March 23, 2015, by Tony Hong
Chinese Gay and the West: Far From a Post-colonial Queer
By Flair Shi,
Currently Studying Comparative Literature (MA) at University College London,
Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,
BA in English Language and Literature.
Post-colonialism as a school of political/literary theory rose in the 1980s, with Edward Said’s Orientalism, Spivak’s concern for the voicelessness of the subaltern and Homi Bhabha’s postcolonial trajectory consisting of mimicry, ambivalence and hybridity. Similar in its deconstructive approach to socio-cultural identities, queer theory rose in the 1990s, from Sedgwick’s closet theory to Butler’s gender performativity to Doty’s queer moment. Then there is the school of intersectionalism established by the black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1990s, but so far there has been very limited discussions on the intersections between post-colonial and queer identities, even fewer in the Chinese context. Let me start with an anecdote to illustrate why such discussions are needed.
I was having tea with a local gay friend in London the other day, and he told me how weird he felt when he attended the wedding of one of the guys he dated before.
“Is he from China?” I asked, even though I knew 8 out of 10 guys he dated are Chinese since he is a very dedicated “rice queen”, the gay jargon used to refer to foreigners who have a fetish for Asians.
“Yes, I dated him just 2 months ago! I can’t believe he just married like that!” Hearing that he is Chinese already made me quite envious, but a “lightening marriage” (a marriage that happened very soon after the couple met) too? I thought this guy must be really lucky to have found his prince charming. Frankly, who doesn’t want to marry a British guy, become British, have a new family and life and forget about the oppression of conservative China forever?
“He is so lucky! Millions of Chinese gays in China can never dream of such a thing as marriage” So I exclaimed in excitement and jealousy.
Then my friend’s expression changed and he gave me a kind of ridiculous mocking look. “Didn’t I say it felt weird? You know what kind of guy he married? He met this black man who cleans the street, 20 years older than him, and from Jack’d (a gay dating application)! And then just married him like that in two weeks!”
I was used to his sometimes classist and racist propensities but I was still very shocked upon hearing this and asked him “seriously? did you know why he did that then?”. I knew this boy fairly well since my friend always talked about him when they were dating. He is only in his second year in college. Like many, he is the only son in his family and judging from his fashion interests my friend told me about, he seems to be from a quite rich family.
“He just wants to marry I guess, and be British?” my friend said.
“So he doesn’t love his husband at all you mean?”
“According to him that won’t be necessary for the marriage to work. He told me they have a good life together even though not a single family member from either side attended, or maybe even knew about, their wedding”.
The story is a disturbing one, considering how a young Chinese gay student would make such a big decision in the pursuit for the freedom he longs for. I don’t want to say “sacrifice his happiness for freedom” since even though he is in the position of the subaltern he still used his limited agency to negotiate a “better” form of subalternity as he perceives. So who am I to judge whether he is happy or not? One would rather be a subaltern in a society that’s tolerant towards gay people than in one that’s obviously not. But I wonder what would his parents think if they ever got to know about this “disaster”: will they simply go crazy? Or will they finally reflect on the fact that there has to be a point when Chinese people come to realize that without freedom, their accumulated wealth may amount to nothing? Because stories like this one are far from isolated incidents. In this book Chinese Male Homosexualities, renowned Hong Kong sociologist Travis Kong relayed many such stories of Chinese boys marrying much older British gays in their pursuit for citizenship and sexuality asylum. He observes that both parties perceive the marriage as a mutually beneficial event: the old British men get the young boys’ beauty and care, while the young Chinese boys can get citizenship and financial support. He also records the difficulties many of these boys faced: their partners might be abusive or promiscuous, and force them into obedience by threatening divorce and deportation.
If Bhabha’s hybridity does lend us a positive note in reading the gradual growth of LGBT movement in East Asia as the spreading glocalization of Western-inspired queerness, such stories concerning Chinese gays and the West lead us back to Spivak’s pessimism. Ever since modern China was established, the interactions between Chinese gays and the West have been full of different forms of orientalisms and occidentalisms. For example, in Western Queers in China : Flight to the Land of Oz, the historian Mungello recounts the interesting encounters between Western gay men, who at that time, in a manner not dissimilar to the Chinese boys in Kong’s book, had to escape from their countries, and Chinese transvestite opera performers called Dan. The orientalist obsession they displayed at that time was not the simple dichotomy between a savage Other and a civilized Self, but rather it was the attraction towards an mysterious exoticism: they were fascinated by the Dans’ “cherry lips”, “porcelain skin” and “insurmountable fragrance”. It was in China that they, for the first time, experienced the pleasure of Doty’s “queer moments” with the performed gender fluidity of Chinese men. In one of the most unbelievable cases, Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat, had lived with the opera master Shi Pei-Pu for twenty years before he realized Shi is a man. Till this day, the gay version of the “yellow fever”, aka Asian fetish, still forms a lively subculture in the gay community in the West. According to Kong, this intertwined force of orentalism and homonormativity is only built upon the general phenomenon of the emasculation of East Asian men in Western culture.
On the other side, modern Chinese imaginings of the West, save the Mao era, have always carried the occidentalist romanticism that, in its utopianistic impulse, tends to hold the Other as ideals for advancement and freedom. For example, as early as the 1920s, Chinese literary masters such as Yu Dafu and Guo Moruo displayed a strong naturalist admiration for Western landscapes in their works, which called for national salvation and rejuvenation. Such impulse has often been interpreted as a positive force of subversion that works in individuals’ favor against the authoritarian state, such as in Chen Xiaomei’s Occidentalism : a Theory of Counter-discourse in post-Mao China. However, much discussion has neglected the potential harms of the intersection of such occidentalism and orientalism, as discussed with the anecdote.
If the Chinese gay boy perceives the West as the only location of freedom, is he not doomed in his alterity?