Cover image for Orientals : Asian Americans in popular culture
Orientals : Asian Americans in popular culture
Lee, Robert G., 1947-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xii, 271 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
Reading Level:
1510 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E184.O6 L48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Sooner or later every Asian American must deal with the question "Where do you come from?" It is probably the most familiar if least aggressive form of racism. It is a tip-off to the persistent notion that people of Asian ancestry are not real Americans, that "Orientals" never really stop being loyal to their foreign homeland, no matter how long they or their families have been in this country. Confronting the cultural stereotypes that have been attached to Asian Americans over the last 150 years, Robert G. Lee seizes the label "Oriental" and asks where it came from.

The idea of Asians as mysterious strangers who could not be assimilated into the cultural mainstream was percolating to the surface of American popular culture in the mid-nineteenth century, when Chinese immigrant laborers began to arrive in this country in large numbers. Lee shows how the bewildering array of racialized images first proffered by music hall songsters and social commentators have evolved and become generalized to all Asian Americans, coalescing in particular stereotypes. Whether represented as Pollutant, Coolie, Deviant, Yellow Peril, Model Minority, or Gook, the Oriental is portrayed as alien and a threat to the American family -- the nation writ small.

Refusing to balance positive and negative stereotypes, Lee connects these stereotypes to particular historical moments, each marked by shifting class relations and cultural crises. Seen as products of history and racial politics, the images that have prevailed in songs, fiction, films, and nonfiction polemics are contradictory and complex. Lee probes into clashing images of Asians as (for instance) seductively exotic or devious despoilers of (white) racial purity, admirably industrious or an insidious threat to native laborers. When Lee dissects the ridiculous, villainous, or pathetic characters that amused or alarmed the American public, he finds nothing generated by the real Asian American experience; whether they come from the Gold Rush camps or Hollywood films or the cover of Newsweek, these inhuman images are manufactured to play out America's racial myths.

Orientals comes to grips with the ways that racial stereotypes come into being and serve the purposes of the dominant culture.

Author Notes

Robert G. Lee is Associate Professor of American Civilization, Brown University.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Lee, a professor of American civilization, presents a compelling critique of race from an Asian American viewpoint. Lee notes the current fashion of trumpeting Asian Americans as the model minority: high academic achievers, economic survivors (little dependence on welfare). Yet this stereotype doesn't offset the suspicions that cling to Asian people, even third-and fourth-generation Asian Americans. Lee points up the identification of Asian American contributors to the Democratic National Committee as possible foreign or alien contributors, with all the sinister implications of such past references. He analyzes that stereotype of Asian Americans as well as other negative images, including the yellow peril, exotics, and deviants. Lee places those images in historical and sociological context, reflecting on the shifting American self-image. He examines the origins of the label "oriental" with its implied image of other or outsider, and how it fits into current concerns about multiculturalism. Given the increasingly non-European composition of the U.S. population, Lee's work provides an excellent prism to view the flawed North American self-image. --Vanessa Bush

Library Journal Review

Lee (American civilization, Brown Univ.) presents six images of "the Oriental": pollutant of white culture, coolie laborer, effeminate deviant, yellow peril threat, model minority, and gook. Lee identifies these images by reviewing a wide range of popular American literature, including films, folktales, and songs from late 19th-century California to the present day. Scholars as well as general readers will be interested in Lee's identification of the conservative "racial bigot" and the "national racial liberal." Readers may wonder why he does not place into perspective popular fiction such as Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (LJ 2/15/89) or the movie Dim Sum, instead focusing on the enduring historical sterotypes represented by Flower Drum Song, Fu Manchu, and The World of Suzie Wong. Still, Lee does an excellent job with the historical material. Highly recommended for both academic and public libraries.‘Peggy Spitzer Christoff, Oak Park, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Lee (American Civilization, Brown Univ.) has written a complex, innovative, but ultimately flawed study of images of Asian Americans in US popular culture. Focusing on the period from the mid-19th century through the 1990s, Lee examines films, popular songs, fiction, and polemics for views of what many Americans incorrectly call "Orientals." He finds six basic images: the pollutant, the coolie, the deviant, the yellow peril, the model minority, and the gook, each tied to a different historical period. These images, as they grow out of popular representations of the Asian American as "other," have been "imbedded in the discourse of race, gender, class, and sexuality in America." Writing in the mode of cultural studies, Lee is especially persuasive in his choice of texts to analyze; his "deconstruction of the film Mississippi Marsala is especially persuasive. However, much of his analysis stretches readers' credulity, as, for example, when he assesses the D.W. Griffith film Broken Blossoms as a homoerotic film about incest. Densely written, Orientals is recommended for major university libraries only. A. O. Edmonds Ball State University

Table of Contents

Preface Where Are You From?p. ix
Introduction Yellowfacep. 1
1 The """"Heathen Chinee"""" on God's Free Soilp. 15
2 The Coolie and the Making of the White Working Classp. 51
3 The Third Sexp. 83
4 Inner Dikes and Barred Zonesp. 106
5 The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority Mythp. 145
6 The Model Minority as Gookp. 180
6 After Lap. 204
8 Disobedient Citizenship: Deconstructing the Orientalp. 223
Notesp. 233
Indexp. 257