The Asian Sex Worker Stereotype and the Military-Industrial Complex
When I was ten years old, I watched Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan enter a massage parlor in Hong Kong. The hostess opens a door painted with Asian iconography to reveal dozens of scantily clad Asian women. They squeeze their chests, waiting for the men to buy them for an hour or so. Even as a child, I picked up on the overtly sexual undertones.
Asian women are fetishized by the West. We are depicted as demure, perfect to control, and hypersexual. These depictions perpetuate the same overall message: Asian women are the perfect subservient counterpart for men.
This is a never-ending trend in Hollywood. American movies love to depict Asian women as hypersexual and obedient when they need to blend into the background. Look at Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the prostitute scene that gave us the infamous quote: “Ah, me so horny. Me love you long time.” Look at Mean Girls (2004), where Tina Fey (a white woman) writes her Asian characters as promiscuous underage girls seeking sex with grown men. Look at Madame Butterfly (1904) where a Japanese woman falls in love with a soldier and kills herself when he marries a white woman.
The objectification Asian women experience in the colonized West is dangerous. It’s humiliating and dehumanizing to see people that look like you reduced to a caricature for someone else’s entertainment.
Celine Parreñas Shimizu (Director of the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University) believes this depiction is linked to the military-industrial-complex.Shimizu speaks about how European colonial powers perpetuate the obedient hypersexual Asian woman narrative through plays and film.
How did this dangerous portrayal even start?
Even Shimizu admits that’s hard to pinpoint. There areprimary sources from military personnelduring the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860), writing about the prostitutes they slept with. Prior to the war, there was documentation from traders describing similar experiences.
Regardless of the reason for their visit, when tourists become the authority of another culture, so much is lost in translation. Their limited understanding, interaction, and exposure to the culture should no longer be regarded as the only truth.
Let’s talk about class and wartime dynamics. People survive in these environments in three ways: joining the violence, providing a service, or hiding. When history is written by the violent, of course, there will only be records of provided services (like sex work) or killing native populations on their homeland. The military’s perspective is often the only documented experience in the West.
The West has been at war with Asia for hundreds of years. Ferdinand Magellan’s failed conquest of the Philippines (1521), Anglo-Indian Wars (1686-1920), Opium Wars (1839-1842), Sino-French War (1884–1885), Philippine-America War (1899-1913), Korean War (1950-1953), Pacific War (1941-1945), Vietnam War (1955-1975), Persian Gulf Crisis (2019-Present), and so many more.
Only recent discourse acknowledges sexual violence as a weapon of war. Sexual violence encouraged by militaristic forces isa tool of ethnic cleansing. It becomes a point of tension on an interpersonal level and disrupts cultural customs and can have severegovernmental repercussions.
Militaristic colonizers often go onto document their wartime experiences. Take a look at the film The World of Suzie Wong (1960) where the lead is a Chinese prostitute pretending to be a woman from high society. This is based on a novel (1957) by a British soldier who interrogated Asian captives during World War II. Then there is the play Good Woman of Szechuan (1880) contains a plot about an Asian woman who is a sex worker, developing a relationship with a soldier. This play is written by a German man who briefly worked at a military venereal disease clinic. In these fictional depictions, the Asian characters often kill themselves after giving birth and being abandoned. Then, when the virtuous soldier returns to Asia as a tourist, he adopts his bastard child because he abides by the knight’s code.
In real life, this rarely happens. Women often struggled to raise their children, sometimes faced government persecution because of the living reminder of the war. In real life, these women married the soldier and encouraged their children to be more like their father’s family. In real life, women were encouraged to marry the colonizer because it made life easier.
I wish there were more academic journals and documents to prove my claims, but the truth is our side of the narrative is only just being legitimized in academia.
My life consists of accumulating scraps of anecdotal family histories from my diasporic communities. I’m infamous for interrogating my Filipino family about the part we played during America’s occupation during World War II at the dinner table. With my friends, we exchange stories about the war because there was always a war. That’s why we live in a country with the largest military budget in the world. The topics of sex, rape, marriage, illegitimate children, and why we never learned this history in school always come up.
We can no longer be in survival mode. As hate crimes against all marginalized communities skyrockets, we need to speak out. We should call out damaging stereotypes that reduce murders into a punchline. White supremacy has a history of dehumanizing men as uncivilized, women as sex objects, and everyone else invisible. We need to speak our truth. No one should be reduced to objectifying stereotypes rooted in colonial violence, regardless of their culture, race, class, or profession.
Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.
Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.
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