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13 Jan 2009

Book review: Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong

Nigel Collett reviews Helen Leung's book, the first volume from 'Queer Asia' - a groundbreaking series from Hong Kong University Press.

Title: Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong
Author: Helen Leung Hok-sze
Publisher: Hong Kong University Press, 2008

Helen Leung's book is the first volume of the new series from Hong Kong University Press, 'Queer Asia', a pioneering undertaking which links the Press with a group of academics from universities as far apart as Hong Kong, London, Australia and Canada, and which aims to focus 'on non-normative sexuality and gender cultures, identities and practices in Asia'. The series seeks to provide an Asian balance to 'queer theory', hitherto perhaps a very heavily western-oriented body of work. Leung is an Assistant Professor in women's studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, but in this book her interest is in Hong Kong, and in particular in the examination of what its cinema has to say about its own 'queer' culture.

Readers unfamiliar with this burgeoning academic genre may wish to note here that 'queer theory' had its roots in earlier studies into homosexual politics, writing and history, and has sought to reclaim the previously pejorative term for homosexual, 'queer', a word now used by some to encompass the still growing number of groups of the sexually diverse, groups otherwise subsumed under the acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) or, locally in Hong Kong, in the Chinese term tongzhi, or 'comrade.' However, 'queer theory' has long outgrown its roots to emerge as the study of almost anything that can be described as marginal in society, though more usually of the sexual. The cynical might also note here that this is a field largely dominated by erstwhile teachers of literature, and one of the most telling criticisms that may be made of the body of work that it has produced is that it is all too frequently couched in the detached, esoteric, whimsical and not terribly useful jargon of literary criticism.

Leung manages, mostly, and certainly in her more closely argued chapters, to break sufficiently free of this jargon to make her book worth exploring. She is particularly good on the way Hong Kong cinema has treated the lives of the sexually diverse; for those with the eyes to see, and she is one of those, there are indeed sexual 'undercurrents' everywhere. She writes insightfully and with verve of the local cultural scene, both pre- and post-handover. Whilst discussion of 'postcolonialism', a marked feature of 'queer theory', may irk many, it is apposite here. To be sure, it is a term the relevance of which steadily erodes as colonialism fades into memory, and one redolent in itself of a view of the world centred upon the west (one can perhaps quote Leung here, herself quoting the film critic, Longtin's book, Post-97 and Hong Kong Cinema: 'the more we are intent on ending an era, the more we are extending that self-same era'). In Hong Kong's case, though, it has its uses as an analytical tool. Much of Hong Kong's culture prior to the handover was saturated with fears of what would happen after 1997, and, as Leung points out, since the handover much of that culture has demonstrated an anxiety about just where in the world Hong Kong is going now.

In her first chapter, 'Sex and the Postcolonial City', Leung reviews both Hong Kong films which might not immediately strike the reader as relevant to her theme, like The Infernal Affairs Trilogy, and more clearly pertinent films like Stanley Kwan's Still Love You After All These Years. She introduces the idea of parts of the city as 'queer spaces', areas of the margins, of transit, of the struggle between the normative and the transgressive. Her discussion here leads neatly into an analysis of the city as cruising ground, as portrayed in Bishonen, and as a unified 'queer space' in itself, as interconnected as are all the characters in Hold You Tight. Itself marginal to the city, Lamma Island allows the marginalised space to work out their lives in the two films, Island Tales and The Map of Sex and Love. Concluding the chapter, Leung turns to the political, and examines the view of the film Ho Yuk: Let's Love Hong Kong as to what it means to patriotically 'love Hong Kong' when Hong Kong includes elements that the establishment would prefer not to recognise.

'Between Girls', Leung's second chapter, looks at Hong Kong's tradition of writing about (mostly school girl) same-sex love and links this interestingly with the male betrayal common in horror movies, dissecting the movie Ab-Normal, a story of photography, trauma and murder. Her discussion of other films with lesbian themes is more conventional, but such is far from the case with her analysis of the frequent appearances of sexual crossings to be found in Hong Kong cinema. Here, her discussion is both amusing and complex, at times, even, painfully sharp; her tart dismissal of Sam Winter's mistaken description of the plot of Swordsman 2 is a refreshing touch. She unravels the dubious sexualities in both this film and in Portland Street Blues, the fourth part of the Young and Dangerous series, both films having apparently opposite themes (the first in which a martial artist takes on a woman's form to perfect his power and the second where a female triad boss rises to power using her masculine strength). These 'trans formations', as she puts it, she sees abounding but unseen in the culture, 'undercurrents' as she would have it, indeed.

Leung is at her best in her chapter on Leslie Cheung's persona and his place in gay culture, 'In Queer Memory'. She cuts through the debate on Leslie's sexuality to isolate the quality that made (and still makes) him exotic, fascinating and vastly attractive to his fans, both male and female, the multi facets, in fact, that helped make him a star. This she attributes, rightly, in my view, to the undercurrents in his performances and his public face, his continual teasing and ensnaring of his audience with his ambivalence, his adamant refusal to commit. Leslie seems to have instinctively felt that whatever was at the heart of the cloud of unknowing which he generated around himself could only be less interesting than its mystery. Dirk Bogarde was there before him in this, radiating, just the same way, much of his star quality in diffused light. This chapter is of great subtlety and is the most attractively written of the book. It will quickly become, I am sure, one of the sources for the discussion of Leslie's life and work.

In her last chapter, 'Do It Yourself', Leung examines the autobiographical works of the marginal, turning, here, to the written word (specifically, Lucetta Kam's collection, Lunar Desires: Her Same-Sex Love, In Her Own Words), a cultural project (the Women's Coalition of Hong Kong's 2004 project, 'In the Tracks of Their Love: Oral History of Women Who Could fall in Love With Women in Hong Kong') and an Internet radio show ('What the Hell Kind of Tongzhi Movement'). She sees in these sources evidence of a blurring of boundaries and thus of the impossibility, perhaps, for an academic such as herself, of ever managing a complete analysis of Hong Kong's sexual rainbow. Disarmingly, she modestly leaves these disparate voices to conclude her study.

Undercurrents is an excellent start to Hong Kong University Press's new series. It is not a complete survey of Hong Kong's tongzhi culture, past and present; it makes no pretence to that, nor in its 120 pages would that have been possible. It does set some very clear signposts for future issues, adds greatly to the standard of discourse on Hong Kong's tongzhi culture and demonstrates a stimulating depth of understanding, knowledge and argument. It is a book which will, it could be hoped, engender much argument and for all these reasons is to be welcomed.

This review was first published in the Asia Review of Books.

Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong can be purchased on the HKU Press website and in shops. Hong Kong: Page One, Dymocks Hopewell Centre Wanchai, and a few campus bookshops including HKU, CUHK, Baptist University, Poly University. Singapore: Kinokuniya and Select Books. Taiwan: San Min Books and at the Taipei Book Fair in Feb 2009.

Reader's Comments

1. 2009-01-15 17:44  
probably one of the most in-depth and serious article here on Fridae. Nice job.


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