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

'Techno-Orientalism' and and How this Perpetuates 'Yellow Peril'
an op-ed by Cathay Lau

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.

This focus on portraying apocalyptic futures as East Asian can, according to Wired, be “traced back to World War II, when powers like the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands were looking at the end of their globe-spanning empires, while simultaneously seeing the expansion of imperialism in countries like Japan. They feared they would be outpaced in both technological and political clout”. The notion that the West should feel threatened by the East is a prevalent pattern in Western society that seems to be exploited in many sci-fi films today and is deeply connected to micro-aggressive opinions on immigrants that people hold. This is particularly shown through attitudes in the Western world towards China due to their ultimate fear of a ‘take over’, especially in the field of technology between the U.S and China over leadership of 5G and AI. It is ultimately due to these tensions between the West and the East in serious and non-serious media that sinophobic attitudes are adopted in the West, leading to racism and violence. A more ‘immediate’ reply to the fear of an Eastern takeover was the U.S Government’s relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1945 into concentration camps. Despite this action being enforced by Franklin D. Roosevelt due to Imperial Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, the correlation between Japanese Americans and the Japanese Government was seemingly forced as a way to justify legal racist and discriminatory behaviour.

Besides the films and TV shows that utilise this cliche setting, ‘yellow peril’ is a racist ideology that has been around and perpetuated by multiple forms of Western media since the 19th century. It links to a legal immigration period when East Asians, particularly Chinese workers, came to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. We see similarities in the discrimination they faced today through newer immigrant workers, with many in the U.K. adopting the opinion that their “jobs are being taken”. It seems that not much has changed in society's attitudes towards immigrant workers who look or are from cultures that are “different”.

Overall, although the use of ‘techno-orientalism’ over the years has become a normal and at times expected aspect of ‘futuristic’ settings, it is not excused from its perpetuation of East-Asians as being ‘dangerous’ and ‘other’. With movements such as ‘Stop Asian Hate’ encouraging discourse on normalised and harmful behaviours in society against Asians, the pattern of including East-Asian ‘aesthetics’ in futuristic worlds only perpetuates a racist ideology amongst the audience and public. As shown by many films in the media, it is entirely possible to include a futuristic world with skyscrapers and flying cars without the need to plaster Japanese words on neon lights everywhere. Despite its status as a ‘classic’ to many as well as its setting in 2019 (which is old news to us now anyway), ‘Blade Runner’ was still released in 1982 and clearly still bleeds with past ignorance. Although I am a believer in traditions and classics, it seems that it may be time for ‘techno-orientalism’ to be left where it became popular: in 1982.

- Cathay Lau

Editors: Bri Sicam, Sophie Guo, Lydia Lee, and Dilara Sümbül.

Writing Sources:

Cover Photo Sources:

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