The Mystique of Literary Asian Women Part 1
For tens of centuries, since the West was first introduced to the East, Western literature has helped to create an exotic vision of Asian women, symbolising the mystery, danger, and allure of the unknown. Author Sheridan Prasso asserts that the literary image of the Asian woman is the most fetishised, misunderstood, and imagined in the mind of the West. Sexual overtones are clear in the dichotomy of Asian women in literature. In Burmese, Korean, Laotian, Khmer, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesia, Filipino, Thai, Japanese, and Chinese, Asian women are either Geisha Girls- ornamental and subservient, or Dragon Ladies- dominant or seductive. Between the two portrayals lie the likes of the Mail-Order Bride, Prostitute, Lotus Flower, and China Doll, each with sexual connotations.
The term ‘Dragon Lady’ is believed to have first been used in a comic strip from the 1930s called Terry and the Pirates, and drawn by Milton Caniff, an American cartoonist. It has since repeatedly been used to describe powerful Asian women such as dominatrix Ling Woo in Ally McBeal and Soong May-Ling, wife of Chiang Kai-Shek, the one-time Taiwanese president. The Geisha Girl derives from Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, especially the heroine, a delicate character who commits suicide when her American lover abandons her. The play likely bases itself on Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti. In that story, the “hero” doesn’t grasp the geisha of the title. Boost stories show the heroine’s otherness, but the opera implies that the West is superior to a submissive Asia.
The Asian woman commonly represents Asia itself in colonial literature. From 1900 to 1940, French stories about Southeast Asia were frequently named after their main female character, such as in Roland Meyer’s Saramani, Danseuse Cambodgienne.
A 1924 short story called The Letter by W. Somerset Maugham bases itself on a true story in Kuala Lumpur, in which a headmaster’s wife shoots a male friend. Geoff Hammond, the victim, had married a Chinese woman, which hurt his reputation among expatriates. While her role is crucial to the story, his wife isn’t given a direct voice and is referred to only as “Mrs Hammond”. She is never described as either young or beautiful, and her cunningness and thirst for revenge position her as a Dragon Lady. The femininity and beauty of Asian women, however, often play a pivotal role in their exoticism, to the extent that white fictional female heroines have been known to resort to yellow face to redress the balance. In The Geisha, a Story of a Tea House, the 1896 play from Owen Hall, an Englishwoman, who has been replaced by her fiancé for a geisha, attempts to win back his affection by wearing a kimono and matching makeup.
It wasn’t only men, however, who were helping to create the Asian Mystique. British governess Anna Leonowens, who had spent some time in the 19th century King Mongkut court, penned two memoirs, The Romance of Harem and The English Governess at the Siamese Court, which condemned the harem of her one-time boss, in a bid to support feminism.