In trying to explain why 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long would walk into three Atlanta-area massage spas on March 16 and shoot eight people, including six women of Asian descent, law enforcement officials cited the shooter’s self-reported motivation as “sexual addiction,” not one of racial hatred. But amid a yearlong backdrop of anti-Asian sentiment fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of decades of fetishism of Asian women, skepticism quickly mounted in the Asian American community.
For Renee Tajima-Peña, one of the Academy Award-nominated filmmakers behind the documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” — about the 1982 killing of a Chinese American by two white autoworkers who called Chin racial slurs and beat him to death with a baseball bat— the violence seemed inescapably entangled in the cultural objectification of Asians.
“I think when Asian Americans looked at this murder in Atlanta, [they see] he targeted three Asian American businesses, he killed six Asian American women,” says Tajima-Peña, a UCLA Asian American Studies professor and the director of the Center for EthnoCommunications. “For us, it’s a no brainer, because we know the whole history of these perceptions of Asian women as being expendable. That comes partly from this history [of seeing] women as expendable sex objects — the Asian woman as the foreigner, as the virus.”
That the shootings impacted mainly women of Asian descent and occurred at a place of business aligns with recent data around hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
Of 3,795 incidents submitted to Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and February 2021— likely only a fraction, since hate crimes in the community are historically underreported — Asian American women reported hate incidents 2.3 times more often than men, accounting for 68% of all reports. Businesses were the primary site of discrimination (35.4% of all incidents), while physical assault constituted the third most-reported kind of incident, with 11.1% of all complaints. (Verbal harassment made up the overwhelming majority.)
In the case of Chin’s death nearly 40 years ago, Wayne County circuit judge Charles Kaufman let off the two men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, with less than $4,000 in fines and probation, explaining, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” The line uncomfortably echoes Cherokee County sheriff Jay Baker’s Wednesday description of why the Atlanta shooter killed eight people in cold blood: “Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.”
Chin’s case was not initially treated as a racially motivated crime, says Tajima-Peña. The outgoing 27-year-old, who played football and had a wide range of friends, was nothing like the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Mickey Rooney caricatures that had historically been on screen, she says. In the parking lot of the strip club the night he was killed, he was “holding his own, he was kicking their ass.”
“I think that fueled Ron’s rage,” she says. “That’s when it went from a yellow light to a green light. Whatever slurs he called him is because he was being humiliated — Vincent was not fulfilling anybody’s stereotype. I think that’s where screen images really shape people’s assumptions and perceptions of who we are. And that can fuel these encounters of violence.”
Years of effacing cinematic portrayals of Asians have relied on the perspective of white protagonists. Asian women in particular have been hypersexualized and removed agency, either a “Dragon Lady” or “Butterfly” and “China Doll.”
For women, the trope of being inherently deferential and sexually available is perhaps best crystallized in Kubrick’s 1987 “Full Metal Jacket,” in which actor Papillon Soo, playing a Vietnamese prostitute, reads the lines three white men wrote for her: “me so horny, me love you long time” — phrases now used to belittle, endanger and harass Asian women the world over.
That extends as far back as the origin of Hollywood’s Dragon Lady archetype, Anna May Wong, who could only get a foothold in the industry by playing prostitutes and temptresses. She famously said that her tombstone should read “she died a thousand deaths,” since her tragic characters were never allowed a happy ending with their white male love interests — not least because such relationships were actually illegal, given anti-miscegenation laws.
Baker said that the Atlanta shooter saw the spas he targeted as holding “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” Calling Asian women “a temptation” arguably harkened Hollywood’s long history of depicting Asian female characters in interracial relationships with a subtext of white anxiety, as seen in “Daughter of the Dragon” (1931), “The World of Suzie Wong” (1960), and “Year of the Dragon” (1985).
The “temptation” idea evolved and was amplified as American soldiers took their R&R across Asia and the Pacific during the U.S. wars there. A new Asian cliche emerged — that of the docile war bride, best exemplified by Miyoshi Umeki’s Oscar-winning role in “Sayonara.” To this day, she is the only Asian actress to have won an Academy Award. Years later, she reportedly scratched out her name on the trophy and threw it away.
The issue is by no means an antiquated one. Just last year, ITV incited outrage with its show “The Singapore Grip,” about British colonials in Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion. Critics called the series a satire dressed up in colonial cliches, beginning with its title — a reference to Singaporean women’s assumed prowess at a certain X-rated move that gets mentioned repeatedly as a punchline.
U.K. advocacy group BEATS (British East Asians in Theater and On Screen) slammed the show in September, saying that the Asian lead’s main dramatic function was to “cast a ‘spell’ over the story’s white male conscience.” In it, they said, “Asian womanhood is represented as lurid temptation and subservient availability.”
“I think Black people have fought [stereotypical portrayals] very hard,” says Daniel York Loh of BEATS. “They’ve fought and said no, you’re not going to do that to us any more. But we have a tendency to play model minority, and play along. We have to stop colluding.”
Fan Popo, a Chinese filmmaker focused on LGBTQ issues, said that the simultaneous erasure and caricaturing of Asian sexuality is what drives him to create queer porn with Chinese subjects.
“Summed up in a word, the stereotype of Asian sexuality is powerlessness. Even if Asian women are sexualized, they are passive; men are not even considered as sexual bodies themselves,” he said. “This is the reason why I want to make porn: I want to represent Asian bodies.”
It was hard to get certain Chinese subjects in a recent project, a long montage of men pleasuring themselves, to allow him to show their faces, but Fan insisted. “I wanted to let people see that we are human, not objects to be fetishized.”
Hollywood’s complicity in “othering Asians as perpetual foreigners” also doesn’t help, notes Bing Chen, co-founder of the Gold House advocacy collective that seeks to promote Asian representation in the industry. He points to the controversy around the exclusion of Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” and Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” from the Golden Globes’ best picture category as the most obvious recent example.
“You are a Korean American writer-director with a Korean-American lead in Steven Yeun, set effectively in Arkansas, and yet you are not an American movie?” he says. “I mean, give me a fucking break.”
Just a day before the shootings, Yeun had made history as the first Asian American actor to be nominated for a best actor Academy Award. But that progress, fresh on the surface, sits in stark contrast to the spate of anti-Asian violence that has spanned the last year.
“It doesn’t necessarily trickle down to our daily lives because systemic racism is a fault-line you can trace back to when we first arrived here, and that fault-line is so deep and so ingrained, and it erupts during times of crises, in terms of Asian American women and sexual assault,” says Tajima-Peña. “It erupts like an everyday quake.”