Year of the Dragon in Review

After more than a month of earnest waiting, I was finally able to watch “”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”” this weekend. I had high expectations for the movie, and director Ang Lee more than lived up to them. The movie boasts outstanding directing, beautiful cinematography (the best I’ve seen since “”Braveheart””), lively plot, frantic action, humor and tragedy all rolled into one. A great modern movie based on classic Chinese martial arts films, complete with flying and sword fights, “”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”” was simply one of the best movies this writer has ever seen.

The release of “”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”” near the end of 2000 capped a roller-coaster year for Asian-Americans. Like the movie, there were many uplifting moments as well as many tragic ones for Asian-Americans in 2000. The perceived breakthrough of Lucy Liu, the unconstitutional treatment of Wen Ho Lee, the ascent of Asians in American politics, and the godforsaken “”Mr. Wong”” are only some of the conflicting highs and lows Asian Americans experienced last year.

With Chinese New Year arriving soon to welcome the Year of the Snake, it seems only justified to glance back at the Year of the Dragon and shed some much needed light on the Asian American experiences in it. Perhaps this article will open people’s eyes, brown ones, green ones, blue ones or whatever, to themselves and to others. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “”He who knows others is learned, but he who knows himself is wise.””

Asian-Americans took great steps forward in the Year of the Dragon, particularly in politics and on the silver screen. Asians are generally stereotyped as indiscreet, “”model minorities,”” taking whatever hits and punches they receive quietly so as not to cause commotion. The year 2000 undoubtedly proved this stereotype wrong as Asian men and women stormed the political front.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this political uprising, if you will, is President Clinton’s selection of Norman Mineta as Commerce Secretary. A former mayor of San Jose and member of the House of Representatives for 20 years, Mineta became the first Asian-American cabinet member in U.S. history in 2000. Even though he was imprisoned in an internment camp during the second World War, he does not look back on his life with bitterness, but rather with a voice of optimism. This is a testament to his character (much better than that of his boss) and his ability to reach across the aisle. In fact, President-elect Bush actually appointed Mineta to be Transportation Secratary in his cabinet. Mineta is now a force to be reckoned with in Washington.

“”a Magazine,”” a magazine on Asian-American lifestyle, recently conducted a survey on which Asian-Americans had the brightest political future. Names included in the poll were Mineta, Mike Honda and Gary Locke. In this past election cycle, Honda, a former assemblyman, ran against Jim Cunneen for a congressional seat and barely lost. Locke won his re-election bid for governor of Washington state and is already touted as a possible future vice-presidential nominee.

Other Asian-Americans receiving substantial votes were S.B. Woo, a former Delaware lieutenant governor and founder of the 80-20 Initiative, Christine Chen, director of programs for the Organization for Chinese-Americans, and Ted Fang, the first Asian-American owner of a major newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner.

Another area where Asian-Americans made significant strides in 2000 was the entertainment business. The Year of the Dragon was when Liu became one of Charlie’s angels and her name became a household one. M. Night Shyamalan directed the wildly popular “”Sixth Sense”” and the equally dark “”Unbreakable.”” Angela Perez Baraquio was crowned Miss America, the first Asian ever. Rita Ng was likewise the first Asian Miss California.

Movies such as “”Romeo Must Die”” and “”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”” thrust Asians into a strong leading roles. Yes, this writer is aware that neither Jet Li nor Chow Yun Fat are Asian-Americans, but to place Asians into lead roles in action movies in a culture that all too often suppresses such roles for Asian men is, to me, quite a revolution. More important, though, is the popularity of the films across ethnicities. It was well received by most, with Ang Lee’s movie gaining critical acclaim.

And then there is Coco Lee. In the immortal words of comic book legend Stan Lee (no, he’s not Asian), “”‘Nuff said, true believer.””

Of course, not everything came easily for Asian-Americans in 2000. With the great stride forward, there is the juxtaposed step backward. In a new decade, in a new century, and new millennium, everyone — whites, blacks, Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans — would like to think that racism is a thing of the past decade, century and millennium. This, however, is as distant from reality as Taiwan is from mainland China on Taiwanese independence. The Year of the Dragon is a prime example of this.

The most disturbing case of racism is the persecution of Wen Ho Lee by the federal government. With ridiculous accusations of spying and espionage and even threats of execution, the federal government picked Lee’s life apart. After imprisoning Lee in solitary confinement for nine months, the federal prosecutors did an about-face and released him after he signed a plea-bargain stating that he was guilty of some minor misdemeanor. Only days before, Attorney General Janet Reno had called Lee a threat to national security.

Of all the other physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratories, only Lee was singled out and prosecuted in such unconstitutional ways. The reason: He’s Asian and had the most reason to spy for China. The ridiculous part: Lee is not from mainland China; he is Taiwanese. If you’re Asian, or at least Taiwanese, you know this makes all the difference in the world. President Clinton and the U.S. district judge that handled the case harshly criticized the federal prosecutors for their conduct and treatment of Lee.

But it was too late for apologies. The Lee case opened a rather large can of worms. It was apparent that anti-Chinese sentiment was still prevalent and brought up memories of Japanese internment during World War II. As “”a Magazine”” writes, “”The question had never been whether Lee was guilty or innocent. The issue was that he had been a victim of the American justice system and a scapegoat for federal prosecutors blinded by xenophobia and anti-China hysteria.””

The most blatantly offensive — and annoying — affront to Asian-Americans of the year must be the “”Mr. Wong”” online cartoon. Portrayed with every offensive stereotype one could place on an Asian — yellow-skinned, bucktoothed, slanted eyes and submissive, Mr. Wong spends his time trying to seduce white women. It doesn’t take a Dimensions of Culture student to see where this is going. It is hard to find the words to describe the ridiculousness of “”Mr. Wong,”” and how utterly offensive it is not only to Asians, but to anyone that has any contact with an Asian. And to call it artistic freedom only shows how far Americans have not gone in race relations.

Liu perhaps epitomizes the struggles and accomplishments Asian-Americans went through in 2000. Many view her, and rightfully so, as having made it big in Hollywood. Still, others view her as giving in to the stereotypes that are placed on Asian women by taking the roles.

They point out that her roles in movies like “”Payback”” and the sitcom “”Ally McBeal”” play into the seductive, “”dragon lady”” stereotype. Whatever your view on her may be, it is hard to deny that she will continue to make her mark on Hollywood and the Asian-American community.

An interesting aspect of the Asian community in the year 2000 that should be briefly looked at is the rise of the outmarriage rate among Asians, particularly among Asian men to white women. In a February 2000 article in “”Newsweek,”” writer Esther Pan referred to Asian men as the next “”trophy boyfriend”” for white women. Some view this as a positive thing, that Asian men are becoming accepted by a society that had before viewed them as effeminate. Still, critics refer to this attraction to Asian men as a new form of fetishism that had before been focused on Asian women. Which of these assumptions holds true will be decided in this new millennium.

The Year of the Dragon brought with it much advancement for Asian-Americans. At the same time, it carried with it a stigma of fear and ambiguity. In a few days, the Year of the Snake will arrive. What it holds for Asian-Americans is anyone’s guess. The only thing that seems certain is celebrating Katharine Liu’s birthday. After all, who could’ve known last year that there would be string of Asian-American hate crimes on college campuses or that a Chinese martial arts film would have the best chance of winning Best Picture?

During Chinese New Year, those who celebrate it wish one another good luck and best fortunes for the new year. “”Kung hei fat choy”” is the popular phrase. Prosperous wishes. My only wish for the new year is that Korematsu v. United States be overturned.