Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and the Myth of the Exotic Oriental

A prize-winning journalist and Asia expert issues a provocative critique of the West’s eroticised illusions about Asia and how profoundly they colour our social, cultural, business, personal and political interactions Despite – and because of – centuries of East-West interaction, the stereotypes of Western literature, stage and screen remain pervasive icons: the tea-pouring, submissive, sexually available geisha girl; the steely cold Dragon Lady dominatrix; as well as the portrayal of the Asian male as effeminate and asexual. These ‘Oriental’ illusions colour our social, cultural, business, and personal interactions, and affect East-West relations. This book challenges these images and explores Asia and Asians as they really are, with unclouded, de-eroticised eyes. It demands that we move beyond our misty-eyed myths of exotic difference, and reveals instead the fully dimensional human beings beyond our usual perceptions.

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About Dragon Mystic

I fell in love with dragons when I read Tea With the Black Dragon, and never looked back. Not the clunky winged Medieval dragons that ate cows, the graceful Asian dragons that could fly without wings. Later I discovered the elegant Welsh dragons, red and white, as described by R.J. Stewart in his books on the historical Merlin.
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3 Responses to Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and the Myth of the Exotic Oriental

  1. Ed Uyeshima says:

    Timely, Fascinating Though Somewhat Myopic Book on Asian Stereotypes As the Asia editor for Business Week with fifteen years of experience on that continent, author Sheridan Prasso has a wellspring of observations to contribute to Western misconceptions about Asia, most of which are routinely based on fantasy, positive or negative. As a Japanese-American myself, I am quite familiar with many of them, as even transplanted Asians experience the same stereotyping. The impact can be felt on the diplomatic and business fronts, but the most common application of these myths is the area of personal relations, in particular, the “yellow fever” that some Western men have in idealizing Asian women as feminine, attentive and seductive.Prasso seizes on “Madame Butterfly” as the archetypal story of Western notions about the Asian mystique: a delicate Japanese woman with undying love for a dashing American naval officer. It is the loyal, self-sacrificing Asian beauty who is betrayed by a fickle Westerner. The fable continues to regenerate in various iterations such as “South Pacific” and “Miss Saigon”. In fact, women are either passive and sexually obtainable geishas, or cruel, domineering “dragon ladies” like Tsu Hsi, the empress dowager of China, who was falsely rumored to be bedding men forty years her junior. Asian men don’t get off any easier, as they have been branded vulnerable and emasculated when they aren’t considered sneaky and inscrutable.Prasso divides her book into two halves. The first part analyzes the mistaken notions that Westerners have about Asia and how Asians often reciprocate by catering to such stereotypes. For instance, at a nightclub in Bangkok, Prasso surveys white male customers who are greeted with the available flesh of delicate Asian bodies and drawn by a cultural dynamic akin to a candy store. She astutely sees this experience of Asia as not only fantasy-inducing but also “remasculating”, i.e., engendering feelings of masculinity or dominance which these Western men may have found diminished in their own cultures. The author delves quite a bit into Hollywood images of Asians. She recounts the tribulations of Margaret Cho, a caustic, gay-friendly Korean-American comedian who was told by ABC executives to act ”more Asian” on her short-lived sitcom.However, Prasso’s more blanket statements about racist stereotyping seem rather myopic when it comes to Hollywood’s historic treatment of Asians. By documenting Asian film roles through the decades, she says flatly that Hollywood has been the “incubator and firing kiln” for misreadings of Asia, but I feel she may be mistaking cause for effect as producers were more likely to capitalize on prejudices that already existed due to more pervasive influences like WWII. She makes another shaky broadstroke in the political arena when she states that US officials have underestimated the military might of Asian leaders and nations, but I don’t feel it’s directed to Asia as much as any developing nation with a tendency toward nuclear armament as we have witnessed the ongoing bloody insurgency in Iraq.Perhaps because she lets her observations speak for themselves, the second half is more intriguing as it offers conversations with contemporary Asian women without mystique, whether they are housewives in Japan, bar girls in the Philippines, flight attendants on Cathay Pacific Airways or college students in China. This is where Prasso’s interviewing skills shine as she gets women to talk about deeply personal issues. By the end of the book, the author reveals them as human beings, prone to the same frailties, resilience and misconceptions as people anywhere. One interesting subject is Mineko Iwasaki, who inspired Arthur Golden’s wildly popular bestseller ”Memoirs of a Geisha.” She talks about her life as a geisha and contrary to the subservience one associates with that profession, she also talks about the lawsuit she filed against Golden for defamation of character.I am somewhat disappointed that Prasso separates herself so completely from her subjects, not expressing a sense of commonality with the women she interviews. Having lived in Cambodia, Hong Kong and Japan as a single white female, Prasso acknowledges being part of a group sometimes “guilty of racist sour-grapeism,” of feeling overlooked and betrayed by Western men who are chasing Asian women. Yet, you are not left with an understanding of why she is so intrigued by the Asian mystique herself. Regardless, this is a fascinating book well worth the time to read and absorb. Prasso achieves her primary goal and that is to make clear the destructive nature of stereotypes about Asia and how they shape social, cultural, and political perceptions that are ultimately detrimental.

  2. Pristine says:

    You know you’ve touched a nerve when people get THIS defensive. No one likes to be called out on his or her game. And this book calls all parties out on their prospective games.Much as countless women (from a particular economic group) found a term to identify their discontent after reading Betty Friedan’s 1963 book Feminine Mystique, Asian Americans will undoubtedly find in Prasso’s book The Asian Mystique, a cohesive explanation of the strange behavior and perception towards Asians from the West.Prasso does an excellent job documenting the visual etymology of the Asian Mystique in the popular imagination of the West, starting from Aphrodite, through centuries when China and Japan closed its doors to foreigners- forcing outsiders to “roll their own” and create a persona out of hearsay and thrice-removed tales – till present times, where Hollywood entertainment, mainstream media, and the Internet (including Amazon reviews) controls visual perception as fact.Prasso points out that in the last hundred years , Asian actresses had only two roles available to them (dragon lady, or vixen prostitute (see Live Free or Die Hard for proof), but that’s still one more option than what is available to the Asian actor. A chapter on the systematic emasculation of Asian men in the mainstream West deserves praise as this is something that has been discussed for many years in the Asian-American online community; actors like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun Fat are allowed entry onto American screens and near Caucasian actresses, but are never allowed to kiss or touch any of them.One of the most valuable items Prasso points to is the discrepancy between general Asian etiquette (that of “giving way to get your way”) versus Western values (aggressive affirmation of the self as a declaration of individual need). This method of the East is often mistakenly perceived as a sign of weakness, giving rise to the sense of superiority among Westerners. (It doesn’t help the Asian mystique that our culture often communicates through making a statement obliquely.) Prasso believes that the resulting false sense of complacency among Westerners will lead to dire consequences.Throughout the book, white males with Yellow Fever (every single Asian American I have met in the US in the past thirty years have come across these men) and men who exotify and visit the lesser (economically) developed Asian countries for sex, are accurately portrayed as sad, overweight, balding, unattractive men who are well past their prime. These men, who are fed up with the strong, opinionated, materialistic women of the West find acceptance and adoration in young, attractive Asian girls who “see” them as being in a league with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt purely because of their skin color. Personally, I feel this is an important aspect of the book; there are as many exotifications of the West (in the Asian perception) as there are in the inverted scheme. What is less obvious is the subtext of what constitutes “The Western Woman” today, and why they are making “The Western Man” (who wants to return to the “good ol days” – which in itself is an exotification- when he had more power) run in the direction of the economically depressed East. If these males, stricken with Yellow Fever, were to visit cosmopolitan Asian countries, Asian women who are financially well-off, and are tenfold more materialistic than Western women, would not even grace them with a glance. Prasso does state in the opening of the book that “it is as much about us as it is about Asia.”Along the way, the book explores historical milestones that mark Asian identity in the Western consciousness; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; the Japanese Internment camps in the US during WWII; and the evolution of Madame Butterfly from the original Madam Chrysantheme. An interview with Mineko Iwasaki reveals as much as the real Sayuri’s bio, whom Memoirs of a Geisha was partially based on. A look into war bride Nguyen Thi Hoa’s bio, the notorious concept of the “Cathay Ten,” Thai working girls, Okinawa Koku-jo (Okinawa girls who exotify and fetishize black men), Bangkok, and Indonesia visits follow. A strong chapter on female politicians from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and the Philippines puts a reader in awe at life stories of individuals who have overcome odds and male oppression to attain success and visibility.The book concludes with a somewhat misleading chapter. While I fully agree with the author in the observation that many Asians are guilty of reinforcing, utilizing, and cashing in on their mystique to get ahead, I felt mystified at the closing sentences. First, there is the sentence “some of the most successful, upstanding businesswomen of Asia know the game (utilizing mystique to their advantage) too….;You’ve got to use what you’ve got, right?’ she said. Her sentiments are far from unusual.” This implication indirectly diminishes the conscientious work and success stories…

  3. Sakura Sky says:

    Thank you for writing this book, Ms. Prasso! As an Asian American woman who has lived and travelled in Asia, I am so pleased that someone had the idea and courage to write a book like this!!When the film “Memoirs of a Geisha” came out, I was living in Japan. It was so interesting because on Western English websites and movie review sites etc, people loved this film! However, even though there was a hard marketing push for this film in Japan and it played up and down the country, Japanese people largely were not only disinterested in the fim, but couldn’t relate to it and couldn’t care for it.I feel that “The Asian Mystique” helps to explain massive incongruities like this that exist between the ‘east and west’.Some reviewers have said that the main points of this book were that ‘stereotypes are wrong’ and that ‘Asians are people too’. I disagree. What has been left out of their ‘analyses’ of the book is Prasso’s main point: that Westerners have seen, described and promoted a paradigm of Asia, including Asian men and women, that has been completely twisted, incorrect and not based in reality. And that this paradigm not only continues today but is actively confirmed and reconfirmed.Prasso says at the end: let Asians describe themselves! This is a highly political idea, in that Westerners (I mean White Westerners) have rarely if ever, allowed other groups to explain and describe themselves in their own terms. I couldn’t agree more! Everything that one hears about the East is filtered through a Western lens, whether it is books on Asia or movies (Letters from Iwo Jima, Kill Bill, Lost in Translation, etc).Although I’m American, I find that I’m constantly confronted with DEEPLY EMBEDDED stereotypes of what people who look Asian are supposedly like. If everyone knows that ‘Asians are people too’ as the 1 star reviewers said, then why do Asians and Asians of the diaspora keep having to challenge Western stereotypes?While some might find Prasso’s analysis lacking somewhat, I doubt anyone can deny how spot on Prasso’s description of the Asian Mystique is and how it plays out in real life, as painful, embarassing or difficult the stories might be to read about.I hope everyone has the chance to read it and really think about how these stereotypes have served to maintain the unequal social relationships between Westerners and Asians in Asia itself as well as Western countries where Asian descendants call home.

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