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From Coolie to Googlebot

Published By CULTURESTRIKE, March 6, 2014


A cover detail of M. P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger, published in 1898. Courtesy Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.

Whether we’re giggling at the grotesquely comical mischievous grin of Charlie Chan, or spooked by the ominous mystique of the Manchurian Candidate, or titillated by the mere utterance of the word “Chinatown” from the pursed lips of a Hollywood noir detective—the “Yellow Peril” haunts our popular culture in a way that seduces and repels us at once. The racial typology is less raw today; we indulge with measured intellectual irony in Fu Manchu pulp characters, or the classically retrograde Dragon Lady tropes that adorn some of our favorite Hollywood villainess fantasies. But the tension between Asiatic threat at white purity remains a disturbing historical undercurrent of the West’s cultural compass, even in our contemporary globalized world of blurring ethnic boundaries.

In a compilation of centuries worth of Asian and Oriental cultural imagery, New York University scholars John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats uncover the great Peril’s many faces. Presenting a wide range of propaganda, media artifacts and art, along with critical scholarly essays, Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (Verso Books, 2014) offers a critical reading of a familiar trope that has been instrumental in the formation of Western civilization’s identity. As much as European and American societies have tried to define themselves through the lens of white supremacy, they have also formed themselves in opposition to the Asian other, who appears in various guises: the threat, seducer, underdog hero, economic menace and sexual rival. Often, fears of the Yellow Peril have intersected with broader anxieties about race, gender and empire, particularly when the political establishment seeks a scapegoat for economic ills. In the late 19th century, John Chinaman—adorned with an androgynous pigtail, biologically backward, and effete—was drawn in contrast to white masculinity and the vitality of the American proletariat.  These days, China as the world’s rising economic hegemon is caricatured as a slant-eyed octopus engaged in a cosmic battle with cephalopodic Googlebot—a less explicit contrast, but still evocative of the same Darwinian tensions.

In the vintage pamphlet “Meat vs. Rice” published by the American Federation of Labor in the early 1900s, the American union man is warned of the threat of “Asiatic Coolieism.” Writing on the heels of the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants from citizenship and marked a new era in the racialization of American immigration policy, the union warned white workers: “Whatever business or trade they enter is doomed for the white laborer, as competition is surely impossible. Not that the Chinese would not rather work for high wages than low, but in order to gain control he will work so cheaply as to bar all efforts of his competitor.”

With an historical eye, Tchen and Yeats interrogate the raw bigotry of the message, but present the pamphlet as part of a broader archive of propaganda materials that threads through World War II—when the enemy was the Japanese soldier depicted with a sinister grin and simian features—all the way up to the “techno-Orientalism” of contemporary science fiction narratives like Battlestar Galatica, with its inscrutable enemy tribe of Cylons. The book casts a wide net when weaving together these diverse tropes, and at times it may seem a bit of a stretch to place Republican political campaign ads on the same historical continuum as early modern cartography depicting Asia Major as a galloping Pegasus. Yet the sheer volume of examples they present suggests more continuity than change in the storied life of the Yellow Peril: it is the Peril that is persistent, reliable, and comforting in its affirmation of the West’s willful ignorance and cultural delusions of grandeur. And in a striking role reversal, Tchen and Yeats reveal that it is the Westerners who are oddly unoriginal in its constant reproduction of a singular consuming fear of the foreign other. The Yellow Peril, it turns out, really is the enemy within.

Tchen and Yeats spoke with Michelle Chen about the evolution of Yellow “Perilism” in the American political context and in the new cultural and ideological milieu of neoliberal trade, global migration, and what the authors call “racial capitalism.” The anxieties about whiteness and maleness persist, but the Peril has been rebranded as the fierce yet alluring “model minority.” Meanwhile, the new American proletariat of “knowledge workers” and deskilled service labor, grasping for a stable identity in an age of precarity, are finding new ways to negotiate the social threats and temptations of a yellowing planet.

To view a gallery of images, and read several excerpts from the book, check out The Margins’ “Yellow Peril: 19th-Century Scapegoating.” 

Michelle Chen: You describe Yellow Perilism as “the uses and abuses of the other. … Why do you think it’s still a relevant trope today and, beyond the obvious that we’d recognize from old posters and comic books and things, what are some present day manifestations that you think we should be aware of?

John Kuo Wei Tchen: These tropes and these patterns are, of course, deep in the political culture … not strictly culture and popular culture, but I would say. political culture of the formation of Western civilization. Because they’re so deep, they manifest themselves at different times in different ways and we’re at a moment now in which there’s a certain sensitivity towards offending people … some sensitivity. But I think that kind of politeness only masks the deeper patterns that still exist, from moments of saber rattling against some newly constructed enemy—and we see these formations in our [everyday lives] as South Asians and Muslims become increasingly profiled, for example, right after 9/11 … to the deeper patterns that are still there, even when they seem to be more benign stereotypes and attitudes. The central dynamics of the self and the other as almost unbridgeable or unfathomable—the perpetual foreigner problem that we all face, or the compliments about speaking English so well: Those are the deeper patterns that come out in very subtle ways and emerge at different moments. 

MC: Do you see Yellow Perilism as an extension of Orientalism, or do you see an historical break when the Yellow Peril, in the manifestation as we know it today, departs from some of those early Orientalist tropes?

JT: I think Orientalism is a very useful conceptual tool. It’s not strictly about the other in a negative way, it’s also about the projection of the other from the Western self or the East as perhaps having some qualities that West doesn’t have and therefore playing in a more complex way. The model minority is to a large degree playing off the binary in the same way. So I think we could understand Yellow Peril in part as a subset of Orientalism.

MC: One of the things that struck me in some of the artwork and propaganda materials you present here is the persistence of Yellow Perilism in political tropes on both the left and the right—particularly when we’re talking about the early labor movement in the United States. Can you talk about the “meat versus rice” pamphlet of the American Federation of Labor, and how ideas of the American working class, particularly manhood in the American working class, have been implicated in the construction of the Yellow Peril?

“The Great Fear of the Period—That Uncle Sam May be Swallowed by Foreigners. The Problem Solved” (San Francisco: White & Bauer Lithographers, late 1860s). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“The Great Fear of the Period—That Uncle Sam May be Swallowed by Foreigners. The Problem Solved” (San Francisco: White & Bauer Lithographers, late 1860s). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dylan Yeats: Well, one of the things we tried to trace was this idea that there’s a Western individuality that is somehow diametrically opposed to an Oriental hive mind mentality. That has really played on both sides, like you suggest. The right wants to maintain this individuality as a bulwark against these invading hordes, and the left is concerned that the working class is going to be turned into a hive. The early labor movement activists in the United States wanted to protect a notion of individuality, which I think we can relate to. It’s, you know, eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, eight hours of what you will—however you cultivate your own individual tastes and your own freedom to develop how you want to, against a machine that’s trying to turn everyone into robots or ants or drones.

I think the conceptualization of that conflict between individual and hordes has been read onto an “East versus West” idea. Are we all going to become coolie slaves? And similar things were discussed in relation to African slavery also, but that [idea of the coolie] supercharged the perception of labor conflict with immigrants from Asia as people who wouldn’t organize, who didn’t have the self-determination that the white working class imagined it had. So I think one of the things that we’re trying to do in the book is show how these fears and fantasies and binaries, which are latent within the construction of Western culture … . I would say that that sentiment is quite alive today in discussions of current labor problems and immigration problems. Something about masses of people who aren’t either able to or allowed to self-actualize is threatening to other people’s abilities to do the same.

The white manhood stuff … that’s a foundational, critical issue that is a thread from the very beginning to this point. Part of what’s interesting is that sexuality gets played out in two different ways. So among the more conservative people, and people who are trying to protect a certain kind of nostalgic idea of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture going back to some romantic notion of what had been (the Tea Party is an example), there’s a sense that somehow we have to protect our white women from these invading males who are going to be transgressive, especially if they are manly on their own terms and not in our terms. And, of course, there are these rather oversexed or undersexed people as drones, men and women, who are all threatening our way of life and bringing about unfair competition, not just in terms of labor, but also unfair sexual competition. Then on the other hand, there’s this kind of liberal fantasy of Orientalism which is, in some ways, saying we have these liberties, we have these tolerances towards women and towards people of color and towards gays. After all, now we have gay marriage and look at what’s happening in these other countries because they’re so “intolerant,” right? It’s projecting on to this other society an intolerance that we only are now starting to come to terms with. And that seems to be rather a double standard—no we’re good, they’re bad. That’s the binary, the projection of an absolute clarity and lying between good and bad—when in fact our society, all of these societies, are struggling with these questions. It hasn’t been resolved. And so we’re trying to break down those simplistic, nationalist notions or civilizationalist framings that get us to a more useful place in terms of thinking about who we build coalitions with, who are allies across these kinds of boundaries.

James Hadley Chase's "12 Chinamen and a Woman" (New York: Novel Library, 1950), cover. Yoshio Kishi / Irene Yah Ling Sun Collection of Asian Americana made possible in large part in memory of Dr. Wei Yu Chen. Fales British Collection. Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.

Cover detail of James Hadley Chase’s 12 Chinamen and a Woman, published in 1950. Courtesy Yoshio Kishi / Irene Yah Ling Sun Collection of Asian Americana made possible in large part in memory of Dr. Wei Yu Chen. Fales British Collection. Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.

MC: I’m particularly interested in how the Yellow Perilism trope has been rebranded in the form of the model minority. How have Asian Americans internalized this stereotyping, in a way that almost makes it seem like the stereotype is okay if it’s a positive one.

JT: I grew up in the Midwest in one of the new, post-Korean War suburbs that was largely the place that white ethnics who were living in cities in the Polish community or the Jewish community or the Irish community went to become white. The G.I. bill helped that process. The highways helped that process. The red lining helped that process. So, here I am just trying to figure out how to succeed within that culture and, of course, Sputnik and the new schooling systems are emerging and meritocracy is now really hitting hard. In some ways, Asians were caught up in that situation, during my childhood, and now had to figure out how they were going to survive in a largely non-Asian-sensitive environment. So, I think one easy tendency is to somehow to live up to some projected ideal of who Asians are. Right now, what’s dominant is the model minority idea— the idea that all these Asian students are good at certain subjects and terrible at other subjects and maybe drones and nerds. But [the perception is] isn’t it better to be that than to be seen as somebody cool that has no brains? So there’s this weird kind of complicated set of attitudes that is highly segmented by racialization, gender, sexuality, and ethinicity.

… And the model minority issue, as people like [Asian American studies scholar] Gary Okihiro have pointed out, may start out as apparently benign. “Oh, this is a good person, you speak English so well, we’re complimenting you, of course we’re not being racist.” [But then it starts] tipping over when that’s seen as unfair competition. Once that grey line tips over—and it depends on location and what part of the country one’s in—there are plenty of students who are not Asian that opt to be in “non-Asian” classes or non-Asian-majority schools because they’re afraid that they won’t be able to compete … . So those kinds of triangulated politics are actually quite severe right now. And with diminishing resources, greater debt, fewer jobs, and even with the more “positive” images of Asian Americans in professional areas, I think … we can see new collisions emerging.

Yellow Peril! Detoxifying Fear Friday and Book Party, presented by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, will feature a gathering of performers and speakers including Suheir Hammad, Jason Kao Hwang, and Kelly Tsai, Bruce Franklin, Matt Jacobson, Urmila Seshagiri, John Kuo Wei Tchen, and Dylan Yeats. Friday, March 7 at 6 p.m. Click here to RSVP.


TAGS: Dylan Yeats, Jack Kuo Wei Tchen, michelle chen, Verso Books, Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear


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