Jane Chi Hyun Park

 

On her book Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema

Cover Interview of November 30, 2011

The wide angle

I started writing this book in a period when the political position of Asian Americans seemed to be oscillating between appearing either as threats to middle America or tokens of multicultural solidarity, often lending legitimacy to myths about social meritocracy and jarring somewhat with my own experiences. It struck me that the conditional visibility of Asian American scholarship, lobby groups, and activism, as well as celebrities, popular food chains, fashion, and so on, paralleled the awkward presence of Asian themes and imagery in Hollywood movies – that is, how symbols of Asia generally occupy the background, appearing occasionally as breathtaking spectacles or helpful secondary players, only to wander back to the wings, so to speak.

Flicking from current affairs programs to re-runs, I wondered whether the now familiar promise of exchange with different cultural perspectives might contain its own foreclosures and refusals, and lead to an active willing away of substantive Asian and Asian diasporic experiences through a kind of overzealous aestheticism.

At the same time, I couldn’t simply dismiss the new, “cool” images of East Asia and Asian America that were emerging in the late 1990s, from Giant Robot to The Iron Chef to the ubiquitous figures of Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu because of my own ambivalent relationship to them. On the one hand, they were products I sometimes enjoyed consuming; on the other, they seemed to limit how I could position myself as well as how others would position me vis-à-vis pop culture and the banal landscape of the everyday.

Since then, East Asian bodies, cultures, and styles have become ever more visible in US entertainment media, evidenced by the growing number of Asian faces in such television shows as Lost, Heroes, and Gray’s Anatomy; the popularity of the Korean Wave or Hallyu; and the disturbing proliferation of supposedly ironic yellowface in music videos, video games, and the Internet. My book offers an interdisciplinary approach for making sense of these racialized images as complex cultural productions – one that tries to go beyond condemning such images for disseminating “negative stereotypes” or celebrating them simply for existing.

To be honest, though most of these anxieties come as a kind of aftershock. The book really stemmed from my love for most of these films, with the stories that can be read in and out of the central narratives. I’ve tried hard in Yellow Future to maintain a balance between the pleasures these stories have to offer and their often hilarious, and always instructive, moments of failure.