Is It Contagious

Yellow fever debate spreads as indie documentary leads to web series spin-off

June 19, 2013

Filmmaker Debbie Lum (left) with Sandy and Steven Bolstad in Lum's 2012 documentary Seeking Asian Female. Photo courtesy of Susan Munroe.

A young African American man speaks genially yet matter-of-factly into the camera. “So I’m looking for a petite, gracious woman which typically, traditionally happens to be an Asian woman.” A white man wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with a red and gold Chinese dragon says earnestly, “It’s so hard to explain. It’s just like why do some people like blue more than green?” A mustached man with flowing dirty blonde hair, glasses and a soul patch says with a sheepish-but-proud little chuckle, “From my experience, Asian girls have been better lovers.”

Debbie Lum never thought she’d be one of the women who responds to ads by men seeking Asian women, let alone film them.

Yet in 2002, the filmmaker found herself searching Craigslist for men with self-identified Asiaphilia, more commonly referred to as “yellow fever.” She didn’t have to look very far.

At the time, Lum was writing a narrative screenplay in which one of her characters had yellow fever. Desiring to create a truthful and believable character, she answered ads from men seeking Asian women and asked for interviews. As her interviewees each increasingly began to open up, Lum realized that the rich material they provided had the makings of a powerful documentary.

One of her interviewees was Steven Bolstad, a cashier at an SFO airport garage who half-jokingly described his perfect woman as “an idyllic servant girl who would cook beautiful meals.” When Lum learned that a woman from China named Sandy had agreed to move to the United States and marry Steven, she decided to sideline her screenplay and the other men’s interviews, zero in on Steven and Sandy’s story, and keep the cameras rolling. What unfolded became Lum’s indie documentary Seeking Asian Female — an engrossing and strongly character-driven tale that follows Steven and Sandy’s relationship from its awkward beginnings through its surprising developments.

Seeking Asian Female enjoyed a successful film festival run, premiering at South by Southwest in 2012, and garnering accolades such as Best of Fest at Silverdocs Documentary Festival 2012, Outstanding Director at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival 2012 and Best Documentary at San Francisco’s 2013 CAAM FEST. The film was featured on NPR’s Snap Judgment and This American Life in March 2013, reaching new and more mainstream audiences.

Despite its success, Lum recognized that the film failed to address the complexities of yellow fever she had originally set out to explore.

“Themes of yellow fever are hinted at in the film, but the story ultimately took a different turn,” said Lum. The film became more about “marriage and commitment, the relationship between subject and filmmaker, and the nuances of cross-cultural romance.”

Lum met media strategist Maikiko James in 2011, who saw an opportunity to help elevate the conversation around the film. James works in an emerging field within communications called film engagement which uses film and media to promote dialogue about public policy issues and galvanize social change.

Hoping to encourage more dialogue and provide informed context in accessible ways, Lum and James partnered up to developed a webisode series and website called They’re All So Beautiful ( — a line borrowed from Steven in the film, describing Asian women.

“The film is quirky and hopeful — which gives it wide appeal —but it doesn’t go into serious depth about the social, historical and political context in which Steven and Sandy found each other, such as the post-colonial roots of exotification and sex trafficking,” said James.

“Film projects I’ve worked on in the past have always had very tangible ‘calls to action,’” continued James. “In [Seeking Asian Female], the call to action for me is creating a more open conversation about race, gender, sex and power.”

Addressing the complexities surrounding yellow fever is all the more relevant in light of the increase in online dating sites (such as Asia Friendfinder), which has made it easier than ever to connect with women abroad. Filtering according to racial preferences is as simple as clicking a button.

They’re All So Beautiful (“TASB”) features a diverse group of writers and bloggers, from fashion designer Henry Lau to academic Celine Shimizu, all of whom offer fresh and nuanced insights into Asian fetish. “We want to hear from white guys, from Asian women, everyone,” said Lum. “We really value diversity in this discussion, so it’s not just people saying the same thing. The site is not trying to give a definitive answer, solution or ‘cure’ to yellow fever, but to make the issue something we are able to discuss openly.”

This is a preview of Issue 27: The Sex Issue, available now. Subscribe to Hyphen or pick up a copy at a newsstand near you.

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Nicole Wong

Senior Editor

Nicole Wong is a senior editor for Hyphen living in San Francisco. By day, she's a media engagement strategist at Active Voice, tackling social issues through the creative use of film.