Catching Yellow Fever: New Video Series “They're All So Beautiful” Digs into Asian Dating Stereotypes

Filmmaker Lum and a white groom holding his Chinese wife

“When I see an Asian woman it’s just like, wow—she’s beautiful. It’s just like an angel was dropped right in front of me.”

“There’s an exotic look and feel to an Asian woman, compared to a white woman or a Latin woman.”

“I’m looking for a petite, gracious woman. Traditionally that happens to be an Asian woman.”

In the new five-part web series They’re All So Beautiful, filmmaker Debbie Lum interviews dozens of people about “yellow fever” ’— the specific obsession many Western men have with Asian culture. 

Most of the interviews are with academics who study race and Asian-American men and women but, yes, several of the most revealing interviews of the series are with creepy-ass white dudes who talk about the beauty of Asian women in a way that makes those women sound like they are synthetic dolls you can order from a catalog. Lum’s engaging documentary series makes it clear that there are a ton of men “afflicted with the fever.”

In one notable segment, Sheridan Prasso, the author of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, talks about a bit of online research she did around the subject. Of all the fetish porn sites out there (leather, feet, redheads, hamburgers), Prasso found that Asian women fetishes exceed—by far—any other fetishes.

The reason for this is that an Asian fetish is about more than just an attraction to the way Asian people look, which Prasso makes clear is not a big deal. “Everybody has something that turns them on,” she says. “What is wrong with that is when it crosses a line into expectations of behavior.” That’s the rub: “Yellow Fever” is about much more than sexual desire. It’s problematic when people project onto Asian people a whole lot of assumptions because of the way they look.

Of course, the societal expectation that you’ll act a certain way because of your race is true for all people. Dr. Benjamin Tong, professor and psychotherapist at California Institute of Integral Studies, lays it out like this in the series: “In the white community, Latina women are [seen as] hot, difficult to control, exotic but fiery. Asian women are more controllable. They live to please. Black women— wow, they’re too powerful. Watch out for ‘super mama.’ In everyday language you do still hear these things.”

Aaaaaah. I hate it but I know it’s true. I do hear these things. AND I DON’T LIKE IT.

So what to do about it? They’re All So Beautiful is a great starting point for exploring and recognizing the issues around race, expectations, and sexuality.

Through the interviews, we find that the stereotypes projected on Asian women have to do with submission, lack of strength, and an eagerness to serve white men. Lum’s documentary tackles these tough questions in an unobtrusive way.  In an interview with Psychology Today, Lum explains that passion drove her to start the project: “This is just so wrong and it shouldn’t exist.” But the videos have no voice-over narration telling us what to think and her voice lacks judgment, snark, or aggression as she questions interviewees. Indeed, the videos are organized around quiet questions typed in white on a black background. The questions are simple and straightforward like, “What is yellow fever?” and “Can women have yellow fever?”

Perhaps because of this balanced approach, Lum was able to get some pretty fucked up answers out of her subjects. It seems that some of the men she interviewed assumed she was not an investigative filmmaker, but just another quiet Asian woman with no opinion. Well played. Her project will likely open the eyes of a number of populations, including quite possibly the population of men who “are just more attracted to Asian women”—and get them to dig deeper and ask themselves what they are really attracted to (SPOILER: power).

Lum’s five part series, which can be found on her website, is a lead-up to her award-winning documentary Seeking Asian Female, which will air on Independent Lens on May 6 and is currently available on DVD and online. She also contributed a piece to the recent “Tribes” episode of This American Life.  

Photo: Filmmaker Lum and two of her newly hitched documentary subjects. 

Read other Bitch writing about interracial relationships.

by Georgia Perry
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Not always!

I'm a woman, and I'm very attracted to Asian women and men, but not for the reasons above. I think that some of the men who say that they are "just more attracted to Asian women" may be just that. See, my experience of Asian women has not been that they are submissive or eager to please anyone. The Asian women I've known have been strong, successful, intelligent, and ethical. I've known some who were very independent and others who were extremely family-oriented. I've met Asian women who were shallow "material girls," and Asian women who were animal rights activists. As with every other race, you can't make assumptions about a personality based on the skin attached to it. As for why I am more physically attracted to Asians than to Caucasians, I just find many them to be more aesthetically pleasing than many Caucasian people that I see. Maybe I like that they look so different from myself. I don't think that makes me sexist, racist, or anything else. That's like judging someone based on what flowers they prefer. It's not that I don't like roses, but that I think thistle is particularly gorgeous.

re: Not always!

Thanks for your comment, I was tempted to contribute something similar but wasn't up for being the first one to do so. I don't have a PROBLEM with men of certain appearances, I just happen to be attracted to others. It seems like so often, people want to ignore evolutionary biology and biochemistry and put each other down for having certain preferences in whichever sex or gender they are attracted to. It's only when people start assigning expectations of behavior to all members of a given ethnicity that their preferences should become a problem.

The video's content does not support claims made in the article.

Did you watch a different video than the one you linked? Because the content of the one show is incredibly mild, focusing on difficult-to-contest comments about physical features: "They tend to have long hair, and I like that," "I like petite women, and Asians tend to be that way," "I like the lines of their faces," etc. It's very boring. Based on the article's commentary, I was expecting rants about how they admire Asian women's cute little bound feet and genetically superior wall-building skills.

The only point at which the respondents start talking about stereotypes is when they are expressly asked if they think there are any culturally differentiating features. (So that Lum can later call them racist for whatever answer they give.) Even then, some of them manage to dodge her leading questions; one woman in particular, after some thought, says that there isn't really a personality trait she'd associate more with Asians than anyone else.

"Perhaps because of this balanced approach, Lum was able to get some pretty fucked up answers out of her subjects. It seems that some of the men she interviewed assumed she was not an investigative filmmaker, but just another quiet Asian woman with no opinion. Well played." -- Do you have examples somewhere else? Because there aren't any in the video you posted. And given the guarded nature of some of the responses, it's clear that a lot of them figured out Lum had an agenda. She's digging for "fucked up answers" and <b>still</b> coming up empty-handed.

........ Are you serious?

........ Are you serious? There are so many stereotyping comments in the video. Sure, not all of them stereotype, but it sounds like you were selectively listening for them not stereotyping. You also misquoted some of them in your comments. No one said "Asians tend to be that way" - that would have been ok, but that's not what they said. The guy said that Asians are the "traditional" small people. Whatever that means. There are small white women. I am an American woman of average height, and I prefer dating women who are about my size or smaller. All the women I have dated more than a couple dates have been shorter and smaller than me. Four women. Two were black - 5'3 and 5'2. The Chinese is the shortest - 5'1 - but not the lightest. The current woman is white and 5'2. But my other Asian female interests have been taller than me - a half-Asian who is 5'7, a Chinese woman who is 5'6, a Korean who is maybe 5'6 or 5'7. I do say that I like Asian features such as dark hair, and I see nothing racist about that. But there's a difference between saying this is how Asian women are and this is how Asian women are more likely to be.

Also, while I do generally prefer dark hair, I've been in love with a blonde... It's a general preference, not a strict one... But there is where the line between racist and acceptable blurs a little. Is it inherently racist to prefer ONLY dark-haired women? Or Asian women? Hmmmmm. I've also had Asians tell me they only date white women or anyone but Asians. It's weird.

Yep, totally serious.

I'm not sure personal anecdotes improve other people's understanding here. Since you think there are many (damaging?) stereotypes in the video, it might be more productive if you could pick out, say, five examples (or fewer, if there aren't that many), and then talked a little about why/if you thought they were harmful to society. In particular, I'd be curious if you could find anything that would constitute a "pretty fucked up answer," as the article asserted.

The person asking these

The person asking these questions HAS to come from a "fair witness" POV. She is setting up these very basic questions as a platform for gaining the most honest answers from these people. No one thinks of themselves as racist, which is the problem behind the problem. The vast majority of humans are blissfully unaware of how they filter the world around them. You even heard it from a female interviewee in the video. She isn't even aware of how her thoughts and feelings toward Asians or Asian cultures could be perceived as racist. This is not saying she IS racist. Humans need to learn to cultivate feelings of empathy. This lack of empathy is what creates such fragmented perceptions of the world. There is so little common ground and everyone is looking for a soap box to stand on and fight for their own view of reality, when we should really take ego out of the equation in order to level this playing field.

I recently read an article on BuzzFeed (not the most truthful source of information, I know) that linked to a tumblr started by an American-Asian woman about her OKCupid account. She received numerous solicitations by white men under the assumption that her ethnicity made her a docile, mild-mannered woman.

The stereotype is there, and the video provides an deeper look into the stereotype by including women, other ethnic backgrounds, and sexualities.

I use myself as an example in this. I am a white American woman that grew up in Boston and moved to San Diego. I have a particular passion and gift for learning languages, and my Spanish accent is sometimes assumed to be a native dialect. People have asked me if I am from Guadalajara, a part of Mexico, I learned, where the women tend to possess fairer skin. I have no idea if I SOUND like I am from Guadalajara, because the questions usually involve the way I look. Nevertheless, I always find myself a little flattered and flustered by their assumption. The fact that I felt a sense of pride led me to question why I felt this way. My pride in this matter has a myriad of undertones, some of which are inherently racist. "Why do I feel empowered because people confuse my race?" "Why does this make me feel like I am better than my fellow white citizens who do not speak Spanish or another language?"

I ask myself these questions so that I can understand more about myself, and the people around me. I don't want my view of the world to be so narrow that I only consider what directly affects me and my reality. It all matters, it's all important. I want to see the bigger picture.

Aren't you just flattered

Aren't you just flattered because they've confused your for a native because of your high language skills?

Racism Isn't Less Racist When It's A Compliment

I'm seriously recovering from a concussion over here because I facepalmed so hard at this. There are so many things I want to say that I probably shouldn't. But in an attempt to remain civil, here goes...

I'm not an Asian woman and I will never know what it is like to have to live as one. I lived within the community for a good amount of time, so I saw a lot of the pain and stereotyping that came out of it. Eventually I decided to conduct my own experiment to see just what kind of results I would get on a dating website if I used an Asian female profile. I wanted to see just how racist people would be to a stranger. Here are some of the gems I got:

"I need a sushi partner in crime."
"What's your favorite car from Japan?" (That was the only thing in the message.)
"I guess there are probably guys from Japan with big equipment... but I heard it was like 10cm."

While those are a little tame in comparison to some of the horrible things I've seen, it reminds me that I haven't checked my profile in a week and I need to go see what else Japanese girls are apparently supposed to be into.

Anyway... Racism is alive and well, and this is clearly racist. Positive stereotypes are still racist nonetheless. Saying that Asians are good at math doesn't make it any less racist just because you're complimenting them; on the same token, saying that Asian women are "delicate" and "more feminine" doesn't make it less racist just because you didn't say they were nasty, butch dykes. This puts Asian women into a neatly packaged rice-paper box of obedient and delicate femininity that they have to conform to in order to be seen as a proper Asian woman.

Something about that doesn't ring very appropriately to me.

Stereotypes about Asians, whether positive or negative, only encourage one thing: <a href="= Bullied because they're good at math and should be doing your homework for you. Bullied because they're some exotic lotus flower who won't fight back. Bullied because they eat dogs. Bullying is bullying, period, and bullying is wrong.

Why foster hate?

I'm disgusted by many [not all] of the comments here. Just because someone likes a particular "look," it's AUTOMATICALLY a stereotype! What the hell is that, people? If someone likes Hispanic women, they have "Brown fever" and it's a racially-motivated problem?! Have you actually listened to how closed-minded you people are?!

Everyone has a "preference:" women with red hair, quiet / reserved women, smart women, executive-level short women, subservient women, blonde women, .... It's funny how if your preference is Asian women, you're some kind of pervert?!


I personally have an affinity to "things Japanese." I have learned the language and been in-country twice in the last 22 years. I've met a lot of professional people and made some good business contacts. And, yes, I ALMOST got involved with a Japanese citizen (it didn't happen; that pesky Pacific Ocean was in the way). I also had a chance encounter with a Japanese woman studying here in the US (college), and we began personal communication. I think we would have dated, but a life change for me happened that made me steer elsewhere. That "life change:" a friend played matchmaker and introduced me to a Vietnamese woman.

We've been married 6.5 years now.

So does that mean that you all have the right to say, "Oh, that dude has yellow fever! Pig!" Of course not! Life just worked out that way.

Be careful trying to FIND A REASON for interest in ANYTHING. After all, I don't see you chasing down "Brown fever" or "Black fever" (I want to see a dialog[ue] about how Asian women chase black men; I've had my share of Asian woman chat me up, and I'm only "coffee with 2 cremes").

Those are so vehement about this so-called "yellow fever" (while ignoring all the other combinations) are doing something the mass media loves to do: espouse confusion and hatred by pointing out differences and turning us against each other. In fact, the debate has the odor of "racial purity" undertones.

What? I'm over-reacting? I'm totally missing the point? I'm way off the mark?!

Change every "Asian" reference to "black" or "Hispanic" and then re-run everything you've said above. Does it feel racist when you make those changes?

Of course it does.

That's your warning from me. Enjoy.

You're full of shit. You ask

You're full of shit. You ask why being into Mexican women isn't called "brown fever"? The fact is, aesthetically, Asian and Mexican women are not worlds part (that is, anyone who claims "I like the long dark hair, dark eyes, tanned skin of Asian women should be equally attracted to Mexican women). But the fact that you only have an interest in Asian women proves that it's got noting to do with a simple preference for looks. If it did, Mexican women would receive the same attention from creepy white men. The fact is, they don't. These creepy white men are afraid of latina women because these women are exactly the opposite of the docile, fragile, submissive stereotype which characterizes Asian women... Case closed.

That's your best, educated

That's your best, educated reply? You make me laugh.

You completely ignored half of what I said, and danced around the other half.

So, go back to your troll playground (with the rest of the 11 year-old script kiddies), looking up porn while your parents are at work, and leave us adults alone.

This is very sad.

Found this from a friend's link. The hypocrisy is stunning. This is a very selective group that was interviewed, and frankly, it comes across as very hateful. I'm dating an Asian girl from Asia. My last girlfriend of a very long time was Asian-American. It just happened that way. Am I attracted to Asian women? Yes. So? This sort of film reminds me of the incessant harassment I got when I dated an African American girl in high school. Jungle Fever they called it. Yellow Fever, they call this. But what about the Sicilian girl I dated? Or the Ukranian? Or should I have stayed with 'my own'? Or how about the Portuguese guy I had amazing sex with for several months after high school? (We never 'dated' because, you know, that would label us as 'gay' by people who have to make assumptions and stereotype.). My advice to those making a film like this? Leave people alone in their happiness, and don't judge even a 'large handful' based on their choices, less you want to be judged based such trivial assumptions and fall victim to the very same act of stereotyping you're trying to call out. Who is anyone else to judge?

I don't think anyone writing

I don't think anyone writing on here has taken into account the language people interviewed are using in this segment to describe Asian people. Even usin the term 'exotic' or the piano teacher describing her students ascribes characteristics to an entire race of people composed of so man different cultures and geographical areas. Asians from different parts Asia look completely different from each other, and to group all people's of an entire continent together using characteristics that seemingly apply to every individual is wrong on so many levels. That's what creates stereotypes in the first place. For all the people that posted on this wall, think about why you may have these preferences in the first place. Think about where you grew up and who you were friends with, your family life, school life, jobs. Childhood, what you were taught to believe was right and wrong. These all matter in the end all reasonings for we are attracted to certain people and not others. As humans living in societies together, we are ALL products of our environment and how we were conditioned growing up. Sadly, among many other things in this society, attraction and love is often times associated with power. Lack of or lots of power growing up, throughout different times in life, fluctuating or stayin the same, up unt the present. This can apply to dating in relation to race, gender, and class. Most of the comments on here are from white males(it seems like) some admittedly saying they don't know how it feels because being Asian in American society is not be reality they were born into. So then why are you making such entitled statements about Asians? I'm a Japanese-American woman and I've felt the real effects of racism, stereotyping, the whole package, for my entire life. I've had healthy relationships and dating all kinds of men and women. I've dated some who have Asian fetishes and some who do not. This article is not stating that all people who date Asians have yellow fever. Yellow Fever is an extremely specific example of people who fetishize Asians in a way that dehumanizes or describes us as objects. Listening to he words of the people in this video made me feel like a piece of meat. I too have had racial, gender and class preferences my entire life: White, Upper Class, Men. And I've spent my entire life analyzing the roots of this and reasonings behind my preferences. I don't care to share what they are unless someone specifically wants to know because I could go on about it, but in the end, we are beings so subconsciously influenced by sociologies in our society that we often times don't realize when we are being racist, sexist, classist, etc.

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