The Triumphant Colored Races: Poetry, Migration and the Bondage of Empire

Bondage of Empire

This post was originally published on as part of Poetry & Democracy, a collaboration with The Poetry Coalition.

“[T]he supreme crisis of the ages…. The White race and with it a million years of human evolution might soon be irretrievably lost, swamped by the triumphant colored races, who will obliterate the white man by elimination or absorption”

— Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color (1920)

I grew up in Queens, New York, where immigrants speak 800+ languages, including Garifuna, an Arawakan language nearly extinguished by the British in the late 1700s. Some of my neighbors are from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — places from which thousands have fled for safety and been met instead with brutality. Beyond triumphant diversity narratives, language and migration reveal the connection between past and present, here and there, us and them. Poetry, like all diasporic languages, is a singular record of human hybridity, migration and war of Gramscian accuracy, capturing not only a language, but all its interstices and flyways. It is in this language that Asian American poetry speaks.

Our favorite stories paint America as a land of immigrants, though immigration policy was from its inception, like slavery, banking, education, etc., designed to benefit those considered White by contemporary standards. Nearly all immigration mechanisms–border patrol, greencards, “Muslim bans” and quotas–can be traced to the Asian Exclusion era since which the U.S. continues to define White and American while vying for global hegemony. Whitman and Emerson helped forge these identities, refashioning American values from unabashedly appropriated historic Asian texts and thought. Whitman was loved by White nationalists, economic nativists, and settler colonialists with poems like Pioneer! O Pioneer! and passionate diatribes against the world’s majority. As settlers expanded the southwestern border atop Native land and blood, Whitman helped stoke anti-Asian hate, expressed through mass lynchings, mutilation, arson and mob violence under the slogan of the day: “The Chinese must go…[e]ven the soldiers themselves curse the duty which compels them to sustain the Alien against the American.” For a land of immigrants, the Whitman contradiction is as American as apple pie.

“Praise the trafficked body, the one that is excised. On smartphones, with hashtags, we lament the phantom part.”
— Barbara Jane Reyes

miss universe gloria diaz magazine cover in 1970, smiling woman with long black hair and lashes wearing yellow and blue sash

Asians arrived in the Americas as miners, railroad workers; as coolies, sailors or slaves on 16th century Spanish ships; as visa overstays or part of the “brain drain.” Some became as part of a booming wartime adoption industry; as camptown “war brides,” refugees, sex workers or domestic workers from over half a century of U.S. bombings that leveled the Asia Pacific. In lockstep with trade and military interests, whether laborer, Celestial, Mongoloid, Malay, or Oriental, race for Asian Americans continues to be a work-in-progress. As Southeast Asian American poet Bao Phi writes, “Rough immigrant, or/ free refugee–/ floating flagless,/ fading border,/ stamped with words but not your name.”

Barbara Jane Reyes writes of the converging bondage of colonialism, global capitalism, racism and misogyny — and the indefatigable resistance of Pinay and other Asian Pacific Islander American women: “Praise the trafficked body, the one that is excised. On smartphones, with hashtags, we lament the phantom part.” Perhaps it was Lee Puey You, deported after 20 months of detention, “embarrassing and shameful” sexual examination and interrogation, who etched the question into Angel Island’s walls: “Will I always be a secret?” Morality and sexual deviance were codified as criteria for Chinese women immigrants since before the Page Act 1875, banning them for almost a decade prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Wikipedia. Indian coolie laborers in British Trinidad and Tobago; taken around 1890.

Rajiv Mohabir tells another defiant tale of the “despised minority” hidden along trade routes: “I was born a crab-dog devotee of the silent/ god, the jungle god, the god crosser-of-seas…. Now/ Stateside, Americans erase my slave story;/ call me Indian. Can’t they hear kalapani/ in my voice, my breath’s marine layer when I say?” Slave codes were updated with the word “coolie,” and hundreds of thousands of Indian and Chinese men arrived on the same or updated slave ships to Trinidad, Guayana, Canada, Peru, Cuba, and California. These would be sites of expulsion, violence against Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Filipino, Hmong, Korean and others identified as Asian, including an interhemispheric roundup that incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese of the Americas during World War II and an ongoing century of invasion, carnage, militarization, colonialism, exploitation and erasure from North Africa to West Asia.

“What’s/ the difference between memory told and memory burned?” Tiana Nobile asks us this fundamental question as we continue to refashion and reiterate who is the other to our us and the great myths that bind us. But whether spurred by imagination, violence, longing or resistance, ask we must. To borrow from Sahar Muradi and Zohra Saed: ”And the whisper started, the itch spread, and grew and ballooned, and before I knew it — I leapt in — with everything on and with all abandon.”

One Story, Thirty Stories. Eds. Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi


Writing Prompts

Prompt 1: Write 10 lines that begin with “I am from.” On another page, write 10 lines that begin with “Because of this I am.” See what poetic combinations emerge. Bonus Prompt: Use a combination as the first line of a new poem.

Prompt 2: At your next friends or family gathering, do an exquisite corpse of sayings. Pass around a piece of paper. Each person writes a saying they remember from their youth and folds it over before passing it to the next person. Read all the sayings as a group poem, see what collective beliefs emerge.


  1. Take action against the record deportations to Southeast Asian Americans and end continued U.S. state violence against people of color — stand in power with communities of color and stop the next deportation flight! Follow posts on this Facebook Page..
  2. Support organizations who are led by people who live and fight for social justice for our communities — give to Asian American leadership organizations like KundimanMekong NYC and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.
  3. Consider what it means to give in solidarity. Support arts and culture and community-led philanthropy — give local community funds where your gift will go directly to people who are changing the world from the ground up.

NAPAWF NYC issues Statement Coronavirus related racism and discrimination


The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) issued a statement today condemning racist acts of violence against Asian American related to the coronavirus.

“The recent anti-Asian attacks have come from the simplification of our diverse community into one singular entity, the wrongful suspicion that East Asian Americans are responsible for the pandemic and carriers of COVID-19, and the perpetual foreigner stereotype which deems Asians as outsiders. These long-held stereotypes are not only harmful to our community but are a distraction from responding to this public health crisis. We are here to remind the world that we are not your scapegoat. We are not a virus. We are not the problem. Though we may be physically distant from each other now, this pandemic cannot eclipse the collective power and resiliency we have built throughout history that we will continue to harness during this moment….

Read the full statement on NAPAWF NYC’s website

Today’s COVID19 related anti-Asian hate crimes have been a few centuries in the making and are directly related to reproductive justice and systemic racism for Asian American women of color, who were in fact banned on the basis of race, and for whom race was constructed specifically around the idea that they were social and public health contaminants. (Read Diana Lu’s article “Yang Song and the Long History of Targeting Asian American Sex Work”)

From “The Exclusion of Chinese Women, 1870–1943,” Sucheng Chan in Chinese Immigrants and American Law (Ed. Charles McClain)

The text of the Page Act itself reads:

“That it shall be unlawful for aliens of the following classes to immigrate into the United States, namely, persons who are undergoing sentence for conviction in their own country of felonious crimes other than political or growing out of or the result of such political offenses, and women “imported for the purposes of prostitution. Every vessel arriving in the United States may be inspected under the direction of the collector of the port at which it arrives, if he shall have reason to believe that such obnoxious persons are on board…[shall be] ascertained by him to be of either of the classes whose importation is hereby forbidden.”

Page Act, Approved, March 3, 1875

Asian American Journalists Association Calls for Anti Racism from News Organizations in Coronavirus Coverage

AAJA calls for “accurate and fair portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans”

This is excerpted from a statement by the AAJA MediaWatch Committee on February 13, 2020 and revised March 19, 2020. Read more on the AAJC website.

The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) is urging journalists to exercise care in their coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in China to ensure accurate and fair portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans and to avoid fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the outbreak.

Some of the news and commentary that have raised concern include:

  • Use of images of people wearing face masks without providing the proper context: For many years prior to the coronavirus outbreak, face masks have been commonly used in East Asian countries, including for protection from pollution… (read more)
  • Use of generic images of Chinatown: Only include images of a local Chinatown if it is directly related to a news story… (read more)
  • Use of the term “Wuhan virus,” “China coronavirus,” or “Chinese coronavirus,” or any other term that uses geographic locations or refers to a population to describe the virus: The World Health Organization issued guidelines in 2015 discouraging the use of geographic locations… (read more)

Anti-Asian Violence Tops 100 Attacks Per Day, Lawmakers and Philanthropy Respond

On April 8, Alex Daniels of The Chronicle of Philanthropy details the response of funders who have played a critical role in reinvesting in divested communities. The determination of which communities exactly are divested from has unfortunately been part of the larger picture of how woefully underprepared, under-resourced and misunderstood Asian Americans and Asian as a socially constructed race actually are.

Patricia Eng and other Asian Americans and allies build consciousness among funders large and small to assess their own biases in who and what they fund

Quick Rose Garden Recap: President Trump — on the heels of the hearings calling for his impeachment — launched an immediate campaign to rebrand the novel virus COVID-19, one of several coronaviruses, as the “China Virus” or “Wuhan Virus.” One of his aides was said to have called it the “Kung Flu” to a Chinese American Washington Post reporter and then this whole conspiracy happened:

A close-up of President Trump’s notes shows where “Corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post reports:

While the president recently read a statement asking Americans to protect Asian Americans from racist attacks, saying they’re not to blame for the virus, his son Donald Trump Jr. shortly thereafter posted a “Kung-Flu Kid” video of his father crane-kicking the coronavirus. And just last week, the Group of Seven could not reach an agreement on a joint statement about the pandemic because the Trump administration insisted on referring to covid-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” — a term other world leaders rejected as needlessly divisive.

These racial “dog whistles” — including linking outgroups with germs and disease — are part of a long political history of demonizing foreigners as threatening and dangerous. Anecdotally, these racial appeals appear to be having real social and political consequences. In the early stages of the pandemic, before the general lockdowns, the news media reported significant drops in visits to Chinese restaurants. More recently, Asian Americans are increasingly reporting being verbally or physically attacked.

Ironically, they also say “The U.S. has an ugly history of blaming foreigners for disease” and “xenophobia” (emphasis added) to describe hate crimes against Asian Americans. 🤦🏻‍♀️ Luckily, the day before Trump said “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear” at a White House meeting with African American leaders, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) tweeted this letter:

Diana Lu: Yang Song and the Long History of Targeting Asian American Sex Work

Yang Song

Diana Lu is a writer, comedian and scientist in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Robot Butt, Slackjaw, Women in Comedy Festival Daily and Plan A Magazine. Follow Diana on Medium @diluwriter and on Twitter @discoveryduck.

Originally published on Hyphen Magazine on August 28, 2019

Yang Song, an immigrant sex worker living in Queens, NY, was killed in a police raid in 2017. Why did media coverage turn her story into fetishizing pulp — rather than a tale of powerful community activism? (Photo courtesy of Emma Whitford.)

“A woman begins to fall.”

This is how the New York Times [1] depicts Yang Song — just before her death, a half-naked body frozen in trauma.

Yang Song was a 38-year-old sex worker living in Queens, NY. During a targeted police raid on the night of Nov. 25, 2017, she fell to her death from the balcony of her 4th-floor apartment. A year before, an undercover police officer raped her at gunpoint. After reporting the assault, Song was harassed by an NYPD vice squad, pressured to become an undercover informant, threatened with deportation and arrested and humiliated in multiple stings in the months before her death.

Song’s story is a shocking and painful case of police abuse that highlights the systemic disenfranchisement of immigrants and sex workers. But that’s not the direction journalists Dan Barry and Jeffrey Singer chose to take in their splashy Oct. 11, 2018, editorial. The two journalists tell Song’s story in the exploitative, sexualized manner often reserved for East and Southeast Asian women. Even worse, they frame her death as tragic individual psychology instead of persistent and pernicious institutional oppression.

Barry and Singer pore over the lurid details of Song’s death with exoticizing, sensationalist language, calling Flushing, Queens, a “netherworld … where sex is sold beside cloudy tanks of fish and crab.” They describe residents using exploitative, Orientalist tropes, painting the Asian women Song associated with as pitiful victims and the Asian men as shifty-eyed, lecherous johns and pimps.

By breaking up the timeline of Song’s harassment by an NYPD vice squad and interspersing them with these sordid anecdotes, Barry and Singer made each instance of abuse seem separate and unrelated. They emphasize her deteriorating mental health rather than the months of targeted harassment that likely caused it. They write that police raids have decreased by 20% since Yang’s death but omitted some key facts: first, that “arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700% [2] between 2012 and 2016”; and second, that ICE has been using prostitution diversion courts to target immigrants [3] for deportation. Any mention of systemic injustice came from Song’s brother, who was dismissed as an amateur “lone-wolf investigator.” His suspicion of a vice squad cover-up was attributed to a foreigner’s distrust, a fantasy borne of deranged grief.

Barry and Singer chose to introduce Flushing community activist Michael Chu by quoting his assessment of Song’s appearance and “service”: “I hear she was Number 1: young, pretty and her service was great.”

Compare this to Emma Whitford [4]’s continued reporting on the same case [5], which began Nov. 30, 2017. Whitford selects quotes from the same Michael Chu that reflect his significant advocacy for Song, instead of dehumanizing them both: “When they are in this type of business, then nobody care [sic] … So some police just take advantage and make situation worse and make the circumstances tough.”

“No matter what kind of profession or service you provide, a life is the most important thing to respect,” Whitford quotes Chu as saying. “There’s a lot we need to do to improve. We want the truth, the real truth … we all have to learn something from this.”

Whitford’s work consistently keeps the focus [6] on Yang Song’s humanity and NYPD vice squads’ targeted brutality against immigrant sex workers, as well as the continuing community activism and growing legislative support [7] for sex work decriminalization catalyzed by Song’s death.

But Whitford’s reporting is printed in The Appeal [8], Queens Eagle [9], andDocumentedNY [10] — not as a full-spread, interactive feature in The New York Times. Most of the world will only see the latter version, with more mentions of the sultry smells of Chinese street food wafting through the night air than of police corruption [11].

Yang Song’s death was an American societal failure, and the political activation in its aftermath is a moving example of American collective heroism. But all of that was co-opted and printed as fetishizing pulp.

Barry and Singer’s article isn’t an anomalous instance of poor journalistic integrity. Women of East and Southeast Asian descent are routinely sexualized by white journalists, even when they are the victims of horrific crimes. When the Daily Mail [12] reported on a man who kicked his Thai wife to death, they chose to include photos of her in a bathing suit, dehumanizing her as a sexual object and implying complicity in her own gruesome murder. Another Daily Mail report [13] of a man who butchered his Filipino wife before a sex holiday only shows an unrelated photo of bikini-clad pole dancers, as if the perpetrator’s libido overshadows both the victim and the heinous crime.

This pattern is not a simple issue of implicit bias or negative representation. The sexualization of Asian women, including their association with sex work and human trafficking, has been a hallmark of anti-Asian propaganda since the first U.S. anti-immigration efforts targeting Chinese laborers in the 1800s. From the beginning, sensationalist journalism about the “moral racial pollution [14]” of Asian sex work, as documented and historicized by the “Journey to the West” podcast, has been deliberately disseminated to stoke public contempt, promote discriminatory policies and tightly control immigration.

To understand how this came about, we must go back to the origins of Asian exclusion in the United States.

Targeting immigrant sex workers: How did we get here?

Between the 1840s and the 1880s, Chinese labor was preferentially exploited by American industrialists and seen as a threat to white men’s livelihoods, especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1868. Corporate interests, trade agreements and treaties with China did not permit the United States to altogether ban Chinese immigration [15] at that time, and race-based immigration exclusion was legally and morally unprecedented. So legislators had to use different tactics to disenfranchise and exclude Chinese immigrants.

U.S. citizenship [16] was (and to some extent still is [17]) a moral as well as legal category. Racial exclusion could therefore be effected via conduct-based policies — if the conduct was associated with a particular racial identity. After the Civil War, “good moral character” was framed around the nation’s self-image as a bastion of freedom (against slavery) and Christian virtues. As a result, those creating sensationalist “yellow peril” propaganda associated Chinese immigrants with dangerous, “un-American” values and conduct.

Journalists and politicians described Chinese laborers as tantamount to slaves [18] for accepting lower wages than “free white” workers. They used Victorian mores of sexuality to invalidate and systematically dismantle the Chinese family. Chinese marriages were condemned as illegitimate because of polygamy; concubinage was falsely equated to antebellum slave harems, debasing all Chinese wives as complicit sex slaves.

Journalist and politician Frank M. Pixley said this of the Chinese marriage [19]:

“The true fact is … they are nominal wives. They are not the wives of honor … there is not a family, as we understand the honorable and sacred relation of the family tie, among the Chinese.”

“Purported to protect trafficking victims, in practice the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1870 gave immigration officials complete authority to deem any Asian woman a prostitute and forbid her entry into the state.”

Xenophobia and racism combined with anti-miscegenation laws and socioeconomic hardship forced Chinese laborers to live in large bachelor societies [20]. resulting in a need for legitimate sex work. Though there were sex workers of all nationalities, white journalists singled out Chinese sex workers, writing countless lurid stories [21] about “trafficked yellow slaves,” both criminal and victim, doubly guilty [15] via association with their male counterparts, Chinese “slave” laborers.

Journalists racialized discriminatory wages (set by white American employers), polygamy and prostitution (necessitated by racism and low wages) as uniquely Chinese “slave-like” characteristics so that the newly-emancipated United States could use the abolition of slavery [15] to justify race-based discrimination against them. They especially targeted female immigrants, fearing that the “enslaved, mongoloid” children thereof would be, as birthright U.S. citizens, a threat to America’s future as a white, Christian nation.

Thus, California passed the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1870 [22] to prohibit the “kidnapping and importation of Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese females for criminal or demoralizing purposes.” Purported to protect trafficking victims, in practice it gave immigration officials [23] complete authority to deem any Asian woman a prostitute and forbid her entry into the state.

In 1875, the same year the Statue of Liberty was built, Congress passed the Page Act [24] to nominally exclude Asian “forced laborers” and prostitutes from entering the United States. However, because Chinese female immigrants — whether wives or sex workers, trafficked or not — were essentialized [25] by Congressman Horace F. Page as women who were selling themselves into sexual slavery, the Page Act was duly enforced to exclude and deport all Chinese women.

The sex trafficking stereotypes of Chinese women were later applied to other Asian immigrant groups. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 [26], U.S. plantations imported Japanese men for cheap labor. Many Japanese immigrants tried to avoid the fate of the Chinese by assimilating white values and conduct, but this did little to curb racist animosity. White lawmakers suspected “the assumed virtue of the Japanese — i.e. their partial adoption of American customs — makes them the more dangerous as competitors [27].”

Anti-Japanese race riots in California led to the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 [28], which banned new Japanese immigration — but allowed for family reunification. This exception created a loophole that allowed Japanese bachelors in America to start families via arranged marriages with women in Japan, whom they met through photos, called “picture brides [29].” Initially tolerated, when Japanese American families began to circumvent alien land laws [30] by leasing land in their U.S.-born children’s names, Japanese women also became a threat.

The picture brides system was spun by white journalists to claim that Japanese women were being trafficked, and the Ladies Agreement of 1921 [31] put a total ban on picture brides, effectively ending immigration from Japan. The policy went on to affect Korean immigrants and refugees after the annexation of Korea by Japan.

In sum, the first laws to restrict immigration to the United States were premised on the assumed criminal sexuality of Chinese women. This set the precedent both for the legality and method [16] of eventually excluding [32] all Asian and Pacific Island [33] immigration to the United States [34].

In Thailand, there are currently five times more commercial sex workers in districts near former U.S. bases than not.

The true irony is that the actual preponderance of sex trade and trafficking via East and Southeast Asian countries came about for global economic reasons directly related to western imperialism [35]. From the sexual exploitation of Vietnamese people [36] in French Indochine; to WWII comfort women [37] kidnapped from China, Korea and the Philippines being transferred from Japanese soldiers to the U.S. military [38]; to sex work industries surrounding U.S. bases [35] throughout Asia, Asian sex labor has always followed militarism.

These global injustices persist today. In Thailand, there are currently five times [39] more commercial sex workers in districts near former U.S. bases than not. The sex trade [40] developed in Korea in response to U.S. militarism has now replaced Korean women with Eastern European and Filipina women, many of whom are trafficked. The 1997 Asian financial crisis hit Southeast Asia especially hard because “the International Monetary Fund’s interest-rate policies and cuts on social-welfare programs not only contributed to the region’s economic problems [35] but also made poor migrants more vulnerable to changing market forces.” Today, the displaced rural poor [41] continue to be exploited for inhumane sex tourism in urban centers, then punished by anti-trafficking [42] pressures from the west.

In other words, sex trafficking trades are largely the result of colonialism and imperialism. And yet legislation that is supposed to protect its victims are often enacted to bar immigration.

The West’s perception of Asian women, constantly shifting from perpetual prostitute to sex trafficking victim, whichever is most convenient at the time, is rooted in the exploitation of Asian labor by white imperialist powers. It was historically used to exclude Asian immigrants and undermine Asian American civil rights. Today, it remains a lived reality that is most damaging to the most marginalized members of our communities, like Yang Song.

“It’s not just about Hollywood movies or ‘yellow fever’ on dating apps. Sensationalist, exploitative journalism is another kind of racist representation that needs to be abolished.”

Looking forward

In June 2018, after a months-long investigation, the Queens DA [43]absolved the NYPD vice squad of misconduct in Yang Song’s death. However, the continued work of Representatives like Ron T. Kim [44] and Yuh-Line Niou [45], community activists such as Red Canary Song [46] and DecrimNY [47], and investigative reporting by Emma Whitford [48] and Melissa Gira Grant [49] have kept public pressure on seeking justice for Yang Song and creating safer conditions for sex workers. Michael Chu [50] continues his community advocacy, leading the Flushing Neighborhood Watch and facilitating the safety and legal redress of Chinese immigrants.

Asian American communities must learn from the past and actively support this work. For East and Southeast Asian Americans, media representation seems like a perennial issue, as does hypersexualization and fetishization. But it’s not just about Hollywood movies or “yellow fever” on dating apps. Sensationalist, exploitative journalism like Barry and Singer’s New York Times article is another kind of racist representation that needs to be abolished, one that has been used to directly exclude and disenfranchise all Asian Americans.

We also need to ask the tough questions:

Why has there recently been a national crackdown [51] singling out massage businesses and no other establishments potentially being used for sex work, for police raids?

Why are the recent high-profile stories about Asian sex workers racially exploitative [52] and/or suggest human trafficking [53] with little [54], specious evidence [55]?

How is this related to the United States’ growing hostility [3] toward immigration and China?

And what does this mean for the future of all Asian American communities?

Remember that the Page Act, “by targeting marginal immigrants — women and prostitutes at that [15]” — allowed Congress “to restrict Chinese immigration while maintaining a veneer of inclusiveness” when it needed to. Eventually, “all Asians and Pacific Islanders [56] from Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the west to the Polynesian Islands in the east” were barred.

If nothing else, this history should serve as a reminder that an attack on the most vulnerable members of our communities is an attack on us all.

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