'Seeking Asian Female' Film Exposes Men With 'Yellow Fever'

White American man finds his ideal Chinese bride on the Internet.

May 3, 2013, 4:57 PM

May 6, 2013— -- All her life Debbie Lum, a second-generation Chinese-American filmmaker, has been hounded by men with "yellow fever" -- usually, but not always, white men with a fetish for Asian women.

So she set out to expose the men who only see the stereotypical domestic, submissive and highly sexual creature, and not the person.

In her first feature-length film, "Seeking Asian Female," which airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET on PBS's "Independent Lens," Lum gets drawn into the complicated relationship of a 60-year-old white man and his 30-year-old mail-order bride.

Lum told ABCNews.com that she found the perfect subject after searching for men with yellow fever on Craig's list and other websites. Steven, a twice-divorced garage attendant at the San Francisco Airport, has been unabashedly trolling the website Asian Asia Friend Finder for five years looking for a Chinese bride.

As the film opens, viewers learn Steven, an aging and unlikely lover with an impish grin, has had scores of relationships online, but none have panned out.

"He was my favorite character -- he had no verbal filter," said Lum. "He was basically an open book and would say the things I suspected men were thinking but had the self-consciousness not to share. He gave me incredible insight into what men were thinking. About Asian women, but it was more than that, I was drawn to his complexity as a character.

"His behavior was troublesome and bothersome to me, but I could see he had a sense of humor."

Over the course of a year as the filmmaker follows Steven, he meets Sandy, who becomes an eager pen pal. He visits her in China and Sandy agrees to come to California to marry him. Sandy speaks barely a word of English and the couple struggles to communicate -- and to get along in an apartment where Steven has lived as a bachelor for 20 years.

Sandy gets annoyed with the years of clutter and eventually finds evidence online of Steven's obsession with other Asian women.

Viewers watch Lum get pulled deeper into their lives as translator, psychiatrist and ultimately marriage counselor. As the turbulent relationship unfolds, the stereotypes disappear and both Steven and Sandy become real human beings coping, not always successfully, with the ups and downs of a real marriage.

Lum said she began the film more than a decade ago with a much more academic approach. "I was making a multi-character, issue-oriented film and also interviewed every expert and woman under the sun on the whole topic of 'yellow fever' -- men who find the Asian woman of their dreams."

The phenomenon is acutely familiar to Asian women, according to Goal Auzeen Saedi, a post-doctoral fellow in counseling at Stanford University and contributor to Psychology Today. The perception is that they are sexy and "submissive."

With today's political correctness, Lum's film may jar some.

"All ethnic groups have this history of racism," Saedi told ABCNews.com. "Race in our culture and society feels very dangerous to talk about and makes us intrinsically uncomfortable. There is a national denial that of the fact that we all have this racist element to us."

Researchers at Columbia University have looked at so-called "microaggressions" -- the concept that in this age of political correctness, racism has become "very covert and subtle," she said. "An example is the Asians as the model minority, brilliant. I make the assumption that if I need help with my math problem, I go ask an Asian student."

Men who have fetishes for Asian women send an "underlying message about power, dominance and white privilege," said Saedi.

Lum, who said she grew up feeling an "invisible" minority in St. Louis, first began to notice these men while going to college on the East Coast. And now in San Francisco, which she calls "the epicenter of yellow fever," it is unavoidable.

"I can't walk down the street without meeting someone like Steven here," Lum said. "Every Asian American woman knows exactly what I am talking about. Men come up to you in a way that really looks like a stare, which lasts a bit longer than it should. You can feel it. It's like they are looking through you."

But after making the film, Lum began to see Steven as more complex person, with real emotions for Sandy. She couldn't make him a "pariah," and as she got more involved with the couple, he became "surprisingly endearing."

At first things go well. Steven loses 16 pounds, living on "sex and vegetables." Sandy is thrilled to be in America after being born into a poor family and working in a factory. She plans the wedding of her dreams paid for by his brother. Sandy plans to study to be a nurse.

But trouble erupts when Sandy finds old emails between Steven and a former Chinese girlfriend, Molly. He struggles to explain to her that that relationship was in the past and that he, indeed, loves her.

As Sandy and Steven began to quarrel, Lum said she decided to go with the drama. But soon, she mediated arguments, speaking in Chinese to Sandy and translating back to Steven.

"It was exhausting for one thing," said Lum. "When you are making a documentary, you dive in and once you commit, you are in it for the long haul."

Jealousies ensue over Steven's past relationships, and eventually the couple separates for four months as Sandy lives with American friends. "It's too late to go back home," Sandy tells Lum in Chinese. "I'll lose face."

Even Lum gets ensnared in the arguments, as Steven tells her bluntly, "You are not God -- you're just a director." She wonders if as a filmmaker, she is too involved.

In the end, this relationship that both Lum and the viewers expect to fail, triumphs over cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Lum hopes that the film will start a conversation. Steven's "obsession with any Asian woman has been replaced with a real-live Sandy," she says at the end of the film. Lum admits she had assumed negative stereotypes about Sandy, as well.

"Some know about yellow fever, and some have never heard of it, but it's very painful for the Asian-American community," said Lum.

"What I would love is for people to talk about in new ways that engage conversations. The story is about expectations and stereotypes, which are very related -- stereotypes about white guys, and expectations going into a relationship."

Today, Lum is still in touch with Steven and Sandy, who have been married now for four years.

"People always ask me about them when they see the film," she said. "But I don't have a crystal ball -- I don't know how it will turn out. But four years, that's longer than Hollywood."

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