A queer Asian-Canadian

video artist in Berlin

revista nós


An interview with Wayne Yung

by Yann Beauvais


Yann Beauvais: Could you speak about the question of race, identity, stereotypes, and colonialism within gay culture?


Wayne Yung: Although homosexuality has always existed in many cultures around the world, modern “gay” culture has been defined by white men, from New York to San Francisco, Berlin to Paris. Gay images of masculine beauty focus on the white man’s face and body, as seen in the vast majority of Western gay porn. Nonwhite men are rarely seen, and then often in stereotypical positions: the Asian man is subservient, the Latino is hot-blooded, the black man is reduced to a giant phallus.


Gay culture is certainly influenced by the mainstream culture surrounding it, including its racism and postcolonial attitudes. The special thing about gay culture is the focus on a liberated sexuality, where one can defy the social conventions, crossing the boundaries defined by class and race. So a white man and a brown man, who might never meet at work or school, could very well meet in bed.


And yet you still bring all your everyday attitudes to bed with you, including your racism, mental stereotypes and sense of privilege. So we’re expected to speak a European language in bed, and not an Asian language. The white man often has more money, so he’ll pay for the bar tab, the restaurant bill, the hotel room, and in return he’ll also make the decisions (where and when to go, etc.)


In my case, language and class have less effect, since I speak native English and get paid in euros. So then it’s about my skin colour, and the assumptions that other men have when they see my Asian face. It often confuses them, that I have a brown skin but a Western mentality. I’ll pay my own way, and argue circles around him in English. Some white men don’t like this, because they think I’m not “Asian” enough (I should be quiet, obedient, etc.), while other men are thrilled to find an Asian who’s NOT so obedient and mysteriously quiet.


In this case, the question of “Asian identity” revolves around what you mean by the word “Asian”. Is it skin colour? Birthplace? Language? Cultural attitudes? I was born and raised in Canada, and I hate it when a white man assumes I’m an expert in karate and Chinese calligraphy. I identify myself as “Chinese-Canadian”, which is not the same as “Chinese”, and is much closer to “Canadian” (I often forget to include the word “Chinese-”, and my brother’s children will probably be just “Canadian”). I speak native English, but can throw in a few Cantonese phrases; I sometimes cook spaghetti, sometimes rice; and I know damned well what my rights are, and will speak my mind loudly. So is this “Asian”?


YB: Could you speak as well about the relation of Chinese culture within Canadian ones? And how do you articulate this within “The Queen’s Cantonese”?


WY: Chinese have been in Canada for well over one hundred years, and now form about 30% of Vancouver’s population. The city was originally well-known for being very “British”, but is now well-known for being very “Asian”. In “The Queen’s Cantonese” I made the Chinese aspect of Vancouver very extreme, heavily infiltrating the gay scene with Cantonese-speaking characters. But this is just a fantasy of Vancouver (Christopher Isherwood once said his “Berlin Stories” described the city as he wished it was, while ignoring the boring everyday realities). Certainly there’s a Cantonese-speaking gay scene in Vancouver, but we don’t actually have our own bars and saunas like in my video.


In truth, Chinese-Canadians are assimilating very fast into mainstream Canadian culture; my generation generally speaks little Chinese, and I think the next generation will only speak English. It’s a natural consequence of a school system where everything is taught in English, and we study Shakespeare instead of Confucius. Chinese culture has heavily influenced the cuisine of Vancouver, but less so the culture. Our immigrant parents are still very Chinese, but the Canadian-born children are essentially Canadian, with just a few Asian influences. I would compare our position with that of black Americans: they share the same language as white Americans, and although they may have a distinct (sub-)culture, it can’t exactly be called “African”.


YB: In nearly all your filmmaking, you use wit and comedy to question the notion of race, role, and attitude within the queer culture.


WY: Although my analysis is very political, I know that most audiences are not very interested in political films. Most people just want to see sex and comedy, so I use that in my work to make it more accessible. But certainly there’s always a layer of politics underneath the entertainment. Putting Asian men in the central role is already a very subversive act in North America, where Asian men are mostly either ridiculed or ignored. Why can’t the Asian man be the romantic hero, the love interest?


Certainly you could point to the gay cinema of Asia (such as “The Wedding Banquet”, “Farewell to My Concubine” and “Happy Together”), where Asian people do play the central roles. But what has that got to do with me, growing up in Canada, living now in Germany? My concerns are here, not in Asia. The cinema of Asia doesn’t address the racism that I’ve seen on the streets of Vancouver and Cologne. That’s why I (and other Asians living in the West) need to make our own stories, and not rely on imports from Asia.


YB: Could you speak about your filmmaking and its relation within queer culture, queer cinema? Could we speak of a queer Asian cinema opened by Richard Fung in Canada, and renewed by newer generations here and there?


WY: Richard Fung was the first one to use video to describe the issues of gay Asian men, and played a major role in inspiring me and other other gay Asian directors. Gay Asian films and videos have been mostly well accepted in the gay film festival scene, with works from the English-speaking world emerging first, and then later works from Asia too. However, it still remains largely a concern of Asian directors; non-Asian directors rarely include any Asian actors in their works.


There are probably about thirty film and video makers in the world who have shown specifically gay Asian characters on screen. This is from the thousands of other directors who show gay characters of other races, the huge majority being white characters. Most gay Asian directors know each other personally, since we meet at film festivals, which often put all the gay Asian films into one special program. This “ghetto programming” has both good and bad sides: on the one hand, it’s an easy way to get an overview of the gay Asian scene in one show, but on the other hand, it means other programs (the “sex” program, the “family” program, the “religion” program, etc.) can remain all white.


YB: What is your relationship with Asian queer culture, contemporary cinema and video?


WY: There remains a very strong division between gay Asian films from Asia, and gay Asian films from the West. The issues are simply too different. Western Asians have to deal with racism, which is less of an issue for a Japanese gay in Tokyo. All young men in South Korea (including gays) are required to serve in the military, which is not required in North America. So I can’t really say that I particularly connect with the gay films of Asia; I enjoy the work as an outsider spectator, but I’m certainly not an insider.


Furthermore, Western gay Asian films and videos come almost exclusively from English-speaking countries like USA, Canada, UK, and Australia, reflecting historical patterns of immigration. But what about Asians in France, Germany, and the Netherlands? What about the Asians in South America? I’ve seen surprisingly little work in this area, and would love to see more.


Revista Nós Contemporâneos Nº 50,

ed. Edson Barrus (Paris: BarrusMÁIMPRESSÃOeditora, 2007),

5 pages, unnumbered

Wayne Yung © 2019

Background Photo © Holger Knote