It’s not easy to look at cases of “yellow fever” from the view of the “yellow fever” infected, especially if you are an Asian American feminist on the other side of the issue. I could not even imagine what filmmaker Debbie Lum experienced first hand as she filmed her subject Steven, an aging and quirky White man with a severe Asian fetish, in her documentary “seeking asian female.” There are times in the beginning of the film where Steven stops treating Lum as the filmmaker, but rather as another pretty Asian women he is obsessively attracted to. As a documentary filmmaker, she could not call Steven out on his “yellow fever” or allow her own views to get herself too involved in the marriage. She simply had to watch and wait as the story unfolded. Watching and waiting was not as simple as it seemed, though. Lum still reflected on this internal ethical struggle when driving home after long days of filming Steven and Sandy. If I were the filmmaker, I would find these golden rules of filmmaking extremely difficult to follow and might even give up. Thankfully, Lum persisted and told us a different kind of story.
Admittedly, I could not help but cringe when Steven shows Debbie his collection of Asian female faces stacked neatly like porn at the beginning of the film, but I watched Steven mature as the film went on through his marriage with Sandy, his wife from China. Here was someone who I didn’t even expect to find an Asian wife (Ms. Lum said that most of the men with “yellow fever” she potentially filmed didn’t find their dream girl in the end). Despite language and cultural divides and multiple fights and separations (marriage is hard), Steven and Sandy learn to love each other. Steven cleaned up his life and became a responsible husband.
Why would someone with “yellow fever” deserve a happy ending? What Asian woman would be crazy enough to marry him? I think that while it’s much easier for those against “yellow fever” to automatically dismiss this documentary for giving screen time to a “villain.” Debbie does describe this dismissal as part of the initial reaction she received from the Asian American community. Had Steven and Sandy's marriage crumbled as a representative "lesson" to all that marrying a man with "yellow fever" is downright bad, I would have lost faith in humanity. Much to the delight of the audience, Steven throws away his mail order bride magazines and his collection of Asian female faces because he truly loves Sandy for Sandy. The cure to Steven's "yellow fever" was not a strict lecture on Asian fetishes or punishment for his past offenses, it was love.
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"seeking asian female," which has been featured on PBS and This American Life, is an eccentric modern love story about Steven and Sandy—an aging white man with “yellow fever” who is obsessed with marrying any Asian woman, and the young Chinese bride he finds online. Debbie, a Chinese American filmmaker, documents and narrates with skepticism and humor, from the early stages of Steven’s search, through the moment Sandy steps foot in America for the first time, to a year into their precarious union. The film recently screened at Bryn Mawr College through collaboration between EALC, Film Studies, the 1902 Fund, academic departments and the Asian American Students Association.