But it’s not a holiday for the 3.2 billion people who live in the tropical zone. White-made media reinforces a racialized, exotic vacation trope, training their cameras on and constructing sets with gangly palm trees, pristine beaches, glistening oceans, and deferential Pacific Islander, Asian, Caribbean, and/or Indigenous peoples. This is the cherry-picked, colonialist view of tropical lands, which are presented as escapist fantasies and prizes for white Americans and Europeans.
People of color are the global majority and within a couple decades the tropics will be home to more than half of the world’s population. Yet white science-fiction filmmakers and television creators insist on creating protagonists from a white minority who sojourn to a distant, tropical paradise centuries and millennia into the future.
When locals make an appearance in white visions of Pacific, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian islands, they are usually flower-adorned, nameless, and anonymous. People of Asia and Oceania are presented interchangeably, as if they belong to one homogeneous culture. Although 68% of displaced people and 85% of the extreme poor live in tropical countries, you’ll only see, through the white imaginary, tropical people happy to serve white visitors with a smile. The actual lives of brown people don’t matter; instead, they are portrayed as absurdly stuck in a supposedly “undeveloped” past in sci-fi futures. They can never be worthy of main character status—even if they are part of the majority population—in both the present and the future.
Vivid sunsets and prehistoric plants appear as holographic wallpaper in cyberpunk cinema. Non-white inhabitants with undulating hips beckon to white characters in advertisements for implanted memories. A relaxing tropical getaway or retirement — or the simulation of such—is a reward earned by hard-working white people: a dream in which they can live carefree, with a gentle and subservient class of brown locals to pick up after them, grateful for their benevolent spending of overvalued dollars and euros. This old, racist topos derives from U.S. and European imperialism and placement of military bases in strategic island territories, insidiously erasing Pasifika, Asian, Caribbean, and Indigenous intellect, cultures, histories, and autonomy. Lazily replicating these stale stereotypes, white sci-fi filmmakers are praised as visionary geniuses.
Tropicollage is a short, looping video that collages footage from thirty years of futuristic sci-fi movies and television shows that employ a fetishized tropics trope. Commissioned by Other Futures, it is one part of Astria Suparak’s ongoing research project, Asian futures, without Asians.
Tropicollage can be viewed at bit.ly/tropicollage.
Sources: The Running Man (1987), Total Recall (1990), The Fifth Element (1997), Minority Report (2002), The Island (2005), Repo Men (2010), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), Altered Carbon (2018).
For a detailed history of U.S. imperialistic intervention on the island of Kaua’i, see Anthony Banua-Simon’s documentary essay, Cane Fire (2020).
Thank you to Brett Kashmere, Andrea Chung, Nayda Collazo-Llorens, Levalasi Ane Loi-On, and Rory Padeken.