We all know that fusion is hot, sizzling, more caliente than a salsa beat. It's that multiculti urge that propels us to douse a hamburger with teriyaki sauce or buy an Armani jacket with a Nehru collar. Such marriages of East and West are a harmless intermingling of cultures: a war never started by adding a dollop of wasabi to potato chips or a bindhi to Madonna's forehead.
But blending people is more dangerous. The world generally prefers its citizens in their own neat categories: Chinese, Japanese, Siamese. They represent the sanctity of our nation-states, our flags, our soccer teams. After all, if you're not one or the other, what are you? If you're, say, half Asian and half Western, where do you belong? Are you a banana: yellow on the outside and white inside? Or an egg: white on the outside and yellow inside? Or are you, as proclaimed by that most swirled of celebrities Tiger Woods, a "Cablinasian"—a Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian smattering of everything, a global progeny of an increasingly global world? And what is that, anyway?
Once, not so long ago, no one wanted to be Tiger Woods. Especially Tiger, with his cafE-au-lait complexion and American serviceman father. Today, Eurasians are the flavor du jour, not only in the U.S., where mixed-race citizens personify the American melting pot, but even more so in Asia, where race-conscious policies are often encoded in law. In Indonesia, where until recently ethnic Chinese were barred from writing in their own script, the hottest celebrities are indos, or mixed-race folks like actors Karina Suwandi and Ari Wibowo. In Bangkok, where the local skin trade has spawned a multitude of luk kreung, or half-children, the once-despised offspring now control an estimated 60% of the entertainment industry. And in Hong Kong, where the local movie business is in a slump, the one great hope isn't white at all, but a mix of white and yellow. Fetching young Eurasian actors like Maggie Q and Karen Mok crowd the screen, and through the wonders of global distribution (and video piracy) appear everywhere from the deserts of Tunisia to the shores of the Solomon Islands. "Who better to personify the diversification of Hong Kong movies than a Eurasian actor," says Bey Logan, a local film executive. "It's a face that everyone can identify with and accept."
Fusion is in, not only as an abstract fashion concept, but in that most grounded of realities: mixed-blood people who walk, talk, and produce even more multiracial progeny. Most strange of all, these hybrids are finding themselves hailed as role models for vast masses in Asia with no mixed blood at all. "When I think of Asia, I don't necessarily think of people who look like me," says Declan Wong, a Chinese-Dutch-American actor and producer, "But somehow we've become the face that sells the new Asia."
So maybe Asia's Eurasian craze is driven by the theories of that whitest of white men, economist Adam Smith. As the world gets smaller, we look for a global marketing mien, a one-size-fits-all face that helps us sell Nokia cell phones and Palmolive shampoo across the world. "For any business, you can't think locally anymore," says Paul Lau, general manager at Elite Model Management in Hong Kong, who has built up a stable of Eurasians for his internationally minded clients. "At the very least, you need to think regionally. Ideally, you should think globally." A global image helps sell products, even if no one but Filipinos would ever want to buy duck-fetus eggs or Thais the most pungent variety of shrimp paste. Yanto Zainal, president of Macs909, a boutique ad agency in Jakarta, used all indos for a campaign for the local Matahari department store chain. "The store wanted to promote a more cosmopolitan image," he says. "Indos have an international look but can still be accepted as Indonesian."
Channel V, the Asia-wide music television channel, was one of the first to broadcast the message of homogenized hybridism. "We needed a messenger that would fit in from Tokyo to the Middle East," says Jennifer Seeto, regional sales marketing manager for the channel, which began beaming its border-busting images in 1994. Star veejay Asha Gill personifies the global look. When asked what her ethnic heritage is, Gill, a Malaysian citizen, simply shrugs. "Oh, who knows," she says. "I'm half Punjabi, mixed with some English, a little French and dribs and drabs of God knows what else." The 29-year-old speaks crisp British English, fluent Malay, and a smidgen of Punjabi. She grew up in a Kuala Lumpur neighborhood that was mostly Chinese, attended an English-speaking school and was pals with Malay and Indian kids. Gill's Channel V show, broadcast in English, has a strong following in Malaysia, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. "I'm Hitler's worst nightmare," she says. "My ethnicity and profession make me a global person who can't be defined in just one category."
Fashionistas love the new Eurasian world. Top Asian modeling agencies can't stock enough mixed-blooded girls, and many have begun scouting for Eurasian models in Europe and the U.S. to bring back East. One of the top imports is 20-year-old Maggie Q, a Vietnamese-American who grew up in Hawaii. "When you look at Maggie, you see the whole world in her face," says film executive Logan, who cast her in the hit flick Gen-Y Cops. "She sells because she appeals to everyone." The publisher of Indonesia's top-selling women's magazine, Femina, says a cover with an indo on it sells two to three times more copies than one with a purely local model. "Indonesian women see these girls as exotic but not exactly threatening," says Widarti Goenawan, publisher of the popular weekly. "It is an ideal to which they can aspire." Certainly, an approachable exoticism fuels many Eurasian models' careers. Devon Aoki, a half-Japanese and half-American concoction, has captivated London and New York catwalks with her woodblock-print features and long limbs. In Hong Kong, Ankie Lau, a half-German and half-Chinese model, wins clients because her Eastern features mix with a Western spontaneity. "The ability of Eurasian models to let go in front of the camera is very appealing to advertisers," says Elite Model's Paul Lau. "Asians tend to be more nervous expressing their emotions."
Tata Young certainly knows how to let loose. Back in 1995, when she broke into Thailand's entertainment industry at the age of 15, the pert half-Thai, half-American singer was on the forefront of the Eurasian trend. Today, the majority of top Thai entertainers are luk kreung. Now 20, Young is the first Thai to sign a contract with a major U.S. label, Warner Brothers Records (owned by AOL Time Warner, parent company of Time), which she hopes will elevate her into the Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera pantheon. Back at home, Young has to contend with a gaggle of luk kreung clones who mimic her brand of bubble-gum pop. The hottest act now is a septet called, less-than-imaginatively, Seven, and three out of seven are of mixed race.
The luk kreung crowd tend to hang tight, dining, drinking and dating together. "We understand each other," says Nicole Terio, one of the group. "It comes from knowing what it means to grow up between two cultures." But the luk kreung's close-knit community and Western-stoked confidence sometimes elicits grumbles from other Thais, who also resent their stranglehold on the entertainment industry. The ultimate blow came a few years back when Thailand sent a blue-eyed woman to the Miss World competition. Sirinya Winsiri, also known as Cynthia Carmen Burbridge, beat out another half-Thai, half-American for the coveted Miss Thailand spot. "Luk kreung have made it very difficult for normal Thais to compete," gripes a Bangkok music mogul. "We should put more emphasis on developing real Thai talent." The Eurasians consider this unfair. "I was born in Bangkok," says Young. "I speak fluent Thai and I sing in Thai. When I meet Westerners, they say I'm more Thai than American." Channel V's Asha Gill senses the frustration: "A lot of Asians despise us because we get all the jobs, but if I've bothered to learn several languages and understand several cultures, why shouldn't I be employed for those skills?"
The jealous sniping angers many who suffered years of discrimination because of their mixed blood. Eurasian heritage once spoke not of a proud melding of two cultures but of a shameful confluence of colonizer and colonized, of marauding Western man and subjugated Eastern woman. Such was the case particularly in countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, where American G.I.s left thousands of unwelcome offspring. In Vietnam, these children were dubbed bui doi, or the dust of life. "Being a bui doi means you are the child of a Vietnamese bar girl and an American soldier," says Henry Phan, an Amerasian tour guide in Ho Chi Minh City. "Here, in Vietnam, it is not a glamorous thing to be mixed." As a child in Bangkok during the early 1990s, Nicole Terio fended off rumors that her mother was a prostitute, even though her parents had met at a university in California. "I constantly have to defend them," she says, "and explain exactly where I come from."
Ever since Europe sailed to Asia in the 16th century, Eurasians have populated entrepots like Malacca, Macau and Goa. The white men who came in search of souls and spices left a generation of mixed-race offspring that, at the high point of empire building, was more than one-million strong. Today, in Malaysia's Strait of Malacca, 1,000 Eurasian fishermen, descendants of intrepid Portuguese traders, still speak an archaic dialect of Portuguese, practice the Catholic faith and carry surnames like De Silva and Da Costa. In Macau, 10,000 mixed-race Macanese serve as the backbone of the former colony's civil service and are known for their spicy fusion cuisine.
Despite their long traditions, though, Eurasians did not make the transition into the modern age easily. As colonies became nations, mixed-race children were inconvenient reminders of a Western-dominated past. So too were the next generation of Eurasians, the offspring of American soldiers in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, luk kreung were not allowed to become citizens until the early 1990s. In Hong Kong, many Eurasians have two names and shift their personalities to fit the color of the crowd in which they're mixing. Singer and actress Karen Mok, for example, grew up Karen Morris but used her Chinese name when she broke into the Canto-pop scene. "My Eurasian ancestors carried a lot of shame because they weren't one or the other," says Chinese-English performance artist Veronica Needa, whose play Face explores interracial issues. "Much of my legacy is that shame." Still, there's no question that Eurasians enjoy a higher profile today. "Every time I turn on the TV or look at an advertisement, there's a Eurasian," says Needa. "It's a validating experience to see people like me being celebrated."
But behind the billboards and the leading movie roles lurks a disturbing subtext. For Eurasians, acceptance is certainly welcome and long overdue. But what does it mean if Asia's role models actually look more Western than Eastern? How can the Orient emerge confident if what it glorifies is, in part, the Occident? "If you only looked at the media you would think we all looked indo except for the drivers, maids and comedians," says Dede Oetomo, an Indonesian sociologist at Airlangga University in Surabaya. "The media has created a new beauty standard."
Conforming to this new paradigm takes a lot of work. Lek, a pure Thai bar girl, charms the men at the Rainbow Bar in the sleaze quarters of Bangkok. Since arriving in the big city, she has methodically eradicated all connections to her rural Asian past. The first to go was her flat, northeastern nose. For $240, a doctor raised the bridge to give her a Western profile. Then, Lek laid out $1,200 for plumper, silicone-filled breasts. Now, the 22-year-old is saving to have her eyes made rounder. By the time she has finished her plastic surgery, Lek will have lost all traces of the classical Thai beauty that propelled her from a poor village to the brothels of Bangkok. But she is confident her new appearance will attract more customers. "I look more like a luk kreung, and that's more beautiful," she says.
A few blocks away from Rainbow Bar, a local pharmacy peddles eight brands of whitening cream, including Luk Kreung Snow White Skin. In Tokyo, where the Eurasian trend first kicked off more than three decades ago, loosening medical regulations have meant a proliferation of quick-fix surgery, like caucasian-style double eyelids and more pronounced noses. On Channel V and mtv, a whole host of veejays look ethnically mixed only because they've gone under the knife. "There's a real pressure here to look mixed," says one Asian veejay in Singapore. "Even though we're Asians broadcasting in Asia, we somehow still think that Western is better." That sentiment worries Asians and Eurasians. "More than anything, I'm proud to be Thai," says Willy McIntosh, a 30-year-old Thai-Scottish TV personality, who spent six months as a monk contemplating his role in society. "When I hear that people are dyeing their hair or putting in contacts to look like me, it scares me. The Thai tradition that I'm most proud of is disappearing."
In many Asian countries—Japan, Malaysia, Thailand—the Eurasian craze coincides with a resurgent nationalism. Those two seemingly contradictory trends are getting along just fine. "Face it, the West is never going to stop influencing Asia," says performance artist Needa. "But at the same time, the East will never cease to influence the West, either." In the 2000 U.S. census, nearly 7 million people identified themselves as multiracial, and 15% of births in California are of mixed heritage. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Oscar-winning kung fu flick, was more popular in Middle America than it was in the Middle Kingdom. In Hollywood, where Eurasian actors once were relegated to buck-toothed Oriental roles, the likes of Keanu Reeves, Dean Cain and Phoebe Cates play leading men and women, not just the token Asian. East and West have met, and the simple boxes we use for human compartmentalization are overflowing, mixing, blending. Not all of us can win four consecutive major golf titles, but we are, indeed, more like Tiger Woods with every passing generation.