Fun With China

In Media Merriment, Fine Line Between Humor and Hate

Since a U.S. spy plane and Chinese fighter jet collided on April 1, Americans have had more to laugh about. Members of the media have been cracking all kinds of good ones about the funny little yellow people.

Some recent yuks, compiled by Asian American civil rights organizations:

"I don't pretend to know who these Chinese people are. I know they're small, maybe one or two feet high. I know they sound funny when they talk. I know the womenfolk have sideways vaginas. But underneath their scales, they're just like you and me." —Saturday Night Live host Alec Baldwin during an April 7 sketch in which he played a deranged marine trying to incite the 24 U.S. crew members being held on Hainan Island to attempt a takeover of the entire nation.

"I will be in favor of apologizing [to the Chinese] the moment they apologize for all those menus they keep leaving outside my front door. . . . I've got considerable sympathy for the Red Chinese—despite the fact that if my dog were a member of the American crew, Jiang Zemin would have eaten him by now." —National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg in his April 4 column.

"Ching ching chong chong."—comedy troupe Capitol Steps in a skit at the April 3 opening reception of the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention. Hundreds of editors laughed as a white man, dressed in a black wig and thick glasses, conversed in a made-up version of Chinese.

"If I were president of the United States, I would declare war on the Chinese, but not just because they held 24 of our folks on Hainan Island for 11 days. . . . We should unload the big ham on China because of all the annoying artsy-craftsy crapola they manufacture and send over here. . . . Real men wouldn't have to waste their afternoons slogging through craft emporiums looking at faux leopard-skin hat boxes if it weren't for the Chinese slapping together all of this garbage and unloading it over here." —Austin American-Statesman staff writer John Kelso in his April 15 column.

"The Chinese now say they are taking a hard stance. Now they say they are going to double the amount of MSG they put in our food." —NBC Tonight Show host Jay Leno on the April 4 show.

"So now the Chinese have the spy plane and George Bush is playing hardball with them. He said not only does he want the spy plane returned, he also wants it dry-cleaned." —David Letterman on CBS's April 4 Late Show.

A "fry over" was how talk radio host Don Bleu of the San Francisco area's 101.3-FM described the plane situation during an April 6 bit. Playing music from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the background, he made prank calls, seemingly to strangers in China.

Morning host Ray Lytle of WQLZ in Springfield, Illinois, declared he would not patronize Chinese restaurants or play Chinese checkers until the U.S. crew returned home. In one gag, he told listeners he was dialing numbers at random for residents of New York's Chinatown. He mocked one woman, who briefly stayed on the line, for her limited English proficiency.

"Asian Americans are becoming the sacrificial lamb to secure the U.S.'s position as the superpower of the world."—Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"Get a sense of humor!" objectors to this brand of merriment are likely to hear. Cracks about racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and fat or stupid people are, after all, just good, clean, all-American fun. By no means should we suspect that the jocular dick-swinging—it's not incidental that most if not all the jokesters are white men—disguises a morass of social anxiety that in the face of a perceived threat can easily transform to hostility.

But the experience of Asian Americans has proved that for minorities, mockery can work just that way. A new documentary about the McCarthy-era persecution of suspected Chinese American communist sympathizers—the Chinatown Files, whose New York debut this week at the Museum of Modern Art is eerily relevant—shows today's yellow-baiting is far from fresh.

From animated cartoons to newspaper headlines, popular messages dubbed anyone who looked or sounded Chinese an oddity at best, at worst a threat. With testimony from the FBI, historians, and victims, the film recounts how thousands of Chinese Americans across the country—many of them U.S. citizens—were systematically spied on, interrogated, jailed, and often deported by government agencies, all in the name of national security and democracy.

Racial humor is "used a lot of times just to demonize certain people," says documentary director Amy Chen. "They're rendered despicable, and it's possible to persecute them."

The butt of the joke gets isolated, shoved under a spotlight, and ridiculed for being different. A vulnerable place to be, especially at times of heightened international tensions when the U.S.'s very virility hangs in the balance. (Much, incidentally, has been made in the news of China's need to save face. There's less heard about the scramble in this, the land of cowboys, football, and Rocky, to preserve another anatomical part.)

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