If you're in NZ, you will probably not have missed all the media coverage about the Len Brown affair. I was asked at short notice to write about my response to the "sexual festishisation of Asian women" in relation to the story (um....) and it was published today. Slightly discomforting to find that the opinion piece which featured alongside it (supposedly a woman's take on the affair) was by Deborah Coddington of "Asian Angst" fame. Oh well, she said some things worth thinking about too.
Below is the full text of my article. It was cut from 700 to under 500 words to fit, but even 700 is really too few to tease out all the points. (There were also two versions of the beginning, which explains the discrepancy.) I thought they did a reasonable job of preserving the main points. And at least they let me put one joke back in.
I’ll admit it. My first reaction was one of annoyance. “Why him? Why her? And oh great, she’s Asian. Here we go again.” But just like not all Asians are bad drivers, not all Asians are Geishas, Manchu girls, Peking Ducks or whatever smutty term is making the rounds.
But they’re jokes, right? We’re all New Zealanders. Hell, my best mate is Asian. I eat out at Barilla Dumpling all the time. As Robin Thicke might claim, if we’re proven non racists, then what’s wrong with a bit of fun, self-aware racism?
Try walking around in my skin for a week and you’ll find out soon enough. I’m a born and bred Aucklander. Most of the time I feel pretty normal. But then something like the Len Brown affair hits the media and suddenly I feel exposed again. I remember all the times I’ve had to fend off unwanted comments, ‘jokes’ or even advances. Most Asian women, and many men, will know exactly what I’m talking about.
The problem is that we are not stereotypes. We are not cartoons. We are not viper-like ‘dragon mistresses’, nor are we little girl-women who can somehow be innocent and slutty at the same time. We are not Tiger Moms either. We are people. Individuals. Got that? And for the record, I don’t even know any martial arts.
Chinese people have been living in NZ since 1842. That’s over 170 years of history. But from the beginning, we’ve had image problems. First there was ‘Yellow Peril’ – cue political cartoons depicting Chinese as deformed monsters (cartoons that resurface from time to time in contemporary format in our national papers.) Then we became the ‘model minority’ – quiet achievers, good at keeping our heads down and not making too much of fuss while contributing to the economy. It’s only recently that we have become more confident, seeking office as elected leaders, making art and films, writing books. But it’s understandable that older Chinese in our community are still wary of ‘standing out too much.’ It’s on this background that you need to understand the reaction to Bevan Chuang’s actions.
There’s been a lot of anger, even shame. That’s natural, of course. Bevan is well known to many in our community. She not only represented us on the Ethnic People’s Advisory Panel, she’s also been highly visible at many public events, a natural networker. Due to her status as a ‘1.5 generation’ Kiwi Chinese and fluency in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, she’s been seen as able to bridge the gap.
But Bevan is also just… herself. She’s frank and open about her relationship status, her love of burlesque, and often dresses sexily. That’s just who she is. Does she manipulate the Asian babe image? Perhaps. But then, that’s just a natural reaction to a lifetime of people assuming things. We've all done it, right? Sometimes it’s just easier – and more fun- to go with the flow.
We all know how one person can influence a stereotype, for better or worse. There’s no telling the damage Bevan’s story might have done to other (young) (Asian) women and the conclusions certain uninformed, racist and chauvinistic people might now make about us as a group. The fact that she strove to represent us, and played the ethnicity card to get into politics, only makes it worse. But in the end she’s just a foolish person who has already acknowledged her mistakes. Her Asian-ness shouldn’t come into it.
The fact is, we can't blame Bevan or any of her predecessors (anyone remember Geeling Ng’s China Girl video?) for how society sees us. Just as it’s certain we have not heard the full story behind her behaviour, it’s certain that hers is not the only story we have to tell. The rabid public reaction is no reflection on Bevan, but rather a reflection of NZ society and how far we yet have to go. And so, for my fellow Asians reading this, I have a challenge: we can’t change our faces, but we can change the way people see us. Get out there. Do it. Tell your own story and be yourself.