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Sex and the Asian man

Stereotypes that they are less than masculine have had lingering effects. But athletes, movie stars and even porn are revealing a desired image.

May 12, 2004|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Asian American men lack the success Asian American women have had in interracial relationships. It's a sensitive fact complicated by the belief by many in the community that society objectifies Asian females as hyper-sexual Suzy Wongs. The 2000 Census shows that Asian American women are more than twice as likely to be involved in an interracial marriage than their male counterparts.

For poet Beau Sia, growing up in predominantly white Oklahoma City was alienating. Romantic opportunities in high school did not exist. With pent-up frustration, it wasn't until he left for New York University as a teenager that he began to develop his forceful poetry delivery. There, he soon learned what it was like to bask in female attention. His prose, which sometimes touches on myths about Asian men, is regularly performed in Def Poetry Jam's shows on HBO and at live shows nationally.

"It's taken years working and performing around the country to help me understand that I'm not bad looking," said the 27-year-old with angular features and stylish hair. "Growing up in Oklahoma, it was hard when what was [considered] attractive, pretty or handsome weren't people who looked like me."

The roots of Asian male stereotypes date back 200 years, historians say, when immigrants started arriving in the U.S. en masse as cheap labor. For decades, they encountered a barrage of discrimination that prevented them from owning property or marrying outside their race. Some were barred from heavy industry, so men took on traditionally feminine enterprises like laundry and cooking.

By 1882, Chinese immigrants were prohibited from entering the U.S., stranding those stateside without brides. Subsequently, a "bachelor society" emerged. Wars with Japan, Korea and Vietnam helped demonize Asian men further and gave Americans license to ridicule them, historians say.

"The emasculation of the Asian male has a very long history," said Henry Yu, an associate professor at UCLA's Center for Asian American Studies.

Many Asian Americans are still horrified by older images such as writer Sax Rohmer's books about the sinister Dr. Fu Manchu and Mickey Rooney's buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," perhaps the character Asian Americans most commonly identify as a racist icon of an earlier Hollywood.

Some of a younger generation cringe at the sight of the nerdish Long Duk Dong from the 1984 teen classic "Sixteen Candles."

A second look

But there are indications that Asian American men may be acquiring more appeal.

American-born Asians are out-marrying more than older generations. Popular culture and sports have introduced more Asian male faces, such as basketball player Yao Ming, baseball player Kazuo Matsui and the actors from the edgy teen movie "Better Luck Tomorrow," which received mainstream distribution from MTV Films. The acclaimed Australian film "Japanese Story" centers on an affair between a white woman and a Japanese man.

Hunky Korean American actor Will Yun Lee, 28, turns down martial arts roles because he feels they perpetuate a passionless warrior image. He would rather be a leading man.

"As an Asian American male, it's tough being thought of as any romantic love interest" in a movie, said Lee, voted by People magazine as one of 2002's 50 most beautiful people.

"When I first started out five, six years ago, a lot of auditions for Asians had to do with technical computer guys. And at some point it started switching to the villain or the mafia guy," Lee said.

His latest appearance, in the motorcycle-themed action flick "Torque," was described in The Times as "stereotype-smashing," though Lee said he simply plays who he is: "A regular guy who grew up in America listening to Metallica like everyone else."

Another actor who gave Asian American men something to cheer about was Bruce Lee, but ultimately he did little to advance their romantic value, many say. Even today, Asian American men complain that action heroes such as Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan rarely get the girl.

As Leong, the author and UCLA professor put it: "Asian men can kick butt, but they can't have a kiss."

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