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.)

Those who dismiss the notion that a silly spy plane standoff could set off a xenophobic explosion don't realize there's much more at stake than aeronautics secrets.

"Asian Americans are becoming the sacrificial lamb to secure the U.S.'s position as the superpower of the world," declares Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "They are positioned as the domestic threat—foreign, unassimilable, loyal to the motherland." Fanning the flames of anti-Asian suspicion, she suggests, is a way not only to boost patriotism among the masses but also to divert attention from such gaping chinks in the nation's ideological armor as booming prison numbers and racial profiling in law enforcement. "It goes back to the U.S.'s being the greatest, the place where everyone should be happy to be living," Ling says.

Shock jocks didn't know they could be so deep. Well, their profundity remaining up for debate, it's safe to say their shenanigans do contribute to a general atmosphere where it becomes acceptable to mock or do worse to people who look and sound a certain way. What sets members of the media apart from some yahoo holding court in the local bar is the power to reach millions of eyes and ears and "give the sense that this stuff is OK out there in popular culture," according to Asian American Journalists Association national president Victor Panichkul. He argues that commentators should therefore take care to "express an opinion intelligently, without resorting to pejorative racial stereotypes."


"I'm a third-generation American, and there's talk of us being sent back to our own country. This is our country!" —George Ong, Organization of Chinese Americans national president.


For every prank executed by the media, civil rights groups suspect, there are dozens that Asian Americans experience on a more intimate level in workplaces, on buses, in the streets. Not even Capitol Hill is immune, according to Diane Chin, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Recalling a recent gathering of civil rights organizations where Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke, Chin paraphrases the senator's words: "The mood in Washington is increasingly anti-Chinese. You need to do something about that." Chin says, "I think of her as one of the most conservative Democrats. That that's what preoccupied her, as a civil rights issue, was fascinating to me."

Even before the current diplomatic crisis, recent controversies involving Asians, such as the Wen Ho Lee case and campaign financing scandals, helped fuel a "media hysteria" that documentarian Chen says carries distinct overtones of 1950s alarmism. Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) national president George Ong is frustrated that even decades later the "forever foreigner" suspicions about Asians haven't lost their potency. "I'm a third-generation American, and there's talk of us being sent back to our own country. This is our country!" he exclaims. "How dare they say we should be sent elsewhere."

During times like this, advocates counsel, Asian Americans should be on the alert. According to the most recent audit of anti-Asian violence, which covers 41 states, 486 incidents occurred in 1999, up 57 from the previous year. "A lot of the research around hate violence indicates that the beginning is the dehumanization of whatever group it is. There can be a correlation drawn between when a group is cast as "other," or demonized with whatever stereotypes work against that group, and hate crimes against that group," says Chin.

The current climate reminds more than one observer of the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin. Two unemployed white auto workers beat the Chinese American man to death with a baseball bat, allegedly having mistaken him for being Japanese during a time of strong popular frustration over what was perceived as an encroaching Japanese economy. As memorable in some circles as the Rodney King or Amadou Diallo incidents, the killing is famous for having galvanized a nationwide Asian American rights movement.

The less obvious costs of anti-Asian sentiment can be even greater. A history of popular intolerance and government scrutiny effectively stunted Asian American political organizing for decades, activists say, rendering the community even more vulnerable to attacks. Persecution is no less possible today, they argue.

"I would certainly not be surprised" if government agencies were "looking at people's allegiances" as a result of the tensions with China, says First Amendment activist Kit Gage, who coordinates the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom. "It's so easy to justify," she says, in light of the 1996 anti-terrorism act that granted the FBI sweeping powers to investigate even constitutionally protected activities. With Arab Americans, she explains, the FBI are routinely "going to people's offices and workplaces, asking about their attitudes toward the Middle East."

According to Gage, "word will spread" of the government's probes, "and it has a nice chilling effect." She points out that it is perfectly legal for anyone—visitor, resident, or citizen—in the U.S. to express pro-China sentiments.

But the true space for such free expression, according to the OCA's Ong, is narrow, given that even contributing to the Democratic and Republican parties is tougher for Asian Americans. In the wake of the China-related campaign finance commotion of the 1990s, he says, "The whole Asian American community suffered." Asian Americans "were singled out because of what happened," and "you had to furnish proof that you were an American citizen" to make a donation to the major parties.

Comedians and columnists will continue to insist they mean no harm, that their yellow humor is all in good fun. They can't imagine what kung pao cocker spaniel has to do with political persecution and racist violence. Would that these jesters existed in a vacuum, where racy speech never had racist consequences.


Research assistance: James Wong

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