THE ASIAN MYSTIQUE: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient

Amy Kazmin – The Financial Times

We love you long time
Published: July 1 2005 – Copyright The Financial Times
by Sheridan Prasso
PublicAffairs £17.50, 464 pages
In the 19th century – when proper ladies in Victorian England were expected to consider sex an unpleasant but necessary sacrifice for their husbands – European colonialists were tantalised by China’s ancient Taoist sex manuals; Chinese literature’s lush, poetic language for love-making; and Japan’s “pillow book” – a guide for newlyweds on sexual positions.
These glimpses of an alternative attitude towards sexuality – apparently unburdened by the pervasive Christian notions of sin, filth and shame that weighed on western conceptions of sex – reinforced the vision, shaped by western travellers over previous centuries, of “the Orient” as an amoral, dangerously seductive region of decadent, sensual pleasure.
Such ideas underlay British readers’ readiness in 1943 to lap up a preposterous account of the rapacious sexual appetites of Tzu Hsi, China’s empress dowager, by a writer who claimed he had a six-year affair with her when she was 69, and he was four decades younger.
Sheridan Prasso, author of The Asian Mystique, argues that the centuries-old western view of Asia as exotic, sensual, morally weak and conquerable, still colours east-west relations – both international and personal – today.
Even with large-scale immigration and multiculturalism a fact of life in many western communities, and international contact increased by global travel, Prasso says that Asians – whether in their native countries or in the diaspora – are seen through a filter of “received cultural perceptions”, reinvigorated by Hollywood and other media.
Surveying decades of Hollywood movies and television serials, Prasso shows how Asian women are consistently portrayed in one of three ways: they are presented as submissive, devoted innocents (often pining for vanished western lovers); charming, sexually available, yet undemanding vixens; or shrewd, rapacious Dragon Ladies.
Asian men, on the other hand, are depicted as emasculated – ascetics, goofy incompetents or scheming, dangerous Fu Manchu types who, despite their skills in martial arts, are (almost) always vanquished by superior western firepower, and they never, ever get the girl. Taken together, she contends, these images have fostered “a subconscious racism…that most of us don’t realise we have”.
Prasso, an ex-BusinessWeek Asia editor (and former colleague of mine) who has spent 15 years covering the region, briefly considers whether these stereotypes have affected US foreign policy. She suggests that Washington’s paternalism towards its “little brown brothers” in Asia may have blinded it in Vietnam to the determination of Ho Chi Minh, for example, who was physically “small and frail”. Moving the spotlight forward, she also asks whether Washington now underestimates the danger posed by the regime of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, lampooned in western media for his bouffant hairdo and penchant for Champagne and platform shoes.
Yet while raising – if not answering – these provocative questions, Prasso’s real interest lies elsewhere. Her focus is intimate relations, and the phenomenon known in US slang as “yellow fever”: the Caucasian male idolising Asian women as the feminine ideal – demure, obedient and wise in the ways of pleasure.
Prasso offers as evidence of the Asian mystique’s enduring potency the popularity of Cherry Blossoms, the 31-year-old catalogue-turned-website that touts women from former Soviet states and Asian countries, especially Filipinos, as mail-order brides for US men; and Bangkok bars such as Super Pussy, where women perform unusual “stunts”.
The book also links today’s western male hunger for Asian women – and all they are imagined to be – to a backlash against feminism. This is evident in websites – some of which Prasso quotes – that tout Asia as the ideal place to find playmates and partners, while raging against women in the west.
”In the bars of Bangkok and elsewhere in Asia,” Prasso writes, “western men who may find traditional notions of masculinity diminished by modern cultural expectations can find restitution…They can experience feelings of dominance, wealth, power, and masculinity – at least temporarily.”
Of course, the dynamics of these encounters reflect the vast disparity in wealth between western men and some of the women from developing Asian countries. Such women can be driven into the sex trade – or the overseas marriage-market – by poverty, lack of skills or better job options, or failed relationships that can leave them socially stigmatised or supporting children single-handedly.
Yet Prasso cautions against mistakenly confusing the roles that women in Asia play in public – either out of the necessity of circumstance or the dictates of cultural expectations – with their inner core. In the second half of her book, she takes us on an engaging romp across Asia to meet students, housewives, career women, migrant workers and politicians, all from diverse cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, who muse on the challenges and negotiations of their own lives.
She has lively encounters in Tokyo’s neighbourhood parks, a Vietnamese suburb, Kyoto’s geisha quarter, a Chinese university, Hong Kong’s posh shopping malls and cramped maids’ quarters, and in bars in Bangkok, Jakarta and the Philippines.
The women reveal determination, resilience, calculation, self-awareness and inner strength, often hidden behind manners and first impressions.
While these profiles may be eye-opening to those with limited exposure to Asia, they also remind that there are diverse ways to be a “strong woman”. Many women in Asia confront extremely difficult, even oppressive, conditions and limited choices, without seeing themselves as victims.
Yet for all the ground it covers, the book leaves one wishing that Prasso had delved more deeply into the distant origins of the western fantasy of the east as a territory of unbridled sexuality, and how diverse Asian cultural attitudes towards sex changed, partially in response to that allegation, over time.
Perhaps to restore what she may unconsciously feel to be the sullied reputation of Asian women, Prasso shies away from fully exploring how differing approaches to sex between the early Christian west and the Hindu/Buddhist-influenced east may have planted the seeds of the mystique still haunting east-west relations.
For example, she chastises Marco Polo and other medieval explorers for their “breathless, fantastical tales” of a wanton, lustful east, without analysing what these Silk Route travellers may have actually seen (unrepentant roadside brothels?), albeit through their own heavily moral filters.
She quickly dismisses suggestions, mainly offered by western men in Asia, of a contemporary Christian-Buddhist divide in sexual attitudes, which probably does hold less explanatory sway today given the secularisation of the west, and centuries of contact that brought western Christian moralising, if not Christianity itself, to Asia.
Yet throughout her book, Prasso nevertheless strews tantalising clues to moments in time when women’s sexuality in some Asian communities was less tightly controlled – and sex in general less rigidly judged as evil – than in the Christian west from where it was observed. Until we can see these moments clearly – and through that contrast, see the west for what it was – the “Asian mystique” will never be fully untangled.
Amy Kazmin is the FT’s Bangkok correspondent.

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