From ‘yellow peril’ to Asia’s big bully

Yellow peril” was a racist label that “depicted the peoples of East and Southeast Asia as an existential danger to the Western world.” I encountered the label in my readings only later in life and the label stuck to me as derogatory. I had thought then that “yellow peril” referred only to those who ate with chopsticks, meaning people from mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and people with the same pale skin color in Southeast Asia. Though Filipinos are Southeast Asians, I counted us out because I thought—while conjuring up some unflattering images—the Filipinos were more like “little brown Americans” who aped Uncle Sam.

Yellow peril was interchangeable with “yellow terror,” “yellow menace,” and “yellow specter.” I found a 1899 “yellow peril” editorial cartoon showing a Chinese man standing over a fallen white woman. The Chinese man was supposed to represent the anti-colonial Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and the woman the Christian missionaries who were killed during that rebellion. (I had written about the seven nuns of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary congregation who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion. The nuns who were of different nationalities, plus 120 Chinese martyrs, were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. China’s leadership must have fumed.)

It was the expanding imperialists and their citizens who popularized the racist label hoping to demonize Asians who resisted their hegemonic, expansionist ambitions. China was the formidable, inscrutable “Middle Kingdom” coveted by colonizers even while many Chinese, seeking better fortunes, scattered all over the world and built communities in their adopted countries. (Manila’s Chinatown is said to be the oldest in the world.)

I quote from sinologist Wing-Fai Leung: “The phrase yellow peril … blends Western anxieties about sex, racist fears of the alien Other, and the Spenglerian belief that the West will become outnumbered and enslaved by the East.” It was 19th-century Russian sociologist Jacques Novikow who invented the term “yellow peril” in his essay 1897 “Le Péril Jaune,” a go signal, so to speak, for Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918) to encourage invasion and conquest of China.

Thus the “yellow peril” ideology took off, portraying China and Japan as a threat (imagined or not) to the Western world. But that is the short of it.

Still, persons being called “yellow peril” in their faces or behind their backs was racist as racist can be. It suggested getting these persons out of the way or getting yourselves out of their way because … While it may have been meant to warn (peril was the word) against certain countries and races, it was painful for individuals of those races to hear that at home or abroad. It took years for the label to fade away, classified along with the “N” word that should not be uttered as an insult to anyone.

Well, as the Filipino saying goes, “bilog ang bola (the ball is round),” or “umiikot ang mundo (the Earth rotates),” meaning that what goes up must come down, and vice versa. Now the main target of that derogatory label once upon a time—the China that resisted imperialists though not really an underdog then—has turned itself into an actual peril to its neighbors, particularly in Southeast Asia. And the Philippines must face up to Asia’s Big Bully (ABB). Continuously.

The China Coast Guard continuously stalks, harasses, and shoos away our fishermen from the Philippines’ own exclusive economic zone. The vessels of the Philippine Coast Guard were recently bombarded with water cannons while attempting to bring supplies to BRP Sierra Madre, the Navy’s outpost in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) that China wants to dominate. China has drawn its own nine-dash line that shrinks the Philippines’ maritime domain. China, emboldened by former president Rodrigo Duterte’s vassal-like obeisance, does not respect the international arbitral ruling that upheld the Philippines’ claims. Sadly, other Southeast Asian countries with claims in the disputed WPS have not been as bold. We have to thank the late president Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s predecessor, along with other government officials, who brought the case to The Hague.

Besides the peril from the sea, we have perils on land, the presence of countless Chinese, many of them members of crime syndicates who victimize Filipinos and even their fellow Chinese. We are suspicious of the sudden influx of students from China enrolled in the northern Luzon region. We are aghast that Chinese nationals have taken over the Philippine offshore gaming operators, that they have made inroads into local politics, real estate, illegal gambling, prostitution, drugs, name it.

Isn’t that PERIL spelled in bold letters? Who sold/are selling their souls to ABB for a lifetime of wealth, power, and who-knows-what-else?

No offense meant to my Chinoy friends, but I am raising the “yellow peril” warning against Asia’s Big Bully, the enemy at the gates. Warning: Clear and present danger.


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