Laura U. Marks (1993)

Sexual Hybrids: From Oriental Exotic to Postcolonial Grotesque by Laura U. Marks
(an excerpt)(Parachute 1993)
…In a different way, Richard Fung’s 1986 videotape Chinese Characters explores the difference between appropriating a mainstream porn format and transforming it. Fung’s tape works with two sets of clichéd imagery: an “oriental” mise-en-scene of flute music, cool ponds, and tastefully off-center shots of cherry blossoms, willow trees and magnolias; and clips from gay porn featuring blond and bronzed young men. The tape takes both sets of imagery on journeys: one is the journey of Chinese mythical explorer Wai Jin to find the source of the Yellow River; the other is for Fung’s semi-fictional gay Asian protagonist to find images that speak to them of their desires.

In a series of interviews, gay men of Asian backgrounds talk to the camera about the pleasure of first finding gay pornography images that allowed them to identify with the desiring gaze. For the first time they found their sexuality affirmed. But, they explain, these images they found to identify with were invariably of white men. Thus in trying to express themselves as gay, they had to express themselves as white. One tells how his lovers are surprised that he drops his Malaysian accent when he talks dirty – he learned it from gay white porn. Another man tells how, “I moved myself closer and closer to the image the GWM magazines are selling” – taking on the dress style, the walk, the requisite body (“I started going to the gym”), and all the other attributes that come with mainstream gay images, in order to be found attractive by other men. Pornography, in short, although initially liberatory for these men, became normative. With a straight face, Fung plays back an array of racist stereotypes as they structure our heroes unsatisfying encounters: “Are you a foreign student?” “I was once stationed in Singapore.” “You’re so gentle.” “You’ve got a nice cock – for an Oriental.”

These lines touch on stereotypes of Asian male sexuality that Fung explores in his article “Looking For My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn.” In the few North American gay pornographic videos that do employ Asian actors, he finds, that the Asian men are feminized, desireless, and invariably the passive sexual objects of white men.

“The gay Asian viewer is not constructed as a sexual subject in any of this work – not on the screen, not as a viewer. I may find (the Asian actor) Sum Yung Mahn attractive, I may desire his body, but I am always aware that he is not meant for me. I may lust after (the Caucasian actor) Eric Stryker and imagine myself as the Asian who is having sex with him, but the role the Asian plays in the scene with him is demeaning.”

The frustration of a desire without an object – or without a pleasuring object – plays out in the images on monitors behind the interviewees. These alternate between bits of the “Chinese” garden that began the tape and shots of an Asian man masturbating alone with simple props – a cock ring, a sock, underwear. The “Oriental landscape” scenes – shot, I suspect, in a Toronto park – frame the man in a sexuality-as-nature cliché. The cumulative effect of the masturbation scenes, especially in the context of the crowded orgies in the commercial porn clips, is isolated and depressing: there is no image for the masturbating man’s desire.

Just as the woman of colour in Cheang’s installation must displace the white male in order to become subjects of their own desire, so Fung’s characters must push aside the hegemonic gay spectator, who is also white. Thus in another strategy, Fung’s clever porn montages try to force gay white porn to admit Asian men as sexual protagonists and viewing subjects. His Chinese character, dressed up for cruising, heads for the park. As he walks into the woods and begins to undress, Fung’s crosscutting makes the bearded white hero from a gay porn video seem to advance toward him, undoing his jeans. Superimposed on the video image, his back to us, our man beckons invitingly to the bearded fellow – they come face to face – the white man bends down – and there the encounter must stop. Mainstream porn can only be pushed so far before the Asian viewer must again make himself conform to the image.

Fung’s solution in this tape seems to be to turn away from the white-centered narratives of conventional porn altogether. In a final scene, a voice-over reads a porn fantasy, familiar but altered – “Everyone was asleep on the plane. I was bored. Suddenly my phone rang. ‘Hey Li, it’s Captain Leung. Remember I said, if there’s anything I can do to make your flight more comfortable…?’ – while, in a long shot, we see two Asian men kissing in the “Chinese” garden. Meanwhile, at the end of the voyage of Wai Jin, the source of the Yellow River turns out to be the Milky Way.

The men frolicking in the porn videos of Chinese Characters are not only white but invariably young, handsome by Hollywood standards, and well hung. Although the agendas for Asian gay men are unique insofar as they respond to particular histories of oppression, still a frustration like that of the Asian protagonists can be felt by any number of North American gay men who do not see themselves in the picture. This points to a mission that Fung’s character is well placed to carry out, the mission to de-naturalize gay sexuality. Faced itself with invisibility from the vantage point of the dominant culture, gay culture has structured itself quite self-consciously around certain signifiers of gay identity and desirability. Yet paradoxically, once these signifiers have been established they become naturalized, so that a man will internalize certain standards of attractiveness to other gay men, including the standard of whiteness. Fung made this tape in 1986; his work is an important part of a movement to multiply and denaturalize gay, as well as ethnic, imagery…