Madame Butterfly’s revenge

'She had enough long black hair, Japanese hair, to keep on drowning him forever,'
– Richard Brautigan, Sombrero Fallout; A Japanese Novel
(Simon and Schuster, 1976)

PHIL, WHITE, MALE, in his early middle years, looks me up and down. 'Your long black hair, that's very feminine. I love the colour of your skin, I love the shapes of your body, the deep brown eyes, you know. From an aesthetic perspective, I just find Asian women much more beautiful than white women.' It's easy to dismiss Phil as a sleaze. But his objectification of me, which in the humourless parlance of feminist cultural studies is called 'the white male gaze', is hardly unusual. It's the way men like Phil inscribe onto my body their fantasies of the exotic, over-feminised, submissive Asian woman, turning me into their version of Rice Bunny, Lotus Blossom, Madame Butterfly.

As a Japanese woman living in Australia, I've often experienced this skin-crawling gaze. But that doesn't necessarily make me a victim trapped in my 'Asian-ness'. It's Phil who's the victim of Orientalist stereotypes, don't you think?

Since the publication of the late Edward Said's classic Orientalism (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978) Orientalist discourse has dominated understanding of the West's relationship with the East, in which the West patronises the East as vulnerable, pre-modern, feminine, inscrutable and spiritual. In Said's words, Orientalism refers to the way 'European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively in the post-Enlightenment period.' Implicit in Orientalist discourse is its flipside, Occidentalism, which idealises the West as modern, rational, superior, male and virile. These two Os have traditionally framed and defined the contours of the East–West nexus.

But with the so-called Asian century upon us, 'Asian women' are increasingly reworking the racialised politics of Orientalism, rewriting their own narratives of Occidental desire that reimagines and reinvigorates their erotic power. If desire is always an expression of power, as Michel Foucault claimed in The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction (Penguin Books, 1990), white blokes like Phil are important conduits to women's newfound empowerment in this twenty-first century Asian feminist narrative.

'I PREFER WESTERN men to any Asian men.' Vietnamese-Australian Alicia Tran is a twenty-something, smart, articulate professional who 'serially dated a few white men' before she married an Australian in 2010. 'If I'd married a Vietnamese like my parents wanted, I wouldn't be living in Australia, with all this freedom,' claims Alicia. Jenny Chen, petite and pretty as a flower, is Chinese-Australian and prefers men with a 'stronger, more muscular build'. She's married to a Frenchman, who was looking for an Asian woman online when he clicked on Jenny. 'Caucasian, or anybody who is not Asian – it's a natural attraction. Maybe it's something to do with our biology, our body, our instinct to look for something different.'

Alicia and Jenny's views are similar to many of those expressed by young women I've spoken to about their 'Occidentalist desire'. At the heart of this desire is the fetishisation of the West as progressive and liberating, and the corollary is the disavowal of traditional gender relations in Asia, often expressed as a brutal emasculation of Asian men.

Take the populist novel Shanghai Baby (Robinson, 2001) by Wei Hui (the movie version was released in 2007). The protagonist, Coco, is a sassy, well-educated, good-time girl whose Chinese boyfriend is impotent. Then Coco has a big, juicy affair with a married man, a German. By the novel's end, he's left Shanghai and Coco. But unlike Madame Butterfly who kills herself, it's Coco's Chinese boyfriend who dies from an overdose. After an appropriate shedding of tears, she goes back to pursuing her dream of becoming a famous writer.

Billed as semi-autobiographical, Shanghai Baby is littered with Orientalist stereotypes that shamelessly titillate. For example, author Wei Hui directs the reader to 'gaze' at Coco (her), but with a kind of look-at-me-glee. 'To most men, I qualify as a little beauty, as pleasing as spring light on a lake's surface, with a pair of oversize eyes right out of a Japanese cartoon and a long Coco Chanel neck.' Coco is alluring and uninhibited, so rather than a victim, Wei Hui is reimagining the desired model of Asian femininity as an exotic 'Baby' who is materialistic, ambitious and adventurous. Coco is no Cho Cho, but she only barely toes the line between being dominated and being in control.

This ambivalence is most evident when Coco is raped by her German lover in a bar lavatory. The sex is violent yet confusing, at times she's on top so that she can 'direct his movements to suit my sensitivity.' But afterwards, Coco cries because she 'suddenly felt cheaper than the prostitutes dancing downstairs.' Then, defiantly, 'You didn't rape me,' she says. 'No one could.'

At the risk of elevating an otherwise forgettable novel with over-analysis, Shanghai Baby's publication about a decade ago coincided with the rise of China as a major global power, making the ambivalence of Coco's erotic power all the more politically potent. This is even more so for Australia, where the tension between desiring Asia economically and fearing the 'yellow peril' has always been part of Australia's relationship with its significant other, Asia. These contradictions do not sit well within the Orientalist paradigm, which tends to stereotype Asia as beautiful but passive.

To some men the most beautiful sight in this world is a sleeping Japanese woman. The sight of her long black hair floating beside her like dark lilies makes them want to die and be transported to a paradise that is filled with sleeping Japanese women who ever wake but sleep on for all time, dreaming beautiful dreams.

This passage from Richard Brautigan's novel, Sombrero Fallout; A Japanese Novel encapsulates the author's one-dimensional theme: a morbid fascination with long black hair and small Japanese eyes. Other Orientalist narratives in popular culture from the last century include James Michener's Sayonara (Random House, 1954), Graham Greene's The Quiet American (William Heinemann, 1955), Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong (Collins, 1957) and, of course, Dennis O'Rourke's controversial docudrama The Good Woman of Bangkok (1992). They all portray the West's involvement, penetration, colonisation of the East, made palatable by the fairytale plot, white knight rescues yellow damsel. In all these examples, Asian women are mostly passive victims of political circumstance, and their allegiance to the West through intercourse with the white man legitimises the West's imperialist project.

Despite the fact that these stories are dripping with Orientalist stereotypes, I have to admit I'm strangely drawn to the erotically charged and ethereal world of silky robes and red lanterns created by some of these male writers. These images implicate me at a visceral level, but I don't totally reject them.

I've always liked the fact that my thick black hair fascinates people. Perhaps that's why I continue to keep my hair long, even though the 'black' is increasingly becoming a bottled illusion. And I love the 1957 film adaption of Michener's Sayonara. It stars the deliciously youthful Marlon Brando as Ace Gruver, the American pilot who defies 'anti-miscegenation' laws to marry a Japanese dancer. And I hope I'm not tarnishing my feminist credentials by revealing that I've often fantasised about being kissed by the luscious, white boy lips of the young Marlon Brando.

Marlon's lips are no longer, and these mostly one-dimensional narratives of the East–West relationship are slowly being replaced by stories in which women's agency is a regular theme. What's interesting is that in women's personal narratives, the same eroticised and over-feminised images of women are being used to subvert textbook Orientalism, and to affirm their femininity as strength. It's a kind of Orientalist blowback, and it makes racialised gender relations more complex.

EVA CHEN IS hardly a subversive, but she's funny, engaging and energetic, a Shanghai native who has a successful introduction agency specialising in Asian women. I find her especially refreshing because she tells it like she thinks: 'Asian women still preserve a lot of traditional values about being female, and that's what a lot of Caucasian men like, because they are a combination of the traditional and modern woman. They look after the family, they don't mind doing the housework, they think they are good at it, like cooking. But in saying that, they also expect the men to do something for them, for instance, men should take the heavy duty work in the house.'

Eva claims Asian women are 'more feminine' and stay youthful longer, uncomfortable assertions because of the obvious reference to the sexualised power of Asian women. But whether these are stereotypes is a moot point. What's significant is how these images are appropriated. In Eva's case, she's built an 'Orientalist business' based on the allure of Asian women, or at least the feminised images of them. Is she exploiting women? Perhaps. She's certainly exploiting the Asian mystique.

In a similar vein, some women, especially from impoverished rural regions, might dream of a romance with a western man as a means to transnational mobility, or use their erotic power to leverage access to greater opportunities for education, jobs – in short, a better life. In my opinion, this is a feminist statement.

In Romance on a Global Stage (University of California Press, 2003), anthropologist Nicole Constable critiques western feminists for using their own first world standards to define what's liberating and what's not. So while working for a living may be liberating to a middle-class American woman, it's not 'to a woman who has worked in fields or a factory for subsistence since childhood,' according to Constable.

The assumption that all traditional Asian societies are oppressive is patronising. Being provided for by a man and being in charge of the home might give some women, not just women from developing countries, a sense of personal power. So women's options take on different meanings depending on the context, and as one Bangkok bar worker once told me, she'd rather be a paid prostitute in a bar full of farang (westerners) than marry a man from her small village and end up looking after him and his ageing parents.

Needless to say, there is no ambiguity about the fact that the sex industry in Asia is lucrative and exploitative, and my intention is certainly not to downplay the chilling reality of many women who are exploited. There are too many tragic cases of women who are 'mail order brides' who end up being abused or even killed. But the point I want to make is that if desire is power, it shifts continually, and that not all these heterosexual relationships are circumscribed by a powerful-West versus submissive-East brand of prejudice.

In fact, the strength of Asian economic growth is one of the biggest factors re-orienting Orientalism. In much the same way that interest in Chinese women and their relationship with the West has grown in the past decade of Chinese economic expansion and global mobility, Japanese women were the flavour of the decade in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Japanese economy was inflating its soon-to-pop bubble. According to Karen Kelsky's anthropological study, Women on the Verge (Duke University Press, 2001), Japanese women were then one of Japan's 'most enthusiastic internationalists'. Their Occidental longing was, according to Kelsky, a way to resist gendered expectations at home and an 'expression of professional opportunity, personal liberation and erotic self expression', in short, women's own agency. But as Kelsky warns, women's allegiance to the West can have unintended consequences – that of being co-opted into a new 'cosmopolitan class that contains its own hierarchies of race, gender and capital.'

What Kelsky is alluding to is akin to the perils of an 'eroticised multiculturalism', in which Japanese women's western fetish acts to defy traditional Japan and its misogynist practices, while positively affirming interracial union. The problem with that is that it elevates white male desire for the Asian other into an instrument of cultural acceptance and an idealised plurality. But this inter-racial union is predicated on an ambivalent form of racial inclusion, which Ien Ang, Distinguished Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Western Sydney has pithily dubbed, 'inclusion by virtue of othering'.

If you ask many of these men, Phil included, they will tell you that they prefer Asian women because they just don't like white women. So this 'eroticised multiculturalism' is hardly an example of a post-race society, rather it's based on racial stereotyping and a disavowal of the 'other's other' – the big, scary, assertive white woman, and her unexpected bedfellow, the emasculated Asian male.

The fear of the powerful white woman is nothing other than blatant misogyny. When Gerry Nolan, a burly, sixty-something white Australian male, who also has a penchant for younger Asian women, tells me that he's 'scared of white women' because 'they're big', he's voicing a perspective that imagines white women as castrating and aggressive.

Gerry assumes that 'Occidental desire' increases his attractiveness to Asian women. And if he feels emasculated by assertive white women, he can feel 're-masculated' with younger Asian women, to borrow Sherican Prasso's term from her luscious tome The Asian Mystique; Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient (Public Affairs, 2005).

There are plenty of nasty jokes about our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard to suggest there's sufficient animosity towards powerful women in Australia. But it seems to me that white women are not nearly as feared as Asian men. So consider the chubby, buffoonish, unsexy persona of the South Korean artist PSY, whose YouTube video Gangnam Style was explosively popular in 2012.The prototype of the clownish Asian man (think Jackie Chan whose action man image is tempered by comedic charm) appears a lot in western depictions of Asia, and serves to diffuse the fear of the 'yellow peril', whether it's in the form of economic or military dominance. And we all had a good laugh when The Onion named North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as 'the sexiest man alive for 2012'. But the laughter surely masks a very real fear of perhaps the world's most unpredictable despot.

Along with the disavowal of white women and Asian men, fear of the over-assertive Asian woman, symbolised by the Dragon Lady myth, is another contradiction in the Orientalist paradigm. The publication of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin Books, 2011), a memoir of the super-disciplinarian Chinese-American mother Amy Chua, ignited a worldwide debate about Chinese versus western child rearing. It chronicles her struggle to push her daughters to over-perform academically. But I think the subtext of the debate was western discomfort of the high-achieving Asian female. At face value, multicultural western nations like the US and Australia might welcome aspirational Asians as 'the model minority', but only as long as they are 'Asian enough' and stay a 'minority'. The vehement objection to Amy Chua's methods is an expression of the contradiction inherent in the myth of harmonious multiculturalism – 'we just don't like Asians who don't act like Asians.'

THIS NOTION OF being 'not Asian enough' is an issue that has perplexed me for years. Having spent most of my childhood in Australia, I'm fluent in English, but with my mouth shut, I'm totally Japanese. So throughout my life, I've fielded comments like, 'you speak English so well', or 'you're not really Japanese anymore, you're more Australian'. Am I offended by these comments that compartmentalise my identity? Sometimes, depending on whether I feel more Japanese or more Australian. That's not meant to be a flippant comment. I'm also ambivalent about my identity, which shifts, depending on whom I'm with.

So am I a 'dragon lady' or do I have the 'geisha gene'? Am I submissive, tragic like Madame Butterfly, over-feminine, over-sexed, inscrutable? I'm probably all of these things, and none at the same time. But what really pisses me off is not that these images exist, but that they are inscribed onto my body, and appropriated mostly, but not exclusively, by white men, to fold me into their own Orientalist worldview. Gerry sums up the kind of stereotyping women like me are up against: 'I suppose there's a feeling that Asian women are innocent and childlike, therefore they need protection. But some Asian women are dragons, they're really nasty pieces of work, but even a female Asian dragon looks innocent, so you've got to trust her.'

Surely, identity is a construct that grows out of dialogue within human relationships, so it's contextually relative. I'm often referred to as 'Asian' in Australia, but in Japan, I'm actually sort of gaijin or foreigner because I don't quite fit in.

This is probably why Chinese writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo's work resonates with me. Her work has been criticised in China for not being Chinese enough, but she has lived in London and Paris, so her work reflects her cosmopolitan context. Xiaolu Guo is an interesting contrast to Shanghai Baby author Wei Hui. Far from falling into the trap of exoticising the East, two of her novels, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Chatto and Windus, 2007) and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (Chatto and Windus, 2008) are both first-person narratives about self-actualising young Chinese women. Immersing the reader in a world that is totally foreign is no easy feat, but in both books, the author uses Orientalist images but steers clear of stereotyping by examining more universal themes. In Fragments, she explores the exuberance of youth, and in Concise, the limits of language to convey true meaning. These two stories feel refreshing after Shanghai Baby's overworked Orientalist themes.

There are definitely signs that Orientalist thinking is shifting and evolving to accommodate new voices of younger Asian women. Take the 2012 American documentary, Seeking Asian Female, by Chinese-American filmmaker Debbie Lum. Unlike other narratives about 'mail order brides' that traverse the same territory – sex, exploitation, money – this intimate film chronicles the courtship and marriage of Steven, an ageing white American man who has 'a full-blown obsession with Asian women', and Sandy, a young Chinese woman who speaks little English. They meet online, marry, and the struggle to communicate begins. It's an unexpected love story, according to the film's creator, in which Steven unlearns stereotypes, and learns 'how to be a mutually caring, respectful and culturally sensitive husband. Above all, he must confront the reality of marriage not to the sweet innocent girl he imagined, but to a demanding, strong-willed Asian woman.' The fairy tale ending surprised the filmmaker Debbie Lum, too.

This documentary reminds us how important it is to listen closely to women's personal narratives if we are to dismantle Orientalist stereotypes. As cultural theorist and 'Asian woman' Ien Ang once told me: The problem with an ideology such as Orientalism is that it's there, it's more powerful than we are, culturally speaking we will always be reminded of its power. What we need to do is to relate to each other as individuals. We all live in a world in which we have multiple identities. On the one hand, we cannot escape being Asian, we cannot escape being woman. But at the same time we are also so many other things on top of that. And it's those other aspects of our identity that will have to become a major part of our relationship if it's going to become a complex and egalitarian partnership, I think.'

I sometimes wonder about Phil and Gerry. I have a kind of affection for them both, despite their misogynist leanings. Gerry, for example, is an engaging conversationalist, and has an enthusiastic curiosity that can be disarming and charming. Will they ever find their way out of the Orientalist maze?

And I wonder about my hair. Will I ever chop it off? Perhaps when my hair ceases to be a political statement, but most probably when I feel like a change.

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