Freedom of Speech: American Style
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Crisis Inflames Bias Against Asians
--Ethnic stereotypes in broadcast, print media prompt protests

Marsha Ginsburg, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, April 14, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle  

Political cartoons, radio high jinks and satiric skits that feature Chinese characters with thick glasses, buck teeth and heavy Asian accents sound like a throwback to an era when American society lacked sophistication and tolerance.

But these scenes played out across the country after China detained 24 Navy crew members whose spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. Some observers say the backlash rivals the anti-Asian sentiments of World War II and before.

"In times of conflict, it is a norm that any country will ridicule the other. It happens all over the world," said Federico Subervi, an associate professor in the communications department at the University of Texas at Austin. "But it's more about politics. It's the policy, not the people. This is ridiculing the people."

Especially disconcerting, experts said, is the fact the stereotypes have emerged in the news media -- whose organizations of late stress diversity within their ranks. Among the recent incidents was a skit during a meeting of top newspaper editors.


Even the Bay Area, where Asian Americans are about 20 percent of the population and where people pride themselves on tolerance, has not been immune.

Radio talk show host Don Bleu spoofed the spy-plane standoff April 6 in what he called a "fry over."

He then called a restaurant in China and teased the person who answered, who apparently could not speak English, as music from the Oscar-winning Chinese film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" played in the background, according to listeners.

Listener Christine Rivera said she called Bleu's station, Star 101.3 FM, to complain that she was "repulsed and offended by these ignorant remarks." The station offered a "generic apology," she said.

The stunt prompted Philip Ting, president of the Organization of Chinese Americans in San Francisco, to call for a public apology.

"Xenophobic climates lead to persecution, hate crimes and murder," he wrote in a letter to the station. "Your insensitivity to throwing more fuel on this fire is all too glaring."

Neither Bleu nor station managers could be reached for comment yesterday.


Ting said that elsewhere in America, radio commentators have called for Chinese American internment. A station in Springfield, Ill., suggested boycotting Chinese restaurants. Another commentator called people with Chinese last names and harassed them.

Outspoken Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Pat Oliphant, who once said political correctness "drives me crazy," enraged Asian Americans with a cartoon that appeared this week in many Bay Area newspapers.

The cartoon, which The Chronicle declined to run, portrays a buck-toothed Chinese waiter delivering cat gizzard noodles to a customer who concedes he had been "slowly getting used to doing business with China."

The waiter trips, dumping noodles on the head of the customer, who says the waiter must have been waiting for an apology. The waiter jumps up and down while saying, "Apologize Lotten Amellican!" The customer, who gets up in a huff and leaves, is Uncle Sam.


The 1,700 member Asian American Journalists Association said Oliphant's work "crossed the line from acerbic depiction to racial caricature" and yesterday demanded that he stop using racial stereotypes in his work.

Editorial cartoonists are given some leeway in material, association President Victor Panichkul said, but "this in no way excuses base ethnic insult. Gross racial parodies cannot be explained away as merely 'tart' opinion."

Oliphant, a nationally syndicated cartoonist, could not be reached to comment.


Another glaring example of racial stereotyping was a skit during the opening of last week's American Society of Newspaper Editors convention.

The skit, by the renowned Washington, D.C., satirical troupe Capitol Steps, featured a white man dressed in a black wig and thick glasses impersonating a Chinese official who gestured wildly as he said, "ching, ching, chong, chong."

The room full of top editors, predominantly Caucasian, laughed heartily. But Amy Leang, a Chinese American student photographer assigned to the cover the skit, saw no humor in it.

Leang said she was so upset by the incident that she awoke the next morning crying. She was encouraged by members of ASNE to write a story about the experience, portions of which were cited in news stories nationwide.

Experts said the skit was well out of bounds.

"Here we have the leading opinion makers -- the ones who dictate what goes into the papers -- laughing like a bunch of 5-year-olds," said Helen Zia, an East Bay author and expert on Asian American affairs. "It sends a message to editorial teams. What they think is appropriate is discouraging, in the middle of a potential international crisis."

Capitol Steps initially defended the skit as "a satirical portrayal of a Chinese official encountering an equally satirical portrayal" of President Bush. Yesterday, the troupe offered regrets to Leang and the Asian American community.

"We are sorry anyone was offended. This was only meant to provide laughs during a tense situation," producer Elaina Newport said.


Others have called on ASNE to apologize. Association President Tim McGuire, editor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, rejected the suggestion.

"Very few people reacted the way (Leang) did," he said. "I don't think we can make an apology because we didn't control anything."

Did he laugh at the skit?

"Of course I did," he said.

The skit was particularly embarrassing in light of the organization's efforts to increase newsroom diversity.

"We're encouraging people to get into the business and we let something like this happen under our watch," said the association's diversity chairwoman,

Carolina Garcia, managing editor of the San Antonio Express News. "We're not doing our job."

Many Asian American experts have said similar stereotyping probably would not occur against gays or African Americans or Latinos.

"There's a certain amount of knee-jerk racism when it comes to China and other countries in Asia," Zia said. "This is degrading and tapping into a real level of hostility people have on the street. It's bullying and it's harassment."

CAMW Associate Comment:
Dear Ms Ginsburg,
Thank you for being one of the few concerned journalists to write about the rising anti-Asian sentiment in this country. While Americans chortle about China's mistreatment of her own people, they are tolerating mistreatment of her own citizens of Chinese descent.

Contrast this with the article about "Christian Cartoonist Draws Criticism." The offensive cartoon was withdrawn immediately, complete with apologies. Whereas the reaction to offended Chinese Americans is scornful disdain. It is disappointing to see the hypocrisy of America, and a revelation about so-called "concern" for the Chinese.