February 23, 2007

In Chinatown, everyone is Bruce Lee

What do a "Muslim woman writer" and a "Chinese male actor" have in common? No, it is not just that they both eat food. It has something to do with media stereotypes and the struggle for representation and identity beyond what is imposed by the mainstream media.

Watch any commercial blockbuster movie and chances are that you will not find any other representation of a Chinese man, besides the "triad gang member" and "kung fu fighter". A Chinese male actor would be hard-pressed to find a job in a mainstream movie if he does not do either roles.

The placing of the Chinese male within the mainstream (read "western") media in its creative consciousness has always been a little problematic. I happened to be in the States when Ang Lee won the Academy Award (Best Director) for Brokeback Mountain and diligently caught the news on TV that evening to see him receiving his award.

Alas, there was no such thing, not even a clear shot of Ang Lee but a passing one of him getting up from his seat. So I had a look at a newspaper the next morning to get a clearer look of him, and there he was on the front page; a side profile of him kissing Clint Eastwood's hand.
If I was totally clueless, I would have thought that Clint Eastwood was the one receiving the award instead. I found myself thinking, "did I miss something here? Is this the usual exposure you get from winning the best director award?"

Probably not, but maybe, if your origins are from the Far East. After all, Chinese people are known to be good with numbers but it would be difficult to place them in the English speaking world's creative sphere. Asians or "orientals" as the British call us, are sometimes those interesting, cute, and exotic species you see in the background of an MTV music video, but not so much as persons with character, depth, and all things human.

While the Chinese male actor needs more than luck to break into mainstream movies without pandering to the "western" stereotype of him, the Muslim woman writer has it even worse.
An article written by Mohja Kahf (On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West) articulates very succinctly the problems of trying to break away from a stereotype. (http://www.islamicamagazine.com/issue-17/on-being-a-muslim-woman-writer-in-the-west.html).

Pick up any book by a Muslim women writer published by major publishers these days, and chances are that the story will be about a hapless victim of conservatism, or one who has escaped from the evil clutches of her society, sometimes helped by a brave and progressive white man.

Never mind the struggle of her own people within her community who fought hard for equality. Apparently what sells is just those stories of them as a victim or escapee. How many would stop to think that issues and stories on honour killings are really exoticising what is essentially domestic violence?

In addition to having to deal with these negative stereotypes, the Muslim woman writer also has to answer to her own community should she compromise by fitting into this stereotype. As by doing so, she would be perpetuating a negative stereotype of her community that has already been demonised.

The Muslim woman writer is caught between wanting to avoid pandering to this stereotype while trying to get her book published for the mainstream buyers who, ultimately, pay her bills. While some compromise in full knowledge, others even have their work slanted towards these stereotypes by virtue of what is printed on their book cover itself, which some may not have control of. If all we see are books or media that perpetuate and pander to these stereotypes, it is no wonder there is a phobia of her religion and community.

The victim or escapee stereotype is nothing new and has also been a theme with Chinese women writers. Think of the Chinese woman victim who escapes to the west from the evil clutches of communism. Besides being the "victim", "escapee", or "dragon lady", the Chinese woman also has the unfortunate (or fortunate, to the confused or opportunistic) role to play as the exotic sex kitten.

Stereotypes are sometimes so ingrained that we ourselves do not even question them. We forget that when we speak of a group of people, that they are essentially people with the same concerns as us who wish for peace and happiness, as cliche as that may sound, and who are as diverse as ourselves. Asians are not one homogenous group of people who think and act the same; there are so many different characteristics within and between Asian countries. The same should apply to people in Europe or the Middle East.

Do you know any Chinese men who are kung fu fighters or triad members? Hell, I personally don't know any who are, let alone any sizable majority. Yet, that is the representation we have from the western mainstream media. How strange is that.

Published in The Sun Tue, 31 Oct 2006

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