What’s The Fantasy Behind ‘Yellow Fever’?

Seeking Asian Female documentarian Debbie Lum breaks down the key components of the male fetish for Asian women.

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Chinese-American filmmaker Debbie Lum has carved out a unique niche for herself: “Yellow Fever” expert. In case you’re not familiar with the term, this uncomfortable pun refers to the wanton fixation on Asian women, mostly by white guys.

Certain ideas about Asian women from the “submissive wife” to the “exotic beauty” fuel the men’s passions. On the “world’s biggest porn engine,” as PornMD boasts, the most searched term among Canadians is “Asian,” which is also a top 10 favorite of American peepers. But what’s behind those late-night searches and diehard stereotypes?

The fetish is deeper than a penchant for dark hair and high-cut kimonos. Lum spent the better part of five years debating the issues of race, sex, and power within her documentary Seeking Asian Female, airing Monday on PBS, which chronicles one eccentric man’s obsession with finding a much-younger Chinese bride. (For more male testimonials, visit TheyreAllSoBeautiful, the companion online forum to Seeking Asian Female.)

“When you meet these people, you’re just talking about the weather or the baseball game,” Lum says. Steven, the American suitor at the center of her documentary, “is this ex-hippie frustrated artist. He knows a lot about very interesting, obscure things. He’s a fun person. But then when you talk to him about Asian women, it’s like he turns crazy.”

“My film is very personal, my point of view,” she continues. “But I also wanted to include other points of view.” What unfolds is more an unlikely love story than a condemnation, at turns emotional and uncomfortable—especially when Lum had to tear down the fourth wall to play translator between Steven and his new bride Sandy, who turns out to be strong-willed. Says Lum: “The first fight that they had, you know, I just couldn’t extricate myself from the story.”

But how exactly does Yellow Fever differ from, say, an innocent predilection? We asked Lum to break down her findings.

Choosing Asian Can Be a Form of Racial Profiling

“My own definition of Yellow Fever is that it’s an over-infatuation with the concept of the Asian culture and idealizing Asian women. What I find disturbing about Yellow Fever is that it’s racial profiling on a basic level. Fundamentally, it’s choosing your romantic partner based on race. It conflicts with this idea that love should be color blind. Being an Asian American, particularly a woman, race is foregrounded. There’s this assumption [that we have] a commonality, and that’s what’s hurtful. The reasons why it bothers us so much has to do with our own identity issues: I don’t see myself as Chinese, but as a Chinese-American—and ultimately, I’m American. I think all women of all ethnicities are objectified, but I think there’s an extreme way that it happens to Asian women. The Asian sex industry, for instance, is alive and well and thriving.”


The Fantasy of the Pre-Feminist Wife

“A lot of the guys I interviewed said they were choosing Asian women because they were looking for an escape from American women — and by American women they meant white women. I really felt like it was this longing for this pre-feminist woman. As if somehow Asia never experienced feminism. That’s what the hope was for a lot of these guys. The funny thing is, people who have actually had experience with Asian women find out it’s more of a cultural facade. Once they’re married or not in public, the women are not docile or shrinking flowers.”


Younger Asian Women Will Need You

“Most relationships labeled as Yellow Fever are the ones that are kind of like Steven and Sandy’s, where its an older gentleman and a younger woman from a developing country. Steven had this whole theory about why he was looking for Asian women: He was invisible in the United States, and that was his only hope. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was looking for somebody 40 years younger than him. For a lot of American women, that’s a little bit distasteful because there is an implied imbalance between experience, if not power and money. One of our [] bloggers was a professor who talked about the possibility of love across inequality. And it happens all the time. People are in relationships where there’s a power imbalance.”

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