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Sunday, Sept. 18, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Sweet Mysteries of the Orient


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
THE ASIAN MYSTIQUE, by Sheridan Prasso. Public Affairs Books, 437 pp., 2005, $27.95, 2,850 yen (cloth).

Apparently, there are still Western men who believe that the East is an obliging seductress, mass producing an endless line of voluptuous women, whose laconic sexual pliancy is only exceeded by their desire to serve. This, according to Sheridan Prasso's new book, is a delusion that many Asian women are happy to cater to.

Prasso's observations are unsparing, but for anyone who has witnessed the transactions that take place between Western men and Eastern women in cities like Bangkok, even the holy city of Lhasa, will know they are wickedly accurate. On the topic of the hordes of middle-aged Western men who haunt the bars, brothels and matchmaking agencies of Asia, she concludes, " . . . any man can experience feeling attractive again - even loved. Old, fat, or ugly by Western standards, it doesn't matter. Anyone can be the Alpha Male and Lord Jim."

In the distorting mirror of Asian mystique, reserve can be interpreted as weakness, Asian women quickly characterized as submissive, obedient, obliging; Asian men emasculated. Such largely Western fantasies of the Orient are "antiquated, perhaps, but still shockingly influential."

Although Passo reserves a special vitriol for the male sexual adventurer, she deals a fair hand two ways, including both sexes in the collusive act of mystifying and marketing the East. In the chapter 'Screwing, Getting Screwed, And Getting Ahead,' Prasso portrays the alternatively nave and opportunistic behavior of Filipina prostitutes. In Angeles City, a run down flesh market, where solitary men, often victims themselves of failed relationships and expectations, wander the dusty, purgatorial streets "in search of tender rejuvenating skin, hoping that human contact may somehow restore their sensation, vitality, and youth." In this city of relentless transaction, there are women who are "aware of these Western perceptions of Asian Mystique and know how to play them to advantage."

Prasso cites Hollywood and popular musicals as key factors in the dissemination of misleading images of the East, from the early screen performances of the highly successful Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, the screen adaptation of the novel 'The World of Suzie Wong ,' to the fabulously popular 'Miss Saigon' which, complete with the sacrificial suicide of an Oriental women, is nothing less than a modern day reworking of Madame Butterfly. TV series like M.A.S.H. get a predictable drubbing, along with the limpid images of women in more recent cinematic portrayals like 'The Last Samurai.'

Hollywood and literature have manufactured two enduring, but opposing images of Asian women: the enigmatic but obliging geisha verses the treacherous, but no less sexually alluring Dragon Lady or Martial Arts Mistress. This is done in the most complimentary fashion, a 1943 front cover of 'Time' magazine portraying Madame Chiang Kai-shek as the 'Dragon Lady,' a tribute to her power and charisma. Lucy Liu, known for her various roles as seductress, martial arts specialist, and dominatrix, is the contemporary, beefed up and decidedly more lethal, version of Anna May Wong. Clearly the roles provide a very good living, and neither Wong before her nor Liu now, one notes, refused to play the game of image compliance.

Inevitably, there is a degree of reviewing as Prasso revisits this well-trodden topic. We have the usual references to Pierre Loti, Kipling, to works like 'Shogun,' but Prasso also includes commentary on erotic Asian literature, from the Taoist 'The Art of the Bedchamber,' to 'The Golden Lotus,' allegedly Mao Zedong's favorite leisure reading, works in which the Chinese linked the pleasures of the flesh with physical and spiritual nourishment and longevity, an irresistible combination.

Prasso largely avoids the risk of being seduced by the subject and losing perspective, although the book cover, the upper half offering the cherry lips and white makeup of a geisha, sends an ambiguous message, as does the inside image of the author in full geisha attire , replete with wig and a cosmetic facial. Is this meant to be flirtatious, tongue-in-cheek, or is it just the publishers' idea of selling copies?

Addicted as we are to the narcotic pleasures of the East, to the willing complicity of having our senses pleasantly addled, Prasso's book serves as a kind of detox clinic. Once the mystery, the allure of the Orient has been removed, however, what are we left with? The answer perhaps, is a more mature view of the East, one consonant with our sadly more homogenized world, where many the tints have been leached out. It will require a new maturity to accomplish it, the connoisseur of the finer things of the East in us replacing the voluptuary, the thinker displacing the lotus-eater, but perhaps it is the learning of Asia, its palpable trove of experience and wisdom, that we should venerate above the promise of the exotic and sensual.

In divesting us of our illusions, the author has left us without yearning but with a new perception of the East. A very fair exchange I would say.



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