Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Even today, stereotypes regarding Asian women continue to be harmfully portrayed in different forms of media. Willing to hide years of unjust discrimination and racism against Asians behind false words, the harmful effect of these lies continues to haunt America.
The Reality of Hollywood...and its Stereotypes
Hollywood’s blockbuster movies have held unique places in people’s hearts. Who doesn’t love the iconic childhood favorites or the thrill of a great horror movie? Americans continue to root for their favorite actors and actresses, and billions of dollars are thrown into Hollywood every year. Sayonara makes for a great example; thousands adored the film. The tragic and beautifully written story drew an audience in.
However, many failed to realize the danger of movies like Sayonara, which was released in 1957. One of our protagonists, Hana-ogi, a Japanese woman, was described and painted as a shy, submissive, and fragile woman who rarely ever defended herself. It painted this picture of Asian women that wrongfully represented them, making Asian women seem sexually submissive and childlike. As the film progresses, it continues to bolster the idea of Asian women being ‘exotic’ companions, and contributes to this idea of fetishizing Asians because they need a ‘heroic, white’ savoir. After all, within the film, Hana-ogi submits herself to an American soldier.
Is this the only example? Unfortunately, thousands of other films and media portray this idea of sexually submissive Asian women. Another famous Opera has a famous quote that has struck the hearts of millions across the United States. Madame Chrysanthème describes a Japanese bride as a “delicate and graceful figure [which] seems strangely fantastic, and the darkness that envelops us conceals the fact that her face is quite ugly, and almost without eyes.” From these few examples, one can see where many racist stereotypes arose. How did the racist ideas that this film portrays come to be?
It started many years ago. Since immigrants from Asia came to the golden United States, these stereotypes have existed. The first Chinese immigrants began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s in the hopes of living a better life. After all, life in their homeland was difficult with the Opium Wars that waged between Britain and China. Poverty nipped at the heels of thousands of Chinese families, and without any other solution, many fled to America. As soon as gold was discovered within California, more and more immigrants fled to America, hoping to see riches. To them, America was painted to be built upon gold, and eventually, these immigrants joined the Gold Rush. However, many were railroad workers, and almost all immigrants worked cruel and grueling jobs to make a living.
Anti-Asian movements began after a few years, although it wasn’t a big deal to the white folks at first. Although the Chinese immigrants were foreigners, they were cheap labor, and in a flourishing economy, very few bothered with the immigrants. After all, work needed to be done, and white folks didn’t want to do it, so why not ensure a sufficient supply of Chinese labor? They were dependable and less demanding, even if they were seen as weak and inferior to white workers. However, as the economy began to decline, hostility rose among Americans who needed a scapegoat, and who happened to despise Asians and see them as dangerous foreigners. Waves and waves of immigrants flooded into America, although many of them had been tricked by law firms that America sent. After all, the United States needed immigrants to work the jobs no one else wanted. America needed cheap labor to build its foundation, and they found what they were looking for in the Asian immigrants. No one cared for their well-being and living situation, so exploitation was left unchecked.
And even though white immigrants (such as Irish and German immigrants) flooded America in the 1800s, only Asians were seen as threats. America wanted to stay ‘pure’ and ‘white’; with the Chinese immigrants flooding in, it was considered a racial threat. Many religions opposed the immigrants, and stereotypes arose that the Chinese carried various diseases and illnesses. They soon became depicted as disease and infection, which is where many popular stereotypes that still exist in the modern-day world were created. Many people continue to believe that Asians don’t shower or are unclean, and historians can now see where these ideas first took root.
From Immigrants to Villains
Many Chinese workers left their families back in their homeland and came only to America to make money. However, as some immigrants began to settle, the white folks viewed the immigrants as a growing threat. The men were stealing jobs, and the women? They were a different kind of threat… a sexual one. They were written and painted to be prostitutes, coming to America to sin, even though many of the immigrants actually worked jobs like servants, cooks, etc. Chinese women were soon accused of being the primary transmitters of STIs and STDs, even though both white and Asian women worked in the sex industry. Singled out from their white peers, Chinese women were put under immense pressure. Even today, this idea that Asian women are sex objects is still in modern-day films and media. And although some prostitution rings did emerge, many people hired smugglers to kidnap Chinese women and remove them from their home country to become sex workers.
Kidnapping women and forcing them to work in the sex industry… but painting them as the villains.
Eventually, the 1875 Page Act was put into place by the government because Chinese women threatened the institution of marriage, although the men who frequented and supported the prostitution rings were never punished. They were left off the hook easily, while the Asian women became the targets. After all, these women broke up white Christian families by tempting the men with sex, so they needed to be exiled, didn’t they? Even if they were innocent, America refused to listen. Representative Horace Page (for whom the Act was named) was known for his anti-Chinese political view. He stated that the purpose of his Act was to get rid of ‘immoral Chinese women.’ The Page Act was one of the first restrictions ever placed against immigration. It was designed so that undesirable immigrants could not enter, explicitly targeting Asian women who were seen as prostitutes in the eyes of millions. The bill relied on court judges, law enforcement, and port officers to decide whether or not a woman was a prostitute. The decision was often made with unfair biases. Targeting Asian women, the bill itself stated that any immigrants who were brought for ‘lewd and immoral purposes’ were to be banned.
In real life, it was merely used to keep Asian women out of the US.
When Asian women tried to enter the United States after the Page Act, they were humiliated by immigration officers and treated extremely unjustly within the immigration offices. Poems were scratched into the walls describing the humiliating and discriminatory acts the women had to forgo. The Act authorized the use of federal agents at immigrant ports to search and question any subject of any Oriental country. Many of the women were subject to abuse from the officers and had to bring absurd certificates to prove their innocence. Many even had to resort to paying bribes to enter the United States.
Many were exiled and unable to immigrate. Because of this, most of the immigrants in America became males. The Act also banned anyone convicted of a crime in their homeland. Very soon, there were only 48 Chinese women for every 1,000 Chinese men after the Page Act.
What Was the Real Reason?
So why did America really set down the Page Act? Was it really to keep out prostitutes? Was it because of the immoral sins Asian women were?
Not quite. One of the main goals of the United States was to use the immigrants for cheap labor and then to remove them from ‘pure, white’ America. They just wanted close to free labor without any consequences. They didn’t want the immigrants to be able to set down roots in America and create families, so they banned Asian women and sexualized them for their purposes. And their plan did work for some.
Many men would work and make money before heading back to their homeland to settle down and create families. So effectively, America got its free labor and found a way to eliminate the immigrants once they were done using them. Chinese bachelor males were ‘driftless’ and considered suspicious, creating even more difficult barriers between the people. Even married Asian men suffered under the act, and their wives and children were often subject to harsh realities. Many families were separated, destroying many families.
Many coastal states even banned interracial marriage (marriage between different races) by the 1800s. The Page Act helped to limit the growth of Asian families in the US, and for years, it stayed set in place. So when was the act finally repealed? 1974. For almost a century, Asian women were subject to discrimination and racism from the government itself. And as terrible as the Page Act was by itself, its effect and influence on American society were even worse.
And even today, the stigma around Asian women continues to live on in America. In the Atlanta shooting, six Asian women were the victims of racism. The shooter had a ‘sexual addiction’ which the Asian women bolstered. The spa workers were assumed to be prostitutes and were murdered because of the decades of racism that festered in the United States. The impact of the Page Act will forever be burned into the history of America, yet it’s rarely taught in the education system.
For the thousands of Asian women who were victims of the Page Act and continue to be victims, it’s our job to educate ourselves and learn from our mistakes. Racism revolving around Asian women never strays far from the idea that they are sex objects and in need of white saviors. Until we acknowledge how terrible the past is, we can’t get better. Even now, Asian women are victims of deadly stereotypes. By focusing on removing harmful examples from the media and working on teaching about the Page Act and its influence, we can make it better. For the victims to be avenged, we have to step up.
About the Author:
Amy is an ambitious 15 year old from Westchester with immense curiosity. While she enjoys spending time with her friends, she also looooves to read and learn about obscure facts. It is no suprise that many of her written works focus on AAPI history!
Loh-Hagan, Virginia, et al. Excluded from History: The Page Act of 1875.
Roby, India. “Hollywood Played a Role in Hypersexualizing Asian Women.” Teen Vogue, 24 Mar. 2021, www.teenvogue.com/story/hollywood-hypersexualizing-asian-women.
Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Before the Chinese Exclusion Act, This Anti-Immigrant Law Targeted Asian Women.” HISTORY, 19 Mar. 2021, www.history.com/news/chinese-immigration-page-act-women.
“Ulysses S. Grant, Chinese Immigration, and the Page Act of 1875 (U.S. National Park Service).” Www.nps.gov, www.nps.gov/articles/000/ulysses-s-grant-chinese-immigration-and-the-page-act-of-1875.htm.