Growing up in the USA, I remember clearly that any racist depictions of Chinese in the media were met with a swift rebuttal by Chinese associations and trade groups.
There was one film, specifically, that drew the ire of the Chinese-American population at large: Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon. The notion that Chinese people were oversimplified as vicious, heroin importing thugs was intolerable. Chinese were so much more than to be boiled down to a simplistic, cartoonish, image.
That is the USA, though, and at least some people will put up an argument if they feel they’re seeing others characterized in a racist or overly simplistic way.
I now live in Beijing China, and have since 2001. Recently, the Chaoyang district here in Beijing decided to have a campaign designed to “civilize Chaoyang.”
The Chinese love campaigns. They especially love campaigns that teach the burgeoning population some manners. Given China’s urban population explosion, it’s rare for someone to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, or to hold the door for someone to walk through. In fact, getting anyone to see outside of his or her own narrow world is a miracle, when it happens.
And so, the authorities decided that the time was right to teach people to cross the street, and to not eat barbecue outside in the summer time, or other things that are deemed “uncivilized.”
Chaoyang district boasts the largest foreign population in all of Beijing. All of the foreign embassies are located here, as are most of the foreign compounds and stores.
That’s why I found the advertisement that appeared on billboards across this part of town disturbing.
On the billboards, you see the cartoon character of a little Chinese girl named Luo Baobei (Baby Luo). She is sitting in the front seat of a vehicle. Behind her is her blonde-haired friend, and at the back of the bus is her black friend. The way the black child is drawn is what I found so distasteful.
Having grown up in the U.S., I couldn’t help but immediately recognize the symbols of racism: the “Al Jolson-like” image in black face; or the Hattie McDaniel-esque maid with a kerchief on her head: nice and fat speaking broken English, or yelling in cartoon form: “Thomas!”
When I saw this little black kid with ivory white teeth, and big red lips, I thought, here we are in China, its 2011, and yet these racist depictions from a past the Chinese have no involvement in are part of their culture.
I thought back to my days as a foreign student back in 1991 at Shanghai’s Fudan University. At the foreign students’ compound (in those days, Chinese had to register if they wanted to visit a foreign friend); I had several African classmates, from Burundi, Sierra Leone, and across from my room, a kid from Mali. It was back then that Chinese racial prejudice became abundantly clear to me.
As a white guy, I was able to have guests stay a bit longer in my room if they were visiting, but my neighbor from Mali was never afforded such a luxury. In fact, he had a Chinese girlfriend, and the authorities knew it and tried to stop her from seeing him. They often did this by either not telling him she was waiting at the gate (we didn’t have phones, only loudspeakers in our rooms), or by making them feel uncomfortable. The pressure on him was great and he would let it out by drinking until he was inconsolable.
At that time, there also was a brand toothpaste sold in China called Darkie, which proved very successful. Its top-hatted black man with white teeth stared back at you, saying you too can have white teeth.
Why do I bring this up? China is in the headlines every day of every week, and while it’s mostly financial news that catches the eyes of journalists who cover the region, there are issues of equal importance that China seems to have yet to understand.
China must come to understand that such racist depictions undermine their wish to cast themselves as the defender of the underdogs. The China that says they are a friend of Africa, through loans and development projects, is no real friend if they can’t “civilize Chaoyang” without reducing black people to cartoonish stereotypes.
Jonathan Levitt originally from El Paso Texas is a writer/ filmmaker living in China for over 15 years. Fluent in Chinese, He is fascinated by the changes in China, and the new ways in which the world is having to adapt to it.