Itaewon, a neighborhood located in the heart of Seoul, is one of those areas that comes to life in the evening. When the dark glides over, it masks the emptied beer cans and vomit stains, and brightens up with neon lights to welcome couples and tourists to trans bars, massage parlors, ‘Homo Hill,’ and hip-hop clubs.
Itaewon was not always like this. Prior to the Korean War, the Yongsan district where Itaewon is located served as the Imperial Japanese Army’s garrison. The division of the two Koreas–marking the end of the war–resulted in the US military replacing the Japanese Army. American GIs frequented Itaewon, which gained a reputation as a red-light district. One of its staple landmarks ‘Hooker Hill’ echoes its legacy of sex workers, criminals, and foreigners. Today, the US army garrison stand there–a symbol of security assuring the continued alliance between the US and South Korea–and Itaewon has rebranded itself as a hotspot for foodies, tourism, and nightlife.
It is in Itaewon that I first overheard young white men talk about their sexual conquests of ‘tight Asian pussies.’ From what I could gather, they were recent college graduates from the US who had come to Korea to ‘make easy money’ (read: teach English in one of many hak-wons, or tutoring academies) and ‘experience the nightlife.’ They joked about how Korean girls were easily impressed, eager to please, thirsty for attention, bad at English, and so on. For the remainder of my time in Korea, I would pass by many versions of this conversation, almost always between white men and almost always about Korean girls (girls, never women). Gradually, I learned to blur out their voices as white noise.
Their conversations echo the familiar trope of white men with ‘yellow fever,’ a slang for Asian fetish often dismissed as a harmless joke—a sexual preference, devoid of ill intentions or consequence. To some, it is even a positive outcome of multiculturalism; it wasn’t always the case that yellow bodies were desirable. Yellow fever, however, is not a simple matter of preferences. During my time working at the Seoul Rape Crisis Center, one of the more well-established response service in Korea, I saw how yellow bodies silently absorbed this cost: sexual assault of Korean women by white men, mostly American, constituted at least a third of the Center’s cases. This is, of course, invisible to those in the West because of the concealed workings of globalization, racism and colonialism, and the failures of carceral feminist approaches to sexual violence.
Many attribute the origin of the term ‘yellow fever’ to Henry David Hwang’s afterword to his 1988 play M. Butterfly, where he sharply interrogated gendered constructions of the East as a helpless exotic beauty awaiting the heroic intervention of the masculinized West. “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it?” scoffs Madame Butterfly at his white suitor, “The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.”
This fantasy has been recycled and reconfigured through the years, from Tom Cruise’s virtuous love interest Taka in The Last Samurai to Facebook groupie Christy in The Social Network and the mysterious mute humanoid robot Kyoko in Ex Machina. Cultural criticisms of these tropes have done the important work of questioning these representations, deconstructing the racialized politics of desirability, and linking the impact of these representations to everyday experience of intimacy. These discussions, however, take Western media as their vantage points, ultimately failing to address what happens when this racialized, colonial desire migrates to the site of its own imagination.
Yellow fever flows back.
With the constant influx of young, college-educated white men in Korea, yellow fever flows back to the East. Interrogating the process through which yellow fever becomes embedded in Korea’s cultural economy presents a compelling case study of the intersections of neoliberal development and racialized colonial desire. In the eyes of young, college-aged white men, the old trope of the ‘submissive Oriental woman’ converge with Korea’s standing as an exemplar of development to modernize the object of yellow fever as a woman both wild and yielding.
Once one of the poorest countries in the world, post-war South Korea adopted a policy of modernization and full financial liberalization. The rapidity of ensuing economic developments marked Korea as a capitalist exemplar. Korea’s two decade-long history of accession to the OECD reflects the vigor with which these policies took shape: the rags to riches account of Korea’s speedy rise as an OECD member country now serves as a success story of globalization, development, and liberalization. In this success story, Korea is no longer impoverished stretches of farmland; the Seoul of today sparkles with K-pop, fashion, and neon lights. Seoul is fun and wild; its girls even more so.
The fantasy of the modernized Oriental woman is inseparable from Seoul’s rise to fame as East Asia’s party central. It is as if the desperation and willfulness with which the country has bootstrapped itself from poverty in the aftermath of war are ascribed to feminine bodies already read as available and inviting. If the American state can prove its neoliberal conviction through deploying Korea as an example, so too can whiteness assert its masculinity by consuming ‘tight Asian pussies.’ Under white gaze, Korean girls, available and desperate, come with no strings attached; when there are strings, they can be severed easily by flying back to the US.
The sexual availability of Korean women to white men, however, exists as a symptom of US-Korea relations. With the US’ role in concluding the Korean War, fostering Korea’s development, and current position as a world leader, America and American-ness occupy a privileged position. There is great pressure to learn how to speak English, study abroad or work, and eventually live in the US. As a small country with harsh cultural pressure to succeed despite severe economic disparity and ever-decreasing social services, the vastness of the States and its myth of meritocracy deliver an alluring promise of a fulfilling, secure life, available to all those who work hard. For women, dating white men is a means through which they can access this fantasy. A friend of mine recounted her peers’ reaction when she revealed her partner to be a white American. “That’s the dream!” they exclaimed. In this dream, life is prosperous, exciting, and stable. The white man lives this dream and, thus, the proximity to him brings the dream closer. The white man becomes the dream.
So white bodies, hot with yellow fever, come to the city in search of wild Korean girls; yellow bodies seek whiteness. These two axes of desire, however, are never equal because their mobility is not equal. The mobility of whiteness means that white bodies can wade through borders freely with no consequence. To these white bodies, Korea is never the destination; it is a stop off. They travel, make easy money, observe the culture, and indulge in their vices–experiences that enrich and entertain, but never quite change them. The retention of whiteness always enable them to return to themselves, to pick up their lives where they left off. Korean women do not share this mobility, nor the retention. Constrained by borders, racism, and language, they cannot move freely; their immobile bodies absorb the cost of whiteness.
The normalization and prevalence of sexual violence against Korean women by white men demonstrate the material consequence of the unequal distribution of mobility. The Rape Crisis Center’s record quantifies this kind of assault as a third of its annual cases, but I wonder what the recorded incidents amount to and how many go unrecorded. These assaults often take place in bars, clubs, and motels of areas like Itaewon. Survivors rarely know their assailants, and do not recall enough identifiable details to file a report. Those who are able to make a report find themselves in a dead end when they find out that their assailants have left the country. White men come and go–untraceable and unaccountable.
The site of the incident further complicates survivors’ ability to legitimize their experience. Korean women who frequent areas like Itaewon are perceived as already consenting. That they went to Itaewon suggests that they willfully made themselves available to white men: they asked for it and got what they deserve, like the single mothers and sex workers similarly left behind by American GIs during the war. Itaewon brings them in contact with whiteness and normalizes their disposability.
It is unsurprising how ill-equipped the criminal justice system and rape crisis services are to respond to these survivors’ needs and interests. Roughly modeled after the US’ anti-rape services, they operate under the carceral feminist framework in which rape is a crime between individuals and the objective is to remove the perpetrator. This system of justice presupposes fixed temporality and location where the victim and perpetrator stand in equal footing. For carceral feminists, the solution is to remove him. I recall one practitioner’s meek response to a survivor, “At least he’s gone…”
Except that he left because he could. This is where carceral feminist politics fail. He has been removed, but at his own will, and his ability to return cannot be removed from his whiteness and Korea’s neoliberal development. Without the assailant to prosecute, carceral approaches can neither support individual survivors, nor address the root cause. The cycle of white men leaving behind survivors continues.
None of this is possible without the state’s own complicity. The fantasy of the available Oriental woman and the cruel white man in M. Butterfly has currency because agential actors work to maintain it. The availability of Asian female bodies is a key attraction that brings young white men to Korea each year. The failure of carceral system enables this fantasy to persist: the state proposes incarceration as a solution and places the onus of reporting to individual survivors, and when they are not able to pursue it, the state can alleviate itself of its duty of care. The chastising of Korean women in Itaewon further undermines their ability to consent. These forces both global and domestic, cultural and economic, maintain an influx of white men who come and go to invite even more white men with the promise of ‘tight Asian pussy.’ Yellow fever and its promises are thus integral to the survival of these forces.
The intersection of sexual violence and yellow fever in Korea is thus more than a matter of he-said and she-said. To chafe against its systemic nature, feminist interventions must call for frameworks and strategies that extend beyond the individual, beyond incarceration, beyond yellow fever as fantasy. To resist the fantasy, we must begin by restoring its bodies–bodies that echo the history of American GIs and the women they used up and left–and reckon with the forces of globalization, borders, misogyny, and colonial desire that lie at its heart.