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1 Aug 2005

tan chong kee

Fridae speaks to Dr Tan Chong Kee, Singapore's best-known figure in civil society activism, about his upcoming talk on Aug 2 which challenges the notion that same-sex love is contrary to Asian values.

Best known as being the founder of the now-defunct Singapore Internet Community (SinterCom), Dr Tan Chong Kee founded the web site which provided a platform for discussions of issues to take place openly.

Dr Tan Chong Kee
Set up in 1994 while he was studying Chinese Literature in Taipei after obtaining two degrees from Cambridge University in Computer Science, the web site was eventually closed in 2001 after the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) asked Sintercom to register itself as a political website despite earlier assurances that it did not have to.

Currently the Chairman of non-profit theatre company, The Necessary Stage, the 42-year-old also holds a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Stanford University in the United States.

'Same-Sex Love In Classical Chinese Literature' (in Mandarin) will be held on Aug 2 at Expos, 208 South Bridge Road, #01-00 at 7.30 pm as part of IndigNation, Singapore's first Pride month. The series of events is held in "response to the unreasonable ban on parties for gays and lesbians and heavy censorship of publications serving this community."

æ: As part of the IndigNation line-up, your Aug 2 talk in Mandarin 'Same-Sex Love In Classical Chinese Literature' is to "challenge the notion that same-sex love is contrary to Asian culture." The publicity material stated that you will "trace and explore various ancient classical Chinese texts on same-sex love to demonstrate that same-sex love has been an integral part and parcel of Asian life." What inspired you to want to broach this topic?
Chong Kee: Same-sex love has been very misunderstood in Singapore, and I have heard on too many occasions that it is contrary to conservative Asian values. If one has any understanding of traditional Chinese culture, he or she would know that before the Song dynasty, there was no law or taboo against same-sex intimacy. The Song dynasty law was not homophobic but was aimed at stopping male prostitution that was getting out of control, which shows just how prevalent homosexuality was. The earliest discernable homophobia in China appeared after her contact with the West. Homophobia is a western imperialist import to China. With the rise of Asia and especially of China in the twenty-first century, it is high time we face up to our Western imperialist brainwashing and get re-acquainted with the wisdom and tolerance of authentic traditional Asian cultures and values.

æ: What is the significance of holding the talk in Mandarin?
Chong Kee: The material that I will quote is from ancient Chinese texts and it is natural to want to do so in Mandarin. It would also save me from having to do a lot of translation. Furthermore, although there is a large quantity of public discussion and research on homosexuality in the Chinese-speaking world (China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) over the last ten years; for some strange reason, practically none of them made their way to the Chinese media in Singapore. Holding the talk in Mandarin thus also serves the purpose of filling in a small part of this huge gap.

æ: Homosexuality has often been claimed to be a Western import by various Asian societies and governments although ancient Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Middle Eastern historical text have documented same-sex love and homosexual practices. Why do you think it is so? What effect does that have on Asian gay and lesbian communities today?

Chong Kee: Same-sex love has existed in all human societies throughout all history. No country or region of the world can possibly claim it as their own invention. What the West can legitimately claim as an important originator of, is homophobia, the irrational fear of same-sex intimacy. During the period of European and American colonisation of the rest of the world, as well as the later period when Asia rushed to modernise by aping the West, homophobia was foisted onto or variously adopted by Asians as part of the Western cultural export. Being an immigrant society where its people were mainly traders and coolies rather than scholars, Singapore is a particularly notable example of a country where the people lost touch with their own culture, and mistook the British culture values that they grew up in as "Asian values." Thus, when the West began to jettison such outmoded ideas in later part of 20th century, Singaporeans with cultural amnesia again mistook the value of tolerance for diversity as a decadent Western import.

What this double mis-recognisation has done, is to alienate Asians from our own rich cultural heritage of respect and acceptance towards diversity, and to induce intolerance and social strife between different groups of people. Having said that, I must emphasise that I am not advocating a return to traditional Chinese values, as they are products of an agricultural society and some of them are no longer relevant to today's world. What I aim to do is to de-mystify traditional Chinese culture and values, so that it cannot be used to justify homophobia.
æ: Is the distinction between same-sex love and homosexuality intentional? And why?
Chong Kee: Homosexuality is a word that focuses on sex. It is a more clinical term used to describe behaviour devoid of human emotions. Same-sex love is a term that focuses on love and makes it clear that homosexuality is about much more than just sex. This is not to say that sex is not a vital component of love. Unfortunately, the reality is that a homophobic society often uses sex as a means to stigmatise gays and lesbians. Society calls a man and women who love each other a "couple," and two men or two women who love each other "homosexuals." I would like to see a society where everyone who loves each other are called "couples" but before that happens, I prefer to use the term same-sex love to underline this point.

æ: Other than the well-known story of how Emperor Ai cut off his own sleeve in order not to awaken his lover, Dong Xian. Can you briefly highlight other stories of interest as well as stories between women?
Chong Kee: Besides Cut Sleeve, other well-known Chinese idioms are 'sharing peach' (fen tao2), and 'Long Yang zhi hao' (Long Yang's predilection). I will briefly relate these stories in my talk.

It is recorded that in Han dynasty, imperial concubines could pair up as a couple and the pairing often involves lesbian sex. The term used to describe this phenomenon was "dui4 shi2." I will also discuss other forms of love between women in my talk.

æ: Why do think the history of homosexuality has been so deliberately overlooked?
Chong Kee: It was only overlooked in modern times with the import of Western, or more specifically Judeo-Christian, homophobia. I will discuss several classical novels showing that same-sex love was simply matter of fact everyday occurrence during the Ming and Qing dynasty.

æ: How acceptable and widespread was homosexuality in dynastic times? Was it only acceptable for emperors and men of high social standing, or was it equally acceptable and practiced by the masses?
Chong Kee: It was just as prevalent among the masses.

æ: Do you think that lesbianism was as common although it might not have been as well documented?
Chong Kee: The problem is that women have much lower social standing in traditional Chinese culture and thus are much less often mentioned in books. This makes records of lesbianism much rarer. In the absence of records, I would prefer not to speculate based on very limited texts.

æ: According to Bret Hinsch in Passions of the Cut Sleeve, the backlash against homosexuality began sometime during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). For the first time in Chinese history, laws were enacted to criminalise homosexual rape as well as consensual homosexual relations. What do you think caused this?
Chong Kee: This work on Qing law was first done by Vivien Ng in an essay titled: "Ideology and Sexuality: Rape Laws in Qing China" in Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 46, No. 1 (1987): 57-70.

First it wasn't a backlash. It was a change in the traditional Chinese laissez faire attitude towards sexual matters, and a rare instance in Chinese history where what happens consensually in the household is criminalised. Traditional Chinese penal code made a clear distinction between public and private spheres. The Chinese patriarch had jurisdiction over his household that the state rarely intervened. The term was "Jia Ja3" - law of the household. Legislating against same-sex relation within the household was a departure from that tradition.

æ: Do you think that there are homosexual undertones in Chinese classics such as Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber?
Chong Kee: Yes, and I'll likely discuss some of that in my talk.
æ: What is the achievement you are most proud of?
Chong Kee: I guess I'm best known for Sintercom and other civil society work like The Working Committee (an informal grouping of Singaporeans who in 1998/9 worked together to identify and mobilise present and future roles for civil society activities), MediaWatch, etc. What I find most meaningful for myself is my personal journey towards love and wisdom that I'm still undertaking day by day.

æ: If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
Chong Kee: Get over my internalised homophobia sooner and live life more fully from an earlier age. But I must say that even that internalised homophobia had taught me a lot about myself and humbled me to the complexity of the human condition.

æ: How are you misunderstood?
Chong Kee: I think my friends know me very well, but some strangers have the tendency to imagine that I'm either a rebel (because I speak my mind) or a cop-out (because I used to believe that the Singapore state is bound by self-interest to serve the people of Singapore).

I see myself as someone who tries hard to follow his own heart with integrity.

æ: How do you spend your Sundays?
Chong Kee: Pumping iron, practicing on the piano, watching movies, reading books, visiting my sister and goddaughter.

æ: Tell us one of your fantasies?
Chong Kee: I wake up one day and the world reckons how rich it is by how much love and connection each can give, and not how much money each can accumulate.

æ: What about yourself would you like to change the most?
Chong Kee: I have a tendency to be a little tongue-tied when I'm attracted to a guy. Would like to be able to effortlessly walk over, look him in the eye and say: "I like you, what's your name?" Working on that right now!

æ: What was the most important thing that happened to you in the last 12 months?
Chong Kee: Deciding that I have a full life to live and starting to live it.

æ: What do you think is important in a relationship?
Chong Kee: Kindness, honesty, trust, commitment, and of course love.

æ: What (or who) turns you on?
Chong Kee: Intelligent hunks who are emotionally mature.

æ: What's your biggest guilty pleasure?
Chong Kee: I don't feel guilty about pleasure anymore. I do like Hollywood summer blockbusters so I guess that could qualify as one.

æ: What is your vision for the gay community?
Chong Kee: That we can all come together to help and support each other, and spread our unique gift and love to everyone else around us.

æ: Tell us about a cause that you support?
Chong Kee: Every individual should have the opportunity to grow to our fullest potential.

æ: Who would your dream date be if you were straight for a day?
Chong Kee: My best woman friend Louisa - a Harvard Kennedy School grad who is fluent in classical Chinese. We used to write letters to each other in Gu3 Wen2 and spent hours talking about literature and culture.

æ: Tell us something even your mother doesn't know.
Chong Kee: I am a closet novelist who only managed to produce mediocre short stories.

'Same-Sex Love In Classical Chinese Literature' (in Mandarin) will be held on Aug 2 at Expos, 208 South Bridge Road, #01-00 at 7.30 pm.

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