Thomas Waugh (2002)
Fung: Home and Homoscape
By Thomas Waugh
The growing literature on Richard Fung’s impressive oeuvre seems to canonize the postcolonial queer hybridity of his more complex autobiographical works rather than a bluntly instrumentalist video such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis commission, Steam Clean (1990), and other community-based tapes. This literature also downplays sexual discourses and performance—queer at that—that I think are at the centre of Fung's production, thus minimizing the full constellation of intersecting identity and political practices that his work embodies. But Steam Clean has a symptomatic place in the Fung videography, positioned halfway through his wide-ranging career . I would first like to reclaim Steam Clean as key to this oeuvre and its full range of issues, and secondly, take Fung's Dirty Laundry and hang it out to dry.
Sexual representation, in fact queer sexual performance, is an important but unacknowledged commonality that Fung shares with a disparate body of contemporary work in hybrid documentary that Nichols has lumped together as performative . Laura Marks has called the sexual element in so many of these works the "engaging [of] desire," the "reclaiming [of] sexual pleasure on their own terms." But the critical reception of such artists often reveals a symptomatic soft-pedalling of the hanky-panky.
Coming back to what is on the screen, and what the insider in me sees, the camera's point of view in Steam Clean wanders down the bathhouse corridor and who should pass with a characteristic cruise of the lens but hairy-chested WASP hunk Tim McCaskell, Fung's real-life partner of over twenty years. Then who should be in cubicle number two but pioneering Toronto video artist Colin Campbell; and through what is revealed as the embodied look of our fetching protagonist, Fung himself appears, together with video artist/activist John Greyson (and then McCaskell again, no doubt plotting a hot foursome with the camera). And as the protagonist passes an unwilling, white presumed racist and a willing black leather man in their respective cubicles, to end up in the arms and anus of the tender, stubble-chested South Asian man, it is clear that we are in a real place. We are in the middle of not only the incestuous universe of the Toronto art video community, in a community education network staffed by activists from Toronto's queer Asian and anti-racist education organizations, but also a real Toronto sauna—the Spa on Maitland. The sense of networking and location for this fully dramatized piece of instructional porn is thus as strong as in any of Fung's realist, more conventional documentaries, all set in Toronto, dealing with political refugees, police racism, and consciousness raising by Asian gays and lesbians. So strong that presumably the Asian American sector of the intended audience must have felt a sense of bewildering dislocation, not only by the admonition in formal French to "enculer en sécurité" seemingly towering over the messages in Tagalog, Hindi, Chinese and Vietnamese, but also by the specificity of this space.
The sauna is the setting for what we might call the "homoscape," borrowing Arjun Appadurai's figure of the "scape" (as in ethnoscape, mediascape, financescape, technoscape and ideoscape), being "different streams or flows along which cultural material may be seen to be moving across national boundaries," that resonate through the perceived stabilities and localities of our everyday lives . Shifting the notion's application from the ethnic diasporas to that of the queer diasporas or the queer global village, the homoscape is the transnational scene of sexual spaces, commodities, communications and identity performance. The homoscape is shaped, as in Fung's tape, by flimsy partitions, corridors, half-opened doors and mirrors, and textured by the easily inflected (and disguised) accoutrements of baseball cap and towel, stubbled chest and leather harness, condom and lubricant. It is inhabited by the coded rituals of looking and cruising, the negotiations of consent, and ultimately of course the protocols of sexual exchange. In the space of the sauna, the scape is stable because it is so hermetic, scarcely disrupted by the performance of rejection, racist or otherwise, channeled down the corridor through the serial process of selection, and culminating in the mirrored space where not only sex is enacted, but also, thanks to narrative conventions and expectations, where the conjugal drive is resolved.
The romantic narrative of couple formation epitomized by this smiling, tender, safe coitus has in fact shaped all of Fung's queer Asian tapes. They may be so shaped obliquely, as in what I call the straight gay documentaries, Orientations and Fighting Chance, in the sense that individualized talking heads are gradually transformed in the editing into talking couples. They may also be shaped by the absence and problematization of couple narratives, as in Chinese Characters, where the anxious and solitary cruisers, masturbators and life-narrators recount the stresses of couple formation but show its visual consummation only on its plane of impossibility, through the artifice of the video-key. His videotape, Dirty Laundry, is shaped directly by the narrativization of conjugality, with its romantic couple, not pan-Asian this time, but pan-Chinese. The consummation takes place not across ethnic lines as in Steam Clean, but across class and cultural lines, namely between the Chinese-speaking steward and the non-Chinese speaking intellectual passenger on the Occidental Express. It thus provides a strong narrative impetus to that tape's documentary explorations of ethnic history undertaken in more experimental modes. With this couple, as in Steam Clean, Fung has literally accomplished his goal, announced repeatedly in his writings, of moving beyond "pulling apart" sexual discourses, to "constructing an alternative erotics... articulating counter-hegemonic views of sexuality." He succeeds in constructing a utopian pan-Asian sexuality and sexual subject, every bit as rhetorical and ideological as Marlon Riggs' cri de coeur, "Black men loving black men."
The non-Chinese speaking protagonist is at once the most dramatized personae of Fung's oeuvre and the most documentary-like, an obvious stand-in for Fung the image maker and historical researcher, as he shifts through punning titles for a documentary on Chinese Canadian history. He is also engaged in family reconstruction as well, with the possibly queer ancestor, a possibly complicit aunt, and fully complicit lesbian surrogate sister. This extended family is located by Fung elsewhere as the crux of difference:
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.
Despite the relatively conventional narrative construction, the hybrid scape of Dirty Laundry is a far cry from the unitary homoscape of the Spa on Maitland. Here, in the spatial complexity of virtual train studio set and real nature landscape hurtling past, the present space and historical space, and the 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 disjuncture of queer and Asian that Fung has been so expressive in documenting since 1984. Such a disjuncture had been epitomized in the moments in Chinese Characters where Asian gay men, anchored in the foreground ethnoscape, are video-keyed against the imaginary background of a white porno homoscape. In Dirty Laundry, in the corridors and discreet compartments of its expansive studio-constructed train, Chinese diasporas repeatedly come together with the queer nation. The lush canopy of the essentialized historical homeland that Fung had pastiched in Chinese Characters, before finally deconstructing it in his parental diptych, is here meticulously restored with great attention to historical and cultural authenticity. And now there is an intensified awareness of the secret corners and crevices of this homeland, where the homoscape bubbles through the surface, a probing of the ambiguities of its homosocial spaces. The video-key is again deployed, setting fictive characters and documentary witnesses alike against archival still photographs and newsreel shots of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which catch almost incidentally the Asian workers who built its tracks and tunnels. A decade after Chinese Characters, a more confident and diverse array of other devices is now engaged in creating this artistic confrontation of previously disjunctive scapes.
If we look at Fung’s oeuvre as a whole, and even within the works that we might call most “migrant,” the hybrid shifting space of the migrant is always anchored in a strong sense of locality and rootedness. We find the situatedness of the social activist and the documentarist whose aesthetic integrates the postmodern and the non-referential performative in a strong realist and instrumentalist framework of localized agendas of city and nation. Fung once casually mentioned to me the "pedagogical strategy" that had dictated the relatively conventional interview-based format for the tapes on refugee rights and police racism, Safe Place and Out of the Blue. These are his two most pragmatic works in terms of specific localized audiences and immediate community goals in the vivid urban environment in which he has worked for more than twenty years (they are also his least "homocentric" works, which may or may not be another story). Subtending the autobiographical searches for “my father's village” and “my mother's place” in his hybrid canonized work is, then, the assumption of "my place."
That may be why Dirty Laundry, parachuted into the pristine mountain landscape surrounding the Banff Centre for the Arts, where it was produced during an artist residency, has an exotic feel—not unlike Fung's father's China or his mother's Trinidad. The tape seems unrelated to the Toronto urban rootedness of all of his other work. The western mountain setting coincided with his historical project investigating the presence of Chinese immigrants within Canadian history; the apparently generous budget and production facilities allowed full use of the scripting, dramatization and archival compilation necessary for reconstituting the historical and geographical space of "the nation," an imagined community to be sure, but one attached firmly to the materiality of territory, economics and a state apparatus. Dirty Laundry allowed further exploration of, in Fung’s words, "a country where the nation is always viewed as fragmentary and where Canadian nationalism has always been defensive and reactive."
The image of transcontinental locomotion is a traditional Canadian cultural and historical motif, the CPR construction of the 1880s allowing the British colonies to defensively and reactively cement their precarious confederation against American imperial designs. The railway set in motion a literary and cinematic procession over the next century of East-West rail passengers, claiming or reclaiming, discovering or rediscovering national trajectories, bonds and fissures through moving over the land. Fung thus turns a nation-building myth inside-out into a subversive vehicle of alternative national history. Likewise the traditional trope of the immigrant staring at the sublime but treacherous natural space is now altered through the eyes of the Chinese laundress/prostitute contemplating the Rockies, just as the image of the two men of color fishing in the northern lake in Out of the Blue matter-of-factly echoes and subverts a pastoral cliché of our national white settler mythology.
Fung's brilliant marshalling of the ethnoscape and the homoscape, their overlaps and convergences, cannot properly be understood without reference to their rootedness in the metropolitan and the national, dynamic places not only of hybridity and dislocatedness, but also of rootedness, coalition, and intervention. We may want to make a postcolonial guru of Fung, and a panopticon of his work, but it also looks like old-fashioned activist documentary to me – and hurrah for that.
Afterword (November 2001)
Hearing of the Images Festival’s retrospective of Richard Fung, I feel the initial “good clean fun” of four years ago being rekindled, all the more so since the two new works that Richard has since added to his corpus, School Fag (1998, with Tim McCaskell) and Sea in the Blood (2000), are both bold departures. The first is a deceptively tiny truffle and the second a relative epic that brought metaphysics and tears to my eyes, but both highlight the continuity and the growth in Richard’s trajectory. The latter completes the arc of an elegant triptych of autobiographical/familial works (together with The Way to My Father’s Village (1988) and My Mother’s Place (1990)) while the former is a miniature jewel. Together, School Fag and Sea in the Blood extend the balance that is intrinsic to Richard’s work—between activism and aetheticism, between Richard the Torontonian’s pragmatic social realist roots and Richard the diasporic’s elusive postcolonial, postmodern canonicity.
School Fag is Richard’s first co-directing project with his life partner of twenty-five years, Tim McCaskell, and comes out of Tim’s longstanding work around homophobia and racism within the belly of the Toronto public school system. Shawn Fowler, a veteran of the Triangle Project and LGBT Toronto, is clearly one of Tim’s wards. His run-on monologue/oral history, intercalated with in-drag performance moments as Wonder Woman and a Ru-Paul-inspired Prom Queen, plus soundtrack whooshes and fast-forward vogues, is brave and inspirational. School Fag may be the only one of Richard’s works entirely about a white protagonist, but it fits all the same into the postcolonial framework, for few ethnicities are as visible and problematized as that class-determined ethnicity of Shawn, who grew up “white trash” in a “white bread neighbourhood” in Toronto with “no car” (the shame!). But the melodrama of this white trash sissy fixated on heroines both white and black is somehow all the richer with its clash between race/class stigma and gender/sex ostracism, and his transcendence through struggle, glamour, community and art.
If School Fag is in some ways Richard’s least aestheticized work—static camera, low-budget, simple studio set-up, one-person cast—Sea in the Blood achieves a new concentration of visual lyricism rising to the surface like its rosy underwater bubbles, embroidering the artist’s voice as it narrates his voyage through the life-threatening illnesses first of his late sister Nan and then of PWA activist Tim. Yet I can’t help noticing that, alongside the gorgeous effects, the simple unaestheticized presence of another shamed queer school kid —Richard himself, the home-movie figuring of a slight and hyperactive boy—is returned to repeatedly. In this frenzy performed by the original school fag for his parent’s camera we can trace the performance of his learning to be “close to illness.” Richard’s voiceover says he was “painfully shy” away from the family (and, evidently, their home movie camera), but leaves us only to imagine the extent of that pain. Amid the guilt-ridden elegiac strain for medical exhibit Nan, the nostalgic love poem to infected commie backpacker Tim, and the dignified laconic encore of Mother Fung (in her third tape). Sea ends up being the most autobiographical of Richard’s works. He certainly appears onscreen more than he has since his uncredited faux interview way back in Chinese Characters (1986), and is literally in the eponymous sea throughout (at the beach with Nan; with 1970s skinnydipper Tim, portrayed by a boy actor swimmer in 2000; and cavorting underwater with Tim in the hauntingly beautiful and metaphoric title footage taken at Lake Simcoe). And Richard’s melodrama is even more intense than Shawn’s, who after all lost only the Prom Queen contest to a rival (and that by a hair), and whose white trash, school fag shame has not yet had to face so closely the shock of mortality and illness.
Richard has had to face just that, as he gradually discloses with all the measured calm of the master storyteller (and the deceptively unfrenzied adult he has become), of him skulking back too late to Toronto in 1977, the evening after Nan had died. I’ve learned a lot I didn’t know about my friend Richard in this tape, and somehow this discovery of friends is inextricable from the process of arts criticism, all the more so within the small independent arts/queer/academic circuits of this country where personal acquaintanceship goes hand in hand with professional cultural exploration, and all the more so when the process of criticism is enacted as in this case within the now conjoined networks of old friends (virtual like Shawn, whom I have met only on the screen, and real like Richard, Tim, John, and many others). All the more so when an artist’s life and work triggers the broadening and deepening of significations and affects of home and diaspora, sexuality and shame, illness and death, family, and indeed friendship itself.
1. An original version of this essay, entitled “Good Clean Fung,” was first published in A Festschrift in Honor of Erik Barnouw, Patricia Zimmermann and Ruth Bradley, eds., Wide Angle, Vol. 20, No. 2 (April 1998), 164-175, and is reprinted here with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press. I thank Richard Fung for his kind support of this project; Montreal's Oboro Gallery, whose invitation to curate the Fung retrospective in the fall of 1997 was its trigger; and Quebec's provincial Fonds pour la Formation des Chercheurs et l'Aide la Recherche as well as Concordia University for their financial support of my research in sexual representation. This version of “Good Clean Fung” together with its Afterword (2000) have been condensed with the author’s permission.
2. Bill Nichols, “Performing Documentary,” in Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 92-106.
3. Laura U. Marks, "Sexual Hybrids: From Oriental Exotic to Postcolonial Grotesque," Parachute 70 (1993), p.23.
4. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 45-46.
5. Richard Fung, "Looking for my Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn," in Bad Object Choices, ed., How Do I Look: Queer Film and Video (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991), p.165.
6. Richard Fung, "Center the Margins," in Russell Leong, ed., Moving the Image: Indpendent Asian Pacific American Media Arts (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center: 1991), p.64.
7. Fung, "Burdens of Representation, Burdens of Responsibility," in Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson, eds., Constructing Masculinity (New York and London: Routledge, p. 292).
8. (Afterword) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick re-circulates and re-politicizes the notion of shame, and 1950s sociologist Erving Goffman’s related concept of the “management of spoiled identity” in such works as “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s Art of the Novel,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1-16; “A Poem Is Being Written;”and “Divinity: A Dossier, A Performance Piece, A Little-Understood Emotion (written with Michael Moon);” the latter two pieces collected in Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), respectively 177-214, 215-251.