BEYOND THE SILK ROAD: STAGING A QUEER ASIAN AMERICA IN CHAY YEW’S PORCELAIN
Diehl, Heath A
David Drake: As an artist, how do you see yourself in the American landscape?
Chay Yew. I’m not really sure. I guess the best way to describe my situation is the fable about a crow and a sparrow I wrote about in my play Porcelain-that’s how I always felt about my being in the world: That you can never belong to a tree of crows or a tree of sparrows. You belong to a tree of your own because you’re in-between. There’s an inbetween-ness about me-coming from Asia, living in America, being in LA, going to New York all the time, working in one rehearsal room to another. And with this template, this is how I look at how I fit in.
– David Drake, “Fusion”
The drama of Chinese American playwright Chay Yew is steeped in controversy. His first play, As If He Hears, was banned in his native Singapore because it dealt with “issues not true to Singapore values” (Drukman 58)-namely, homosexuality and AIDS. Another of Yew’s plays, Porcelain, was originally completed as a film script for his undergraduate thesis project at Boston University but the script was shelved for several years because no college student wanted to audition for a film about a gay Asian man who murders his Caucasian lover in a London public lavatory. And after his play A Language of Their Own premiered at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, Yew recalls: “Some 60-year-old guy came up to me and said, ‘I really like your play but I wanted to know about Asian peoples and the Asian continent.’ I thought, ‘God, what am I? An Asian almanac or some walking PBS documentary like The Silk Road?'” (qtd. In Drukman 58-60).
As one of the most visible, prolific, and accomplished Asian American theatre practitioners on the contemporary scene (aside from, of course, David Henry Hwang), it is perhaps not surprising that Yew often bears a weightier responsibility for his work than lesser-known Asian American playwrights. As Rachel C. Lee explains in The Americas of Asian American Literature, “Asian American cultural producers face increased pressure to emphasize the broad value of their works” because those artists are “already imagined by mainstream presses as appealing only to ghettoized interests” (3). Lee assumes that whiteness constitutes the unmarked but ever-present yardstick against which the decisions of “mainstream” publication and/or production are made, thus implicitly signaling that fewer minority writers will see their work in print or on the stage (and, of course, literary and theatrical history bear out the validity of this claim). The few minority writers who manage to break through the firmly entrenched racial barriers to have their work published/produced often are saddled with the added responsibilities of representativeness, authenticity, and universality. Yew’s plays, for instance, consistently have been judged against the backdrop of the Eurocentric culture in which they are received and deemed either “positive” (read: acceptable) representations of Asian America, as was the case with Red, or “negative” (read: unacceptable) representations of Asian America, as was the case with Porcelain.’ As a dramatist and also as a theatre practitioner, Yew himself has been subjected to similar kinds of public scrutiny by theatre-goers and critics alike who question whether the playwright and his work are “Asian enough” (as was the case with the spectator at the Public).
Questions of authenticity and universality are not unique to Asian American drama; indeed, issues of how to represent communities and individuals on the margins of American culture have, at various times and to varying degrees, plagued all identity-based drama produced in the United States.2 But these questions do take on a heightened importance with regard to contemporary Asian American drama because, as Velina Hasu Houston notes in her introduction to The Politics of Life, that drama reflects a community whose boundaries are constantly contested as a result of increasing numbers of interracial marriages and relationships, shifting patterns of immigration and emigration, and ever-broadening conceptions of what constitutes American national identity (9). For Houston, these shifts within Asian America have precipitated changes within Asian American drama, most noticeably in terms of who and what can be represented on stage. Whereas Asian American drama from the early to the midtwentieth century often sought to define a coherent, unified Asian American identity-one in opposition to the Eurocentrism of Caucasian America-contemporary Asian American drama tends to foreground what David Henry Hwang has termed “the fluidity of culture itself, declaring [Asian America] a living thing, born of ever-changing experience and therefore subject to continual reinterpretation” (“Foreword” viii).
In this essay, I contend that issues of authenticity and universality frequently are raised in relation to Yew’s work because his plays consider how the once coherent and universal category of “Asian American” is complicated and undone by other identity-based concerns, namely sexual orientation. Using Porcelain as a case study, I explore how Yew represents the complexity of contemporary Asian American identity. It is interesting that Yew employs the “chamber play” form, which is a minimalist form in both dramaturgy and performance. What Yew’s choice of form reveals-and this choice will be discussed in depth later-is the current impossibility of representing gay Asian identities and the need for alternative identity formations within Asian America, formations that more accurately reflect the diversity of “Asian-ness” itself. While Yew fails to offer a model for how to construct and maintain a Queer Asian American identity, he does expose some of the corrosive historical forces (within dominant, Asian, and gay communities) that systemically excise that identity from dominant discourses, public spaces, and social practices.
Although Yew is a relative “newcomer” to the international theatre scene, his plays and production work have increasingly garnered positive attention from critics and theatre-goers since his first play was produced in the late-1980s. Details of his biography are sketchy. He was born in Singapore in the mid-1960s and emigrated with his family to the United States at the age of twelve. In the early 1980s, Yew enrolled at Pepperdine University, but later he transferred to Boston University where he majored in communications. After graduating, Yew traveled to his native Singapore, where he worked as a playwright for TheatreWorks, the country’s first professional theatre company. In 1988, TheatreWorks included a slot for an AIDS play in the production season; Yew agreed to write the play for the modest fee of $500. The play that resulted, As If He Hears, at first did not pass governmental censors, but it was produced several rewrites later.
From Singapore, Yew moved to London, where he briefly served as playwright-in-residence at the Mu-Lan Theatre. In 1995, Yew traveled to Los Angeles when he was named resident artist and director of the Asian Theatre Workshop at the Mark Taper Forum. On 20 April 1995, Yew’s play A Language of Their Own premiered at the New York Public Theatre; this play would go on to win a GLAAD Media Award for Best Play of the Year, a George and Elisabeth Marton Playwriting Award, and a Lammy nomination for the published edition. The following year, Yew’s trilogy of chamber plays-which includes A Language of Their Own, Half Lives, and Porcelain-was presented in a six-hour production by the East West Players in Eos Angeles. In 1998, he won the Robert Chesley Playwriting Award, and Red opened in Seattle. Since Red, Yew has written The Courage to Stand Alone and A Beautiful Country (a performance piece featuring a drag queen named Miss Visa Denied).
Among Yew’s diverse corpus of writing and production over the past decade or so, Porcelain stands as one of his most controversial pieces. The play began as a film script that Yew penned for his senior thesis project at Boston University, but at the time, the project was short-lived. As Yew recalls, “Because it was so risqué-very violent about anonymous sex in the toilets-no college student wanted to audition” (qtd. in Drukman 59). Yew shelved the piece until 1992, when he reworked it for the stage while playwright-in-residence at Eondon’s Mu-Ean Theatre. Porcelain premiered on 12 May 1992, at the Etcetera Theatre Club in Eondon; on 4 August 1992, the play transferred to the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. That year, Porcelain won Eondon’s Fringe Award for best play. Since its first production, Porcelain has been produced in regional theatres throughout the United States and has appeared in Performing Ark Journal, an anthology of contemporary gay drama titled Staging Gay Lives, and, along with A Language of Their Own, in its own Grove Press edition in 1997. That Yew has had two of his plays published in their own editions places him among the ranks of such world-renowned Asian American playwrights as Frank Chin and David Henry Hwang.
What marks Porcelain as such a controversial work is its subject matter. The play centers on John “Eone” Eee, a nineteen-year-old Asian man who meets and eventually murders a Caucasian man, William Hope, in a Eondon public lavatory. In his introduction to the published version of the play, John M. Clum offers the following summary:
Born, appropriately, with the name Eone, which he anglicized to John, Eee feels he will never fit in. As a gay man, he is alienated from the culture and family into which he was born. As an Asian man in London, he feels ignored, rejected. In the gay bars and clubs he is invisible. Occasionally, for a moment, sex in the toilet gives him a sense of belonging, even love. For a few weeks William Hope offers Lee what he has always wanted, but for Hope the toilets are a place to get sex without having to admit to himself or to anyone else that he is gay. Yet, uncharacteristically, after their encounter, Hope invites John Lee out for a drink, to his home and bed, and briefly, into a relationship. When the relationship starts to become more than physical, to move toward the love John Lee seeks, Hope panics, tries brutally to move the relationship back to a merely physical one, and, when that isn’t possible, leaves John and returns to furtive, safe encounters in the toilet. John’s anger and desperation at Hope’s rejection take him beyond rational behavior into the realm of operatic passion…. Like Don José [in Bizet’s Carmen], Lee is discovered cradling the body of the lover he killed. (356)
In form, Porcelain can most accurately be classified as a chamber play. Patrice Pavis defines “chamber theatre” as “a form of performance and dramaturgy that restricts the stage means of expression, the number of actors and spectators and the scope of the themes” (46). Pavis explains that this form of theatre developed around the turn of the twentieth century as a response to the “heavy” dramaturgy of classical realism, a dramaturgy based on “multitudinous artistic and technical personnel, a wealth of scenery, the excessive importance of the audience conferred by the picture-frame or center stage or ‘theatre for the masses,’ the frequent interruptions of intermissions and the grandiose apparatus of the bourgeois theatre” (46). One of the earliest and most widely-known examples of chamber theatre is August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata (1907). Stridently anti-realist, the play follows the pursuits of The Old Man, Hummel, who seeks to destroy the Colonel, a man who years prior seduced the woman Hummel loved. Whereas realist plays typically call for elaborately rendered box-sets, chamber plays often used selective realism (i.e., showing only part of the location in which the action takes place) and unorthodox staging techniques borrowed from Impressionist and Expressionist paintings. The opening stage directions for The Ghost Sonata, for example, indicate that scene one takes place “Outside the house…. The windows of the Round Room face the street in front of the house, and at the corner look on to the suggestion of a side-street running towards the back” (Strindberg 268, emphasis added). Moreover, whereas realist plays typically examine “ordinary people in their natural setting” in order to explicate “the physical and social influences that made them what they are”-for example, Ibsen’s Nora Helmer in “a pleasant, tastefully but not expensively furnished, living room” or Chekhov’s Madame Ranevskaya at her family estate (Styan 9)-chamber plays place generic characters (Strindberg’s the Old Man, the Student, and the Aristocrat) in suggestive and/or symbolic locations (Strindberg’s Round and Hyacinth Rooms). And whereas realist plays employ a complicated plot structure in which multiple minor narratives overlap and interweave with one another (e.g., consider all of the plot complications that arise from Captain Alving’s past act of adultery in Ibsen’s Ghosts’), chamber plays use a polyphony of voices to reconstruct a single event.
Yew’s use of the chamber play form is immediately apparent in the staging of Porcelain. In the note on staging that precedes the text, Yew explains:
On a bare stage are five chairs that face the audience; they are lined in a straight row.
There are many red origami paper cranes littered about the stage floor and around the chairs. Dressed in white, JOHN, an Asian male in his late teens, sits in the middle chair. Deep in concentration, he relentlessly folds paper cranes as the audience enters the house. When the play begins, the four characters VOICE ONE, VOICE TWO, VOICE THREE, and VOICE FOUR enter from the wings and sit on the remaining chairs. All VOICES are played by Caucasian men of various ages dressed uniformly in black.
It is important that all characters, particularly JOHN and VOICE ONE, do not look at one another throughout the play unless otherwise indicated.
No music or sound effects should be employed during the play. (6)
Yew makes no attempt at verisimilitude; Porcelain’s set is minimalist in design and serves a functional, rather than ornamental, role. The five chairs that constitute the only stage properties in the play are used to provide seating for the actors rather than to re-create the interiors of the jail cell, the London streets, or the public lavatory. Other elements of the staging are laden with symbolic meanings. The contrasting black and white costumes-colors that, in the West, often are used to signify the clash between forces of good and evil-comment on the play’s central tension: that is, how Asian cultures and peoples are isolated and “mythicized” in and by the West (33). Similarly, the red origami paper cranes-the only hand property used in the play-provide some insight into John Lee’s characterization, particularly his emotional state-of-mind; as Dr. Worthing explains to a reporter later in the play, the cranes represent “a Japanese tradition that if you [fold] the paper cranes-a thousand of them-your wish [will] come true” (112).
The means of stage expression is also restricted by Yew’s choice to employ only five actors to represent the many figures who appear throughout the play. That four of these actors are designated only by the generic moniker “VOICE” enables them to play multiple roles and signals a shift away from rounded, three-dimensional characters-standard fare in classic realist plays. This shift away from lifelike characters allows Yew and his spectators to focus on the action of the play and on the ways in which that action is rendered tangible in and through language rather than on the characters’ interior psychological motivations, which classic realism emphasizes. That no music or sound effects are used to manipulate the audience’s emotional response further demonstrates how Yew emphasizes language and action rather than characterization and technical or musical effects. Even in terms of acting, Yew manages to resist the pull toward a “heavy” dramaturgy by insisting that the characters “do not look at [or respond to] one another throughout the play.”
POLITICS VS. POETICS: HOW TO REVIEW A “QUEER ASIAN AMERICAN” PLAY
Many of the critics who have reviewed Porcelain (both in performance and in book form) have concentrated their efforts on explicating the formal features, such as imagery and dialogue, that distinguish the chamber play genre. In a review of the Grove Press edition of the play, a Daily Variety critic describes Porcelain as follows: “A crime of passion sets the stage for a gripping, gritty, graphic voice poem about alienation. Riveting writing…. Every word and every image is as vivid and visual as the audience’s imagination allows” (“Chay Yew”). Like the reviewer for the Daily Variety, Wendy Caster, a reviewer for Lambda Book Report, emphasizes Yew’s use of language and imagery-both formal criteria. Caster writes, “A benefit to reading [Porcelain], as opposed to seeing [it] performed, is taking time to appreciate the language. Yew turns even hatred into poetry… It is astonishing how much Yew accomplishes with few words and how emotionally involving some dialogue on a page can be” (29-30).
I find it interesting that reviewers of Porcelain, a play so riddled with questions of social and political import, tend to emphasize the generic, or literary, qualities of the text, especially since, as Elaine H. Kim notes in her seminal study Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, “reviews of Asian American literature by Anglo-American writers reveal that the criteria used to judge the literary merit of Asian American writing has not always been literary” (xv-xvi). Reviewers of minority literature, Kim contends, often concentrate on the non-literary aspects of a text: the social history shaping a specific historical moment, the representativeness/authenticity of a particular cultural production, the ideological shifts undergirding an historical event, or the systemic regimes of Sinophobia marking specific cultures. But for reviewers of Porcelain, these sociological and historical questions seem too difficult to pose, let alone answer. Scott T. Cummings’s review of the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Porcelain, for instance, reads, “Yew uses … murder to depict the existential double jeopardy that traps any man like Lee, whose sexuality and race both make him the object of scorn and prejudice. Ironically, racism and homophobia do not bear all that directly on what turns out to be, at root, a crime of passion.” Cummings concludes by suggesting that Porcelain is “more of a plea for understanding than an indictment of society.” Cummings begins his review by commenting on the frameworks of racial and sexual oppression that give shape to the play’s action, but he quickly shifts from a discussion of systemic social oppression and its relation to the play’s central themes to a discussion of circumstantial personal angst and its relationship to the play’s poetic language. In doing so, the reviewer posits a false binary between individual experience and social critique (as well as between discourse and politics) and clumsily side-steps the fact that individual experiences of race and sexuality are always and already socially and politically inflected.
If, as Kim observes, Asian American writers are judged according to their abilities to accurately represent the history (both past and present) of a marginalized group, then why have reviewers of Yew’s play consistently ignored or, as is the case with Cummings, side-stepped social and political questions? That reviewers ol Yew’s work ignore or elide these socio-political questions indicates a larger trend within Asian American literary studies: the disavowal of non-straight sexualities in Asian American history, culture, and literature. As Dana Y. Takagi observes in her essay “Maiden Voyage: Excursion into Sexuality and Identity Politics in Asian America,” “the topic of homo-sexuality in Asian American studies is often treated in whispers, if mentioned at all” (355).
Even a cursory review of recent scholarship in both Queer and Asian American studies reveals the accuracy of Takagi’s observation. Consider, for instance, two comparable texts, each intended to define the shape (i.e., methodologies, concerns, archives) of an emergent area of inquiry-The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, by Henry Abelove et al., and Jean Yu-Wen Shen Wu and Min Song’s Asian American Studies: A Reader. While the former includes at least nine articles that examine intersections of race and sexual orientation, none of these nine articles directly addresses the historical and political concerns of Asian American gay men and lesbians. In fact, “race” in Abelove’s text seems to imply only African-American (which is the topic of six articles) or Hispanic (which is the topic of three articles).3 Anthologies in Asian American studies demonstrate little more commitment to issues of diversity and difference, especially with regard to sexual orientation. Only three of the thirty-three essays included in Contemporary Asian America: A Multidisciplinary Reader are devoted to the topic of “Queering Asian America,” and only two of the thirty-five essays included in Asian American Studies: A Reader are directly concerned with relationships between race and sexuality.4 Thus, with few exceptions, gay/lesbian studies critics tend to posit a monolithic racial identity (i.e., Caucasian), while Asian American critics tend to posit a monolithic sexual identity (i.e., heterosexual). In order to understand the move toward silence and/or disavowal that defines the shape of Queer Asian America, it is necessary first to understand how Asian American identities are constructed and circulated within the American cultural imagination and then to consider briefly how homosexuality figures into these identity formations.
THE (DIS-)LOCATION OF (QUEER, ASIAN AMERICAN) CULTURE
Asian American identities are intimately bound to and largely determined by the specific spatial and geographical locations within which those identities unfold. In Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama, Una Chaudhuri explains, “national and ethnic identities are often derived from or directed toward a geography; there is a location of identity based on race, nation, ethnicity, language…. The construction of cultural otherness is also a mapping of the world” (3). Ethnic and racial minorities often are linguistically linked to social space through the construction of identity categories that foreground the hybridization of national/ethnic (e.g., Asian) and national/geographic (e.g., American) locations. In this way, Asian Americans are identified by both a coherent, somatically perceived experience of the body (i.e., Asian identity) and a materially lived experience of community played out across social space (i.e., America). In addition to identity categories that highlight the constitutive relationship between ethnic/racial heritage and geography, the ways in which “cultural otherness” produces a mapping of the world can be seen in the material distribution of social space. In Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850, historian Roger Daniels notes that “most immigrant groups in the United States have been geographically and occupationally concentrated” (17), an observation that holds true for Chinese and Japanese American immigrants, many of whom settled in distinct ethnic enclaves like San Francisco’s Chinatown and Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo.
The constitutive relationship between race/ethnicity and geography is perhaps most powerfully realized in the theatre, a site at which the racially marked body of the Asian American actor that many contemporary critics identify as one primary locus of identity” is necessarily displayed and charted through space. In plays like David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad and Laurence Yep’s Pay the Chinaman, for example, the American West is inscribed with the paradoxical experiences of immigrant Chinese American laborers in the mid- to late-nineteenth century-a history that, as David L. Eng notes in Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America, simultaneously conveys “the U.S. nation-state’s economic need to recruit cheap and exploitable Chinese immigrant labor and its political refusal to enfranchise these racialized laborers as citizens” (36).
Other plays-like Hwang’s Family Devotions and Golden Child, Velina Hasu Houston’s Kokoro (True Heart), and Jessica Hagedorn’s Tenement Lover: no palm trees/in new york city-share a complex imagining of Asian America as a hybrid, or hyphenated, experience engendered by immigration and rendered psychologically traumatic by the impossibility of a return home to the characters’ native land. Set in the space between home and abroad, these plays emphasize how a history of immigration has fractured the sense of geographical rootedness, both past and present, among Asian American characters. And in plays like Frank Chin’s Year of the Dragon and R. A. Shiomi’s Yellow Fever, ethnic enclaves like San Francisco’s Chinatown and Vancouver’s Powell Street “ghetto” are imaged as stable, coherent spaces built and maintained through a strong affiliation with ethnic and racial heritage. So, whether Asian American identity is linked to a specific region of the United States (e.g., the American West), an imagined homeland abroad (i.e., Asia), or an ethnic enclave in North America, it is often used to convey a sense of order, coherence, stability, and even manageability among conceptions of space and identity politics.
There are compelling and important reasons why marginalized groups use theatre (and other forms of cultural production/representation) to imagine a coherent sense of social space and, by association, racial identity.6 Given Yew’s choice of subject matter, it is important that he abandons this common practice and instead chooses to characterize Asian America as a nomadic, unwelcoming terrain for his gay character. This is so because the difficulty of delineating a stable identity construct is a cultural condition intensified when Asian American identity is cross-cut by factors other than racial/ethnic heritage. For gay and lesbian Asian Americans, for example, identity is experienced as a kind of schizophrenia. As Tom Lee notes in his article “The Gay Asian American Male-Striving to Find an Identity,” “To be gay and Asian is at most times a contradiction. Ethnicity and sexuality, while vastly different concepts, run parallel in terms of self-identity and societal acceptance.” In large part, the sense of schizophrenia, the lack of coherence and stability, that gay Asian males experience derives from the fact that to be part of this group is to claim allegiance to two competing and equally oppressive identities, to speak from the position of “a minority within a minority”: gay and Asian. As one twenty-two-year-old gay college student of Chinese descent told Lee, “When I hear ‘gay community’ I automatically think ‘white.’ Being gay seemed like such a white thing. It never occurred to me that you can be Asian and gay. Even though I’m Asian and gay, I just never associated the two. It was always one or the other.” Gay Asian American masculinities, then, exist at the interstices of multiple, overlapping, and discontinuous histories and experiences of oppression, thereby resisting the many current frameworks of identity politics that explain identity through an either/or essentialism.
AMBIVALENCE AND IDENTITY IN QUEER ASIAN AMERICA
The struggle for gay Asian American men to delineate a stable sense of self-identity finds an especially eloquent voice in Porcelain because, in the play, John Lee experiences displacement both within his family and within gay communities. After the murder, John Lee is disowned by his family. In scene fifteen when a reporter approaches Mr. Lee (John’s father) and asks for an interview about his son, Mr. Lee adamantly denies paternity: “I am no Mr. Lee. Wrong person” (54). When the reporter persists with his questions, Mr. Lee repeatedly responds, “No son! No son! My son is dead” (55). Given the storyline of Porcelain, readers might be quick to conclude that Mr. Lee’s denials of paternity arise from the social stigma attached to the act of murder. However, the second appearance of Mr. Lee in scene twenty-five denies this reading: Mr. Lee insists, “My son no homo. No homo! He cannot be-I-I have no son. Son is dead. Dead to me. Dead” (85). As in scene fifteen, here Mr. Lee repeats the phrase “No son,” only this time he couples that phrase with “My son no homo,” indicating that sexual orientation, rather than murder, is the cause of his repudiation of John Lee. At the root of Mr. Lee’s disavowal of paternity, then, is the racial homophobia undergirding Asian American masculinities.7
Within gay communities, John Lee is ignored, tokenized, or fetishized because of his Asian-ness. At the clubs, he stands alone in a dark corner “pretending [he is] having a barrel of laughs, pretending [he is] having a good time. Pretending [he is] enjoying the music…. And waiting for someone to say something to [him]. Something nice. Say anything to [him]” (57). With every person who passes him by in silence, John Lee is reminded that “White guys aren’t into Orientals.” When someone does show interest in John, it is the “old ones” who are “looking for a houseboy” or “trying to relive the old colonial days.” Even in gay pornography, John Lee only “see[s] pictures of handsome, white guys hugging, kissing, holding hands … always white guys” (58).
What each of these experiences demonstrates, then, is that, as Richard Fung notes, “there is a kind of doubleness, of ambivalence, in the way Asian men experience contemporary North American gay communities. The ‘ghetto,’ the mainstream gay movement, can be a place of freedom and sexual identity. But it is also a site of racial, cultural, and sexual alienation sometimes more pronounced than in straight society” (256). Here, Fung points to a corrosive truism regarding Western gay cultures in the contemporary moment: that is, how Queer racism often provides a foundation for interpersonal relationships, small group dynamics, and political praxis. Whiteness constitutes the definitive marker of individual belonging and group solidarity, while racial, cultural, and sexual differences alienate and excise individuals like John Lee.
To alleviate these feelings of displacement and homelessness, John Lee visits the public lavatories. But, as Laud Humphreys points out in his seminal study Tearoom Trade, toilet sex is, by its very definition as an “impersonal” act, antithetical to attempts at building community and encouraging inclusion. Humphreys writes, “Tearoom sex is distinctively less personal than any other form of sexual activity…. There is less emotional and physical involvement in restroom fellatio” (13). It is precisely the lack of “emotional and physical involvement” in the toilets that leads John Lee to conclude: “I hate the toilets.” At the same time, however, he explains, “when Fm there … I enjoy it. And-and there’s people there who want me. Even for a moment. And the idiot that I am-thinking that I really belong-thinking perhaps all these moments will amount to something-someone who will-like me, love me” (Yew 59-60). For John Lee, the toilets offer the possibility of love, belonging, and inclusion (and, of course, it is significant that the object of his affection, the lover who embodies these possibilities, is named William Hope). Sexual relations signify a joining not simply of bodies but also of identities-a likeness predicated on similar objects of desire. But this feeling of belonging is at best ephemeral, lasting only for the usually brief duration of the sexual encounter. That John Lee constantly re-visits the toilets to re-experience the sensation of inclusion, despite his professed disdain for these spaces, signals a deeply rooted longing for home and a profound sense of cultural, sexual, and racial dislocation within Asian America. That this “home” is fleeting ultimately demonstrates how gay Asian American masculinities currently are unimaginable within the American cultural imaginary.
To this point, I have somewhat unproblematically assumed that Porcelain considers how homosexuality is located within Asian American communities and identity formations, but some readers of Yew’s play might point out the seeming fallacy inherent in that assumption, since the play is set not in the United States but in London. In James Moy’s Marginal Sights, the author makes a similar observation about Hwang’s M. Butterfly, noting, “with the displacement of the action into the neutralized alien space of France, the author deflects any need for consideration of actual race relations in America” (124). While Moy’s reading of the relationship between geography, identity, and spectatorship is compelling with regard to M. Butterfly, a similar reading does not ring true for Porcelain. In fact, I would suggest that Yew locates the action of the play elsewhere not to deflect any consideration of actual race and sexual relations in America but, rather, to point to the unwillingness of Asian American literary and cultural critics to consider how homosexuality figures into their communities and identities. Locating the action of Porcelain in London, then, is not evidence of Yew’s complicity with those whispers and that silence but is rather an indictment of the very social mechanisms and cultural institutions that mark the silence as a priori.
During the play’s final two scenes, John Lee sits onstage silently and methodically folding red origami paper cranes while the trial verdict-“life without parole”-is announced and while the other voices recount the events of the murder, with the stage once again engulfed by “the cacophony of London street sounds” (115). In these instances, John Lee seems willingly to concede his narrative position to those who would reduce his identity to a series of pejorative epithets: “Queer/Chink/Poof/Slit Eyes/Queer/Chink/Cocksucker” (39) or reduce the murder to a symptom of sexual perversion, as when Dr. Worthing reveals to a television reporter: “I think-personally, between you and me, I think the whole case is-sick. Public sex is an offense. Murder is an offense” (27).
But long before the final scenes of the play, John Lee has established a passive narrative position to which he will return throughout. In his first interview with Dr. Worthing, for example, John Lee matter-of-factly admits, “I am guilty of each and every shot” (25). Although Dr. Worthing has been appointed by the court to probe into the motivations behind John Lee’s murderous act and to determine whether the young man was sane at the time of the event, John Lee refuses to supply an etiology to his actions and instead places himself in the position of a man already condemned to silence. When Dr. Worthing eventually asks direct questions about why John Lee murdered William Hope and whether he feels remorse for his actions, John Lee persistently and enigmatically responds, “You’ll never understand” (23, 31). And even during those scenes when specific details about the murder are revealed, John Lee recounts only his direct actions: “Then I remembered the gun…. Took it out of my jacket…. I-1 pointed it at his back…. It is loaded” (98-99), while the other voices (played by Caucasian actors who, in other scenes of the play, speak for the dominant culture, the “common man” on the streets) supply their interpretation of John Lee’s psychological/emotional motivations: “Desperate/It’s Over/Angry/Hurt/It’s over/Pained” (96). The verdict of “life without parole” announced by Dr. Worthing in one of the play’s final scenes, then, seems almost anti-climactic as, from the opening lines of the play, John Lee consistently reveals that the only narrative position afforded him as a gay Asian American man is one of silence.
Still, Porcelain is not “about” John Lee’s guilt or innocence any more than it is “about” how he, as a subaltern, cannot speak. Such banal and simple-minded interpretations fail to do justice to what is, at its core, a nuanced and incisive critique of racial homophobia and Queer racism. Early in the play, John Lee hints at this central thematic concern when he insists, “Tell me what you see, Dr. Worthing” (43). Another scene in the play ends with John Lee’s asking Dr. Worthing, “What do you see me as?” Then, the very next scene begins with the other voices chanting a mantra of pejoratives directed at John Lee (38-39). Silenced within the dominant culture, ignored within gay communities, and ostracized within his Asian family, John Lee ultimately reveals the ways in which gay Asian American masculinities are, in contemporary American culture, overdetermined by deeply entrenched cultural narratives that shape and are shaped by systemic regimes of Queer racism and racial homophobia. Within this context, silence must necessarily be a prerequisite for John Lee’s life and dramatic narrative. His story (i.e., the story of being gay and Asian American) can never be revealed/told because that story will always and only be inflected through cultural narratives that render his identity pathological-if that identity is rendered tangible at all-that render his affections violent, and that render his voice silent.
To its conclusion, Porcelain remains a dark, contemplative tale about the conditions of silence that circumscribe gay Asian American masculinities. In a chamber play that foregrounds the intimate relationship between language and the mise en scène, such moments of silence are both pronounced and telling. Indeed, as John Lee’s father explains in an interview with a television reporter, “Those silent eyes very loud” (85). What, then, do John Lee’s silent eyes bespeak? Although readers/spectators are unsure of the answer to this question, what is clear is that Yew offers little hope that the John Lees of this world will find a voice and a place from which to speak the doubly oppressed experiences of being gay and Asian American. What also is clear is that this play calls into question those cultural institutions (such as the legal system, the media, and the psychiatric community) that perpetuate these forms of oppression. In doing so, the play remarks upon the need for alternative identity formations that more accurately reflect the diversity within Asian American communities. But this play does not map the as-yet unrealized horizons of gay Asian American identities. Instead, the play simply, but persuasively, suggests that until these identity formations are explored, gay Asian American men will be sentenced to life without parole under the watchful supervision of others.
Bowling Green State University
1 Of course, critical responses to these (and other) plays by Yew are not wholly celebratory or condemnatory. Of Red, the Hartford Courant lauded, “Red shows a major talent, a man driven to delve into difficult themes”; similarly, USA Today heralded Red as “a weighty undertaking, but one beautifully distilled into three elegant, engaging characters”; and Variety called the play “compact and elegant” (qtd. in Swarns). However, actress Tsai Chin (Auntie Lindo from the film version of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club), who gave Yew the original idea for the play, complained that the piece “employed the very stereotypes [that Yew] deplores, creating a male character who performs as a woman and playing into Western stereotypes of Asian-American men as effete” (qtd. in Swarns). For more on these debates, see “Chay Yew” and Rachel L. Swarns.
2 For critical examinations of this debate within feminist theatre studies, see Sue-Ellen case, Feminism and Theatre; Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (esp. Chapter 2); and Patricia R. Schroeder, The Feminist Possibilities of Dramatic Realism. For critical examinations of this debate within gay/lesbian theatre studies, see John M. Clum, Still Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama; and Alan Sinfield, Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century.
3 To be fair, I should note that The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader was published in 1993, a time when both gay/lesbian and Asian American studies were newly emergent areas of inquiry within academe. However, other, more recent anthologies that are comparable in breadth and scope to Abelove, et al.’s point to the continuing silence around Asian American homosexualities among prominent gay and lesbian critics. Of the fifty-two essays included in Martin Duberman’s edited collection A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (1997), for example, only one (Yukiko Hanawa’s “inciting sites of political interventions: queer ‘n asian”) locates itself at the interstices of Asian American and Queer studies. This is a particularly startling fact given that the reader is intended “to make available some of the more substantial fruits” of an ongoing series of “conversations” at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS), a research institute located at the City University of New York that has “had a profound and legitimizing influence on the establishment of gay and lesbian studies as a discipline” (Duberman, back cover).
Similarly, Peter M. Nardi and Beth E. Schneider’s anthology, Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Reader (1998), features no articles on Asian American gays or lesbians among its forty-two essays, despite the editors’ somewhat lofty (and certainly unsubslantiated) claims that the reader points up “the complexities of identities and communities that are emergent and salient parts of both global and local societies” (xiii).
4 Again, to be fair, I should note that while the “field defining” anthologies have been reticent on the topic of “alternative sexualities,” two recent books suggest a small shift in the field of Asian American studies. David L. Eng’s Racial Castration engages psychoanalytic, feminist, and Queer theories to argue that “Asian American masculinity must always be read as an overdetermined symptom whose material existence draws its discursive sustenance from multiple structures and strategies relating to racialization, gendering, and (homo)sexualizing” (18). The second text, David L. Eng and Alice Y. Horn’s edited collection Q & A: Queer in Asian America, sets out to “[document] the history of [an emergent Queer Asian America], [contemplate] the many closets and disparate corners of queer Asian American existence, and [mobilize] some of the various communities claiming this label” (xi). Although each of these texts demonstrates that there is a concerted effort on the part of a few Asian American scholars to begin to chart the important dialogue that needs to happen between Asian American and gay scholarship, these two texts together still demonstrate how Queer concerns are ghettoized within Asian American scholarship, since they are published as separate books and not within the “field-defining” anthologies.
5 For a more detailed analysis of the complicated relationship(s) between embodiment and identity politics, see Michèle Aaron, ed., The Body’s Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and Contemporary Culture; Anne Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women; Susan Bordo, The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private; Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism; Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn, eds., Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism; Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, eds., Posthuman Bodies; Emily Martin, Flexible Bodies: The Role of Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS; and Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla, eds., Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture.
6 Indeed, it is often only through a coherent and stable definition of Asian American identity that Asian Americans can combat the forces of Sinophobia, Eurocentrism, and racism that threaten to excise them from the cultural fabric of America. As King-kok Cheung explains in his essay “Re-Viewing Asian American Literary Studies,” “Perhaps the most important reason to maintain the designation of ‘Asian American’ literature is not the presence of any cultural, thematic, or poetic unity but the continuing need to amplify marginalized voices, however dissimilar” (5). Cheung adds that “Asian American” is an umbrella term coined in the 1960s “to promote political solidarity and cultural nationalism” (2).
7 This act of silence and disavowal is, in large part, enabled by the history of symbolic castration that cuts across Asian American masculinities, rendering homosexuality unthinkable. Historical and theoretical consideration of the symbolic emasculation of Asian (American) males is vast; significant texts include King-kok Cheung’s “Of Mice and Men: Reconstructing Chinese American Masculinity”; David L. Eng’s Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America; Richard Fung’s “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn”; Marjorie Garber’s “The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestism”; Elaine H. Kirn’s ‘”Such Opposite Creatures’: Men and Women in Asian American Literature”; Jinqi Ling’s “Identity Crisis and Gender Politics: Reappropriating Asian American Masculinity”; James Moy’s Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America; and Sau-ling Cynthia Wong’s “Ethnicizing Gender: An Exploration of Sexuality as Sign in Chinese American Immigrant Literature.”
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