Rowena Chiu's Weinstein allegation highlights the issue of race in sexual assault

Harmful, erroneous stereotypes attached to Asian women played into Harvey Weinstein’s alleged abuse of Rowena Chiu, she said.
Image: Rowena Chiu speaks during an interview on "TODAY" on Sept. 9, 2019.
Rowena Chiu was interviewed on the "Today" show on Sept. 9, 2019.Nathan Congleton / NBC

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By Kimmy Yam

Decades after Rowena Chiu alleges she was sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, she wrote an op-ed article for The New York Times, opening with words that may have felt pointed or shocking to some, but gut-wrenching and all too familiar to many Asian women.

“Harvey Weinstein told me he liked Chinese girls,” wrote Chiu, who is British Chinese. “He liked them because they were discreet, he said — because they knew how to keep a secret. Hours later, he attempted to rape me.”

Race sits at the core of Chiu’s story. Harmful, erroneous stereotypes attached to Asian women played into Weinstein’s alleged abuse of her, according to Chiu. Race also comes into play through specific Chinese cultural values and taboos that made it notably difficult for Chiu, a former Miramax employee, to process and eventually speak out about what had happened to her, she told NBC News.

“I really strongly believe that it took me much longer than the other victims to think, ‘Am I prepared to live with the repercussions of speaking out?’” Chiu said. “It took me a full two years. People are like, ‘Why did it take you that long?’ and I always feel like my answer should be, ‘How did I come to that position so quickly?’ Because to think of myself as an Asian person and a really terrified individual in October 2017, it’s really a big journey to come in just two years.”

Weinstein has denied the attempted rape took place, instead claiming he had a consensual “six-month physical relationship” with her.

According to her account, however, Chiu was pressured into signing a nondisclosure agreement after she attempted to report the alleged attack. Miramax declined NBC News’ request for comment, and Weinstein did not return NBC News’ request for comment.

Chiu, who was raised in a conservative Christian and Chinese household in a predominantly white area outside London, was uncomfortable with speaking about her experience when a New York Times reporter, Jodi Kantor, initially approached her in 2017 — but not solely because she had signed the agreement.

Silenced by the 'model minority myth'

Shame and saving face are concepts deeply woven into several Asian cultures, in particular when it comes to how women are socialized to avoid acts that may be perceived as bringing shame to themselves or their families. As Asian American psychology researcher Stanley Sue points out, there’s even specific language for the notions.

“‘Haji’ among Japanese, ‘hiya’ among Filipinos, ‘mianzi’ among Chinese, and ‘chaemyun’ among Koreans are terms that reveal concerns over the process of shame or the loss of face,” he said.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, explained that given the culture of shame in the Asian diaspora, Chiu’s act of speaking out is tremendously significant.

“On the outside, Asian American women might look like we’re successful, but the level of shame and isolation that comes with experiencing stigma is so deep, like mental health issues and dealing with violence,” she said. “More Asian American women deal with violence than will let on, whether it’s sexual violence or physical violence or emotional violence, because we are told not to talk about it, we are told not to disrupt, or we don’t know where to go for resources.”

There’s an additional layer of scrutiny when it comes to Asian immigrant families. Choimorrow explained that those from immigrant families are often told “from a very young age to assimilate, don’t bring attention to ourselves” as a means of survival in the new country.

Chiu understands this. “They talk a lot about the legal constraints of speaking out but I think it hasn’t centered around a lot of the personal constraints. I would say for me, personally, those were a lot stronger,” Chiu said. “I hadn’t talked to my family, I hadn’t talked to my husband, I hadn’t talked to my sister, I hadn’t talked to my network of friends. No one from that time in my life in ‘98 knew what really happened to me.”

Chiu eventually detailed her experience in “She Said,” the book by Kantor and Meghan Twohey that was published in September.

By contrast, many of her former Miramax colleagues were ready to speak about their experiences with Weinstein when Kantor and Twohey approached them two years ago. Chiu underscored that she was raised to be someone who didn’t speak up, avoided calling attention to herself and never talked back. That presented an especially difficult dilemma when dealing with the trauma and confiding in loved ones about it.

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“These are things that are perpetuated when we internalize the model-minority stereotype,” Choimorrow said. “This is what happens when our community internalizes the model minority myth and says, ‘Yes, we have to be those people to get ahead and be successful.’

“It’s not bringing shame to the family, it’s, ‘You are embarrassing us and bringing us shame in front of white people, in front of mainstream America.’”

To this day, Chiu’s parents have not spoken to her about the assault. She has noted, though, that she’s received a great deal of support from the Asian community.

“[White men] expect obedience and submission but if you’re from ‘model minority’ parents who don’t want to make a fuss, you’re in double danger,” Chiu said. “Because you don’t feel like you can stick your neck out or be an unpleasant person.”

She added: “You’re raised as someone who can be nice.”

'He’d never had a Chinese girl'

In addition to that context, Chiu also found herself surrounded by executives, filmmakers, producers and others in the entertainment industry. She said she was often the only Asian person in the room in the early portion of her career. Looking back, she remembers that racially charged quips and jokes were common. Oftentimes the remarks were well intentioned but the incidents only served to highlight the industry’s lack of cultural and racial sensitivity.

Harvey Weinstein and attorney Benjamin Brafman exit State Supreme Court, on June 5, 2018 in New York.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

The night Weinstein allegedly attempted to rape her was the first time the then-assistant encountered overt racism while on the job, she said.

In her written account in The New York Times, Chiu described the way Weinstein weaponized her race, diminishing her to a two-dimensional, exotic trope.

“My ethnicity initially marked me as different and inferior: He assured [then-colleague Zelda Perkins] that he wouldn’t harass me because he didn’t, as I remember it, ‘do Chinese or Jewish girls,’” Chiu wrote. “Then later, he turned around and defined me in terms of sexual exoticism, telling me, just before he tried to rape me, that he’d never had a Chinese girl.”

It wasn’t the first time Chiu had heard the “I’ve never had a Chinese woman” line, she said. Like many Asian women living in the West, Chiu said it wasn’t an uncommon comment directed at her in London bars when she was younger. Regardless of who spoke that line or the version they used, she believed the underlying purpose was the same: dehumanization.

“Guys would come up to me and say, ‘I’ve always fancied an Asian woman,’ which is very similar to what Harvey Weinstein said to me,” Chiu said. “What you’re actually saying, but you may not be conscious of, is: ‘Hey, I know you’re an inferior race and I’m doing you a favor by fancying you. There’s a blonde woman I could be talking to but I’m talking to you instead.’”

'Geishas and prostitutes with hearts of gold'

Experts said the fetishization of Asian women that permeates both barside catcalls and Weinstein’s alleged comments to Chiu is rooted in a toxic mix of imperialism, discriminatory immigration legislation and problematic representations onscreen.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans imagined the East or the “Orient” as exotic and immoral, Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NBC News. As European and American colonizers expanded into Asia, they perpetuated ideas of Asian women as attractive, available and submissive, cementing this characterization through postcards and photographs.

Legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, which put a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration, further exacerbated the prevalence of stereotypes by “codifying the foreignness of Asians in America,” Choy said.

And Hollywood didn’t help much with dismantling stereotypes, either, she added.

“Twentieth-century popular culture, especially the stereotyping of Asian women in Hollywood films as dragon ladies, lotus blossoms, geishas and prostitutes with hearts of gold, furthered the reach of these one-dimensional fantasies in more contemporary times,” Choy said.

Chiu noted that not only were Asian women portrayed as sex workers, they were “highly submissive sex workers.”

“The way that they were sexually submissive to a dominant white male, that was an enormous sexual stereotype,” Chiu said of the film industry, where Weinstein was a leader for years. “Whether or not one believes it directly translates into real life, I think dominant white men, who come from that sort of cultural hegemony, absorb those stereotypes consciously or unconsciously.”

Choimorrow agreed. The stigmas attached to Asian women have come at a cost to their safety and equity in sexual situations and beyond, she said.

“The stereotypes play into the culture and assumption about what men feel like they can do with women; objectify and use women at their disposal and at their pleasure,” she said.

According to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, from 21 to 55 percent of Asian women in the U.S. report experiencing intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime. The range is based on a compilation of studies of disaggregated samples of Asian ethnicities in local communities. In comparison, 33 percent of women in the U.S. experience sexual violence.

'Not just a rapist… also racist'

That’s why Weinstein’s alleged invocation of Chiu’s race is not negligible, Choimorrow said, describing the disgraced film executive as “not just a rapist, he is also a racist.” Based on Chiu’s account, Weinstein allegedly targeted Chiu specifically because she is an Asian woman, she added.

“By not talking about the racialized experience of her story, you are erasing the racism that played into her situation."

Sung Yeon Choimorrow

“By not talking about the racialized experience of her story, you are erasing the racism that played into her situation. This is often what women of color deal with,” Choimorrow said. “We are often forced to choose or not think about one aspect of our lives.”

While Chiu’s account of her experience was covered by numerous outlets, the majority highlighted the chronological events of the traumatic night Weinstein allegedly tried to attack her during the Venice Film Festival in 1998. Very few directly address Chiu’s race at any angle. For the most part, her Asianness is glossed over, or mentioned as an aside.

Perhaps outlets wanted to portray her as an “every-girl,” an “ordinary person who just graduated university with student debt who went up against the most powerful man in Hollywood,” Chiu said. In doing so, the intersectionality of her experience is neglected, according to Choimorrow.

Since coming out with her story, Chiu has spoken about it in front of audiences and with television hosts, exposing more of the issues she grappled with around her alleged assault. But given the dynamics at play surrounding her race and gender, she still worries.

“We don’t know how many silent Asian voices are out there,” she said.

Chiu stressed that sexual assault survivors should only come out if they are comfortable with doing so. In her own experience, “the dread and fear of coming out was worse than the actual coming out,” she said.

“I feared a lot of judgment from my community, from my family, from my culture that didn’t play true,” she said of her journey. “Because in the end, the monsters in your imagination are bigger.”