A group of Hong Kongers published a newspaper ad insulting mainland Chinese as 'locusts'. Photo: AFP
Alice Wu
Alice Wu

Fear of 'Yellow Peril' lives on

Alice Wu says the perpetuation of racial stereotypes of Chinese in politics and culture shows the jagged path of social progress

Today, 131 years ago, the US Senate passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law directly aimed at rejecting entry of an ethnic group, and one of many aimed at the same prejudicial treatment of other Asian ethnic groups. By today's standards, there is no doubt it is racist.

Here, history serves to shed light on how far - or not - we have come, evidenced by our ability to be as critical of our contemporaries, and of ourselves, as we are of those who came before us.

The 1882 law was a product of anti-Chinese sentiment and xenophobia, legalising the discrimination of an entire race in the "land of the free" on the premise that these people endangered the good order of communities. But as distant as American shores, or the 1880s, are to us, we have yet to cure ourselves of anti-Chinese agitation.

The reasons for today's agitations may be different. It was the "Yellow Peril" in the late 19th century; McCarthyism in the 20th century; and, in the 21st, the perceived threat of the "China century" has fuelled Sinophobic undercurrents in politics and popular culture. They may be seen as variations of the same "hate". The fear of a rising China - and hence of the Chinese - is merely a modern-day version of "Yellow Peril", depictions of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu in the LED lights of the 21st century.

And in the corrosive culture of online forums and message boards, anonymity makes the airing and spreading of hatred so much easier. The result is that what many would publicly deem discriminatory is passed as acceptable, even appropriate, on the internet. And in this context, it provides the social conditioning of prejudice.

Today's use of the term "locusts" to describe mainland Chinese is really a part of the narrative of the slanty-eyed race taking over the world.

And in this "land of Fu Manchu", people still apparently say things like "ching-ching, chop suey, swing some more", according to General Motors, after it decided to use the song in its commercial for a new SUV global launch. It has since pulled the unbelievably distasteful ad campaign, but it remains befuddling how the company actually approved of the use of the song in the first place.

"Ching-ching", "ching-chong" and "chink" are all familiar racial slurs thrown at Chinese and people of Asian descent in the English-speaking world. Such distastefulness has survived, thanks to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Rosie O'Donnell. In 2011, Limbaugh mocked the Chinese dialect, imitating Hu Jintao's dialect in a 17-second "ching chong ching chong cha" outburst on radio; O'Donnell tried speaking the same "ching dialect" on TV in 2006.

And, just last month, a Korean American customer filed a lawsuit against a large drug-store chain over a racially charged receipt, pejoratively naming her "Ching Chong Lee".

In this sense, we haven't come very far since 1882, because people continue to perpetuate ignorance and hate based on others' place of origin and ethnic background. The slanty-eyed moustachioed villain Fu Manchu is, unfortunately, still breeding the same fear, prejudice and hate today, here and abroad.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Same old fears