Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002
Deconstructing the Visual:
The Diasporic Hybridity of Asian and Eurasian Female Images

Julie Matthews

  1. Being long accustomed to the absence of images resembling myself in magazines and on TV, I find the few images I do encounter quite fascinating.[1] Commenting on the absence of media images and representations of Asian women, Catherine Padmore notes that pale-skinned, wide-eyed Eurasian features are more likely to appear than Asian faces. As she arguesof the three hundred images appearing on the cover of the Australian publication Cleo since its inception in 1972, 'under ten did not fit the Caucasian stereotype of wide-eyes, pale skin, and (surprisingly often) blonde hair'.[2] My analysis of Asian and Eurasian female images is interested in the small but growing number of stylish young Eurasian and Asian fashion models appearing in Australian magazines and catalogues and Asian-female images associated with finance. The latter category links Asian women to commerce, computing and technology in a globally interconnected world. Interestingly, these images rarely feature Eurasian women.
  2. The presence of Eurasian images in fashion representations and their absence from finance representations draw attention to the historical origins, cultural trajectories and ambivalence of meaning associated with 'raced' and sexed representations. Although the inclusion of Asian and Eurasian women may be intended to offset their previous absence and secure a wider multicultural appeal, they inadvertently replay processes of racialisation and sexualization. This is because they incite desires for, and identifications with, White/Western/Anglo identities authorised by essentialist and quasi-biological discourses of racialisation and sexualization.
  3. The situation is further complicated by the diasporic hybridity of Asian and Eurasian female images. Distinguishing fashion from finance images highlights the ways these are worked out through various forms of colonialism, patriarchy, orientalism and commodification. Fashion representations commodify traditional stereotypes of Asian women and hyper-feminise Asian and Eurasian women. They model desirable ideals of youthful sexualised femininity and offer a rebuke to those who fail to meet these standards in a White/Western/Anglo-dominated global market. Finance representations take their cue from contemporary social and economic conditions where Asian 'Tiger' economies have come to stand for development potential and high-tech economic success under global capitalism. In these images Eurasian women are absent because Asian women more effectively represent the desirable ideals of commerce and information technology and 'gently' rebuke those who fail to succeed under these terms and conditions.[3]
  4. This paper is organised into two sections. The first section analyses Asian and Eurasian images and the latter section uses insights from this analysis to challenge current cultural studies understandings of hybridity and diaspora. This paper is not intended to provide a comprehensive semiotic analysis[4] of media representations. Rather, it undertakes a deconstructive analysis of various images I have recently encountered. Deconstruction challenges the apparent and obvious 'facts' of a representation or image. It acknowledges that representations and readings are an effect of standpoint, belief and value, and support multiple and often contradictory understandings. A deconstructive analysis of visual representations highlights the interaction of images with one another as well as accentuating associations that operate beyond the text and beyond the intentions of image producers. The deconstruction of visual representations undertaken here focuses on shared and dissimilar trajectories of mobility and hybridity and the fissures and breaks in authoritative and universalising explanations and theories. Visual images work a terrain of identity and identification that defy the demarcation of primary structural or systemic forms of subordination and clear-cut lines of resistance desired by Floya Anthias.[5] They thereby enable us to trace the contours of new forms of subjugation and struggle.
  5. The second section of this paper explores conventional cultural studies' understandings of diaspora and hybridity though a gender analysis which highlights the interconnected significance of economic, political, historical and contemporary conditions. My analysis of Asian and Eurasian images highlights ambivalent processes of collaboration and contestation[6] that are an effect of diasporic hybridity and the commodification of 'racialised' and sexualised images. This focus illuminates how representations, intended to offset the absence of minority women in the media and thus achieve inclusion or wider multicultural appeal, may have unintended effects. New representations may be politically generative and challenge established orders but they may also incite desires for, and identifications with, White/Western/Anglo identities authorised by essentialist and quasi-biological discourses—they risk inadvertently replaying traditional processes of racialisation and sexualisation.
  6. I use the term 'Eurasian' to refer to images evoking Anglo, European and Asian 'racial' and cultural iconography. Unlike the term 'Asian', which has 'racial' and cultural connotations, the term 'Eurasian' is mainly used as a 'racial' category to denote people of mixed European and Asian descent. I extend the category here to encompass 'racial' and cultural connotations including: a) those of identifiably 'mixed race' heritage; b) the transposition of 'Asian' signs and symbols into predominantly Anglo-European settings; and c) the transposition of 'Anglo-European' signs and symbols into 'Asian' settings. A focus on Eurasian and Asian female images in these terms illuminates the diasporic hybridity of visual forms. I argue that diaspora theory need not contain itself to accounts of dislocation, relocation and disembodied longings for exilic roots, but may facilitate new understandings of the role of images, signs and symbols in the achievement of collaboration and contestation.
  7. This section examines the way commodification is both racialised and sexualised. On a visit to Hong Kong I became fascinated by the towering image of a young Eurasian woman enigmatically gazing down at the traffic and bustle of the street below (see figure 1). Ambivalently 'raced' Eurasian young women such as this appear with increasing frequency in advertising images in Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia. At first sight their growing visual presence might appear to indicate a general acceptance of those of mixed origin and ancestry. However, I want to argue that the ambivalent effects of such images call forth particular historical and cultural associations to achieve problematic resolutions and settlements.

    Figure 1. Hong Kong Streetscape
    Source: Personal Archive, Julie Matthews, April 2001.

  8. While I agree with Stuart Hall [7] that the effects of diasporic hybridity are not final or inevitable but can be turned around to make for new forms of resistance and contestation, I want to show how diasporic hybridity is racialised and sexualised to uphold profitable forms of commodification. The mobility and displacement of diaspora introduces new hybrid associations, identifications and resistances and incites new appeals and desires while at the same time commodifying and sustaining dominant sexual and racial hierarchies. Asian and Eurasian fashion images for example, secure female complicity by circulating appealing notions of economic independence, personal freedom, and sexual liberation alongside more problematic sexualised images of youthful femininity.
  9. The situation of American actress Halle Berry is an interesting case in point. In April 2002 Berry became the first black woman to receive a best actress Oscar. Berry's interpolation and self-identification as 'black' and a 'women of colour' is notable in light of her mixed-race status.

    Figure 2. Halle Berry. Source: Absolutely Halle Berry, accessed 16 October 2002.
    Her father is black and she was raised by her white mother. Berry has come to represent the opportunity of all black women to transcend racial barriers. Her articulate acceptance speech demonstrated her understanding of the significance of her position as representative of previously excluded minorities. Berry represents a win-win situation that appears to advantage black women and black people in general, and to profit the media industry and herself in particular. In the Internet example below she is represented as a sexually appealing blend of black and whiteness. Ironically it is her 'racial' acceptability and sexualised visibility that enable the manufacture of one more delicious variety in a smorgasbord of sexually appealing phenotypes. 'Race' can thus be sexualised to revive familiar patriarchal repertoires of female appeal and availability.

  10. Like Berry's mixed/Black body, media representations of mixed/Asian bodies are networked through discourses of race and sex. These too are tied to practices of commodification. Eurasian images are located in complex and often contradictory spaces of radical difference and similarity, partial identification and disassociation and desire and domestication. Even their dependency on the powerful intervisual symbols of 'bodies and blood', as Misroeff puts it, does not secure a final accommodation to hierarchies of sex and 'race'.[8] The diasporic hybridity of signs and symbols neatly accommodates profitable commodification and visual mobility to evoke old and new political possibilities and potentials. Acknowledgement of this suggests that the political struggle for feminism is not only about identifying the powerful cultural and economic impact of raced and sexed identities and identifications. It is also about deconstructing the capacity of the visual to secure our complicity in proliferating the production and consumption of diasporic hybridity in relation to raced and sexed identities.

    Asian Diasporic Hybridity
  11. Asian diasporic communities do not constitute coherent homogenous entities. Indeed, as I argue below, this understanding of diaspora is based on archetypal notions of diaspora. Asian communities in Australia, and elsewhere, are differentiated and stratified along lines of nationality, culture, class, ethnicity, sex, sexuality, migration, experience, interaction with homeland and so on. Indeed, we are not altogether clear where or what Asia is.[9] It is an invented unity rather than a straightforward geographical, national or cultural category. In part the term 'Asian' is derived from Western perceptions of racial difference and conceals nation formation, class struggle and gender difference. For instance, in America 'Asian' signifies a 'racial minority group bound by common racial interests'[10] and is polarised along lines of class. In the case of Asian and Eurasian women, 'Asianness' is best regarded as an ethnicised solidarity based on oppressive racialising and homogenising demarcations.[11] Like the category 'Chineseness' it is an arbitrary and empty signifier, that appears less arbitrary and empty the more attention we pay to it through implicit and explicit deconstructions.[12]
  12. Diaspora is an important conceptual tool because it highlights the multiple standpoints borne of migration and exile. It illuminates an ambivalent politics of positioning and being positioned, of identification and being identified, a politics antithetical to ethnic and cultural essentialism and open to future possibilities. For Stuart Hall displacement compels the unpredictable and imaginative occupation of culture and identity and generates vibrant and creative ways of expressing these in cultural production. As he states:

      The diaspora experience as I intend it here, is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of 'identity' which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.[13]

  13. For Hall diasporic hybridity demonstrates that identities and cultures are not essentially located in ethnicity or culture but are the effect of history and culture forged through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth. Identities cannot, therefore, be straightforwardly preserved or even lost, in processes of acculturation, assimilation, pluralism, and multiculturalism. However Hall is aware that migration may persuade some people to question the 'truth' and 'certainty' of identity and culture,[14] but it does not automatically do away with stable identities.[15] Displacement and mobility may just as well revive old and new forms of ethnic essentialism, nationalism and fundamentalism.[16] Likewise, the hybrid mobility of Asian female images does not automatically generate anti-essentialist positions or critique.
  14. Hall highlights the productive, resistant, self-representational activities and subjectivities of displaced and diasporic people in order that we might rethink the agency and structure divide. Those negatively depicted by ideology do not fully resist but neither are they powerless to contest.[17] Eurasian and Asian representations, for instance, are not straightforwardly liberating or oppressive. Figure 1 presents a hybrid femininity laced with new visual aesthetics and appeals to female resistance while at the same time accommodating the patriarchal power dynamics of imperialist capitalism. The image simultaneously works: a) to reinforce normative racialised standards of beauty and challenge them with a variation on the theme, and b) to indicate Asian female inclusion, albeit within normative racialised standards of beauty.
  15. Swee-Eng Chia, in Figure 3, is a former editor, who now runs a class in Nonya cuisine. This image brings to mind another form of femininity, one that links Asian women with food and domesticity.[18]

    Figure 3. It's a Nonya Event. Source: The Australian Weekend Magazine, 9-10 Feb. 2002, p. 34.

  16. The bodies of women have long served to demarcate racial purity, ethnic connectivity and shared national heritage of diaspora. Paul Gilroy observes that this strong emphasis on location and shared 'roots' means that diaspora is commonly used to 'stress powerful connections, affiliations and associations, rather than think seriously about 'racial', ethnic and cultural divisions'.[19]
  17. It is important to note that notions of Asian femininity as domestic, food-focused, family orientated have their origins in post-WWII discourses of pacification where Asian women were represented as docile, compliant, submissive and subordinate (enabling the West to see itself as liberating and progressive). As Uchida argues, at odds with this depiction, and associated with discourses of military contact, were representations of Asian women as prostitutes, sexually available and promiscuous (enabling the West to justify violence, aggression and rape). Discourse of military contact overlaid discourses of early colonialism where Asian women were presented as immoral, seductive, corrupting, diabolic, heathens and less-than-human.[20] One effect of distinguishing Asian femininity as hyper-domestic is that it allows Anglo femininity to construct itself as normative.
  18. Following Hall and Gilroy, I want to argue that it is important to think not only of 'rooted' diasporic histories, but processes by which these have been 'routed' in distinct and intersecting ways.[21] Traditionally diaspora has traced physical trajectories across migration and mobility. In the case of Asian and Eurasian images it is necessary to trace the trajectory of Western racial and sexual imagery across the terrain of the female body.
  19. The finance representations illustrated in figures 4 and 5 below show that it is not just the establishment of Asian otherness and Anglo-white Western femininity or 'selves' that is of issue, but the effect of diasporic hybrid images on forms of production and consumption. In the Australian context Asian female images, like other model minority representations of Asia(ns), serve to rebuke those who fail to live up to the ideal type. Asian and Eurasian fashion iconography represents forms of sexuality women should aspire to and Asian background women stand for idealised forms of domesticity. More recently Asian women have come to represent forms of cosmopolitanism, technological progress and financial success we should all seek. At the same time, all these images serve to rebuke those who do not meet these criteria.

    Above: Figure 5. UniSuper. Source: The Advocate: Journal of the National Tertiary Education Union, vol. 8, 1 April 2001

    Left: Figure 4. Compucon. Source: The Windows XP Pocketbook, 2001

  20. The association of Asian femininity with technological progress, financial success and wise investment opportunities is significant in view of Australian trade discourses of the Asia-Pacific. Such discourses take for granted the need for Australia to compete with fast-growing Asian economies and develop trade links taking advantage of rapid economic expansion.

    Cultural Hybridity
  21. Media representations are infused with contradictions, traditional boundaries, hierarchies, exclusions and subordinations, as well as new national and transnational identities, identifications and associations. An analysis of Eurasian and Asian female images in Australia, tracing historical, cultural and social trajectories, does not indicate that we have fallen prey to new levels of racial and sexual objectification for these never went away—it is just that we hoped they had.
  22. The inclusion of Eurasian and Asian female images in media representations from which they were once excluded, does not mean Asian or Eurasian women have achieved recognition and full representation. It does not mean that we are on route to successful multiculturalism, or that we have reached new levels of intercultural tolerance and female emancipation. Inclusion has occurred on specific terms—by virtue of being desirably female and identifiably different.[22] However, Eurasian and Asian images not only demonstrate that women are 'hailed as different', and stereotyped in a way that manages to uphold their irrelevance and marginality, but they are also implicated in the ambivalent processes of commodification and the production of desire.[23]
  23. Homi Bhabha's theory of cultural hybridity recognises that all cultural relations are ambivalent, subversive, transgressive and hybrid. 'Hybridity' challenges the assumption that cultural encounters invariably establish hierarchical dominator/dominated relationships. Colonisation, for example, is not simply a matter of external imposition and sovereign control.[24] From this perspective, Eurasian femininity cannot demonstrate the ultimate rise or final demise of racial and sexual demarcations associated with Western cultural imperialism and the universalisation of white Western standards of beauty and femininity.
  24. It is important to stress that notions of hybridity are not intended to demarcate a new and entirely of-itself ethnic or racial form such as 'mixed race' or 'biculturalism'. In Bhabha's view the hybrid is not a thing, but a process. It does 'not comprise of two original moments from which the third emerges', but gestures to an ambivalent 'third space' of cultural production and reproduction.[25] What is important about hybridity and 'third space' is not the 'culture' that emerges from two original moments, but the nameless space that is inadequately understood through received wisdom. This space displaces constituent histories, allows other positions to emerge, and establishes new structures of authority and political initiatives.
  25. Hybrid representations are thus an encounter with newness that does not conform to one thing or another—a space where aspirations to fully acknowledge national culture can never be realised.[26] Bhabha warns of the way practices of language and analysis continually pull us back to fixity. Efforts to analyse the 'third space' of hybridity risk naming it as this or that, thereby installing it as an 'object of knowledge'. No matter how 'impeccably' the new 'object' is known, or how correctly it is represented, its location as 'theory' creates closure and ends up replicating relations of domination.[27] Hybridity has become a common paradigm in postcolonial theory.[28] For the most part its appeal lies in the idea that the creative possibilities residing in hybrid culture are more accessible to the colonised because their access to multiple cultural archives allows them to undo colonial authority at the same as they reproduce it.[29]
  26. Hybridity is premised on theories of culture and language. Its notions of resistance may clarify how associations create disruptions and incorporation beyond intent, but disregard its associations with bodies and blood. The conflation of sexual transgression and hybrid bodies to the theoretical generalisations of culture, identity and difference alerts us to the way postcolonial and cultural analysis is often undertaken at the expense of an analysis of the significatory practices of 'race' and sex mixing, [30]and the colonial brutalities of 'race' and sex.[31]
  27. In the nineteenth century the English referred to themselves as 'hybrid', a self-referential tactic that linked Englishness to ethnicity and culture whilst distancing it from 'race' and sex.[32] Late twentieth century notions of hybridity operate in much the same way, switching attention from the messy biological mélange of bodies and blood, to the creative transgressive potential of ethnic and cultural mixing. Robert Young disputes the idea that hybridity offers an anti-essentialist vocabulary that goes beyond the preoccupations of nineteenth-century race science with race purity. Hybridity conveniently forgets colonialism's soiled and salacious history of illicit sex and blood, heterosexist cravings, rape, trafficking in bodies, interbreeding, debauchery, licentious imagining, inalienable racial difference, primitive sexuality, promiscuity and marriage by capture. Whilst hybridity is a useful way of conceptualising the ambivalent, in-process transgressive potential of Eurasian images it manages to sidestep the difference made by 'race' and sex—bodies and blood. Similarly, contemporary diaspora literature contains few discussions of the racialised and gendered representational practices of sexual transgression and mixed blood. Contemporary diaspora studies are closely aligned to the Black diaspora and histories of slavery, exile, colonisation and invasion but these are rarely debated in terms of women's experience.
  28. What is notable about the image in figure 1, is not its hybridity but its appeal to dominant white Western notions of beauty. Socio-biological explanations assume that the 'universal' appeal of whiteness is an effect of natural biological responses to female beauty. Feminist explanations are no less problematic if they assume that it is simply the white dilution of Asian femininity that makes 'Asianness' sexually appealing and acceptable. Asian femininity becomes a marker of powerlessness, sexual exoticism and eroticism and by default whiteness becomes a signifier of power and superiority. Women's response to Eurasian and Asian iconography is certainly influenced by Western hegemony but desires for whiteness are not simply the final assimilation of non-white women to the universalisation and commodification of white Western standards of beauty and femininity.
  29. Hong Kong pharmacies, like a great many pharmacies throughout Asia, sell moisturising creams claiming to whiten the skin. To be a successful marketing tool the light skinned Eurasian female image must appeal to women, not just to men, and this appeal is an effect of association with power. For Schein, this relates to Western mythologies of female economic and sexual power, independence self-determination and freedom, as well as values and practices predating these.[33] In many communities dark skin is associated with manual labour. Local histories of class and elitism are thus overlayed by Western assumptions of white aesthetics and superiority. This being the case deconstruction exposes the means by which Eurasian and Asian female iconography represent power and powerlessness at the same time. It shows how hybrid diasporic imagery reworks history and culture to formulate desirable and undesirable forms of newness.
  30. Eurasian and Asian images undoubtedly represent homogenising and universalising notions of beauty. Despite the association of Eurasian and Asian femininity with generic Western whiteness, despite the fact that our desires for such images can be read as a desire for white Westernness, and despite the fact that Eurasian images appear to buy back into male rationalisations of female sexual desires, many of us enjoy their appeals to independence and the power of beauty, youth, sexuality and fashion. In this sense Asian and Eurasian iconography appropriates white Western standards of beauty and femininity to our liking.

    Diaspora Theory
  31. I want to argue that preoccupations with archetypal histories and specific diasporic conditions found in traditional diaspora theory limit our understanding of intervisuality as an important element of interpellation into, identification with, and resistance to 'raced' and sexed iconography. However, contemporary diaspora theory offers a number of useful starting points for the analysis of Eurasian and Asian representations. First, it recognises the importance of non-traditional mobilities and migrations relating to signs and images. Second, it recognises the importance of origins, trajectories, circulations, appeals, roots and routes in formation of hybrid identities[34]. Finally, the poststructural leanings of contemporary diaspora theory challenge foundational theory and dominant paradigms.[35] Contemporary diaspora studies thus go beyond archetypal notions of diaspora (based on Jewish exile). Moreover, its concerns challenge globalisation and new migration approaches (grounded in labour migration theory) discussed below.
  32. Archetypal notions of diaspora commonly refer to a form of migration where ties to country of origin are symbolically sustained. But, the effects of different inceptions and receptions of migrants on experience and consciousness indicate that there can be no one paradigm of diaspora.[36] In some cases migrants revive or renew national and cultural loyalties to their country of origin, in others they generate hybrid identities and cultures, while in others they position themselves or are positioned in accordance to the relative status of their country of origin in the world order.[37]
  33. This notion of diaspora is based on the ancient dispersal of the Jews and is characterised by narrative connections to a homeland, a sense of alienation and distinctiveness from host community and myths of return and restoration.[38] Although this geo-cultural narrative arises from a particular mythological history, national experience and migrant subjectivity, it is unsatisfactory. This is because it centres and normalises the experiences of men and has become translated into a theoretical model assumed to fit other diasporic conditions[39] such as Black and Chinese diasporas.[40]
  34. Ironically, archetypal notions of diaspora no longer illuminate the contemporary circumstances of Jewish population mobility. The post-war colonial politics of restoration which dominate the Jewish diaspora experience have as much to do with nationalism and the political imperative to recreate a 'homeland' as the mystical desire for such a place.[41] The focus on homeland, exile, diasporic consciousness and the role of memories and collective myths thus fails to account for the ways these are played through strategic historical, political, military and economic imperatives.[42] The establishment of Israel in 1948 was as much influenced by political imperatives to reterritorialise as Biblical narratives of Jewish deterritorialisation and God's promise of land. Border expansions and ongoing Jewish immigration into Palestine has precipitated a new diaspora that has made refugees of three quarters of all Palestinians—the details of which rarely inform contemporary diaspora theory.
  35. While not all diasporas achieve reterritorialisation, their analysis often fails to consider the significance of the political and economic inception of migration through, for instance, territorial expansion, colonisation, nation-building, war, natural disasters or the desire to improve life chances. The attack on the American World Trade building (11 September 2001) shows that it is not only the experience of territorial displacement that prompts people to imagine themselves though collective memory and myths. Those who are ideologically disenchanted and politically disenfranchised within and outside the Middle East imaginatively occupy Islamic fundamentalism as an identity and consciousness embracing new forms of alienation and identification.
  36. In short traditional models of diaspora centre and universalise symbolic connections to homeland thereby neglecting questions of how and why originary connections become important. Moreover they fail to account for the relationship of 'exilic' consciousness, to broader historic, economic, political, national, racial and gendered relations. This does not mean that we should abandon diaspora as an analytical concept for grounded economist or empirical categories such as new migration and globalisation discussed below.
  37. Diaspora is loosely associated with new migrations caused by global changes such as:

      1. new transnational configurations of power;
      2. transformations in political economy and capitalism;
      3. the dominance of multinational capital;
      4. flexible specialisation of labour and products; and
      5. the revolutionary impact of new technologies in production, distribution
      and communication and travel.

    The focus of attention on new migrations (or at least variations within the category 'migrant') includes:

      1. refugees and asylum seekers;
      2. highly qualified business personal moving between the developed economies of
      Japan, Western Europe and USA;
      3. workers moving into the fast growing economies of Japan, Korea, Hong Kong,
      Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand from China, South Asia,
      Philippines and Indonesia;
      4. contract labour moving to Middle East oil rich countries from the Philippines,
      India, Thailand, Korea, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka;
      5. international students; and
      6. domestic workers and sex workers.[43]

  38. Studies highlighting labour migration generally rely on labour migration theory where the increased migration is a consequence of capitalism's need for a ready supply of mobile and flexible labour. Although women have always moved (they were involved in the early population movements of slavery and colonialism and they are also forced to flee poverty, civil unrest and war, labour), migration theory has until recently ruled out the study of women. It is not, as Stephen Castles argues, that migration has recently become feminised,[44] but that feminism has focused our attention on the lacuna of labour migration theory. Labour migration theory offers a poor account of the circumstances of female mobility and its connections with patriarchy and racism.
  39. The migration patterns of women are different to those of men. In 1995, 1.5 million Asian women were working overseas. [45] Thai women today work as domestics in Japan and other places; Vietnamese women work as clothing workers, as discussed in Mandy Thomas' paper, 'Stitching at the Boundaries: Vietnamese Garment Industry Workers in Transnational Spaces'; Filipino women work as domestics in the Middle East and elsewhere, as Grace Ebron's paper 'Not Just the Maid: Negotiating Filipina Identity in Italy' attests; and Asian women and children work in the transnational sex industry.[46] The case of female mobility and migration thus exposes the limits of theories defined though migration, nation-state links and global capitalism. The absence of debate about questions of sex and 'race' limits our understanding of how particular forms of cultural identity arise and are taken up in particular situations. Theories of archetypal diaspora and labour migration theory neglect the appeal or effects of mobile symbols and images of women. These theories cannot address the way images are ordered and experienced through old and new cultural hierarchies of domination and subordination or old and new signifying practices of Western patriarchy and the colonising practices of racism.[47]
  40. Cultural theorists such as Papastergiadis focus on globalisation to stress the permeability of nation-state boundaries and argue that an increased mobility of people and signs and has made identities more fluid and the world turbulent and uncertain.[48] Population mobility has certainly accelerated, but still most people stay put.[49] Of an estimated world population of 6 billion, the immigrant population is estimated at 100 million (including 20 million refugees). Mobility is not the condition of most of the world, or the defining feature of most societies and communities.[50] Premised on predominantly male, third-world intellectual migrant subjectivities, postcolonial and cultural studies discourses have been charged with privileging fashionable, universalist, first-worldist, Anglo-American politics. These discourses install a 'postmodern hip version of the universal subject' that does little more than demonstrate the hegemony of Western-centric abstract, universalising theory[51] and obscure neo-colonial processes of reconstructed global capitalism.[52] Rebuking postcolonial accounts of diaspora for locating migrants in a gender and class-free zone, thereby sidestepping questions of class associated with economic and global structures of domination, Aijaz observes that most migrants to the West are poor and not of the same class, or in the same position, as postcolonial and cultural studies theorists.[53]
  41. In contemporary diaspora studies the term 'diaspora' has expanded its frame of reference to represent 'exemplary cases of multiple and hybrid subjectivity for those whose identities have been disrupted by migration'.[54] As such 'diaspora' has come to epitomise our contemporary transnational, intercultural experience. This expanded frame of reference does not mean that 'diaspora' has automatically moved beyond traditional associations with migrants, refugees and exiles (discussed later in this paper) but rather that it has collected a whole new set of connections to terms like identity, subjectivity[55], other, stranger, hybridity, diaspora, 'diasporisation', transnational belonging, travelling, nomadism, displacement, imagined community, contact zones and border crossing.
  42. The interdisciplinary field of diaspora studies has gripped the imagination of literary and postcolonial theorists, cultural and Asian studies scholars, and cultural and social theorists.[56] Unfortunately, a focus on literary and written text often disregards the significance of visual forms even though analysis of mobilities often relies on conflating visual distinctions of 'race' with nation-state, culture and ethnicity. In other words, the shared features of diaspora relate as much to visual markers of difference as to shared religious, cultural, national and ethnic origins. It is interesting to apply this insight to the 'radically diasporic movement' of European colonialism which deposited millions of people around the globe.[57] More fundamental than shared religious, cultural, national and ethnic origins, is the often unmarked and unrecognised significance of European/Anglo/Whiteness.
  43. In contemporary diaspora studies the term 'disaspora' is mainly used to elaborate periphery to center population mobility. Few studies have traced the hybridity and diasporic patterns of mobility of signs and symbols. Most work has focused on immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, labour migrants, ethnic groups, students, business personal and academics. Brah argues that the theoretical looseness of the term 'diaspora' enables it to address both the particularities and generalities of transnational movements of people, capital, commodities and symbols and thereby to facilitate the identification of new links and understandings.[58] However, the disparate array of conceptual uses of the term can serve as substitute for theoretical work and substantive analysis.[59] Brah's call for historical, situational and experiential accounts distinguishing different experiences and identifying shared theoretical features will not, however, alert us to the particular forms and effects of Eurasian and Asian female images. Only by deconstructing intervisual and semiotic practices associated with Eurasian and Asian diasporic hybridity will we see how representation contributes to the way identities, subjectivities, collectivities and cultural forms are forged, imagined, assumed and internally differentiated.
  44. While notions of diaspora and hybridity are valuable because they enable us to see the relationship of images to the historical, territorial, cultural, economic, political associations of identities and subjectivities, they are often limited to preoccupations with origins, consciousness and anti-essentialism. My interest in notions of diasporic hybridity seeks to expose the capacity of visual representations to incite the production and consumption of historically and culturally inscribed sexed and 'raced' identities and identifications.

  45. Eurasian and Asian iconography does not demarcate the material and symbolic boundaries of cultural and ethnic differentiation in any clear-cut way. This iconography demarcates various locally contextual and historically contingent stereotypes and their hybrid iconography serves as a new vehicle for global and Western commercial values. Traditional understandings of mobility in terms of national dispersals, 'homing' desires, labour movements, and the flows and flux of globalisation do not illuminate the ambivalent effects of the circulation and increasing visuality of Eurasian and Asian female images. Reconfigurations of diaspora and hybridity within the terms of a postcolonial imaginary currently fascinated with diasporic transnational mobilities and identity projects are also limited if they disregard signifying practices, power relations, estrangements, boundary demarcations and commodified desires associated with 'race' and sex. Identifying this limitation is not to suggest that hybridity and diaspora are unredeemable, but their terms of reference must move beyond preoccupations with origins, consciousness and anti-essentialist standpoints.


    The author would like to acknowledge the astute comments and encouragement of Anne-Marie Medcalf and Carolyn Brewer.

    [1] My mother was a Japanese war-bride and my father an English serviceman. Raised in England, I now live in Australia.

    [2] Catherine Padmore, 'Significant Flesh: Cosmetic Surgery, Physiognomy, and the Erasure of Visual Difference(s)', in Lateral: A Journal of Textual and Cultural Studies, 1 (1999), accessed 16, Oct, 2002.

    [3] In education, Asian students have come to be regarded as a 'model minority' representing the way minority students are expected to behave and act in schools. Because they validate the possibility of success under intuitional and structural conditions that reproduce social inequality, they serve as a rebuke to those who fail. Likewise, 'Tiger' Asian economies model the possibilities of success within the current economic conditions while at the same time reprimanding the third world for failing to take advantage from neo-liberal western capitalism. This model of success does not therefore represent alternatives to the old colonial world order but operates a divide and rule tactic. See Nazli Kibria, 'The Contested Meaning of "Asian American": Racial Dilemmas in the Contemporary US', in Ethnic and Racial Studies 21, (1998): 930-58, who argues that these stereotypes are a divide and rule tactic of white supremacy that sets Asians against other national, ethnic and cultural groups to weaken solidarity.

    [4] Classical semiotics undertakes structural analyses of language and text where meaning is perceived as being independent of history and individuals, and systematically produced in social situations through the interrelations of signs and symbols. My interest in the practices and effects of the image on different audiences in different sites is informed by post structuralism, feminism and the work of Stuart Hall (ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London: Sage, 1997; Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (eds), Visual Culture: The Reader, London: Sage Publication, 1999; Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies, London: Sage Publications, 2001; Nicholas Mirzoeff, Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, London: Routledge, 1999.

    [5] Floya Anthias, 'Evaluating "Diaspora": Beyond Ethnicity', in Sociology 32, 3 (1998): 557-81.

    [6] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge: London, 1994, p. 2.

    [7] Stuart Hall, 'Cultural Identity and Diaspora', in Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathon Rutherford, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, pp. 222-37.

    [8] Mirzoeff, Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, p 10.

    [9] Kuan-Hsing Chen, 'Not Yet the Postcolonial Era: The (Super) Nation-State and Transnationalism of Cultural Studies: Response to Ang and Stratton', Cultural Studies 10, (1996): 37-70.

    [10] Kibria, 'The Contested Meaning of "Asian American": Racial Dilemmas in the Contemporary US', p. 940.

    [11] Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Amy Gutman. Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race: Princeton University Press, 1996; see also Kibria, 'The Contested Meaning of "Asian American": Racial Dilemmas in the Contemporary US', p. 940.

    [12] Ray Chow, 'Introduction: On Chineseness as a Theoretical Problem', in Boundary 2 25, 3, (1998): 1-24.

    [13] Hall, 'Cultural Identity and Diaspora', p. 235.

    [14] Angelika Bammer, 'Introduction', in Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question, ed. Angelika Bammer Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. xi-xx.

    [15] Aijaz Ahmad, 'The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality', in Race and Class 36, 3, (1995): 1-20.

    [16] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London: Verso, 1995.

    [17] Cornell West, 'The New Cultural Politics of Difference', in Race, Identity and Representation in Education, ed. Cameron McCarthy and Warren Critchlow, New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 11-23.

    [18] Ian Ang, 'The Curse of the Smile: Ambivalence and the "Asian" Woman in Australian Multiculturalism', in Feminist Review 52, (1996): 36-49; Annette Hamilton, 'Fear and Desire: Aborigines, Asians and the National Imaginary', in Australian Cultural History 9, (1990): 14-35; David Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire, Colonial Discourse in Journalism and Travel Writing, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994.

    [19] Paul Gilroy, 'It Ain't Where You're From, It's Where You're Atů The Dialectics of Diasporic Identification' in Third Text 13, winter, (1990): 3-16.

    [20] Aki Uchida, 'The Orientalization of Asian Women in America', in Women's Studies International Forum 21, 2 (1998): 161-174. Narrelle Morris, 'Innocence to Deviance: The Fetishisation of Japanese Women in Western Fiction, 1890s-1990s', in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, 7, (March 2002), accessed 16 Oct 2002.

    [21] Gilroy, 'It Ain't Where You're From, It's Where You're At ... The Dialectics of Diasporic Identification.'

    [22] Ang, 'The Curse of the Smile: Ambivalence and the "Asian" Woman in Australian Multiculturalism'.

    [23] Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    [24] Homi K. Bhabha, 'The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha', in Identity, Community , Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathon Rutherford, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, pp. 207-221.

    [25] Bhabha, 'The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha', p. 211.

    [26] Homi K. Bhabha, 'Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse', in The Location of Culture, Routledge: London, 1994b, pp. 85-92.

    [27] Bhabha, 'The Commitment to Theory', in New Formations, 5, (1988), pp. 5-23, p. 16.

    [28] Nikos Papastergiadis, The Turbulence of Migration: Globalisation, Deterritorialisiation and Hybridity, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

    [29] See also Kuan-Hsing Chen, 'Introduction: The Decolonizing Question', in Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, ed. Avtar Brah, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 1-53.

    [30] Floya Anthias, 'New Hybridities, Old Concepts: The Limits of Culture', in Ethnic and Racial Studies 24, 4, (2001): 619-41.

    [31] Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, New York: Routledge, 1995.

    [32] Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race.

    [33] Louisa Schein, 'The Consumption of Color and the Politics of White Skin in Post-Mao China', in Social Text 41, (1997): 141-64.

    [34] Avtar Brah, 'Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities', in Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities, ed. Brah, London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 180-210.

    [35] This point is argued by Kuan-Hsing Chen (ed.), 'Introduction: The Decolonizing Question', in Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, London, New York: Routledge, 1998, pp. 1-51; see also James Clifford 'Diasporas', in Cultural Anthropology 9, 3, (1994): 302-38.

    [36] Clifford, 'Diasporas'.

    [37] Takeyuki (Gaku) Tsuda, 'When Identities become Modern: Japanese Emigration to Brazil and the Global Contextualization of Identity', in Ethnic and Racial Studies 24, 3, (2001): 412-32.

    [38] Clifford, 'Diasporas'; Robin Cohen, 'Rethinking Babylon: Iconoclastic Conceptions of the Diaspora Experience', in New Community 21, 1, (1995): 5-18; William Safran, 'Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return', in Diaspora 1, 1, (1991): 83-99.

    [39] Clifford, 'Diasporas'.

    [40] Diasporic Chinese subjectivity is often highly deterritorialised and tied closely to family (Ong, 1993, cited in Clifford, 'Diasporas'). Stanley Tambiah, 'Transnational Movements, Diaspora and Multiple Modernities', in Daedalus 29, 1, (2000): 163-94 cites an interesting example of this. The Man clan is a Hong Kong Cantonese lineage who settled through Europe, the U.S. and Canada, and has been tracked over five generations by James Watson. They maintain a distinctive Chinese identity but no longer identify with a homeland. Some are wealthy and others live in Chinatowns. Many do not speak Chinese but most regard themselves as unique and distinct from other Chinese migrants. They tend to marry within the lineage, retain contact by telephone or e-mail and have recently established a clan association.

    [41] Tsuda, 'When Identities become Modern: Japanese Emigration to Brazil and the Global Contextualization of Identity'; Brah, 'Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities'.

    [42] The establishment of Israel is also an effect of the rise of C19th nationalist movements in Europe, European colonialism, and American foreign policy. America's support of Israel and its massive program of economic and military aid sustain a strategic military presence that secures access to scarce resources such as oil.

    [43] These categories are taken from Brah, 'Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities'; Stephen Castles, 'Multicultural Citizenship: A Response to the Dilemma of Globalisation and National Identity?' in Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol 18, (1997): 5-22.

    [44] Castles, 'Multicultural Citizenship: A Response to the Dilemma of Globalisation and National Identity?; and Ethnicity and Globalisation: From Migrant Worker to Transnational Citizen, London: Sage Publications, 2000.

    [45] Castles, Ethnicity and Globalisation: From Migrant Worker to Transnational Citizen, p. 105.

    [46] Brah 'Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities', p. 179; Mandy Thomas, 'Stitching at the Boundaries: Vietnamese Garment Industry Workers in Transnational Spaces', in Intersections, issue 5 (May 2001), date accessed, 10 October 2002; Grace Ebron, 'Not Just the Maid: Negotiating Filipina Identity in Italy', in Intersections, issue 8 (October 2002), accessed 10 October 2002.

    [47] Brah 'Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities'.

    [48] Papastergiadis, The Turbulence of Migration: Globalisation, Deterritorialisiation and Hybridity.

    [49] Indeed, large-scale displacements are not new. Britain for instance was depopulated 25,000 years ago due to climate change and repopulated by Celtic immigration, followed by Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Normans invasions 10,000 later. See John Hilary, 'Guides: Immigration',, n.d., accessed 1 Nov 2001. See John Hilary, 'Immigration', in

    [50] This point is made by Gareth Dale, 'The Turbulence of Migation: Globalisation, Deterritorialisation and Hybridity', in Race and Class, (2001 April-June): 102-104, p. 102.

    [51] Chen, 'Not Yet the Postcolonial Era: The (Super) Nation-State and Transnationalism of Cultural Studies: Response to Ang and Stratton'.

    [52] A polemical elaboration of this argument is put by Sheng-mei Ma in Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures, Albany: New York Press, 1998, who argues that 'assimilated' Asian-Americans have appropriated the transgressive space of heterogeneity, multiplicity and hybridity to exercise hegemonic dominance over radical Asian immigrants. Following Brah, 'Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities', a point to be made here is that we must be careful not to imagine that what is the case for our place, is the case everywhere. We should not allow the centring of diasporic subjectivity (or for that matter radical immigrants) to confuse the need to become empowered with the desire for power (p. 188).

    [53] Aijaz Ahmad, 'The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality'.

    [54] Ian Ang, 'Can One Say No to Chineseness?: Pushing the Limits of the Diasporic Paradigm in Ian Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asian and the West, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 21-51.

    [55] Stuart Hall, 'Who Needs 'Identity'?' in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Guy, London: Sage, 1996, pp. 1-17. Note that while 'identity' and 'subjectivity' are often used interchangeably, in contemporary social theory 'identity' refers to the recognition of a person or thing. It is a strategic and relational entity that is 'marked out' by symbols and does not signal a stable core of the self. Subjectivity demarcates the site of feeling and consciousness. Again its contemporary usage does not signal a unitary identity or source of agency, but a consciousness determined, regulated and produced by social relations and language. See Kathryn Woodward (ed.), Identity and Difference, London: Sage, 1997.

    [56] See for example: Brah, 'Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities'; Ang, 'On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asian and the West'; Clifford, 'Diasporas'; Hall, 'Cultural Identity and Diaspora'; Edward Said, 'Reflections on Exile', in Out There: Marginalisation and Contemporary Culture, ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever and Trinh Minh-ha, 1990, pp. 357-66; Robert J.C. Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, New York: Routledge, 1995; Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993; Paul Gilroy, 'It Ain't Where You're From, It's Where You're At... The Dialectics of Diasporic Identification'; Lavie Smader and Ted Swedenburg (eds), Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

    [57] This point is made by Bill Ashcroft, Griffith Gareth and Helen Tiffin, Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, London: Routledge, 1998. Between 1846 and 1939 around 59 million people left Europe, 38 million to US; 7 million to Canada, 7 million to Argentina, 4.6 million to Brazil and 2.5 million to Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and South Africa. See New Internationalist, (1998): 27.

    [58] Brah, 'Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities'.

    [59] Anthias, 'Evaluating "Diaspora": Beyond Ethnicity', p. 557.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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