With the outbreak and rapid spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) throughout the world in early 2020, Chinese identity has once again become the focus of public attention. The discourse of ‘Chineseness’ inevitably carries the cultural baggage inherited from the long history of transnationalism, nationalism, migration, diaspora, ‘yellow peril’, the Cold War and the re-emergence of the ‘China threat’ that has accompanied the recent US-China Trade War. Added to this long list is now the element of an ‘unclean’, ‘viral’ and even ‘contagious’ Chinese identity; often hidden behind a surgical mask and posing an ominous threat to the public health and national security of the West. Cultural practices labelled as ‘Chinese’, such as food, traditional medicine and folklore are often deemed problematic and even antithetical in the Western modernity. How do we understand ‘Chineseness’ at this historic new juncture? As a queer and Chinese-identifying person, I cannot help wondering if Chineseness is ever compatible with queerness, or gender and sexual diversity, in a contemporary context.
This year’s Chinese New Year seems a special one: with the death toll and infection rate of COVID-19 increasing in and outside China looming large in the news and on people’s minds every day, the start of the Year of the Rat hardly feels like a festive event to celebrate. In the UK, many of my Chinese friends deliberately avoid going out to public places because of the widespread racism against Chinese communities. This was why it came as a pleasant surprise that Chinese Arts Now (CAN), an annual arts and cultural festival designed for Chinese communities in London, still took place on 8 February and, even more excitingly, this year’s festival included a queer night called Queering Now, an all-night line-up of queer artists and performers. Diasporic Chinese communities are often known for being conservative in relation to gender and sexuality: one frequently hears of how queer Chinese individuals hesitate to come out to their families; Ang Lee’s 1993 film The Wedding Banquet vividly captures such a stereotype. Within such a context, Queering Now marks queer Chinese artists’ collective ‘coming out’ to the public, making their voices and noises heard. I use ‘voices and noises’ here not in a derogatory sense; instead, I hope to capture the playfulness of the festival’s Chinese name: ku’er nao 酷儿闹 (literally, queers play loudly), a humorous and imaginative transliteration of Queering Now. If ku’er literally translates as ‘cool kids’, and nao is usually associated with the joyful and often noisy celebration of the Chinese New Year, what kinds of noise do these queers make, and why?
The combination of ‘Chineseness’ and ‘queerness’ articulates a strong postcolonial and decolonial politics in the context of a post-Brexit Britain where the viability of cultural difference is increasingly brought into question and under threat of erasure within a nationalist and xenophobic discursive framework. What is ‘Chineseness’ and what is ‘queerness’ are therefore also questions about how ‘Britishness’ can be re-imagined and redefined. Creative arts play an important role in engaging with contemporary politics and social issues. Founded in 2005, CAN have been particularly active in engaging in debates on race, ethnicity and cultural diversity in contemporary Britain. With a decolonial political stance articulated throughout its programme, CAN embodies a strong sense of queerness. Ruth Holdsworth, Senior Producer of CAN, points out the similarities between Chineseness and queerness in the Western context: ‘Before queerness, “Chineseness” is already read as queer because it is outside of the norm from the West’s perspective’. Although CAN has a history of supporting queer artists with Chinese cultural heritage. Queering Now was the only artist-led curated programme in the CAN Festival 2020, with a clear choice to feature queer artists.
Queering Now took place one evening in early February, an evening of queer arts and cultural performances curated by London-based artist Whiskey Chow and curator Sha Li, at Rich Mix, an arts centre located in East London. It was pleasing to see a big crowd of enthusiastic audience members there and the rich mix of cultures showcased on the evening. Queering Now was a night jam-packed with bold, avant-garde and dazzling artwork and performances, all of which were Chinese and queer-related. This was a visual, aural and multi-sensory extravaganza mixing artistic genres, styles and even media forms: from poetry to contemporary art, digital video films to an experimental sound piece, performance art to dystopian opera. The evening programme was divided into three parts: Part I featured short films by queer Chinese filmmakers and artists (Wang Haiyang, Popo Fan, Andrew Thomas Huang, April Lin and Jasmine Lin). The second part of the programme staged a live performance by Whiskey Chow, a reading by Victoria Sin and sound piece by LI YILEI. Part III was the fun part: a past-midnight party kick-started by the Ayesha Tan Jones’ opera The Parasites of Pangu, Act I. This was indeed a night when queers ‘play loudly’ and queer Chinese artists had their collective voices heard on a London stage, in the UK’s queer and artistic communities, and at a moment in history when Sinophobia and racism are prevalent.
In the shadows of the spreading virus and viral racism against Chinese communities, Queering Now celebrates ‘Chineseness’ by bringing together artists of Chinese heritage and by making use of different elements of Chineseness; from ancient myths and tales to contemporary popular culture; traditional symbols and signs; the smells and tastes of food. Both Andrew Thomas Huang and Whiskey Chow’s work makes explicit reference to the ancient Chinese ‘Rabbit God’, patron saint of queer people, to carve out an alternative queer history outside the Western queer canon. The knowledge of the ‘Rabbit God’ not only challenges the sexually conservative Chinese narrative that homosexuality is a Western import and is therefore incompatible with Chinese society and culture; it also challenges the linear, progressive and West-centric queer history that imagines North America and Europe at the epicentre of the queer world at the expense and erasure of queer histories and memories in other parts of the world. Most importantly, the ‘Rabbit God’ inspires queer Chinese to explore their own forgotten histories, cultures and intimacies in an era of cultural homogenisation and historical amnesia.
While Queering Now celebrates ‘Chineseness’, it does so without essentializing cultural identities. Indeed, the multiplicity and open understanding of ‘Chineseness’ was a defining feature of the evening. Artists relate to ‘Chineseness’ in different ways: some were born in the People’s Republic of China; some were born in different parts of the Sinophone sphere; others grew up in the West and identify variously as second generation Chinese, British Chinese, or Chinese British. Some of their life stories are entangled with the history of colonialism, migration, forced displacement, war, racism and multiculturalism. Most of these stories defy straightforward identification with the nation state. ‘Chineseness’ in this context becomes a contingent sign and floating signifier in the constantly changing geopolitics and social semiotics; it also speaks to competing discourses, concerns and politics.
The idea of ‘Chineseness’ as a historical and social construct does not render it less real, material or relevant to people’s everyday experiences. Andrew Thomas Huang’s short film Kiss of the Rabbit God exposes the harsh working and living conditions in a Chinese restaurant. The ‘Chineseness’ associated with the restaurant setting seems to show nothing appealing. It does however index a migration history characterised by economic hardship and political disempowerment for the Chinese diaspora. Imagining a ‘Rabbit God’ in such a context becomes an empowering experience for the queer diaspora. In sharp contrast to Huang’s restaurant, Victoria Sin’s reading of Steamed Three Eggs is moving. The text used the signs of Chinese food to conjure up a sense of queer belonging, intimacy and desire. Here, food has a life of its own and it mingles intimately with human bodies and desires. If ‘Chineseness’ gives expression to a cuisine, what feelings, sensations, memories and materiality does Chinese food conjure up? These feelings, sensations, memories and materiality are multiple and contingent, as ‘Chineseness’ is and should be.
‘Queerness’ sometimes stands at odds with ‘Chineseness’. In an article titled ‘Looking for My Penis: the Eroticised Asian in Gay Video Porn’, Richard Fung provocatively remarks that queer Asian men do not have ‘penises’; by this Fung means that queer Asians are often feminised, desexualised and objectified in a highly racialised and hypermasculine queer culture in the West. Queering Now unfolds gender, sexual diversity and fluidity in queer Chinese communities. These gendered, sexed, embodied and affective expressions resist a clear-cut definition of gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, among other identities; ‘queer’ – understood as non-normative expressions of gender, sexuality and desire – is thus an apt name. Queering Now interrogates the deeply embedded queer Chinese stereotypes not only by sexualising Chinese queers, but also by challenging the stereotypes of racial and sexual objectification. What does being queer mean for diasporic Chinese communities? Must queer Chinese conform to existing gender, sexual and racial stereotypes? What works can queer Chinese artists produce? Do we need more desexualised and emasculated Chinese bodies in representation? Or should more sexualised and fetishised Chinese bodies be produced to satisfy the voyeuristic gaze of the Western audience? How can we turn this gaze? These are the questions that the Queering Now artists ask and address in various ways.
The Berlin-based Chinese director Popo Fan offers an interesting response with his feature film Beer, Beer (2019). The film gives an account of the queer Chinese diasporic experience in Berlin. A casual encounter brings Tao, a new resident of Berlin, and Sebastian, a local German, together outside a gay club on a cold night. The two men walk to Tao’s flat in hope of having sex indoors. The long journey to Tao’s flat is interrupted by many small incidents, including eating a meaty doner kebab, picking up a discarded mattress and carrying it home together, as well as showing different attitudes toward borrowing money, eating meat, personal hygiene and response to the smell of garlic. On the way, the two men share some romantic feelings and even sexual urges toward each other. At the end of the night, they end up saying goodbye to each other without having sex. They suddenly become complete strangers, just as they started. For Sebastian, ‘Chineseness’ functions as a source of physical attraction, racial and sexual fetishism, and at the same time a sign of otherness and inscrutability. For Tao, ‘Chineseness’ is a cultural heritage and an embodied habitus with which he is burdened but cannot part; it is also a socioeconomic reality that he learns to live with as a queer diaspora. ‘Chineseness’, in this context, provides him with a sense of belonging; and yet it also becomes a source of shame and alienation, a barrier against cross-cultural communication, and an obstacle that impedes the full realisation of his desire. But at least in the film, Tao is in control of the transcultural exchange of desire. He reverses the stereotypical image of a passive and submissive Chinese bottom in the Western gay scene; he courageously articulates his own desires and dislikes; he resolutely takes control of his life. In a transnational scene of erotic and affective exchange, the ‘passive’ queer Chinese fights back!
In the leaflet accompanying the performance The Moon is Warmer Than the Sun, Whiskey Chow asks: ‘Where is queer hope? Who shall we worship in the capitalist jungle of cruelty and despair?’ Whiskey is not the only person who feels ‘queer despair’; many queer Chinese artists and activists have been asking the same questions. Indeed, in China, gender non-binary and sexual minorities face a difficult time due to the government’s censorship of feminist and queer content and the ban on political and social activism. In the West, queer Chinese are invisible minorities, constantly having to struggle for visibility and against racism. Over the years, queer Chinese artists have been struggling for survival amid limited funding in a competitive international arts scene. Of equal concern, urban queer cultures today are becoming dominated by consumerism and largely conform to social norms. The once political and radical queer culture is slowly giving way to a mainstream queer scene dominated by gay pride, the pink economy and normative lifestyles such as same-sex marriage. On one hand, queer people in the West seem happy and proud enough with equal rights enshrined in law. However, many still feel vulnerable, depressed and desperate because of their differences and perceived ‘abnormality’, hence the susceptibility to poor mental health and suicide in the queer community. How can we find queer hope?
At this historic juncture, it can be useful to revisit negative emotions such as queer shame, trauma and despair amidst the dominant positive mood of happiness, pride and celebration. Bringing together video footages of three queer icons: Leslie Cheung, Ellen Loo and Freddie Mercury, all of whom tragically died of AIDS or suicide, Chow unravels the queer hope hidden behind the overwhelming feeling of despair. In this way, Chow suggests that one can find hope within despair. Chow employs the visual language of colour and light; if conventional wisdom suggests that the moon is colder than the sun, and the colour blue is colder than the colour red, the opposite may also be true: ‘the moon is warmer than the sun’, as the title of the performance suggests. Believing in the transformative power of things – the yin and yang that is in constant motion and refuses to be pinned down to stasis – Chow finds strength within vulnerability and hope within despair.
Perhaps this is what Queering Now is about: in the lingering shadows of queer despair, viral racism and global neoliberalism, queer Chinese artists, activists and communities are gathering strength and cherishing hope for a non-normative future. Imagination, creativity and solidarity are key to such an endeavour. Victoria Sin uses science fiction as a way to imagine and posit alternative and possible futures, whereas Whiskey Chow, Andrew Thomas Huang and Ayesha Tan Jones turn to stories, myths and folk traditions from ancient China to reimagine a non-Eurocentric future, where the spectres of the past inform a radical alternate future. Crucial to the process of reimagining future is a bold reconfiguration of Chineseness and queerness, in their multiplicity, openness, flexibility, and contingent articulations. Chow has said that she and other queer Chinese artists hope to bring their artworks and performances to other parts of the UK and internationally. If Chineseness is contingent and queerness gestures toward non-conformity to social norms, a queer Chinese assemblage can be subversive, rebellious, viral, contagious and affective as well; it can disrupt social norms and politicise arts and everyday life. Let’s queer the present moment, now! This neoliberal time needs to be disrupted, and art has an active role to play in this process. Now that queer Chinese artists have started to play ‘loudly’, let their voices be heard and let the noise reverberate.
I would like to thank Jessica Karlsen, Whiskey Chow, Harriet Evans and Ruth Holdsworth for their insightful comments and suggestions on early drafts of this article.
Hongwei Bao is an associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is author of Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, 2018) and Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism (Routledge, forthcoming in 2020).