The Boston Phoenix
February 24 - March 2, 2000


There's something about Lucy

Casting a cold eye on the rise of Asian starlets

by Michelle Chihara

ARE YOU A GOOD BITCH or a bad bitch? Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu twists the stereotypes, but only a little.

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."

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.

Tinted love

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 with anyone."

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, 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 disagrees.

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 star?"

-- MC

"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.

"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 persecuted."

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, 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?"

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 my ethnicity."

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."

-- MC

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.

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 motion pictures."

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.

IT-GIRLS ONLY: Asian women have left Asian men in the dust when it comes to celebrity status. From the top: ER's Ming-Na, Bond girl Michelle Yeoh, and model Irina Pantaeva.

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 their ethnicity.

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 Japanese loyalties.

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 it progress.

Michelle Chihara can be reached at mchihara[a]