The Chinese Siamese Cat
Chinoiserie and Ethnic Stereotypes
I was never able to precisely describe my discomfort with Amy Tan until I chanced upon her children's books — The Moon Lady (1992) and The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), both illustrated by Gretchen Schields. Schields's graphics are an amalgamation of the style of chinoiserie, on the one hand, and of ethnic stereotypes of Chinese, on the other. Both sources for Schields's creation are Orientalized images of China. Chinoiserie idealizes Cathay, a mythic China; ethnic stereotypes demonize Chinese. The representation of China is hence polarized between two frozen moments — a timeless golden age of ritualistic festivity and a debased recent past of the Ching dynasty. The contradiction between the two Chinas recalls the coexistence of Charlie Chan, the good and entertaining detective, and Fu Manchu, the evil Oriental, in American popular culture. The West simplifies the other in stark black-and-white contrasts in order to situate itself squarely in the middle, resisting the evil heathens while aided by the loyal Asian servant. The female counterparts to the two archetypal males are the geisha Madame Butterfly, eager to please, and the Dragon Lady, eager to displease.
This chapter contends that Amy Tan partakes in the creation of a new, “alternative” Orientalism. To prove this, Schields's illustrations provide a starting point because the paintings embody what lies behind Tan's mass appeal. Tan is actually in an inextricable double bind. Having grown up in the 1960s when an ethnic consciousness movement permeated the United States, particularly her home city of San Francisco, Tan must have felt compelled to come to terms with the issue of ethnicity as an eminent