Aliens have been destroying cities and terrorizing humans in the realm of science fiction for nearly a century, but according to one Binghamton professor, the origins of these creatures are more racist than extraterrestrial.
In a lecture given on Wednesday called “Asians, Aliens and Science Fiction,” assistant professor in the Asian American studies department John Cheng detailed how early science fiction borrowed from racist representations of Asians in American culture in the 19th and 20th centuries.
According to Cheng, concerns about the massive immigration of Asians to the US in the 19th century led to the pervasive fear of the “yellow peril,” and many Americans feared the “invasion of the asiatic hordes.” Chinese immigrants were often depicted in popular culture as dumb laborers, unable even to understand why meat was better than rice.
In the 20th century, these fears transformed into the trope that Cheng called the “Evil Oriental Genius,” who, through his mastery of math and science, controlled the invading Asian horde in order to topple American culture.
Cheng drew parallels between the bigoted view of the “invading” Asian immigrants and the depiction of aliens as coming to invade Earth.
“We have strong associations with aliens, but why are they always threatening and invading? It is because that is where these tropes come from,” Cheng said.
Cheng pointed to two examples of highly racialized villains in science fiction. In a 1928 comic strip “Armageddon 2419,” the hero Tony Rogers, who would later become the character Buck Rogers, wakes up after 500 years to find that the world is now ruled by the “Han Air Lords,” and joins up with resistance fighters in a war “between the white and yellow races in the second war of American independence.”
Cheng also pointed to the 1934 comic Flash Gordon, meant to compete with the Buck Rogers franchise, where the villain is a yellow alien named Ming the Merciless. He is the leader of the planet Mongo and wears traditional mandarin robes.
“So if the Asians are the ones with the superior technology, how do you maintain white supremacy?” Cheng asked. “The solution is to make them extraterrestrial.”
According to Cheng, the word “alien” as a term for an extraterrestrial being didn’t come into popular use until after WWII. Previously, the term “martian” was applied, or the antagonists were simply beasts or insects from space. He said the word “alien” has strongly racial implications, because it was being used at the same time to denote Asian exclusion in the 20th century. Some Asian immigrants were classified as “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”
“The whole point of the discussion about why Asians should be excluded was because Asians were so fundamentally different from Americans that we shouldn’t let them into the country,” Cheng said. “It becomes a space version of a racialized survival of the fittest.”
He noted that although science fiction writers and artists had almost no limits on how to depict aliens, yet they always ended up looking relatively human, and frequently Asian. Artists borrowed imagery from “Villain Serial” magazines from 1935 and 1936 like “The Mysterious Wu Fang” and “Dr. Yen Sin,” the covers of which usually depicted a nefarious Asian man dressed in traditional Manchu garb putting a white woman in danger.
“Most people say that sci-fi is not about race because you can imagine things from other worlds, but people are using race,” Cheng said.
Eric Lee a junior double-majoring in history and medieval studies, said he thought that some Asian stereotypes are still pervasive in popular culture today.
“I think it’s highly commercialized by Hollywood,” Lee said. “They might not consciously know this, but they are still being the active participants of the commercialization of stereotypes.”
Cheng is the author of the book, “Astounding Wonder,” about science fiction in interwar America.
This lecture was hosted by Asian Outlook and is part of Asian Empowerment Week, which will run through March 30.