This weekend I borrowed two books from Fisher Library.
Diaspora : negotiating Asian-Australia / [edited by] Helen Gilbert, Tseen Khoo & Jacqueline Lo. 994.04 120
This is a joint issue from 2000 of the Journal of Australian Studies and the Journal of Australian Cultural History. I picked it up from the sorting shelves – a strategy I often use as a kind of express browse. I figure if the book has been interesting o someone else, it may well be interesting to me.
Two articles caught my eye, both in the section entitled “Desire and the ‘Asian’ Body.” They had caught someone elses eye before, as these articles (and these articles only) were annotated in the same, quite neat, pencilled hand.
One article was “‘That’ what Rice Queens Study!” White Gay Desire and Reprenting Asian Homosexualities” by Peter A Jackson, who is something of a doyen in the field of gay Asian studies. The article is structured around three anecdotes.
Jackson’s first anecdote involves his going to a gay leather bar in London, the clientele of which is almost entirely “White.” A man comes up to speak to him, but when Jackson comments that there are no blacks and the only one East Asian is to be seen (he has to say “East Asian” because Asian in London means “South Asian”), his interlocutor deduces that he is not interested in him, and tells him the places where such people can be found. Jackson then explains the terminology applied to men who are perceived to have such ethnically focussed desires:
“Food and colour metaphors abound in the popular discourse of the ethnically fractured gay cultures of Sydney, London, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. White men who prefer East and Southeast Asian men are ‘rice queens’. Asian men who prefer White men are ‘potato queens’. In London, White men interested in South Asan men are ‘curry queens’, while in the United Stats White men who restrict their sexual and romantic contacts to African-American men are labelled ‘dinge queens’.”
At this point, the annotator has underlined:
“These labels for racialised homoerotic desire define entire social worlds within which large numbers of gay men restrict both thier lives and their loves….In these subsections of the West’s gay worlds, men of one’s own ethnic background are sometimes called ‘sisters; and are de-eroticised by a gay incest taboo. The thought of sex with the ethnic-same can arouse disgust or repulsion. It is the racial other who incites desire.”
In the margin, this last point is repeated in pencil:
“* racial other who incites desire.”
The title of the article derives from the second anecdote. A gay colleague “who is researching gay politics in Asia”), whilst talking shop with Jackson at a cafe on Oxford Street, Sydney, leans across the table, “glances left and right to check that no-one is within ear-shot, and after an attention focussing pause,…whispers ‘But of course, you know, I’m not a rice queen.’”
Jackson comments (square brackets and an asterix in the margin):
“The racialisation of homosexual desire is not a democratic form of cultural diversity or an expression of equivalenmodalites of erotic taste. In all Anglohone countries it is a tightly structured hierarchy in which White men are indisputably at the top of the sexual desirabvility stakes and Asian men are somewhere far beneath them.”
As Jackson observes:
“a dominant narrative in Australian gay cultures is the cry, ‘I don’t fid Asia men sexually attractive’, a proclamation that legitimate desire is for the race-same.”
Jackson continues (and the annotator underlines):
“The dominant de-eroticisation of Asian men within White gay cultures occurs by an effeminisation of Asian men’s bodies and the privileging of a model of masculinity based on the idealised attributes of a Caucasian male. The effeminisation of Asian males has a long history in Western imperialist imaginings of the Orient and its role in nineteenth and twentieth-century justifications of the colonialist project has been traced in several studies.”
This last sentence strikes me as a bit ponderous, though I suppose it helps put things into a broader context, and it is accompanied by a footnote.
Jackson takes up this theme in a section of the the article from which the article as a whole takes its title. He says (and the annotator has drawn a neat box around this and marked it with an asterix in the margin):
“The rejection of Asian men as sexually interesting and its binary opposite, the fetishisation of Asian men, both involve the privileging of certain racialised bodies as erotically more desirable and hence intellectually more interesting than others, The fetishistic projection of Orientalist fantasies upon Asian men, on the one hand and racist dismissals of Asian bodies as ‘unsexy’, on the other hand, are opposite sides of the same dialectic, mirror images which merely invert race-based exclusions. The desire of the rice queen inverts the dominant anti-Asian regime of White gay desire, reformulating but not abolishing its race-based exclusions. Within the fetishising desire of the Caucasian rice queen, and also the Asian potato queen, race remains a category of exclusion, only in these cases it is one’s own race that is expelled from the domain of erotic interest.”
Jackson’s article has a conclusion “Beyond Racism and Fetishisation” where he gives an explanation for his motivations in writing his novel The Intrinsic Quality of Skin (a novel about a western man studying in Thailand) and tentatively (and I think hopefully, in the proper sense) predicts that:
“it may be possible for gay Caucasian writers, artists and academics to move towards the production of images and discursive representations of Asian homosexual men that ae based more on identification than either the overvaluation of fetishistic projection or the undervaluation of racist negation.”
That final section did not attract my predecessor’s attention, at least, not to the point of laying in the pencil. Perhaps such conclusions, whatever rhetorical role they play in the article (here: aspirational, exhortatory and perhaps a little utopian) are of less interest than the description of things as they are.
The other article is by the film-maker Tony Ayres, “Sexual Identity and Cultural Identity: A Crash Course,” which in effect sets out some of the background and much of the argument of his film, China Dolls.
The article reads very like a talk which Ayres might have given at a screening of this film, and probably very often did. He, too, glances to the future as his final rhetorical gambit – of which more later.
Ayres recounts the response of the first person he summoned up the nerve to speak to on his first visit to a gay bar, the Ainslie Pub, in his first year at ANU after having spent most of his childhood in Perth (underlining added but not by me).
“so I went up to him and said…didn’t even get a first sentence out. All he said to me was, ‘Sorry, I’m not into Asians’. And that was it. End of conversation. That was the first, although not the last time I heard that expression. Being ‘Asian’, being Chinese, put me in a different category from the other men in the bar.”
In the margin:
“Asian” puts one in an/other category”
An arrow leads to to a marginal bracket a little down the page alongside:
“What I didn’t realise was that, according to the predominant rules of Caucasian Western sexual attraction, being Chinese was actually a distinctive sexual category in a racial hierarchy. Asians were behind Black and Latino men in the scale of things. Of course, white men were on top.”
“In the heterosexual world, Asian women are coveted and fetishised. From Syzie Wong to the Singapore Girl to Gong Li, the Asian woaman has traversed the distance into Western consciousness, embodying a sexy blend of enigma, suffering and compliance. She is the epitome of femininity. Because the mahority of gay Asian men in Australia are slimmer and smaller than their Caucasian counterparts, they are also stereotyped as feminine or ‘boysh’. However, in a culture where Tom of Finland is the pinnacle of what is considered desirable, beling feminine is neither respected nor valued. The same racial stereotype that makes Asian women desirable makes Asian men marginal.”
In the margin:
“* the racial stereotype is that ‘Asian’ is ‘feminine’”
Ayres then goes on to talk about when he was “coming out in the mid-eighties” when:
”the men who were attracted to me were a category of their own: ’Rice Queens’….Frankly, I wouldn’t have had a problem with this except hat most of the ‘rice queens’ I met were also somewhere near the bottom of the sexual hierarchy. They were always older men, sometimes twenty years older. So whilst I found it flattering to be desird, these men rarely triggered my own desire in return.”
Ayres describes the “subtle, almost imperceptible sense of exclusion” which he “wrestled with in silence” until, in 1996, he started research for China Dolls. “Here were other men who I considered to be attractive and intelligent, who had the same doubts and questions that I did. I wasn’t alone.”
“More importantly, it became abundantly clear that to trivialise the inequalities based upon race is as oppressive as denying inequalities in class or geder, or denying that the earth moves around the sun. Everyone has to deal the possibility of rejection, but not everyone is immediately prejudged by their skin colour.”
This has been underlined and marked with a marginal bracket and asterix. The next paragraph is likewise marginally marked, with the note “eg.“
“At dinner one night a Chinese friend, Adrian, said to me, ‘You know what the worst thing about this stuff? Every time I look a a man I’m interested in, I have to think first, “Does he like Asians?” not, “Does he like me”‘”
Ayres’ article is short, and most of what he says is in the film. I will skip forward to his conclusion, which operates as a kind of postlude to the film, given that, although the article was published only a few years after the film came out, history, especially up close, can sometimes seem to be moving fast. (underlining again added)
“In recent years there’s been a noticeable change in the gay scene. The influx of Asian immigration through the mid to late 1980shas lead to an increased presence of gay Asian men in the late nineties. A new generation of yong men are going to the gym, bulking up, doing drugs and dance parties, finding a place for themselves.
It’s not just that the dominant paradigm of the desirable body has expanded, but there are now Asians who fit into this paradigm. This is still buying into the cult of youth and beauty which dominates the gay scene, but it does suggest that race is no longer a total prohibition. This is a small step in the right direction.“
The Annotator Speaks
These two paragraphs have been bracketed in the margin, and an arrow leads to a short note:
“Has the scene actually shifted? eg. ‘the rice cooker’.’ “
I wonder if there isn’t a subconscious play on words here with “shifted,” because my guess is that “the rice cooker” refers to the Sydney bar, the “Midnight Shift,” which is known as a bar where Asian men go and are to be found. In an earlier era, the equivalent of this was the darkest back corner of the Albury Hotel, known as “Chinese Takeaway Corner.” (A Chinese person told me that; I didn’t know the name but I did know the place.)
Another arrow leads from the underlined sentence to the longest note by far:
“Is this the right direction? If gay asian males attain power and status w/in the gay community through masculine constructs and arian [sic] stereotypes revolve around the effeminised nation could we not be seen to reproduce the patriarchal ordering or hegemonic masculinity that excluded asians in the first place?”
That’s a pretty good question.
It’s also a long way forward from seeking out the purple-bound Ronald Firbank volumes in Fisher stacks, which was about as much as I got up to, over twenty years ago.