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13 Jan 2009

Queering Asia

With the rise of Asian queer studies as an academic field of study in its own right, a new Queer Asia book series has been launched by the Hong Kong University Press with the first volume Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong by Helen Hok-Sze Leung now on sale.

Note: 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).

Back in July 2005, the 1st International Conference of Asia Queer Studies, 'Sexualities, Genders and Rights in Asia', was held in the Ambassador Hotel in Bangkok. The group of academics who organised the event came from Thailand, Australia and the United Kingdom. They aimed at creating a focus for Asian queer studies (the academic field embracing anything LGBT as well, nowadays, as almost anything on society's cultural margins) that was as free as possible from the western biases that heavily influence current theory. Encouraged by the success of the conference, two of these, Peter Jackson of the Australian National University, an expert on Thai sexualities, and Chris Berry of Goldsmiths College, the University of London, whose interest is in film, decided to capitalise on the wide interest in the subject the conference had exposed by creating a book series of their own. They enlisted an 'Editorial Collective', a group of four academics, distinguished in their own fields and interested in examining issues in Asian gender and sexuality. The other two were John Nguyet Erni, a professor in cultural studies at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, and Helen Leung Hok-sze, a professor in women's studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Top: Queer Asia's Editorial Collective (left to right), John Nguyet Erni, Helen Leung, Chris Berry and Peter Jackson.
At that time, there was no publisher in the region taking an active interest in queer studies. Occasional works had been, and still are, published in many countries, but so far no university department had become strong or independent enough to generate the amount of sales needed to support a series of books in their own university press. Commercial publishers in the Asian English reading world were similarly unable to justify the expense of a series that might have been seen to be too academic for the general reader. A more developed market, both academic and commercial, did exist in Taiwan, but there works were mostly published in Chinese, and this series was intended to bring Asian queer issues to the wider English-reading world.

Fortuitously, in 2000 Hong Kong University Press had acquired a new Publisher, Colin Day, whose arrival had prompted a revival in the fortunes of what had hitherto been a quiet and conservative local publisher. In comparison with the total of 20 volumes he found the Press publishing every year when he arrived, Colin lifted annual title output to nearly 50 books a year in 2007 and 2008. He was interested in building up themed series on cultural studies subjects; he had found, for instance, great success with The New Hong Kong Cinema series he began to commission in 2002. The freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong and its solid academic reputation also made the city an ideal centre for academic innovation. Jackson and Berry approached the Press, Colin Day was excited by their ideas and, with some skilled advocacy from all concerned, the nine member Faculty Press Committee that governs the Press, persuaded that this was a strategic investment, voted to take this leap of faith.

The Press brought in Michael Duckworth from the States in January 2008 and tasked him with publishing the series. Mike had 13 years' experience at Washington Press in Seattle, where he had published Gary Atkins's books Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging and had watched the American culture wars played out locally as the local gay hero, Cal Anderson, a Harvey Milk-like figure who achieved success as an openly gay legislator, battled the forces of reaction summonsed up by the locally very powerful Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the new four person editorial collective worked to assemble a hugely impressive international editorial board of 18 academics with an interest in queer studies working in universities as wide apart as both coasts of the United States, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Lingnan University in Hong Kong (a university specifically dedicated to fostering the liberal arts in both theoretical and practical ways). None, alas, were found from Singapore.

The four editors agreed that each of them would lead as series editor for a year. Chris Berry took the series up to launch and Helen Leung followed up for the next year, 2008-9.

In June 2008, Hong Kong University Press kicked off the series with a public launch at the University and, a few months later, with the issue of the first book of the series, Helen Leung's Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong (originally a project of the University of British Columbia Press). This swiftly earned good reviews. The book looks at the changing views of gender and sexuality in Hong Kong cinema, in greater depth at the more obvious candidates for research in this area, such as the director Stanley Kwan and the acting megastar Leslie Cheung, but also, in less detail, in the less likely areas of mainstream cinema, such as Hong Kong's favoured ghost stories and crime classics like Infernal Affairs.

Titles planned for the series in 2009 include Cleveland State University historian Kang Wenqing's book on male same-sex relations in China, 1900-1950, due out in the spring; an updated reprint with the University of the Philippines Press of Neil Garcia's 1996 classic Philippine Gay Culture, a book that won a National Book Award; and an edited volume of Yau Ching's essays, As Normal as Possible: Negotiating Sexualities in Hong Kong and China (Yau Ching is a well known activist on the Hong Kong tongzhi scene and an academic at Lingnan University). Later volumes will include works by Lucetta Kam (of the Chinese University of Hong Kong) on lesbians in Shanghai; by Denise Tang Tse Shang (of Taipei) on Hong Kong lesbian culture; by Hans Huang (also of Taiwan) on the phenomena surrounding Taiwan's famous Crystal Boys; by Chris Berry on the classic Chinese gay film Lan Yu (in a book which is likely to come out in Hong Kong University Press's New Hong Kong Cinema series); and by the Dutch academic Saskia Wieringa on comparative gender roles in Indonesia. Also planned is a multi-author volume on queer Bangkok and an updated re-issue of Peter Jackson's Letters to Uncle Go, his renowned study of the gay advice column which first created mass awareness of LGBT issues to Thailand. Fridae.com will be reviewing these as they appear.

That will leave but one of the four founders unpublished in the series thus far, and John Erni intends to complete the score card with a book he is writing now on the relevance to queer studies of human rights law, NGOs and the media. John was educated in literature and cultural studies in the States, where he became a member of ACTUP and worked as an AIDS activist. These experiences led to his 1994 book Unstable Frontiers, which established the seemingly illogical idea that hope of, and activist struggle for, a treatment for HIV actually created that treatment; John saw that political, activist and academic pressure was the stimulus behind the eventual concentration of medical resources leading to the cocktail therapies existing today. His experiences in the States and in Hong Kong, where he was previously involved in AIDS Concern and has now started to teach a combined course of human rights law and cultural studies, have led him to believe that the Queer Asia series may stimulate unforeseen developments, and not just in Asia's academic world. John has seen a growth of interest in queer theory in Asia and a steadily increasing trickle of PhDs in related topics, a trend so far unsupported by knowledge or academic resources. Queer Asia, he thinks, will harness these energies and will, he hopes, cover many of the blind spots that currently hamper the discourse.

In a region where LGBT political activism often lags behind the progress being made in the law, the arts and the academic world, the emergence of the Queer Asia series is a welcome development. The series does not set out to provide a full coverage, either of all aspects of such a varied subject or of the entire continent (South Asia, for instance, is at the moment a space on the map waiting to be filled and the Middle East and Central Asia are only a twinkle in the editorial collective's eyes). Yet with the wide scope of its already planned subject matter and its potential for growth, it is certain that the series will provide a good deal of the hard facts and nuanced arguments that the LGBT movements in Asia will need to fight for human rights and for full inclusion in society over the next decade.

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. 2009-01-13 19:43  
Thank you so much for increasing awareness of the depth of knowledge generated by queer theory, especially in terms of its development within Asia! :)

I will have to check out this book.
2. 2009-01-14 00:03  
It is indeed a very welcome addition to the advancement of our Human Rights and the empowerment that knowledge gives us in the understanding of the diversity of our own sexual orientation.
3. 2009-01-19 09:41  
revolting...after the thousands of Gay men, Trannies etc. over many decades murdered or brutalized whilst having 'queer' spat at them this is how we honour and remember them by legitizng a hated slur term

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