A Search For Identity

"Well, 'e's one o' them chinamen, like as you see scuttlin' about them odd ships in the 'arbour--pieces o'junk, if you ask me" --"A Little Knife Music,"   Hasty Pudding Theatricals

Fiery red calligraphy on shiny black bags   --The Orient Expressed at Jordan Marsh

Singapore Sue: "A lotus blossom girl in that notorious den of drugs, gambling and...Yes, Madame Sin-Sin. Aided by her lascivious henchman Dung Wong, Madame Sin-Sin nightly lures unwary bluejackets to their untimely doom."   --"Dames at Sea," Hasty Pudding Theatricals


Images of Asia are everywhere these days. Not since Nixon's historic trip to china have representations of Asian culture been so pervasive in the media. But what are these images? Where do they come from?


Just as Bo Derek did not discover the corn row, Jordan Marsh did not discover Chinese quilted jackets. For most Americans this year, however, awareness of Asian culture will come from images that have been projected by the white-male-defined entertainment and business industries. At best, these images are exotic and fanciful. At worst, they are degrading and dangerous.

While this is the year of Shogun, it is also the year of Edgar Foo Yung, Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, and Singapore Sue. These racist depictions of Asians have returned to the screen and stage as vehicles of "sophisticated humor" in full technological splendor. Hasty Pudding's "A Little Knife Music" and Warner Brother's "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" featured stereotypic, sinister and subhuman Asian males (played by white actors) who lust after white women. Last month, Hasty Pudding offered us the female counterparts: Singapore Sue (so sweet and soft and gentle, my favorite Oriental) and Madame Sin-Sin, who together seduce and destroy Caucasian sailors.

None of these productions involved Asians in their script-writing, direction, or major roles. As in the exotic creations of Jordan Marsh and Bloomingdales, images of Asian peoples and cultures are being invented, manipulated, and presented by non-Asians for their own profit and entertainment. Thus, the Suzie Wong stereotype of Asian women as prostitutes is being exploited by the fashion industry into seductive Oriental silk evening wear.

These recurring stereotypes have met with anger and protest from many Asian Americans. Last spring's Hasty Pudding show was picketed by the Asian American Association (AAA) and other student groups. The opening of "Fu Manchu" in Boston this summer was protested by members of Boston's Asian community. And residents of San Francisco's Chinatown refused to allow the filming of the soon-to-be released Charlie Chan movie in their community because they considered it degrading and offensive.

When Asian Americans protest racist depictions we are often accused of being oversensitive. However, we see our protest as part of a continuing struggle for survival and dignity in this country which we worked so hard to build. The characterizations of Asians as cunning, inscrutable, and subhuman are integrally tied to American society's past condonement of the anti-Asian violence and Exclusion Acts (which prohibited Asian immigration) at the turn-of-the-century, the internment of 112,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massacre at My Lai, and the present ghetto conditions of all urban Asian communities in the U.S. History clearly shows that our fears are legitimate.


What has all this to do with Asian American students at Harvard and Radcliffe? Historically we have not been welcome here. President Lowell proclaimed in 1918, "Having started life prejudiced concerning the restriction against Chinese immigration, I long ago came to the conclusion that no democracy could be successful unless it was tolerably homogeneous." He therefore advocated strictly limiting the admission of "unassimilables," any "group of men who did not mingle indistinguishably from the general stream--let us say, Orientals, colored men..." and Jews. The recent growth of the Asian American population at Harvard and Radcliffe has come about only after prolonged political activism on the part of Asian students.

So when some Asian American students see protrayals of Asian women as whores and of Asian men as slimy undesirables in Harvard theatrical productions our reaction is more than a nervous giggle. We are reminded of our grandmothers, who were prohibited from emigrating to this country and then kidnapped for slave prostitution houses in San Francisco. We are reminded of our grandfathers who were recruited into the brutal jobs of agriculture, mining, and railroad construction--only to suffer lynchings, mob attacks, and discriminatory legislation. We are reminded of the price that our parents and grandparents had to pay in order for us to be admitted into the "democracy" of Harvard/Radcliffe. And we are angry that so few members of the Harvard community either up on stage or in the audience are aware of and sensitive to our history.

As Asian American students, we have not only protested stereotypes but also have tried to integrate our culture and history into the Harvard curriculum and college life. We know that we can be proud of our people's achievements in building America. We also know that at Harvard, as in the rest of the academic world, the history of Asians in America has been consistently neglected or grossly misrepresented.

The development of the western U.S. can not be separated from the sweat of the Chinese miners and railroad workers, the Japanese farmers, or the Philipino labor organizers. U.S. foreign policy in Asia can not be separated from its policies toward Asians in America; nor can the U.S. economy and domestic policies be separated from the slum conditions of Koreatowns, Manilatowns, Japantowns, and Chinatowns today. Yet, how often are these issues raised in Harvard courses?