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May 14, 2012

'Seeking Asian Female' Explores Gulf Between Perception and Reality

by Matthew Hilburn

Sometimes, the best laid plans don’t always work out as imagined.


That was the case for filmmaker Debbie Lum, the producer and director of the documentary “Seeking Asian Female.” It was also true for the subjects of her film: Steven, an aging white American obsessed with marrying an Asian woman, and his bride-to-be Sandy, a 30-year-old Chinese woman he met online.
 

Lum initially set out to explore the phenomenon of “yellow fever,” a sexual obsession non-Asian men have with Asian women.


“As a Chinese-American woman myself, I originally intended to make an exposé of what I thought were demeaning and racist attitudes about Asian women,” she said.
“The film that develops – a story of cross-cultural challenges, love and friendship – comes as a complete surprise to me.”


The movie is an engrossing, charming story of how three virtual strangers, thrown together, learn about themselves and each other as their preconceived notions meet reality. The three never found what they thought they were looking for, but as the movie ends, they appear to have discovered something better.


While interviewing men with professed “yellow fever,” Lum came across Steven, a 60-
year-old, twice-divorced garage attendant at the airport in San Francisco, California. He represented Lum’s “worst nightmare,” because for 10 years he had been scouring Internet dating sites specializing in connecting Asian women with Western men in search of the perfect bride.


“I think I was initially drawn to him because he had no verbal filter,” she said. “He shared with me the things he thought about Asian women that maybe others didn’t want to say.”


A self-proclaimed hoarder, Steven’s small apartment in a San Francisco suburb was filled with mementos of his long search for love, including pictures of, and letters from, Asian pen pals, as well as catalogs from so-called mail-order bride services he’d used in the past.


At the beginning of the film, Steven is enthralled with a 24-year-old woman in Asia, but she dumps him and, improbably, he finds Sandy online.


Sandy met two of Steven’s criteria: She was young and Chinese, but not quite the innocent he’d dreamt of.


Sandy’s story is a common one in China. Born in the countryside, she made her way to the industrial hub of Shenzen in her teens to work in a factory. She worked her way up and landed an office job. Yet she was still single and considered old for a Chinese woman seeking a husband.


“She was not dead set on coming to America,” said Lum. “She was really looking for someone to get married to. That was her main objective. She actually thought she was posting an ad for Chinese people.”


Lum said she thought Sandy was driven to find someone “who really adored her.”

“There are many times I think she thought things would have been better in China,” she said. “One could argue she could be better off economically in China. Her choice was very much of the heart.”


Sandy, the film reveals, is also not the demure, obedient wife Steven may have thought he wanted. At one point, she discovers Steven is still in contact with his former pen pal and cleverly manipulates the aftermath to permanently remove her from Steven’s life.


Lum intended to remain an objective filmmaker and document Steven and Sandy’s relationship. But since Sandy spoke virtually no English and Steven spoke virtually no Chinese, they turned to Lum, who speaks “broken” Chinese.


“They would just naturally ask me to translate,” she said. “It was awkward, and I wondered if I should be doing it.”


Lum’s intervention was pivotal at one tense moment during a misunderstanding which threatened to end Steven and Sandy’s short relationship.


The couple will celebrate their third anniversary this August.


“We’re happy for the most part. We're doing the best we can to be a good team. Each one of us gives something and shares,” said Steven. "I am the Senate, and she's the House of Representative. There's a lot of clamoring in the House, but the Senate slows things down.”


Steven said Sandy’s English has improved “300 percent,” but admits his Chinese has not improved at all.


Lum isn’t sure what would have happened had she remained a fly on the wall.


“I would say that the two of them have chemistry. Whether they would have been able to work out all of their issues without me being there, I don't know,” she said. “It might have been a bumpier ride. You look at them today, and they have a really solid relationship. I don't deal with their late night calls.”