Wednesday night at the South Quad Residence Hall Yuri Kochiyama Lounge, the United Asian American Organizations (UAAO) hosted a panel on how colonialism, specifically in Southeast Asia, has impacted the Asian/Pacific Islander American community. Around 50 students attended the event, titled “Effects and Representations of Colonialism: SE Asia,” which was hosted in collaboration with the Vietnamese Student Association, the Filipino American Student Association and Burmese students on campus.
Established in 1988, UAAO is an umbrella consortium whose member groups include multiple Asian/Pacific Islander students organizations on campus. In addition to acting as a liaison between these groups, UAAO hopes to promote the voice of A/PIA students on campus, build relationships with other people of color groups and raise awareness on A/PIA issues.
The event was discussion-based, with the UAAO Programming Chairs, LSA sophomores Fareah Fysudeen and Cristina Guytingco, showing attendees clips from films and video analyses of American films representing Southeast Asians. After each clip, students got in small groups or pairs to discuss the impact of the films.
One clip students watched, a YouTube video entitled “Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded,” was about the portrayal of Asian and Asian-American women in Western films like “Rush Hour 2,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Charlie’s Angels.”
Guytingco said the portrayal of Asian women in media continues to be one-dimensional.
“A lot of the depictions of South Asian, Asian-American women is very monolithic, like we’re this one thing and we’re not anything else,” Guytingco said. “It’s like we’re this cool, edgy, purple-streak Asian character. So there’s not a lot of complexities of how Asian women are portrayed.”
The students also examined “Apocalypse Now,” a film which uses the war in Vietnam as its setting and compared it with Vietnamese film “Cô Ba Sài Gòn” (“The Tailor”) which depicts a Vietnamese woman’s attempt to learn a French style of tailoring despite her family’s rejection of anything French post-colonization.
Fysudeen, who first watched “Apocalypse Now” in high school, said what disturbed her most about the film was its use of Asian characters to propel the story of white men.
“It was really, really, I don’t know, horrifying to me, the depiction of Asian bodies in this film,” Fysudeen said. “And how they were just kind of used as a device to get to this really interesting psychology of this white man.”
Students viewed a YouTube video, “Apocalypse Now: Crash Course Film Criticism #8” of “Apocalypse Now” where a film analyst discussed the psychological aspects of the film, as well as the use of Asian characters.
Public Policy graduate student Thom Pham said one part of the video he appreciated was the commentator’s differentiation between Vietnam itself and the war that occured in Vietnam. He noted Vietnam is often used as an exciting background for the stories of white people.
“I liked in the video where it said American War in Vietnam, because I like to say the War in Vietnam,” Pham said. “Some people just refer to the war itself as ‘Vietnam’ or even just ‘Nam’ when it’s really a country … I think the movie really was, if anything, not about Vietnam. It’s about the test of war and Vietnam just happened to be the background. It’s kinda bullshit.”
In a larger group discussion about the films, Business senior Kevin Steward highlighted the confusion people feel in countries which were colonized by Western powers when it comes to keeping popular foods, fashion and trends — which sometimes come from the colonizer.
“I’m natively Algerian, so Algeria was a colony of France,” Steward said. “And something that I noticed going back and forth, post-colonization, there’s a lot of resistance to anything French in Algeria. Even speaking French — you couldn’t really speak French freely even if you knew it. As a post-colonization country, you kind of have to pick and choose what to take, because there’s some things that were good that were pushed on you so aggressively.”
Pham agreed, emphasizing a point the discussion leaders mentioned, explaining Vietnamese food like phở and bánh mì come from French influence.
“I don’t think we should give those things up,” Pham said. “It’s making something out of nothing which is what literally Vietnamese people did, like literally making pho from bones. Just be aware of where it all started, ultimately I think it’s about white supremacy, apart for colonialism. And be aware of that aspect of that.”
After the event, Engineering junior EJ Fernandez said the discussion of “Apocalypse Now” was particularly impactful for him.
“It was very interesting just seeing the specific perspectives that are being told in a narrative,” Fernandez said. “And how it portrays the other party, how it portrays identity essentially. And how Asian-Americans, or Asians in general, are sort of, how their stories are being told and how it’s being presented to the vast public.”
Fernandez added it is important to to discuss A/PIA representation in film and media because it influences how people see A/PIA people in the real world and shapes the A/PIA identity.
“It’s worth talking, it’s worth having discussions and conversations about it,” Fernandez said. “And especially when it comes to the media, and how it influences a lot of people’s lives nowadays. It’s important to at least have these discussions and be exposed to these sorts of films and videos and offer perspectives on those.”