Whiting Out the “Yellowgirl”

by laurie song

The silence surrounding the revocation of a UC Berkeley graduate’s role in a racist political ad campaign

During the 2012 Super Bowl, former Republican U.S. Representative Pete Hoekstra ran an extremely disturbing advertisement in Michigan, his home state, as part of his campaign for U.S. Senate, starring a racist caricature of an Asian woman representing the sinister “Chinese” beneficiaries of his opponent’s spending plan.

The 30-second ad opens with the ringing of a gong and ominous Oriental music as the camera pans across a rice paddy with palm trees in the background. A young woman with a conical straw hat tied around her neck bikes up to the camera. In choppy pidgin English but a perfect American accent, she smilingly thanks Hoekstra’s opponent, “Debbie SpendItNow” (Debbie Stabenow), for spending so much American money and borrowing more from “us”—implied to be the Chinese—that the American economy weakens, allowing the Chinese to take American jobs.

This indisputably xenophobic portrayal of Asians perpetuates stereotypes long embedded in Western culture. From the late 19th century, Chinese immigrants in Western countries have been objectified as the “Yellow Peril,” a term that both immediately racializes and accuses all of these yellow-skinned foreigners of endangering the Western way of life. Throughout the 20th century, Asians continued to be associated with malicious cunning in mass media, perhaps best exemplified by the “Fu Manchu” archetype of the criminal mastermind in pop culture: intelligent, heartless, and bent on destroying Western civilization.

Hoekstra’s ad doesn’t just fear monger by playing on outdated stereotypes with a modern female Fu Manchu; it also undermines the individual cultures of different countries by presenting an Orientalized landscape containing various indistinct elements of Asian cultures. Though implicit, it is obvious that the woman in the ad is supposed to be Chinese. However, the looming vermilion clouds and shadowy palm trees behind fields of rice evoke a different image in the average American’s subconscious—the Vietnam War and all of its horrors. This mixed, mysterious, exotic Oriental setting portrays the woman as representative of an Asian mass menace and only intensifies the divide between Asians—even Asian Americans, often viewed as “perpetual foreigners”—and the West.

Of course, the great irony is that the actress portraying this machinating Oriental “yellowgirl” (the name of her image in the html code of Hoekstra’s now-removed website for the ad) is none other than Lisa Chan, a Chinese American and recent UC Berkeley graduate with a degree in Sociology. Chan, a 21-year-old who lists youth empowerment, education, and pageantry among her passions on her website, released a brief statement of apology on her Facebook page that was later rescinded; coincidentally, Hoekstra’s ad was finally taken down around the same time—weeks after its release.

In the formerly released statement, Chan said she was “deeply sorry for any pain that the character I portrayed brought to my communities” and that “this role is not in any way representative of who I am.”

 

Though she identifies herself as part of “her” communities, she simultaneously distances herself from the character she knowingly and willingly portrayed as a hired actress. Chan apologizes for the character, but not for her portrayal, citing her own involvement in communities, work to empower others, and recent graduation as excuses for her ignorance. She also fails to mention the critical point in this controversy—the fact that her portrayal was racist and offensive. Her apology would have been the place for her to start working toward undoing some of the damage by addressing the issue at hand, but she asks for forgiveness instead. These are the questions I would like Chan to answer: If you are so involved in community empowerment, why did you decide to go through with this at all? Will we ever hear a real apology from you?

At first glance, Chan appears to be true to her self-portrayal—a role model for youth actively involved in community issues. However, with the rescission of her non-apology, as well as a brand new website featuring airbrushed glamour shots of herself and inspirational quotes, it is clear that the issue of her involvement in this racist advertisement has been whited out; whether this was done so in deference to her contract or for personal reasons is unclear. While her former non-apology was vague and evasive, she at least attempted to demonstrate regret for her role in the controversy, stating that she was “determined to resolve [her] actions.” Now, with the complete whiting out of the incident, it is dubious this will ever happen.

Chan was the one person in the position to step forward, explain herself, and use the attention to raise awareness of racism and Asian Pacific American issues. Instead, she appears to have funneled her time and resources into self-promotion. When I look at Chan, I see a bright young woman, recently graduated from this institution and involved in various community projects—ostensibly a face that could represent some of us in the APA community—who has, by attempting to hide any evidence of her involvement in Hoekstra’s ad campaign, made the second-worst decision of her career.

Hoekstra’s advertisement, as well as the subsequent removal of all material with no explanation or apology, is a jarring wake-up call to all of us. How is it that, in today’s society, a Chinese American graduate of UC Berkeley—in Sociology, no less—is hired by a white man’s political campaign to portray a disgusting, fear mongering racial caricature of a Chinese person that is subsequently broadcast statewide before being called out for racism? How is it acceptable for said actress and campaign to then remove all content, only after being repeatedly criticized in the media, without a sincere apology acknowledging personal fault to the APA community? If nothing else, it is apparent that we, as a community and as a society, still have much work to do.