Pete Hoekstra’s racist Super Bowl campaign ad feeds — and feeds on — paranoia about China

(NOTE: Updates posted at bottom, including more parodies as they’re posted and more crazy stuff from Pete Hoekstra as he says them).

This ad was shown during the Super Bowl, but only in Michigan, where former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra is running to unseat Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow. The 30-second spot shows a pretty young Asian woman in what looks like Vietnam, riding a bicycle among rice paddies with a conical hat slung over her back, who stops and says to the camera, “Thank you Michigan senator Debbie Spend It Now,” for contributing to U.S. deficit spending and borrowing more and more money from China.

Yes, the ad shows Southeast Asia (a familiar sight to anyone with even a modicum of familiarity with world history of the past 40 years, and certainly Hoekstra) but it bashes China as a way to get at Stabenow. The woman in the ad never says “China” but it’s clear who the target is, as the woman speaks in her sort-of-broken English, after a gong (that’s not a cliche at all) starts off the spot:

“Debbie spent so much american money, you borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you debbie spend it now.”

The ad is so chockfull of racially-charged symbolism it’s disgusting as well as unintentionally comical (some Chinese are puzzled because they can see immediately the setting isn’t China).

It’s messed up and offensive on multiple levels, and not just because Hoekstra’s campaign chose to mash together westerner’s scant knowledge of Asia into one image: “Oh, relax, it’s all Oriental, right?” It plays on stereotypes of the “Hot Asian Babe,” Asians’ broken English, sense of superiority over outdated notions of third-world rice farming economies, and fear of China/Japan/Koreans/Viet Cong/the Asian flavor-of-the-year.

It’s also politically very dishonest.

Here’s a terrific analysis of the ad by Chris Hayes, sitting in for Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, that breaks down Hoekstra’s claims about U.S. indebtedness to China while it calls out Hoekstra’s racism:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos tackles the ad’s race-baiting and goes on to point out the anti-China memes that are rampant (and incorrect) on Hoekstra’s campaign website, although it looks like the Won Ton font and dragons have been banished since the post was published.

Amazingly, Hoekstra refuses to back down from the ad and apologize for it. Instead, Hoesktra says, “I don’t think there’s any element of (stereotyping) at all. The only stereotyping is of liberal Democrats and their spending polices.”

But a rising tide of outrage is bubbling up, even from the Republican ranks, with one GOP consultant calling it “really, really dumb.”

Asian American groups including the Michigan chapter of APIA Vote and JACL are criticizing the ad:

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization, is disgusted by an ad aired this past weekend by Peter Hoekstra’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in Michigan. Hoekstra’s ad features an Asian woman thanking Hoekstra’s opponent for policies that supposedly favor China. The woman speaks unaccented but grammatically incorrect English, and has a conical straw hat, a symbol of anti-Asian sentiment often used in racial caricatures.

The Hoekstra campaign defends the ad as using satire to make a statement about China’s education
system. If they believe this ad is a satire about education, the Hoekstra campaign needs to be educated about the basics of this difficult literary form. In truth, their explanation is a shallow attempt to rationalize a racial attack in an effort to instill fear.

Anti-Asian fear mongering as a political tactic has a long and sordid history. From the hysteria surrounding the “yellow peril” in the late 19th century to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, depicting Asians as the enemy can result in dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences for Americans of Asian ancestry. Hoekstra’s own state of Michigan was the scene to one of the most tragic anti-Asian incidents in recent times: the murder of Vincent Chin.

The JACL is dismayed that Hoekstra would resort to tired racist tropes and xenophobia to score political points.

And today the Washington Post notes a group of African American ministers in Detroit have called for Hoekstra to apologize.

Blogger and tastemaker Jeff Yang, in an upcoming online commentary, points out that Hoekstra’s ad is doubly troubling because Michigan is the state where anti-Asian racist emotions ran so high that in 1982 a young Chinese American, Vincent Chin, was murdered by two out-of-work autoworkers who assumed Chin was Japanese.

Another blogger, Bruce Reyes-Chow, has already made this connection between Hoekstra and Vincent Chin … and pulls back the timeline to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only U.S. legislation ever passed to keep out a specific ethnic group by name, to point out the long history of anti-Chinese (and anti-Asian) fervor in our country.

Racism in America is unfortunately alive and well, sometimes obvious and often not. When it’s not obvious, it might be just below the surface of the civilized, politically-correct veneer that our society has lacquered over the discussion of race. And it doesn’t take much for that veneer to flake off and the racism and stereotypes to ooze out like pus from an open wound. Just click to any newspaper website and search for articles about immigration. The level of hatred that’s vented on the comments beneath such stories can’t be described as “discourse” and in fact many news organizations have removed commenting on stories about immigration (and other hot-button topics such as homosexuality).

China is the current target but Japan took its turn both during and after WWII and during the late 1980s-early 1990s Japanese economic bubble, when Japan Inc. bought up U.S. icons such as parts of Rockefeller Center (and Japanese companies out-designed and out-sold U.S. car manufacturers, the situation that got Vincent Chin killed). Now China’s overtaken Japan as the world’s #2 economy, and has become the manufacturing outsourcing choice of many American companies (hello, Apple). And some Americans are threatened.

Just recently, a video that purported to be by a Ron Paul took Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign to task and questioned whether he has “Chinese values.” The point wasn’t whether or not it was a legitimate ad, but that someone thought it was worth making at all. The ad made veiled racial references to Huntsman’s two adopted daughters — one is Chinese and the other is South Asian Indian.

Sure, there are economic, political and cultural challenges of working with China but we need to work with China; we can’t ignore the Chinese or simply make racist fun of them and hope they’ll go away. The Economist magazine last month even added a weekly section devoted entirely to news about China, because it’s so important to be educated about the country.

Although China-bashing isn’t new, Hoekstra has taken the tactic to new and slimy depths. In 2010 a political ad took aim at China for the same economic reasons, using an evil Chinese professor lecturing in Mandarin to a future class of students about how China overtook America. That ad inspired an Internet meme of parody videos.

Hoesktra’s ad may inspire the same flood of funnier fakes. Here’s the first spoof of the ad that I’ve seen, from Funny or Die:


Here’s another spoof:

Hoekstra today is still defending the ad in the face of days of protests, increasingly from all sides, not just the Democrats and Asians.

Hoekstra took down his Chinese-themed website attacking Stabenow, and is reportedly replacing the offensive TV ad with a new one without the racial stereotypes. Too bad it took a week for this to happen.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell criticizes the actress in the ad, and asks members of the Screen Ators’ Guild to not play stereotypical roles in political ads. The request is not very realistic, unfortunately — Asian actors still find it difficult to get work so they’re not likely to turn down a gig. In the case of the Evil Chinese Professor ad, a cattle call for Asian actors to play the students had them performing to a green screen and not knowing what kind of ad they were filming, other than it was a “conservative political ad.” Some were surprised and disappointed after seeing it.

The ripple effects of this video have washed over Lisa Chan, the woman who acted the role of the “Yellow Girl” in the commercial. A week ago, no one knew who she was, and people like Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man and Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC called on the actress to come forward and explain why she participated in such a ridiculous bit of racist propaganda.

Well, she came forward yesterday and apologized on her Facebook profile:

“I am deeply sorry for any pain that the character I portrayed brought to my communities. As a recent college grad who has spent time working to improve communities and empower those without a voice, this role is not in any way representative of who I am. It was absolutely a mistake on my part and one that, over time, I hope can be forgiven. I feel horrible about my participation and I am determined to resolve my actions.”

Lisa Chan

CEO/ President, The Strive
Vice President, Sparxo Inc.

Yu notes that he would like to speak with her to learn why she did the commercial, but O’Donnell is satisfied with her sincere apology.

I was at first in agreement with ANgry Asian Man and thought her apology left some questions unanswered. Plus, it bugged me that she promoted herself in her apology with her job titles (“Strive” is a non-profit she started). She seems like a smart, eager young woman and I trust that she truly is sorry, but it’s hard to imagine that she didn’t know what the ad was about when she signed to do it. Maybe her agent or agency made her do it? That’s the kind of question that I had. But now, I feel that if I accept her apology as sincere, we should leave her alone.

She’s had a lot of people questioning her for the past week and it can’t be pleasant. And frankly, she might be a pawn in the political game, but the real bad guys are Hoekstra and his politicos who came up with and approved the ad.

(Thanks to all the members of the APA Media Mavens Group for sharing updated links)

Tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.