This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Debbie Lum’s much-anticipated new documentary, “Seeking Asian Female,” fresh from its premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and a national broadcast on PBS. “Seeking” is an eccentric modern love story about Steven and Sandy—an aging white man with “yellow fever” who is obsessed with marrying any Asian woman, and the young Chinese bride he finds online. Debbie, a Chinese American filmmaker, documents and narrates with skepticism and humor, from the early stages of Steven’s search, through the moment Sandy steps foot in America for the first time, to a year into their precarious union. Global migration, Sino-American relations and the perennial battle of the sexes, weigh in on the fate of their marriage in this intensely captivating personal documentary.
What drew you, as an Asian American woman, to make a documentary about Yellow Fever?
DL: “Yellow fever” was one of those issues I felt totally compelled to explore as an Asian American woman. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and my father’s family immigrated from China to Hawaii in the 1870’s. My mother’s family left China for New York when she was 6, and so both my parents grew up speaking English, both identifying as American first and foremost. Especially with my bland, suburban Mid-Western roots, I did too! So I always found it rather strange that men with “yellow fever” would try to hit on me by fixating on my race, for example, speaking to me about their last trip to Thailand or trying out a few words in Japanese or Korean. It always seemed like these men tended to be older or a little “different”. It also made me uncomfortable because with this attention seemed to come the association of Asian women as highly sexualized and subservient to men (in other words, more traditional, smile more, please men and so on). But even though I hated being thought of as a sexual object in this way, I was also aware that having “yellow fever” is not a mortal sin. And yes, I’m married to a white Irishman. In fact, interracial marriages between white men and Asian women are considered by many people (and have traditionally been portrayed in Hollywood) as quite the opposite. So how could something that is considered loving, romantic and even progressive to some people be so painful and offensive to others? That’s what I wanted to explore in a film.
That said, making a film about “yellow fever” proved to be too challenging. The issue is polarizing. It tends to divide people along racial and gender lines. Asian women who date white men are criticized. White men who like Asian women feel unfairly attacked. Asian American women are pitted against Asian American men. Women of all other ethnicities feel “cast off”. In the end, “Seeking Asian Female” became a film not as much about “yellow fever” as it was about the challenges of making marriage work, the relationships between subject and filmmaker and the stereotypes and expectations we have not just about Asian women, but also about romance and documentary filmmaking.
When we think of older men going abroad to find brides, many ingrained images and power dynamics immediately come to mind – it can seem very problematic, especially when race, age and nationality all intersect. In “Seeking Asian Female” you have an older Caucasian American man, and a younger Chinese woman who fit in some ways a very expected notion of this. In the film however, you complicate their story in unexpected ways; how did you wish to have this film sit in relation to other ways Yellow Fever has been discussed?
DL: I’m hoping that “Seeking Asian Female” will encourage viewers to see the individuals behind the issues and note the human side of the story, not just the statistics. The story presented in “Seeking Asian Female” is indeed an age-old coupling but it’s surprisingly more complicated that what it appears to be on the surface. In terms of power dynamic there’s no easy “winner” between Steven and Sandy – the older white American man and the younger Chinese woman in this story. As the film develops, we find out they are far more than what we assumed they were at the beginning. No matter what our preconceived notions are – and the film is a reminder of how judgmental we (especially me) are about people like Steven and Sandy – these are two people with limited options who are trying to find love and companionship – something that could be said of most people, most humans. As I’ve said, “Seeking Asian Female” is not the be-all-end-all treatise about “yellow fever”. But I do hope it allows us to contemplate both the power and pitfalls of stereotypes and expectations in relationships and romance.
You’ve also created a website, “They’re All So Beautiful” which explores race and dating – what kind of conversations can we expect to read and watch on it?
DL: Like I said, it was impossible to synthesize all the complex and contradictory issues of “yellow fever” into one film, so we decided to create a companion website called “They’re All So Beautiful”. “Seeking Asian Female” is a personal documentary and very much tells the story through my singular perspective. Our website is quite the opposite. It represents a diverse array of opinions on the subject matter, not one sanctioned viewpoint, not mine alone. Some of the issues are really “yellow fever 101”, such as “Do you have to be white to have yellow fever?” ” Do Asian women have “white fever”? What do Asian American men think of “yellow fever”? But we’re also trying to dig deeper and get people talking about race and relationships broadly and specifically. We have opinions by academic experts in Asian American sexuality like Professor Celine Parrenas Shimizu, opinion-makers like Jeff Yang of the Tao Jones / Wall StreetJournal.com, as well as thought-provoking interviews with bloggers like ex-sex worker Tracy Quan of The Daily Beast and bloggers from popular men’s magazines like Ian Lang of AskMen.com. We’ve also welcomed the comments and critique of everybody. Ultimately our mission has been to remain politically agnostic while still having a sense of humor about the subject matter.
In making Seeking Asian Female, did you find new ways of thinking about why race and relationships are such tricky, complicated subjects to talk about?
DL: When talking about race and relationships, stereotyping is considered to be a “no-no”, very politically-incorrect. But in fact everyone, no matter what race, stereotypes. Stereotypes go both ways, all ways. White men stereotype Asian women. Asian women stereotype white men, black men, Latino men. Asian American women stereotype white men who stereotype Asian women. Asian American men stereotype Asian American women who date white men, and so on. I think we can learn to forgive ourselves for being guilty of stereotyping. The real problem is the conclusion we jump to based on stereotyping. The judgments behind the stereotyping leave no room for the ways in which individuals not only adhere to stereotypes but almost certainly veer far away from them.
Now when I see a couple like Steven and Sandy, I immediately think of the story that goes along with their relationship. How did they get there? Who are they as people? I’m sure there’s a story there.
What are you working on now?
DL: Currently my two biggest projects are two little girls aged 2 and 4. I’m also researching a documentary about a Mid-Western musician and developing two screenplays, one could be rather patly labeled an “Asian chick flick”.