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Asian women in America have received their share of this aggression, often in explicitly sexual terms. The figure of the eroticized-yet-degraded Asian woman—also known as “China doll,” “lotus blossom,” “geisha,” “concubine,” and “butterfly”—can be readily found in movies and onstage, in everything from high art to cheap pornography. One of the most visibly racist, sexist, and inhuman tropes to emerge out of Western imperial history, this woman nonetheless hardly registers in the public consciousness as someone who has suffered discrimination.
The Atlanta shooting also reminds us that America has long conflated Asian female sexuality and criminality. The first time that Chinese litigants appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1875, the case involved the perception of Chinese women as prostitutes. Sensationally known then as the “Case of the 22 Lewd Chinese Women,” it centered on a group of young women who were denied entry into the U.S. at the Port of San Francisco despite having proper travel documentation, because the immigration inspector thought they were prostitutes based on how they looked to him. The state of California argued that it had the right to protect itself from “pestilential immorality.” The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the women, not necessarily because the Court thought they were innocent, but because it wanted to reaffirm the federal government’s authority to regulate immigration.
That same year, the U.S. passed the Page Act, which was introduced by Representative Horace F. Page of California to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” Apparently, to California officials, Chinese women equaled prostitutes. The Page Act was the first restrictive federal immigration law in the U.S., effectively prohibiting the entry of Chinese women into the U.S and foreshadowing the more stringent Chinese Exclusion Act. This in turn created the mostly male “bachelor societies” of American Chinatowns, placing the few Asian women who were here in even more physical, social, and economic jeopardy. In the 20th century, U.S. foreign policy and military presence in Asia extended this old racial-sexual imagination to the figures of the so-called “comfort women,” the “war bride,” and the sex worker.
That the murdered women in Atlanta worked in massage parlors—spaces that are deeply racialized and sexualized in the American and global consciousness—only underscores the continued invisibility and precarity of immigrants and service-industry workers. The victims included Xiaojie Tan, who was days away from her 50th birthday, and is survived by her husband and a daughter who recently graduated from college. Yong Ae Yue, 63, was a working mother too. Hyun Jung Grant, 51, was a single mother working overtime to raise two sons. These were workers, mothers, wives—women who lost their life to one person’s desires and, we have to acknowledge, to a larger culture of racialized misogyny.