Gina Lyu just finished her afternoon university class at the University of Toronto. It had been a long, tiring day. Standing by a downtown bus stop, she was waiting for the right bus to take her home and was fiddling with her phone to pass the time.
Lyu is a fourth-year international student from China who studies management. While she was engrossed in replying to a friend’s message about a weekend party, a man approached and turned to face her.
She lifted her eyes as he came closer and closer.
“Are you Asian?” the man asked, looking Lyu up and down.
He looked directly into her eyes. “I thought Asian girls were super young and beautiful.”
It was not the first time that Lyu heard of cases of racism and bias being thrown around in Canada. But it was the first time that she had been reduced to a race herself.
“Yellow fever” is an uncomfortable — and at times scary — phenomenon that some Asian women (and men) experience when they are approached by others in a sexual manner because of their race. Though it is not well documented, some journalists and academics have explored the issue, which appears to be on the rise in Canada.
“I stiffened at the sound of his oppressive and targeted words. My brain froze at that time. I didn’t even know what to do,” Lyu said in Mandarin over a coffee.
“It was the most helpless moment for me,” Lyu said in a video interview with the Toronto Observer. “He was my father’s age, and he tried to touch me, and I ducked. The only lucky thing was that it was in the afternoon, and not at night.
“In fact, the sexual and physical assault didn’t happen to me, but I still felt sick, and the feeling lasts a long time.”
Preference is not an excuse
Asian women (and men) are the target of individuals who only focus on Asian traits in this context.
To some extent, this is not only a problem in terms of dating and relationships. As in Lyu’s case, at times strangers make Asian victims feel unsafe.
“Some scholars who study this phenomenon have argued that ‘yellow fever’ cannot be considered the equivalent to other (sexual) preferences,” Xiaobei Chen, a professor of sociology and associate chair at Carleton University, said in a phone interview.
“Instead, it must be understood as desires that are at least partly shaped by racist constructions of Asian women.”
WATCH | Observer reporter Chudi Xu explains ‘yellow fever’:
A report from the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition, a U.S. nonprofit organization that stands against racism, found that in 2020 and 2021, women in the United States reported hate incidents 2.3 times more than men (68 per cent).
A report conducted by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter (CCNC Toronto) found that a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been 1,150 cases of racist attacks in Canada. Asian women were the victims in nearly 60 per cent of all reported cases.
Some of the victims, like Lyu, didn’t call the police after their encounters, so the actual figures could be even higher.
The pandemic has triggered a new wave of violence, followed by the social movement #StopAsianHate which began in March 2021. That month, a man in Atlanta, Ga., went on a shooting spree that killed eight people, including six Asian women.
“In the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting … for days the police and the media described the incident as caused by sexual addiction rather than seeing it as a hate crime against Asian woman,” said Chen, the sociology professor.
“It is a very blatant example of how the media, even in the context of horrific tragedy … still play a role in perpetuating that discourse.”
The cure for ‘yellow fever’?
Students such as Lyu experience not only physical endangerment from individuals who claim to have “preferences,” but also long-lasting psychological damage.
Many people are trying to address “yellow fever” on social media. One TikTokker who calls herself “haileyych” is trying to counter it by showing examples. One of her videos tells the audience that “it is time to admit that what individuals claim as “preferences” are thinly veiled racist attacks.”
In one Facebook group, Libertarian Guys With Asian Wives, about half of the posts promote having an Asian wife and emphasize the benefits of marrying one.
“I think it is kind of weird to have racial preferences when dating,” the YouTuber Celiac Attack said in a reaction video after he browsed the Facebook group’s posts. He read out a comment in one of his videos: “Why do you keep pointing out your wife is Asian if you aren’t some kind of fetishist though? Why isn’t she just your wife?”
WATCH | ‘Celiac Attack’ takes on Libertarian Guys with Asian Wives:
Asian women have long been viewed as supple and submissive. Several studies on Hollywood movies probed how they hypersexualize Asian women and desexualize Asian men.
In a recent interview with CBC News, film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu described how movies, such as Madame Chrysanthème (1887) and Madame Butterfly (1904), planted the seeds of “the trend of “servile submissives, suffering, diminutive” Asian women in early mass culture.
It’s something many Asian women actively want to change, including Chen, the sociology professor.
“I think for Asian women, we should define ourselves and narrate our own story, rather than be defined by others,” she said. “It is a lifelong process.”
A lifelong journey for Asians
After the encounter at the bus stop, Lyu opened the Uber app and hailed a ride so she could leave as soon as she could. During the ride, she began processing what just happened to her. She began to shake.
When asked how she would respond if she had the chance to go through it all over again, she said, “I would fight back. And take a picture of him to remind my other friends.”
Read more from the Observer: