Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Chris Berry, Fran Martin and Audrey Yue (editors)

Mobile Cultures:
New Media in Queer Asia

Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press,
2003, 306 pp.
ISBN 0-8223-3087-3 (paper) US$22.95
ISBN 0-8223-3050-4 (cloth) US$79.95

reviewed by John (Song Pae) Cho

  1. The collection Mobile Cultures: New Media in Queer Asia, edited by Chris Berry, Fran Martin and Audrey Yue, forms an important addition to the emerging body of scholarship on 'Queer Asia.' According to the editors, Time magazine reported in March 2001 that 'in the past five years the Internet has done to Asia's gay and lesbian communities what Stonewall enabled in the West over the past twenty-five years' (p. 2). Certainly, the transformation of many Asian states from military dictatorships to democracies, the growth of technological/media infrastructures and the expansion of consumer/image-oriented markets have resulted in 'gay and lesbian cultures' within Asia that deserve more critical attention.
  2. Yet the proclamation in Time also betrays the very presumption of Western gay avant-gardism that the authors in this collection are keen to refute. Rather than repeating, like a broken record, an earlier moment of gay American history, homoerotic cultures within Asia can be said to emerge out of and possess their own social-historical dynamic. Existing within the coeval time frame as the West, they neither lag behind nor race ahead of Queer West, but coexist alongside it. In other words, as the articles in the collection amply demonstrate, mobile gay and lesbian cultures within Asia do not constitute the Other of Western gay modernity, but exist as their own subjects, within the multiply interpenetrated and overlapping spaces of Asia's postcolonial modernity.
  3. The articles by David Mullaly, 'Queerly embodying the good and the normal,' Baden Offord, 'Singaporean queering the internet: toward a new form of cultural transmission of rights discourse,' and Sandip Roy, 'From khush list to gay Bombay: virtual webs of real people,' view the Internet as mainly a positive phenomenon that has empowered the gay and lesbian population in Asia. Mullaly examines how a Thai Web site called 'xq28' (after the gay gene), 'allows define selfhood according to their own interests' (pp. 116-17). Offord discusses how the Internet provides 'a space for intersubjective and intercultural communication' (p. 133) between gays and lesbians in Singapore, enabling them to create a discourse of citizenship and belonging. Roy explores how diasporic South Asians use the Internet to try to create 'a space and visibility for South Asian issues inside the largely white gay mainstream' (p. 183), and to fulfill a variety of social desires, including acquiring information about upcoming parties in Delhi. If the Internet is 'a key strategy of survival' for queer Singaporeans (Offord, p. 134), for gay men in rural India, the Internet is 'like manna from heaven' (Roy, p. 184).
  4. What these celebratory articles of the Internet tend to elide, however, are precisely the issues of translation and subjectification that other authors in the collection take up in relation to media usage or consumption. For Mark McLelland in 'Japanese queerscapes: global/local intersections on the internet,' Lrissa Hjorth in 'Pop and Ma: the landscape of Japanese commodity characters and subjectivity' and Veruska Sabuco in 'Guided fan fiction: western "readings" of homosexual-themed texts,' the question of how different social populations 'read' or 'translate' diverse media texts becomes a central problematic. For instance, McLelland examines how Japanese women consume YAOI and Nyūháfu sites in surprising ways. YAOI is a 'genre of Japanese women's fiction/art dedicated to graphic descriptions of "boy love" (sex between boys and young men)' (McLelland: p. 52); Nyūháfu ['New half'] are 'transgendered men who work in the sex and entertainment industry' (McLelland, p. 53).
  5. Hjorth, meanwhile, explores how Japanese consumers employ the concept of 'ma' to interpret and appropriate the various meanings of Japan's most famous commodity, the character Hello Kitty. Hjorth explains: 'Traditionally defined as a space to be contemplated (between images, words, or concepts), it (ma) has more recently been redefined as a rhetorical device connoting conceptual ambiguity, which in turn relates to the ambiguity of sexual codes in contemporary Japanese culture' (p. 159). Sabuco further extends this issue of 'translation' to Western fans' consumption of Japanese-language manga. Often inept in Japanese language, they engage in what Sabuco terms 'creative (mis)reading.' This refers to 'the process of making up the story of a manga from the sequence of pictures and pages and from the few words and sentences each fan is able to understand' (Sabuco, p. 70).
  6. All these deliberations on 'translation' and 'creative (mis)reading' are important in opening up the question of how consumer subjectivities are constructed in unexpected ways. For example, the character of Hello Kitty, with its 'passive, voiceless, asexual, childlike' (p. 162) nature, seems to uphold rigid gender and sexual stereotypes for women. Yet, in uncovering how female consumers assign the symbolic meaning of 'girl friendships' to Hello Kitty, Hjorth demonstrates how oppositional meanings can reside even in the most seemingly innocuous consumer items. Such identifications, in turn, signal the shifting terrain of gender and sexual identifications within Japanese society.
  7. The articles by Tom Boellstorff, 'I knew it was me: mass media, "globalization," and lesbian and gay Indonesians,' and 'Syncretism and synchronicity: queer 'n' Asian cyberspace in 1990s Taiwan and Korea,' by Chris Berry and Fran Martin, go furthest in situating the cultural practice of meaning-making within the everyday lives of their informants. Boellstorff asks how is it that 'certain people in contemporary Indonesia, the world's fourth-largest country by population after China, India, and the United States, come to occupy the subject-positions lesbi and gay, which appear to originate in the West?' (p. 22). The answer lies in what Boellstorff terms 'dubbing culture'—'a contingent process by which incomplete mass-mediated messages animate a sexual self felt to be fully modern and authentic, yet at a disjuncture from the local' (p. 22). The authors of 'Syncretism and synchronicity' also question how Korean and Taiwanese gays, lesbians and transgenders use the Internet in their lives. In so doing, they refute many of the unexamined myths of the 'Internet,' including the perception that it is a 'disembodied' space, radically separate and different from the off-line world, and that it produces a homogenized and commodified global gay culture, rather than proliferating differences.
  8. What is clear is, if we are to account for the genuine changes that are occurring within 'Asia' and the political stakes involved in these changes, it's imperative that we also situate the 'local' and the 'specific' within the 'national,' 'regional' and 'global capital.' As Olivia Khoo's 'Sexing the city: Malaysia's new "cyberlaws" and cyberjaya's queer success' and Audrey Yue's 'Paging "New Asia": sambal is a feedback loop, coconut is a code, rice is a system' illustrate, the production of gay and lesbian identities and cultures in Asia cannot be separated from either the regionalisation and globalisation of capitalism, the (re)surgence of 'Asia' as a discursive and political-economic category, and the governmentality of (post)colonial Asian nation-states. For instance, Khoo demonstrates how the building of an ambitious technology zone called 'Cyberjaya' within Malaysia is irrevocably linked to the discourse of 'Asian Values.' Malaysia's Mahathir government 'want[s] both to modernize Malaysia, advocating liberal trade in the Asia pacific and implementing export-oriented economic strategies, and yet keep Malaysia tied to the notion of Asian values by rallying against 'Western' liberalism and foreign influence' (p. 229). This 'Western liberalism,' in all likelihood, includes homosexuality.
  9. Yue's article discuses how the discourse of 'New Asia' coincides with the rise of a transnational 'New Asian class,' which 'celebrates cultural citizenship through the consumption of shared Asian values' (p. 246). Finally, Katrien Jacobs' article, 'Queer voyeurism and the pussy-matrix in Shu Lea Cheang's Japanese pornography,' demands that we construct a 'Queer Asian' politics befitting 'Queer Asia,' which 'departs from the much-hyped "newness" of new media and liberatory queer discourses that attend the World Wide Web' (p. 201).
  10. The articles in Mobile Cultures: New Media in Queer Asia form a valuable contribution to the complicated debates surrounding 'globalisation,' 'technology,' 'consumption,' 'body' and 'area studies' in academia today. Popularly seen as the site of an 'exotic,' 'Oriental' sexuality or 'despotic Asian states,' 'Queer Asia' fails to arouse the interest of many queer scholars. Yet, even after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Asia contains some of the most spectacular 'success stories' of global neoliberalism.[1] Moreover, the various Asian governments' experiments in information technology and neoliberal governance have made Asia into 'one of the most intensely consumer-friendly, commodity-saturated, technologically-sophisticated, Internet-savvy regions of the world.'[2] This book makes a strong move toward addressing these daily experiments in body, gender and sexuality that are occurring within 'Queer Asia' in tandem with certain Asian states' rise as economic and technological powers.


    [1] Karen Kelsky, 'Queering Asia,' panel abstract for the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, 15-19 December 2004, Atlanta.

    [2] Kelsky, 'Queering Asia.'


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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