Sooner or later every Asian-American must deal with the question "Where do you come from?" It is probably the most familiar if least aggressive form of racism. It is a tip-off to the persistent notion that people of Asian ancestry are not real Americans, that "Orientals" never really stop being loyal to a foreign homeland, no matter how long they or their families have been in this country. Confronting the cultural stereotypes that have been attached to Asian-Americans over the last 150 years, Robert G. Lee seizes the label "Oriental" and asks where it came from. The idea of Asians as mysterious strangers who could not be assimilated into the cultural mainstream was percolating to the surface of American popular culture in the mid-nineteenth century, when Chinese immigrant laborers began to arrive in this country in large numbers. Lee shows how the bewildering array of racialized images first proffered by music hall songsters and social commentators have evolved and become generalized to all Asian-Americans, coalescing in particular stereotypes. Whether represented as Pollutant, Coolie, Deviant, Yellow Peril, Model Minority, or Gook, the Oriental is portrayed as alien and a threat to the American family - the nation writ small. Refusing to balance positive against negative stereotypes, Lee connects these stereotypes to particular historical moments, each marked by shifting class relations and cultural crises. Seen as products of history and racial politics, the images that have prevailed in songs, fiction, films, and nonfiction polemics are contradictory and complex. Lee probes into clashing images of Asians as (for instance) seductively exotic or devious despoilers of (white) racial purity, admirably industrious or an insidious threat to native laborers. When Lee dissects the ridiculous, villainous, or pathetic characters that amused or alarmed the American public, he finds nothing generated by the real Asian-American experience; whether they come from Gold Rush camps or Hollywood films or the cover of Newsweek, these inhuman images are manufactured to play out America's racial myths. Orientals comes to grips with the ways that racial stereotypes come into being and serve the purposes of the dominant culture. Author note: Robert G. Lee is Associate Professor of American Civilization, Brown University.
As Edward W. Said noted in his groundbreaking study, Orientalism
, the Asian is the eternal "other." Asian Americans, whether immigrants or native born, are subject to a variety of overlapping stereotypes that label them as "not American." What is "American" and what is not is defined in part by popular culture. In Orientals
, Robert G. Lee analyses a broad range of artifacts of American pop culture--from silent films to blockbuster movies, popular magazines to pulp fiction, and stage dramas to 19th-century songs--to reveal the history of these definitions.
Lee identifies six representations of Asian Americans--the pollutant, the coolie worker, the deviant, the yellow peril, the model minority, and the gook--and notes how, when, and why they emerged. As Lee notes, "each of these representations was constructed in a specific historical moment, marked by a shift in class relations accompanied by cultural crisis." For example, the image of the subservient "coolie" emerged as an undercutting threat to the developing white working class in the 1870s and 1880s, while the image of the Asian as model minority appeared in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s and was held up to African Americans and Latinos as a "successful case of 'ethnic' assimilation" and a model for nonpolitical upward mobility. Well illustrated throughout, Lee's impressive study uses the Asian American experience as a window through which to examine what makes a person a "real" American. Orientals is an excellent addition to the scholarly literature. --C.B. Delaney