Not Your Punchline or ‘Happy Ending’ – the Mediatization of Asian-American Identities and Hate Crimes

A protester holds a “hate has no place” sign during the We Are Not Silent rally. Image via AFP.

On March 16, 2021,  a white man in Georgia, USA  “had a really bad day” and was “pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope.” He went on to muder eight innocent people in less than an hour across three Asian-owned massage parlors within a 50km radius. Soo-chung Park (74), Suncha Kim (69), Yong-ae Yue (63), Paul Andre Michels (54), Hyun-jung Grant (51), Xiajie Tan (49), Daoyou Feng (44), Delaina Ashley Yaun (33). Seven of the eight killed were women, and six were of Asian descent. 50 kilometers is not a small area, and the fact that the businesses that were targeted were all Asian-owned, signals that the shooter’s actions were born out of more than just convenience.

In a news conference, the Captain of the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office defended the killer who alleges to have a sex addiction, saying that the spas were “a temptation to [the shooter] that he wanted to eliminate.” The fact a police official would publicly announce such reasoning in itself is absurd, but more disturbing is the casual acceptance and widespread belief that Asian-owned massage parlors and spas equate to prostitution services (for the record, none of the three massage parlors have been linked to sex work). 

Meanwhile, Korean news outlets who interviewed witnesses from nearby Korean stores reported the shooter said he would “kill all the Asians,” and that “all Americans need to fight back against China.” Initial police reports and US media outlets were hesitant to claim that the killings were “racially motivated.” But the reasoning that the shooter targeted day spas (often managed by owners of Asian descent), to eliminate his sexual temptation, is, in itself, fundamentally a racial issue.

Visualisation of the locations that were attacked. Graphic via Natalie Crocker, CNN.

Rooted in imperialism and Cold War propaganda, the bodies of Asian women have long been sexualised and fetishised for the male gaze. It is well known that wars have caused the forced sexual enslavement of women, guised under a soldier’s ‘R&R’ in ‘camp towns’ where brothels were allowed to operate willy-nilly and where local women ‘comforted’ American GIs. The legacy of this historical influence remains today, and the economies of certain Asian cities (such as Pattaya, Thailand) remain reliant on sex tourism. This Western perspective of Asian women as hypersexualised and subservient continues to exist in the popular American imagination from films such as Full Metal Jacket (1987) – the lines “me so horny” and “me love you long time” normalising the portrayal of Southeast Asian women as sex workers.

From this, the construction and mediatization of Asian-America exists within an irony of simultaneous fetishisation and Sinophobia. On one hand, America loves to pornographize Asian women. On the other, they are beaten and killed for being ‘Commies,’ ‘chinks,’ and ‘exotic temptresses.’ 

A ‘positive’ image of Asian diaspora certainly has not been curated by the likes of ex-president Trump, who nicknamed the Coronavirus “China virus” and the “Kung-flu.” Violence against the Asian-American community has long simmered, only to be exacerbated through the scapegoating of a global pandemic. In fact, Anti-Asian hate crimes between 2019 and 2020 in major American cities increased by an alarming 150%, and is a statistic that only includes reported incidents. No doubt, the actual figures are much higher, but the tendency of not reporting hate crimes prevents us from understanding the true severity of these issues. First-generation migrants, especially, are reluctant to speak up as they likely face language barriers, distrust of law enforcement, and not wanting to ‘rock the boat.’ This follows true for the disturbing trend of violent unprovoked attacks against elderly Asian community members which only came to media attention from the sharing of viral video clips. Only a day after the Georgia shootings, a heart wrenching video of an elderly Chinese woman (Xiao Zhen Xie, 75) tearfully clutching an ice pack to her face made its round across social media. She was standing at an intersection when a white man ran up to her and punched her in the face. On the same day, the same attacker targeted a 83 year old Vietnamese man who was shopping for groceries.

Findings of the Stop AAPI Hate National Report March 2020 – February 2021. Visualisation via Stop AAPI Hate.

Of course, hate crimes against Asians is not an isolated American issue. But, whether we like it or not, the specific context of Asian-America must be discussed when we consider America as a cultural media hegemony. These harmful ideas of Asians have historically prevented Asian communities from full and equal participation in American society. As far back as 1882, Chinese immigrants have been viewed with animosity, and through the powerful mediums of television and social media, Trump has continued to fan these flames into a fire by vilifying Asians as a ‘virus’ that are ‘stealing American jobs.’ The escalating geopolitical tensions between China on issues such as defense, cybersecurity, and human rights, has turned China (and by that association, all Asians), into an enemy of the American state. The faces of 22.2 million Asian American and Pacific Islander residents have been weaponized, and the Asian American population turned into something not to be defended, but something to be protected against. The construction of this narrative, and reluctance in labelling the Georgia shootings as a racial hate crime sends a strong message that violence towards racial minorities can be easily swept under the rug. 

With all eyes on America, especially during these early days of a new presidency, what does this message send globally? Who knows how many more violent incidents against Asian diaspora have gone unreported in other Western countries because the evidence of it being “racially motivated” was not strong enough? 

This shirking of responsibility in owning up to xenophobic actions is not exclusive to the US. In late February, the global Korean pop group BTS appeared on MTV Unplugged with a surprise performance of Fix You by the British rock band Coldplay. In response to this, a German radio host who claims to be a fan of Coldplay, denounced the group to be “some crappy virus that hopefully there will be a vaccine for soon as well.” For such “blasphemy” (their performance), he believed that BTS should “be vacationing in North Korea for the next 20 years.” His radio station issued a statement that the comments were a personal opinion made in jest and had no intention of being racist. 

Quote from Bayern 3 radio host Matthias Matuschik.

These same actions repeated themselves on March 17, when the trading card company TOPPS announced the release of a Grammy Award themed sticker card collection. They chose to depict BTS, the only Asian artists present in the lineup, as whack-a-moles with bruised and bloodied faces being ‘bashed’ by a Grammy trophy. No other singers were portrayed in a violent manner, and following social media outcry, TOPPS announced the removal of BTS’ card from their decks. Microaggression is the norm for many in any minority population, but these incidents and their consequent ‘non-apology’ apologies are particularly tone-deaf during a time where anti-Asian discrimination is at its peak. 

While President Biden has signed a memorandum to combat and condemn racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, how useful can increased policing be if authorities in power refuse to listen to the affected communities? How many times must we call out inappropriate racial comments excused as ‘jokes’ before the majority recognises there is a problem? How many more slain and beaten members of the Asian community will it take for institutions to step up and push back against the media-spun image that Asians are a threat? Moreover, why do White men in police uniforms get to decide whether such hateful acts were committed out of racism or simply because of a “bad day”? 

BTS depicted as whack-a-moles in TOPPS’ Grammy themed sticker collection. Image via USA Today.

We know that institutional change is instrumental for societal change; an issue that was heavily addressed in Black Lives Matter. This has certainly been the case here in Korea, where the Seoul city government was forced to rescind their order for all foreign workers (and only foreign workers) to be tested for COVID-19. The change came after the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, the American Chamber of Commerce, the Australian and Canadian Embassies, and more petitioned against the mandate on grounds of arbitrariness, and discrimination against foreigners.

Clearly, pressure against racial discrimination works. So why is it that authorities continue to only be invested in protecting certain minorities in some countries, and not others? 

Six victims of the Georgia shootings were not only Asian, but also women, working-class, and older in age. Not only a minority, but a particularly vulnerable one. It is possible that the killer did not consider these layers when he premeditated to eliminate the women he considered as sexual objects. But, we must wonder if popular depictions of Asian female spa workers were instrumental in shaping his target group. For this reason alone, the harmful and continued mediatized narratives of Asian identities that stem from lingering Western supremacy and Cold War ideologies must be dismantled. 

Asian communities alone cannot mobilise change. Allies from all walks of lives are needed to make sure that the changes the community is fighting for are accurately reflected and heard.

Allies should not need to justify themselves through their enjoyment of Asian food, popular media or because they once visited an Asian country. No justification should be needed. Allies should stand for the cause because the people being attacked are those that surround our everyday lives – neighbours, friends, colleagues.

Most importantly, the Asian community needs support in fighting against racism and injustice simply because they are human. And that alone is reason enough. 

Words by Min Jin Lee, author of the award winning novel Pachinko.


*Information on how to be an ally, donations and education can be found here.

*The author would like to remind that the Asian continent spans across 48 countries and 3 dependencies in South, Central, South-East, and North-Eastern territories

About Simone Liew 3 Articles
Currently writing her thesis on adoptee identity and media representation as part of the Masters of Korean Studies program at Yonsei GSIS, Simone Liew brings with her from Melbourne, Australia a background in International Studies, interest in all things cultural industries related, and a passion for colorful clothing and food hunting. She hopes that her continued magazine work will contribute to her aspirations of a career in the globalizing Korean music industry. Though some days, she dreams of quitting it all to surf in Hawaii.