Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36, September 2014

Howard Chiang and Ari Larissa Heinrich (editors)

Queer Sinophone Cultures

London and New York: Routledge, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-415-62294-3 (hbk); xx + 236 pp

reviewed by Maud Lavin

  1. Sinophone studies, best known across disciplines through Shu-mei Shih's groundbreaking 2007 book Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific,[1] has spread rapidly and discursively, in the main through such major readers as Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, edited by Shih, Chien-Hsin Tsai, and Brian Bernards[2] and Sinophone Cinemas, edited by Audrey Yue and Olivia Khoo.[3] Now these have been joined by the significant 2014 collection Queer Sinophone Cultures.
  2. Why do Sinophone studies matter, and why do they matter to queer cultural issues? Broadly speaking, Shih has wrested the many cultures that involve Sinitic languages away from being viewed primarily as the 'Chinese diaspora' and the implication of these cultures orbiting around China. In doing so, she fruitfully opens the door for the analysis of radical translation (such as the hybridisation of languages and related cultures) and rooted cultural functions. Take, for instance, the consideration of Sinitic languages in Taiwanese cultures, how these entwine with issues of hegemony in Taiwan, with issues of postcolonialism, with relationships among indigenous populations and differently rooted Sinitic ones which in turn arrived at different periods of time. Analysing the complexities of how languages, cultures, and power interact within Taiwan then frees cultural analysts to reconsider the cultural and socioeconomic traffic between Taiwan and other Asian countries. In Visuality Shih articulated her interest in: 'the heteroglossia of what I call the Sinophone: a network of places of cultural production outside China and on the margins of China and Chineseness' (p. 4). Since then, Shih and others have expanded the defininition, and the scope of Sinophone studies now generally includes minority cultures within the People's Republic of China (PRC) as well.
  3. Sinophone studies is primarily a critical movement supporting cultural heterogeneity and against uniformity. It is also intent on subverting habits of looking at diasporic histories as fixed boundaries of identity politics. In this, there are significant precedents; Aihwa Ong's work comes quickly to mind. But Sinophone studies aims to be interdisciplinary and is already impacting on Asian studies in comprehensive ways.
  4. Shih and others have used the Sinophone lens to talk about the dissolution of Chinese-national identification over time, as for instance, with ethnic Chinese Singaporeans and Peranakans, whose cultures are and have long been resolutely separated from China and whose cultures, despite the Singaporean government's Speak Mandarin Campaign efforts, remain multi-lingual. Sinophone studies is about embracing the fracturing of Sinitic cultures in time and space and by doing so to be able, among other functions, to better see the workings of power in cultures. How very queer it is.
  5. In his articulate and useful introduction to Queer Sinophone Studies, Ari Larissa Heinrich outlines the plusses of bringing queer studies and Sinophone studies into conjunction, specifically how this move can bring to light explorations of non-normative genders and sexualities and their evolutions within quite varied Sinitic cultures. This volume includes such analyses as applied to case studies mainly set in Taiwan, Malayasia, Singapore and Hong Kong. By using Sinophone studies to move away from diasporic studies, while also considering non-normative genders and sexualites, this volume usefully brings up issues of different queering of kinship structures too and their intertwinings with socioeconomic conditions in various Asian nation-states.
  6. Heinrich's co-editor, Howard Chiang, provides an astute and far reaching overview of the already-existing intersections between Chinese studies and queer studies and highlights the moves toward cultural particularism and away from 'universalism' (read western-dominated concepts of universalism) or east/west dichotomising. His argument for the doors opened by bringing Sinophone studies into this mix is worth quoting:

      [A]lthough there are numerous textured accounts of what it means to be queer in 'Greater China' (including Taiwan and Hong Kong), the question of how 'queer' and 'Chinese' could operate simultaneously as mutually reinforcing, reciprocal counter-hegemonic indexes is rarely interrogated with respect to their compound marginality. Taking a cue from the intellectual endeavor of denaturalizing categories of gender and sexuality, a non-hegemonic subversive definition of 'Chineseness' is essential to the concept of queer Sinophonicity. It encompasses the perspectives of queer people living outside China and in locales not traditionally associated with Chinese studies (Singapore, Malayasia, etc.) and pays closer attention to the cultural differences between Sinitic-language communities on the margins of China (Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc.) and those within the People's Republic of China (PRC), rather than flattening out these unique cultural identifications with the bias of China-centrism (p. 31).

  7. For me, this welcome assertion of the heterogeneity of perspectives where different intersections of 'Chineseness' and queerness operate inevitably raises the question of why, to date, the different Sinophone studies readers have not yet included chapters on non-normative sexualities and genders within the whole span of PRC cultures. Perhaps it's too soon in the spread of Sinophone studies to do so since part of its intellectual and political force within academia has been to push away from the PRC. It seems this push is necessary to, among other reasons, encourage complex analyses of quite varied ethnic Chinese cultures around the globe in ways not dominated by considerations of the economic rise of the PRC. However given the significant disjunctures between the one-voice-aspirations of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the PRC and the highly generative heteroglossia of voices active in digital culture and other aspects of daily life, including voices involved in expanding experiences of genders and sexualities in China, it would seem that non-normative experiences of genders and sexualities within China would also be welcome into the Sinophone tent.
  8. This volume, however, focuses on the underexplored non-normative genders, sexualities, and kinship ties, and particularly their cultural representations, in Sinitic communities in Asia not (except in a lone case study in Alvin Ka Hin Wong's essay) in the PRC, as noted. And it does so invitingly. I found chapters 3 and 4 on aspects of queer Sinitic-Taiwanese cultures by Yin Wang and Tze-lan D. Sang respectively to be fascinating reads. Wang focuses on Zhu Tianxin's 1997 novella Gudu and the issues it raises of trans-national longing along a Taiwan-Japan trajectory and a failed remapping that results for its central character. Through his case study of Wu Jiwen's novel, The Fin-de-Siecle Boy Love Reader, 1996, Sang raises issues of cultural adaptation and hybridisation in Taiwanese queer literature of the 1990s, paying attention to popular Japanese aesthetics of Boys' Love stories and general issues of multiple transnational threads in high/mass literary mixes.
  9. While some essays in this volume seem to benefit from Sinophone studies mainly by revealing what comes to light when the long shadow of the PRC is (temporarily) removed, other essays seem to turn crucially on what Sinophone studies and queer studies considered together allow in the mappings of desire. And such essays are the highlights of this collection, for me. Chapter 5 by Lily Wong on 'Sinophone erotohistories: The Shaw brothers' queering of a transforming 'Chinese dream' in Ainu fantasies' is one such stand-out. Wong cites the common binary reading of Shaw movies post-1949 as diasporic in comparison with Hong Kong style and shows how Sinophone studies allows her to move away from this, 'I highlight the instability of the "Chinese dream" [Shaw brothers' cinema] markets and resituate it in relation to a larger multi-nodal network of Sinitic language-speaking people, and away from a monolithic center, be it China or Hong Kong' (p. 86). She looks in particular within the yanqing or soft-core pornographic genre of Shaw brothers' output at the case studies of the same-sex-romance movies Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, 1972, and its less popular remake Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan, 1984, and how the studio attempted to sell these fantasies. The reader welcomes Wong's clarity as well as ambition in how she defines the layering of queerness: 'I use 'queer' as a notion which connotes not only sexual identities on the margins of heteronormative conceptions, but also cultural identities straddling the edges of major discourses of nationhood or modernity' (p. 90). For my fellow mass culture scholars, it's worth noting that Wong's consideration of the mass media industry and its attempts to appeal to a varied Sinitic set of viewerships reverberates well with Chua Beng Huat's development of the concept Pop China in such influential works as his recent book Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture.[4]
  10. Similarly, Alvin Ka Hin Wong's essay on 'Queer Sinophone studies as anti-capitalist critique' is also a bold use of Sinophone methodology to queer geographic longings as well as sexual desires. Wong employs the writings of mainland China novelist Chen Ran and Hong Kong author Wong Bik-wan to show how—speaking generally—both upset normative narratives of nationalism, homeland and sexuality in favour of homosociality, homosexuality and queer refusals. He persuasively argues that 'any Sinophone de-centering critique of China-centrism can and must take on the critique of the mutations of late capitalism from within the social margin of China' (p. 114). As mentioned, Wong is the only writer in this collection to include China material as one of his main case studies. He does so without resorting to originary myths or trumping his other material or enforcing legends of diasporic kinship; on the contrary he uses this mainland example and his Hong Kong literary case study to sharply question the mythology of conformist and controlling heteronormative and 'homeland-normative' kinship structures.
  11. Continuing with the queering kinship theme, E.K. Tan explores the controversial topic of incestuous teacher-student sex in the 2007 Singaporean film Soros, and also closeness and distance in a mother-son relationship. Created by Singaporean directors Loo Zihan and Kan Lume, Soros faced censorship by the Board of Film Censors for three scenes depicting homosexual sex acts. Usefully Tan also parallels the film's troubling of narrative norms to do with kinship with the actual journey through and beyond the Singaporean censorship it travelled and its afterlife on international film festival circuits.
  12. Two chapters on the Chinese-Malaysian filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang's work follow: one by Guo-Juin Hong and the other by Kenneth Chan. Taken together these two essays beautifully address issues of movement, cruising, migration of workers and transporting desires. Chan's attention to Chinese-Malaysian socio-economic context is yet another welcome example of how Sinophone-inflected method can usefully move away from a diasporic frame to a more rooted cultural one that illuminates ethnicity and class issues.
  13. A well-structured anthology, Queer Sinophone Cultures then moves fluidly to Wai Siam Hee and Ari Larissa Heinrich's essay on 'Transgender consciousness and Sinophonicity in the films of Yasmin Ahmad.' The authors explore Ahmad's filmic trilogy Orked about the romance between a Malay-Muslim girl and a Chinese-Malaysian boy for its queerness of mixed ethnic affiliations. They toggle between this explicit narrative and also the widely held perceptions of Ahmad's inclusion of semi-autobiographical signs in the films. Ahmad, who died in 2009, self-defined as a woman and was reputed to be of 'transgender, transsexual, or intersex experience' (p. 179). Hee and Heinrich's analysis highlights how the film trilogy's representation of the discomforts of hybridity and the difficulties of desire contrast with the national political position of multiculturalism. And in the anthology's last case-study essay, Andrea Bachner explores 'Queer affiliations: Mak Yan Yan's Butterfly as Sinophone romance,' to draw out the romantic and geographic instability conveyed by this 2004 lesbian-themed Hong Kong film. Usefully for visual studies, she uses metaphors of visibility and invisibility in her investigation.
  14. The reader particularly appreciates Shu-mei Shih's epilogue to the collection, 'On the conjunctive method,' which clearly asserts how the 'and' functions between queer studies and Sinophone studies to illuminate 'the structural affinity between queer studies as the study of margins and gender and sexuality and Sinophone studies as the study of margins of nations and nationalness' (p. 224). And Shih also echoes Howard Chiang's hope that the queer and the Sinophone continue as well to denaturalise each other and that the instability of their joining prevents either category from 'becoming hypostasized or reified' (p. 224). Such hope, its pushing against both disciplinary and diasporic-narrative rigidities, to me, is one of the most effective and moving ones I see regularly being raised in Sinophone studies, from the publication of Shih's Visuality and Identity to the present. Particularly in literary and film criticism, Sinophone studies has powerfully interrupted analyses of diasporic mythologising to render the spatial, temporal and other demarcations around Sinitic cultures unstable and to invite rooted analyses of the operations of their norms and related counter-movements. It is indeed a wonderfully queer development. And it's a pleasure to see the Sinophone and the queer well traced here, in this volume, in their elastic conjoining.


    [1] Shu-mei Shih, Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.

    [2] Shu-mei Shih, Chien-Hsin Tsai and Brian Bernards (eds), Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2013.

    [3] Audrey Yue and Olivia Khoo (eds), Sinophone Cinemas, Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    [4] Chua Beng Huat, Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 07 October 2014 1052