Great Reads, Immigration History

A Model Minority or a Chinese Virus: Which is it?

May 21, 2020

Winnie Gu, 2020

Winnie Gu, 2020


I came across this cartoon by Winnie Gu a few days ago on social media and it grabbed my attention. It captured my anxiety and fear as an Asian American during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also reflected something I have been thinking about a lot during my quarantine: model minority and “Yellow Peril,” two prevalent stereotypes that are often attached to Asian Americans.

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, a time when we celebrate Asian Americans’ contributions to culture and society. In the midst of pandemic when so many Asian Americans are facing discrimination, I think it is just as important to use this time to reject stigma and bigotry.

“Yellow Peril” is a long-standing racist stereotype. The phrase “Yellow Peril,” as defined by Chinese studies scholar Dr. Wing-Fai Leung, “blends Western anxieties about sex, racist fears of the alien Other, and [the] belief that the West will become outnumbered and enslaved by the East.” In the United States, Asian Americans have long been considered as a threat. One of many examples come to mind: In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted.

Fueled by illegitimate fears of people of Chinese heritage, this law severely limited Chinese immigration and the Chinese nationals who were already in this country from becoming naturalized American citizens. It remained in law until 1943.

Before the pandemic, I had always believed that the days of “Yellow Peril” were behind us. It is sobering and scary for me to see that acts of xenophobic scapegoating have not disappeared. As COVID-19 spreads, many Asian Americans are on-edge as there has been a rise in hate speech and behavior. One particular attack was especially stomach-churning: as reported by Buzzfeed, an Asian woman in Brooklyn, who was taking out her garbage in the evening, was attacked by a man who threw acid on her.

In contrast, the model minority stereotype is the idea that Asian Americans are academically high-achieving, polite and well-behaved. According to Professor Ellen D. Wu, it is a one-size-fit-all idea that gives a false sense of security that one will be given a sense of belonging in the United States if you are a “model citizen.” This harmful label is used to put Asian Americans on a pedestal all the while putting other minorities down, writes Wu. Regardless of how positive these attributes may seem, they still “other” Asian Americans and make them “different” from everyone else. At times I felt inadequate about not living up to the career trajectory and life choices that others seem to expect of me. I remember one day when I was still in high school my guidance counselor, without asking me about my aspirations, told me, “You have good grades in math and sciences. Why don’t you go to engineering or medical school?”

Through the lenses of the model minority or “Yellow Peril,” diversity and the infinite possibilities of humanity are ignored. Asian Americans are considered indistinguishable from one another as people from vastly different countries and backgrounds.

One reason I’m proud to work at the Tenement Museum is that we’re always exploring the richly complex and ever-changing ideas around American identity. One way we do this is through Your Story, Our Story – our online digital storytelling collection. One of my favorite stories is about a confirmation letter, which let the recipient know that a moving company would arrive to their house in Hong Kong to move their belongings to Chicago. My family and I had a similar experience. We hired a moving company to transport all our belongings to our new home in a suburban town near Toronto, Canada via cargo ship from Hong Kong. I still remember vividly that we had to spend about two weeks in our empty new house, while waiting impatiently for all our furniture and possessions to arrive. This story expresses the hopes and fears that many im/migrant families, past and present face, including the harmful stereotypes and assumptions imposed on us by others.

As we reflect on the diversity of Asian American communities and their significant contributions, we are also reminded that we still have a lot of work to do in continuing to amplify diverse stories of im/migration. These personal stories dispel one-dimensional myths and complicate what it means to be American.


Written by Lokki Chan, Education Specialist


“Coronavirus Triggers Ugly Rash of Racism as ‘Yellow Peril’ Ideas Return.” South China Morning Post, February 16, 2020. “Coronavirus Triggers Ugly Rash of Racism as ‘Yellow Peril’ Ideas Return.” South China Morning Post, February 16, 2020.

Further Reading:

Yang, Jia Lynn. “When Asian-Americans Have to Prove We Belong.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 10, 2020.

Chen, Stacy. “Andrew Yang Faces Backlash from the Asian American Community over Op-Ed,” ABC News. ABC News Network April 5, 2020.

Guo, Jeff. “The Real Reasons the U.S. Became Less Racist toward Asian Americans.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, November 29, 2016.

“Yellow Peril: 19th-Century Scapegoating.” Asian American Writers’ Workshop, July 26, 2016.

“The Twisted Truth Behind the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype – Adam Ruins Everything.” YouTube video. Accessed May 8, 2020.