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'Techno-Orientalism' and and How this Perpetuates 'Yellow Peril'

Updated: Feb 19

TW: Death, Shooting, Concentration Camps, Racism, Discrimination.

Dear Asian Youth,

I was fifteen when the British TV series ‘Humans’ aired on Channel Four. The series had countless posters and advertisements plastered everywhere from bus stops to TVs, which piqued my interest due to the face of the series being Gemma Chan, a British-born Chinese actress. With the Western media’s lack of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) representation, Chan was a far departure from the usual blonde-haired, blue-eyed celebrities that I was used to seeing. I began to notice that East Asian faces were seldom represented in the media, and during the few times they were, they were often placed in a futuristic setting with mile-high skyscrapers and electronic billboards that could put Times Square to shame. It looked like Tokyo and Hong Kong on steroids.

The settings often wilfully provoked a feeling of uncanny; they were supposed to represent a future utopia, but felt more like a dystopia with corrupt dealings underneath neon signs and aggressive fights in dirty alleyways. They were essentially used to prove a point for the sake of the plot, a world that is somewhat similar, but mostly different to the world we live in and inherently more dangerous.

It wasn’t until I watched the film ‘Blade Runner’ that I truly began to realise the long-standing history of ‘techno-orientalism’ (the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper technological terms in cultural productions and political discourse) in the Western film industry, with the movie being released in 1982 but set in the ‘future’ of 2019. The city itself was exactly as I described prior, with it being so bold in it’s goal of portraying ‘techno-orientalism’ that it included a projection of what seemed to be a Japanese Geisha eating a pill and giving the camera a threatening smile. After watching this film, I subconsciously began identifying similar examples in films like ‘Ex Machina’, where the character of Nathan Bateman owns an AI robot named ‘Kyoko’. As you can guess from the name, Kyoko was an East Asian woman, specifically Japanese. Kyoko is presented as emotionless and only expresses emotion when she is wired to do so, perpetuating the idea of East Asian women as being the ‘other’, which in turns dehumanises them.

‘Otherness’ is a concept which describes the collective and unspoken attitudes of a society or group that perceives an individual as not belonging due to their differences. This could include anything that is ‘other’ from the collective, whether it be physical, cultural, or religious. The perception of an individuals ‘otherness’ can encourage discrimination and mistreatment due to a perceived inferiority to the individual. The character of Kyoko is seen as ‘other’ by not only her creator and the characters of the film, but also by the audience who are watching it. Even as an individual of East Asian descent, I am forced to view Kyoko from a tunneled white lense which further alienates me from her character due to her contrast against the mainly white cast. Furthemore, Kyoko plays the role of a servant to Nathan which reinforces stereotypes of East Asian women as submissive and docile, an attitude that has encouraged many tragic events of violence against East Asian women, including the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shooting.

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