The Oriental Obscene

Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era

The Oriental Obscene

Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: 84 illustrations Published: November 2011

American Studies, Asian American Studies, Media Studies > Film

The Oriental Obscene is a sophisticated analysis of Americans’ reactions to visual representations of the Vietnam War, such as the photograph of the “napalm girl,” news footage of the Tet Offensive, and feature films from The Deer Hunter to Rambo: First Blood Part II. Sylvia Shin Huey Chong combines psychoanalytic and film theories with U.S. cultural history to explain what she terms the oriental obscene: racialized fantasies that Americans derived largely from images of Asians as the perpetrators or victims of extreme violence. Chong contends that these fantasies helped Americans to process the trauma of the Vietnam War, as well as the growth of the Asian American population after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the postwar immigration of Southeast Asian refugees. The oriental obscene animated a wide range of political narratives, not only the movements for and against the war, but causes as diverse as the Black Power movement, law-and-order conservatism, second-wave feminism, and the nascent Asian American movement. During the Vietnam era, pictures of Asian bodies were used to make sense of race, violence, and America’s identity at home and abroad.


“Chong makes an intriguing contribution to the scholarly conversation about Vietnam War imagery with her analysis of the rise in popularity of martial arts films in the US…” — Heather Stur, Journal of American Studies

“Taken in the context of scholarly investigations into representations of the Vietnam War, Chong’s work is a thoughtful and important contribution to the canon. However, as an exploration of otherness and the construction of racial identities, The Oriental Obscene also provides a valuable resource to broader areas of research in film and media theory, cultural studies and other critical approaches to race.” — Josh Nelson, Screening the Past

“Chong's enlightening, comprehensive study serves as an excellent addition to Asian American and media studies.... Highly recommended.” — A.F. Winstead, Choice

“This is an evocative study…. [A] masterful and courageous study in which the author weaves multiple theoretical strands into an integrated whole to pierce the pornographic undertones beneath the consumption of images of violence…. [T]here is no hint of exploitation or sensationalism, only a compelling argument for how the state can be imposed upon the human condition.” — Stella Coram, Ethnic and Racial Studies

“An impressive study…. The book is theoretically sophisticated, ambitious, and valuable in its archival sources… The Oriental Obscene contributes to current scholarship in multiple ways.” — Marguerite Nguyen, MELUS

“[W]hile her focus is on the past, her ideas are highly useful for any examination of how racial categories are constructed and manipulated.”  — Kathleen McClancy, American Literature

“Chong has written a detailed and well-argued study of the portrayal of Asians in American media and society as a response to the Vietnam War. She takes the time to explain her use of sometimes difficult literary and psychoanalytical theory, making this text accessible to enthusiasts as well as academics.” — Patrick Condiffe, Media International Australia

“Chong’s book is a thoughtful consideration of complex, contradictory meanings in the visual archive of the Vietnam War. Her argument usefully delineates a cultural logic of race and the oriental from before and during its rescripting by the post-1965 generation of immigrants and Asian American cultural politics.” — Paul Lai, Journal of Asian American Studies

“Like so many advanced multidisciplinary texts that interpret popular culture, The Oriental Obscene is a bringing together—or collision—of the pleasures of the many and the expertise of a few. Whether or not the book reaches multitudes, those who are ready for The Oriental Obscene’s challenges will find its rewards substantial and worth sharing.” — Ray Mizumura-Pence, American Studies

The Oriental Obscene is fresh, original, scrupulously researched, and tightly argued. Sylvia Shin Huey Chong uses the psychoanalytic categories of trauma, the primal scene, and fantasy, relying centrally on the work of Jean Laplanche. She quite rightly contends that the theories of Laplanche and Deleuze can enrich each other, and she demonstrates how this works as she rethinks representations of the Vietnam War in visual media. Her book will attract a broad interdisciplinary audience, including scholars of film and media, cultural studies, Asian American studies, and critical race theory.” — Sharon Willis, author of High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film

“Sylvia Shin Huey Chong has located the Vietnam War as the constitutive trauma of modern American nationhood, one that is particularly attached to a visuality of violence. She argues, moreover, that this trauma also serves as something of a primal scene around which whole sets of gendered and racialized positions are generated and then solidified in the public spheres of American politics and sociality. The Oriental Obscene offers a fascinating read for anyone interested in the Vietnam War, American racial politics, popular culture, and the making and endurance of American Orientalism.” — Anne Anlin Cheng, Princeton University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sylvia Shin Huey Chong is Associate Professor of Film and Asian American Studies in the English Department and the Program in American Studies at the University of Virginia.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations vii

Notes on Terminology, Proper Names, and Film Titles ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. Specters of Vietnam 1

1. Bringing the War Home: Spectacles of Violence and Rebellion in the American 1968 33

2. Reporting the War: Ethical Crises of Action in the Movement-Image of Vietnam 75

3. Restaging the War: Fantasizing Defeat in Hollywood's Vietnam 127

4. Kung Fu Fighting: Pacifying and Mastering the Martial Body 173

5. Being Bruce Lee: Death and the Limits of the Movement-Image of Martial Arts 209

Conclusion. Returning to 'Nam: The Vietnam Veteran's Orientalized Body 249

Notes 283

Bibliography 325

Index 353
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4854-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4840-5
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