YEN-RONG WONG: Tearing apart the Asian woman stereotype, one word at a time
Yen-Rong is a writer, reader, musician, scientist, blogger, editor, tweeter and an aspiring academic.
Her interest in South-East Asian women’s writing and Asian Australian fiction lead to the creation of Pencilled In, an online platform that of Asian Australian artists, and is a Queensland Writers Centre Ambassador.
Yen-Rong’s work breaks free from the silence of her adolescence to dissect the stereotypes of Asian and Asian-Australian women, female sexuality.
MEET YEN-RONG WONG.
YEN-RONG WONG. My parents are both from the Chinese part of Malaysia. They met in Australia when they came here to study. Everyone who came to Australia, in that era to study, had to go through a year of matriculation. Which is basically a fancy word for a "bridging year". Mum then went to the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and dad went to the University of Queensland.
I’m not particularly sure how my parents met but I’m pretty sure it was through a Christian group. When they both finished uni, my parents went back to Malaysia. I think mum went to Singapore to work for a little bit, they then got married and decided that the best place to raise a family would be in Australia, in Brisbane. I’m really happy they chose Brisbane, I love Brisbane (laughs).
THE PIN. Are you part of a big family?
YRW. We’re a pretty small family. It's just me, my parents and my sister. She’s younger than me. My parents' relatives are still basically living in Malaysia. My dad is quite close to his little sister, so we always go over there and visit her. She has four kids, so I have four cousins there. I have other cousins too, but I don’t really know too much about them. We don’t really go over there often enough.
What was it like growing up in Brisbane, was there a culture in your house that was not necessarily outside of your house?
YRW. Um, I think it’s kind of difficult to separate which parts of it were cultural and which parts of it were religious because my parents are quite Christian.
I was brought up to believing in Christianity, and I’ve written about how my parent's religious views had made sense in terms of translating conservatism and joint values with conservative Australian ones, which would not be people's first assumption around them.
Even though there is quite a vibrant Chinese community in Brisbane, my parents never really engaged in those communities. They were never friends with other children's parents or stuff like that. So...I feel like I didn’t necessarily get that sense of Chinese community but I did have a sense of the Christian community through the church. In hindsight, it was maybe a little isolating.
Growing up, I was proud of being Chinese. Even though puberty, when there was definite tension between what I saw as restrictive cultural norms, and what other people were allowed to do. Regardless, I never went through that phase of wanting to be white. I never had that feeling, it was quite foreign to me.
As you moved out of high school and into university, did you to some extent seek out somewhat of a community?
YRW. One of the most marked differences that I have been thinking about a lot is how I have so many more friends who are women now. I was bullied a lot by girls during primary school. Boys left me alone because I was a nerd. From being bullied a lot by girls, I became really wary of having girls as friends. Now, moving into adulthood and getting more involved in the literary community, pretty much most of my friends are women which is great.
Culturally, I grew up around so much Asian and Chinese culture but I still felt isolated from it.
I naturally associated a lot of being Asian with my parents' treatment of me, which sometimes was not necessarily the best. Growing up - moving out of home, especially - afforded me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do whereas, before I had had a somewhat restrictive experience. In the same vein, it was also about that time when I started to read more fiction and non-fiction writing by Asian-Australian writers and got more involved in things that way.
Was literature something that has always been a part of your life?
YRW. I have always been a reader. My mum is an optometrist, and she used to joke that I got glasses super early because I wouldn’t stop reading. I love reading. On my third or fourth birthday, my parents got my hardback copies of Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians and Pocahontas. Mum has a collection of the Famous Five and Secret Seven books. I read all of those. I don’t know why I started writing, I guess it was just a natural progression of loving stories.
I wrote all throughout primary school, went to writing camps and stuff like that but being a writer was never something I thought I'd be doing, to this extent. I didn’t think I would be a non-fiction writer.
On your Twitter profile you say that that you’re a 24 yr old, nasty Asian woman, was that a Trump reference or was that some kind of push back to your Asian identity?
YRW. It's in response to Trump saying women were "nasty", and it stuck with me because the word nasty looks like a nasty word. I guess it is also a way of saying 'hey I’m not your typical idea of what you think a woman or Asian woman should be or is'. I find amusement in those little subtleties.
I wondered if "nasty" was a slap back to the thought of Asian women being submissive?
YRW. I think there's a double whammy there, in terms of the stereotype of Asian women. It's like white women being seen as "aggressive" and then you add race into it, you get the "angry" black woman and in the context of being an Asian woman, a gold-digger.
I am writing four chapters in my latest manuscript about the stereotypes of Asian women. At one end there's the submissive woman and on the other end the "Dragon-Lady" stereotype, which could be seen as "nasty". Then there seems to be this option of being neutral or nothing.
When did you get the idea for Pencilled In, and what was your intended goal?
YRW. I had the idea in my last year of uni doing a literature degree. I was doing a self-guided project and I wanted to base it on an Asian Australian writer and found that it was so hard for me to find books that were by Australian-Asian writers. By then, I had dabbled a little bit in the literary scene and in my head, I thought, logically I know a lot of Asian people and writers so surely there is more than this. I had the idea of forming a writers group in Queensland because I felt like a lot of opportunities were always based in Sydney and Melbourne. So the day I finished my thesis, I thought “screw it!” I am going to do it.
Do you think Asian Australians are left out of the narrative when it comes to Australian stories?
YRW. People forget that people from Asia have been coming to Australia and being in Australia since (if not before) white people, especially during the Gold Rush in regards to Chinese people. South-East Asians were trading with Indigenous people, sailing down to the cape and the surrounding islands since forever. It’s just one of those things people don’t bother to look for or talk about, our real history.
Australia is like an insular country sometimes and I don't know if that’s because we’re an island or what. Like how can Indonesia be our biggest neighbour in the Pacific and yet we know nothing about it except for Bali?
In terms of representation, I was watching Aziz Ansari's 'Masters of None', and a point that was made on the show was that when there is pointedly racist towards black people the outrage and fit back is big. Yet, in contrast, it is still totally ok to make fun of Indian and other Asian accents and have no fallout - or less fallout, at least. The offence doesn’t seem to hold the same reaction, nor is it seen as been as offensive.
Maybe it’s the semantics of a much bigger picture of repression. You know, pick what you want to fight for because you can’t fight for everything.
What are you writing about at the moment?
YRW. The manuscript I am currently working on is about sex and relationships, which I think is something that is not talked about from a young woman's perspective in an Australian context. All the research I have been doing comes up with articles from America. Currently, I am working on the Yellow Fever chapter and when I typed into google "yellow fever Australia" the first few page results were about immunisations for the diseases. (Laughs).
I’m surprised it didn’t turn up with a lot of DJ’s because that seems to be a thing…
YRW. Well actually, there's been a lot written up on why supremacists tend to date Asian women.
YRW. Yeah, it’s a thing. It's based on the premise that they believe white women are too independent and don’t want to fuck them, so they go to Asia where the woman is submissive. In doing that, somewhat ironically, they’re continuing to perpetuate the colonialism that made Thailand and the Philippines places for sexually trafficking of women in the first place.
Being in my 20s now, I have become interested in looking back and thinking, what would I have had or seen as a child?
I was never really allowed to read Dolly Doctor or that kind of stuff and I had a little bit of sex education in primary and secondary school, but that was about it.
It's pretty clinical, to begin with, and the people that talk you through it act like what they tell you is all there is. You feel less inclined to ask them a question, let alone, ask for an explanation about the intricacies of navigating dating and other prospects in general; for an Asian or Chinese presenting woman.
It’s a lot for you to figure out on your own or try and find some kind of community of friends who have gone through the same experiences as you that you can talk to. Originally, what I am writing was going to be a memoir, but as I have expanded on ideas around my experiences it's become an essay and literary thing.
People keep asking me if I am worried about my parents reading it. I mean, I’m pretty sure they still think I am a virgin but... I feel like I wasn’t allowed to have too strong of a voice around them when I was a kid. So, this is my way around that, and if they want to read it that’s fine. I feel like a lot of my writing now is a way to allow myself to talk back to my parents and say a lot of things I felt uncomfortable about. Now, it's up to them to decide if they want to engage or not.
THE PIN. If you could give yourself one piece of advice, about the skin you’re in, what would it be?
YEN-RONG WONG. Don’t worry so much and always go to therapy even if you don’t want to and everything will be ok again.