On March 16th, 2021, eight people in Georgia were killed in a string of shootings that took place at three different spas and massage parlours: Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County, Georgia, and Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa, both in Atlanta.
Six of the eight victims — Soon-Chung Park 박순정, Hyun-Jung Grant 김]현정, Sun-Cha Kim 김선자, Yong-Ae Yue 유영애, Xiaojie Tan 谭小洁 and Daoyou Feng 冯道友 — were Asian women; each of the locations that were targeted were Asian-owned. The gunman was white.
The massacre was an unignorable tragedy; it was also a blaring alarm warning of the increasing anti-Asian xenophobia within the United States. In the months leading up to the shooting, anti-Asian hate crimes had been rapidly on the rise. In January, an 84-year-old Thai man, Vichar Ratanapakdee was murdered in San Francisco. Just a few days later a 91-year-old Asian man was assaulted in Oakland. These are just a few of the hate crimes; in just the first three months of 2021, Anti-Asian hate crimes have increased by 169%.
Along with its accompanying media coverage, the Atlanta shootings were also a wakeup call to examine the way white America perceives — and has historically perceived — Asian women, as unimportant, one-dimensional accessories to the broader American narrative.
It was no coincidence that the public knew the shooter’s name, face, and the fact that, according to a member of the police department, he’d been having a “bad day” — before anyone knew a single name of one of the eight victims, a single one of their faces, a single detail about their lives before they were lost forever.
Arguably more infuriating was the media’s obsessive and suggestive attachment to the six Asian women’s jobs as workers at spas and massage parlours, a “customer is always right” industry that has historically been hypersexualized by the white gaze. This hypersexualization of female Asian labor has led to legislation like the 1875 Page Act, which restricted female Asian service workers from entering the United States under the automatic assumption they were prostitutes.
With this in mind, it was only a matter of time before the police and media outlets alike took on a twisted game of victim-blaming, pointing to the victims’ occupational circumstances and the shooter’s alleged Asian “sex addiction” as, if not excuses for the massacre, then at least rationalizations for it, as if the murder of any human could ever be rationalized. Though, it does become a lot easier to do just that when a society-at-large doesn’t grant a group of people their humanity to begin with.
That is precisely what the situation is in the U.S., which is why the Atlanta massacre, specifically, was a jolting reflection of white America’s perception of Asian women as faceless and submissive — mere ”things” to be conquered. As distasteful and distressing as this stereotype is, it is not shocking — to be surprised by it is to be oblivious to American history.
The United States houses a long history of fetishizing and violating Asian women without repercussion, a phenomenon coined by Sunny Woan as “white sexual imperialism.”
The modern foundation of this imperialist relationship between Asian women and white America can be traced to the American military’s history of objectification and sexual abuse in Asia during the 20th century, but the original roots of it twist back further in time, and are as rooted in the founding and westward expansion of the U.S.
In 1834, 14-year-old Afong Moy, the first Chinese young woman to arrive in the United States, was brought here by traders Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, and billed as “The Chinese Lady” as part of an “Oriental” museum exhibit.
In the zoo-like exhibition, Moy was instructed to continuously perform an extreme version of her daily routine, all while on display in a glass box. She drank tea and ate rice with chopsticks as white museum-goers peered and commented on her appearance.
Narrators accompanied Moy’s performance, emphasizing her docility and pointing out different parts of her “exotic” physique to audience members.
The fact that the first Chinese woman in America’s ticket to the United States came at the price of her objectification is important to note, because it forever set the precedent for white interaction with Asian women. Moy, and subsequently, all Asian women, being introduced to America as a larger-than-life docile fantasy created an unshakeable association between Asian women and traits like demure, exotic and serving. Following Moy’s arrival to America, multiple companies within the United States began piloting picture bride systems, which gave white American men the power to pick and order women and girls from East Asia like commodities out of catalogues.
More recently, and particularly throughout the 20th century, the white American gaze has been filtered through a lens of imperialistic contact, spanning the Vietnam War (1955-1975), with one notably horrific attack happening in the village of My Lai, where American soldiers pillaged and massacred the community, and raped approximately 20 Vietnamese women and girls. During World War II’s War of the Pacific, American sailors raped countless civilian women during the Okinawa occupation. After WWII, the US occupied Korea up until the outbreak Korean War, inheriting Japan’s WWII comfort women practice of forcefully exploiting Korean civilian women for sex. To this day, the legacy of the American military’s sexual exploitation of Asian women still lives on. Currently, American military bases in South Korea, or camptowns, are still marked by high prostitution rates.
Five months ago, I turned 17 — three years older than Afong Moy was when she first set foot in the United States. Although it has now been almost two centuries since Moy’s exhibition tour across America, instances like the massacre in Atlanta remind me that I, along with every other Asian woman in America, have never truly left the glass exhibition box.
The massacre in Atlanta and every other instance anti-Asian violence, particularly of the last year, reminded me that, whether I’m conscious of it or not, in the eyes of the white gaze, my body is still just another listing in a catalogue. This isn’t just a metaphor, though, this also manifests in my daily life.
During online school, white classmates ask me my thoughts on the Atlanta victims, wondering specifically what I thought about the fact that they worked in massage parlours. These questions are as pointed as the stares Moy must have endured;I feel like I’m being asked to pour tea for an audience of zoo-gooers.
On the street, a man rolls down his window and yells at me: “Ni hao, baby. I would love a piece of that.” I feel like I have an exhibition sign tacked to my back; I wonder what it was like to be one of the women who was force-purchased from a catalogue, unable to hide from unwanted sexual advances. I log onto social media and see the voices of Korean femme organizers being drowned out by articles about Atlanta’s “happy ending” massages, and it feels like I — like every Asian woman in America — am screaming inside our glass boxes, only nobody can hear us. Nobody wants to. The rest of America just sits and watches from outside the exhibit, free to come and go as they please.
The perpetuation of white sexual imperialism keeps Asian women chained to a caricature of white male fantasy; the centuries-long commodification of our bodies has forced us to inherit hyper-sexualized and overly submissive stereotypes that we never would have chosen for ourselves — but history bore us into this exhibition box.
So where do we go from here? Although it’s hard to dismantle centuries of calcified caricature, what isn’t hard — what shouldn’t be hard — is focusing on the humanity of each Asian woman targeted by white supremacy, of telling their stories, of telling our own.
This means honouring all eight of the victims of the Atlanta massacre outside of a lens of residual imperialist violence, and remembering them for who they were in life. Remember them not for their connection to white supremacy, but for the way they lived and the way they loved; remember them for the way they cooked jjigae stew and watched Korean dramas. Remember them for the way they always welcomed customers new and old with a smile and open arms; remember them for the way they were willing to leave motherlands behind in hopes of forging a better future for their loved ones.
This rhetoric also extends to ourselves. During times of increasing anti-Asian xenophobia, it is extremely important that we, as Asian women, hold close all the joyous and nuanced parts of our identities. Oversimplification is the first step towards dehumanization, so proudly claiming every facet of our personal identities is a radical act of protest — especially in a nation that has only ever allowed Asian women to take up one single, objectified narrative. We boldly claim every facet of our identity when our humanity is questioned by a stranger yelling slurs through a car window or reducing an entire social justice movement down to stereotypes, we know that this is not the total of who we are because we have already self-defined who we are.
Nuanced and compassionate storytelling, after all, is the best way of restoring humanity to a community that has historically been violently denied it.