Beyond Asiaphilia: Hong Kong cinema and
Asian American spectators

My analysis thus far has concentrated on the experience of Asian American spectators watching The Departed. As I hope I have demonstrated, Asian American spectators may respond negatively to instances of racialized representation in the film that accord with existing discourses of anti-Asian stigmatization. In contrast, films like Infernal Affairs could allow Asian American spectators the comfort of moving in a space shaped by bodies like their own. I now turn to a more detailed consideration of the potential pleasures of Hong Kong action cinema for Asian American spectators through the viewfinder of Valerie Soe’s experimental video Beyond Asiaphilia (1997).

Given the historical, political, economic, and cultural complexities of the history of Asians in the U.S., the idea that Asian cinema can provide a more pleasurable viewing experience for Asian American spectators than Hollywood films is hardly a simple issue. This could be seen as ceding Hollywood and its significant economic and cultural influence to the forces of white hegemony. Furthermore, it risks fraying the distinction between “Asian” and “Asian American” that many have sought to maintain, for good reason.

As Dorinne Kondo has written,

“I am deeply invested in keeping separate “Asian” and “Asian American,” for the confusion of these terms has produced some of the most egregious incidents of racism in this country’s history, events that touch the lives of all Asian Americans. But precisely because there is an elision of Asian with Asian American, About Face [Kondo’s book about performing race in fashion and theater] centers around the ways hegemonic representations, mostly of Asia, reverberate in Asian American lives. The Orientalisms deployed at one site produce effects in others.”[47] 
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Although Kondo does not specifically mention films in this citation, popular cinematic representations of Asia and Asians undoubtedly “reverberate in Asian American lives.”

Several of Valerie Soe’s videos address the representation of Asians in U.S. popular culture. In the first half of New Year (1987), Soe uses hand-drawn illustrations, voice-over narration, text, and photographs to convey the experience of moving to a mostly white suburb and being tasked with explaining her family’s Lunar New Year celebrations to her elementary school classmates. The second half of the video collects images of Asians in U.S. popular visual culture, organized by stereotype, that her neighbors and classmates might have been familiar with at the time. Soe would once again utilize this aesthetic strategy of recontextualizing and politicizing popular culture, which she traces to the Situationist International’s concept of detournement, in Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re)Educational Videotape (1992). In an essay about the political and artistic motivations behind her work Soe writes,

“By starting with images and methods from mainstream artistic sources and turning them around, detournement alters and revises the meaning and intent of even the most disposable popular culture.”[48]  

Picturing Oriental Girls, which interrogates the representation of Asian women, edits together clips from some two dozen popular media texts, primarily feature-length films though also including television shows and one music video, in order to highlight certain recurring tropes. The video begins with the representation of Asian women as creative muses; there are a surprising number of films with scenes of white male characters painting and/or writing upon the bodies of Asian women. There are also representations of Asian women acting aggressively and being punished with startlingly brutal violence, the “dragon lady” stereotype, and of course a selection of clips showing the hypersexualized exotic and erotic Asian woman. These excerpts, which make their point through the sheer force of repetition, are frequently overlaid with choice quotations from two mail order bride catalogs and a 1990 British GQ article proclaiming “Oriental Girls: The Ultimate Accessory.” Although the entire video is only ten and a half minutes long, the accumulation of similar images and text clearly demonstrates the pervasiveness of these stereotypes.

In Picturing Oriental Girls, this scene from Tai-Pan (Daryl Duke, 1986) is overlaid with text from Sunshine International Correspondence, a company that facilitated communication for the purpose of starting relationships between Asian women and American men. Picturing Oriental Girls juxtaposes a scene from The Teahouse of the August Moon (Daniel Mann, 1956) of a geisha named Lotus Blossom (Machiko Kyo) with text proclaiming the beauty and values of Asian women.
Picturing Oriental Girls connects the Western stereotype of the geisha girl from The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) to Puccini’s famous opera Madama Butterfly (1904) and the musical Miss Saigon (1989) which is based on Madama Butterfly but set in Saigon during the Vietnam War.  “Mother” Gin Sling (Ona Munson), from The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941), is featured in Picturing Oriental Girls as an example of the treacherous Asian women who is punished by a violent death.

Mixed Blood (1992), about interracial relationships, is composed of interviews with Asian Americans and mixed race couples speaking about the complex realities of interracial desire and intercultural engagement. The video contrasts their words with clips from Hollywood films such as Sayonara (Joshua Logan, 1957), which romanticizes the pairing of white men and Asian women, and The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959), which was remarkable for portraying James Shigeta as the romantic lead, in love with a white American woman.[49]

Soe’s critique of representations of Asians in popular U.S. media was thus well established by the time she made Beyond Asiaphilia, which, like many of her earlier works, references numerous films. This time, however, the purpose of these cinematic quotations is quite different. Beyond Asiaphilia has two distinct, though related, threads. The first considers Soe’s love for Hong Kong action films in the context of her autobiography and romantic history. Second, interwoven with Soe’s biographical and cinematic reminiscences, a number of Asian American men are interviewed about their interest in Hong Kong action cinema. The films Soe cites in the video are therefore a source of appreciation and affection, not the subjects of criticism and anger. Although Beyond Asiaphilia is an experimental video rather than an ethnographic study, it nevertheless offers an intriguing glimpse of how a handful of actual Asian American spectators derive pleasure from Hong Kong action films.

The “Asiaphilia” in the title of Soe’s video has had largely negative connotations. Darrell Y. Hamamoto defines Asiaphilia as:

“The fetishization of all things Asian in popular culture—owing in part to the rise of Hong Kong cinema, with its commanding, action-oriented personalities; the ubiquity of female Asian American television-news anchors and fashion models in the U.S. media; Asian food faddism among many urban professionals; and the acceptance by young people of such imports as anime (Japanese animation).”

In contrast to more overtly racist attitudes and practices, Asiaphilia might seem relatively harmless, perhaps even a positive sign of increasing cultural openness. Yet, Hamamoto argues,

“Asiaphilia is a deceptively benign ideological construct that naturalizes and justifies the systematic appropriation of cultural property and expressive forms created by Yellow people.”[50]

But what if the “appropriators” are themselves of Asian ethnic heritage?

Beyond Asiaphilia begins with a television screen showing a scene from an action film featuring a handsome Asian male lead. A woman confesses in voice-over: “After seven years with my Caucasian partner I’ve fallen in love with a Chinese man.” She lists the Chinese man’s numerous good qualities—tall, suave, and honorable, among others—before identifying him as Hong Kong movie star Chow Yun-fat. We soon learn that the voice at the outset belongs to the maker of the video, and that the “love affair” is not exactly with another man, but rather with a cinematic genre: Hong Kong action films. From this intriguing beginning, with its suggestion of an interracial love triangle, the video goes on to address issues of race, gender, sexuality, and cinema through a combination of autobiography, interviews, and a generous assortment of film clips.

Shortly after the opening sequence, an off-screen interviewer (Patrick Macias) asks Soe, who appears onscreen, why she likes Hong Kong movies. She begins by highlighting their dramatic cinematic language before describing the men who star in them:

“They’re just so incredibly charismatic, they know how to carry themselves on the screen, they’re really physical, they move well, they model it, they have good haircuts, they wear their clothes well, everything that these guys in American movies are not.”

Much of this commentary is presented in voiceover as scenes from several Hong Kong films play, lending visual support to her words.

Although her response might initially seem to emphasize the superficial appearance of the stars, it touches upon much more than the simple pleasures of seeing good-looking men with flattering haircuts and nice clothing. There is also the quality of on-screen charisma, which suggests the ability to effectively inhabit and move through the space of the screen. She concludes her remarks by describing these men as the very opposite of the Asian men in U.S. movies. The difference is not simply between stereotypical and non-stereotypical onscreen characters, nor is her response only a desire for more “positive” representations.

In Beyond Asiaphilia, LiPo Ching marvels at how Bruce Lee made Asian men appealing. A series of English-language magazines with covers featuring Hong Kong movie stars accumulate as evidence of Asiaphilia.

Marcus Chun speculates that, in regards to Asiaphilia, the person in question is probably not Asian, yet has an unexplainable predilection for all things Asian, “like martial arts” and “Asian women who are so servile and give good massage,” said with a sarcastic laugh.

The videomaker details her own obsessive interest in Hong Kong action films, then concludes by wondering, “Is it even logistically possible that I am this Asiaphiliac now, and I am an Asian person”?

What might be described as the contrast between the physical presence that Soe appreciates in Hong Kong action film stars such as Chow Yun-fat and Jet Li, and the lack of such embodiment in most of the Asian male characters in U.S. films, is also present in Soe’s recollections of her experience growing up in a mostly white suburb of San Francisco. Following reminiscences of her childhood sprinkled with what appear to be images from home movies, Soe notes that she knew very few Asian American men other than her brothers and cousins until she met the “FOB guys” that her sister dated while in high school.[51] She describes them as “visually striking,” in Angels Flight pants, shirts with long bell sleeves, and feathered hair, chain-smoking and “completely comfortable with themselves.” 

The segment concludes with speculation about what was different about these young men:

“part of it was that they were from Hong Kong, and they grew up in a majority culture and, you know, they liked themselves. I think that was really different from what the other Asian guys that I knew felt.”

This comparison echoes Soe’s earlier contrast between Hong Kong action film stars and Asian men in American movies. The recollection ends on this observation, leaving the viewer to ponder the differences between growing up in Hong Kong as a member of the majority versus in the United States as a member of the minority. How might this distinction be reflected in the sense of self of a person, not to mention in the cinematic productions of each place?

For Soe, the onscreen physical presence of Hong Kong action film stars has the effect of turning these men into objects of desire. For the male interviewees of Beyond Asiaphilia, their feeling in watching Hong Kong action cinema is rather one of identification, and an affirming effect upon their own sense of self. In a series of short interview excerpts, young Asian American men share what they enjoy about Hong Kong films. The men are framed mostly in medium close-up or close-up shots, superimposed against clips of Hong Kong action films, or against backgrounds with objects (e.g. posters) related to Hong Kong cinema. They all express some degree of disappointment with the representation of Asians in Hollywood, whether in terms of simple lack or in the quality of the characterizations. The pleasures of Hong Kong action films for them include seeing Asians in leading roles and seeing Asians winning fights.

The significance of these films in their lives is evident in the expressions on their faces and the tone of their voices as they speak. For some of the interviewees, their rejection of Hollywood and embrace of Hong Kong is intensely personal. One interviewee tells a story of being approached by a woman after a screening of a Bruce Lee film and being told, “Oh, I just love you guys!” and marveling at how Lee made Asian men appealing. Another young Asian American man says about Bruce Lee:

“I like talking about him because he’s such, um, a sexy character, you know. The way in which he sort of sheds his shirt every chance he gets, the way he flexes his muscles. So I like that aspect of him. He sort of goes against the stereotype of the nerdy, asexual Asian guy.”

For these men, the images on the screen have a direct effect upon the way in which they see themselves and are seen by others.

Beyond Asiaphilia directly addresses “Asiaphilia” near its conclusion. A stack of English-language periodicals featuring Asian film stars on their covers, including Giant Robot, A., and Time Out: New York, suggests the popularity of Asian cinema in the U.S. The off-screen questioner says to Soe, “Tell me about Asiaphilia.” She describes someone with Asiaphilia as a person who is “inordinately obsessed with Asian culture.” A male interviewee follows up by adding that someone with Asiaphilia probably isn’t Asian, while a third respondent recalls a non-Asian woman he knew who was “into Asian guys so much that she wanted to have a kid who was half-Asian.” Soe then details the specifics of her own engagement with Hong Kong action films, including shopping for films at Canto-pop record stores, watching Chinese movies on satellite television even though they lacked subtitles, and going to the Great Star Theater (a San Francisco Chinatown theater). She concludes by saying,

“It’s become kind of this weird obsession. Is it even logistically possible that I am this Asiaphiliac now, and I’m an Asian person?”

The video does not answer this question.

Soe and the Asian American men interviewed in her video were hardly alone in their appreciation of Chow Yun-fat and other Hong Kong film stars. Beyond Asiaphilia was produced during the explosion of interest in Hong Kong action cinema in the U.S. in the 1990s. David Desser has argued for the recognition of a “new cinephilia” beginning in the late 1980s and centered on Hong Kong action films, writing,

“The cult popularity of John Woo, in particular, but Hong Kong action cinema in general (the films of Tsui Hark, the star personae of Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat, even Jackie Chan in this period) is, I argue, the driving force of the new cinephilia.”[52]

He later describes the subject of this new lover of cinema as “a type of white, adolescent male subject in Euro-America who soon found himself identifying with non-white and (outside of John Woo’s cinema) female characters,” that is, an “Asianized” Euro-American subject.[53]

Desser is primarily interested in analyzing the technological conditions of this new cinephilia, which was made possible by the availability of films in VHS, VCD, and affordable DVD formats, and the existence of a wide range of Internet discussion forums and online modes of cinematic circulation and consumption. These conditions allowed Soe and the interviewees of Beyond Asiaphilia to see Hong Kong films, yet they are not, obviously, the white adolescent male subjects that Desser describes. Hamamoto would probably see this Euro-American love of Hong Kong action films as a clear example of the Asiaphilia he so strongly critiques, and these fans seem to fit the general understanding of Asiaphilia expressed in Soe’s video as well. Are Asian American fans of Hong Kong action films any different?

Hong Kong action films and their stars present an idealized vision of Asians in action, of bodies that move through spectacular scenes of gunfights and martial arts choreography. David Bordwell has written of Hong Kong films,

“Cinema is particularly good at arousing emotions kinesthetically, through action and music… When this quality is captured in vigorous, strictly patterned movement, in nicely judged framings and crackling cutting, with overwhelming music and sound effects, you can feel yourself tensing and twitching to the rhythms of the fight.”[54]

Aaron Anderson’s analyses of filmed martial arts combat through kinesthetics and dance theory offer another perspective upon the ability of certain Hong Kong films to physically and mentally engage viewers.[55]

These scholars and others persuasively describe and analyze the unique ability of Hong Kong action films to involve the viewer, and in each instance, these films represent something that Asian American spectators hardly ever see or feel in U.S. cinema: the desirable Asian body effectively moving through the diegetic world. Unlike the repetitive and yet never changing stereotype analyzed by Homi Bhabha, these are characters in motion in the world of the film.[56] Desser’s white, male, adolescent “new cinephiles” have the opportunity to see bodies like their own in action on screens everywhere and every day. While any viewer can appreciate the artistry of a Hong Kong action film, such films do not have the same intellectual or emotional significance for all viewers. Regardless of whether the Euro-American fans are seen as appropriating Hong Kong cinema or merely enjoying its achievements, such films cannot have the same significance for them as for Asian American fans.

In the context of Soe’s earlier videos, Beyond Asiaphilia suggests that Hong Kong action films can be seen as an alternative for Asian American spectators to mainstream U.S. media. At one point in the video, a young Asian American man says as much: “For a while it was sort of like oh, there’s no Asians in Hollywood, but now it doesn’t matter because you can just watch Hong Kong movies.”  Indeed, why bother with Hollywood when you have Hong Kong (or Japan or Korea or India)? The “beyond” of the video’s title signals an engagement with Asian culture that is not merely superficial fetishization but rather… Well, what exactly? If Asiaphilia is an inordinate love of all things Asian, often attributed to non-Asians and characterized as an unseemly racial fetishization, what does it mean to move “beyond”?

The fact that Soe’s ongoing blog, beyondasiaphilia, an award-winning “repository for [Soe’s] thoughts on Asian/American arts, culture, and other related topics,” is titled after her 1997 video testifies to the continuing significance of Asian popular cinema in Soe’s life.[57] Nearly two decades later, through her blog, Soe offers reports from the Hong Kong International Film Festival, thoughtful reviews of many of the Asian films that play in the Bay Area, and other posts about Asian/American cultural production. Although Hong Kong cinema is no longer the cultural force that it was in the 1980s and 1990s, there is arguably more Asian popular culture, including cinema, available in the U.S. than ever before. Watching Asian films will not solve the challenges of racial embodiment in the U.S. for Asian American subjects. However, a better understanding of the pleasures that films like Infernal Affairs can offer to Asian American spectators is a useful point of departure for further research into how racial embodiment shapes the filmgoing experience, and how films might come to provide immersive, engaging, and moving experiences for all spectators.