Sex, Death, and Empire: The Roots of Violence Against Asian Women

Sex, Death, and Empire: The Roots of Violence Against Asian Women

Sex, Death, and Empire: The Roots of Violence Against Asian Women

The line from America’s earliest empire in the Philippines to Japan, Korea, Vietnam—and anti-Asian violence at home—is straight, clear, and written in blood.


On March 11, a man with a football player’s build assaulted a 67-year-old Asian woman in Yonkers, N.Y. As she walked past him, he called out, “Asian bitch!” She ignored him. He followed her into her building and punched her from behind, knocking her to the ground. Then, over the course of one minute and 12 seconds, Tammel Esco roundhoused his fists into her—mechanically, unwaveringly—pummeling her over 125 times. He then stomped on her seven times and spat on her before walking away. The victim, whose name has not been released, was hospitalized with broken bones in her face, bleeding in her brain, and cuts and bruises across her head. Esco has been charged with attempted murder.

Four weeks before that, in the early hours of February 13, Christina Yuna Lee, a 35-year-old Korean American woman, was murdered in her apartment in New York City’s Chinatown after returning from a party. Someone had followed Lee into the building and forced his way into her apartment. One hour and 20 minutes later, she was found dead in her bathtub by police, naked from the waist up, with 40 stab wounds to her body. Her attacker, 25-year-old Assamad Nash, an unhoused man, had tried to sexually assault her. Lee died fighting back.

One hundred and twenty-five blows.

Forty stabs.

I can’t get these numbers out of my head, yet I struggle to process their implications. How can a person hammer their fist into an elder—into flesh, through bone—over and over and over again, 125 times? How can a person plunge a knife into another human being 40 times, until all life has bled out? Did these men understand their victims to be human—or did they think of them as somehow subhuman? These are not rhetorical questions.

Lee’s murder hit home. I had been in Chinatown just hours earlier, on the first warm, sunny day of the year. It was Super Saturday, a Lunar New Year tradition in which lion dancers roam the streets to drive away evil spirits and bring good luck. After two punishing years for New York’s Asian American community—2021 saw a 361 percent increase in anti-Asian attacks, along with staggering economic hits from the Covid-bias-related avoidance of Asian-owned businesses—this celebration was a much-needed balm. The air vibrated with firecrackers, marching bands, confetti, laughter. Spring was coming.

The next morning, I woke to the headline: “Woman Followed and Fatally Stabbed in Her Chinatown Apartment.” I looked up Lee’s address and realized I had walked right by her apartment the day before. I read news reports. She had been three years younger than me, loved art and music. She sounded like me.

The New York Post had obtained security camera footage from the night of Lee’s death. The paper stitched together grainy clips from her building’s four cameras and put them side by side. Camera 1 shows a woman walking up to the building and then pausing, likely to fish for keys. A shadowy figure shuffles up behind her, then hovers a few feet back. Camera 2 then shows her walking through the building door. Before the door fully shuts, the figure vanishes from Camera 1 and appears on Camera 2, slipping in behind her. Lee then appears on Camera 3, walking toward her apartment. The figure, clad in gray, trails her. Unsuspecting, she walks out of camera range. He follows. Through it all, Camera 4 is fixed on the empty street, bearing witness and void of witnesses. The footage is bathed in purple, giving it the aura of a paranormal horror movie. I watch it over and over again, hoping for a different ending: A passerby appears on Camera 1; Lee shuts the door behind her on Camera 2; she hears the footsteps on Camera 3—and escapes. Each time she reappears on a new screen, my heart catches. But the footage is defiant; it refuses to change. Many loops later, I can no longer feel my insides.

While the media lingered on these grisly details, I yearned to see more of Lee than just her last walk home. Her death had grabbed the headlines, but what of her life? I scour the Internet for clues. She had produced a documentary about a street rapper in New Orleans. I look up the director—on Facebook, we have six mutual friends. On Instagram, I go through his photos. Lee is in several, often surrounded by friends. I click on the tagged friends and scroll through their photos too, searching for her. I find Christina celebrating a friend’s birthday in Mexico in 2020, ringing in New Year’s 2019 in Flatbush, at a Friendsgiving in Williamsburg in 2018. She liked the pizzas at Paulie Gee’s. I wonder if, like me, she drizzled her pies with their signature hot honey. I read these friends’ tributes:

“She rarely walked, she danced…. She would randomly call me, SUPER excited, like she had just won the lotto, to tell me about the sweetest strawberry she had from a nearby farmer’s market.”

“She saved people seats at meetings, had lunches with people on completely opposite and random teams, Slacked people while on a Zoom call telling them ‘your lipstick is absolutely perfect today.’”

“For my Sisdude, who liked to search through the sand for pretty pebbles and sprinkle them on her head to be a little closer to mother nature.”

For once, I was grateful for the social media rabbit hole. My voyeurism enabled me to see her as a woman with agency, history, joyous quirks, a memorable shimmy—not as another dead Asian woman. Because especially in the last two years, we have had too many.

From March 2020 to December 2021, 6,506 hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islander women were reported to Stop AAPI Hate; the actual number is likely far greater. This is almost double the incidents reported by men. Yet media coverage of Lee’s death relegated the question of racism to a single sentence about what unnamed authorities did or did not know.

CNN: “It’s not clear whether Lee’s race or ethnicity played a role in the attack.”

The New York Times: “The authorities have not determined that Ms. Lee was targeted because of her ethnicity.”

As a journalist, I understand why the media are reluctant to go beyond what police say. And for police, hate crimes require a higher burden of proof—though some have used their increase to advocate for higher police budgets. As an activist, I also know that hate crimes carry heavier sentences, condemning many who are themselves the victims of a broken society to face an inhumane system of incarceration that fails to address the root causes of crime.
Yet as an Asian woman in America, the who-knows-if-race-played-a-role reporting feels like cultural gaslighting, denying both our experience and America’s history.

The Long Phrase

In rest and recreation spots such as Angeles, Olongapo, and other U.S. military bases scattered all over Southeast Asia, street vendors display hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the long phrase or simply the abbreviation LBFM as souvenirs of wild times, wild women, and wild places,” writes Celine Parreñas Shimizu, a Filipina American filmmaker and cultural scholar, in The Hypersexuality of Race.

The long phrase is “little brown fucking machines powered by rice,” an expression that can be traced back at least to the Philippine-American War. In 1898, despite telling Filipinos that Americans were eager to help them defeat their Spanish colonizers, the US cut a deal with Spain to buy the Philippines for $20 million. When the Filipinos took up arms in a bid for independence, the US deployed 125,000 troops to persuade them otherwise. The war lasted more than three years and devastated the country. Filipinas who had never considered sex work were forced into it as a matter of survival. And American men who had not previously known any Asian women now found themselves in a country where most women they met worked in the sex industry.

In the Philippines, a soldier could have “a girl for the price of a burger,” the legal scholar Sunny Woan writes. Filipinas were viewed as so subservient that American GIs sexually denigrated them in ways they would never consider for their wives or women back home: “Filipina sex workers frequently report being treated like a toy or a pig by the American [soldiers] and being required to do ‘three holes’—oral, vaginal, and anal sex.”

The US military registered sex workers, regularly tested them for venereal diseases, and tagged them, like pets, reinforcing their status as less than human. The military justified this system as a matter of imperial necessity. “The idea was that the soldiers are aggressively sexual and need a sexual outlet in the military theater. And if we don’t set up a system and inspect women, then they’re going to get sick and then we can’t fight,” says Paul Kramer, a historian of US empire. “It presumes all of these things about men’s sexuality and then essentially says: This is a pragmatic matter of manpower. We need men to be healthy and fit.”

By the end of the American colonization of the Philippines a half century later, this ideology had spread across Asia, laying the foundation for the region’s notorious sex entertainment and trafficking industries. At the end of World War II, to prevent Allied troops from raping civilians, Japan established a network of brothels and recruited 55,000 women to service up to 60 GIs a day each. Many women committed suicide, particularly in the network’s opening days; after the brothels closed, the Japanese saw as many as 330 rapes a day.

Though Japan had a history of exploitative prostitution, the conscription of women as a military necessity was based on studying Western tactics of empire building. Since the 1930s, it had provided “comfort stations” for Japanese troops deployed overseas; the postwar Allied occupation, however, was the first time Japan offered its own women as sexual slaves for a foreign force.

In 1950, months after it had entered the Korean War, the US military introduced a program called R&R (rest and recuperation) that gave GIs a break from active duty by shuttling them to Japan. Soldiers’ slang for R&R—“rock and ruin” and “rape and run”—illustrate their view of the program. By the time US troops entered Vietnam in 1965, this network of comfort stations had spread to the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, and 85 percent of the GIs surveyed reported having been with a prostitute. One year later, US Senator J. William Fulbright declared, “Saigon has become an American brothel.” By the time the US withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, there were 500,000 prostitutes in the country.

Other Western countries, such as Great Britain and Australia, developed their own military R&R programs. Kramer calls this system of sexual exploitation the military-sexual complex. One Australian Navy officer recalls his R&R time in Thailand in the 1960s on a nostalgic website: “There was nothing that wasn’t for sale. I guess this had something to do with providing for R&R grunts fresh from the killing grounds of Vietnam, their every conceivable wish was catered for…. There were plenty of good cheap hotels and certainly no shortage of massage parlours. A 24 hour escort and tour guide would cost around 400–500 Baht [US $20–$25], with an option to extend.”

R&R is not a relic of the past. In a 2018 thread titled “R&R info?” in the US Army Reddit forum, a GI asked about the program today. The response that got the most votes was: “My cousin went to Thailand and spent his 14 days fucking whores, drinking, and eating. I spent my R&R going home to see my son’s 2nd birthday. Go fuck whores in Thailand.”

The United Nations and many international nongovernmental organizations provide R&R to staff serving in hardship posts or humanitarian settings. While many use R&R to see families or to quietly decompress, the breaks have become notorious for contributing to the sexual assaults of other aid workers and local populations. There is a distinct Western male swagger—brazen, almost sneering—that comes from being on the winning end of global inequality and strutting and dangling that privilege in front of those on the losing end. While working in the Global South, I’ve seen men grab women as they please, and many let them—the money these men spend in an hour can feed their families for a month. In response, I chopped my hair off and started wearing shapeless, baggy clothes. I wanted to hide my gender. I wanted to shield my body. I wanted to look like anything but another Asian plaything for Western men.

She’s Fun, and So Uncomplicated

But I was battling a long tradition. In 1887, the French writer Pierre Loti published Madame Chrysanthème, a semi-autobiographical novel about a naval officer who travels to Japan and seeks a temporary wife: a “little, creamy-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes. She must be pretty and not much bigger than a doll.” Once he marries Chrysanthème, he reflects: “It is a hundred to one that she has no thoughts whatever. And even if she had, what do I care?”

She was simply another Oriental artifact, beautiful and inanimate, for his collection. The book was wildly successful—it was reprinted over 200 times during Loti’s life alone—and inspired the opera Madama Butterfly (1904, set in Japan), which in turn inspired one of Hollywood’s first Technicolor features, The Toll of the Sea (1922, set in China), the hit musical Miss Saigon (1989, set in Vietnam), and the film M. Butterfly (1993, set in China). While the locales change in line with Western geopolitical interests, the story remains largely the same: Asian woman falls in love with white man, bears his child, then, realizing her love is unrequited, kills herself. Despite decades of global protests against Miss Saigon, in 2013, its 25th anniversary revival in London broke box office records, selling £4.4 million in tickets on the first day alone.

A 1990 article in British GQ titled “Oriental Girls” examined “the enduring appeal of the great Western male fantasy”:

When you get home from another hard day on the planet, she comes into existence, removes your clothing, bathes you, and walks naked on your back to relax you. And then there is sex…. She’s fun you see, and so uncomplicated. She doesn’t go to assertiveness-training classes, insist on being treated like a person, fret about career moves, wield her orgasm as a non-negotiable demand.

When not a fantasy, the Asian woman is a punch line. Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, about US Marines in the Vietnam War, made famous the line “Me so horny. Me love you long time,” spoken by a Vietnamese prostitute. The line was sampled by 2 Live Crew in their 1989 hit “Me So Horny,” which reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Rap Songs chart, and by Sir Mix-A-Lot in “Baby Got Back,” which became the second-best-selling song in America in 1992. These songs helped entrench “Me so horny” as cultural catchphrase and meme—and as a nightmare for Asian women, who continue to be haunted by this racist catcall.

Deadly Cures for Yellow Fever

Every woman has stories about creepy men. Asian women have their own, and often of a particular kind. The Fleshlight Chronicles is an Instagram account that catalogs racist come-ons Asian women receive on dating sites. They include such gems as “I want to try Asian pussy; since I love Asian food, I’m like maybe I would love this too.”

Unable to avoid such pick-up lines, some women have resigned themselves to rolling their eyes. Yet we rarely examine the roots of “yellow fever”—slang for the fetish for Asian women—or its implications. The term itself suggests that Asian women’s bodies are the sites of disease. This notion has deep roots: J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, insisted there was a unique strain of syphilis in Asian women. In 1876, at the American Medical Association’s centennial jubilee, Sims used his presidential address to sound the alarm on this deadly “Chinese tocsin.” For the next century, in its brothels across Asia, the American military would screen women for venereal diseases to prevent yellow fever from spreading from its soldiers’ minds to their bodies.

The notion that yellow fever is problematic but treatable persists today. “Never been with an Asian before so banging you would be a dream come true,” writes one man in The Fleshlight Chronicles. “I need my yellow fever cured.” This idea has deadly implications.

On March 16, 2021, a 21-year-old man went on a shooting spree at three massage parlors in Atlanta. He killed eight people, six of them Asian women: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. The shooter, Robert Aaron Long, cited his sex addiction as the reason for his actions—to him, these women were temptations to be purged. Most men try to “cure” their so-called yellow fever by dating Asian women; Long opted to kill them.

At a press conference, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office summarized Long’s motives: “It was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” The media seized on this flippant remark, and social media was flooded with hot takes. One year later, a Google search for “Atlanta spa shooting ‘bad day”’ returns about 2.5 million results. Individual searches for “Atlanta spa shooting” and the name of each Asian victim return between 1,400 and 22,000 results. Even adding up all the search results on these victims—a poor way to determine just how much was published about them, since most articles include all their names—gives you just 91,600 results. Surely these six lives were worth more than 3.7 percent of the discussion devoted to Long’s bad day?

When the media did focus on the victims, there was often a salacious undertone to much of the reporting, as journalists tripped over themselves, and sites like Rubmaps, trying to determine if the women had in fact been sex workers. Shimizu’s words ring in my ears: “Sex is the primary site of contestation over the making and unmaking of Asian female legibility in popular culture.” In English-language media, these women were centered when journalists wanted to interrogate and stigmatize the possible uses of their sexuality; otherwise, they served as props in yet another mass shooting story.

I return to GQ’s “Oriental Girls”:

When you get home from another hard day on the planet, she comes into existence…. She’s there when you need shore leave from those angry feminist seas. She’s a handy victim of love or a symbol of the rape of the Third World nations, a real trouper.

The Asian victims in Atlanta were in America because of the rape of their homelands. What the cultural conversation around Long’s bad day missed is that these women, who were between the ages of 44 and 74, were all born during or just after a period of US-led wars in Asia. For them, immigration was one of the few paths to escape war and economic devastation. These women had been “real troupers”—whitespeak for oppressed people who quietly accept injustice. Once in the US, they had limited ways to earn a living, thus entering a system that exploited them while rendering their risks invisible.

Mental Illness as Red Herring

When asked for comment about Lee’s murder, New York Mayor Eric Adams replied that the city must do more to address mental illness. In recent vigils for slain Asian women, officials dutifully line up to lament yet another tragedy, exclaim “This must stop!,” point the finger at mental illness, then hang around for photo ops.

But mental illness is a red herring. Treating perpetrators as bizarre deviants from the norm misses the point. Mental illness operates within specific cultural contexts. The mentally ill still draw on existing cultural templates, which they may distort or act on in more extreme ways. And when it comes to Asian women, the cultural template has long been sexual denigration: three holes, rape and run, “Me so horny.” Nash and Long, among so many others, simply took these messages to fatal conclusions.

On January 15, Michelle Alyssa Go, a 40-year-old Chinese American woman, was pushed to her death in front of a subway train at Times Square. The attacker, Martial Simon, was an unhoused man who was schizophrenic. Authorities said there was no indication that Go had been targeted because of her ethnicity.

Repeatedly denying the role of race while pointing the finger at mental illness relieves the state of culpability. The message: These attacks are strange coincidences, the actions of crazy people. So let’s just lock them up, then keep on keeping on.

Yet in terms of acknowledging and managing these risks, our governments have repeatedly come up short. For years before pushing Go to her death, Simon had been in and out of hospitals. In 2017 a psychiatrist working at a state mental institution noted that Simon had said it was “just a matter of time” before he would push a woman onto a train track. He was nevertheless discharged.

To make sense of how our society fails men like Simon, and thus their victims, I contacted Jason Wu, a seasoned public defender with the Legal Aid Society. Wu criticizes dominant analyses of anti-Asian violence, which draw on a traditional criminal framework: There are bad people who do bad things. “But it takes out of context that their prejudice was stoked in our current political environment, that’s tied to a racializing of a virus, that’s tied to geopolitical tensions that play out on the bodies of Asian Americans,” Wu says. “That political move is not new. But who we hold responsible in this moment should be bigger than the person taking the bait—it should include our government.”

In the long shadow of state-sanctioned violence against Asian women—violence reinforced through culture and distorted by mental illnesses that this country stokes but refuses to treat—Asian American women are constantly told we must find individual solutions for our safety. My group texts are filled with chatter about where to buy mace and coupon codes for personal safety alarms. At rallies, workers for well-meaning nonprofits hand me flyers with self-defense strategies. I stare blankly back at them. I imagine how to teach my parents to do a palm-heel strike; the thought alone is too much to bear.

Meanwhile, authorities continue to investigate whether these recent victims, my sisters, were targeted because of their race.

Contemplating the Third Rail

I now rarely listen to music or read books while waiting for the subway train to arrive. Instead I stand hypervigilant in the middle of the platform, equidistant from both edges, wishing the space were wider.

My partner and I have walked through what I would do if I were ever pushed onto the tracks, from the best to the worst option. Plan A is to crouch under the ledge of the platform away from the tracks. Some stations have human-size vestibules at track level, intended for service workers. Before Go’s death, I never noticed them; now I scan for them whenever I enter a station. Plan B is to outrun the train, on the track, until I reach the far end of the station, in front of where the trains stop, so that I can get the train operator’s attention.

Plan C, only to be used if I’ve been pushed right in front of an oncoming train and there is no time for Plan A or B, is to lie between the two rails of the track and turn my head to the side as the train passes over me. I have nightmares about Plan C: lying amid wet garbage and rats as a string of 85,200-pound metal cars screech over me, inches from my face.

In all of these scenarios, my partner stresses, I must not touch the third rail, the metal railing from which the trains draw electricity. Touch that, he warns, and you’re done.

“How long would that take?” I ask.

“It’d probably be instantaneous. There is so much voltage going through that thing, you probably wouldn’t even feel it.”

I imagine the circumstances under which I might go for the third rail. A quick touch of death seems better than being mangled by a train. There are worse ways to go.

As I contemplate options for my death and try to make sense of Christina’s, I feel called to honor her memory. In Chinatown, I lay flowers and a note at her memorial. On Instagram, I gather the tributes I find into a post. I feel disoriented, yet clear in my need to know and remember her.

The next day, I find a comment on my post, from someone claiming to be my neighbor. I click on the profile—it is indeed the guy next door, whom I’ve waved hi to but never met. He found my post via the #ChristinaYunaLee hashtag and wrote: “Christina and I would have drinks on my stoop regularly in the summer of 2020. I remember her smiling and cheering at you and your boyfriend as you were doing the same. Your instinct was right, you actually shared a lot with her unknowingly.”

His message stopped me cold. One night flooded into my mind, like a folder of forgotten images spilling from a filing cabinet. It had been a muggy Brooklyn evening. A friend had just gotten a new job, and we were celebrating. My partner and I sat on our stoop toasting her, waving at the couple the next stoop over. As we prepared to head to dinner, my partner was seized by a need to send us off with vintage Robbie Williams. With “Angels” blasting on the speaker, he began an over-the-top rendition of the 1997 hit, complete with interpretive dance.

I can see the scene so clearly. I grab my phone, go to my Photos app, sort my photos by places, and zoom in to the map until I find our apartment. I scroll to 2020 and then down: June, July, August, September. Nothing. One more time, scrolling up: September, August, July.


It’s a 38-second video from July 24, 2020, taken at 8:39pm, of my partner singing and dancing in front of our building. I hear laughter coming from off-screen, one stoop over.

“Wherever it may take me / I know that life won’t break me / When I come to call…” he belts out.

I hear a woman laughing. Bright. Carefree.

“My boyfriend loves Robbie Williams!” I shout, choking back laughter.

“Love it!” Christina shouts back. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve played this video, just to hear her laughter and those two words. Love it!

He turns to serenade them with the final lines: “She won’t forsake me… I’m lovin’ angels instead.” They cheer.

“I’m Panthea, and this is Troels!” I yell and wave to them, for the first and last time.

The video ends.

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