A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930-1960

By Shirley Jennifer Lim | Go to book overview

5
Riding the Crest
of an Oriental Wave
Foreign-Born Asian “Beauty”

In the span of a little over a year (1958–1959), Miyoshi Umeki won an Academy Award for best supporting actress, France Nuyen graced the cover of Life magazine, and Akiko Kojima was crowned Miss Universe. As Los Angeles' Japanese American newspaper Kashu Mainichi observed, “in many fields of the arts the U.S. is riding the crest of an Oriental wave.”1 What distinguishes the late 1950s from the early Cold War era is that in the later period foreign-born Asian women gained international fame in mainstream cultural venues such as beauty pageants and movies, whereas earlier, American-born women of Asian descent gained local fame in community events. Thus, by 1959, a certain type of Asian femininity—foreignborn, slender, and coy yet sexual—was mainstreamed for the first time in American history. Why did this shift in public culture from American to Asian occur?2

The crest of the oriental wave occurred at a critical juncture in American history, in a narrow band of time between the end of the Tokyo Rose treason trials in 1949 and the onset of serious U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s.3 These events coincided with the beginning of the civil rights era as well as the consolidation of American empire. Anxieties around racial integration within the United States and American imperialism in Asia were alleviated through mainstream media's integration of these foreign-born women of Asian descent. The oriental wave utilized these women to act as symbols of current domestic racial integration and to incorporate empire in reassuringly nonviolent ways that negated the appearance of empire in a rapidly decolonizing world. It brought Asian women into national prominence and normalized the increased migration of Asian war brides. Yet it did so at the cost of

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