Why Don't Asia's Heroes Look Asian?

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NURY VITTACHICome with me to a place where many of the deepest, darkest, innermost thoughts on the super-sensitive subject of race are hidden. I visit it regularly, and what I find there never fails to shock me. The place is the comic-book section of the street-side newsstand. I have been addicted to such kiosks for 30 years, and in Asia, the message they offer differs greatly from the commonly accepted line on race.This is a pet interest of mine, for two reasons. First, I once worked as a cartoonist myself. Second, while fate has given me the coffee-colored skin of a South Asian, my wife has the milk-tea look of a Caucasian and my adopted children the vanilla-latte appearance of the Chinese.

In modern societies, we say all races are considered equal. We tell children that the only correct attitude is to disregard racial differences completely. At the same time, we add that we are proud of being Chinese or South Asian or Irish or African-American or whatever. But we are lying. I spend most of my time in Asia, and our comic books--which surely encapsulate some of our favorite dreams and fantasies--reveal what we really think on the subject: Caucasians are superior, and we want to be like them.

Ouch! No! This cannot be true. It would be too painful. But let me show you the evidence. Every comic on the newsstand outside my office in Hong Kong depicts heroes with round eyes, straight European noses and fair hair. Not a single one of the 17 publications for sale features a hero or heroine with Chinese features. No character has straight black hair, narrow eyes or small, flat noses like the ones my children have.

Consider what artists call the six-heads rule. A character's height is typically six times the length of his head--or seven times for an especially large Caucasian superhero. But if you want to portray a realistic, petite Japanese salaryman, the ratio is only four- or five-to-one. These and a host of other technical giveaways show that Hong Kong comic book heroes are, incontrovertibly and without exception, Caucasian.

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In Tokyo, similar rules hold true. Comic heroes are tall, round-eyed, straight-nosed and often blond. Japanese artists frequently draw eyes as oval orbs with the upright measurement exceeding the horizontal measurement, and they often ink in only the bridge of the nose, ignoring the nostrils. These techniques make the faces as Caucasian as possible.

The comic-book racial differences between South Asians and Caucasians are more subtle, but artists still make the necessary adjustments. Rarely in South Asian comics--or in the movies--will you find dark brown skin or the big, expressive Indian nose. Instead, the heroes and heroines have small noses and pink skin.

I am in no way suggesting that this is a form of conscious racism forced upon us by Caucasians. We do it to ourselves, and we do it unconsciously. A caricature of me appears regularly in a Hong Kong newspaper. The artist, an intelligent Chinese woman who has known me for years, has given me the rosy skin of an Arizona cowgirl.

Over the years, I have found only one group of artists that regularly tries to put accurate racial characteristics into their drawings of Asians. Plaudits, please, to the unsung doodlers of a multinational firm not usually credited with great cultural sensitivity: the Walt Disney Co. Many of the American entertainment giant's films have been applauded for their entertaining stories and appealing music. But that's not why I'm clapping. I cheer because Aladdin has a big, hooked nose--a truly mighty Middle Eastern honker, like some of my Arab friends. His girl, Princess Jasmine, also sports a sizable schnozzle. In my child's copy of Kipling's The Jungle Book, the Ladybird edition published in England, Mowgli has weird, orange-pink skin and cop-out brown hair. But in the Disney film, he has warm brown skin and a thick shock of jet black hair, just like I had when I was a boy. In The Lion King, set in Africa, Mufasa has wide, flared nostrils and a hot chocolate voice. Of course, Disney doesn't always get it right: Mulan's eyes, for example, are way too steeply angled. But Disney tries--unlike us here in Asia.

Contemplating this issue has led me to consider a question other Asians may already have asked themselves: All things being equal, would I prefer to be Caucasian? Yes, I reply, shocking myself. All men want to be heroes. All heroes are Caucasian. End of argument.

In the meantime, my five-year-old is progressing well with his reading. The other day, I laid a bunch of comic books from around the world in front of him and asked which character he most identified with. He chose a talking beetle called Dim, from A Bug's Life, because he has blue skin and six legs. But that's a kid for you. Long may he remain racially color-blind.

Nury Vittachi is a Hong Kong-based author and columnist.

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