32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Timely, Fascinating Though Somewhat Myopic Book on Asian Stereotypes
, August 7, 2005
This review is from: Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and the Myth of the Exotic Oriental (Hardcover)
As the Asia editor for Business Week with fifteen years of experience on that continent, author Sheridan Prasso has a wellspring of observations to contribute to Western misconceptions about Asia, most of which are routinely based on fantasy, positive or negative. As a Japanese-American myself, I am quite familiar with many of them, as even transplanted Asians experience the same stereotyping. The impact can be felt on the diplomatic and business fronts, but the most common application of these myths is the area of personal relations, in particular, the "yellow fever" that some Western men have in idealizing Asian women as feminine, attentive and seductive.
Prasso seizes on "Madame Butterfly" as the archetypal story of Western notions about the Asian mystique: a delicate Japanese woman with undying love for a dashing American naval officer. It is the loyal, self-sacrificing Asian beauty who is betrayed by a fickle Westerner. The fable continues to regenerate in various iterations such as "South Pacific" and "Miss Saigon". In fact, women are either passive and sexually obtainable geishas, or cruel, domineering "dragon ladies" like Tsu Hsi, the empress dowager of China, who was falsely rumored to be bedding men forty years her junior. Asian men don't get off any easier, as they have been branded vulnerable and emasculated when they aren't considered sneaky and inscrutable.
Prasso divides her book into two halves. The first part analyzes the mistaken notions that Westerners have about Asia and how Asians often reciprocate by catering to such stereotypes. For instance, at a nightclub in Bangkok, Prasso surveys white male customers who are greeted with the available flesh of delicate Asian bodies and drawn by a cultural dynamic akin to a candy store. She astutely sees this experience of Asia as not only fantasy-inducing but also "remasculating", i.e., engendering feelings of masculinity or dominance which these Western men may have found diminished in their own cultures. The author delves quite a bit into Hollywood images of Asians. She recounts the tribulations of Margaret Cho, a caustic, gay-friendly Korean-American comedian who was told by ABC executives to act ''more Asian" on her short-lived sitcom.
However, Prasso's more blanket statements about racist stereotyping seem rather myopic when it comes to Hollywood's historic treatment of Asians. By documenting Asian film roles through the decades, she says flatly that Hollywood has been the "incubator and firing kiln" for misreadings of Asia, but I feel she may be mistaking cause for effect as producers were more likely to capitalize on prejudices that already existed due to more pervasive influences like WWII. She makes another shaky broadstroke in the political arena when she states that US officials have underestimated the military might of Asian leaders and nations, but I don't feel it's directed to Asia as much as any developing nation with a tendency toward nuclear armament as we have witnessed the ongoing bloody insurgency in Iraq.
Perhaps because she lets her observations speak for themselves, the second half is more intriguing as it offers conversations with contemporary Asian women without mystique, whether they are housewives in Japan, bar girls in the Philippines, flight attendants on Cathay Pacific Airways or college students in China. This is where Prasso's interviewing skills shine as she gets women to talk about deeply personal issues. By the end of the book, the author reveals them as human beings, prone to the same frailties, resilience and misconceptions as people anywhere. One interesting subject is Mineko Iwasaki, who inspired Arthur Golden's wildly popular bestseller ''Memoirs of a Geisha." She talks about her life as a geisha and contrary to the subservience one associates with that profession, she also talks about the lawsuit she filed against Golden for defamation of character.
I am somewhat disappointed that Prasso separates herself so completely from her subjects, not expressing a sense of commonality with the women she interviews. Having lived in Cambodia, Hong Kong and Japan as a single white female, Prasso acknowledges being part of a group sometimes "guilty of racist sour-grapeism," of feeling overlooked and betrayed by Western men who are chasing Asian women. Yet, you are not left with an understanding of why she is so intrigued by the Asian mystique herself. Regardless, this is a fascinating book well worth the time to read and absorb. Prasso achieves her primary goal and that is to make clear the destructive nature of stereotypes about Asia and how they shape social, cultural, and political perceptions that are ultimately detrimental.
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