In a 1932 sci-fi film, an inscrutable Chinese villain wields a death ray and threatens human sacrifice. A 1942 Dr. Seuss cartoon depicts identical hordes of bespectacled Japanese immigrants waiting in line to pick up TNT from a California warehouse (which, on a “signal from home,” they’d use to blow up the U.S. from within). A U.S. president warns in 2002 that a Middle Eastern regime harbors weapons of mass destruction posing a grave threat to American security. A 2010 political advertisement depicts a dystopian future in which Americans, ruined by debt, have become slaves to the laughing Chinese.
The more things change…
From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first in a series of laws that effectively barred immigration for various Asian nationalities through 1965, to the rampant Islamophobia of the post-9/11 era, anti-Asian prejudice has shaped American politics and culture—sometimes subtly, other times less so. While it can be tempting to dismiss, for example, a menacing image of a Buddha riding a dragon as nothing more than an embarrassing relic from a less enlightened time, it isn’t always as easy to see how old racist assumptions continue to color our current thinking—especially as the Asian American population continues to grow, from 1.5 million in 1970 to more than 18 million, or almost 6 percent, in 2011.
That’s why Gallatin professor John Kuo Wei Tchen and doctoral candidate Dylan Yeats, editors of Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear, contend that rigorous study of such artifacts is the key to combating prejudice in our own time. In the book—a lively tour through the annals of fiction, pseudoscience, and political commentary, interspersed with excerpts from contemporary scholarship—they show how fear of “yellow peril” was prevalent long before the term itself became popular, at the height of early 20th-century anxiety about Japanese imperialism. In fact, they argue, it’s one of the world’s oldest and most persistent racist ideas, fuelling everything from 16th-century maps that split Eurasia in two to the Fu Manchu books. To confront yellow peril, they write, is to “lay out a long trajectory of how the West differentiated itself from the East, and the roles of fantasy villains and civilizational threats in that process.”
NYU’s Fales Library, in partnership with the Asian/Pacific/American Institute, houses the Yoshio Kishi and Irene Yah Ling Sun collection of some 10,000 items of Asian Americana that Tchen and Yeats hope (along with their book) will inspire the growth of such archives of posters, comics, toys, and other items documenting the history of Asian representation. To participate in what Tchen and Yeats describe as the “detoxification” of such ephemera through thoughtful historical analysis, view a slideshow of selected images from the book, above. Then read a conversation with the authors—on everything from the 2012 presidential race to the film 300—below.
Where does the term “yellow peril” come from, and why did you choose it for your book title?
Jack Tchen: Its origins are a little murky but it’s often traced to a dream that Kaiser Wilhelm supposedly had, and then had an artist draw. We include the drawing—it’s got the archangel Michael in the foreground with these women warriors all representing Europe, and then in the distance this threatening thunderstorm with, oddly, a seated Buddha riding a dragon. Although Wilhelm didn’t use the term “yellow peril,” the term was knocking around then.
Dylan Yeats: “Yellow peril” really emerged with the rise of Japanese power and conflict with Europeans—and even though that moment in some ways is over, the name works nicely to encapsulate what’s happened before and what’s happened since. It’s a little anachronistic, but we hope it draws people in.
JT: And in fact the phenomenon has much deeper roots. What we try to do in the book is set a much broader context that has to do with the rise of a notion of Western civilization with its alter ego in the Orient.
What’s the exclamation point for?
JT: Well, quite frankly it’s probably an exclamation mark of exhaustion! But really, we also wanted to give it a little twist, a little bit of humor. It’s a tough subject that people don't want to deal with generally, so we felt we had to approach it in a way that isn’t didactic and doesn’t make people feel guilty. That doesn't seem to work anyhow, so why bother? Now that we have the advantage of being able to look back, it’s easy to look at the seated Buddha and laugh—that’s supposed to be menacing? But it wasn’t that long ago that people thought Buddhism, for example, was such a foreign religion in this country that it seemed threatening.
There’s a whole section in your book about ever-evolving ideas of where the West ends and the East begins. For the purposes of this project, how did you decide who and what counts as “Asian”?
DY: One of the great insights from Edward Said’s Orientalism is that the Orient is not a real place—it’s a fantasy. We really wanted to show how colonialism in the first part of the 20th century, anti-communism in the middle of the century, and more recent fears about China and the threat of terrorism were all kind of one continuum. You can see this big sweep over the course of the century that’s all about a fantasy of empire. And then once you see that, you can see how it complements the research on 1500s Europe, where as empires built alliances, they promoted these ideas: “We should all be fighting the Ottomans. We all remember when the Mongols came.” So even at that period it was clear that Europe was going to define itself against those two things. You can carry that story forward.
Can you point to recent evidence of anti-Asian fear in our society?
DY: Once you start looking for it, you see it everywhere! In the 2012 election, which I followed pretty closely, Romney wanted to criticize Obama for “not being tough on China,” but he himself was invested in all the Chinese companies. And Obama, on the other hand, wanted to criticize Romney for that, but he was also to some extent trying to lessen the political tensions with China. So while practicing a more collaborative, interconnected policy with China, they both demonized it as a way to attack each other.
JT: When you get to war, elections, or other moments of paranoia and anxiety—like when “Asian” diseases like SARS break out, or when the justification for an invasion is supposed weapons of mass destruction—all of these things trigger earlier patterns of emotional logic and thinking. So the Oriental villain and the sexual threat and the fear of hordes overcoming us are still with us. They’re still there in the zeitgeist and in the cultural memory—but now they’re more part of the mise-en-scène, the background.
So much of this is now subconscious?
JT: Americans really seem to love Asian objects, from beautiful lacquered ware to porcelains and silks, but have been much more ambivalent and negative about Asian people and Asian bodies. It’s interesting to look at sound: Often times when people just hear me, they are more willing to accept what I say then if they see me too, because I appear foreign from many an American’s point-of-view. I was born in the Midwest, but people look at me and think, “Oh, I’m not going to understand what he’s going to say.” So that’s what Asians in this country do have to deal with—we embody certain kinds of fears and anxieties about foreignness that still reign. There’s still a divide between whiteness and, say, how an Asian male is assumed to be.
DY: We believe that part of what gives this whole thing power is that we’re unaware of it. The idea is to look inward. Think: What do I find so creepy about someone’s hijab or the way that person eats or this smell? Why is that scaring me or making me upset? For Americans, it may be really comforting to think that there are a billion robots who are determined to take our jobs or destroy our economy—and that’s why our lives are ruined. But when you confront your own fears and frustrations, it starts not really being about China at all.
How can we break out of those old patterns of fear and prejudice?
DY: I think it’s important to be sympathetic and aware of how this way of thinking really hurts people who are almost by happenstance caught up in these fantasies. Think of the way we discuss immigration policy, or in New York, all of the spying on Muslim communities with disregard to civil rights. Spying on people who didn’t commit a crime, criminalizing communities—that always spreads to everybody. That helps erode the basic protections we all rely on, whether or not we think of ourselves as under suspicion at the moment. There’s a connection between the idea of following Muslim-Americans around New York and the NSA reading everybody’s emails. Those two things are related.
JT: It’s not just about making nice. It’s not about somehow holding hands. We have to find clearer ways of understanding difference. Take the new 300 movie. It’s based on a comic book about the Spartans fighting against the Persians, and after its first blockbuster weekend it became clear that it’s just a replay of the same basic attitudes about the West that we talk about in the book. But I’m hoping that people who see it think, wait a minute, this is not very good—it feels kind of wrong.