Allen Gee
Asians in the Library

In March of 2011 I watched what has become the now-infamous
video by Alexandra Wallace, a third-year political science major who
shamelessly posted a YouTube rant about Asians in the Library at
UCLA during finals week. Her video instantly provoked an internet
contagion. Millions logged on and reacted with tolerance-based horror
to her bashing monologue. Thousands of responses proliferated, some
dissenters distinguishing themselves by being more eloquent than others,
and the most noteworthy voice—I think, because of its artfulness—was
the satiric “Ching Chong Asians in the Library Song” sung by Jimmy
Wong, which as of today has drawn over
4,094, 967 viewers. Wallace’s rant left me
angry, so as I listened to Wong’s song I was
hoping that my emotions would be soothed
and that I would at some point be able to
move on to other significant matters.
But for the past year my mind has continued to circle back and dwell
on the dialogue between Wallace and Wong. Why did Wallace’s words
and her complaints create such a backlash of online activity that hasn’t
ceased? Why has Jimmy Wong’s sensitive yet humorous crooning received
so much attention? And why did I feel almost personally invested
in what has been happening?
Alexandra Wallace’s rant lasts a brief two minutes and fifty-two seconds,
about the time it takes me to run a brisk half mile. She speaks from
a dorm room, wearing a scanty taut pink-trimmed top, inciting objection
within moments by saying, “The problem is these hordes of Asian people
that UCLA accepts into our school every single year, which is fine, but if
you’re going to come to UCLA then use American manners.”
Any listener instantly knows that Wallace is out-of-step, not part of
the tolerant, more-enlightened generation she’s supposed to belong to,
while for a middle-aged Chinese-American like me, the word “hordes”
and then the words “our school” bring to mind the anti-Chinese immigration
laws and the exclusion mentality of California racial politics
from the 1860s. Wallace also made me think of the evolving history of
enrollment policies at UCLA. Since Proposition 209 in California in
1996 banned state entities from using affirmative action, or since the
admissions playing field was “leveled” by becoming based upon standardized
test scores alone, Asian-Americans have emerged as frontrunners
in West coast academia. UC Berkley’s Asian population jumped from
37.3% in 1995 to 48.6% today, and at UCLA, Asians are now a majority
at 37.12%. Wallace’s old-school centrist view assumes that UCLA
should be white. This was the reason why Caucasians protested affirmative
action to begin with, but they had no idea that the policy’s removal
would lead to Asians being admitted in vast numbers.
Wallace’s litany of complaint only moves on like a filibuster:
. . .all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me,
their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas
and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they
know that they’ve brought from Asia with them, comes here on
the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries and cook
their food for the week. It’s seriously, without fail. You will always
see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every
weekend. That’s what they do. They don’t teach their kids to
fend for themselves.
I felt astonished that Wallace was striking down a core value of
Asian-America, critiquing family togetherness. She was also inverting
a major Asian route to gain independence by criticizing high scholastic
achievement with the support of one’s family, completely misunderstanding
the reason for close-knit, multi-generational behavior.
What follows is the emotional center of Wallace’s rant for she remarks
with an annoying whine that has the impact of trauma, commenting
snidely about Asians talking on their cell phones in the library:
I’ll be in, like deep into my studying, into my political science
theories and arguments and all that stuff, getting it all down, like
typing away furiously—blah blah blah—and then all of a sudden
when I’m about to, like, reach an epiphany, over here from somewhere,
‘Ooohh, ching chong ling long ting tong, ooohh.’
There is the underlying comic irony that Wallace will never be able
to escape from now—the doubt of whether she’s even capable of having
a real epiphany because she’s ignorant enough to be so openly racist—
and then there’s her rendition of Chinese speech, which otherizes an
entire race, casting it aside, for all purposes dismissing it, and in so doing
she attains the level of Roland Barthes’ definition in Mythologies of
what otherizing is, which ultimately is to conquer or destroy. At the same
time Wallace is simplifying what is actually a complex tonal language by
trying to parody it with an old sing-song rhyme, and this type of broad
stroke harks back to stereotypical portrayals of Asians that used to dominate
racist Hollywood movies. A viewer has to ask, when was
Wallace born? What planet has she been living on? Was she raised in
the 1950s?
Still Wallace presses the issue further, exclaiming about one Asian
talking on a cell phone:
Are you freaking kidding me? In the middle of finals week? So
being the polite, nice American girl that my momma raised me to
be, I kinda just give him what anybody else would do, that kinda,
like, (she puts her index finger up to her lips in a ‘ssshh’ motion)
you know, it’s a library, like, we’re trying to study. Thanks! And
then it’s the same thing five minutes later. But it’s somebody else,
you know. I swear they’re going through their whole families, just
checking on everybody from the tsunami thing.
By this point I could only wonder, how can this woman possibly be
speaking openly like this? Not only was she assuming some far-flung
superiority because she’d been raised by a white mother, but the idea
of her being an exclusively American girl, or that her type of behavior
must remain as the upheld standard for everyone, struck me not only
as outlandish but as disturbing. Could anyone really be so self-involved
and insensitive toward the plight of families of tsunami victims, not to
mention her confusing what occurred in Japan with the predominantly
Chinese student body at UCLA? But this is life according to Alexandra
Wallace, a former wannabe swimsuit model, lacking any civilized awareness,
without any greater concern for the shrinking “postmodern” planet
that we’re all supposedly citizens of; no, she couldn’t refrain from speaking
with her sense of entitlement to target Asians in the Library. And
what other building or space on a college campus is more necessary to
scholarly upward mobility, too achieving the American dream? Yet without
a moment of regret or reservation, she goes on to thank everyone for
listening, and closes with a smug, “and have a nice day.”
Although loathing Alexandra Wallace’s sense of privilege and her assumption
of ownership of the library, I still think that she wasn’t capable
of anticipating the furor that she would cause. She can certainly be
viewed as one of Asian America’s strongest indications that having the
first African-American President, Barrack Obama does not—on so many
levels—signify that we are now part of an entirely enlightened post-racial
nation. African-Americans have already been quite aware that deep
faults remain throughout the nation and that for many Martin Luther
King Jr.’s dream of racial equality is still nowhere near to being a reality;
this was confirmed by the July 16, 2009 arrest of the nation’s pre-eminent
African-American scholar, Henry Louis Gates, who teaches at Harvard
but was detained by police under suspicion of burglary while trying to
enter his own Cambridge home. For me, Wallace’s rant parallels the
treatment Gates was subjected to; she reminds us that no matter how
much another race believes it has attained, or no matter much how it
believes it has progressed, there is still always the dominant status quo
that will question one’s right to belong.
What Wallace also proved, unfortunately, is that not only is racism
still to be feared, stemming from law enforcement officers who profile,
or Klu Klux Klansmen, or skinheads, but now racism can blatantly arise
from what has traditionally been perceived as the innocuous supposedly
good girl who invokes how she was raised by her mother. Isn’t this the
girl who far too many in America are conditioned by media forces to
want to desire or want to marry? Think Marilyn Monroe in her billowing
white dress, posed classically forever now above a subway grate, or
picture Farrah Fawcett with her dazzling white smile and red swimsuit,
poster-emblazoned in the American consciousness for eternity. Remember
the bombshells Jayne Mansfield or Kim Novak, and recent heightened
blondeness via Heidi Klum, Jessica Simpson, Jessica Alba, Britney
Spears, and Kate Upton. Alexandra Wallace, of all things, raises the question,
wasn’t “blonde” supposed to have meant the locus of desire, or be
associated with wholesome youth, vitality, and sexuality? Wasn’t America
saying before that to be with a blonde was like a prize or a reward, something
only those more masculine or wealthy or fortunate than others
could attain?
I have thought back, and what I have remembered is that from 1982
to 1983, during my sophomore and junior years at the University of New
Hampshire, I ensconced myself until closing each night on the uppermost
floor of the Diamond Library, reading English Literature—the Bronte
sisters for one course—as well as classic American novels for another: As
I Lay Dying, The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Great Gatsby, My Antonia,
and A Farewell to Arms. The library became a refuge, a sanctum from
roommates and parties, and since I had been an athlete in high school
(running crosscountry, playing basketball, and running track) which demanded
every extra hour, now my mind was compensating, catching up
for what I felt like were mental deficiencies. And I have remembered
that since my older brother was a child prodigy, a classical pianist, there
was always music resounding throughout the house, the volume at times
deafening, never conducive to reading, so there in the library I was also
learning about quiet and where silence can lead one’s mind and thoughts.
I discovered the far-reaching realm of literature in the library, contemplating
who I was by comparing myself to the characters in the worlds
created by each novel’s author, and as it was I could have stayed long past
closing time, and I can not imagine how I would have felt if someone
like Alexandra Wallace had told me I shouldn’t be there or had to leave.
Jimmy Wong’s video response to Alexandra Wallace features him
singing solo with an acoustic guitar, sometimes utilizing four concurrent
screens to show images of him singing lead, signing his own backup chorus,
hand clapping, or rhythm shaking. When interviewed on NPR’s All
Things Considered by Melissa Block, he speaks of needing a couple of days
to write the “Ching Chong Asians in the Library Song”, which from the
start is a mock seduction.
Wong’s song opens with nerdy fictive self-deprecation; he pretends
not to speak English well, laying on a thick heavy accent, satirizing Wallace’s
characterization of Asians. He becomes, to a heightened degree,
the Asian other she makes the Asians in the Library out to be. His eyes
appear serious and he bows his head, but the real humor commences
when he starts to speak enticingly:
Oh, Alexandra Wallace. Damn, girl. You so feisty. You so feisty
they should call you Alexandra Great Wall Ace. And don’t pretend
I didn’t see you watching me talking on my phone yesterday
all sexy—ching chong wing wong. Baby, it’s all just code. It’s the
way I tell the ladies it’s time to get funky.
Underlying all of this is the ingenious subtext of hearing an Asian
man speak provocatively to a blonde white woman, which I can not recall
hearing or seeing at any time recently on television or at the movies. Here
Wong is not the typically emasculated Asian male, but a young man restructuring
any perceived hierarchy of gender or racial desire; his speaking
out, satire or not, is a form of rebellion. What appeals most to me is
how he mocks how he’s supposed to want Wallace, while it’s righteously
overt that he doesn’t really want her. He rejects American’s elevation of
blonde beauty. Wong launches into singing the first verse without an
accent, sometimes lifting his eyebrows dramatically, and Wallace remains
the object of seduction:
I hope one day you can meet my mother, brothers, sisters,
grandmothers, grandpas, and cousins, oh, cuz
what they’re really doing on those Friday nights
is showing me how to cook and dress, cuz baby
I want to take you out and blow your freaking mind.
The chorus follows, laced with its own insults to contradict Wallace’s
rant, “And underneath the pounds of makeup and your baby blue eyes, I
know there’s a lot of pain and hurt, for such a big brain to spend all night
studying poly sci.”
The rest of the chorus is Wong’s revisionist interpretation of what her
racist portrayal of Chinese speech means to him; he takes the standard of
racial debasement that she derives from Chinese language, and appropriates
it for his own riff of mocking humor:
I pick up my phone and sing:
Ching chong, it means I love you
Ling long, I really want you
Ting tong, I don’t actually know what that means.
Ching chong, it’s never ending
Ling long, my head is spinning
Ting tong, still don’t know what that means.
Wong’s accentuating Wallace’s crude imitation of Asian speech in the
chorus—her “ching chong ling long ting tong”—also prompts Melissa
Block in her NPR interview to speculate whether ching chong ling long
ting tong might “become part of our cultural lexicon” or like “a shorthand”
for something. As Block suggests, the words have become part of
our language; you can now find ching chong ling long being reshaped in
a myriad of online postings and even printed on T-shirts being sold for
tsunami relief.
Wong maintains the high level of inverse satire, for his song returns
to spoken word verse and becomes humorously seductive again: “Oohh,
Alex. I just want to take my phone out and talk dirty to you all day
long. But I know you’re busy cramming all those big hard theories and
arguments.” He gives the camera a sly wink, and then the second verse
You ain’t that polite, nice American girl
that your momma raised you to be
so when you reach that epiphany
—wait, are you freaking kidding me?—
if you have an epiphany every single time you study
that probably means you’re doing something wrong
but I like it when you’re wrong.
The song unleashes racial protest here, as well as irritation directed
at Wallace’s assumed authority and intelligence, and then the chorus is
repeated before Wong speaks enticingly for one last time, amplifying the
seduction with phallic sexual humor:
It’s alright, Alexandra, I know you know nothing about tsunamis
I just want to make sure you know that it’s not a type of sushi
but I came here to say that I’m actually Chinese
and that’s a whole ‘nother country, and it’s bigger
yeah, way bigger, but when it comes to love, Alexandra
there are no boundaries.
To close, Wong says, “Thank you” in the formal Chinglish voice of the
opening, faintly echoing Wallace’s “and have a nice day.” During his NPR
interview, he describes his song as containing “sharp wit” but downplays
his reaction to Wallace by remarking, “I was pretty offended at first, but
then I realized this is just someone going on a rant, and we’ve all done
that before.” He adds that his song, like Wallace’s rant, is never really
hostile, and claims that he would “love to meet her for coffee and give
her a big hug.”
While praising Wong’s non-violent creative response, however, reporter
Dave Pell on NPR’s Technology Blog links Wallace to cyber bullies,
reminding us “just how easy it is to spread hate in the internet age.”
And overall, for me there is a discernible element of tragedy beneath
Wong’s having to use satire to respond to Wallace, the feeling of laughing
and crying at the same time, which I think this is the most significant aspect
contributing to why the song has drawn and captivated so many listeners.
Wallace’s rant does sadden our emotional human landscape. And
while the insulting lyrics in Wong’s song are payback or barbs for Wong’s
being part of the intended audience for Wallace’s derogatory generalizations,
why shouldn’t he just admit his irritation and feel justified?
In the aftermath of Alexandra Wallace’s online rant, in her real dayto-
day life, she and her family received death threats. So she soon issued
an apology, stating: “I cannot explain what possessed me to approach the
subject as I did, and if I could undo it, I would. . . For those who can
not find it within them to accept my apology, I understand.” She simultaneously
announced her withdrawal from UCLA. One recent article
suggests her video was a publicity stunt because her career as a political
science major apparently held no more promise than Sarah Palin’s infamous
Bridge to Nowhere. A glimpse at Wallace’s bathing suit modeling
photos, which are posted prominently online, shows what appears to be
fearless self-promotion; Wallace stares down the camera like she knows
what she’s doing and thrives upon it, like she possesses great self awareness.
If her rant was for publicity, however, it certainly backfired, because
she branded herself with a “racist” label, and what racists do we know of
who have managed full career comebacks?
Examining Greek history, we can find that Wallace is akin to Julian
the Apostate, who, after the reign of Constantine, reinstated the pagan
religion of Rome as the state religion, and so the protection of minority
Christians—like any security Asian Americans might have felt at
UCLA—was nullified. We could view her symbolically, then, as a sign
of one historical tradition stubbornly refusing to give way to another. If
I apply a more contemporary lens, she reminds me of the late Governor
George Wallace of Alabama, who was the face of modern Southern segregation.
One of the more horrific quotes attached to him is: “Segregation
now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When he recanted
later in life, history certainly didn’t lessen its judgment of how awful he
While we can clearly recognize that Alexandra Wallace’s rant was a
clear overestimation of her own power, what her actions ultimately tell
me is that not only can racism stem now from what American popular
culture has repeatedly tried to tell us is the simplest, most desirable iconic
identity—the attractive blonde female—but also that the assumed privilege
of white America, its once clearly dominant unjust advantage, is becoming
diluted, fractured and strained, possibly nearing a breaking point.
Thanks to Alexandra Wallace, America must acknowledge that the
wholesome blonde California girl in the white swimsuit may no longer
represent good vibrations, while Asian America’s empowered voice
is found in thousands of responses and millions of hits for the clever
crooner, Jimmy Wong, the face of a race in retaliation, one that is no
longer the silent minority that many of the status quo would like it to
remain. Wallace probably wasn’t the last innocuous blonde to protest
Asian success by trying to subvert an entire ethnic group’s version of
the American dream. So we should caution our mother, brothers, sisters,
grandmothers, grandpas, and cousins, because Wallace’s rant is the
portent of more Asian-vilifying times ahead. As for me, I’ll be doing my
part by reading in coffee shops, parks, museums, airports, on trains, and
in libraries, forever staying visible.