Louise Bak of the radio program Sex City (Toronto) has been one of the most attentive readers of my books. Here is a long interview with musical interludes about The Afterglow of women’s Pornography in Post-Digital China
I launched my new book The Afterglow of Women’s Pornography in Post-Digital China in the ACO book store in Hong Kong. It was a cathartic kind of event, as the launch can be for the author who finally exits a space of desolation and mental exhaustion while trying to communicate with the outer world. Egret Chow delivered a testimony about being labeled “left-over woman” in mainland China–the class of women who defy the patriotic push to marry and procreate.
In my book I also write about ghost fictions and propose a notion of phantom feminism based on Jack Halberstam’s theory of shadow feminism and Judith Zeitlin’s feminist reading of ancient ghost stories.(1) I had a chat about this with Ling Tang, a Ph.D. student in sociology who could not endorse “phantom feminism” and perhaps believed that I should be more attentive to the material realm of sexual relations and sexual politics. But then I have been stuck inside the porn0-mediated-realm for a while and still believe in its unique affect.
Hence there is a chapter pornographic Boys’ Love manga and online fictions, the extensive subcultures of women’s gay erotica that have very little to do with their embodied sexual practices. The news media have recently tried to probe the complex erotic fantasies of these “straight” woman but straight is also an inadequate label. In Australia they used to label it “bent”–these women and their fantasies are not straight, not lesbian, not trans, not perv, but just slightly bent.
(1) Zeitlin, Judith (1994) “Shared Dreams: The Story of the Three Wives’ Commentary on the Peony Pavillion,” In Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 54:1, pp. 127-179; Zeitlin, Judith T (2007) The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in 17th Century Chinese Literature, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
Detail from the Japanese BL fan comic Birthday Animal by Akou Susugu (Scanlated into English by Vices and Devices) In this story Tiger has a dildo-like tail (a birthday present from Bunny) which gives him sexual energy but also seems to have a life of its own.
I produced a zine for the Parasite Exhibition Ten Million Rooms of Yearning: Sex in Hong Kong which takes place in five venues in Hong Kong and will be open until August 10, 2014. My zine comments on a collection of Boy’s Love fan zines and slash fiction about tow anime characters, Tiger & Bunny, and focuses on a reappraisal of the middle-aged male character as “bottom” (In Japanese Oyaji Uke)
Together with Tatiana Bazzichelli and Francesco Palmieri I am organizing several panels for the forthcoming Transmediale Festival in Berlin from 29 january till 2 february in Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt whose theme this year is “afterglow.” One of the panels deals with artistic-sexual rebellion and censorship in the Chinese netsphere. The speakers for this panel are Dr. Sufeng Song who is an outspoken academic and activist at Sun Yat Sen university, Guanzhou, and Didi-Kirsten Tatlow who is a correspondent for the New York Times in Beijing with a focus on art, democracy, feminism and technology. Besides these two speakers I have interviewed two well known dissident artists/intellectuals who are currently banned from international travel–the pioneering sex activist and investigative documentarian Ai Xiaoming (sometimes called “Ai of the South”)and the world famous artist and social media commentator Ai Wei Wei (“Ai of the North”).
Both Ai Xiaoming and Ai Wei Wei have had their passports removed and are undergoing constant surveillance by the state while all information about their work is censored.While the contents of their statements can only be revealed at the festival, here are some snapshots of the famous cat of Ai Wei Wei, who made an appearance during the interview. The cat walked in fifteen minutes before the interview took place and jumped on the “celebrity chair.” When Ai Wei Wei himself walked in a bit later and was ready to sit down, she refused to move at all, so Ai Wei Wei then gently dragged the chair with the cat on it away and took another chair. Then we talked about about the state of Chinese art, political provocation, the importance of the imagination and social debate within the neo-liberal authoritarian state. Ai Wei Wei’s statements were overall quite pessimistic and it was difficult for me to ask more personal questions or to lift the mood.
We sensed and acknowledged a total rift between China and the West in how he is treated as a public celebrity figure–while we can find an overload of information about him outside China, his compatriots who share his cultural background cannot not find any information at all. It is as if he is officially deleted from the networks and could well be replaced by his cat. But of course Ai Wei Wei continues to make art internationally and does have a local support system. If you want to read an account of how Ai Wei Wei feels affected and deals artistically with his post-prison condition read Didi-Kirsten Tatlow’s recent interview in the New York Times. Here you can read how he engages in small protest on a daily basis, how he feels that art and intellectual life in China is sick and needs healing, and where he would like to go if he could travel again.
I am now researching stories in which scholars go on a journey of enlightenment, but get interrupted and pestered by a ghost who wants to have sex. Judith Zeitlin has written superbly about this phenomenon in The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in 17th Century Chinese Literature (University of Hawaii Press 2007). In her analysis, ghost romance exemplifies the tendency of Chinese literati to displace fear back onto a “specter”– an abstract figure whose loneliness and charm evokes complex feelings of lust, pity and tenderness. The ghost-figure also represents an “upside down”realm to intellectualism as it evokes powerful feelings of eroticism and melancholia involved in processes of thought and writing. This is why Zeitlin refers to a poem that captures the underside of intellectual types of work and efforts:
When our ancestors invented writing, ghosts wept in the night
When later people learned to read, their worries all arose
I am not scared of ghosts, and I’ m also worry-free
But at night as I amend the ancient text, my autumn lamp glows green.
(Gong Zizhen, Miscellaneous poem, 1838)
In many of the most glorious stories of ghostly seduction, the realm of Qing (high-strung, passionate and sentimental love) is idealized as a temporary or liminal state of being that then disappears and life goes back to normal.
Sex scene between two ghost-sisters in Erotic Ghost Story III (1992). The two sister first masturbate when peeping at the third sister having sex with a scholar, then they get together and make love.
While looking at Hong Kong movie classics, I came across a wide range of category III (x-rated) movies with sex scenes between scholars and ghosts. First of all I would like to mention Erotic Ghost Story III (1992), the third installment of a popular movie series directed by Ivan Lai. This movie is set in the Tang Dynasty and features Chu Chung who is about to get married but goes astray when falling into the “other realm” where three ghost-sisters are competing to have contact with him.
The first sex scene is a remarkable and drawn out love scene between Chung Chu and one of the sisters, Yun Meng. As the sex goes by, we find out that the the two other sisters are actually peeping at the couple through a key hole. In a remarkable change of perspective, the movies then pursues the sexual fantasies of the two sisters. First the camera zooms in on their beautiful bodies as they are masturbating and fantasizing in separate beds, then it shows how they get together and start making love to each other. One sister pleasures the other orally and then pours water on her body to clean her.
It is almost as if there is a moment of solidarity between the main narrative—the superb sex between scholar Chung Chu and his ghost–and the side-narrative of sexual chemistry between two other sisters. The side-narrative is not pursued any further in this movie, but it does represents one of the best moments of “accidental lesbianism” in Hong Kong cinema.
I had been invited by Professor Sufen Song of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guanzhou to give a talk about “Feminine Pornography as Art of Failure” and to hold a workshop with women who are into gay erotic animations and fictions. The talk garnered unusually rich feedback from students. The workshop was well attended and came alive during the second half, where they were asked to imagine a short story about gay couple in Berlin, an older Belgian professor Moenen (named after the devil in the Flemish medieval story Marieke Van Nijmeghen) who falls in love with the much younger Fritz from Berlin.
The Guanzhou imagination ran wild as students improvised their versions of this relationship. One student recited her story in loud and confident english sentences and was not shy to use the f*** word. And several days later that very story got stuck in my mind, so I summarize it here for you:
Professor Moenen is very old-fashioned and strict, the kind of person who takes care of his own household. Between the two world wars he visits Berlin. a wet and dark city, and ends up in a bar called Neo, filled with strictly gay men. They are the kind who drink their coffees while talking about Plato. When Moenen runs into the gorgeous Fritz, he falls for him quickly and does all the things Fritz tells him to do.
Fritz fucks professor Moenen very hard. But Moenen does not scream or shout it loud. Fritz wants him to say “Fuck me harder!” but he does not shout. Fritz soon is tired of the old dog who just follows him around. In the end he dumps old Moenen who also ends up being forgotten by history.
It is only when Fritz himself become Professor many years later, that he misses the old men.
Perhaps these young Chinese women like to pester high-brow masculinity and deprive it of a voice. As they explained afterwards, they like to eroticize vulnerability and pain alongside the details of sexual conquest. Let this be a lesson for us middle-aged academics. If at all possible, let’s follow our wildest desires and do it with younger lovers, but let our matured minds also really enjoy the sex, “to scream and shout it out loud!”
I am still stuck in the Festival City, the brandnew ultra-highrise complex in the New Territories, looking onto the Shatin canal on the east side, and onto a magic mountain on the west. The mountain was nostalgically reconstructed by means of a digital effect on my Sony Lumix DMC-ZS3 called ‘pinhole.’ With this device I seek my own moments of Orientalism, not in the sense of exoticizing and flirting with the Chinese (I have tried but got rejected) but by picturing a mythic landscape to salvage this condition that I live in. It is a highly sanitized and top security living arrangement for the Hong Kong bourgeoisie, a place where you are sealed off from the Tai Wai working class and where as humans you can stop saying hello to each other. Here it is only children and the small pets who still display social behaviors. The dwellers of the Festival City seems to be remote and grumpy despite the fact that their choice of apartment reveals that they have landed nicely.
So what is wrong then with life in the Festival City? There are no restaurants, no small stores, no vendors of goods, no racks for bicycles, no benches, no lawns, no bars in this place. There are cheaply engineered flower arrangements but no smell of the earth. At sunset we should be able to descend from our top-level apartment and have a little chat with our neighbors. Just sit down and have a drink, listen to radio music, or sit on a bench amongst smells of the outdoors, gaze at the unknown and fuzzy-chat, practice our Cantonese, our Korean, our French. Instead, they all stay at home and hire tutors for their multi-gifted children.
This place could be the setting of a mechanime movie about a dark post-human futrure that ends in social protest, the children walking together and occupying the strange sterile walkway that runs through their complex. They once posted security personel on this walkway to direct human traffic in two divided lanes, but the dwellers said “Shit, this really sucks.” The traffic cops were then removed and reassigned duties, but the atmosphere stayed the same. There is still no social vibe, no joi de vivre in the Festival City. It really is a convenient and luxuruous place to live in, but in the end, as Lou Reed sang for the small town children, you know that you gotta get out.
What I am doing these days:
I am a believer in low theory, as stated by Jack Halberstam: “I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant. I believe in making differences by thinking little thoughts and by sharing them widely. I seek to provoke, annoy, bother, irritate, and amuse; I am chasing small projects, micropolitics, hunches, whims, fancies.”(p.21, The Queer Art of Failure)
I had a hunch about something when visiting these little jizobosatusu statues at the side of Zojoji Shrine, Tokyo, devoted to stillborn babies, but I did not know what was ahead of me. I admired the finely crocheted red hats made by mourning mothers. These scullptures were the most memorable trivia of my trip and I had just stumbled upon them. They punctured me with feelings of love and loss, all these dead babies and their immaculate outfits left behind by mothers and families, sometimes baby toys and objects.
Nobody noticed it too much, except for my sister Mieke, a legal consultant in the Flemish parliament on children’s rights, who always looked at my snaps of travels and who happened to comment on these statues. They punctured her a little bit as well. Our eyes fell upon them and we probably sensed amazement and pain.
When she fell ill several months ago and finally died of cancer on january 19, 2013, I knew how special her support for me had been. She liked my whimsical intellectual nature. With her departure, my world has gone haywire, I fight my counter-attacks to hegemonic academia, l stay afloat and follow my whims and fancies and I chase small projects. I believe in my own micro-niche university but I am still not quite recovered from her absence.
Last friday I made an appearance on Crystal Kwok’s RTHK talk show Kwoktalk. It was an amazing and quite relaxing experience as Kwok is very sharp, accomodating and open-minded and we really went into the topic of cultural tastes in porn, online seduction by means of DIY porn as well as male/female body image and queer porn. My session was preceded by Belinda Flanders of the dating website Lovestruck, which is currently making waves in Hong Kong. I will talk more about the unbearable lightness of sex sites (and the annoying “seriousness” of dating sites) in my talk for the Anthropology Society at in the Museum of History on thursday 18 october.
Belinda Flanders, presenter Crystal Kwok and Katrien Jacobs
The experiments in feminine porn taste have begun here in Hong Kong and then will move onto Japan and the USA in June-July. I have started to do small-group screenings for women to discuss their reactions to different porn scenes. I have so far invited a class of my university students and collaborated with two lesbian organizations, Women’s Coalition of Hong Kong and G-Spot. Meredith Chivers’ thesis that women have very flexible desires and arousal patterns and do not need category-specific products holds up. (1)Each time we look at several porn scenes produced in “Asia” and “the West”–straight, lesbian, gay–and there has been lots of praise for the gay porn clip featuring Miles Pride and Kyler Moss. The reason why Pride and Moss win the vote is that they are very elegant lovers and just seem to be “much more into it” than the other actors/actresses? It seems easy for women to adore these male bodies, just as it may be even easier for them to take distance from gay sex. And why is it that this position of drifting in and out of does not work for straight men? Or is that just a piece of old news?
(1) Chivers et al, ” A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal,” Psychological Science, 4:11 pp. 736-44.