By Jennifer Li, she/her
This might sound unusual, but as an Asian-American, I have never been ashamed of my race. I say “unusual” because young Asian-Americans so often try to distance themselves from Asian culture in an attempt to assimilate and find acceptance amongst their non-Asian peers. Many of my peers have tried to downplay their Asianness for years, and so I could not be more proud of the way we have all rallied together for the last year to fight anti-Asian sentiment. Yet, I have also never been more afraid to be an Asian-American woman, in light of the Atlanta spa shooting on March 16th. But it’s not just the threat of targeted violence that frightens me so much—it is also the culture by which this violence is perpetrated at a smaller scale and the unaddressed history, policies, and systems that have allowed this violence to culminate and to rear its unsightly head.
Asian-American women have long been objectified, used, and discarded by America, and yet America has yet to fully acknowledge how we are uniquely positioned at this nebulous crux of racialized misogyny. So, as an Asian-American with a deeply vested interest in confronting these fears, allow me to illuminate the history of Asian-America and our erased women.
The first records of Asian immigration were in the early 1800s, but significantly picked up during the California Gold Rush. There are no mentions of any other types of Asians at the time except for Chinese, which probably lends itself to the current narrative we have today of assuming every Asian-American is Chinese. China had been ravaged with a series of natural disasters, the Opium Wars were only escalating, and the Taiping Revolution had devastated the lives of working-class peasants politically and economically. Anywhere else would have been an improvement. Meanwhile, America was rapidly developing and had suddenly found itself in a goldrush.
Chinese men “ate wind and tasted waves” for the chance to start a better life in a foreign land, to try to drum up the money to send to their wives and families at home before they could afford to bring their families over. These Chinese laborers were integral to the construction of the Central Pacific and Transcontinental Railroads, but endured subminimum wages, legal ineligibility to naturalize, exorbitant taxes targeted at them (which stipulated that only naturalized Chinese people were not included in this tax), physical violence, anti-miscegenation laws, and outright disgust.
The Western world had been nursing a fear of us since the 13th century conquests of Ghenghis Khan and the Mongol invasions of Europe. They were so terrified, they were certain all of Asia was on a mission to conquer Western civilization, rape Christendom, and end life as they knew it. The Western world branded Asians as the Yellow Peril, “filthy yellow hordes,” and we were the greatest psycho-cultural threat to white Christendom ever seen. And at last, they perceived, we had finally begun our mission to invade the West and destroy it from the inside out.
In reality, the Chinese men were isolated from their families, discriminated against compared to European immigrants, and they were struggling to endure the systemic racism they encountered every day. There were also significantly more men than women. In 1850, there were 4,025 Chinese immigrants in San Francisco—only seven were women. It wasn’t long before Chinese gangs realized that there was a market to exploit.
Chinese gangs began to traffick Chinese women into brothels throughout Chinatown and anywhere else Chinese men were. Young, poor, unmarried girls in particular were commonly deceived with promises of marriage and financial security by men, and then brought to America only to learn the truth—that they had been shipped over as sex slaves, and now, they were completely alone in a foreign land with no one to help them get home, no money, and no other options.
Propaganda at the time had already casted us as a dirty and disease-ridden invasive species, so it’s little wonder that Chinese women were scapegoated as the source of STDs and stereotyped as prostitutes. It’s unbearable to imagine the lives of these women, shoved into a brothel to be violated at all hours of the day, before eventually contracting diseases from all the patrons they were forced to service, and finally dumped on the street to quietly die like inconvenient recycling.
The sexualized stereotypes and scapegoating belied a deeper fear of the sexual culture Chinese women were bringing to the United States. Chinese culture at the time was polygamist—one man could take multiple women, and it was his first wife’s duty to maintain his household of lesser wives and concubines. The perception of us as perverse, voracious, and alien polygamists ran counter to patriarchal regulations on women’s sexuality. We were not God-fearing, but worshipped false Eastern gods, who bestowed us with dangerous occultish powers of seduction. The fear of white people being unable to resist Asian seductiveness and producing racially corrupted offspring was an existential threat to white supremacy.
THE PAGE ACT
In the face of the rising epidemic of prostitution, the Page Act of 1875 was one of the first pieces of legislation used to control immigration to the United States, specifically against Asian laborers brought for “lewd and immoral purposes”—AKA, Chinese prostitutes. But it’s not like this stopped gangs (called tongs) from trafficking women. They just got better at it. Any conflict with public officials and law-enforcement was handled with a little bribery. Even when more restrictive legislation was passed, the tongs just forged legal documents and fattened up their bribes.
The Page Act didn’t just specifically discriminate against Chinese prostitutes, but all Asian women (who were collectively assumed to all be prostitutes). The United States made sure to make the immigration process as unpleasant as possible in order to discourage other Asian women who were considering immigration to the US—and their tactics worked. Asian women were separated from their husbands and their sons over the age of 12, forbidden to see each other for the duration of their cases (which could last up to two years). The physical tests included a fully naked examination to search for abnormalities, and Asians were the only ones subjected to a blood and stool examination. While non-Chinese detainees were allowed to see their friends and attorneys on Saturdays and their relatives on Sundays, Chinese immigrants were not granted any visiting rights whatsoever until after their cases had been settled. Asian women were also forced to divulge details about their sexual history and private life, and fornication, premarital sex, homosexuality, and adultery were cause for exclusion and deportation. Luckily for the men, these questions were not pertinent to their eligibility as citizens.
After the Page Act came the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers and denied American naturalization to all Chinese immigrants. It was a response to rising anti-Chinese sentiment growing more and more hostile, especially to the growing Chinese population in the San Francisco area. This rising anti-Chinese sentiment ultimately led to a string of brutal massacres: the notably gory Rock Springs Massacre in 1885 (at least 28 Chinese miners were branded, mutilated, and burned alive as a crowd cheered on), the Attack on Squak Valley Chinese laborers in 1885 (at least three Chinese workers shot to death), and the Hells Canyon massacre of 1887 (at least 34 Chinese gold miners beaten and murdered). The perpetrators and killers in these massacres were put on trial, but there was never enough legal evidence to find them guilty of murder, and most of them enjoyed the adulations of the their local white American public.
The Tacoma Riot in 1885 stands out as particularly horrible to me, though—it was the first forceful expulsion of a Chinese population. Led by an anti-Chinese mayor and his “anti-Chinese Congress,” the local leadership of the town of Tacoma plotted to drive out the Chinese population entirely. One Chinese woman was pregnant during the expulsion. She was dragged out of her home by the hair and thrown down a flight of stairs. Alongside roughly 200 other local Chinese immigrants, she was forced to march into the cold and torrential downpour, to leave Tacoma under threat of massacre. After the Chinese community were all successfully expelled, Tacoma torched the hollowed Chinatown, and all corporeal memory of Chinese presence in Tacoma purged, like a physical redaction. The Tacoma 27, composed of Mayor Jacob Weisbach, the Tacoma fire chief, a deputy marshall, and 24 other local civilians, were hailed as local heroes and dominated city politics for years afterwards. Their work was, disturbingly, affectionately nicknamed the Tacoma method.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
I think about this woman and what she might have been doing as she was marched out of Tacoma. I imagine her as a woman with a face like mine or like my mother’s or my sister’s. I suppose the residents of Tacoma did not register her as a woman pregnant with a baby, but as a thing holding another thing. Or maybe they just saw her as a prostitute. I wonder if she was cupping the swell of her crushed belly, begging any god to show mercy to her unborn child, who she would miscarry three days later. If the blood was already trickling down her legs as she trudged through the rain. I wonder what face she made when she walked—did she carry herself with stony stoicism, or in a dissociated stupor, or a flexed grimace of despair? I wonder if she was able to walk with her husband, to hold his hand, as they were herded like cows from the life they had built. More than anything else, I wonder what her name was, and if it is simply lost, her story absorbed by her husband’s name and her identity forgotten, an accessory object that loses relevance beyond the violence inflicted upon her body.
THE SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION OF ASIAN WOMEN
The dismissive narrative of violence against Asian women was further perpetuated by the American government’s continued demonization of Asians and the American GIs’s relationship with comfort women. During the Japanese occupation of China, the women of Harbin were subject to sadistic human experiments by Unit 731, a Japanese team researching frostbite, forced pregnancies, syphilis, and worse. The scientists in Unit 731 were granted war crime immunity by the United States in exchange for their germ warfare research, and any of the surviving victims’ accounts were dismissed and ignored as communist propaganda. The American government forced Japanese-Americans into internment camps, America’s version of concentration camps, and saw the multigenerational Japanese-Americans—American citizens—as interchangeable with foreign Japanese people, and ultimately, enemy aliens. These Japanese-Americans were traded by the United States government for American prisoners of war, tearing apart Japanese-Americans families and throwing Japanese-Americans into a land they had no personal connection with. During the Korean War, American GIs took liberties with brothels full of Korean military sex slaves (informally called comfort women). While some GIs married comfort women and impregnated them, before abandoning them, other GIs married these women and brought them to the United States under the War Brides Act of 1945. This practice continued during the Vietnam War with trafficked Asian women.
The film industry was quick to jump on this new narrative: the white savior rescuing the third-world Asian sex object. Asian-American women had been historically fetishized on screen as either hypersexual prostitutes to be discarded by white protagonists or savage dragon ladies threatening white Christian values with their unholy carnal arts of the East. These Orientalist portrayals of us were told exclusively through the lens of white male filmmakers, who reserved “good” Asian roles for white actors and actresses in yellowface. Our portrayal was a seductive cocktail of sexual and racial taboos, and further perpetuated the narrative of Asian-American women as purely sexual foreign objects to use and discard. Anna May Wong’s performance in Piccadilly was an infamous example of this. But now, with the new narrative of the white savior, white American men didn’t have to just discard us in favor of a good white woman (all the while, these immigrant women faced overwhelming pressure to get double-eyelid surgery to assimilate more quickly). We could be their new accessory objects, the story of our trafficking, rape, and war trauma romanticised into a progressive, fetishistic love story—we could be their lotus blossom, passive, helpless, and eager to be sexually conquered. Miss Saigon and The World of Suzie Wong come to mind.
WHICH HAS ULTIMATELY LED US TO TODAY.
Asian-Americans and other minorities have become more visible and empowered, yet the uniquely racialized misogyny that Asian-American women experience could not be more real or dangerous. Brock Turner sexually assaulted Chinese-American Chanel Miller, and he was sentenced to a meager six months in jail, despite overwhelming forensic evidence and literally being caught in the act by two key witnesses who testified during the case. Robert Aaron Long shot and killed massage parlor workers Xiao-Jie Tan, Dao-You Feng, Soon-Chung Park, Soon-Cha Kim, Young-Ae Yue, and Hyeon-Jeong Grant. Speaking on behalf of Long, an officer on the case, Captain Jay Baker, said that it was “a really bad day for him” and that Long’s struggle with sex addiction led him to try and eliminate these “temptations.”
The language used to describe these events is not just gaslighting, victim-blaming, and minimizing—it is presuppositional. These statements presuppose that Asian women are objectively sexual beings, that their sexual allure is simply too powerful to be resisted, and that white men cannot be held accountable for their actions in the face of such powerful sexual magnetism. This language presupposes that these white men are good, except for this one bad blip on the radar. A moment of weakness. If only it wasn’t for the power of these exotic temptresses. Why couldn’t these women have controlled themselves? Didn’t these women know what they could do?
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
To see how closely thought patterns resemble the earliest ideas of Asian women back in the 1800s is chilling. It is far past the time to start addressing these ideas, and the best place to start is with yourself.
Do your research. The lack of understanding around Asian-American women’s experiences stems from centuries of ossified racialized misogyny, so research terms that are confusing and learn about our historical experiences. If plugging straight into research is intimidating, movies and television are a good way to start introducing what our experiences have looked like. Minari is an incredibly accurate look at what immigrant Asian-American life looks like. Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata is fiction, but it also takes a close look at what immigrant life looked like in the 50s. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco by Judy Yung and Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong are great books to start with looking into Asian-American history in great detail. David Courtright’s Violent Land is technically about male violence in America, but extrapolates in deep detail about some of the worst massacres in Asian-American history that often get ignored.
Hold your community accountable. Call someone out when they make a happy ending joke, or when they say that Asian women have tighter vaginas. By acting as a passive bystander, Asian-Americans are left to internalize the message that these jokes are tolerated, which leads to normalization. Normalization leads to dehumanization, which leads to violence. I know it’s hard to talk about these things with your conservative family (I have personally experienced how frustrating and upsetting it can be, as well), but just try. The precedent it sets is important, even if you never change your friends’ or families’ minds.
Holding your community accountable includes holding brands and influencers accountable. Asian beauty is all the rage all over the world, just like jade rollers, anime, K-pop, karaoke, yoga, meditation, wabi-sabi, and Asian food. It’s not right to enjoy the elements of Asian culture, without defending the Asian community when it's under attack.
And finally, listen to the stories of Asian-American women and amplify them. Our experiences are so infrequently highlighted, and many of us still struggle to verbalize the emotions and phenomena that we experience. By providing Asian-American women with a safe environment to share our stories, listening with empathy and attention, and amplifying our voices, we feel less alone. We feel safer—and maybe more importantly, we feel seen. And after years of being erased and ignored, that’s exactly what Asian-Americans need.
If you’re able to donate, here are a few Asian-American organizations:
Written by Jennifer Li for Youth To The People