Debbie Lum didn’t know exactly what she was getting into when she decided she wanted to make a documentary five years ago. The Chinese-American filmmaker has been acutely aware her entire life of “yellow fever” – the phenomenon of white, American men who turn Asian women into the object of their sexual fetish. These are men exclusively attracted to Asian women, often using racist stereotypes or misogynist generalizations to justify the obsession.
For Lum, it’s personal. As she told the Wall Street Journal: “Living in the Bay Area, if I had a dollar for every time a guy with yellow fever tried to hit on me in Chinese, I could have funded ‘Seeking Asian Female‘ on my own.”
So while it’s clear why the subject matter interests Lum, what she did next seems nothing short of masochistic: she responded to men on Craigslist posting “seeking Asian female” ads to find out what made them tick. She was intending to film an expose on what she perceived as demeaning and racist attitudes about Asian women – but instead, she found herself in the middle of a love story.
Somewhere along the way, Lum met Steven, a 60-year-old man with two failed marriages under his belt and a willingness to speak honestly and openly about his obsession – maybe a bit too openly. The WSJ article describes him like this:
Steven was, Lum says, her worst nightmare — the kind of guy she’d spent most of her life trying to avoid. But he was also an irresistible character, and, she thought, a perfect subject to illustrate the deeply dubious nature of the “yellow fever” phenomenon. “He seems to have a broken filter,” she says — freely giving Lum unabashed access to thoughts that others might discreetly choose to keep in the vault.
“I’m an old guy now, I’m 60,” he says, grinning at the camera. “So I’m trying to figure it out! Do I want the farm girl to take care of me? Do I want an intelligent business woman to help me grow? What do I want? There’s this Vietnamese movie called ‘Scent of the Green Papaya,’ with a beautiful servant girl who cooks these idyllic meals. Gee, would it be like that?”
But, soon after the film begins, Steven makes his decision: His future young Asian bride would need to be Chinese. “China is just amazing right now, the vitality, the growth, and there’s an endless supply of women over there! These are the different girls I’ve written to,” he says, flipping through an endless series of online images. “Oh, they’re all just so beautiful!”
I understand if you feel the need to take a long, hot shower after reading that. And yet, somehow, Steven managed to meet a young, Chinese woman online interested in moving to the US and marrying him. And not just for the green card – she seemed genuinely interested in him. Of course, Sandy didn’t really speak English, and the two ended up clashing and arguing frequently…leaving Lum, the “impartial” filmmaker, to attempt to translate and play mediator.
The film debuted at SXSW, but if you missed it, don’t despair. The film is set to hit other cities soon, notably San Francisco and Chicago. The crew even reports that they’re hoping to air an hour-long version of the film as a public television broadcast.
Photo credit: ChinaTiger/PhotoXpress