Return of the Yellow Peril, essay

Yellow Terror, Red Terror, White Terror – there were so many terror colors to choose from at the beginning of the 20th century, but only one was the denigrating term applied to Asians, seen by the West as a monolithic category, and considered as a threat to the Western way of life. The Yellow Peril, as it is also known, is thought to have been coined by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who expressed his sentiments in a painting depicting the “white” army led by Archangel Michael charging against an “Asian” army symbolised by the sitting Buddha figure in the background. Over the last 150 years, with increasing immigration of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and other “Asians” to the west, especially to the United States, this term persisted until recently.

Peoples of Europe, guard your dearest goods, Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1895

The reason a designation as racist as this would remain a part of American and Western culture until the 1960s (just think of the many pulp books written about evil Chinese trying to take over the world, the ridiculous and offensive characters in the movies) is part of the larger discussion of race and identity in the West, accompanied by all the trappings of the perception of the Other, which changes with the times and with the politico-economic situation.

Fu Manchu book cover, 1960

“The Yellow Terror In All His Glory”, 1899 editorial cartoon

The disparaging perception of the Other seems to be a universal human trait that ranges from macro to micro proportions, from national identity versus other national identities, to group identity, and further still to personal identity. For example, in the 1930s, the popular Chinese author Lin Yutang wrote that Westerners’ facial and body-hair was a proof of civilizational backwardness vis-à-vis the Chinese, who had led civilized indoor lives much longer than the Westerners and therefore lacked such hair. 1

Image made in China of English Sailor, 19th century

And exactly this perception of the Other is what is being explored by artists Teresa Chen and Cat Tuong Nguyen in their current exhibition, Return of the Yellow Peril. Fittingly titled as an acknowledgement of the new wave of anti-Asian sentiment in the West associated with the rise of China on the world stage as an economic and political power, as well as an allusion to the first Yellow Peril project the pair did in 2001 in Paris, Return of the Yellow Peril questions not only Westerners’ image of Asians, but also Asians’ perception of Asians living in the West and perceptions of Asians in the West of Asians in Asia. Who is the Other ultimately? And how can you tell this Other apart from the Us?

The exhibition has three parts: a collaboration between the artists featuring a slide show of photos taken of themselves with Asian tourists in Bern and Zurich, a project by Teresa and three projects by Cat Tuong. Teresa’s project is composed of two parts: called Faces of Switzerland: Fantasy and Reality it includes a mobile with photos of Asians she met in Zurich juxtaposed with caricatured drawings of Asians from product packaging found at Migros, and two photographs of Teresa and Cat Tuong with the same caricatured depictions superimposed onto their own faces.

Cat Tuong’s projects include two photographs of his mother as a young girl silkscreened on canvas in Curry, Kurkumar, Yellow, Black and Black, Gold, Soysauce, along with two window installations, one called Every Restaurant and Flag on Line Seven, twenty or more slides of pictures that he took on his walk from Bahnhof Stettbach to Wollishofen framed by neon lights, and an altar at the top of the glass composed of various products found at the New Asia Market, recreating a restaurant or market atmosphere.

The collaboration project between Teresa and Cat Tuong (of photographs with Asian tourists) is interesting on multiple levels. When considering cultural differences between Asians and Westerners, there is much emphasis on the individualistic nature of the Westerner versus the more collectively-minded Asian. According to one study done in 2005 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor dealing with how looking at pictures impacts world view, East Asians tended to focus on the entire context while Westerners focused on objects in the focal plane. This difference in seeing was traced to differences in social structures dating back thousands of years, with Chinese relying on collaborative farming for their survival and Westerners more on individual farming or fishing, hunting, etc. And collaboration among immigrants to Europe or the United States has been an adaptation strategy that has supported entire communities from the same native lands to help each other rebuild their lives.

Therefore it is both as a recognition of this cultural difference and as a spoof of its stereotypical nature that the artists engaged in the work. But to reduce it to that would not depict all the nuances and complexities of contemporary identities.

The artists themselves are Western: Teresa was born and raised in the States and doesn’t speak Chinese, while Cat Tuong came to Switzerland from Vietnam as a young boy of twelve. As artists, they are inherently individualistic and motivated to create as autonomous selves. They grew up and were educated in the West, yet look “Asian”. They no longer belong to Chinese or Vietnamese society, yet are also viewed suspiciously by some in the West, especially those with little contact with diverse population groups. They are neither/nor and both. They are a hybrid, as many immigrants in the West remain. But while many white immigrants, like the Irish in the States, can with time, start to blend in, the differences of Asians remain evident even if culturally they are entirely assimilated.

So the project points to the commonalities that the artists have with the Asian tourists in the photographs, yet also highlights the “ocean” that divides their life experiences. During the “making of” the project, an unexpected twist occurred that added even more layers to an already complicated examination: it became clear that the Chinese subjects of the photographs viewed the artists with as much suspicion as many Westerners view Asians. This suspicion might have been due to the lack of understanding of the project’s intention, or trepidation from the years of being surveilled by their government, or the lack of trust between individuals who even though they might look similar, are nevertheless extremely different. And while there’s a certain level of suspicion of one another in the photos, we as viewers are confronted with the confused object of our own fears – who is the “Yellow Peril”? Who are we afraid of?

Teresa’s Faces of Switzerland: Fantasy and Reality is a playful and whimsical extension of this examination. The faces featured in the project are those of our friends, neighbors, the people we see and talk to regularly. Of course they are not the Yellow Peril. And yet they can easily be morphed into caricatures without much of a peep from us when we want to commodify….These stereotypes have become so commonplace that we don’t even analyze their impact anymore.

Cat Tuong’s silkscreens of his mother are both poetic and ironic. Using Asian spices and sauces as pigment, Cat Tuong plays with the idea of turning the medium into the content of the work, although we are captivated by the beauty of his mother’s gaze, making her the dominant subject nevertheless. However, by creating his mother’s image out of the very spices that define the East in the Western mind, Cat Tuong underlines the West’s long tradition of imposing constructed identity to control and suppress the Other.

His altar continues the exploration of the role of spices in the relationship between the East and the West, as coveted commodities in the West but also as bases for ridicule and racist comments.

The fear of the Other and people’s need to demonize the Other seems to be universal – it’s not a Western phenomenon. But who exactly this Other really is seems to be getting more and more difficult to determine as the world becomes smaller through globalisation, and we become exponentially more mobile. Yet as any immigrant will tell you, adapting is a process that takes years, and blending in can remain out of reach entirely. And still, I would say, don’t be afraid – if you look in the mirror you might one day see the Other staring back at you.

Olga Stefan, 2012

1 Lin Yutang, My Country and My People, New York, John Ray, 1935, p 27.


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