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Brown Boys and Rice QueensSpellbinding Performance in the Asias$

Eng-Beng Lim

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780814760895

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814760895.001.0001

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Toward a Minor-Native Epistemology in Transcolonial Borderzones

(p.167) Conclusion
Brown Boys and Rice Queens

Eng-Beng Lim

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter demonstrates an exemplary case of transcolonial performance by reconstructing Woon Ping's Details Cannot Body Wants, a Peranakan (Straits Chinese) Asian/American solo woman show. By deviating from the conventional hetero-orientalist scenario by setting the brown woman next to other minor scenarios in native and ethnic studies, as well as postcolonial and queer studies, the transcolonial paradigm of tradition results in an alternative set of analytics for the Asian boy and Asian woman. It suggests that the “jumps” of Asian/America, Native America, and Southeast Asia, in the Asias can potentially exceed even the dyads examined in the study throughout the book.

Keywords:   Woon Ping, Peranakan, transcolonial performance, ethnic studies, transcolonial paradigm, dyads

In her now classic essay “Where Have All the Natives Gone?,” Rey Chow likens modernity’s preoccupation with nativizing cultures to a colonial visual technology in which the native becomes useful and falsely knowable to her onlooker. Using photography as her key example, Chow argues that the reproduction of the native as the visual other presents a set of tricky conundrums about our relationship to the technology of this enduring image: do “we” critique the image itself, expose the machinery of its truth-effects, or call for a substitute? The native, as concept or body, image or historical experience, thus becomes a shifting ground for “more general questions of exploitation, resistance and survival.”1 Chow’s interventions may be traced to a lineage of postcolonial criticism from Gayatri Spivak to Homi Bhabha that wrestles with the colonizer’s construction of indigeneity or nativized otherness, and (p.168) the contested conditions of possibility around the native’s representation, speech, and self-identity vis-à-vis the gendered histories of colonial subjection. Yet her formulation also points to the transnationalization of the native in the market as well as across nations by implicitly bridging the racialized discourse of nativism to a politics of ethnicity widely applied. In a way, the native has gone ethnic.

Throughout this book, I have explored this intersection primarily through the native boy and his transmogrifications in the queer Asias attuned to orientalism, colonial homoerotics, and dyadic performativity. The ethnic queerness of G.A.P. drama, for instance, provided a campy critique at the intersection of the native and the ethnic vis-à-vis the white man in a transnational context. By way of a conclusion, I turn to a one-woman show, Details Cannot Body Wants (Singapore, 1992; New York, 1997; Australia, 1996), by the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) American performance artist–scholar Chin Woon Ping, to conceive an allied reading practice with the native woman back on center stage and the native boy witnessing from the wings.2 It is a way to account for the shifts that are occurring around the native with the analytics fostered by this book’s gambit on the tropic spells of Asian performance. Simply put, how is the native woman queered by the native boy in the postcolonial Asias?

Chin’s show broadly examines the plight of nativized women and women of color in various parts of Asia and the United States, and is based on the cultural assumptions of East/West configurations commonly applied to intercultural performance projects. I argue that it is also a classic case study for how a minor-native interpretive framework afforded by the native boy may change the way we think about the figures, encounters, and points of reference traditionally cast for related feminist performance projects. The convergence of critical methodologies outlined above can yield a different set of questions about Asian performance and Asian encounter, or in a broader sense, racial and nativized performance in multiple locations. Importantly, it can also bring about minor coalitions (Asian American, Native American, diasporic minority) in criticism.

In what follows, I will elaborate on the logics of my two proposed spatio-epistemic reconfigurations for a different intelligibility and politic about the native/ethnic located outside or at least unhinged from the (p.169) overdetermined frontier of the imperial West, particularly the United States. The frontier includes diasporic configurations that presume a rigid two-point (“over here” and “over there”) mapping, with the West as the final and present destination, and the East as the point of origin and the past. My reconfigurations, however, enable the (Asian) native/ethnic to speak and signify differently in or through transcolonial borderzones where the United States is a nodal point rather than the center of the world. In doing so, I hope to add to discussions about the transnational turn of American studies on race and sexuality (concentrating on what critical approaches travel and what do not) while emphasizing the continuing need for Asian studies and its cognates to consider diasporic and migration links to the so-called West.

Notably, “Asia” has come to be a category for a particular approach to queer studies that seeks to reify intra-Asian connection, often from a deracialized vantage point, that ignores or even disparages Asian diasporic and migration links to the West.3 The critical matrix of race, sexuality, and empire, however, demands a reading practice of Asian performance and Asian encounters that brings together different permutations of cognate fields and extends critical inquiries beyond the impasses or blind spots of each field. One such reading practice is proposed here by bridging the native and the ethnic using the minor-native and the transcolonial borderzones of queer Asias as its model epistemes.

From Native to Minor-Native

The overlap between the native and the ethnic is evident in the way the native functions as a classic racial form in the West, and continues to ghost contemporary understanding or misunderstanding about Native Americans, ethnic women, queers of color, or even entire populations in Third World countries. The French-Senegalese Muslim woman wearing a boubou with lightweight Mauritian voile in Harlem, New York City, is said to carry herself like an African native even if that is a statement of “every fashionable woman.”4 She is a native woman, a diasporic African ethnic, and a fashionista simultaneously. The logics of these intersections are found in a curious set of racializing queries that are often reiterated in quotidian or critical discourse: who is the real native among (p.170) the ethnics?5 Is the native real only insofar as she fits within the racialized order of the colonial West? Must the ethnic minority display some nativized attributes such as traditional sartorial flair in order to be considered authentic? Such queries belie the discursive disconnect in post-colonial and ethnic studies that scholars have only started to address in transnational frameworks. Broadly speaking, postcolonial studies on the native have focused on the ocular, aural, and ethnographic (native as/in image, rhythm, field subject), while the study of the ethnic is organized around citizenship claims, imagined communities, and the diaspora with discrete relational structures. If the disconnect is protracted by the location of the native and the ethnic in seemingly disparate fields of study, their exotic, racializing imaginaries are nevertheless connected or conflated across time and place.

Chow’s work begins to align the different critical investments and locations of the native vis-à-vis the ethnic as a productive starting point to rethink the analytic contours or limits of comparative frameworks (postcolonial, ethnic, border, diasporic) for transnational racial performance. But can performance shift the terms of recognition around the native, the ethnic, and their transmogrifications using a set of spatial and relational coordinates other than the colonial dyad (for example, white man/native woman) and its related topographies (such as the exotic East)? How might Native American scholarship help to reconfigure the perceptual strongholds of an orientalist gaze that has in many ways dominated Euro-American cultural production of the other? Such a theoretical gambit is staked against what many critics have noted as the recursive limits, blind spots, and impasses of analyses organized by one or the other term.

One might ask, why return to a term like “the native” at all, the antithesis of the European, with particular histories in colonial and anthropological encounters as the basis for imagining alternative perceptions of difference in transnational contexts? Part of it has to do with the longevity of the native as a flexible, racial form that undergirds the logics of (self-)exoticizing display and understanding in an age of globalism. Besides, as a signature legacy of colonialism, the native is often used as an icon or ruse for racial mastery or racist alienation; we must therefore invoke such a history in order to attempt a different model of analysis that begins to efface her easy recognizability, whether in her (p.171) primitive, indigenous, or ethnicized form.6 In the United States alone, the legacy lives on in a smorgasbord of nativized encounters with Asian and Arabic orientals in the form of spies, terrorists, and prostitutes. The native is thus a repository of emotional effects and a sign of history’s violation that demand persistent historicizing and critical embodiments. These moving embodiments demand the use of performance and its vocabularies as well as a critical shift from imagistic native to epistemological minor-native.

In Chow’s interpretation of the native as a model, she warns against what she calls the “cultural corporations” of scholarly tools that purport to render the native less exotic and less denigrated by supplying an arsenal of original “contexts” and “specificities” that only brings about the visibility of the scholar while neutralizing the “untranslatability of the native’s experience and the history of that untranslatability.”7 The root of these reservations can be traced back to the politics of postcolonial critiques emanating from First World academies, and the performability of silence. According to Chow, the native cannot be “saved,” her voice and body can never be restored to her authentic context, and in the absence of witness and discourse regarding her victimization, silence is “the most important clue to her displacement.”8 There is, in other words, no simple replacement, corrective, or hidden interiorities to the native-image, one that substitutes “a ‘correct’ image of the ethnic specimen for an ‘incorrect’ one, or giving the native a ‘true’ voice behind her ‘false’ image.”9 While resonating with Gayatri Spivak’s provocative statement “[t]he subaltern cannot speak,”10 what is striking here is the way performance is central to Chow’s characterization of the native’s silence:

That silence is at once the evidence of imperialist oppression (the naked body, the defiled image) and what, in the absence of the original witness to that oppression, must act in its place by performing or feigning as the pre-imperialist gaze.11

The possibilities and limitations of embodying nativized silence as evidence of oppression present a potentially radical alternative in the form of a scenario: the native is actively gazing at the colonizer as witness to her oppression prior to her becoming image. As witness, image, and a form of critical gaze, Chow’s native exposes the phantasm of colonial (p.172) fetishization. This shift is crucially moving from the literary and visual to the realm of performance, where we are encountering the emergence of an epistemological native with a critical gesture and gaze. She is pointing to a new context, embodiment, and methodology. In Chow’s study, however, the native is always already stuck in an imperialist setup, which necessitates a postcolonial critique structured around vertical power relations. As critics have noted, speech, translation, and intelligibility in such a setup often occur unidirectionally, from Third World to First, from subaltern to imperialist. As urgent and vital as are the critiques of this approach, they are stuck in the scope of postcolonial intervention. The native, for better or worse, will always be bound by a classic set of colonial problematics.

Bridging the gap between postcolonial and U.S. ethnic studies, Victor Bascara demonstrates in Model-Minority Imperialism that the native figure is also found in Asian American studies. Using the “Oriental” as a nativized figure, he bridges postcolonial cultural studies, critical American studies, and Asian American studies to tell the story of U.S. empire and imperialism through its theater, drama, novels, government speeches, and film. Part of his argument is that “struggles over the meaning of difference” have to be studied across interdisciplinary fields and objects of study.12 Importantly, Bascara’s work cracks open the relational fields of American culture vis-à-vis the United States as an imperial nation by reading against the grain of the American Dream and its Big Brother role in world “peace and progress.”13 This critical move is emblematic of the transnational turn in Asian/American studies, and productively uncovers the continuities of racial subjugation in imperial and national projects. The prominence of the United States as a locus of study, however, appears to be unquestioned. This is not so much a critique about Americanist projects in general as much as it is about the way that the United States is not reducible to periphery or nodal status. Without such a critical gesture, the native will be forever stuck in the dominant, U.S. progressivist narrative as a remnant of the past; her critical iteration as the minor-native would also be deemed irrelevant and implausible.

Following the leads of Chow and Bascara, I propose pushing their critical work further by considering the minor-native (here, an intersection of the native and minority referenced in their work) as a (p.173) post-disciplinary episteme of racial performance in the queer Asias. The minor-native can fundamentally change the way we think or look at the native in mobile contexts, and shift the discourse from one about complicity, resistance, or subversion to one about comparativity, lateral relationality, and coalition. Put another way, I am interested in an articulation of othering or difference that resonates beyond the colonial white male and his exotic others. As is clear, the latter is a familiar, some might even say naturalized, setup within the discrete confines of a dominant Western nation-state (the United States) in relation to another outside the West.

Rather than focusing all critical energies on this apparently exhaustive and exhausting setup, it behooves us to turn to Native American studies and its transnational cognates to consider the manifold origins and connections that constitute the borderlands occupied by Native Americans and nativized immigrants around the world. Chin’s biography and show point to this aesthetic of distance and affiliation in the Asias, where individual and collective identities are always embroiled in a complex of diasporic, culturally hybridized, and cross-national histories on the move. In other words, the United States may be the third or fourth point of contact in the history of transmigrants with multiple national or ethnic identifications. Native (native to what, whom, or where) is thus a fraught and mutable concept with different sets of racialized markers and encounters. This means that the world-view or subjectivity of many has been shaped elsewhere or produced in a matrix or cross-section of experiences that exceed the local. For instance, the Filipino immigrant in the United States may have worked in Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East as a foreign laborer, and cultivated a particular form of transnational sensibility mixed with the history of Spanish-U.S. colonialism in the Philippines before arriving in the United States to become an Asian American. A Chinese Singaporean may have family and relatives in Malaysia, Taiwan, Canada, Australia, and China with whom she spent parts of her childhood years. She may have a “cosmopolitan” outlook, but her encounter with Filipinos may be largely shaped by their ordinary presence in Singapore as domestic live-in maids. These diachronic and cultural borderzones invoke the regional memories and resources of their contingent class geographies, and shape a polyracialized sense of place that exceeds the (p.174) Western/other model. It also suggests that there are several other ways the nativized or racist gaze is composed.

Chin’s show encapsulates these varied depths of knowledge as an uber–case study of Woman as the minor-native in the transcolonial borderzones of Singapore/Malaysia, Japan/China, Asian/African/America, and their geopolitical surround. But what is meant by the transcolonial borderzones of queer Asias?

Navigating the Transcolonial Borderzones

By “transcolonial,” I mean the different relationalities among minorities or former colonies that share affinities and animosities that are primarily defined in relation to each other rather than or only to their respective (former) metropoles in Europe and the United States. This way of thinking, advocated by scholars working in such fields as minor transnationalism (Francoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih),14 border thinking (Walter Mignolo),15 and hemispheric performance and politics (Diana Taylor, Jill Lane, and others),16 adopts “an-other logic” in our critical study of performance and writing outside the Western canon, archive, and epistemic organization. For example, in her study of Mauritian-Creole theater, Lionnet asks,

How might we theorize this other logic of writing without simply seeing it as “a reconfiguration of the [European generic] content”? … How do we highlight the transcultural dimensions of their [writers from the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean] work and their intellectual contributions to the shaping of new contexts of understanding in which familiar questions of theory and practice, form and content, knowledge and understanding, politics and culture, are brought to the fore?17

Lionnet conceptualizes “the links among the varied cultures of the so-called ‘peripheries’” so that we begin to articulate “Creole texts (oral, written or visual) not just with their European generic ‘models’ but also with postcolonial creative texts and performances.”18 The transcolonial approach is therefore neither a disavowal of the West and its colonial legacy nor an articulation of cartographic contiguity among former colonies as a condition of exchange. Rather, it is a multi-sited and mobile (p.175) configuration of thinking and feeling that organizes the issues of the West, including the white United States, as a “minor” function of writing and performance while foregrounding gendered and/or minority issues in comparative perspective.

Among the many articulations of “borderzones,” one can begin with the cultural anthropologist Ed Bruner’s concept of “touristic borderzones,” which stages the interactional exchange between natives and tourists “in an ever-shifting strip or border on the edges of Third World destination countries.”19 He elaborates, “although the border-zone is located in an actual place in the world, what is created there is a cultural imaginary, a fantasy, in itself not a real-life culture but a theatrical one.”20 This particular iteration of the borderzone presumes theatricalized encounters, the touristic gaze, and an “ever-shifting” spatial dynamic as conditions for playing out a confluence of imaginaries, conflicts, and exchange. I use performance as an actual and exemplary site of “borderzones” to address a multiplicity of gazes with different assumptions of race and otherness vis-à-vis the broad question of nativization in the transnational era.

By “transcolonial borderzones,” then, I am thinking of nativized encounters in a spatial configuration not contained by the established logics of postcolonial, diaspora, and border studies: center/colony, over here/over there, bi-national metroplex. With a center, origin, or nation as pivotal factors, comparative analyses often result in “the usual comparison of the margin with its hierarchical other that becomes inevitable in studies of intertexuality, literary influence and cross-pollinations.”21 Being situated in a position of vertical power relationship has direct ramifications on an intercultural understanding of otherness. Put another way, the dominance of the West means that the encounter with the native, the way she is looked at or defined, is often overdetermined. The epistemic logic and space of transcolonial borderzones provide the opportunity to simultaneously unthink the generic native and our natural recourse to a binary-center complex (the idea that Western binary configurations, such as civilized/savage, modern/primitive, center or verticalize all thought and exchanges) for critical interventions. Less a corrective than a tactic, reading the minor-native in transcolonial borderzones enables a syncopated interpretation that combines and moves across various critical positions while focusing on lateral comparisons (p.176) and performative elucidation. The colonialism undergirding such an approach may emerge, for instance, from within Asia, such as Japanese colonialism. As Leo Ching posits in relation to Japanese colonialism, “Japanese or Japaneseness, Taiwanese or Taiwaneseness, aborigines or aboriginality, and Chinese or Chineseness—as embodied in compartmentalized national, racial, or cultural categories—do not exist outside the temporality and spatiality of colonial modernity, but are instead enabled by it.”22

The Details of Epistemic Relocation

Chin’s show, Details Body Cannot Wants, provides a way of relocating the native woman or woman of color in the transcolonial borderzone of Southeast Asia and Asian/America. A generic character “Woman” functions as an embodied guide to a nameless roster of women being subjected to endlessly sexist, infantilizing, and misogynistic treatment. On first blush, Details Body Cannot Wants is situated in a matrix of cultural imaginaries, languages, conflicts, and practices that appear to relate to postcolonial Singapore-Malaysia on the one hand, and the Chinese diaspora in the United States on the other hand. But describing the show as a diasporic production of Southeast Asian America is inadequate in accounting for the other cultural coordinates at play. Neither does a postcolonial or binational study in the context of Malaysia and Singapore fully cover its critical contours. Moreover, the amorphous—if also fictional—category of “cosmopolitan native woman” slips in and out of her show, further complicating its cultural identity.

A Chinese-Malaysian émigré, Chin resides in the United States and teaches at Dartmouth College but has a tri-national cultural background that informs her Peranakan Singaporean, Malaysian, and Asian American identification. The Peranakans are the Chinese and mixed-race (Chinese and native Indonesian or Malay) descendants of mainland Chinese immigrants who first arrived in the Indonesian archipelago in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and adopted local Nusantara customs to create the creolized language of Baba Malay containing many Hokkien words as well as cuisine, religion, and clothing. They have come to be known as Straits Chinese, as many relocated along the Straits of Malacca, and were largely English-educated. Many (p.177) are at least trilingual, speaking Malay, English, and Chinese, though later generations have become less proficient (if even at all) in Chinese so as to assimilate into the Malay Peninsula.

The multiple sites of Chin’s cultural if also contested “origins” are uncannily reproduced in the reception of her show in Singapore and New York City (and broadcast as a television show in Australia), where at each location, she was read as an Asian woman from “over there.” This pointed to a way that national location, ethnic status, and diasporic coordinates were not necessarily congruent with the show’s identity, just as dominant racial expectations are often incommensurate with the actual identification of a minority person. Is the show Singaporean, Chinese- or Peranakan-Malaysian, American, or Asian American? The conundrum raised by this question is not so much about parsing cultural authenticity by national origins as it is an issue of cultural formations that both precede and exceed the contours of current transnational configurations and Western thought.

In the show, the title character Woman is not one person but a performative abstraction of multilingual women who are nativized in the context of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the ethnic United States, and connected through their differential nativization. The show is in the form of a choreopoem with dance and choral elements, and its overall structure mimics an improvisational music score or dance movement. As meditative vignettes, each section covers the travails of womanhood around a thematic tapestry. The “Details” section plays out her servitude to a set of gendered expectations, from makeup to speech to sitting posture, which also shames her into compulsory womanliness. “Cannot” continues along the same axis by enumerating the myriad prohibitions she faces as a girl, but her own refusal to acquiesce—in other words, her own “cannot”—is not tenable. In the “Body” section, the didactic norms of the female body as a locus of male power and desire are detailed in sexual and violent terms. The cumulative effects of the three dicta result in “Wants,” or the performativity of gendered pleasure; she is both socialized and built to please.

This four-part performance art piece is episodically organized around each of the broad concepts in its garbled title, Details Cannot Body Wants, which is also a facetious reference to the native woman’s incomprehensibility. The Woman reorders patriarchal rationalities (p.178) purveyed by colonial English by making sense out of this seemingly disparate and ungrammatical set of words. At the same time, she brings to bear the incongruous elements of a modern feminine identity. Antirealist in its form, the show has no linear plot or stable character, and it uses multiple languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Malay, and African American English. In addition to linguistic diversity, the sonic environment is a syncretic array of performance and popular music culled from China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the United States, and Singapore. A small chorus accompanies the action with background noises or instrumentals. The music runs the gamut from Chinese er-hu, Japanese bamboo flute (shakahachi), and solemn choral sounds like Noh voices to Elvis Presley’s “I Wanna Be Free.” Costume-wise, she is just as eclectic, and appears in an expressionistic “naked” outfit, a 1950s circular skirt with rock and roll motifs, a Chinese samfoo, and a Vietnamese peasant costume. To accentuate this random getup, she often appears with mismatched makeup and accessories. The agglomeration of these visual, linguistic, and sonic elements provides the backdrop for sampling the memories, affect, and motifs that recur in any random, nativized encounter with the Woman. There is neither a coherent narrative to account for her background nor a clear relationship between the sounds and sights (or her environs) and her identity. Part of and yet unhinged from an orientalist and sexist landscape, the multifaceted, sensorial encounter sets up a polyvalent gaze from a spectrum of positions and encounters that also deflect a pointedly Western look on the Asian woman.

One might note that the politics of Chin’s intervention are clearly legible to a U.S. audience familiar with other female performance artist of color such as Denise Uyehara, Carmelita Tropicana, or Robbie McCauley. As Helen Gilbert points out, Chin’s show is deeply aligned with contemporary U.S. feminist performance art in its “conscious foregrounding of the body and its physical functions, the explicit treatment of sexuality, the direct audience address, the satire of patriarchal power, the rapid shifts between dialogue and song, and the intentional instability of the persona’s stage persona.”23 But in contrast to its form, Chin’s references are nearly all from Southeast and East Asia, and the Woman signified in her show is also visualized through her own body as an “Asian woman,” which carries a set of nativized markers. From the perspective of (p.179) a Singaporean audience, however, her show appears in a foreign format, and signifies as “American,” or at least a transnational U.S. perspective on women’s lives. A diasporic reading of the show might consider how U.S. feminist strategies are adapted to resignify exotic femininities in the Asian American context while a postcolonial critique from Singapore/Malaysia might focus on undermining “Western stereotypes of passive, submissive, hyper-feminine Asian womanhood.”24 But the circulation of the show in Singapore (1992), the United States (1997), and Australia (where it was broadcast in 1996), as well as Chin’s tri-national, multicultural background, exceeds the parameters of such analyses, and demands that we think through the performative encounters she stages not in one or the other location but in the transcolonial borderzone.

It is within such a spatial imaginary that Chin brackets “native woman” as a colonial construction while foregrounding the motifs, qualities, sounds, and gestures that nativize the Woman in her show. Refusing to give coherence to the universal category of either native woman or Woman, the racialized female figures in her performance are all channeled rapidly, which has the effect of both expressing and undercutting their allure in a kind of strategic obfuscation: “So why are you fascinated by the native woman?” This first move, which turns native from an object to nativizing as a comparative act, involves defamiliarizing the guiding principles of Western looking. If splintering the gaze “we” use on the native woman involves an initial perambulation, after Chow, around the epistemic trappings of “the West and First World”–first thinking, this move asks that we leave that critical framework as a backdrop rather than the mise-en-scène of our critique. For instance, in theatricalizing patriarchal sexism, Chin weaves in an encounter that has to be read in relation to colonial disciplining. For the woman in question, shame is encoded in her “show-in-your-dimples-but-not-your-teeth smile”25 as she learns to “primly” and “demurely” respond to a preordained set of questions as though she were in an elementary English lesson:


  (primly, demurely) No, thank you


  No, thank you.

(p.180) DOES IT HURT?

  No, thank you.


  No, thank you.


  No, thank you.


  No, thank you.26

The lesson of shame is a disciplinary encounter in which the native woman learns the proper ways of speech, body etiquette, and English. This classic colonial lesson is continued with a seemingly celebratory song-and-dance sequence that sets her free in the Western world. To demonstrate this freedom, she yodels “I love to go a wandering” and then sings Elvis Presley’s “I Wanna Be Free” in an almost maniacal display that is capped by a ridiculous rendition of a Chinese song, 何日君再来‎ (“He Ri Jun Zai Lai” [When Will You Return?], first sung by the mainland Chinese singer 周璇‎ Zhou Xuan for the soundtrack of the 1937 film 三星伴月‎ [Three Stars and Half Moon], and later popularized by the Taiwanese superstar Teresa Teng 邓丽君‎), with accompanying meowing sounds.27 She explains, “I had to have a voice like a meowing cat, like the greatest meowing cat in the history of Chinese pop music, the adorable, inimitable, eternal Miss Zhou Xuan.”28 The conscious disorientation of the Woman, as played by Chin, a Peranakan-Chinese-Malaysian-American, singing a Mandarin song to meowing sounds after a yodel and rock classic juxtaposes colonial disciplining and Asian transculturation with diasporic alienation in the United States. Hence, rather than correcting what Chow refers to as the “pornographic gaze” of the West, this opening segment stages the complex effects of nativizing forces through a ridiculous sequence of an amnesiac performance where China emerges alongside England and the United States as a zone of power vis-à-vis Southeast Asia: she does not know why, but she wants to be like a meowing Chinese cat; she does not know why, but she will repeat the same answer to every question in clipped English; she does not know why, but she will yodel and rock like an American. And she will, it seems, continue to act in the ways sanctioned by her conscious and unconscious nativization.

(p.181) The symbolic prominence of China is reiterated at the end of the section, when the Woman paints half her face in the traditional colors of the Chinese opera heroine and the other half in the black colors of the male warrior in full view of the audience, forming an unknown composite figure with an aura of the authentic native. She then pulls out a mirror from the heap of domestic objects and finds herself looking back at her image, an ephemeral reflection with curious expression and life as “she primps, she grins, and she makes faces of all kinds.”29 The disfigurement of the Woman using the brush strokes of a traditional Chinese opera stages the (self-)exoticizing logics of the nativized woman in a predictable and yet alienating environment. We hear the chorus simulating the cymbal, pipa, and bamboo noises of traditional Chinese opera while the transfigured native woman sings an aria from Madam White Snake, 白蛇传‎, based on an ancient Chinese legend. In her state of defilement, nakedness, wonder, and beauty, the woman gazes back at herself as the transnational audience gazes at her. The multiple gazes zeroing in on her, from her own curious self to the publics represented by the different audience in Singapore, the United States, and Australia, create an extraordinary convergence of looking that raises many questions. Is she performing the quotidian exoticism of native cultural shows or the way that Chinese women are readily nativized by a few cosmetic and gestural strokes? Is she staging a pre-imperialist gaze or an ethnic gaze with a cultural nationalist fervor? Is this about the rise of China and a critique of Sinocentrist chauvinism? Is this an embodied articulation of a Sinophone gender that is in conversation with Asian American feminist discourses?

Disorienting the Gaze: Visual Sovereignty and Minor Epistemes

The questions uncovered amid the enactment of Details Body Cannot Wants point to the productive epistemic intersections in the transcolonial border zone. Yet the critical lens most readily applied to an understanding of Chin’s performance is focused on “the power relations masked by orientalist images.”30 This often involves a singular focus on the myth of cultural authenticity or the politics of assimilation into the dominant culture of a host country. But such a familiar, major-resistant strategy tends to homogenize the encounter “we” have with the Woman (p.182) by invoking East/West paradigms as the critical bait, while foreclosing the transcolonial encounters of nativized women who are differentially gendered. Rather than looking at the minor solidarities that are potentially forged on a lateral plane, the native woman becomes a stick figure, victim or otherwise, for recuperation by a “feminist postcolonial sensibility that traverses Asia, America and Asian-America.”31

I want to suggest that the politics of Chin’s show may be more productively analyzed in conversation with Michelle Raheja’s notion of “visual sovereignty,” which provides an alternative way of dealing with the gaze of the Western viewer vis-à-vis Native Americans, particularly as they are represented in ethnographic or mass-mediated images. Using the Inuit film Atanarjuat as her case study, Raheja explores “what it means for indigenous people ‘to laugh at the camera’” in the context of “often absurd assumptions that circulate around visual representations of Native Americans, while also flagging their involvement and, to some degree, complicity in these often disempowering structures of cinematic dominance and stereotype.”32 Visual sovereignty is, in this regard, a filmic technique as well as “a reading practice for thinking about the space between resistance and compliance wherein indigenous filmmakers and actors revisit, contribute to, borrow from, critique, and reconfigure ethnographic film conventions, at the same time operating within and stretching the boundaries created by these conventions.”33 As notions of sovereignty are embroiled in “creative self-representation” and the “intellectual health” of a community wiped out by genocide and colonialism, the Inuit filmmakers “operate as technological brokers and autoethnographers of sorts, moving between the community from which they hail and the Western world and its overdetermined images of indigenous people.”34

While the historical specificity and stakes of visual sovereignty in this regard pertain to the Inuits as a focal point, the film also stands in facetiously for the “Primitive Everyman.”35 In addressing the gaze on the Inuits, Raheja identifies the multiple audiences the film is addressing, and points out that their varied understanding of the film’s Inuit episteme or cultural references calibrates their access to its wry or self-reflexive play with indigenous signifiers. These levels of address are pegged with different aims of serving their “home communities,” and “forcing viewers to reconsider mass-mediated images of the Arctic.”36 A knowing Inuit audience, for instance, would see the film differently (p.183) than non-Inuit Native Americans “who may read some of the cues from the film and place them in dialogue with their own tribally specific oral narratives and discursive contexts.” A third group consists of non-Inuits “who do not understand Inuktitut or the cultural practices represented in the film but who may be aware of the stereotypes surrounding Inuit in literature and film.”37 With these three prototypical ways of looking, Raheja rereads the iconic smile of an Inuit hunter portrayed in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) from “putatively naïve” to “laughing at the camera”38 to “laugh[ing] at the audience” in Atanarjuat.39 This play with the audience is exemplified in one of many instances of the film’s visual sovereignty where the filmmakers “take the non-Inuit audience hostage” by refusing to edit the 161-minute film to conventional length or narrative style.40 The “slowness of the sequencing,” allegorizing “the wait for hours at a seal hole,” for instance, forces us to “alter our consumption of visual images to an Inuit pace, one that is slower and more attentive to the play of light on a grouping of rocks or the place where the snow meets the ocean.”41

One of the lessons of visual sovereignty is the political solidarity of Inuits and Native Americans anchored in the common exigencies of their communities’ claims to misplaced or suppressed cultural identifications. While this particular intervention is specific to the Inuits and Native Americans as subaltern groups, its transcolonial convergence presents a model for framing and conditioning the ways of looking at indigeneity or nativeness in other minor contexts. Chin’s Woman enters the fray of this transcolonial borderzone to address the comparable issue of nativization in the Asias. Like Native Americans on film, the native Asian woman is an overdetermined concept in performance with several ready tropes. But as Raheja demonstrates with visual sovereignty, destabilizing Eurocentric principles of looking is not necessarily predicated on the Western gaze as a structuring episteme. Besides, the political stakes constituted by a reaction to the dominant way of looking at otherness would always serve “the dominant’s sense of entitlement” and “produce in the minor a reactive notion of authenticity.”42 A transcolonial understanding of the native Asian woman forges visual sovereignty with queer minor-native tactics to address multiple audiences while foregrounding how a minor episteme can be a central and effective critical strategy. It calls, in other words, for another way of looking at the (p.184) nativized females in Chin’s show as more than simply deconstructing or subverting the orientalist stereotypes of Asian femininity for an audience who can only see through the Western lens. The latter approach is encapsulated by a postcolonial, feminist critic’s summation of the show: “Details Cannot Body Wants plays with—and up to—Western stereotypes of passive, submissive, hyper-feminine Asian womanhood.”43

The limitations of such an optic have to do not only with its sole focus on the vertical power relationship between colonizer and colonized but also the inadvertent reinscription of stereotypes even where they don’t apply in order for the critique to make sense to a Western audience/gaze. Consider, for instance, this excerpt of the “Cannot” section of Chin’s show:

Hello Doll. Where are you from? I’ll bet you’re lonesome, aren’t you? I bet I know what you want. I know all about you. How about some hunky chunky company? How about it, lovely dove?

And you’re supposed to reply,

(In docile, ‘Oriental’ voice and posture, with white profile to audience)

Hai. Watashi karimatsu. Arigato gozaimasu. Me China Doll, me Inscrutable Doll, me sexy Miss Saigon, me so horny/so so horny/me so horny, me love you long time (etc. from 2-Live Crew rap song).

(The Chorus can pick up the beat and song.)


(Use loud, sassy black mannerisms and tone, with black profile to audience)

Hey Muthafukka. Quit messin’ round with me and mah sistahs you hear? We don’t want yo jive talk an yo bullshittin. You know what’s yo problem? You ain’t got no RESPECT, that’s yo problem. Pick up after yoself! Go wash yo own goddam underwear! Clean that toilet seat after you take a leak! Take yo goddam inflated inflatable prick and shove it up yo skinny ass!

We AIN’T gonna be

AIN’T gonna be

AIN’T gonna be

Mules of the WORLD no mo!44

According to Gilbert, “African American culture provides a model for feminine agency in the wise-girl rap of the ‘Cannot’ section,” where (p.185) Chin demonstrates the “arbitrary composition of such racial stereotypes, [as] the Woman transforms from a Peking Opera performer to a Western man to a Miss Saigon sex-doll, before adopting the straight-talking sass of an urban black American.”45 The substitutive citations of various nativized female Asians point to racial stereotypes from the West that run from geisha, China doll, and Miss Saigon to the sexually available Asian female in “Me So Horny,” the 2-Live Crew rap song based on the encounter between U.S. servicemen and a Vietnamese hooker in the film Full Metal Jacket:


  • I wanna slip my tube steak into your sister. What’ll you take in trade?

  • What do you got?

  • Hey, baby. You got girlfriend Vietnam?

  • Not just this minute.

  • Well, baby, me so horny. Me so HORNY. Me love you long time. You party?

  • Yeah, we might party. How much?

  • Fifteen dollar.

  • Fifteen dollars for both of us?

  • No. Each you fifteen dollar. Me love you long time. Me SO HORNY.

  • Fifteen dollar too beaucoup. Five dollars each.

  • Me sucky-sucky. Me love you too much.46
  • For a knowing audience of Chin’s performance, such hypersexualized references of Asian women are partly about the sublimation of the Vietnam War in American popular culture (musical, Hollywood film, rap) through the figure of the female Asian whore, a native whore who is sexually available but disposable, and always barely comprehensible in speech and/or action. The quick and varied citations of other tropes—geisha, China doll, Miss Saigon—also point to the way that Asian women in general are superficially nativized by U.S. imperial projects and disseminated to the rest of the world as consumable.

    But exposing the “arbitrary composition” of Western racial stereotypes may be no more than a mere descriptor of colonial taxonomy, and such a sole focus can and often does obfuscate other racialized (p.186) relationalities. The worldview or subjectivity of the heterosexual white male is not the only game plan in town. The China doll syndrome cited by Chin, for instance, may be a Western construction, but its cultural import in Singapore is more likely inflected through the trend of local Chinese men marrying mainland, working-class Chinese women rather than through a film star like Anna May Wong. Ironically, Chin’s “Inscrutable Doll” invokes the mail-order doll bride from China who speaks Mandarin better than Chinese Singaporeans! But such resignifications are forestalled by an staunchly calibrated anti-(Western)-orientalist gaze. Besides, the blind spot of “deconstructive” embodiments for such a gaze is the inadvertent replication of nativized encounters or the instantiation of U.S. exotic tropes in the borderzones. For instance, the hyperbolic representation of helpless female orientals becomes essentialized in the moment of their redemption by the sassy female African American rapper who uses a decontextualized form of black rage to “save” her more docile and practically speechless Asian counterparts. The “agency” that is accrued to the “urban black American” by way of her forceful speech, expletives, and rap “mannerisms” is itself a racialized construction, but she is somehow presented as a more empowering stereotype than the orientalized Asian. Yet for audiences outside the United States, such as Singapore, the menacing female rapper is potentially instantiated as an exotic thug, since rap is mediated by U.S. music television and other sensationalistic images of tough neighborhoods in a black America they are unlikely to have encountered or studied. Hence, rather than speaking for her apparently more oppressed Asian counterparts, she ends up becoming nativized herself in an anti-orientalist critique about otherness. Such trappings of a deconstructive lens attuned only to a Western gaze can be productively addressed by applying visual sovereignty and minor epistemes as structuring modes of understanding.

    In the case of Chin’s performance, sorting out the audiences that she is addressing can help to recalibrate the gaze and political stakes of the minor-native in performance. But this is no easy task as there is no identifiable community, such as the Inuits, forming the core of her minor episteme. Rather, Details Cannot Body Wants addresses a very diverse female constituency with the amorphous, nativized Asian woman as its transnational centerpiece. As the show demonstrates, she (p.187) could manifest in myriad forms that are shaped through Chin’s body in a variety of languages, songs, and costumes. But her exoticism is never satisfactorily displayed, as the audience is “held hostage” by her inaccessibility and volatile transmogrifications. The minor-native episteme is in this case a performance technique and a reading practice anchored on the intersection of transcolonial feminisms and woman of color criticism. There are at least three audiences Chin’s show is addressing: multiracial and transmigratory women in Singapore; female diasporic Asians and ethnic minorities in the United States and Australia; and an international audience who understands the gendered predicament of nativized female Asians in the global media of especially capitalist societies. These different audiences and the borderzones of their interaction “recognize the persistence of colonial power relations and the power of global capital, attend to the inherent complexities of minor expressive cultures on multiple registers, take a horizontal approach that brings postcolonial minor cultural formations across national boundaries into productive comparisons, and engage with multiple linguistic formations.”47

    Superb as it is, Chow’s rhetorical riddle about the native who is falsely missed (as the titular question in her essay suggests) only to be rediscovered between the “defiled image and the indifferent gaze” necessitates a forceful reading against the binding cultural coordinates of the West. But the minor-native in the transcolonial borderzones invokes a different reading strategy and performance technique that considers the reinscriptive power of the colonial gaze as merely one of several power dimensions that must be configured for a critical understanding of transnational nativization. In other words, while we can neither ignore the native’s persistent presence in our postcolonial modernity nor simply substitute it with a visual that is corrective of the “pornographic” gaze of the West, we have to move toward or stage an altogether different encounter while retaining the imaginary of the native as a form of tension for critique. Second, we need to situate our sense of space on less familiar or less trodden pathways using performance as a road map and a visual embodiment. For instance, while the inauguration of border studies around the U.S.-Mexican border has provided a model for considering the historic and contemporary effects of colonial annexation and exchange, it has also codified the relational coordinates (p.188) in a bi-national metroplex. There are many other borders in the world with histories of violence, migration, and exchange that have not been adequately (if at all) studied. Meanwhile, much of the discourse continues to be generated through or against the dominant gaze of the straight white male and his mythic, nativized other. This classic dyad, a familiar colonial legacy of the West, continues to be a core problematic in border and postcolonial epistemologies. But could such a structuring optic be potentially transnationalized so that alternative borders are not exclusively narrated through its history and tropes? Can we see the native beyond his/her contradistinction to the white man as the standard bearer of difference? The transcolonial borderzones proposed here present a form of spatial relocation and interactional dynamic—who, what, and where we choose to perform and study—best served by the technics of performance and other transcolonial tactics such as visual sovereignty.

    The politics of playing with nativized markers in transcolonial borderzones have to be understood in a critical field of cognate theories so that the minor-native can emerge as an analytic, particularly as it pertains to global literary and performance inquiries. In my particular approach, I have relied much on minor transnationalism as a navigational principle. Part of the critical riddle of the minor-native is figuring out whom its performance serves, and for what purpose; what its colonial and transnational conduits are; and how we come to know a minor-native performance is taking place. As pioneering proponents of minor transnationalism, Lionnet and Shih argue that it “points toward and makes visible the multiple relations between the national and the transnational” while emphasizing the minor’s “inherent complexity and multiplicity.”48 This conception of minor transnationality is based not on a “major-resistant mode of cultural practice” but on a transversal movement of culture.49 It produces “new forms of identification that negotiate national, ethnic, and cultural boundaries” whose coordinates are not pure to begin with, but “always already hybrid and relational as a result of sometimes unexpected and sometimes violent processes.”50 And unlike postnational, nomadic, or flexible models, its subjects are actually invested in their geopolitical space, and “often waiting to be recognized as ‘citizens’ to receive the attendant privileges of full (p.189) citizenship.”51 These spells of difference demand an analytics tied to performance in the queer Asias and its attendant tropic spells.

    The emergent minor-native in the transnational borderzone is not so much an identity or a demographic as it is a method for understanding minoritized or nativized acts, perceptions, and feelings in the transnational world. A witness and conspirator of this sea change, the brown boy springs from the wings of the stage, where he has been watching the native woman’s show with a gleeful grin. And this is also where he takes his cue to leave with a bag of tricks made of and made for the tropic spells in the Asias, where each spellbinding performance attendant to his stories, alongside his critical companion, the native woman, now unfurls to a different gaze. (p.190)


    (1.) Rey Chow, “Where Have All the Natives Gone?,” in Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 50.

    (2.) Chin Woon Ping, Details Cannot Body Wants, in Postcolonial Plays: An Anthology, ed. Helen Gilbert (London: Routledge, 2001), 276–85.

    (3.) This could be a reactive Asiacentrism, a counter-Eurocentric position, or the disciplinary practice or legacy of area studies. See, for instance, Mark Johnson, Peter Jackson, and Gilbert Herdt, “Critical Regionalities and the Study of Gender and Sexual Diversity in South East and East Asia,” Culture, Health and Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care 2.4 (2000): 361–75.

    (4.) Leslie Rabine, Global Circulation of African Fashion (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 12.

    (5.) I am thinking of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s influential performance installation, Couple in the Cage, which modeled a deft critique of the imperial, anthropological gaze by playing precisely with such a question as Latin American performance artists who can signify otherwise (as natives). See Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey, directed by Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia (New York: Third World Newsreel, 1993), DVD.

    (6.) Consider the facetious commentary in Teresa Hsiao, “A White Man’s Guide to Dating Asian Girls,” Huffington Post, May 31, 2012, where dating an “Asian girlfriend” as the quintessential oriental princess has become a rite of passage for all white men. In fact, “to ‘Date an Asian chick’ has become akin to ‘Go skydiving’ or ‘Live in New York’ in the veritable white guy bucket list.” This entry of Asian exotica was prompted by the recent marriage of the Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and Priscilla Chan.

    (8.) Ibid., 29.

    (10.) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 66–111.

    (12.) Victor Bascara, Model-Minority Imperialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xvii.

    (13.) Ibid., xvi.

    (14.) Francoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, Minor Transnationalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

    (15.) Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

    (16.) Hemispheric Institute, http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/; Jill Lane, Blackface Cuba, 1840–1895 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); Diana Taylor, Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

    (17.) Francoise Lionnet, “Creole Vernacular Theatre: Transcolonial Translations in Mauritius,” MLN 118.4 (September 2003): 913.

    (19.) Edward Bruner, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

    (20.) Ibid., 18.

    (22.) Leo Ching, Becoming Japanese: Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 11.

    (23.) Helen Gilbert, “Introduction to Details Cannot Body Wants,” in Gilbert, Postcolonial Plays, 274.

    (29.) Ibid., 278.

    (31.) Ibid., 273.

    (32.) Michelle Raheja, “Reading Nanook’s Smile: Visual Sovereignty, Indigenous Revisions of Ethnography, and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner),” American Quarterly 59.4 (December 2007): 1160.

    (33.) Ibid., 1161.

    (34.) Ibid., 1179.

    (35.) Ibid., 1174.

    (36.) Ibid., 1161.

    (37.) Ibid., 1175.

    (38.) Ibid., 1159.

    (39.) Ibid., 1175.

    (40.) Ibid., 1178.

    (46.) Full Metal Jacket, directed by Stanley Kubrick (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1987), VHS.

    (49.) Ibid., 7.

    (50.) Ibid., 8, 9.

    (51.) Ibid., 8. (p.220)