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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .

Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture
Robert G Lee

(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999)
271pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $27.95; ISBN 1-56639-658-1

Robert Lee has written a marvelous book for both scholar and layperson. Using popular songs of the nineteenth century, magazine stories and illustrations, musicals, dramas, movies and pulp fiction, Lee shows that although specific images of Asian Americans created throughout the last 150 years of American pop culture have been different, the overriding paradigm is nevertheless constant. Asian Americans are always regarded as Orientals--aliens in their American homeland. Asian immigrants overcame their alien legal status in 1952, when they were finally granted the right to become naturalized citizens one hundred years after their first settlement. But their alien cultural status has remained as salient as ever. Asian Americans are permanent aliens in the "common understanding" shared by "real" Americans. And who "real" Americans are is defined by a process of struggle in the arena of popular culture at any given historical moment.

Lee identifies six specific constructions of the Oriental, each appeared at a time when changes in class relations and the accompanying cultural crisis necessitated a redefinition of American nationality in terms of class, gender, race, and sexuality. These constructions are the pollutant (mid-19th century), the coolie (1870s and 1880s), the deviant (late 19th century), the yellow peril(turn of the century), the model minority (since the 1950s), and the gook (1970s). Each of these constructions is discussed in detail, and buttressed by an abundance of quotations and illustrations which make a very interesting read.

While the book is rich in descriptive and literary materials, Lee's contributions go beyond the identification and demonstration of Asian American stereotypes in popular culture. By relating the origins and persistence of these cultural constructions to the political economy of specific historical moments, Lee has provided an analytical framework and a methodology with which to examine the constructions of other categories of race and ethnicity.

Professor Lucie Cheng

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