Yellow Fever and Poisoned Wells
Here, let me tell you a quick story.I was eighteen years old, out to dinner at The Grove with three girlfriends. All four of us were Asian girls, three of us high school classmates, the fourth, a younger sister, aged fifteen. We sat at a booth, and our waitress was an Asian woman in her twenties. As soon as she got us our water, she leaned into our table and let us in on an open secret. “See that guy over there?” She indicated a white man in his late twenties, apron, nice haircut, generic, unthreatening face. “Count how many times he walks past your table. He loves Asian girls.”We lost count less than halfway through our meal. He found excuses to pass by every few minutes, sauntering slowly with a menu or a ketchup bottle in one hand. It became a quick joke, between the four of us, laughing openly, and our waitress, who nodded at us, shrugged, “What did I tell you?” It was much later when I fully recognized how much she must have hated that man.
As we walked out of the restaurant, the waiter caught up to us and detained the youngest member of our group. He told her she was beautiful and asked for her number. She was (and this bears repeating, I think) fifteen years old.
I don’t think it’s too unbelievable that a man like that would rape a teenager, or even turn, through some twist of fate or very light plotting, to murder.
I grew up Asian and female in Los Angeles. I’m second generation, which means when you ask me where I’m from, I will answer, “Encino.” Yet even in this city, with its dense Asian population, I am part of a group that is too often seen as exotic. Like African rhinos poached for their horns, we are a group that attracts a certain breed of predator, those drooling men afflicted by “yellow fever.”
I will say that not all men who love Asian women are creeps and weirdos, and that even the ones who are, are not generally dangerous. Even so, I thought it was time to give Asian fetishism the noir treatment.
Good hardboiled fiction depends on a rot in the air, on underbellies covered in pus-filled sores. When it comes to social exploration and exposure, there are few literary methods as versatile and precise as noir. The private detective is one of the most mobile observer figures in fiction, and she can be used to shine light on any dark corner she might find. Chandler used Marlowe to write about the seediness and greed infecting L.A. Walter Mosley and Chester Himeswrote about crime in ways that probed and condemned the racism rampant in our good old city. There is something direct and illuminating about the bloody business of crime fiction. The introduction of murder puts everything in high definition. It forces close examination of the way people act, and by extension, the way people think. Murderers must have motives, and for those characters to remain recognizable, those motives must also be recognizable. The noir villain is part of a wider corrupted world, where all involved drink from a common, poisoned well.
Yellow fever is part of the atmosphere of Los Angeles. Every Asian woman I know has encountered it firsthand, in some form or another. It’s one of the dirty fixtures of our city, and I wanted to explore it in a detective novel. Follow Her Home deals with the exoticization of Asian women, and the ways in which this fetishizing is entangled with differentials in power, both real and perceived. I’d always suspected the phenomenon of a vast capacity for harm, but I wondered if it could serve as the backbone for a tale of old-fashioned murder. Now that I’ve written the book, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch.
Follow Her Home, published by Minotaur Books in April 2013, is Steph Cha’s first novel