I am often perplexed how different groups are able to grab national attention. So many, in fact, that my head often spins with diversity overload. Yesterday it was the oppressed transsexuals, blackface humor, and separation of illegal Mestizos. Today, it’s bashing Muslim congresswomen, Chinese stereotypes, and Black reparations.
Groups are getting more than their 15-minutes of media access. They have now turned our one-thing-at-a-time brains into multi-screen complexes, complete with screen crawls and picture-in-picture. Everybody seems to have a problem that generates more problems. But, somehow every group gets what it wants, even if it’s only the media attention it craves.
This month, Chinese Americans protested a high school production of Thoroughly Modern Millie on Long Island. The play is notorious for Chinese stereotypes, including mimicked accents and criminal roles. It has been protested in Manhattan (2014), Philadelphia (2015), and last March in Newton, MA, where the schools shut down the production, in atonement.
“We would never do anything anti-Jewish, or anti-African-American. Blackface is unthinkable, but yellow face is utterly fine,” said Newton resident Mia Wenjen, whose blog caught the attention of The [Boston] Globe which quoted a student performer in the musical as saying that all the students involved with the show have learned valuable lessons. “We started a conversation school-wide, and we learned how to listen,” the student said.
Note how Ms. Wenjen neglected to mention anti-Italian stereotypes. To most Americans, there is no anti-Italian stereotyping since such portrayals are self-generated. Can’t argue with that.
But I do recall a middle school in Batavia, IL that produced a parody on The Sopranos in 2006. A non-Italic teacher wrote the script and coached the 11- and 12-year olds in goombah accents. When an Italian American student objected and his mother tried to stop the play, eventually going to court, the judge cited the First Amendment. The school’s principal, Sam Rutolo (yes, Italic!) cheered the verdict. Italian American protests have neither the courts nor the media to turn to. Worse, we don’t even have the sympathy of our own community.
So how did Chinese community power suddenly appear out of nowhere? I give credit to Red China for transforming its image, and to the influx of wealthy and educated Chinese immigrants imbued with ethnic pride. We know that movies like the Joy Luck Club (1993) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) spurred a positive introspection. Action movies with Jackie Chan and Kung Fu actor Bruce Lee were inspiring versions of the Rocky series, without the dumb-dago tint. Likewise, Disney fed the Chinese ego with Mulan (1998) the Chinese warrior princess. And how about the super-Asian “Tiger Mom” books. Moreover, their Hollywood stars have one voice against defamation and cultural appropriation (i.e.,White actors playing East Asian roles).
We, of course, have the polar opposite of these things: actors who consider Italian defamation as an art form (and a meal ticket), a century of movies that perpetuate a mafia culture, and kids’ movies that adapt that culture for young viewers, such as Zootopia (2016), Goonies (1985), and Shark Tale (2004).
While Italian warts abound in cinema, the Chinese are keen on presentation. Chinese model Jing Wen has created a storm of outrage on social media with her photos in Vogue. Was she nude? No, she has freckles. Known as “sparrow marks” among the Han people, they are rare. Freckles are considered a Euro-Caucasian trait, with no place in Han beauty standards. (These are the people who for centuries considered mutilating foot binding as a form of beauty.)
The latest Chinese American blow-up is directed at the food industry. The Associated Press just spotlighted a new target for Asian activists: culinary appropriation. It seems that a restaurant in Manhattan, called Lucky Lee’s, promotes it’s version of Chinese cuisine as “clean eating.” The owner is Jewish American and defines clean as “not oily” and “guilt-free.”
“Where she is coming from is a dark place…” says one Chinese American eatery owner. (Is he thinking Moo Shu Cat?) Even the name Lucky Lee’s is culturally provocative, for some.
We may have had the Pizza Police at one time, and Jeno Paulucci got rich creating Chun King Chinese foods, but this is ridiculous. -JLM