There's something about Lucy
Casting a cold eye on the rise of Asian starlets
by Michelle Chihara
Some gentlemen prefer blondes. Some prefer brunettes.
And then there are those gentlemen who seem to prefer Asians. I don't know what
blondes say when they get together, but when we Asian-American women gossip
among ourselves, we use a certain phrase for the white guys who prefer us. We
say they've got "yellow fever."
ARE YOU A GOOD BITCH
or a bad bitch? Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu twists the stereotypes, but only a little.
It's a pretty loaded phrase, and a dangerous one to toss around outside the
family. But these days it's been on a lot of people's minds. Maybe you've
noticed: in movies and on TV, Asian girlfriends are popping up everywhere.
The past couple of years have seen the romance heat up between mainstream pop
culture and all things Asian. The trend extends from the world of haute couture
-- Devon Aoki, last spring's face of Chanel -- to the schoolyards full of
Pokémon cards. It can be seen in the popularity of Memoirs of a
Geisha and Snow Falling on Cedars; it can be seen in the phenomena
of Madonna in a kimono, the Wu-Tang Clan, hair chopsticks, Mortal Kombat, and
mandarin collars. "It's been really heavy in the last three years," says Eric
Nakamura, the editor of Giant Robot, a Los Angeles-based magazine
dedicated to Asian pop culture.
But what really stands out, to a lot of Asian-Americans, is the headway being
made by Asian actresses. The most famous of these is Lucy Liu, who plays the
fierce, straight-talking lawyer Ling Woo on Ally McBeal. Female Asian
characters have also been appearing (and reappearing) on Friends and
Beverly Hills 90210, not to mention after-school specials and action
series. Ming-Na (formerly Ming-Na Wen) went from The Single Guy back
to a regular role on ER. A couple of weeks ago, an other-dimensional
Asian temptress went after Angel the vampire, Buffy's ex, on Angel. In
movies, we've had China Chow starring opposite Marky Mark in The Big
Hit, and Michelle Yeoh as a kick-ass Bond girl. In the upcoming film
version of Charlie's Angels, the third Angel is none other than Lucy
Liu. Tia Carrere is still out there, somewhere.
None of these women is exactly Julia Roberts yet, but some of them are getting
closer. For advocates concerned about the dearth of Asian-American faces in pop
culture, that means progress -- right? Well, maybe. All these new names are
being fit into the same old patterns. The characters they play tend to fall
neatly into the two best-known slots of Asian female stereotype: the Dragon
Lady and the Lotus Blossom; the oversexed femme fatale and the blushing
ingenue. And none of them is ever matched up with an Asian man.
Community leaders are not shy about linking the pop-culture landscape, with its
stereotyped Asian women and invisible Asian men, to the Asian-American reality
in this country. If Asian women are seen as exotic and erotic, is it any
surprise that white men want to date them? And if Asian men are seen not at all
-- or, on the rare occasions when they do appear, are portrayed as weak or
geeky -- is it any surprise that white women don't? (See "Tinted Love," right.)
Public perception of Asian-Americans has become a particularly pressing issue
given the pre-trial incarceration of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, a
Taiwanese-born American citizen suspected of espionage, which cast a pall over
Chinese New Year celebrations. Asian-Americans have rallied around Lee in
response to what activists say has been unjust racial profiling.
Whether Asian stereotypes assume villainy or bashful innocence, impotence or
command of sex secrets, inscrutability or just plain nerdiness, one harmful
assumption lies beneath them all: that Asian eyes bespeak an Asian heart.
The Asian-American community is bedeviled by Ling Woo. The Ally McBeal
lawyer is smart, sexy, and insolent. She's candid to the point of being
tactless, but doggedly loyal to her best friend, Nell. She's unpredictable: at
first she doesn't even seem to be a lawyer, but next thing you know
she's joined Ally's firm. She refrains from sleeping with her boyfriend, but
then she kisses Ally. Turns out she owns a mud-wrestling joint.
Ling is a quirky character, but she still seems suspiciously like a Dragon
Lady. She exudes erotic danger. She gives her boyfriend "hair jobs" with her
long black mane. She holds off on sex, but for a tantalizing reason: once men
sleep with her, Ling says, they get can never get enough.
"Is she a Dragon Lady? It's a fine line. People take it both ways," says Guy
Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, a watchdog
group that tracks Asian-Americans in the media. "It's not a perfect character.
But there was this episode last season that was very telling, where they showed
that she really did have a heart. She's defending a boy dying of cancer
. . . . When he dies in the end, Ally McBeal is all broken up about
it. Ling Woo says, 'Get over it, you knew he was dying. It's no big surprise.'
Then, as she's walking out of the hospital, you see that she's breaking apart.
By the time she gets to the ground level she's bawling like a child. Despite
her gruff exterior, she's really hiding a very sensitive person.
Stars are created because audiences fall in love with what they see on screen,"
says Asian-American filmmaker Greg Pak.
And sometimes, it seems, people fall in love in the same way that they
see people falling in love on screen. In movies, says Guy Aoki, president of
the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, "Asian women fall in love with
the first white guy who walks in the door. They ignore all the Asian men around
them. Asian women are always paired with white men; Asian men aren't paired
That pattern is partly reflected in the dating scene in the real world: it's a
commonplace in the Asian community that white men date Asian women far more
often than Asian men date white women. Statistics show that Asian-American
women are twice as likely to marry outside the race as Asian-American men. Aoki
sees a direct link between that and what we see at the movies. "I'm not against
interracial dating," he says. "But when you get one message, and one message
alone, it has an effect."
The greater the imbalance, the more resentment Asian-American men seem to feel.
On http://www.asianjokes.net, the "How to be a cool Asian" list includes these
directions: "If you're a guy, start having insecurities and complain about the
'theft' of your women."
It's a particularly raw issue in the balkanized environment of today's college
campuses. At a meeting of BU's Asian Student Union, 19-year-old sophomore Peter
Chen says: "I'm not saying I have mad game, but I have some game, okay? And
white girls just don't give you the time of day. You can be all SMGed out [that
is, dressed in School of Management chic], in all your A/X digs; you will
still not get a second look. They're still like, 'Oh, he doesn't know
how to speak English.' " Only one of Peter's friends at the meeting
Aoki's solution is simple: agitate for more Asian-American sex symbols in show
business. When sit-coms offend, for example, Aoki goes after their advertisers,
so far with great success.
Greg Pak is himself the product of an interracial marriage, and as a filmmaker,
he has a more narrative response to the problem. Among other things, he's
produced a satirical fake commercial, in which the playwright David Henry Hwang
appears pushing a new video, Asian Pride Porn! Spoofing the "exotic
Oriental beauty" porn that's as common as chopsticks, Hwang hawks a tape that
features a power-suited (at first) woman and a virile, suave-looking guy
smearing duck sauce on each other. "Smart Asian women and sexually empowered
Asian men!" Hwang crows.
Pak is currently working on a period piece called Rio Chino,
about a Chinese gunslinger in the Old West. He wants to cast an Asian
"name," but so far he's having trouble finding one. Sadly, Pak says, the actors
in Asian Pride Porn! were thrilled to find an opportunity to play strong
Asian parts, even in jest.
"Do we really have to go this far," he wonders, "to create an Asian-American
"In the long run," says Aoki, "that's all we ask: to have some balance in the
way that we're portrayed."
Like most of the characters on the show, Ling Woo is basically a stereotype
with enough twists to deflect criticism. And her positive aspects are real.
Ling is dispassionate in the face of Ally's neuroses, ostensibly smart (at
least she doesn't believe in unicorns), and tough. The most common defense of
Ling, in fact, is that she shatters the countervailing stereotype of Asian
women, the Lotus Blossom. (Not sure what a Lotus Blossom looks like? Think
Madame Butterfly, offing herself over the loss of a white man.)
Other media activists -- to use a co-opted Asian expression -- are a lot less
Zen about Ling. "Like most Asian-American women, I'm upset by her," says Helen
Liu, media consultant for the Asian American Resource Workshop, in Boston.
"[Ling Woo] is the '90s version of all the old stereotypes wrapped up in one.
She's a Suzie Wong, she has sex secrets . . . . People say, 'It's
okay if she has this kind of weird and kinky side because she's also a powerful
and central character.' But you have to look at what people are really being
drawn to. They're not being drawn to the fact that she's powerful or central.
They're drawn to her because of her stereotypical qualities.
"If this generation of people, this audience, believes that we've made a lot of
social progress . . . then why isn't that reflected in our social and
political reality? Look at the problems that are occurring. We still have this
particular issue, Wen Ho Lee. He's not a female, but look at the way he's being
It may seem like a stretch to draw a straight line from Ling Woo to Wen Ho Lee.
But in a country where a generation of Japanese-Americans still remember being
imprisoned for their race during World War II, Asian-Americans are dogged
by the notion that their ethnicity makes them suspect citizens. (If you think
this is a dead issue, check out recent articles on http://www.wenholee.org, or
go back and read the coverage of the White House "Chinagate" fundraising
scandal, in which reporters made little effort to distinguish between Chinese
nationals and Chinese-Americans.)
Meanwhile, Lucy Liu herself is getting fed up with being called upon to
represent both her ancestral country and her community. The actress was
shooting a movie and unavailable for an interview, but she told USA
Today last month: "Just because I'm Asian doesn't mean that I know all
about the history, the culture, the religion. I'm just as clueless as you. I
love this role on Ally, and I defend this role, but people forget:
sometimes you take roles because you've got bills to pay.
"A lot of Asians have wanted to give me awards and have me come and speak, but
I turn them down," she added. "I feel like, 'Hey, give me a little while. I
haven't done anything to earn this yet. Don't just give me an award because I'm
the only person that's well known right now who's Asian.' "
It's true, Liu didn't ask to be the Jackie Robinson of Asian stardom. But
someone has to break the barriers. This year Liu has been cast in Charlie's
Angels, a big-budget Hollywood star vehicle. The first two Angels to be
cast were the movie's blondes, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. Much
speculation followed as to who the third angel would be.
Aoki says: "Their first choice was black. You have one 'ethnic' person and they
think that makes everything diverse." Still, he's glad Liu got the part; the
job is a coup for an Asian-American actress. "I'm glad she's one of them," he
says. "But her boyfriend [in the movie] is Matt LeBlanc, from Friends,
so there you go again. Why not pair her with an Asian guy?"
But Hollywood simply never pairs Asian-American women with
Asian-American men. In fact, the Asian-babe explosion is made all the more
noticeable by the glaring lack of Asian leading men -- or at least leading men
who do not karate-chop bad guys.
Feeding the fetish
In a recent Playboy interview with Lucy Liu, interviewer Robert Crane
put it bluntly: "Asian sex secrets: Myth, hype or just plain good sense?"
Liu said she didn't command any special knowledge between the sheets, but
added: "It's not always a bad thing to be perceived as mysterious, sexually."
She's right. Mystery, fantasy, and desire aren't inherently bad, though when
they're tied to your ethnicity, they do get more complicated. But for a handful
of people, those complications make for good business.
Mistress Midori is a Tokyo-born, half-Japanese, half-German-American dominatrix
who came to this country when she was 14. She recently finished teaching a
series of workshops at the sex shop Grand Opening, in Brookline, in which she
helped women find their "own personal style of dominance."
For her, she says, that meant discovering the dragon within. "I rebelled
against the predominance of medieval and working-class-cop imagery in the
fetish industry," she says. Instead, she started bringing her own culture into
it. "I think of my own symbols as fetishistic and arousing," she says. "The
usual symbols were a little too . . . European."
For her clients with Asian fetishes, Midori's race is certainly part of her
appeal. That doesn't mean she is complacent about stereotyping ("Oriental is
for rugs," she says). But fetishes are a business, and Asian-ness is one of the
traits she happens to possess, along with nice feet.
To her, it's all about how the customer fetishizes. It doesn't bother
her, for instance, that one man asked her to play a Vietnamese interrogator to
his POW. Or that one white man told her, "I'm sorry, you don't look Asian
enough for me." (This coming from a woman wearing a corset and a slit skirt in
dragon-embroidered green silk, with glossy black hair piled high.) "That was
fine with me," she says. "I'm not your date. I'm an entertainment service. I
help you feed your fantasy within certain defined limits. If I'm not what
you're looking for, then you should move on.
"But the people who call up and say, 'Oh, Mistress Midori, Oriental mistresses
are the most powerful' -- they bother me. First of all . . .
'Oriental.' Second, don't associate qualities of personality or character with
In other words, Midori says: fetishize my looks, but don't make assumptions
about my character. Or, put more simply, if you think Asian women are hot,
that's fine, but don't assume that you know anything about them.
Easier said than done, perhaps. The feelings that get tangled up in our
perceptions of ethnicity, whether in the bedroom or on the screen, express our
conflicting longings for mystery and safety, adventure and security. Race,
class, and gender, with all their very real political trappings, can't be
extricated from the shadowy realms of the personal.
"Anyone can be fetishized," Midori points out. "Anyone."
Newsweek recently made a case for the idea that the media are
"redefining their image of Asian-American men." But outside of fashion and
advertising -- where the image of Asian-Americans does seem to be changing --
the only Asian-American leading man Newsweek could come up with was Rick
Yune, a Korean-American who quit his job as a Wall Street trader to act.
His current vehicle is Snow Falling on Cedars, in which he plays a
Japanese-American soldier and farmer who is on trial for murder. The only other
Asian male stars that Newsweek or anyone else can name are Jet Li and
Chow Yun-Fat, both action stars from Hong Kong. Martial-arts and action stars
with accents are nothing to complain about, but they hardly qualify as a
"redefinition" of Asian-American men in media.
Yune alone is that rarest of beings: an all-American Asian male hottie
in the public eye. But Snow Falling on Cedars is his first big break;
his star is still dwarfed by Lucy Liu's. "I think that media image-makers are
always more comfortable with Asian females than Asian men," says Aoki. "Seventy
percent of TV shows in prime time are written by white males, and 80 percent of
It's a common complaint: if one were to learn about our world solely through
television, one would think it was populated primarily by pale rich people with
perfect hair. All minorities are underrepresented on TV. The percentage of
television characters who are Asian is less than half the percentage of Asians
in the general American population -- in 1998, about two percent of characters
versus four percent of the population. The situation is slightly worse for
Latinos, and considerably better for African-Americans, who accounted for 12.3
percent of TV characters and 12.6 percent of the population in '98. But
according to the 1998 casting-data report of the Screen Actors Guild, one thing
was true for Asian-Americans that was true for no other ethnic group: the
female characters outnumbered the male.
Nineteen ninety-eight also saw the launch of the first TV show with Asian
leads ever to be signed for a second season: Sammo Hung's Martial Law on
CBS. The "Martial" in that name is no coincidence: as martial arts continue to
rise in popularity, kung-fu fighting increasingly represents a kind of Asian
back door to the American popular consciousness. But Asian martial-arts experts
in TV and film are usually more caricatures than characters; as a professor
from the University of San Francisco put it in Newsweek, Jackie Chan is
a "funny martial artist, but are you going to sleep with him?"
Outside of roundhouse kicking, the underlying dynamics of the situation seem to
go something like this: Asian people are inherently foreign, but Asian women
are exotic sex objects, which gives them a shot at being starlets. Asian men,
on the other hand, are geeky and weak, except when they have a lot of money, in
which case they're foreign businessmen trying to make up for being geeky and
weak by being sneaky and villainous. Geeky and sneaky are both major
disqualifiers when it comes to serious male stardom.
That's certainly a bit of a simplification, and not everyone sees the glass as
being half-empty. Speaking from her home in Manhattan, cultural commentator
Phoebe Eng is sanguine about the situation. The author of Warrior
Lessons, a memoir and essay on Asian-American women's personal empowerment,
Eng says that although it's gradual, she has seen meaningful change in the
perception of Asian-American men and women.
"Jackie Chan brings humanity and humor to his roles, and that's good," she
says. "But he's still a karate-chop character, and they're still cartoon
characters in a way." She'd like to see more guys who aren't doing roundhouse
kicks, which is why she's pleased about Rick Yune. "He is just one of many
Asian-American men who are really turning around that whole
emasculated-Asian-man stereotype," Eng says. "He's a very good-looking guy.
"There are so many [Asian-American] people populating ads in all of these
fashion magazines. Look through an issue of Vogue or GQ.
Asian-American men are seen as a very vigorous buying audience," she adds.
Her choice of examples is telling. When it comes to representing this "model
minority," Madison Avenue is a big step ahead of Hollywood. Asian guys are much
easier to find in ads and in fashion spreads than in sit-coms or screenplays.
"It's the money imperative," says marketing consultant Wanla Cheng, who helps
companies target Asian buyers. Advertisers, she says, "can no longer ignore the
Asian population. Even though we're fairly small, we're the most affluent.
We're the fastest-growing market in terms of percentage growth.
"Anecdotally, or given a sort of visual poll, I've noticed more and more Asians
in ads, in print and TV," Cheng says. She says no organization tracks these
numbers regularly, but a 1997 study in the Journal of Advertising found
that Asians -- both male and female -- were actually overrepresented compared
to their proportion of the population, appearing in 8.4 percent of print and
television ads. At that time, the purchasing power of the Asian-American market
was $125 billion, with Asian-American households boasting a median income
of $44,460 -- 19 percent above the national average. In 1999,
Asian-Pacific-Americans (the full term used to describe people with roots in
Asia and the Pacific Islands) had an estimated buying power of
$229 billion, and that buying power was growing faster than any other
ethnic group's, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the
University of Georgia.
The 1997 study in the Journal of Advertising also found that
Asian-Americans were "more likely to be given token representation" -- that is,
to be relegated to the background when they did show up -- than other minority
groups. They were also almost exclusively portrayed working. A brief scan of
today's television ads suggests that there is a new Asian stereotype emerging:
the Techie Hipster. A new stereotype isn't usually much better than an old
stereotype, but maybe by the time the Internet turns profitable, the thrall of
the New will have changed our image not only of CEOs (younger) and work attire
(more likely to include earrings) but also of the worker himself (ethnic!).
On television, a medium organized entirely around getting us to watch
commercials, it wouldn't be surprising if a shift in ad portrayals heralded a
shift in who we see on the shows. Phoebe Eng thinks the time is ripe for
someone to try another All-American Girl, a failed 1993 sit-com that
starred Margaret Cho. (Cho herself has capitalized on the experience by
incorporating it into her one-woman show, which she recently performed in
Boston.) Martial Law -- yes, a kung-fu action show -- was signed for a
second season. Half- or part-Asian-American stars, such as Keanu Reeves and
Jennifer Tilly, have already translated slightly exotic good looks into
mainstream success as sex symbols for all races, with almost no mention of
They may be the wave of the future. When Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson
looks toward America in 2050 -- especially toward California, home of the
entertainment industry -- he envisions an almost entirely miscegenational
population dominated by a Eurasian upper-middle class. Perhaps racial
categories themselves will blur into meaninglessness before we manage to break
down all our damaging racial associations.
But until then, though we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to
go. Consider the current big movie addressing the Asian-American experience,
Snow Falling on Cedars. Ethan Hawke's love interest is a
Japanese-American teenager who grew up in a small town in Washington state. In
the movie she's played by Youki Kudoh, a Japanese national who speaks with a
subtle but distinctly Japanese accent. An accent? It would have seemed bizarre
if the character had been, say, an American-born white kid and the actress
spoke with a German accent, but no one outside the Asian-American community
balked at the casting. And this is a movie (an otherwise pretty good movie)
that's basically about the Japanese-Americans' internment during World
War II; about the injustice of the assumption that Japanese eyes meant
But hey, Charlie's Angels is coming out this spring. Maybe it
will make Lucy Liu famous enough to land her that first, elusive
non-ethnic-specific starring role. And then maybe we can all sit back and call
Michelle Chihara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.