Seventy years ago, half of all Americans read comic books, and much of what they saw were stereotypical images of Asian kamikazes, gurus, temptresses, and lotus flowers. How did Asian Americans read these images? How do they see them now?
Jeff Yang, blogger and writer for the Wall Street Journal, curated two new exhibits at the Museum of Chinese in America that explore these questions. Through "Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986," and "Alt.Comics: Asian American Artists Reinvent the Comic," Yang wanted to address and expose the stereotypes, and show the ways in which modern comics are combating them.
In addition to racism and xenophobia, the comics also expose a persistent sexism, and objectification of women. "Every Asian woman has a sort of plunging neckline," Yang says. "You almost always see this passion play, where the evil tyrant has a grand-niece, or granddaughter or something, who is a dragon lady type temptress, and then, eventually betrays her conquering uncle or whatever, because she falls in love with the hero."
But rather than simply having the exhibit be a litany of offensive images, Yang wanted to be sure to also include the ways in which modern artists are re-appropriating the comic book medium. A Vietnamese-American artist namedGB Tran has told his family's history through his comics, while Christine Norrie, who is Thai-American, tells a different kind of story, with richly told, character-driven plot lines.
Yang also acknowledges that certain archetypes do not emerge solely from the way that Asian culture has been depicted, but indeed, reflects a certain kind of truth. The "lotus blossom," for instance - the stereotypical, submissive Asian woman that we still see in pop culture today, Yang says is derived in part from a long history of putting women in that role in Asian (and American) society.
Yang doesn't think it is quite possible to erase the deep history of racism in America, but by exposing this history, and the ways in which modern artists are changing the status quo, he hopes to make people a bit more aware of it. "We live in a world even today, where these images persist. We can't really liberate ourselves from these things: from xenophobia, from fear of the other," Yang says. "We have to live with it."