Gina Marchetti (2002)
Still Looking: Negotiating Race, Sex, and History in Dirty Laundry
In my own experience, the existence of a gay Asian community broke down the cultural schizophrenia in which I related on the one hand to a heterosexual family that affirmed my ethnic culture and, on the other, to a gay community that was predominantly white.
As Richard Fung points out in his essay, “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn,” the search for an ethnic identity linked to familial history and the search for an affirmation of his sexual orientation are inevitably linked. His videotape, Dirty Laundry (1996), continues Fung’s search for his eponymous penis, blending his quest for an erotics that affirms his ethnicity with a history of his penis that uncovers racism, homophobia, and a legacy of ignorance and internalized racism as a result of the suppression of gay histories of sexuality within the Chinese diaspora.
From History to Story, and Images In Between
Dirty Laundry marks an interesting turn in Fung’s career. Neither autobiographical nor strictly educational or agitational, the videotape uses a hybrid form that combines fiction with fact to look at the probable history of gay Asians in Canada. However, Dirty Laundry does not turn away from Fung’s principal interests. On the contrary, it represents an intriguing synthesis of all of the major themes found in Fung’s work. Like My Mother’s Place and On the Way to My Father’s Village, it explores intimate connections between the British Commonwealth and Chinese diaspora from ports like Hong Kong and Shanghai to places like Trinidad and Canada, redressing some imbalances in the way in which the history of Asians in North America is sometimes told with an emphasis on the continental United States and Hawaii. If Fung explores his roots in China and in Trinidad in earlier tapes, he searches for his Canadian roots in the history of Chinese immigration to Canada in the nineteenth century in Dirty Laundry, and the protagonist’s quest for the history of his grandfather mirrors Fung’s search for his father’s roots in China in On the Way to My Father’s Village. Like Orientations and Chinese Characters, Dirty Laundry interrogates what it means to be gay among Asians and Asian among gays in a provocative fashion. It has the impetus to agitate and educate like his videos on refugees, AIDS, police brutality (respectively, Safe Place, Fighting Chance, Out of the Blue), and it holds out the promise of a critical synthesis among issues of diaspora, race, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality.
In Dirty Laundry, Fung entertains the idea that homosexual relationships that may have formed in Canada’s Chinese bachelor communities, where, due to racist immigration laws, men outnumbered women. Fung also looks at the other side of the “dirty laundry” by examining the links between the women who did manage to immigrate and prostitution. A hybrid work, Dirty Laundry intercuts a scripted, fictional drama and dramatic enactments of anti-Asian demagogues, with performance art material and more traditional talking head footage of Asian Canadian historians and academics, including Anthony B. Chan, Dora Nipp and Nayan Shah, and lesbian writer Sky Lee. The dramatic fiction fills in the blanks in Asian Canadian history by giving face to an aspect of history that does not appear in the official records as anything other than a crime of vice. While Fung includes documentation on charges of sodomy against Chinese laborers and plenty of information on the reform of Chinese prostitutes, the film includes no clear documentary evidence of what we would call “homosexuality” today. Rather, these relationships must be constructed out of the evidence that does exist in order to create a historical foundation for contemporary gay Canadian existence. Fung reminds the viewer that historical memory is laced with mythology and what that mythology suppresses depends on how conventional historians have decided to frame the past.
Hence, when looking for what must be there, but suppressed, Fung turns to fiction to draw parallels between homosexuals within the Chinese diaspora in the present as well as the past. Indeed, the fiction enables the exploration of issues that may slip away from the documentarian. The fiction offers different interpretations of the well worn “facts” of the history of Chinese immigration, exploding the “official” histories of the Canadian government as well as less “official” histories of Canadian Asians and popularly held beliefs within the gay community. All the “dirty laundry” gets a good airing. Chinese Canadians become an integral part of Canadian history as well as a key component of Asian American history. The racist exclusion of the Chinese is admitted into the official record, with the important cross-border links in immigration laws in Canada and the United States made clear. Women (mainly prostitutes) emerge to redress the image of the exclusively bachelor community of Canada’s Chinatowns. The history of the lonely bachelor is also scrutinized, and going to Gold Mountain appears for some Chinese immigrant men to be less of the burden of separation from hearth and home and more of a liberation from arranged marriages and heterosexual norms. For the gay community, images of Chinese men as the “eternal bottoms” in white-Asian relationships are overturned through a dialectic of desire that includes cross-racial attraction and “sticky rice” liaisons. Pan-Asian solidarity finds its further figuration in a South Asian/Chinese lesbian romance. The traditional, homophobic Chinese patriarch put forward as the founding figure of the Asian Canadian community may have been, instead, as much a part of the queer diaspora as its Chinese equivalent. However, like most histories, Dirty Laundry relies on speculation and wish fulfillment as much as fact to present a picture of the founding mothers and fathers of Asian Canadian queers. For Fung, the “story” in history becomes vital to finding an imaginative counter to the xenophobia and homophobia that have marked earlier versions of the past that seemed so removed from the present gay Asian community in Canada.
Dirty Laundry begins with an interrogation of the photographic image, its construction, and circulation. A young man dressed in traditional nineteenth century Chinese dress with a queue, skull cap, and fan in hand, sits for a photographic portrait against the backdrop of a large wicker chair, potted fern, and Oriental carpet that lends the setting a British colonial look. He poses for a portrait that mimics photographs sent back home of Chinese sojourners taken in America. The railroad connects this man with his great grandson Roger (with both roles played by Andy Quan). Through fourth-generation Chinese Roger and his railway trip across Canada, Fung links contemporary gay Chinese Canadians with earlier gay sojourners, new queer immigrants, and Chinese lesbians all on a journey cutting across the nation.
Roger is a typical Asian “guppy” (gay, upwardly mobile, professional) who writes for a Canadian magazine. On the train, he works on an article on new Chinese immigrants that has various titles as Roger’s thinking on the subject changes from “Restaurants to Riches: The New Chinese Immigrants” to “Chinese Canadians: From Laundries to Limos” and, finally, “Dirty Laundry.” His object of desire also changes with his growing political consciousness. At the beginning of the trip, he looks longingly at a young white man in jeans and, later, he has an affair with the Chinese porter (T.H. Xia) he hadn’t given a second glance earlier. The shift is from an identification with white gay Canadians to an Asian American queer consciousness based on a rediscovered history of Chinese Canadian homosexuality.
Through the porter, Roger gains a better appreciation of his own great-grandfather and his own history. The porter advises Roger to learn “his own” language and educates Roger about Chinese customs like men holding hands to convey affection. When Roger dozes off while reading tomes on Chinese Canadian history, he breaks the frame holding his great-grandfather’s photograph and discovers another photo behind it that includes a second man seated, his great-grandfather’s hand resting on his. The porter explains that this is common in China. Although the “this” could be same-sex physical contact, male-on-male platonic affection, or a homoerotic display, Roger interprets it as a homosexual relationship. However, although he tries to convince his editor that gay rights is an important issue among new immigrants, Roger recognizes his own father’s homophobia with an offhand remark to his Chinese lesbian acquaintance, “If he thought it ran in the family, he’d die!”
Indeed, the image of the gay great-grandfather takes on a mythic dimension throughout the video, shored up by the evidence of historians and recreation of actual historical documents of testimony presented to a 1884 Royal Commission on the status of Chinese in Canada that lead to the Head Tax and later Exclusion Laws, paralleling those already in place in the United States, that virtually brought Chinese immigration to a halt. A title links the xenophobic climate with homophobic legislation: “In 1885, the year Canada institutes the head tax, Britain criminalizes all sexual activity between men as ‘gross indecency.’” The pain and difficulty of immigration become palpable in inscriptions left on the deportation center walls of Victoria, British Columbia, letters from neglected wives left to fend for themselves in China, and two parallel scenes that show how same-sex relationships could fill the gap left by the Canadian governmental laws that effectively split up families for years. In one scene, a woman braids a man’s queue, and asks in voiceover: “Who will braid your hair? Who will cook your rice? Who will wash your clothes? Who will warm your bed?” Later, the scene is repeated with two men and a male voice over asking the same questions. Near the video’s conclusion, these ancestral shadows are replaced by a contemporary Chinese Canadian lesbian braiding her South Asian lover’s hair. Homosexuality becomes visually established as part of Canadian Asian history with links to contemporary Asian American and queer politics. The lover is restored to the photograph at the end of the tape, and the two men leave their portrait behind as they take their place in history.
However, homophobia lingers as a part of the Chinese American legacy. Although Sky Lee explains that her mother was very sympathetic toward her lesbianism when she came out to her (given that her mother’s generation knew that heterosexuality often involved loveless arranged marriages), a performance art piece inserted into the more conventional narrative and documentary portions of the video makes manifest homophobic sentiments in Chinese culture. As a bare-chested young Chinese man walks in front of a projection of the Chinese characters for sex between men (nan se), titles appear that give a list of terms used to refer to homosexuality, terms ranging from “adopted brother” to “ass ghost.”
The Sexual Politics of East and West
Fung has written extensively on both racism within the gay community and homophobia among Asian Americans. In “Center the Margins,” he points out some of the complexities surrounding these issues:
…whereas white homophobia is not interpreted to say anything about whiteness, there is a way in which Asian homophobia is assigned meaning…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 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.’
Fung goes on to point to an additional impetus within the Asian gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered community to look to homosexual traditions of the past for affirmation. Thus, because of racism, diasporic Asians may feel greater pressure to maintain ties with what may be a homophobic community, while looking for historical affirmations of same-sex love. At the same time, however, romantic visions of the dalliances of emperors with male favorites and the battlefield affections of samurai do not adequately address the importance of the continuity of community; i.e., historically queer, Asian, diasporic, and scarred by racism and the legacy of colonialism.
When looking at the homophobic preconceptions that often frame Asian thinking about the West as well as Western conceptions of Orientalism, a striking parallel appears. Within neo-Confucian, anti-colonial rhetoric, homosexuality is often associated with Western decadence and colonial subjugation. The “rice queen” in this scenario uses his imperialist power to pervert the morals of Asian youth, who must submit to Western dominance manifested by the colonial pederast/Chinese houseboy dialectic. Western Orientalism, on the other hand, has characterized Asia as essentially feminine (i.e., naturally subordinate and masochistic) and Asian men as “queer” by definition. The colonist (like Gallimard in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly) is blinded by the charms of the “naturally feminine” Chinese homosexual and gives into homosexual impulses. In this “going native” scenario, the Westerner would never consider a homosexual relationship with another of his race, but gives into the seductive allure of the East embodied by the young gay Asian. Homosexuality is, thus, erased from the history of each culture and displaced onto the Other; the native gay conveniently ceases to exist and he becomes a stranger in his own country. As Chris Berry points out in his essay, “Sexual DisOrientations: Homosexual Rights, East Asian Films, and Postmodern Postnationalism”:
Homosexuality is a convenient discursive trope—a political conjuring trick made to appear first here, then there according to the needs of the players. However it is manipulated, it is always made abject, always construed as part of the collective other and not as part of the collective self it is deployed to construct and defend.
In Dirty Laundry, Richard Fung sets out to find a repressed Chinese homosexual history that is “dirty” (e.g., working class, not sanitized or romanticized by stories of courtly love, and erotic). However, Fung does not go to China (or Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, for that matter) to look for it. Rather, Fung stays in Canada. Dirty Laundry sets his romance in the West. Just as Tu Wei-Ming argues in a very different context that the farther one travels from China, the freer one is to be Chinese, Fung, ironically, seems to make a similar point that the farther the gay Chinese travels from China, the freer he is to be both Chinese and gay, and be with an gay Asian partner. In fact, Dirty Laundry seems to lead to the conclusion that “home” must perpetually exist in a dialectical space that maintains itself as a safe haven and casts it aside as a sexual prison. Rather than China or Trinidad, Fung’s home becomes what Tom Waugh has called, drawing on the work of Arjun Appadurai, the “homoscape”—“the transnational scene of sexual spaces, commodities, communications, and identity performance.” Waugh goes on to discuss the homoscape specifically in relation to Dirty Laundry: “Here in the spatial complexity of virtual train studio set and real nature landscape hurtling past, present space and historical space, documentary space of interview and dramatized space of reenactment, there is what Appadurai calls the ‘fundamental disjuncture’ of scapes. The clash of homoscape with ethnoscape articulates more vividly than ever the identity of disjuncture of queer and Asian that Fung has been so expressive in documenting since 1984…In Dirty Laundry, in the corridors and discreet compartments of its expansive studio-constructed train, Chinese diasporas repeatedly come together with the queer nation.”
Fung imagines a space where it is safe to be gay and Chinese; however, history intrudes and this homoscape remains a fiction.
The Revenge of the Chinese “Houseboy”
In “Looking for My Penis,” Fung observes:
…the “houseboy” is one of the most persistent white fantasies about Asian men. The fantasy is also a reality in many Asian countries where economic imperialism gives foreigners, whatever their race, the pick of handsome men in financial need. The accompanying cultural imperialism grants status to those Asians with white lovers. White men who for various reasons, especially age, are deemed unattractive in their own countries, suddenly find themselves elevated and desired.
Dirty Laundry is implicitly critical of the possible internalization of this fantasy within “sticky rice” relationships. In fact, the tape highlights questions of class in erotic relationships to combat the possibility that Chinese homoeroticism will be tainted by class antagonisms and internalized colonialism. Roger’s guide into the history of the gay Chinese is not an emperor, eunuch, or a court favorite; rather, a working class railway porter leads Roger past his ignorance, racial self-loathing, and class prejudices. The porter takes Roger on an intellectual journey, to be sure, but it is also an erotic voyage. Just as the train points to obvious Freudian sexual symbolism as well as standing as a metaphor for the Chinese who built modern Canada, the tape shows how sex and class issues cannot be separated.
In fact, the dialectical tension between Roger and his working-class lover propels the video in a direction that subverts the roles these characters may be expected to portray. Because of his class standing and recent immigrant status, the porter should be tied to the past, to a “purer” Chinese tradition, subordinate to the more prosperous, Western-educated Roger. A “sticky rice” version of the colonial stereotypes of homoerotic desire would not do, however. Indeed, the porter does not play the “house boy” in mimicry of a colonial politics of homoeroticism. Rather, the porter takes the lead in bed as well as acting as cultural guide. Through the sex act, the porter affirms the working class gay Chinese as a present and future part of global culture. Erudite, far from passive, and assertive, the Chinese immigrant emerges as more than a relic of a past when possibly gay Chinese laborers built the railroad. Rather, he becomes a vital part of Roger’s (and Canada and Greater China’s) present understanding of the Chinese queerscape. In the middle of a history of the Chinese in Canada, Fung creates a counter-erotics that highlights what fiction can do that factual accounts cannot; i.e., reposition desire and create a space for the re-conceptualization of sexual fantasy.
As Zhou Xiaojing points out in his essay “Denaturalizing Identities, Decolonizing Desire: Videos by Richard Fung and Ming-Yuen S. Ma,” Fung’s work pushes for “much broadened and complicated concepts of and methodologies for investigating and re-inventing identities in the transnational historical contexts of immigration and diaspora.” In other words, for Fung, the history of the Chinese diaspora becomes a queer history of the sexually repressed whose exile or nomadism is overdetermined by issues of sexual orientation as well as politics, economics and other factors. In this rewriting of history, the traditional Chinese patriarch becomes the queer sojourner, and his existence serves as a critique of nationalism, ethnocentrism, and phallocentrism as well as homophobia throughout the Chinese diaspora. In Dirty Laundry, Fung historicizes his search for his penis to find, in the process, an alternative queer Asian erotics.