I’m an Asian American woman, and I’m not your happy ending

A billboard outside of LAX. (Photo credit: Christine Lu)
A billboard outside of LAX. (Photo credit: Christine Lu)

I remember seeing this billboard on my first trip to Las Vegas. I was really young — maybe a teenager — and this was long before I became an Asian American feminist and “hacktivist”.

This was during my “Asian-spotting” phase, when seeing Asian things gave me a secret thrill. So I remember this racy billboard as one of the first images greeting me as we rolled onto the Strip, and I recognized myself in it.

But I remember also being confused: why was me, my identity, my Asian-ness being portrayed in this way? What did being Asian have to do with being a naked woman? And, ‘happy ending’? What did that mean?

I’m a little older now, and I can now look back at that moment with equal parts horror and disgust. This — this — was one of my first images of Asian American womanhood; and this is the image of Asian American womanhood that still shapes the self-identity of too many young Asian American women today.

The “Tao” billboard is a “classic” example of appropriated Asian and Asian American femininity, and it has been used by the Las Vegas night club to sell thrills and sex for over a decade. The female model is not just an object of sexualization, she is implicitly an Asian object of sexualization; thus, “Tao” relies upon an Orientalized sexuality to attract visitors.

In so doing, the “Tao” billboard becomes yet another stereotypical rendering of the Asian American woman as prostitute. Like “sucky sucky long time”, the “happy ending” message is distinctly racialized and is historically associated with images of Asian American prostitutes who sell their services at massage parlours. This reference is reinforced by the nightclub’s clothing of its female employees in “geisha” racial drag.

Photo credit: LA Times
Photo credit: LA Times

In using this imagery, “Tao” co-opts Asian and Asian American female sexuality — and typically a fictionalized Orientalist fantasy of Asian and Asian American female sexuality — for their own ends. Not only does this billboard casually objectify the Asian American body using a model who in lacking even a face, arms or legs is robbed of her own identity and agency, but the (presumptively male) viewer is invited to consider her an explicit fetish object for his sexual satisfaction — as is written down her back, this woman exists to provide the viewer “a happy ending”, a not-so-veiled reference to oral sex.

It’s ironic that “Tao” is Chinese for wisdom or knowledge, and yet this billboard displays such a clear lack of both. This billboard demonstrates a clear absence of the fundamental understanding that these kinds of images are not innocent; they are formative and damaging for real, living, breathing, young Asian American women who must live every day with the consequences of being depicted as the willing source of men’s “happy endings”.

So, let me be clear with you, Tao, in a way that I couldn’t be when I was sixteen: I am not your fetish object. I am not your happy ending.

This billboard has stood over the Strip for decades, and it is now proliferated beyond to Vegas to objectify Asian American women in other cities, like Los Angeles. We cannot — we should not — stand for this billboard any longer.

Act Now! 18MillionRising has a petition, and you should sign it. You can also tweet @TaoLasVegas and tell them they should take it down.

Update: Congratulations to 18MillionRising (@18millionrising) and Twitter user Christine Lu (@ChristineLu) for organizing this campaign. Thanks to their efforts, and all of you who signed the petition, this billboard is being removed from near LAX.

24 hours between campaign launch and successful response! It’s time for a pat on the back all-round!

However, just to put it out there, this is the email that was received by Ms. Lu in regards to the billboard, and it’s full of a lot of bullshit.

Dear Ms. Lu:

We understand you’ve taken offense to our billboard near LAX. We take your concerns very seriously and would like to respond to the comments you have made in reports online and in the media.

TAO Group has nothing but the utmost respect for Asian culture and in no way do we intend any disrespect. TAO was created as a celebration of Asian religion and beliefs, as well as Asian-inspired design, food and culture. As for your concern that our billboard perpetuates a certain stereotype that is specific to Asian women, we respectfully disagree with you. While we obviously recognize the play on words, the clear meaning is that you can always expect to have a great guest experience at TAO. No more, no less. We also feel it is important to point out that the woman on our billboard isn’t Asian.

After almost eight years of this ad campaign’s existence, you are the first person we’ve been made aware of who has taken issue with it. We have hundreds of employees who are of Asian descent, and hundreds of thousands of Asian guests who frequent our establishments each year. TAO drives as many as 15,000 to 20,000 guests per week to our restaurant and nightclub, and there have been some nights where almost half of our guests have been Asian. It would not be a stretch to say that we have had millions of Asian visitors to our venues over the years, and we have never been told they take offense to our marketing. TAO has been celebrating and representing Asian culture as well, if not better than most for over thirteen years. We could never have been as well received as we have been without the support of the Asian community.

We regret that you take such offense and see it as a perpetuation of an unfortunate stereotype that is cultivated FAR MORE heinously by the hundreds (if not thousands) of Asian massage parlors in L.A. and Las Vegas…not to mention the hundreds of billboards that scream out REAL happy endings. However, as a gesture of good faith we have decided to remove the billboard since it offends you so much. In the future, perhaps your focus would be better directed at the real source of the stereotype, actual happy ending massage parlors and their advertisements, not our harmless ad that elicits far more chuckles than letters such as yours.

Regards,

From “it’s a joke”, to “you’re the only one offended”, to “don’t get mad at us, get mad at Asian massage parlours”, this letter runs the gamut of fucked up non-apology letters that through many rhetorical devices aims to “blame the victim”: Asian American women in general, and Ms. Lu in particular. I don’t even know where to begin, but I do know that I will never be frequenting the Tao establishment in Las Vegas if I ever get a chance.

If Tao wants to celebrate the Asian culture using kitschy Orientalism, they can just as well do it without my help.

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