and an Asian woman. That post was in no way exhaustive in mentioning the gender dynamics of the East and West, and this YouTube video provides a perspective of some Asian American males on this phenomenon.
“Yellow Fever” follows an Asian American college student as he laments to his friends about the trend of Asian American females dating white males. He thinks that by talking to his friends of different races and asking their opinions, he can determine what it is exactly about white men that makes them so desirable.
I want to look at the ways that Asian and Asian American men have been portrayed in Hollywood in the past and how that legacy shapes our contemporary perspective on this group, but before I get into that, there are a few things to note about this video that relate to my previous post.
In the opening voiceover, the character Phil refers to the stereotypical AF/WM relationship as “an enormous injustice” and an “infraction on our community,” by which I am inferring he means Asian American males. This mindset is problematic in that it perpetuates the notion that men are owed women, or that women are commodities that men deserve. Also, in specifying race, this speech implies that Asian American women have an obligation to be romantically involved with Asian American men. White men, then, are viewed as “taking” Asian American women, who ought to be “theirs.”
There’s also a line that Phil delivers about how if he can crack the code, he can “get a girl, maybe even a white girl,” effectively creating a racialized hierarchy of the perceived value of women.
But I digress. Asian American women have a long history of unfavorable depictions in the media, and Asian American men have a similar past.
As I mentioned in my previous post, orientalism relies on a dichotomy that opposes the East/Orient with the West/Occident. In this dichotomy, the West/Occident occupies the male position, so the East/Orient is feminized. But this feminization is not restricted to females, but encompasses the males as well, resulting in a strange emasculation and desexualization of the Asian male. In “Yellow Fever,” the characters come up with a list of reasons why Asian American males are less desirable than white males. Upon closer inspection, the items correspond with portrayals of Asian men since film’s inception.
An interesting parallel to the relationship between Asian or Asian American men and white men in “Yellow Fever” comes from one of the very first Hollywood films, D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919). This silent film, adapted from Thomas Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child,” follows the relationship between Cheng Huan, a Chinese man living in London’s gritty Limehouse District, and Lucy, the white, frail, abused daughter of boxer Battling Burrows. Lucy seeks refuge from her father in Cheng Huan’s shop, and Cheng Huan develops a deep attachment to her as he nurses her back to health.
While I don’t want to spoil the ending of Broken Blossoms for you, the reason I chose to compare this film with “Yellow Fever” is that both juxtapose Asian or Asian American males with a white male and their positions in relation to a female.
Broken Blossoms presents the character of Battling Burrows, the white male, as the epitome of masculinity—he makes a living off of his brute force, he frequents a pub in which he is surrounded by hard liquor and fast women, and he is a violent domineering force in his daughter’s life (though sexual abuse is not explicitly mentioned, it is hinted at). He is tall and broad, all chest hair and muscles. Cheng Huan, on the other hand, is presented in a far more feminine fashion. He is slight and smooth-faced, and his posture creates rounded shoulders and a timidness that Burrows does not display. Additionally, Cheng Huan takes on a stereotypically feminine role as caretaker, directly contrasting with Burrows’ tendency toward assertiveness and destruction. As such, Cheng Huan’s love for Lucy does not manifest itself in a sexually predatory way, but instead he treats her as an object of chaste worship.
Though much time has passed between 1919 and 2006, notions of masculinity (and, as a result, sexual desirability) have remained largely unchanged. When it comes to something as seemingly inconsequential as body hair, Phil’s friend, Chris, notes that Asian American men’s arms are “totally blank” whereas white men have hair on their “arms, chest, back, and even their butt.” In this scenario body hair is equated with masculinity and desirability, and because Asian men aren’t as hairy, the characters come to the conclusion that they are less manly.
According to Andrew, Phil’s white friend, the key difference between Asian American and white men that hinders their romantic lives is confidence. Harkening back to the body language of the male characters in Broken Blossoms, the white male in portrayed as infinitely more confident; Battling Burrows stands tall with his chest puffed out, whereas Cheng Huan’s shoulders are slumped over as he shuffles along. “Yellow Fever” plays with this notion by having Andrew and Phil point at random Asian American women and beckon them over, with mixed results (unsurprisingly, I have issues with the treatment of women as something so easily manipulated, but that’s a whole other can of worms).
So what’s the takeaway from this video? Yes, yellow fever is a “thing,” and damaging images have permeated the Asian American psyche, but ultimately romantic relationships should stem from a mutual interest in the other person as an individual. That, and it’s infinitely more difficult to meet a significant other when you spend your Friday nights at home playing DDR.
Broken Blossoms. Dir. D.W. Griffith. United Artists, 1919. 90 min.
Wong Fu Productions. “Yellow Fever.” YouTube. 2006.
Lee, Robert G. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.
Marchetti, Gina. “The Rape Fantasy: The Cheat and Broken Blossoms.” Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. University of California Press, 1993. 10-45.
By Kayla Dalsfoist
Entry filed under: Uncategorized.