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Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2002

Asian stereotypes die hard in U.S. national psyche

LOS ANGELES -- One of the best reading experiences in the United States this summer is the thriller "Absolute Rage," certainly a rage among applauding reviewers from Publishers Weekly to the Los Angeles Times. The 14th in a series of crime thrillers, it tells a well-informed tale about America's brutal union politics, a bloody Waco-like showdown in the hills of West Virginia and the tensions and contradictions in the country's system of criminal justice.

It also brings the reader back to the Vietnam War by assigning a choice role to a Vietnamese organized-crime gang. The clan's wily godfather, Tran, plays a sort of emotional godfather to the daughter of the novel's protagonists, a husband-and-wife team echoing Nick and Nora Charles of the 1930s, those witty literary crime-fighters whom Hollywood was to make famous based on the "Thin Man" detective novel.

Much like the Italian crime boss in Mario Puzo's epic novel "The Godfather" -- not to mention the classic '70s film -- Tran offers protagonists Marlene and Butch Karp an alternative course of justice when the established system falls short of the mark. His Vietnamese gang is no ragtag collection of street punks, but rather a well-disciplined outfit of veterans -- and sons of veterans -- of the war against America. When the federal authorities back off from direct confrontation, Tran's gang -- for a psychic measure of historic revenge as well as pecuniary gain -- is more than happy to make short work of Branch Davidian-style rednecks holed up in the West Virginia hills by quickly organizing and skillfully executing a slice-and-dice guerrilla attack.

Author Robert K. Tanenbaum edges close to negative stereotyping, however briefly, but by giving his portrait of the Vietnamese gang an historical and personal dimension, he deftly manages to avoid the conceptual trap that so often snares the U.S. media. Vietnamese-Americans -- indeed, Asian-Americans in general -- are as complex and contradictory as any other ethnicity in America. Tanenbaum, formerly a successful career prosecutor in New York City who now lives in Beverly Hills, is well aware that Vietnamese-Americans are fundamentally no different from the waves of Irish, Germans and Italians that voyaged to America a century ago -- except perhaps in their overall diversity, especially in California, where the Asian community comprises more ethnic Koreans than anywhere outside Korea; where the Chinese-American community is becoming a significant political force; where there are so many Vietnamese in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, that one freeway exit sign reads: Little Saigon.

It is absolutely true that in America there are Asian gangs -- as Tanenbaum suggests -- every bit as violent and well organized as the Italian and Irish gangs of yore. And they get adequate publicity in the U.S. media even as, statistically, they are a very tiny part of the overall true picture. But the American definition of news all but excludes the normal or the positive. The result is that the U.S. media, on the whole, has not delivered the full picture of Asians.

There are precious few exceptions: One is The Register, the leading daily newspaper in California's Orange County, which specializes in richly detailed local community coverage, and has a Vietnamese columnist who highlights the important contributions of the larger Asian community to the area's social, political and cultural life.

There, an Asian-American does not have to be a gang-banger or social deviant to make the newspaper's pages. Rather, columnist Anh Do reports on the appointments -- to the California bench -- of the first Vietnamese-American woman and Korean-American woman, historic by any measure. Yet they were all but ignored -- or relegated to the back pages -- by much of the state's establishment media.

This practice of partial portraiture inadvertently fertilizes the acidic soil of anti-Asian discrimination and stereotyping. It was, after all, just a few years ago that the U.S. media, led by no less than The New York Times, raised reader emotions about "Asian spying" with its campaign against Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos physicist who spent many dreary months in solitary confinement -- amid much congressional China-spy mongering -- before all but one minor charge was dropped.

The media's role in creating poisonous public opinion is disturbing. (And the potential for a resurgence is ever present, not just with Asians but, most recently, with Muslims.)

It will take many more artful blockbusters like Tanenbaum's "Absolute Rage" and many more responsible newspapers like The Register -- and undoubtedly countless more waves of Asian immigrants -- to undo the negativity about Asians planted in the national psyche.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.

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