Wednesday, June 24, 2009

think of asians in terms of faceless hordes

“The real yellow peril: Gold.”

--Mark Twain

Most of the white people I know get annoyed by watching television with me. That's because I can't stop myself from pointing out the constant racism, sexism, classism, and other -isms on display, the combined effect of which feels like a nauseating assault. I don't actually watch much TV (and thanks to my inability to keep my mouth shut, I'm usually alone when I do).

I did catch the following ad, though, and it literally made my jaw drop. I hesitate to post objectionable commercials here, because I don't want to help sell whatever they're selling. But I do post them when I can point out how they sell by appealing in particular ways to white Americans. I can thus help, I hope, to stomp out whatever it is in white Americans that makes racist advertising compelling to them.

So, here's the jaw-dropping ad. The person who posted it on YouTube wrote, "The first Palm Pre Commercial is called Flow. Great advertisement that features 1,000 Kung Fu students doing a very synergistic in-sync routine around a lady with a phone -- the Palm Pre -- in a dream world. Loved the ad."

A "dream world"? I guess. But then, who's the dreamer?

I think part of what the makers of this ad are trying to do is evoke the "magic" of last summer's opening ceremony for the Olympics, which were hosted by China. Indeed, as USA Today reports, the ad "features 1,000 dancers directed by three choreographers, including Sun Yupeng, who helped create the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony."

I don't see a problem with the Olympics connection, but why put a white woman at the center of all this vague Asian-ness?

And why make the group of apparently Asian people so homogeneous, and so individually faceless? Why portray them, that is, without a shred of the privileged, pedestaled, bowed-to individuality of the white, "first-world" woman at the center of things?

According to USA Today,

The message of the ad, by agency Modernista, is ease of use. Actor Tamara Hope sits on a rock in an open field surrounded by circles of dancers. In coordination with their synchronized dance moves, Hope shows some of the phone features.

The idea is that Pre is "a little more human and a little more approachable and about making your life better," says [Palm Marketing VP Brodie] Keast, who would not disclose spending. "This is not really for work or play but for one life with many dimensions."

Yes. An ad about "one life," that of a Western white woman, who's using an object that's made "a little more human" by placing it, and the individual holding it, against a faceless, dehumanized backdrop of 1,000 choreographed, synchronized . . . puppets.

And speaking of 1,000, and numbers like it -- the commercial doesn't tell viewers that it has exactly 1,000 faceless dancers, but still, I'm reminded of something else I've noticed, a trend, perhaps? That is, the marketing of things somehow related to Asians with big, round numbers.

What's up with that?

I imagine that Amy Tan, for instance, chooses her own titles, but her novel The Hundred Secret Senses resonates with other products this way.

There's also Mira Stout's One Thousand Chestnut Trees: A Novel of Korea:

There's also Sven Hedin's recent travelogue, The Silk Road: Ten Thousand Miles through Central Asia:

And it's not just books. There's a spa resort in Sante Fe, New Mexico that Orientalizes itself with the name of "Ten Thousand Waves" (and with such offerings as "Japanese Organic Massage Facials" and "Indo-Asian Hot Oil Treatment"). By the looks of the spa's site, it seems both relaxing and invigorating. If I went there, though, I'd wonder what part of my Western, Occidental imagination was being played up to by all that Asian-ness, and by that big round number, ten thousand.

There's also that chain of stores full of foreign-made "crafts," Ten Thousand Villages. Those stores may not be exclusively oriented toward Orientalized products, but they do offer this, um, lovely "Asian Harmony Chime."

Is this the "Asian" version of a supposedly Native American "dreamcatcher"?

Okay, I won't stray too far from my point, which is this -- I think the Palm Pre commercial above is one example among many of how the white American imagination often thinks of Asians in terms of large, faceless crowds. Big, round numbers also sometimes seem to work the same way.

Such crowds, whether imagined or real, can be beautiful, efficient, and powerful when their members all work together. And, of course, they don't only assemble for a white audience.

But for the collective American psyche, with its history of dehumanizing various groups of other people in particular ways, images of Asian crowds continue to perform what amounts to the obliteration of individualized humanity.

And advertisers seem to know how to play up to that.


  1. This reminds me of the tendency by the media to portray Asian metropolitan cities as not much more than large, monolithic masses of pedestrians crowding sidewalks or spilling out of subways.

    Kind of like how they always portray larger people as headless, waddling bellies.

  2. While I see what you're saying, I do need to stand up for Ten Thousand Villages as I've volunteered there in the past and am still amazed at how great an organization they are. I'm not totally sure if I'm understanding what you're getting at with the wind chime item being similar to a Native American dream catcher but it really is just a wind chime. If you looked at the details of the item, it's made in the Philippines. What you may not know about 10,000 Villages is that everything they sell comes from artisans in the developing world who receive a fair wage for what they make. The artisans choose what they want to make so if you have a problem with them making an Asian version of a Native American dream catcher, you'll have to take that up with some artisan trying to make a living in the Philippines. As for their name, you are correct in that it isn't necessarily Oriental in nature. If you look at the first FAQ here you can find out more about it:
    My point is that while I'm sure you didn't necessarily mean any harm, 10,000 Villages is some of the last people I would consider that would ever take advantage of a group of people. All that being said, I do really enjoy reading your blog. It's been a (good) challenge for me. Keep up the quality work!

  3. Thank you! I thought the exact same thing about this commercial. But I actually grow weary of my own railing at times. But the message sent in this spot is demeaning and mindless in its execution. I understand they were probably really impressed by the Beijing Olympics, but the opening display was about a shared work and greatness. Whereas this commercial seems to be about servitude and a metaphor of a human being as functionality for the sake of the beckoning "goddess" at the center ground.

  4. This made me think of the Disney movie Mulan which has lots of huge panoramic scenes of faceless Chinese soldiers. That is the only thing i remember from that movie. Was Disney portraying a general mass of 'insignificant' humanity?

  5. I've learned that American television commercials berate everyone of all races and religions. Even the white people and the Christian.

    But i've also learned that there's one way to make all of it disappear. Turn off your television and give away. With the internet and a more open online media that caters to all points, political types and mindsets, who needs the old media anymore?

  6. I bet I would like watching TV with you!

  7. "The Hundred Secret Senses" is actually a reference to one of the main characters in the book, Kwan, who is a Chinese immigrant and believes she has "yin eyes" that allow her to see the dead, and "secret senses" that allow her to see and know the past. The "hundred secret senses" isn't just a turn of phrase or marketing gimmick; it's an integral concept in the book. (I'll add though that my recollection is a touch fuzzy since it's been a few years since I've read the book.) While I think I get what you're trying to say, I don't think that this particular book title is an accurate example of your point. :)

  8. Maybe this is just because I'm on an old computer and a flaky internet connection, but the video clips you post often go off the edge of the page and make the page take longer to load/stall.

    Has this happened for anyone else?

    I agree that the anonymous/faceless way that asians are portrayed is problematic, but am also intrigued by ideas about public space and homogeneity that come up in depictions that are not designed to be overtly racist.

    The title of the silk road book seems to be a little of a false starter, similar to what Kurt pointed out about 10,00 villiages. The Silk Road was about that long, and most of it went through places that a geographically naive Americans would be more likely to associate with either the Middle East or the USSR rather then what (again, geographically confused) westerners might more readily identify as "asia".

    With the "hordes" that Anonymous 10,000 mentioned in "Mulan"... disney has been increasingly drawing a dozen or two stock characters and essentially copypasting the rest (i'm not a super techie, so can't say this in more, um, accurate or technical terms) in big crowd scenes, battle scenes, etc for years. This is exactly what they did with the armies in Mulan, because drawing largescale battles is a monumental task. They also did it with horses in a movie about, um, horses. The technique was also used in the Lord of the Rings movies, which involved creating massive armies out of a couple hundred extras using a computer.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that large battle scenes inherently involve a large quantity of dudes dressed alike, and in cartoons they tend to be the same few figures repeated over and over as a time saver. IMO what makes "Mulan" so potentially jarring or potentially noteworthy on this front is that it was one of the first times that Disney showed a battle on that scale, showed one so realistically, or showed much warfare at all that involved both parties being human*.

    This isn't to defend disney specifically, or to suggest that Mulan is free of objectionable content, but the anonymity of the soldiers isn't really the thing that seems worth latching onto.

    *Based on my own reccolections of seeing

  9. To be honest, I don't think this is anything new. It's not a great commercial in the first place. But I can see where someone can come up with this angle.

  10. Is it so wrong that people might get a bit hung up on the sheer size of China? I'm sure there are lots of books about the US that include words like 'big'. You couldn't really use '10,000 miles' in a title of a book about England because, well, you'd run out of country.

    Yes, I can see there is a dodgy racist motif about hordes lurking in the background of ads like that one, but I don't see that in the case of those book titles you refer to it has to be about that. China (as is the US) is a physically huge country (unlike the US its also quite an ancient one).

    Also, perhaps its not really relevant, but isn't there a tradition in China of attaching significance to certain numbers based on what words they sound like? All those old Maoist campaigns were always called 'the four whatevers' or 'the six thingummyjigs', no? Maybe somehow the concept has ended up influencing people to decide that anything about China has to have a number in its title?

  11. Here we go...a quick google for 'is ten thousand lucky in China' turns up the following claim:

    In the same way...has the same pronounciation as the word for "ten-thousand," another symbol of happiness. When you put the characters "ten-thousand" together with the characters for "good luck," the resulting combination means "all health and happiness." "

    Perhaps that is the reason for the appearance of large round numbers in things related to China?

  12. Sorry for multiple posts, but that quote came from this (Japanese) site. I really think that is probably the explanation for the 'large round numbers' thing you noticed.

  13. Sure, I'm a little offended too by this depiction of a dream world where 1000 faceless asians dance at the direction of the white woman's electronic device. But to me this is just a metaphor for the 1000 or more asians it took to manufacture that electronic device. The real asians in the factories have individual faces, but they might as well be faceless hordes as far as the consumer is concerned, and they all move at the direction of the privileged consumer's spending. Working in those factory environments has got to be a lot less fun than dancing in a field. I am one of those consumers using one of those devices to send you this message, but I would be willing give up the Internet if it meant that no human being would be dehumanized by having to work in a factory.

    Check out the movie Manufactured Landscapes for a glimpse at the infrastructure behind your gadgets.

    I'm far more offended by the real world than I am by the dream world.

  14. To be fair to Palm, this whole trope of faceless/identical masses working together to make life flow for the privileged consumer is hardly unique, or hardly strictly Asian. Here's a recent Sprint ad (featuring the Pre):

    And here's another Sprint ad:

    True, there are not hordes of faceless Asians serving a white lady in these. But there are hordes of white people, obviously digitally reproduced. I don't want to take away from your interpretation, but I think we should consider it in light of the fact that what Sprint/Palm seem to be doing is showing us the vast similarity and anonymity provided by our constant wired-ness.

  15. This post goes along with how people like to say "China's number one commodity is people." Like no Chinese person ever invented anything, and they all just sit around having babies so those babies can build stuff for the West.

  16. @nexus:

    the movie Manufactured Landscapes did something very similar to this awful Palm commercial: it 'orientalized' a whole complex culture by presenting people as nameless and incidental to the real subject - the white westerner. Manufactured Landscapes wasn't really about the people making those gadgets - it was unfortunately about the irritating narrator playing 'hero' with his poorly executed documentary by choosing to speak for the nameless 'Asians' rather than actually interview them. sorry to get off topic but that movie really irked the hell out of me.

  17. @aubin

    I'm intrigued at your reading of Manufactured Landscapes. It excites my curiosity to hear that there's different ways of interpreting the same thing.

    When I saw the movie, I saw it as a tragic situation where all these unique, individual people were having their individual desires subjugated by the industrial process. I saw the faces of people I might possibly like to get to know, but whose jobs were preventing them from expressing themselves.

    I was glad that there was hardly any narration. I interpreted the subject of the film as being not about people (as people) at all but about systems, and how humans have let our industrial systems trump our humanity.

    Another documentary I like on this subject is Mardi Gras: Made In China which does interview workers and factory owners and we get to know them a little bit as people in and out of the work environment.

  18. Before I started paying attention, I always thought Asians had it "easy" as minorities.

    They got the smart stereotypes and all that. Plus, there was the historic tension between Asians and black people.

    But, then, I started reading Asian sites and paying attention, and I realized that Asians are getting creamed, regularly. Asian stereotypes are so pervasive and accepted that it's hard for them to generate much support when they call folks out. Black folks deal with a lot of problems because we are viewed as complainers, but it seems like Asian folks can't even get the chance too complain.

    It's really sad how tv and the internet feed these horrible mindsets.

  19. Kurt, thanks for the info about Ten Thou Villages. I agree that what they're doing is nice, but I also think they play up at times to (largely white) customer ideas about how to tart up their habitats with foreign-made, handcrafted, psuedo-artisan exotica. There's a racist colonialist frame around that kind of thing, which positions the consumer in a certain privileged and fantasized relation to the makers of the objects d'art.

    And to the some not seeing racism in all this (including the interesting round number part), yeah, it does happen in other wasy for other reasons, but when it happens in the selling of things supposedly Asian, well then it's a certain way of doing that, right? And it's a racist way. So Amy Tan's character had something to do with 100, so that's why the book has that title. But did it HAVE to be 100, instead of like, 98 or 123? And did that 100 (SECRET?!) have to be in the title? 100 . . . Secret (Mysterious, Alluring, etc.) Senses (as in Sensual, Sexuality, etc.) You can't tell me that isn't an ethnicity-prostituting title.

    by the way Macon, LOVE the Twain quote, perfect for this post!

  20. Like Mike said. Turn off your mind control. TV has never been, and will never be, good for you. It doesn't matter what color or race you are. TV exists to sell you stuff you don't need and keep you docile and distracted from the world's problems, half of which could be solved if we shut our TVs off , stopped buying unnecessary crap and talked to each other about our issues instead of gossiping about what so-and-so wore to the Academy Awards and how offensive the latest Palm Pre ad was. TV is the perfect mind control device for governments and big business alike.

    I agree, the Pre ad sounds like yet another white fantasy. Pretty much like 99% of television programming and advertising, then. Shut the damn thing off and read a book instead. You could start with any one of the dozens of books Amy Tan wrote about the experiences of Asian women that didn't have large round numbers in their titles.

    Seriously, finding three books about Asia with large numbers in their titles and calling them a trend revealing significant Western preconceptions is a bit of a stretch. Unless maybe "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "A Million Tiny Pieces" are also about Asia. Then I'd call it a trend.

  21. I mostly agree about TV, dejamorgana (and Mike) but i think it's worthwhile to read commercials and shows and such as indicators of how racism works, and of what's still in people's heads, which is what advertisers reach out to.

    Read Amy Tan, you say? Why, just cuz she's Asian American? She's a "new Orientalist." I hate the tripe she writes and gets rich from:;col1

    Re finding three big round numbers and calling it a trend being a stretch, yeah maybe, but i read it in the post as more of a possibility, which it does seem like to me, since it fits the monolith-making mindset that macon's calling out. but yeah, I'd need a higher number of big round numbers to be convinced.

  22. Another note about Ten Thousand Villages - it used to be called "Self Help Crafts" - a name that reduced the work artists were doing. Evolution happens.

    Nice post.

  23. Reamo, I'm just pointing out that most of the stuff Amy Tan has written doesn't have round numbers in the titles, and it's all about "the Asian Experience".
    Personally I haven't read any of her books, so I couldn't say if they're any good or not. It wasn't meant as a real recommendation.

  24. Big Man said...
    Before I started paying attention, I always thought Asians had it "easy" as minorities.

    Thank you for saying that - there had been so many times that racism against Asians have been dismissed by people, I have found that black people either refuse to believe that Asians are also discriminated in "Western" countries or at least find it hard to believe. And then they fall into the trick of whiteness by regurgitating the same stereotypes of Asians that white culture has fed to them. I don't believe it is an intentional malice by black people but they do it without realising because society is so saturated with so many prejudices against Asians that it's hard to see unless you're the one being made into a caricature.

    Besides Asian Nation by CN Le and Restructure, I can't think of too many other Asian bloggers who focus on issues of racial relations that also include Asians rather than just Latino or Black. The fact that so few even mention Asians that it is a form of erasure in itself. Please refer me to more sites if anyone knows of any other!

  25. @Reamo

    Kurt, thanks for the info about Ten Thou Villages. I agree that what they're doing is nice, but I also think they play up at times to (largely white) customer ideas about how to tart up their habitats with foreign-made, handcrafted, psuedo-artisan exotica. There's a racist colonialist frame around that kind of thing, which positions the consumer in a certain privileged and fantasized relation to the makers of the objects d'art.

    I totally agree. I could definitely sense that in some customers and their attitudes and the questions they ask, etc. At the same time, whaddya gonna do? I mean, how else can you help artisans in other countries sell their wares in the states without some of that? Not that I agree with it, but isn't some of it fairly inevitable? I'm definitely open to hearing other possibilities, though.

  26. @nexus:

    the problem with Manufactured Landscapes is that when the narrator does speak, he does so in the name of the people being filmed rather than simply interviewing them and asking what they think. as a result, the narrator continuously speculates about what the people may or may not feel rather than simply asking them. it irks the hell out of me because it repeats a very common tendency of (especially well-meaning) white folks, which is to speak for poc rather than just letting them speak for themselves. thus the film wasn't really about the people OR the systems - it was about the filmmakers interpretations of those things. it was also about filming arresting images of a very dire situation - aestheticizing oppression, if you will.

  27. I watched the ad, and only when I scrolled down to read the description did I notice that said white woman is one I grew up with. If it makes you feel better, she was a little deprived of popular (ie: American) non-educational media and processed foods growing up.

    It's much more difficult to organize a large herd of white people into a display like that, like herding cats. The ad concept required a faceless horde, and if they used the "headless fatties" instead, it probably wouldn't have the "flow" look they were going for. Doesn't come off as particularly racist, to me, the Olympics *were* held in Beijing, not Nairobi, if they were looking to recreate that and used anything *but* Asians, it'd appear more racist, whitewashed.

    The concept seems excessively new-agey indie-vomit-pop style (why must *everyone* run through a field in a white dress these days), but the execution *of* the concept doesn't seem too far out of there.

    And yes, the video clips go off the edge of the page for me as well.

  28. There's also those ad for some phone company (Verizon?) where its service is represented as a horde of mostly faceless people (most, possibly all, of whom are white). Seems like a broadly similar premise.

  29. Eusthenopteron and others, I don't think that the depiction of hordes of non-white people in some other contexts means that the depiction of apparently "Asian" hordes isn't specifically racist. The depiction of a faceless, undifferentiated mass that evokes and continues hoary conjurations of a "yellow peril" is a specific, and specifically racist, depiction of a mass of people that differs from depictions of other masses of people.

    Regarding clips that go off the page, I don't know what to do about that formatting problem, which arose when YouTube started showing in a wider screen. Could you just double-click on those to go and see them at YouTube?

  30. What a gorgeous ad - beautifully produced and photographed - lovely choreography.

  31. What I got from the ad wasn't so much "asian hordes" as "buddhist togetherness". The association most Americans have with those orange robes is with buddhist monks, and the lines in the movie about connection with other lives sounds like the vague impression Americans have of buddhism as preaching universal harmony. Sure, it's a cynical bit of cultural appropriation, but I think it's different than the stereotype of Asian hordes.

  32. @ Nexus: "I am one of those consumers using one of those devices to send you this message, but I would be willing give up the Internet if it meant that no human being would be dehumanized by having to work in a factory."

    What? That's a ridiculous statement. That's like saying, "Hey, I would be willing to stop being a Gestapo if it meant no more people would be killed in concentration camps."

    If you feel so guilty about being complicit in a system that oppresses people, then stop being complicit! Obviously you can't stop everyone from being dehumanized in factories, but at least you would no longer feel responsible for financially supporting the oppressors. Inane hypothetical sacrifices that could never happen don't help anyone.

  33. The servility and facelessness of Asians in the ad, and in so much else in the popular culture and imagination, is a reflection of the colonial mentality. In the end, it sees Asians--as well as other minorities--as interchangably available for sex and, therefore, domination.

    The "willingness" and "availability" (to use two terms I've often heard) of Asian women is a consequence of coming from a society in which upper-class men kept concubines to cater to their sexual whims. So, while Caucasian males saw women who seemed to be free of the Victorian strictures on sexual relations, they didn't see what a terrible price--the loss of their individual dignity, their "face"--those women paid for it.

    De-personalizing someone of a different race--making him or her "faceless," if you will--ALWAYS has to do with seeing that person in a subservient sexual role.

  34. It amazes me that people have absolutely nothing better to do than to search for underlying "racist" motifs in advertising. Advertising has to be as broad and clear as possible so as to garner viewer retention. I get that you enjoy cultural self-loathing and the stereotypical white obsession with "awareness", but you're finding connections where there are none. ultimately you could always rebut this by using five dollar words like "popular subconscious" but what's most likely here, is that the advertiser went for the image because it's striking. like the opening ceremony in question, it's memorable. That is all. And with the ethnicity of the model there is no grand conspiracy, to portray all other races as subservient. It's just that the product is targeted towards white folk. The model is always chosen so as to appeal to the largest targeted demographic. The rest is purely incidental. You live in a developed western nation, there the vast majority of potential buyers are white people, what do you expect. It's how advertising functions. I can imagine why people don't like watching television with you. It's not because they're ignorant white racists, it's purely because most people do not enjoy the company of those who racially self-flagellate at every opportunity. Especially if they're doing it to with the interest of taking righteous stance at every possible opportunity. You represent one of the worst kinds of modern man. The well-off "Awareness Crusader". I'm sorry, that was somewhat childish of me. The hordes of you people just get to me.

  35. I think it's interesting that the person who posted the ad to youtube thinking it was so amazing described the dancing as "kung-fu"

  36. Thanks for this post--I just saw the advertisement for the first time. It is amazingly bad.

  37. Everyone likes round numbers. You see the same thing in books by white authors.

    Just because the dancers were Asian doesn't mean the ad is racist. If it were a thousand white dancers you'd say it were racist because other races weren't represented. The similarity of having all of the dancers look similar makes the ad more pleasing while separating the dancers from the main woman in the center. Having a mix of different races would distract from the ad's central message.

    Plus, it's kung fu, which originated in China. It makes sense to have Chinese dancers doing a Chinese form of self expression.

  38. Yes! I just googled 'palm pre racist ad' to find this post because I couldn't believe it. It's like, 'Isn't it wonderful to be white, and just have the world flowing exactly as you want it to at all times, and you never have to even think about the technology you use (which was created where? by whom? a crowd of Asian people moving at your whim?)' Unbelievable.

  39. H, I googled the EXACT same thing and found this post--I've been seeing the Palm Pre ad every time I watch The Daily Show online at Comedy Central, and I've actually stopped watching TDS recently because the ad annoys me so much. What's with everyone bowing down to that emaciated, wispy woman? Maybe I will have to write a letter of annoyance to Comedy Central. Yeah, like they'll pay attention. = )

  40. @ onely I agree!!!

    Anyways I have one of those Ten Thousand Villages stores in my town. Its run by a bunch of white menonites. I've been shopping there off and on for a few weeks and I noticed that feeling of it being in the same kind of moral gray area as maybe American Apparel(sexist Dov Charney and union issues).

  41. kill your televisionJanuary 1, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    UGH! I hate that commercial!!!! My husband thinks I am crazy.

    It really bothers me that whenever someone happens to see something that offends them someone else always manages to come along and call them complainers and says things like

    "It amazes me that people have absolutely nothing better to do than to search for underlying "racist" motifs in advertising. "

    Alright, smart guy! Since when does someone have to "search" for offensive and stupid things when they are presented to you by a third party and they RIGHT IN YOUR FACE!?

    UGH! I freaking hate people! In general they are much like the Palm Pre Worship the White Lady Ad -- Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

  42. [Scarlett, you need to read the "commenting guidelines," especially items 2 and 9. ~macon]


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