To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

Willing China Dolls and Obedient Geishas


On being caught up in Western clichés about Asian women. The Danish Experience.

FORUM/3.1.2000 A while ago a young man said the following to my boyfriend: "I've tried being together with Asian women. It's like fucking a twelve-year-old." It was said half in jest and quite unabashedly on an ordinary day at the office.

Sometimes, when I was a child, other children would ask if I could see anything with such narrow eyes. Precociously, I lectured them on the fact that I could see as much as anyone else, thank you very much. My mother and father had told me that people see with their pupils and not with the whole eye. As far as I remember, most of the children accepted this authoritative, grown-up explanation without protest, but a few remained under the impression that my sister and I were half-blind. These persistent souls were a constant irritation to me: First of all, I wanted to be right, and secondly I did not want to be thought of as visually impaired. Is there anything worse than being called four eyes?

When I complained to various adults, they most often told me that the other children were being silly. Or ignorant. Or badly behaved. I shouldn't listen to them.

When my shocked boyfriend first related the Asian women analogy to me, the grotesque meaning of the statement struck me. In order to know that having sex with a woman of Asian origin is like "fucking a twelve-year-old", the man must already happily have indulged in under-age sex with a twelve-year-old. So this was a genuine paedophilic confession!

In reality, however, there was nothing paedophilic and Don Juan-like about a 26-year-old like him. It was more a case of shameless bragging. So I laughed a little overbearingly at the absurdity of it all, while I thought of him as an ignorant dweeb marred by bad upbringing. Wasn't it best to overhear such lowbrow assertions?


I still cannot help wondering about what he said. It would be interesting to find out how such a stereotypical view of Asian women was generated. The construction "Asian woman", as it appears in Western culture, is far from being unproblematic. Actually it is boring and very stereotypical, and yet the phrase is still going strong, even in a liberal country like Denmark. The overall view of the natural subservience and reticence of "Asian women" is widespread. And it does not matter if one has lived here for 25 years and been raised on the Danish welfare state and Danish values. One is just predisposed to be that way, as someone once told me. Or one is seen as someone who is exotic and brings with her a whiff of rice paddies under faraway skies. As if one had just been brought off the set of Shogun.

Then there are the more "positive" stereotypes, such as "all Asians work hard and never cause trouble". Usually these statements are followed by references to various American studies, which claim that Asians generally are very intelligent, while whites are less intelligent, and Africans are even less so.

The Western view of the category of "Asian woman" is of course much more complex than described above, but the common stereotypes are often repeated and are difficult to debunk. The picture of Asian women as presented on TV, in films, or in music, is still boringly conventional. That is to say, if Asian women appear at all. Actually Asian-looking women are remarkably absent from the films and television series we import from USA or produce ourselves in Europe. Large award-winning, progressive television series like NYPD Blue, ER, Homicide - Life on the Street, and The Practice do not star Asian-looking women (or men for that matter). This is in spite of these series' obvious attempts at multicultural casting. Quite a few minor parts, which are more or less insignificant, are given to Asian-looking women. An Asian nurse or police woman is occasionally seen. Usually, however, it only adds up to little more than an insignificant sentence once every second episode.

"There is a patient for you, Dr. Greene." Exit.

This is of course unless you would like to watch historical films about Asian cultures. Here in the West there seems to be great interest in producing television series and films about historical Asian cultures, right from the hopelessly dated Shogun to The Last Emperor and Indochina. A Tibet craze has even arisen in the last few years, and renowned directors have gone on pilgrimages to the Andes or Africa to make films about Tibetan culture, since it is not possible to go to Tibet itself.

It can truly be very entertaining and - at best - a little educational to watch these historical films about proud samurais and depraved Chinese imperial families. But there seems to be a limit to how many obedient geishas and alcoholic empresses one can bear to watch, in the absence of other interpretations of the role of the modern Asian woman. And certainly not in a Western context.

The television series Ally McBeal, which is shown the Danish channel TV2, distinguishes itself a little from this tendency by introducing the character of Ling Woo: an unsympathetic, arrogant former lawyer. Like an alien being, she has landed in an otherwise very white legal firm. Her main task is to make life miserable for the neurotic, yet very nice, Barbie-like female lawyers in the series.

Ling is an ambiguous character, who is constantly oscillating between the two different stereotypes that are associated with "the Asian female character", namely the Dragon Lady and the China Doll. As a Dragon Lady, she narrows her eyes and hisses like a dragon whenever someone crosses her path, and basically she is scheming most of the time. At other times she is the cool China Doll: a sexy and unattainable woman who turns men's heads, and whom the other women hate.

In USA critical voices have been raised, pointing out that Ling just reinforces and repeats the common stereotypical view of Asian women. That she is a step backwards instead of forwards. But perhaps one can also say that Ling, by her continual balancing on the edge of the obviously stereotypical, is drawing attention to these intransigent categories. The stereotypical view is exposed and deconstructed by repeatedly being shown in increasingly more grotesque variations. This strategy will most likely lose its subversive potential at some point; it will not forever be equally interesting to see Ling as Dragon Lady meets China Doll. One would expect that she would evolve to being a real human being at some point.

I have to admit that I admire this Ling and therefore enjoy watching her escapades every Thursday. With her highly bizarre behaviour she demonstrates that she is a stereotypical Asian woman. Yet Ling is an exception. At other times, when Asian women appear on prime time, it happens all too often that they merely strengthen widespread stereotypical views. Mai from Thailand, who appears in the popular Danish series TAXA on the Danish TV channel DR, is a prime example of this.

It is estimated that there are about one thousand Thai prostitutes in Denmark. On top of this, there are the Thai women whom Danish men meet on their holidays or through marriage agencies, and who then are brought to Denmark for marriage. These women are a part of the Danish picture. Actually they have melted together into a homogenous group, which is not differentiated. In our minds they have all been bought, paid for, and imported in one way or another. When one has an Asian appearance, it is easy to be cast in this category as well, even if one isn't from Thailand. This melting together of all women with a Thai background has somehow, mysteriously, come to encompass all Asian-looking women in this country.

When I was a teenager, I thought it was especially irritating when people asked me if I was from Thailand. With a clearly Danish accent I would quickly stress that I most certainly was not. The idea reeked of bought wives and massage parlour girls, and I could not distance myself quickly enough. Ten years later, and after reading quite a number of books on the subject, I do not react like this anymore. Yet the view that all Asian women are "Thai", and whatever that means, is still prevalent.

This is why it is unfortunate that a good television series like TAXA cannot come up with anything better than Mai. Of course it is important to touch upon the problems that Thai wives may have with their Danish husbands. Yet, as opposed to Ling, Mai does not play around with her stereotype, and she just fulfils the role of a Thai woman according to the Danish definition. I don't doubt the good intentions, because Mai is a sweet Thai woman, whom we all feel sympathy for. I wish she would come home from Bangkok and be reunited with her Danish boyfriend! Whereas Ling may have a subversive potential, I'm afraid that Mai only strengthens the cultural view of Thai and other Asian women. Therefore I actually wish that Mai would stay in Bangkok, and that Laura Drasbæk, who plays her role, is offered something less stereotypical.

The stereotype is a straitjacket when it is only used to confirm a cultural idea. It is evident that it necessary to see Asian women in many different contexts in order to do away with the boring categorizations. If this does not happen, the price will be that one will have to listen to words like "Being together with Asian women is like fucking a twelve-year-old."

New roles for Asian women are needed!

Lene Myong Petersen studies Comparative Literature.

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: