Centre The Margins (1991)

In Russel Leong (Ed.), Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts, pp. 62-67. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center & Visual Communications, 1991.

Centre The Margins by Richard Fung

When I look at mainstream Western movies and at television, I see that the imaging of gay people and of Asians is mutually exclusive. In other words, I see (a few) gay men and lesbians and (a few) Asians but I don't see gay or lesbian Asians. At the same time, there is a great deal of similarity in the way that the two groups figure in popular media.

Both Asians and gay people are used primarily as signs—as simple shorthand when the director wants to conjure up a particular atmosphere or induce a certain reaction from the audience. Asians can invoke mystery, humour or danger. A gay character can be loathsome, ridiculous, bizarre or pathetic. With the increasing impact of the Asian American and the gay and lesbian movements, we are now witnessing an increasing use of gay as well as Asian characters, especially in television. Unfortunately, while these characters integrate the "1ook" of the program, they are seldom the center of the story. Or else their portrayals continue as extensions of long-circulating stereotypes and associations in the dominant culture.

Early European accounts of Asia were filled with horror and fascination with the apparently libertine nature of sexual relations. Sixteenth-century Italian missionary, and scholar Matteo Ricci bitterly wrote of China:

That which most shows the misery of the people is that no less the natural lusts they practice unnatural ones that reverse the order of things: and this is not forbidden by law, nor thought to be illicit, nor even a cause for shame.

According to cultural historian Jonathan D. Spence, Ricci's outrage simply reflected a Jesuit preoccupation established by "the Apostle of the Indies" himself, Francis Xavier, who, in 1549 wrote of the Japanese Buddhist clergy that "the priests are drawn to sins against nature and don't deny it, they acknowledge it openly. This evil furthermore is so public, so clear to all, men and women, young and old, and they are so used to seeing it that they are neither depressed nor horrified."

In early Canadian law, precautions were taken to protect white women from the unbridled libidos of Asian men. In 1912, the Saskatchewan legislature disallowed the employment of white women in businesses owned or managed by the Chinese. This was followed by similar legislation in Ontario and in British Columbia.

As Asian American activist Stephen Gong describes the career of Sessue Hayakawa, the imaging of the Hollywood silent-movie star relates to this early vision of Asians as sexually unmanageable and threatening. In contemporary popular consciousness, there continues an association, especially of Southeast Asia, with sexual commerce and accessibility—for the foreigner, at least. Most recent mainstream cinema, however, owes more to another seemingly contradictory discourse; one that finds its rationale in Eugenics and has its most current distillation in theories such as those of psychologist Philippe Rushton. According to Rushton, Asians are more intelligent and less sexual than whites, who are in turn brighter and less sexual that Blacks. Sexuality is measured by a wide variety of variables such as penis size, frequency of intercourse, and fertility. Rushton's methods are shoddy as his conclusions arc racist, yet teaching at one of Canada's most prestigious universities, his course has become framed as a struggle for academic freedom and he has gained supporters on both sides of the border.

Renee Tajima has written about the figuring of East Asian women in Hollywood, as falling into a dragon lady/lotus blossom dichotomy. In fact, Asian women have long been featured in Western representation for the pleasure of the white man's eye. Asian men, on the other hand, have not often been portrayed in sexual terms at all. Asian male characters tend either to be brainy wimps or else martial arts ascetics. The one commonality of both men and women is that neither is represented as sexual agent—desiring as opposed to desirable (or undesirable), the subject in the cinematic gaze.

So if Hollywood cannot bring itself to represent Asians with sexual drive, how can we expect the representation of homosexual drive? A gay or lesbian Asian character would require more investment in character and writing that would detract focus from the white protagonist. Even Mishima (1985), a film about an "avowed" homosexual, managed to effectively skirt the issue. For their part, Asian filmmakers working in North America have not successfully managed to raise the question of homosexuality either. In the selective world of feature filmmaking Wayne Wang has consistently attempted to deepen the representations of Asians on the large screen. Whether it is the negotiation of the adult couple to sleep together in the face of parental supervision in Dim Sum (1984) or the central theme of impotence in Eat A Bowl of Tea (1989), sexuality is a discernable focal point in all of Wang's films. Except for a well intentioned but formulaic reference to lesbianism in the experimental drama Life is Cheap (1990), however, gay characters have not peopled his Chinatown landscape thus far.

In The Displaced View (1988), Sansei director Midi Onodera probes the more subt1e effects of the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Her innovative docu-fiction moves between the perspectives of three generations of women in one family. The third generation character is a lesbian, but since the word is never used and there are no dramatized sequences which illustrate her sexual orientation, it is left somewhat up to the viewer's acuity to decode the clues in the spoken text. In "Then/Now" (1989), Onodera's made-for-T.V. drama, the relationship between a Japanese Canadian woman and her father is temporarily torn apart by her need to set her own terms on their relationship. This includes her career as a writer and her love for a woman. Unfortunately, censorship from the upper echelons of the network bureaucracy deleted or distorted almost all of the lesbian reference, so that the actual nature of the relationship between the two women remains an enigma. At this time Onodera remains perhaps the only Asian lesbian filmmaker in North America who deals with the issue of her sexuality in her work.

There are at least several reasons for the virtual absence of gay and lesbian Asians on the North American screen. Assuming that gay Asian representation would come primarily from gay Asian producers (though this is not necessarily so), it must first be recognized that there are relatively few Asian producers in North America in the first place. Some, like Los Angeles independent filmmaker Gregg Araki, touch on sexual politics without specific Asian reference; others do not address questions of sexuality at all. The fact that both Midi Onodera and I work in Canada probably has a great deal to do with the overtly homophobic climate in the United States, carried from Reagan in to the Bush years and characterized by a hysterical attempt on the part of a right wing, both radical and established, to prop up what they see as a shifting status quo.

Since to make films or videotapes about gay or lesbian subject matter is to invite scrutiny of one's own sexual orientation, at least one of the major factors for the absences relates to the general issue of "coming out" for gays and lesbians of color. In the context of North American racism, families and communities can have particular significance for Asians in affirming identity. So, while white gays and lesbians can avoid personalized homophobia by separating from their families or formative communities and still see themselves reflected in the society around them, their Asian counterparts do not always share this mobility and often find their sexual/emotional and racial/cultural identities in conflict. Generally, the more one is dependent on one's ethnic community, the more difficult it is to come out and risk losing support. This of course puts more of the burden on immigrants and Asians without financial mobility, especially those with less facility in English.

This process became apparent to me in producing Orientations, a 1984 videotape on gay and lesbian Asians, for which a major hurdle was finding a range of people who were willing to appear on camera. Middle-class, educated, young, North American-born men were easy to convince, but the working-class, older, immigrant men (and especially women) that I knew, felt that they had too much at stake to risk exposure. Of course the absences in the tape reinforce a false image of who gay people are.

If asked to articulate the reasons for the relative lack of gay and lesbian visibility in most Asian communities (and in saying this I realize that there are exceptions), many people would say that the communities are too traditional to deal with this issue. I have heard this cited by gay people as a reason for not coming out, by parents for not telling the rest of the family, and by our "leaders" for protecting the communities from discord—in other words enforcing censorship.

Behind the Mask, an AIDS educational videotape aimed at the Asian Pacific communities, is very comprehensive ethnically and linguistically, as well as in its representation of the various issues at stake—except for homophobia. In fact, while it features interviews with obviously gay people, the tape never mentions the "g" word once! Right from the start, the AIDS epidemic has been represented as a "gay" disease. In order to reach out to heterosexuals, it has been deemed necessary to banish the gay reference altogether. This does nothing to displace the fact that AIDS is taboo precisely because it is associated with homosexuality, but it does not reinforce the notion of homosexuality as shameful and unspeakable. There is no way out of this impasse without confronting the demon of homophobia head on. Sidestepping the issue fails to take into account that one cannot transcend homophobia any more than one can transcend racism.

The notion of the "traditionalness" of the Asian communities has also been used as a reason for gay and lesbian Asians not to come out. However, from my decade of working with gay and lesbian Asians, the proportion of rejection and acceptance for those who do choose to come out to their families is not significantly different to those for white people. Yet whereas white homophobia is not interpreted to say anything about whiteness, there is a way in which Asian homophobia is assigned meaning. I am not implying that the fears, hatreds and anxieties that Asian communities feel about same sex love (or sex) are not sometimes "different" from those of European cultural background. The first concern for my own mother for instance, who is herself third generation Western born, centered around who would take care of me when I got old, a Confucian preoccupation. I do feel, however, that the idea that the homophobia of an Asian is somehow "worse" than that of a white person, or that it says something about Asianness, feeds into a racist discourse. In a similar analysis, both Angela Davis and bell hooks have deconstructed the notion among white feminists that the sexism of black men is again somehow more significant than that of white men.

The notion of Asian societies and overseas communities as "traditional" also fixes them as static and unmoving. In the racism and flux of Western society, it is the tendency of emigrants and their descendents to look towards the homeland for spiritual affirmation and constancy. In our need to assert identity we eliminate complexity, homogenize and fall back on totalizing and essentialist visions of "home." Not that one should ignore history or acquiese to the Eurocentrism of North American culture. But there are always dangers of romanticization in any recuperation of other times or places. Further, the invocation of tradition as an excuse for not confronting homophobia in the Asian communities, implicitly suggests the fallacy that homophobia is absent from European tradition and "mainstream" contemporary society. The fact that middle-class white lesbians and gays may have a certain amount of mobility to avoid direct confrontation with homophobia, should not he taken to mean that they do not experience oppression, or to discount the actual effects of the gay and lesbian liberation movements.

It must however also be acknowledged that the notion of tradition is contested ground. Gay and lesbian Asians are also quick to point out the existence, indeed the sometime celebration, of same sex love in Asian history. But to what extent the dalliances of samurai and page described by Saikaku Ihara, the Chinese legends of the cut sleeves and the shared peach, or the many Amazon romances relate to cruising down the Castro, Church and Wellesley or the Michigan Women's Music Festival, is a hotly debated topic in gay academia.

Ironically, it is from Asia itself that we have seen the few representations of Asian gay characters in cinema; in Macho Dancer (1988) from veteran Fi1ipino director and political activist Lino Brocka and The Outsider (1936), based on the Taiwanese novel by Pai, Hsien-Jung and in the Thai films such as The Last Song (1986) and I am a Man (1988). Problematic because of their coyness or their sometimes oppressive morality, these films nevertheless acknowledge a homosexual presence in the societies in which they are made.

In my own video work in the area, I have seen the most important task as the representation of gay and lesbian Asians as subjects, both on the screen and especially as the viewer. I believe that it is imperative to start with a clear idea about audience. This in turn shapes the content of the piece. Many Asian or gay and lesbian tapes and films are still guided by notions of "positive images." To the extent to which positive images are a response to negative stereotypes, it is a limited strategy in that it takes its cue from what the white man or what the straight man thinks. Reaching out with alternative images for a mainstream is valuable but we can become so obsessed with how others might interpret what we have to say that we can cast our own Asian or gay audience into passivity.

In the process of making work for an intended audience that is gay and Asian, I have felt myself freed to touch on issues that are neither important nor attractive to other communities (the so-called mainstream) but of pressing interest for many gay viewers. How do we want to take up drag or role playing? Must we always talk about race in relation to white people? How do we relate to our Black, Latino and Native American brothers and sisters? How do we relate to other Asian men and women in sexual or emotional terms: is integration always the ideal?

I do not think that it is possible to create innocent images of Asians either; to ignore the overbearing history of Hollywood and of television, we must somehow learn to place ourselves at the centre of our own cultural practice, and not at the margins. (Re)creating ourselves in our own terms requires constant reevaluation of the master narratives that have bracketed our lives. For this we need to understand the history and language of images, we must grasp this language and make it our own.