March 2012

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By Sebastian Veg

When Peking University Professor Kong Qingdong’s diatribe on Hongkongers and their lingering colonial infatuation swept over the Internet in late January, the widespread and growing uneasiness about mainland Chinese in Hong Kong suddenly had a face. Triggered by a viral video of a Hongkonger telling off a mainland family in the subway because their daughter was eating dry instant noodles, Kong’s interview sparked a wave of predictable but nonetheless justified outrage in Hong Kong. It took place against the background of the annual mainland shopping spree over Chinese New Year (in a previous episode, Dolce and Gabbana staff in Tsim Sha Tsui sparked protests by telling passers-by that only mainlanders were allowed to take pictures of the shop) as well as growingly acrimonious debates over mainland women giving birth in the emergency rooms of Hong Kong hospitals in order to secure permanent residency for their children, and over Guangdong-registered vehicles’ right to drive freely in Hong Kong. It was followed by a counter-campaign in Apple Daily and other Hong Kong newspapers depicting mainlanders as locusts looting Hong Kong, pushing up property prices and free-riding on the—albeit minimal—welfare provided by the SAR government.

Professor Kong, in a true cadre-style tirade with a thin varnish of May Fourth anti-colonialism, referred to Lu Xun’s 1927 critique of colonial Hong Kong and his denunciation of xizai 西崽, the fake-foreign devils populating Shanghai’s concessions, chastised by Lu Xun for being “dogs to the foreigners but wolves to their fellow Chinese.” He conceded that Hong Kong had some advantages, “for example the legal system” or fazhi 法制, but, he hastened to add, this was only necessary because Hongkongers’ suzhi 素質, or “human quality” was so low. In China, he went on, there is no need for the rule of law because social harmony is achieved by raising the people’s moral qualities, an echo of teachings of his 73th generation forefather, Confucius. Suzhi is one of the terms popularized by the CCP that has come to feel natural on the mainland (the more traditional term would be pinzhi 品質, or “moral fibre”) and served to legitimize the quasi-apartheid system instituted by Mao and based on the distinction between urban and rural residence permits (hukou). In this logic, urban residents are commonly associated with high suzhi, as opposed to peasants and—according to Kong—Hongkongers. Interestingly, and regrettably, many Hong Kongers have phrased their resistance to the mainlanders’ “invasion” in very similar terms. The anti-“locust” and anti-pregnant mother campaign, vocally relayed by the local democrats, has not focused on the values that make Hong Kong unique and different from China, but on the insufficiently “civilized” habits of mainlanders.

While a December poll suggested that the feeling of Chinese identity among Hong Kong citizens was at an all-time low (immediately provoking a furious denial on the private blog of a Central liaison office employee who protested that the questions had been asked in an “unscientific” way: as Hong Kong is not a country, it has no identity attached to it), there has been little reflection about what makes the current waves of immigration from China different from the many previous ones that were, over time, fused into the distinctive culture that has made Hong Kong unique. Not all the people leaving Guangdong or Shanghai throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were, after all, political refugees; many were simply relatives from across the border hoping for a better life. Yet it seems that Hong Kong is now more apprehensive about losing its difference. The question is what exactly that difference is. Formulating it in the discourse of suzhi means that mainlanders are derided for failing to form orderly queues, for speaking loudly in public places, and for flouting established social rules, like eating or drinking in the MTR. Rarely in this debate have Hong Kong’s distinctive values been characterized by critics of mainland presence as “democratic,” based on freedom of expression, mutual respect and equality not only before the law but also in social interactions. The ever observant Chinese political commentator Chang Ping, whose work-visa application to Hong Kong has been placed indefinitely on hold by the SAR government, noted in the South China Morning Post op-ed “Brothers in arms” that what Hongkongers might legitimately resent is not the presence of mainlanders in Hong Kong as much as what we might call the “cadre culture” that characterizes many of the compulsive Chinese shoppers on the New Year spree: a type of behavior by a very specific type of person underlining that they are powerful and somehow above the law—a type of behavior resented by many ordinary citizens on the mainland. But Hong Kong’s democrats in particular have failed to provide any kind of political reading of the population’s uneasiness: instead they have indulged in populist escalation, calling to revise the Basic Law to deprive Hong Kong-born children of mainland mothers of the right to permanent residency. The democrats are often criticized for having no political program beyond democracy, but perhaps it would be more exact to say that their understanding of democracy oftentimes seems limited to an orderly queue of people lining up—in front of a ballot box they may never reach.

More generally, fifteen years after the handover, the relationship between China and Hong Kong is as complex as ever. The Dengist calculation, according to which the “decolonization of minds,” as enforced through “patriotic education,” would produce “patriotic” citizens (i.e. Beijing loyalists) in Hong Kong and therefore lay the foundation for “safe” universal suffrage, has not translated into reality. On the contrary, it has produced a group of young, vocal anti-Beijing activists, who seem to speak for the entire post-80s generation, aggravated by rising housing prices and growing social inequality which the handover has entailed. In the larger picture, however, this group remains a minority, squeezed between a super-elite of tycoons and businessmen with interests in China, and a large working class, steadily growing by the effect of immigration from the mainland, which has no particular feeling of cultural identity in Hong Kong. As it already did in colonial times, this working class sees itself to a strong extent as part of a larger Cantonese culture, totally disconnected from the lifestyle of the English-speaking elite. The democrats try to cater to this part of the population by framing the issue of mainlanders in Hong Kong in populist terms (“they will take your hospital spots”), while seeming to ignore that this part of the population massively votes for the pro-Beijing DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong). Contrary to what has happened in Taiwan, however, the sense of a Hong Kong identity that is both local and democratic has little or no grassroots base in the larger population. Those commentators who have recently engaged in colonial nostalgia might do well to remember that this division of society is exactly the product of the colonial regime.

This is the context in which the two elections of 2012, the chief executive on March 25 and the LegCo elections in September, will take place. Interestingly, the profiles of the three candidates competing for Chief Executive seem to tally almost exactly with the three social groups outlined above. Henry Tang represents the pro-Beijing elite of tycoons and businessmen; Albert Ho, the pan-democrat with no chance of winning, the squeezed middle class; and Leung Chun-ying the pro-Beijing populist who scares the tycoons, the loosely pro-Chinese working class. In this context, in which a political definition of democracy seem to have largely disappeared from the values deemed to define Hong Kong, and even from the entire campaign debate, one may wonder, with a pinch of nostalgia, whether “Hong Kong identity” has not simply become a stand-in for what in another context has been called the déjà disparu—Hong Kong’s democratic culture.

Sebastian Veg is the director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (Hong Kong). He has published a monography on Lu Xun and European modernism, and his current research interests are in the area of literature and intellectuals in modern and contemporary China.

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How the world’s largest newspaper market reads Tibet

By Reshma Patil

The runaway from a Tibetan village in Naba, China, led the way down the slippery dirt track to the doorstep of a restaurant with a Potala Palace bereft of tourists and soldiers painted on its blue walls.

The Tibetan-speaking attendant at Chonor House politely declined to serve my first meal in McLeod Ganj. The kitchens were functioning only for hotel guests until the end of Losar. The three-day Tibetan New Year passed uncelebrated earlier this month in the Indian hill-town teeming with Tibetan exiles who give Dharamshala the moniker of Little Lhasa. The exiled Tibetan government is edged higher in the cliff-side of Dharamshala in the former British cantonment of McLeod Ganj.

The symbolic protest, staged through a silent Losar without homemade feasts and multi-coloured prayer flags strung on storefronts, went unnoticed in the national press. Dharamshala is connected to New Delhi by a daily flight from a stunningly secluded runway near the foothills of the snow-capped Dhauladhar range. The airport has more exiled monks and foreigners lugging backpacks than Indian tourists. There is nothing to do if the day’s lone takeoff is delayed; no coffee machine, no magazine rack, just an endless meditative wait.

The exiled Tibetans are waiting for the world to intervene as protests simmer in remote Buddhist monastery towns in China. The bazaar walls in Dharamshala are plastered with bilingual posters for an ‘independent’ Tibet. The posters include grainy pictures of self-immolators, over 20 since last March, some of whom reportedly died shouting slogans for ‘freedom’ and ‘the return of the Dalai Lama’.

Inspired by pamphlets on the Dalai Lama that were scattered in his nomadic village, Tsezin boarded a bus out of his homeland in 2001 and trekked through mountain passes for 28 days to reach Nepal through the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. He was 17 years old when he made it to Dharamshala for Tibetan-style schooling.

We were passing by hawkers of Tibetan handicrafts made in Nepal when he greeted a monk. “He’s the uncle of a nun who self-immolated in China,’’ he pointed out. Such references are now the stuff of street talk in this temple town where a modern building houses the Kirti Monastery, a smaller centre of the restive Kirti Monastery in Sichuan that China has sealed from the outside world.

In 2008, Tsezin briefly experienced the inside of an Indian jail for participating in an anti-China gathering during the Beijing Olympics torch relay. “The security and roadblocks kept us so far away that I could not see the relay,’’ he recalls.

That was the last time the protests of angry Tibetans leaping over barricades outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi hit national headlines for several days.

Tibet in the story so far
The newsrooms of India and China—the world’s two largest newspaper markets, with daily sales of 110 million copies in India and 109 million copies in China in 2010—peg news on either other side of the disputed border based on geopolitical national interest.

India is home to over 100,000 exiled Tibetans. But the self-immolations by monks, nuns and nomads receive low-key coverage in the national English newspapers, averaging a story a week.

Tibet gets more column space in breaking news on the statecraft between Beijing and New Delhi. New trends driving the coverage of Tibet in the Indian press developed since the end of the last decade:

‘Southern Tibet’ and the boundary: Chinese scholars privately admit, but do not dare openly express, scepticism about ever acquiring this 90,000 sq km sprawl of mountainous turf that in just sheer size is thrice as strategic as Taiwan for China. Indian scholars note that the state-run Chinese media since 2005 began to tactically reassert Beijing’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh, with more frequent references naming the northeast Indian state as ‘Southern Tibet’. Beijing denies visas to its residents to assert its ownership and gobbles the state in its own digital and printed maps. (See: China gets map wrong, envoy yells ‘shut up’)

A half-century since Asia’s largest nations went to war in 1962, their border dispute remains unresolved. The Indian media is attentive to every move on Arunachal Pradesh, which India claims as an integral part of its territory. In 2009, the Chinese foreign ministry’s objections to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Dalai Lama’s visit to the state sparked a bilateral crisis. In February, Beijing objected to Indian defence minister A K Antony’s visit to the state, which shares a 1080-km long boundary with China.

“Tibet-related issues have for long poisoned the bilateral negotiations on the boundary dispute,” wrote strategist C Raja Mohan in The Indian Express in January. And that is the main story for years to come.

Core concerns: The political potential of India wielding the Tibet card and China the Kashmir card keep the neighbours wary of each other.

In the last three years, Tibet loomed larger as the great upset in bilateral relations. India from 2008 to 2011 argued against China shifting a former ‘neutral’ policy on the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Several Indian citizens from the state, including a northern army commander, began to receive stapled instead of stamped visas to travel to China. The Chinese media largely blacked out the dispute, though it sparked the suspension of military ties for a year. The Indian media incessantly followed up the story, despite the Chinese foreign ministry’s requests to the Beijing-based media to downplay what it labeled as a ‘technical’ disagreement.

Beijing badly misjudged the impact of this stapled visa policy on public opinion in India. New Delhi’s demand for ‘mutual sensitivity’ concerning Jammu and Kashmir (where China occupies 38,000 sq km) in return for recognising Chinese ‘core concerns’ or sovereignty in Tibet and Taiwan received clamorous and approving coverage in India. For the first time, a Sino-Indian joint statement, issued after Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi in late 2010, failed to mention India’s ‘one-China policy’ or Tibet, though there was no change in stance. Beijing temporarily stopped issuing stapled visas in 2011.

The Dalai Lama in the middle: China’s growing moves to suppress the international influence of the Dalai Lama, within India, directly impact ties with New Delhi. So recent statements issued in the Party wire, Xinhua, blaming the exiled government for ‘separatism’ were better displayed on Indian news pages than the latest self-immolation coinciding with the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India in 1959.

Tibet hit national front pages and editorials late last year after Beijing postponed boundary negotiations on the 3,488-km long dispute (2,000-km according to China). Special Representative Dai Bingguo reportedly refused to be in the Indian capital on the same day as the Dalai Lama, who would address a massive Buddhist gathering.

“Beijing has dropped quiet diplomacy in favour of tough-worded demands,” said the Hindustan Times in a December 2011 piece titled “Why the Dalai Lama makes China see red”.

“China has upped the ante on the Dalai Lama because it recognises that he remains a major strategic asset for India,” wrote strategist Brahma Chellaney in the Times of India.

Dai Bingguo wrote a friendly piece in The Hindu to give Beijing better press. The article had a curious line. “There does not exist such a thing as China’s attempt to attack India”.

Strategy: China’s build-up of 58,000-km of roads, the world’s highest airbases and railroads on the roof of the world in Tibet has captivated Indian strategists, Parliamentarians and newspaper readers. Every new listening post nearer to the border gets reported with a pointer to India lagging behind China. The railway minister’s budget speech in March included a call for modern border railroads to upgrade capability to move ‘men and machines’.

Tibetan protests: Dharamshala, though an obvious spot to follow-up the Tibetan protests in China, is in the spotlight of the international media more than the Indian press. For example, see the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal, as well as this at the Economist.

Last month, the Chinese and Indian foreign minister met in New Delhi and agreed to launch the first-ever maritime dialogue. A group of exiled Tibetans protested outside the venue. The protests for ‘freedom’ were temporarily noted, mostly on newspaper websites rather than in print. The frequently protesting Tibetan has become background to the great game between Beijing and New Delhi.

What happens next?
At every bilateral meeting, Beijing demands a reiteration of India’s official policy that anti-China activities on its soil are illegal. Conversations with Tibetan activists in Dharamshala indicate that they want to intensify their campaigns without alienating the hosts.

“I am really concerned that the peaceful Tibetan movement could turn violent if the Chinese crackdown continues,’’ Lobsang Keshi, a Kirti monk in Dharamshala, told the Hindustan Times, in a story trailing recently arrived refugees from remote outposts like Naba and Amdo that are making news for demanding the return of the Dalai Lama.

A few days after the story was published, this writer rang the press officer in the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. The official initiated a dialogue to object on the above report, which included an interview with Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile. The diplomat interpreted the coverage as ‘shaking hand’ with Sangay. This is not how you ‘do business’ with the Chinese. The message: If you interview exiled Tibetans, we won’t talk to you. The writer had called for a news update on Sino-Indian business ties, the most promising aspect of bilateral relations between the fastest emerging economies.

The warning was not so unusual. President Hu Jintao will travel to New Delhi for the BRICS summit later this month.

Reshma Patil is associate editor at the Hindustan Times in Mumbai. She was the paper’s first China correspondent from 2008-11 and is writing her first book on Sino-Indian relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

By Alexandra Grey

Outside of China, people are agape at the prospect of learning to write Chinese: “So hard! Too hard.” Back in Australia, I know first generation migrants who speak Chinese at home but have never learnt to write; they gape along with everyone else. But for all the jaw-dropping, these people can read and write the national language of their home (for the Aussie-Chinese, that’s English). What about the people inside China for whom ‘Chinese’ is a foreign language? They are a significant minority, and, on the Chinese scale, a minority still means millions of people. ‘Chinese’ is usually loosely used when we should say ‘Mandarin’, which is just one of more than 50 distinct languages of the different ethnic groups in China. Mandarin is based on the language of Beijing, has official status, and is the language of the dominant ethnicity, the Han. But it’s by no means the first language of the rural poor in China’s vast and less-developed western and southern provinces. For many of these people, writing Mandarin characters is just as daunting as it is for us, as many of these other Chinese languages are not written in characters, or not written at all.

The widespread assumption is that people need to be literate for development to progress, and that getting kids to attend school is the way to deliver literacy to a community. But the more I looked into this issue within China, the more I found literacy, schooling, development and ethnic identity to be uneasily and unsuccessfully linked.

In a cross-post series with the development blog Whydev.org, I’m discussing the benefit to development work which can come from understanding that literacy is not a set of skills independently learnt regardless of context, nor is it simply synonymous with schooling. In Part 1, I explain what literacy means to linguists and make the point that, unless linguistic understanding informs literacy campaigns and other development projects, they are unlikely to be terribly successful or, worse, can perpetuate development as a form of dominance over minorities. This China Beat post brings that argument into the Middle Kingdom, reviewing the role of literacy for Chinese people today, and their hurdles. (There’s also a Part 3, again at Whydev.org. It’s a critique of development measurement and policy design.)

A Naxi woman and a sign in Mandarin; The Naxi’s ancient, pictographic script

Many view China as a developed country now that it is the world’s second-largest economy. Nevertheless, China sees itself as developing. For instance, its own foreign aid is “South-South Cooperation”. This seems fair enough when you’re here: there is a serious and obvious disparity in development between China’s east and west regions. It’s been clear to me from train windows as I’ve travelled across provincial borders (iPads and SUVs aren’t the norm, you realise, once you leave Beijing), and made clearer through the stories of clients at my workplace, a service centre for China’s internal ‘migrant workers’. It’s also very clear to the Chinese government, so redressing the development imbalance is a government priority.

For the non-Sinophile reader, some necessary background facts: Language and education policies are centrally controlled in China. Putonghua 普通话 (literally, ‘common language’), known in English as Mandarin, has been the national language since the 1950s. It’s also called Hanyu 汉语 (‘Han Language’). The Han comprise 92 percent of the Chinese population. But China has 55 other officially recognised ethnic minority groups, who occupy about 50 percent of the Chinese territory, which are also the country’s least-developed areas. Education is a development focus for the government, as illiteracy rates for most minority-language children are significantly higher than their Han counterparts. Officially, Mandarin is the language of instruction only from Grade 3 in minority regions, but discrimination against both minority cultures and their languages exists: in classrooms, in school administration, and beyond. Plus, there’s a strong centripetal force in China: ‘harmonious’ nation-building is an inescapable urge prevailing against ethnic diversity.

A New York Times map of China’s ethnic minorities

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For the past several years, we’ve organized an informal meet-and-greet at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting, the “China Beat Breakfast.” That won’t be taking place this year, unfortunately, though consulting editors Jeff Wasserstrom and Ken Pomeranz will be at the meeting in Toronto this weekend—so say hi if you see them. We do, however, want to share highlights from the conference with our readers (as we’ve done in previous years) and would appreciate some help from you in making this possible.

Tell us about the panels you go to, the China Beatniks you meet, and the cool publications you see in the book exhibit. Send us an email (thechinabeat[at]gmail[dot]com) or tweet at us (@chinabeat) and we’ll put together a crowdsourced post to run next Tuesday. If you’re going to the meeting, have a great time in Toronto!

By Yong Chen

There are good reasons why Jeremy Lin deserves the extensive news coverage he has received recently: a Harvard grad playing in the NBA, he had an indispensible role in the Knicks’ 9-2 run before losing to Miami on February 23, averaging 23.9 points and 9.2 assists in 11 games. Yet the extraordinary “Linsanity” displayed by the mass media seems to suggest that what makes Lin’s story so notable is what it says about perceptions of Asian masculinity. In Lin, the media has finally found an Asian man.

This is not an entirely incredible read of the overwhelming public reaction to Jeremy Lin. For decades, American society has refused to see Asian men in masculine terms. This is in spite of the fact that there have been many Asian men in America since the Gold Rush, when Chinese 49’ers established the first extensive Asian communities in the New World. In fact, for a long time the Chinese population in this country was predominantly male, as the Chinese Exclusion Acts made it difficult for men but nearly impossible for women to come to the United States from China between 1882 and 1943. Anti-Chinese prejudice has also historically made the presence of Chinese men invisible in American society. They have been feminized and relegated to jobs that were deemed fit only for women, such as in restaurants and laundry shops. The message was clear: Chinese men were not man enough for other kinds of jobs.

In reality, however, the Chinese had performed “masculine” jobs in areas like mining, manufacturing, and building the railroads before being driven into the service sector. But for many years, this fact was erased from American history books and the collective memory. For example, Chinese workers, a major force in building the first transcontinental railroad, were present at the celebration of its completion in 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah. But looking at arguably the most famous photograph of the event by A. J. Russell, as generations of Americans have done, you will not find a single Chinese face.

In its portrayals of Chinese men, the media has persistently focused on their roles as laundrymen and waiters. Therefore, the expression “no tickee no washee” (and its variations) had become a popular slur by the early 1930s and is listed in Archer Taylor’s The Proverbs of 1931 (p. 31). Nineteenth-century audiences watching performances of Bret Harte’s Two Men of Sandy Bar heard lines of pidgin English like this from a Chinese laundry man named Hop Sing: “Me plentee washee shirtee” (Act 2, Scene 2).

While the hand laundry business has disappeared, association of Chinese men with Chinese food has remained ever-present, as we can see in films like Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power (click the link to the clip “Movie Stereotype of Asian Male”). And it has developed into such a folkloric experience of many Chinese Americans that it becomes material for comedians like Byron Yee, who told a joke about being mistaken by the father of his white date for a Chinese food delivery boy in his native Oklahoma City.

In Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel China Men, the character of Tang Ao dramatized and symbolized the feminization of Chinese immigrant men: He was fed women’s food, and his cheeks and lips were painted red (China Men, 4-5). Such feminization is an experience that others have dubbed as the emasculation of Asian men that can be clearly seen in Hollywood films.

For some, like Bret Harte, who was more sympathetic to the Chinese than most of his contemporaries, these stereotypes were intended primarily as entertainment. Chinese Americans are seriously concerned about stereotypes not because they cannot take jokes but because they understand the harm and hostility negative images bring.

Over the years, I have asked students to identify the famous Chinese men they can think of. Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were usually the first and only names that came up. This is because in American consciousness and history textbooks, Chinese men are still largely banished to obscurity or even non-existence. In documents from the past, the waiters and laundrymen are invariably either nameless or have generic names like John Chinaman. When they do have a particular name, it is usually something like Dr. Fu Manchu or the Mysterious Mr. Wong, which symbolized sexual deviance or evil in Hollywood films. And ignored by Hollywood until the late twentieth century, Asian men did not even get to play such Asian roles. Indeed, after Sessue Hayakawa, no Asian men played leadings roles in Hollywood films for a long time.

Largely because of such stereotypes, Asian men have long struggled to be accepted in American society. In spite of the tremendous progress that has been made in social equality, especially in the post-Civil Rights Movement decades, Asian men have remained one of the least desirable groups, romantically speaking. Long after the end of anti-miscegenation laws and the 1922 Cable Act, under which a white woman would lose her citizenship upon marriage to an Asian immigrant man, it remained taboo for white women to have romantic relationships with Asian men. As Eugene Wong notes in his 1978 book, the American film industry allowed interracial relationships between Asian women and white men but not between white women and Asian men. This preference of Asian women over Asian men is also found in the selection of anchors by many TV stations across the nation. Asian men are often not the preferred partners for Asian American women, which is because, as Steven Okazaki, producer of the documentary American Sons, notes, while “Asian women are sexualized; men are desexualized and neutered.” In an article published in Asian Week in 2000, Joyce Nishioka reported that “The most recent statistics from the 1990 Census show that Asian American women are almost twice as likely to outmarry than Asian American men. In California, 7.7 percent of the males were married to whites, compared to 16.2 percent of the women.” In a 2009 study based on a sample of 5,810 Yahoo! heterosexual internet dating profiles, Carol L. Glasser and her co-authors find that “desexualized” Asian men feel “less desired” than their non-Asian counterparts. Besides romantic relationships, people have also reported difficulties that Asian men encounter in other areas: workplace, college admissions, the military, etc. All these suggest that as far as public perceptions are concerned, there have been Asian males, but there is no real or worthy “man” among them.

For all of these reasons, sports is the last place where we would expect an Asian man to rise to enormous success and recognition. It just does not fit the feminized and weak image of Asian men. Quite often, in ways not entirely dissimilar to how it has erased memories of Chinese railroad workers, society tends to forget the presence of pioneer Asian America men like Wat Misaka, the first Asian and non-white man to play in what is now the National Basketball Association, and Dat Nguyen, a former star of the Dallas Cowboys. Clearly, if Jeremy Lin’s achievements announce the arrival of a real Asian man in American consciousness and in mass media, he did not do it alone but as a team player together with other Asian men, such as Michael Chang, who became the youngest tennis player to win a Grand Slam title at the French Open in 1989 at the age of 17. What helps to make Lin’s story so unforgettable—at least for the time being—is that he plays an “all-American” sport at a time when such sports have become an enormously important part of American life. It is also a time when being Asian or Chinese is no longer associated with backwardness, weakness, and inferiority.

Still, old stereotypes of desexualized Asian men linger in comments made by people like the sports journalist Jason Whitlock, whose sophomoric and unfunny remarks following Lin’s 38-points, 7-assists, 4-rebounds and 2-steals performance against the Lakers on February 10 do not even match the level of decency of a two-year-old. But I see the media attention, in either good or not-so-good taste, as a positive sign that the media and the society at large appear to be ready for a masculine Asian man. This probably explains why many major news outlets pounced on the story that Kim Kardashian, the beautiful and famous reality television personality and model, had expressed a desire to date Jeremy Lin. What a difference a few hoops make! Is this the end of the invisible, desexualized, and undesirable Asian man?

Jeremy, enjoy the ride and the journey, man, whether it is measured in inches or miles!

Further Reading:
Chiung Hwang Chen, “Feminization of Asian (American) Men in the U.S. Mass Media: An Analysis of The Ballad of Little Jo.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 20:2 (1996): 57-71.
Carol L. Glasser, Belinda Robnett, and Cynthia Feliciano, “Internet Daters’ Body Type Preferences,” Sex Roles 61:1-2 (2009): 14–33.
Sean-Shong Hwang, Rogelio Saenz, and Benigno E. Aguirre, “Structural and Assimilationist Explanations of Asian American Intermarriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family 59:3 (1997): 758-772.
Wolfgang Mieder, “No Tickee, No Washee.” Western Folklore 55:1 (Winter 1996): 1-40.
Joyce Nishioka, “A Threatened Manhood? Exploring the Myth of the Angry Asian Male,” Asian Week 21:23 (2000).
Eugene Wong, On Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures (New York: Arno Press, 1978).
The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television.
Steven Okazaki, producer of the documentary American Sons, part 1, part 2.

Yong Chen is Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UC Irvine.

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