Queer Hongcouver and Other Fictions: an interview with Wayne Yung
from the book Reel Asian: Asian Canada On Screen
by Nguyen Tan Hoang
I first met Wayne Yung in June 1995 at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Wayne was there with his very first video, Peter Fucking Wayne Fucking Peter (1994); I also presented my first video, 7 Steps to Sticky Heaven (1995). I remember meeting Wayne at a festival brunch in the Castro, where we got into a heated exchange about the different cultural and racial politics in Asian communities in Vancouver and San Francisco, and a further tension arose for me after I saw Wayne’s video. Both of our videos dealt with gay Asian male sexual subjectivity and interracial (Asian-white) relationships—but in markedly different ways. As someone who was basking in my recent politicization around ‘sticky rice politics’ (7 Steps giddily celebrates Asian men dating other Asian men), Wayne’s romantic depiction of a relationship with a white boyfriend—though infused with self-determination and hot sex—simply rubbed me the wrong way. Though our videos engage similar social, sexual, and artistic concerns, our engagements diverge in many ways. However, the difference in our approaches to a resistant, queer Asian art production that I had first found so polarizing has turned out to be a generative link between our respective practices. Since that first meeting, I have become an avid fan of Wayne Yung. Always on the lookout for his latest productions whenever they come to town, I have appreciated their humour, honesty, sexiness, and political commitment, not to mention their formal virtuosity.
This conversation began with a physical meeting on New Year’s Eve 2006 in Berlin, Germany, and resumed several months later, virtually, via instant messaging, email, and finally a live telephone conversation, from Cologne, Germany to San Jose, California. Wayne’s move from Vancouver, where he was based for many years, to Germany, where he has lived since 2001, inspired us to take stock of ideas about community and the representational politics of race and sexuality that have strongly informed both of our work.
Nguyen Tan Hoang: I wonder if you could talk about the role of ‘community’ in your work. To begin with, let’s consider two rubrics: (1) the art/video community, and (2) the queer/Asian community. How have these two senses of community, artistic and cultural, figured in the production of your work? What is unique about the Canadian/Vancouver artistic and cultural milieus?
Wayne Yung: My career as a video artist began at Vancouver’s Video In Studios (VI), an artist-run centre that offers low-cost access to equipment and training, and functions as a central gathering place for alternative art, exhibition and distribution. These government-funded ARCs are a major reason why Canadian artists can be so productive. VI was my ‘birthplace’ as a video maker, forming the centre point of the artist community where I found most of my friends (queer and straight, Asian and otherwise).
Growing up in Edmonton, it wasn’t until 1994 that I moved to Vancouver, where I first found queer Asian friends. They soon became my collaborators, my subject matter and my audience. I got involved with GAVA (Gay Asians of the Vancouver Area), where a tension was already emerging between two competing agendas: a social service one (coming out group, immigrant counselling, AIDS education) and a leisure one (parties, bar nights). Eventually GAVA dissolved, and the ex-members dispersed to other groups. I later did some work with the Asian AIDS group, but eventually stopped going altogether.
Vancouver also has a vibrant, wider Asian Canadian cultural scene, but in the end, I would say that my ‘home community’ is actually the gay scene, as opposed to the Asian scene. Although there is certainly racism in gay scenes, it’s much easier to deal with than the conservatism and homophobia encountered in some Asian scenes.
NTH: We have talked about the various manifestations of community in your work: the crew you worked closely with at VI, conversations with and feedback from gay Asian friends, the inclusion of Asian bodies/images in the videos themselves. You also mentioned that the intended audience for your work was a ‘gay Asian’ one—although you admitted such an audience was at times projected or theoretical, existing in the abstract. I find this last point very interesting, the suggestion that a gay Asian community is actively forged through the production, exhibition, and reception of a video; that for those of us who must straddle multiple communities—Asian, gay, immigrant, artist, people with HIV/AIDS—‘community’ is not something that can be easily assumed as an essential, pre-existing entity. Rather, it’s something that’s consciously created, contested, partial, and always in process. I think Benedict Anderson’s idea of an ‘imagined community’ is helpful here: his notion that mere coexistence in physical proximity does not constitute community, and also his attention to print media as the means by which community became imagined and imaginable—a concept that we can extend to include experimental queer Asian videomaking.
WY: In Vancouver, I did have a physical community of Asian friends, both queer and straight, artist and activist. What bound us together was a certain sensibility, a particular attitude towards being both Asian and Canadian, which was strongly marked by camp and ironic humour, recognizing that purely ‘positive representations’ of Asian Canadians were boring, unrealistic, and often counterproductive. (It can become a straitjacket if you’re not allowed to show your ‘unacceptable’ side). I depicted these attitudes in my videos, especially in Lotus Sisters (1996) and The Queen’s Cantonese (1998), but in such an overblown way, it looks like Vancouver is completely dominated by radically queer Asians, which it certainly isn’t. It’s more like a ‘serving suggestion,’ where the glossy photo looks much more appetizing than the real thing, or a fantasy of how I wish Vancouver really was.
I would also agree that I’m also part of this ‘imagined community’ of queer Asian film and video makers. There can’t be more than thirty of us in the entire world, including those who make just one piece and then disappear. Gay film festivals usually put us in the same program every year, which is how we often first meet, and then we stay in touch via email and infrequent visits. My secret fantasy is to get all of us in the same room: that would be a fabulous party!
NTH: What I find really fantastic about your videos is a desire for community, yet there is also a reinvention of communities that complicates conventional identity categories. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to one community–gay, Asian, and/or gay Asian–that is your projected audience?
WY: Sometimes at Asian cultural events it seems like the agenda is to convince white people to accept us as normal and respectable. For example, a female programmer at one Asian American film festival told me privately that some of her straight male colleagues objected to the inclusion of my video The Queen’s Cantonese. Many Asian American men feel emasculated by mainstream US culture, and images of non-macho gay Asians represent a further threat by sending out the ‘wrong message’ of what Asian men are like. But I’m actually not that interested in what white or heterosexual audiences think of my images. If you have to choose a target audience, and every director has to make this choice, why should you always privilege the white or heterosexual one? My central audience has always been this postulated gay Asian community. If whites and heterosexuals also happen to enjoy the work, then that’s just an added bonus.
Sometimes gay Asian audience members also criticize my videos, saying that I ‘misrepresent’ gay Asians, in that my experience doesn’t represent their experience. My response has always been ‘well, go get a camera and make your own video!’ I can’t represent all of us; nobody can. My goal is simply to add one more onscreen example of what a gay Asian could be like, with the hope that other people will provide other (even contradictory) examples. When I attended my screenings in Hong Kong, Seoul, and Paris, I often got the feeling that the local gay Asian audience didn’t feel any particular connection to my Vancouver-based stories; they might as well have been watching a video about African gays in Zimbabwe. It’s only in North America that I got this feeling of ‘recognition,’ that the audience knows what I’m talking about because they’ve been there too.
NTH: I do sense a transnational yearning in your work, one that translates across various gay Asian contexts outside North America. I believe there are continuities between gay Asian male cultures in North America, gay Asian diasporic communities, and those in Asia. If nothing else, there is the ‘recognition’ and affirmation of seeing same-sex desire articulated by Asian male bodies and voices onscreen. For example, a gay film from China does resonate for me as an Asian American even if I don’t grasp all of the cultural specificities; it is different from watching a gay-themed film from an African culture.
WY: In My German Boyfriend (2004), I fly away to Berlin, just to fulfill my fantasies; this bespeaks a certain amount of socioeconomic privilege which may be a bit fantastic to a gay Filipino in Manila. For a gay Taiwanese who spent his entire life watching Chinese faces on TV, there’s nothing particularly urgent about the simple act of representing an Asian man onscreen. In Search Engine (1999), I trace my feelings of unsexiness to being Asian in Canada, but how does this relate to a Japanese person in Tokyo, where all the sexy people are also Japanese? I once described this unsexy feeling to a Korean who grew up in Germany, and he said it was completely alien to him: he never felt unsexy, because he’d never had a shortage of offers.
The very category of ‘gay Asian’ is largely limited to the Western world and can’t really be applied to gays living in Asia itself, where the word ‘Asian’ doesn’t conjure much sense of commonality or community. A gay Korean in Seoul doesn’t necessarily feel related to a gay Indonesian in Jakarta; so why should he feel related to a gay Chinese Canadian in Vancouver?
I once spent five months living in Hong Kong, where I realized that a major defining experience of being a Westerner is the time we spend living alone. Most Asians (in fact, most humans) live with their parents until marriage, constantly ruled by the social expectations of others, without ever really having the time and space to try living out their private fantasies; this is a huge chasm that separates a typical gay life in the West from one in Asia.
NTH: In Bangkok, interactions between Thais and other Asians are very much mediated by class differentials, which lends support to your argument. For example, there is no natural coalition between gay Thai locals and gay Singaporean weekend-ers under the rubric of ‘gay Asian’ brotherhood. That said, there is also a very visible aspect of gay life in Bangkok which mirrors the old white rice queen-young Asian potato queen relationships one still finds in North America. In addition, a possible translation of North American sticky rice politics—although they wouldn’t characterize it in such terms—can be found in circumstances where middle-class gay Thais prefer to date East Asians, because to be seen with white men in public would mark them as low-class sex workers. So that is one example where video work made with a gay Asian North American social and political agenda might resonate with a gay audience in Bangkok. I’m not saying that these phenomena are directly transported from one location to another, just that there are fruitful continuities, crude translations, weak resonances. I think that the increasing forces of globalization—economic, cultural, political, social—complicates any absolute division between the West and the rest. But returning to the West for now, I wonder if you can speak more about the central theme regarding the intersection of race and homosexuality. How did this emerge as a central concern in your work?
WY: It was first in 1994 (after coming in contact with Vancouver’s gay Asian scene) that I was introduced to Richard Fung’s landmark 1991 essay ‘Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn.’ His analysis of the (mis)representation of Asian men in gay white video porn inspired me to address these issues in my own art practice. I took up myself the goal of expanding the range of images featuring gay Asian men, using the pleasures and complications of my own sexual and romantic experiences as a starting point.
In the mid-’90s, various gay Asians were promoting the idea that white/Asian relationships were intrinsically ‘incorrect’ (marked by racism, self-hate, colonialism, exoticism, etc.), and that the only ‘correct’ relationships were Asian/Asian (marked by equality and mutual empathy). This topic was well explored by your own 1995 video 7 Steps to Sticky Heaven, which was the first I saw addressing this subject.
Why was this issue coming up in the ’90s? I think part of it might have been a demographic wave. It was only in the early ’90s that the population of gay Asians in Vancouver reached a critical mass, allowing for the formation of gay Asian community groups like GAVA where these discussions could take place. These groups included many men (like myself) in their early to mid-twenties, who had recently come of age and were becoming increasingly aware of the role of racism in their sex lives, leading to an activist politicization. The demographics were different in my hometown of Edmonton, where there weren’t yet enough of us to form a community group.
Another factor was the influence of neighbouring groups (especially young dykes and American gay black activists) that were becoming increasingly critical of bourgeois gay white men’s privileged position, who were seen as being uncritical of their own sexism, classism, and racism. Many gay Asian activists were inspired by a line from Marlon Riggs’ 1989 film Tongues Untied, which said that black men loving black men is a revolutionary act. This became a strategy for men of colour to find political solidarity and strength with each other, in the face of gay white male complacency and complicity in regards to racist structures. It had become obvious that racism was only an issue for people of colour, and that most gay white men were not interested in doing the work to combat racism: it was our problem, not theirs.
NTH: To what extent was your treatment of these issues a ‘transcription’ of discussions taking place in gay Asian spaces and to what extent was it a passionate intervention into those discussions?
WY: I wrote The Queen’s Cantonese in collaboration with fellow gay Asian video artist, Winston Xin, with whom I had many debates about the agenda of this project, in particular about the valorization of ‘sticky rice’ (Asian men loving Asian men). I found it was a bit dishonest, seeing as both of us had been happy dating white men, but in the end, I came to understand that the project wasn’t necessarily about me or my own particular experiences: it was more of an idealized portrait of this ‘Canto-centric’ Vancouver, albeit one that only existed as a ‘politically interesting’ fantasy.
Peter Fucking Wayne Fucking Peter was a much more personal project, describing the various and contradictory power dynamics between me and my older, white, HIV+ boyfriend. Gay Asian viewers have rarely discussed this video with me; I suspect it makes some uncomfortable, as if I was being too candid, airing our dirty secrets in public. For some, it might also underline the ‘disconnect’ that happens when one’s public activist agenda doesn’t necessarily match one’s private sex life. It was a lesson I learned from Vancouver artist Persimmon Blackbridge, who once described how her early, idealized depictions of egalitarian lesbian sex seemed unrealistic, almost floating in outer space, and unconnected to the messy realities of what was really happening in her bedroom.
At the time, I wasn’t finding any positive images of white/Asian gay relationships at all; in fact they tended to be cast in a negative light. In watching the late Kirby Hsu’s 1994 tape GOM, I heard this oft-repeated idea: my rice queen done me wrong, but everything’s better now that I’ve turned sticky. This analysis didn’t speak to me of my own personal experience: although race and racism have certainly been factors in my love life, they haven’t prevented me from having fulfilling relationships. I actually take a certain pleasure in discussing and negotiating these interracial power dynamics, and often explore them in my videos.
NTH: Well, there is one argument that maintains that, since lesbians and gay men are attracted others of the same gender, we tend to eroticize other kinds of differences, such as race, ethnicity, class, region, culture, nation, and so on. Does that line of argument shed any light on the treatment of interracial sex in your work?
WY: In My German Boyfriend, I play a Chinese Canadian who fantasizes about finding the perfect German lover, but who is confronted in return by German stereotypes about Asians. According to the script, I finally fall for a Kurd who grew up in Berlin; this is the politically correct ‘happy ending’. But in fact, as I reveal in the second ‘making of’ part, I actually fell for one of my white German actors. So again there’s this mismatch between the political agenda of the script and what really happens behind the scenes.
NTH: I hear a tension in what you’re saying here, and it’s between your commitment to articulating a political agenda and the unforeseen consequence of that agenda. In Field Guide to Western Wildflowers (2000) you recruit various white men to kiss you, a Chinese man, onscreen; the premise of the video rests on this novel sight of interracial intimacy, but the ‘agenda’ turns out to be that Asianness doesn’t really matter. You’re committed to making Asian bodies visible, yet in that very gesture of making visible, you want to overcome the necessity of that move. So why does the representation of Asian bodies and voices continue to be important for you? What kind of work does the inclusion of (your) Asian body/voice accomplish, beyond a basic move of ‘filling in the absences’ in mainstream media?
WY: As a teenager, I took several acting classes and found that I enjoyed performing; at the same time, I quickly realized that I had no future in acting, because there was little room for Asian male actors on North American screens. It was only later that I became conscious of what a deep effect this lack of Asian male images had on me and my self-perception. Presenting Asian male images onscreen has not only been a corrective for this absence, but also a way for me to work through my own personal experience of it. However, it’s not just a private therapy: I’ve also had some gratifying feedback from other Asian men who say they’ve had similar impressions, and were glad to see someone openly talking about them.
Although I do still occasionally address issues of race and racism, I also believe it’s important to show Asian faces onscreen in situations that are not about race and racism. So in Miss Popularity (2006), I discuss the issue of polyamory, without mentioning race and racism. The images are mostly found footage showing white American teenagers of the 1950s; in fact, you don’t see any Asians until the very last scene, where you see me kissing a white guy. Until then, the viewer could have easily assumed that the narrator was white, and it wasn’t actually necessary for me to show any Asian faces at all, since the story could have just as well ended with two white men kissing. However, the inclusion of Asian faces is still an important, consciously defiant political choice; I hate the fact that many directors still use all-white casts without considering other possibilities, thus perpetuating the racist underrepresentation of non-whites onscreen.
NTH: Can you talk more specifically about what some of the relevant issues are when it comes to Asian Canadian vs. Asian American media representation?
WY: The dynamics of racial representation are of course marked by the context of the surrounding society. I think the American situation is much more marked by racial ghettoization and open confrontation, while the Canadian model tends towards trying to negotiate a peaceful compromise. American media is mostly private-controlled and market-oriented, and seems much less hesitant to exploit racial stereotypes in order to sell tickets and get a laugh. Meanwhile, the Canadian media scene was for many years dominated by the publicly funded CBC, which tends to toe the line on Canada’s official multiculturalism policy, introduced in 1971. Certainly there’s racism at the CBC too, but it tends to be the unintentional, liberal type, and not a blatantly arrogant one.
In comparing the position of Asian Americans vs. Asian Canadians, I think a major difference is that there are more blacks and Latinos in the US than in Canada. When measured against these groups, Asian Americans are seen as a ‘lesser threat’, or even co-opted as a ‘model minority’ in alliance with the dominant whites. In Vancouver, Asian Canadians are the biggest visible minority and therefore constitute the ‘biggest threat’ to white hegemony; this tension was especially felt in the early 90s as large numbers of Hong Kongers emigrated to Vancouver before the 1997 handover, buying property and building so-called ‘monster houses.’ However, I think this particular tension has since died down; nowadays, Asian Canadians seem to be a well-integrated part of Vancouver’s sociocultural landscape.
NTH: I wonder if we can bring the gay issue into this discussion of racial representation. How do queer people of color figure in gay Canadian media, both mainstream and alternative media?
WY: When I first started consuming Canadian gay mainstream media (I’m thinking particularly of gay newspapers), it was difficult to find any evidence that gay Asian men existed at all, especially in the visual language of advertising: gay bars, parties, and consumer products were all promoted using images of white male models. Often the only sign that gay Asians existed was in the classified personals ads; I spent a couple of years clipping out these ads, later using them in my 1999 video Search Engine.
In the alternative gay media scene, the presence of people of colour was much stronger. For example, Vancouver’s Out on Screen festival invited me to join their programming committee in 1995, as part of a proactive strategy to increase diversity at the organizational level. I decided to organize their first gay Asian video program, which drew a large gay Asian audience that had not been specifically addressed by the festival until then. This happened in the years where Out on Screen was beginning to shift from being more alternative (including various political/activist programs that hardly anyone attended) to a more mainstream position.
These days, I think gay Asians are fairly well represented in Canadian gay media, both mainstream and alternative. My impression is that Asians are less present in the US gay media: I only know of three or four gay male Asian directors in the US, as opposed to at least five in Canada, despite the fact that the US population is about ten times the size of Canada’s. (When you extrapolate these figures, there should be at least fifty gay Asian-American directors!) It seems like it’s easier for people of colour to produce media in Canada than in the US; this may have to do with the much greater availability of government arts funding in Canada. However, in the age of cheap camcorders and YouTube, people now have much more opportunity to make and distribute their own media without any other assistance.
NTH: Getting up to speed, how has the move to Germany transformed your perspectives on what community means, especially what a ‘gay Asian community’ looks like from your new location?
WY: I certainly miss the sense of community I felt in Vancouver. It’s been difficult for me to find the motivation to make videos here, when I feel like I’m just ‘talking to myself’. I feel almost no affinity with the few gay Asians I’ve found here; most grew up in Asia, and don’t have the same priorities or sense of political agency that I do, so I keep in touch with ‘my community’ via email and infrequent visits. They’re scattered around the world, with just a few here in Europe, and none in Germany.
NTH: If this is the case, where do you go from here? How do you intend to make work that is socially/politically important to you if you have ‘lost’ these community ties in a physical sense?
WY: Since leaving my Canadian career behind, I’ve been trying to develop a German one, but now I suspect I need to reconnect to Canada, and try to develop an international career that would be equally valid in both countries. Beyond the question of location is the bigger question of subject matter: I do feel like I’ve already said everything I wanted to say about being gay and Asian, with Miss Popularity representing my first tentative step away from making ‘identity tapes’. Having just finished a two-year postgraduate film studies program in Cologne, it feels like a new phase is now beginning for me, as I continue to find my way as a gay Chinese Canadian artist living in Germany.
Reel Asian: Asian Canada On Screen, Elaine Chang (ed.)
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007, pages 252–263.