Character Study (1990)

Character Study by Karl Soehniein (Outweek, October 17, 1990)
Richard Fung defies easy categorization. A gay man born in Trinidad to Chinese immigrant parents, Fung has lived most of his adult life in Toronto. As an activist in both the gay and Asian communities-and mostly in the margins where the two overlap – he has been using video as a tool of empowerment since his first work, Orientations, in 1984. Constructed from a series of interviews with gay and lesbian Asians, the tape gave a media voice to a community which had never before had one. Chinese Characters is a look at how commercial gay porn portrays Chinese men, followed in 1986. In The Way to My Father’s Village (1988) and My Mother’s Place (1990), Fund explored his racial and cultural identity through his parents’ experiences. He has also completed Steam Clean, a safer-sex porn tape for GMHC and, more recently, Asian Positive, a look at HIV and the Asian community. Fung is an articulate and engaging video maker, and his work is a strong reminder that there are many gay and lesbian “communities.”

KS: Were Orientations and Chinese Characters made for different audiences?

RF: My background in community television gave me a really strong sense of audience. Our station manager used to say, ‘If you only reach fifteen people, but those are the people who need to see this tape, then that’s good programming.’ So when I did Orientations, I very much geared it toward gay and lesbian Asians. Chinese Characters deals primarily with Chinese as opposed to Asians, but I had a sense that it was talking also to all gay men around the issues of pornography. Both tapes responded very much to political needs I saw in the community.

Chinese Characters came about because there was a locked, polarized debate going nowhere between certain radical feminists who opposed pornography on all grounds, not making any distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual – what I thought was very crude argument – and what I would call libertarian gay men who said that because gay men had been denied access to sexual representation, we had to support any kind of sexual representation, no matter what it was. As a gay man of colour who was sympathetic to feminism, I saw whole areas not being discussed. The people I described as libertarian were all white men and hadn’t stopped to think of how people of colour related to gay pornography, which usually excludes or demeans us. We wanted to critique pornography but didn’t want to fall into a pro-censorship kind of discourse, because pornography is also really important. People in small towns come to gay consciousness first by seeing things like Mandate way before they hear of gay liberation. So pornography serves a real function, but it does that at the expense of a more complex identity.

KS: The tapes you made after that are the tapes about your family, right?

RF: Yes. In The Way To My Father’s Village, I was trying to figure out this relationship I had with China, which I had never seen but which played such a large part in my sense of who I was and other people’s sense of who I was. A lot of Western-born Chinese have a very complex, contradictory relationship to the country. It finds them in spite of themselves. The tape with my mother is, in some ways, the most sophisticated and, in some ways, the most mainstream, although I probably would like to think of it as accessible. I grew up in Trinidad at the point of independence. My mother grew up during colonialism – she’s 81 years old now. Her ideas really reflect a colonized identity. At the same time, I wanted to scrutinize my own identity. My mother took super 8 footage of us when we were growing up, so the tape incorporates that, and there’s stuff about me growing up a sissy and stuff. I had originally thought I would just spend a little time doing that autobiographical stuff, and then I got into it and it absorbed me more.

KS: Your most recent work deals with AIDS.

RF: Yes. I did the HIV tape because of the extreme level of denial of the gay Asian community in Toronto, and how it doesn’t create a space for people who are positive to come out or to seek help or support from their friends. I’m involved with the Gay Asian AIDS Project and was at a safer-sex workshop, and I was just amazed at the way people put HIV so far away from them and talked in a derogatory manner about HIV, not even thinking that someone among them may be positive. So what I wanted to do in Asian Positive was to create a context in which people will be able to talk about things and not feel isolated, to feel that there are other people who have experienced these things. The tape isn’t geared to give information or talk about specific issues around activism, but to do something much “softer.” I feel that’s what needs to be done now.

KS: The GMHC safer-sex tape seems to combine the issues of Chinese Characters and Asian Positive.

RF: That tape took me a long time to do because I couldn’t find Asians who would have sex on camera, and I think it has to do with people being more wary about doing sexually explicit stuff. I originally wanted to have two East or Southeast Asian people doing it – two “Orientals.” I couldn’t find anyone, and it took me months and months of promises falling through. In the end, I used one person who’s Chinese and one person who’s Indian. What I kept falling into was, Who can fuck whom? It becomes this kind of geometry of sexuality: How do you work out these grids of oppression, and how do you balance them? It brought together for me a lot of the issues around “countering” work.

KS: How did you solve the dilemma?

RF: I don’t think I did it in a very satisfactory way. I had the Chinese guy fuck the Indian guy, but the Indian guy sits on him. I was thinking that I was affirming the pleasure of the anus. That’s how I justified it, but it’s by no means an answer.

KS: It also raises the issue: If you’re getting fucked, does that somehow mean you’re in a lesser position of control?

RF: The problem, though, is that when I examined the erotic work featuring Asian models, “Asian” and “anus” were always conflated. What you’re saying is true, but historically that is the way the representation has developed, so I couldn’t just transcend it. I twill always be a problem until gay Asians make enough work to counteract it, so people at least know there are differences.

KS: Your first tape was all interviews, but in later tapes you seem to be experimenting more.

RF: I’m interested in experimentation and communication. One of the reasons I‘m doing experimentation is that traditional film language carries a lot of ideological baggage with it. The Cosbys is a great example of what I mean. It uses all the terms of the dominant media, like the terms of success, of being “good people,” of the nuclear family, and then tries to situate a Black family in it. It’s interesting that it’s become the most popular show, because I think that sort of average, semi-racist people who are not Black can like The Cosbys and still carry around all the racist baggage in their head with their neighbours who are Black…

KS: Who aren’t doctors and lawyers…

RF: And who aren’t in perfect families. At the same time, I have sat through a lot of experimental film and videotapes where I don’t know what’s going on, and often it makes you feel kind of stupid. I try to balance out my own desire for experimentation with giving an audience who may not be used to seeing experimental work things that they can hold on to or grasp. I always deal with margins within the margins, like West Indian Chinese people or gay Asians, so I try to not be alienating. I feel like I also have a responsibility to activate this audience.