Mission Butterfly profiles
Tall View
Butterfly's profile
Short View
Pinkerton's profile
Mission Butterfly


The installation hijacks an old story, Madame Butterfly, and a contemporary medium, internet dating, to examine how Butterfly plays out in modern relationships and feeds modern stereotypes about both white men and Asian women. Though the race and gender problems in Butterfly may be obvious to some contemporary audiences, the attitudes represented in it still appear to subconsciously influence people's desires and attractions. Online dating services are a public place where these attitudes are documented, and where it is considered socially acceptable to have racial preferences, both directly and indirectly (e.g., preferring certain characteristics that may be stereotypically linked to certain races). They allow users to see who the computer considers a "match" for these archetypal characters, as well as the quantities and qualities of people who retain these myths and fantasies. The interactive component allows visitors to the exhibit to view and engage in real-life dialogues with some of them.

The installation presented Madame Butterfly and B.F. Pinkerton as residents of the Mission District in present-day San Francisco. A profile was created for each character in an online dating site. The profiles remained live during the exhibition, and the installation consisted of two computers logged into the dating website, where visitors could adopt the identities of Butterfly and Pinkerton, reading and responding to messages sent to the characters. The profiles were visible to the outside world, through the personals web site.

The profiles used details from the lives of the characters from the original Madame Butterfly opera, including details about themselves and about their preferences. Some of the details were updated to bring them into modern-day San Francisco, but they were easily recognizable as characters to people familiar with the opera.


Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly is considered a classic story which represents early East-West relations. Based on a late 19th-century novel, it is the story of a Japanese girl (Cio-Cio-San, aka Butterfly) who is seduced by an American military officer, B.F. Pinkerton, leading to marriage and a baby. After the wedding, Pinkerton leaves to go back to America, but promises Butterfly that he will return. The rest of the opera is about her long, futile wait for Pinkerton to return, ending in tragedy as she finally breaks down in despair when Pinkerton does return with his (white) American wife – he had never intended to come back as Butterfly’s husband. The story embodies problematic racist and sexist myths and fantasies that persist consciously and unconsciously to this day, about submissive Asian females desperate for the love of powerful white Westerners, despite mistreatment and betrayal.

The story has served as an inspiration for other modern works, notably David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, which examined modern stereotypes about Asians and how that plays out both among individuals and in international politics and diplomacy. (It is the story of the French diplomat who carried on a 20-year affair with a Chinese spy, whom the diplomat thought was a woman, yet was finally revealed to be a man at the end of the affair. Hwang's play contends that stereotypes about Asians allowed the diplomat to maintain the illusion that he was having an affair with a woman).




Pirated: A Post-Asian Perspective, Kearny Street Workshop, 2005


San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum's Madame Butterfly exhibit

Madame Butterfly synopsis

Miss Saigon synopsis

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang (wikipedia)


Copyright © Derek Chung