Being Asian And Queer In The West
Film offers a challenging but accessible catalyst for discussion on the internalised otherness of gay Asian men in Western countries, argues Peng Zhang.
Raymond Yeung's Yellow Fever (1998)
For gay Asian men, whoever you choose to date, there is a phrase relating to you. Rice queen, potato queen, sticky rice – terms which define identity in relation to white and Western society. Putting race and attraction together is inherently political. Alongside think pieces and academic studies on queer Asian experience in western societies, film provides an important avenue for exploring attitudes and expressions, through fun and thought-provoking discussion of identity and desire.
In Yellow Fever (Raymond Yeung, 1998), Monty is a second-generation immigrant from Hong Kong who lives in London and enjoys a close circle of friends in the gay scene, where he expresses exclusive attraction to white men. When Taiwanese student Jai Ming moves into Monty’s building and shows romantic interests towards him, it causes Monty more discomfort than excitement, particularly when he realises that the feelings may be mutual. His subsequent confusion quickly becomes the only thing he talks about with friends.
Monty: Why do you find oriental men attractive?
Andrew: Oh, I don’t know. Why do you find Caucasian men attractive?
Monty: Cause they are more…sophisticated.
Andrew: Ah, do you? Dear, you are suffering from the typical post-colonial mentality, aren’t you? You’ve been brought up to look up to anything western, Vivian Westwood, Charlie’s Angels, Brotherhood of Men…
Monty: (clapping) Yes, Mr. Freud. Can you just answer the bloody question?
Andrew, who is white, touches on the idea that dating Caucasian guys is a way for minority ethnicity gay men to seek legitimacy in mainstream culture. Could Monty’s exclusion of Asian guys as object of desire be due to his urge to avoid being identified with the stereotypes that Western society has put upon Asian men? Andrew argues that, ‘all attractions [are] based on stereotypes,’ such as ‘the French supposedly being romantic and Italians being passionate’. For queer Asian men, stereotypes arguably do a disservice, being ‘either desexualised or fetishised’ in Western societies. Some people don’t mind the stereotype and try to own their label of GAM (Gay Asian Male), whereas others who strive for individuality and fight vigilantly against any mental shorthand stereotyping them.
Monty lives in a time and place where his ethnic cultural heritage is undervalued to the point that disassociating his own race from romantic pursuits has become second nature. Jia Ming’s appearance catches him off-guard, as someone who is not only attractive, but also confident of his ethnicity. Monty’s growing attraction to Jia Ming essentially destabilises the way he views his culture, and forces him to search for a new equilibrium in his identity.
Wayne Yung's My German Boyfriend (2002)
Whilst Yellow Fever is about discovering internal conflict, Wayne Yung’s My German Boyfriend (2002) is about personal reconciliation. This fascinating 25-minute experimental film is divided into two parts with different tones. Part one sees Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Wayne Yung embark on a journey to Berlin in search of ‘the perfect German boyfriend’. After three unsatisfying (and humorously played out) dates, he realises that his fantasy ideal is really a work of fiction. Part one ends with him finding love with a second generation Kurdish-German man, and rejoicing in each other’s own blend of multicultural identity.
At first a light-hearted rom-com tonally, closing with conventional bliss, the film abruptly shifts into a documentary-esque tone, following Wayne’s ‘real life’ behind the camera. He has, in reality, fallen in love with a Caucasian German guy while filming in Berlin. In a way, the supposed ending of him falling in love with ‘someone of colour’ was the political ideal – multicultural, post-modern, everything being freely constructed. But in actuality, he still struggles with finding legitimacy in his new German home.
“Sometimes I feel special, like a guest from far away.
Other times I feel strange, like I invaded somebody’s house.”
Having a decade long history of film making about the GAM experience before then, Yung is clearly aware of the politics behind attraction. But what happens when you move beyond political ideals? Wayne is confronted by the difficulty in disentangling the rationale behind his choices. There might always be conflicts in how one sees oneself and what one wants in this world. Under the guise of a experimental dramedy, My German Boyfriend is really a film about someone trying to understand what culturally and romantically he is ultimately looking for in his life.
As short films exploring the potentially contentious subject of race and attraction, these two films are candid and thoughtful in their approaches. If there is one lesson to take away from them, it is to recognize the social forces that might be meddling with your desire, know what you truly want, and decide for yourself.
Raymond Yeung's Yellow Fever (1998)
Words: Peng Zhang
Translation: Will Dai
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account.