Gennaio 3, 2022

Anti-Asian Violence and Sexual Deviance from Manila 1603 to Atlanta 2021

By Diego Javier Luis (PhD)


Representation of the massacres of 1603 in the Bahay Tsinoy Museum, Intramuros, Manila. Photo courtesy of the author.

On March 16, 2021, eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, lost their lives in a targeted attack on three spas and massage parlors in Atlanta, GA. The names of these women were Xiaojie Tan (49), Daoyou Feng (44), Hyun Jung Grant (51), Suncha Kim (69), Soon Chung Park (74), and Yong Ae Yue (63). Despite that the murderer claimed no racial motive, this barbaric killing occurred amidst an ongoing spike in anti-Asian discrimination during the Covid-19 pandemic. From March 19, 2020, to March 31, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate recorded 6,603 targeted hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. with 2,808 occurring during March 2021 alone. Physical assault formed 12.6% of the total number of reports and made up the third largest category behind verbal harassment (65.2%) and shunning (18.1%).

Right-wing nativist rhetoric denouncing “kung flu” and the “China virus” empowered perpetrators to act on existing prejudices. The shooter himself casually participated in this rhetoric on social media. What makes the Atlanta shooter unexceptional within this context is the association of Asian bodies with deviance and aberrance from perceived social norms. The shooter associated these spas and massage parlors with sinful sexual temptation. A former roommate said, “he was pretty passionate about what a bad influence [the pornography industry] was on him”. Numerous studies have identified that internet algorithms hyper-sexualize Asian women and contribute to a discourse of deviant exoticism going back to Afong Moy, the first documented Chinese woman to enter the U.S. During the 1840s, she was exhibited as a curiosity in the orientalist circuses of PT Barnum (see, Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 2).

In the immediate wake of the shooting, several articles commented on the spike in anti-Asian violence worldwide, as well as the historical conflation of racial difference and sexual subversion with regards to Asian women. Although the oft-cited period of Chinese exclusion is particularly relevant to the U.S. context, this dynamic carries a longer, colonial, and more diverse diasporic legacy that has evaded historically informed reflections on the subject to date.

The longue durée of anti-Asian violence ranges from Rock Springs in 1885 to the lesser known Torreón in 1911 and Dutch Batavia in 1740, but no massacre has remained quite as unknown, as deadly, and as necessary to historical thinking as that of Spanish Manila in 1603. Witnesses reported that the violence that engulfed the Spanish colony in October of that year ended in the deaths of 20,000 Chinese, called “Sangleyes.”[1] At the core of what enabled the mass, indiscriminate killing was a discourse of difference born of sexual deviation from Catholic norms. Examining this context indicates that the language of sexual temptation cannot be disentangled from racialization, that this discourse exists on a continuum from discrimination to outright violence, and that then, like now, anti-Asian acts were transnational in nature. That is to say, the experience of anti-Asian violence has diasporic precedents far afield, from Manila to Acapulco to Cape Colony that deserve to be part of a broader diasporic consciousness.

The Sangleyes in Manila were simultaneously the source of the colony’s economic survival and its greatest fears. By the turn of the seventeenth century, Fujianese merchants and laborers flocked to Manila in the thousands to earn and trade for Spanish silver (see Ryan Dominic Crewe, “Pacific Purgatory: Spanish Dominicans, Chinese Sangleys, and the Entanglement of Mission and Commerce in Manila, 1580-1620,” Journal of Early Modern History 19 (2015), 345-6). As Sangleyes arrived in larger numbers, Spaniards began to fear the possibility that their cultural influence over the Indigenous Filipinos was being eclipsed, and one of the central points of contention concerned “el pecado nefando” or “the abominable sin,” meaning sodomy. More than simply the act of penetration, sodomy could refer to a wide range of flirtatious behavior that exceeded the norms of heterosexual Catholic marriage (Zeb Tortorici, Sins Against Nature: Sex & Archives in Colonial New Spain, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 74, 87-8). These fears relied upon stereotypes that Indigenous peoples had malleable natures and easily backslid away from Catholic dogma.

The first execution of Sangleyes for sodomy occurred in 1588 (Juan Gil, Los chinos en Manila, 44.). Perhaps the greatest denunciation of the Sangley population, though, came in the form of a deportation proposal to the king in 1597. Former governor Luis Pérez Dasmariñas argued that all unconverted Sangleyes should be forced to depart the Philippines since they were “extremely greedy and thieving and traitorous in their being” (see, “Carta de L. P. Mariñas sobre convivencia con sangleyes,” 1597, Archivo General de Indias (AGI), Filipinas, 18B, R.7, N.72, f.2). As “a people so ruinous, bold, and perverted,” all had succumbed to the “abominable and nefarious sin” (see, “Carta de L. P. Mariñas sobre convivencia con sangleyes,” 1597, AGI, Filipinas, 18B, R.7, N.72, f.2.).

The discourse of deportation gained strength in the following years, particularly through the Archbishop of the Philippines, Miguel de Benavides. Although Benavides had once taken great interest in Chinese history, language, and customs, by 1598 he had begun lamenting publicly that Sangleyes had spread sodomy into the nearby Indigenous towns of Tondo and Quiapo. During the summer of 1603, he penned his own petition to deport all Chinese, entreating Phillip III to think about his ancestors, the Catholic monarchs, who solved problems of moral degradation through expulsion. Benavides wrote, “and do not think, your majesty, that these people are only in Manila or next to Manila but through all the land…and spreading this devilry [sodomy] and other vices through it all” (see, “Carta de Benavides sobre incursión a Mindanao, oro de Cavite,” 1603, AGI, Filipinas, 74, N.47, f. 311r).

Several eyewitnesses blamed Benavides’s incendiary public sermons during that summer for the Sangley revolt in October that ended in mass murder. No Spanish source explicitly stated a cause for the ethnic cleansing that claimed so many thousands of innocent lives, but the events themselves cannot be read independently of the contemporaneous racializing discourse that fixated on the question of deviant sexuality.

The violence of 1603 marks the origin of an historical genealogy tethered to the present. The hyper-sexualization of Asian men and women, a fundamental trope of the pop culture lexicon, has a bloody past. There is no indication that this trend has diminished. In fact, since the shooting last March, Stop AAPI Hate has recorded an uptick in hate incidents. As of their latest report at the time of writing on November 18, one in five Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had reported a hate incident during the last year. 62% were reported by women, and physical assault had risen to 16.1% of total reports. During the pandemic, hate incidents of this variety have increased in Latin America, the Pacific, and across Europe as well. Perhaps, it is time to acknowledge that the fetishization and policing of Asian bodies is central to the nativist and religious fundamentalist sense of self. The pandemic has made the issue more visible in public forums, but it will take more than vaccines for the violence to subside.



[1] “Sangley” is a Tagalog pronunciation of 常来 in Hokkien, which means “comes frequently.” See “The Boxer Codex,” c. 1590 and Edward R. Slack Jr., “New Perspectives on Manila’s Chinese Community at the Turn of the Eighteenth Century: The Forgotten Case of Pedro Barredo, Alcalde Mayor of the Parián 1701-1704,” Journal of Chinese Overseas 17 (2021), 120-1.


Diego Javier Luis is a visiting assistant professor in the Humanities Program at Davidson College. He is finishing a manuscript under contract with Harvard University Press entitled The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History. His articles have appeared recently in Ethnohistory and The Americas.

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