Chinese writer Yuan Ren lifts the lid on so-called ‘yellow fever’: a well-peddled myth that Asian women make better sexual lovers than other women, while at the same time, having no meaningful presence in politics and popular culture
Ever heard of yellow fever? No, not the disease you can pick up when travelling to certain countries. I’m talking about when Caucasian men develop an acute sexual preference for East Asian women – even becoming a fetish, for some.
Naturally, there are dating websites aplenty dedicated to ‘serving’ those men who have yellow fever, where the average East Asian women is increasingly being perceived as a desirable partner.
In fact, the most recent figures from 2.4 million users of Facebook dating apps showed a clear skew in preference for women of East Asian descent by men of all racial groups, except, ironically, Asian men.
As a Chinese, single woman in the UK – where I have rarely come across racism – my East Asian friends and I have encountered a fair share of men with telltale signs of yellow fever. But it’s subtle, and of course, few would admit to surfing online dating sites for Chinese women, yet when the only girls they date are Chinese, then the probabilities are in their favour.
Having said that, I’m surprised at what British men, both young and old, generally get away with when talking about East Asian women (Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc.) as well as South East Asian women (Vietnam, Thailand etc.)
I’ve heard my Caucasian friends recommend to their male, single mates that they should date “nice Chinese girls”, with the added bonus that Chinese women are far more sexually open-minded than Caucasian girls.
One acquaintance told me in wonderment that Chinese women are great in the bedroom – as if I wasn’t one – to being casually asked if I’d be interested in a guy “who has been with Chinese girls and likes it”. I’ve been left puzzled by the insensitivity, and the lack of awareness that such comments may cause offence. It’s as if the Chinese are so foreign it doesn’t count.
In the UK, Sherry Fang, a 26-year-old British Chinese student, tells me she’s had strangers say to her “you look just like his ex, she was also Chinese”, and argues it would be wholly inappropriate if she were black or Indian.
In Britain, while significant rates of intermarriage between the Chinese and white Caucasian population have demonstrated social integration, the trend is nevertheless heavily skewed towards Chinese women and white men, rather than the other way around.
Part of the bias is down to aesthetics, it would appear, as a study by Cardiff University in 2012 on facial attractiveness showed that East Asian women scored highest, while East Asian men came bottom of the pile (interestingly, results for black and white individuals did not show discernible differences based on gender).
But while some gendered biases exist in all interracial dating, few have gained as much notoriety as so-called yellow fever.
A screengrab from SeekingAsianFemale.com, about the film of the same name
In parts of the US, such a notion has become so pervasive that last year, Debbie Lum, an American filmmaker of Chinese descent, sought to capture the madness in her documentary “Seeking Asian Female”.
“I like to joke that San Francisco is the epicentre of the yellow fever phenomenon”, says Debbie, who describes a general awareness of being looked at by men because she’s Chinese. But Debbie also believes that Asian American women are paying a price for “positive” stereotyping.
Beyond sex: what then?
“We are largely invisible when it comes to politics and popular culture, yet there’s a very palpable urban myth that Asian women make better lovers than other women”, she says.
The stereotyping plays itself out in the roles you see Chinese women playing in theatre, on TV or in films. Take the 25th anniversary revival of Miss Saigon in the West End. The tale of the tragic love story between a young Vietnamese woman and an American soldier paints a heartbroken and helpless image of Miss Saigon that remains one of the most poignant and visible depictions of Far Eastern women in popular culture.
A scene from Miss Saigon
Yet this portrayal epitomises what many see as a narrow perception of East Asian (defined as Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc) women.
Elsewhere, in an open letter to the culture minister earlier this year, actors from The British East Asian Artists (BEA) criticised the BBC and other outlets for their cultural stereotyping of East Asians on TV and stage – describing the female parts as “passive and submissive”.
Elizabeth Chan, a British Chinese actress, says acting has offered an insight into how society sees Chinese women, calling parts on offer to her “massively stereotypical”.
“It’s rare to see a Chinese character written that is ‘normal’ or ‘well rounded’,” says Chan, naming a set of typical roles that include: hard-working businesswoman; exotic, gentle flower; illegal immigrant selling DVDs or turning to prostitution (someone once actually yelled “selling DVDs?” at me from across a parking lot).
In the book The Asian Mystique(2005) the author Sheridan Prasso traced the “exoticism” of East Asian women as far back as Marco Polo’s travels along the Silk Road in the 1200s, in the literature and art it inspired. In recent times, America’s wars in Korea and Vietnam have also influenced the popular American psych, spawning narratives like that of Miss Saigon.
“And let’s not forget Hollywood’s global influence”, says Dr Sandy To, who specialises in gender studies at Hong Kong University. She notes the sexy Geishas, femme fatales and Kung Fu fighting seductresses in place of what she calls “ethnically neutral roles”.
In the BBC’s official response to BEA’s letter, it stated its commitments to diversity (in a rather patronising, verbose manner). But essentially, it told the actors to be patient.
But Asian women are understandably in a rush to change the status quo.
A quick browse on the Internet for “yellow fever fetishes” brings up a host of websites, articles and videos, mostly from the US, that express humour, distaste and offence at the sexualised objectification of East Asian women, with some equating yellow fever to racism rooted in colonial ideas of power and submission.
Interestingly, however, many East Asian women aren’t bothered; some even play up to the stereotypes or entertain such fetishes, according to Dr. Sandy To.
Indeed, websites like My New Chinese Wife – set up by Chinese women in Hong Kong, the UK and US, promote what it sees as traditional qualities of “Sweet Chinese Brides”, and assist westerners in finding their own.
Why Caucasian men get away with it
Professor Miri Song, who specialises in ethnic identity at the University of Kent, suggests that the parodying of Chinese people is seen as more “socially acceptable” in part because East Asians are not seen as truly disadvantaged, or merit the same protection status as other ethnic minorities.
Prosperous: China’s economic might makes stereotyping more ‘acceptable’, say experts
She points to how British Chinese do well academically and professionally. Furthermore, stereotypes around timidness, not being outspoken or politically active also mean people can make such comments with no backlash, she says.
Certainly, the idea of the “passive” Chinese is a well-known, but an increasingly misguided view – particularly given the meteoric rise of China and its achievements in women’s education.
Aowen Jin, a 36-year-old British Chinese artist, thinks that cultural differences, such as the inability “to say no”, are often misconstrued by westerners as agreeableness, or even misinterpreted by western men as a sign of romantic interest.
In the professional world, Ting Jacqueline Chen, a 28-year-old Oxford graduate, is also battling stereotypes. She tells me how she was instantly associated with being quiet, analytical and nice when she started working in London, and describes fighting for opportunities to speak and chair meetings. “It took me a long time to get over that,” she says.
A new generation of Chinese women are educated to degree level
But even at Stanford Business School, Ting feels that presumptions still linger, on a name: “I really regret not using my English name ‘Jacqueline’ here”, she reveals. “I would have had so much more social equity to start with”.
One of my friends of Hong Kong heritage put it best recently, perhaps, when talking about relationships involving Chinese women and Caucasian men. “I make sure they damn-well know who I am first before they date me”.
The same applies to the workplace. Until popular culture’s depiction of Asian women changes for the better, it’s up to us to stop the stereotypes.
By Yuan Ren 01/07/2014