Documenting Queer Chronotope in Postsocialist China
纽约大学电影研究博士, 曾发表数篇有关华语酷儿文化的文章, 并任教于纽约大学与哥伦比亚大学。
Shi-Yan Chao received his PhD in Cinema Studies at New York University. He has published articles on Chinese queer culture and taught classes on documentary, horror, and Chinese/Taiwan cinemas at New York University and Columbia University.
The People’s Republic of the 1990s saw the fluorescence of independent documentary filmmaking. Wu Wenguang, Duan Jinchuan, Zhang Yuan and Jiang Yue launched a wave of documentary filmmaking commonly referred to as the Chinese New Documentary Movement. The movement’s filmmakers generally reject the official tradition of newsreels and zhuanti pian (literally, special topic films), which are characterized by images compiled in accordance with pre-written scripts, and by directly addressing the audience from a grand, top-down angle (1). Rather, they highlight a sense of immediacy and an “unscripted spontaneity” (2), showing a deep concern for “civilian life” from a “personal standpoint” (3). Distancing themselves from official discourses, they choose to document the lives of ordinary people, especially those on the margins of society, such as peasants, migrant workers, the homeless, the elderly, the homosexual, etc.
Whereas lesbianism has come into the focus of several films since the new millennium (beginning with The Box [Ying Weiwei, 2001] and Dyke March [Shi Tou, 2004]) (4), female impersonation, transvestism, and transgendering are also salient queer subjects (arguably beginning with Miss Jing Xing [Zhang Yuan, 2000]) in this wave of independent documentary filmmaking. In the following pages, I would like to zoom in on Snake Boy/Shanghai Nanhai (Michelle Chen and Li Xiao, 2001) and on Mei (Gao Tian, 2005), two DV documentaries of the latter category that were shown in the first and second Beijing Queer Film Festival, respectively. As the eponymous subject of Snake Boy, Coco is a talented, gay-identifying jazz singer based in Shanghai. Coco’s persona, however, has drawn criticism by noted China studies scholar Paul G. Pickowicz, for whom Coco appears to be little more than “a neocolonial invention and soulless plaything of the new and profoundly unattractive ‘expatriate’ community in Shanghai” (5). While Pickowicz’s stance is admittedly informed by some postcolonial criticism from a macro approach that unwittingly downplays the individual, my analysis on a micro level will point to the contrary, particularly the queer agency involved in Coco’s self-fashioning of his stage performance and offstage persona.
Whereas Coco’s performance enrolls transvestism not so much in attire as in vocal style, I will, then, bring in a discussion of stage artist Meimei, the central character of documentary Mei Mei. As the documentary shows, Meimei’s transvestism not only involves both attire and vocal style, but also comes in modulations in accordance with the changing geopolitics interwoven with the subject’s life trajectory. By bringing together Snake Boy and Mei Mei, I mean to highlight the queer agency negotiated through a spectrum of gender performance. In tension with Judith Butler’s formulation of the totalizing, heteronormative “gender performativity” (6), the queer agency thereby animated is notably played out against the parameters of both temporality and spatiality, reverberating with Judith Halberstam’s stress on “queer time and place” (7)—or simply “queer chronotope” (my term)—that is so foundational to the subject formation of many sexual dissidents. The subjects’ negotiation of their dissident subjectivities, as will become clear, is imbricated in China’s postsocialist economy. To some measure, it also contributes to what Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel call an “alternative archive” that, as a feature of the New Documentary Movement, houses unofficial records and affects unrecognized or marginalized by the official discourse (8).
Shot in 2001, Snake Boy presents a vivid portrayal of Coco, a then 24-years-old jazz singer who had been performing in Shanghai nightclubs since age seventeen. Trendy and fluent in English, Coco, to many’s surprise, is not a Shanghai native, but is originally from Shaoyang, a remote county in Hunan Province. While the word “snake” in the film’s English title refers to both the sign of the Chinese zodiac Coco belongs to and the mystical image of the snake to which Coco likens his own persona, the film’s Chinese title—literally “Shanghai Boy”—indicates Coco’s intimate blending of himself into Shanghai’s cosmopolitan culture and glamorous nightlife. Aside from the shots that follow the subjects or showcase the settings, the film is, for the most part, composed of newly conducted interviews with Coco, his parents, his former teachers, and those who befriend him either personally or professionally, interspersed with various footages, photos, and print materials about Coco from the past. Through pieces of information emerges a picture of Coco, who, with his parents both professionals in local Chinese opera, was born in 1977. He had shown his musical talent since childhood, and—at age sixteen in 1994—became the youngest student in the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The first years of Coco’s study in Shanghai happened to witness the prospering of the city’s nightclubs that featured musical performances. Here Coco encountered jazz for the first time; enthralled by this particular musical genre, he soon began performing jazz in nightclubs too. He particularly modeled his singing style after Billie Holiday at that stage. In the meantime, Coco also came to terms with his gay identity. The film then recounts his first relationship—an interracial one—that happened in France in 1997, following his decision to drop out of school while pursuing a career as a stage and recording artist.
It is clear that two themes are fundamental to this narrative: one is about Coco’s performance, and the other concerns his sexual orientation. I find these two themes not only inseparable from each other but interwoven by a sense of queer agency. The subject’s immense attraction to jazz, notably, involves layers of negotiation in Coco. As a musical genre that underlines the performers’ improvisation and personal expression, jazz for many is characterized by expressive freedom and a sense of individualism. This characteristic, in a postsocialist setting, potentially resonates with some deep-seated sensibility that overtly rejects the previous generations’ forceful renunciation of any individualism in favor of the collective interests under socialist nation-building. Indeed, as an artist who grew up in post-Mao China, Coco associates his own pursuit of musical profession with his father, who, in Coco’s view, possesses great musical gifts but “his times [the socialist era] did not allow him the full opportunity to showcase his talent and fulfill his dream.” Given that Coco sees his artistic pursuit as succession of his father’s ambition, Coco’s artistic pursuit inextricably involves a negotiation for personal expression that, while bearing a postsocialist ramification, finds its clear voice in jazz performance.
Further, Coco’s jazz singing involves multiple boundary-crossings. When Coco sings like a Billie Holiday or a Lena Horne, he—as a non-black male jazz vocalist—virtually crosses the boundaries of race, gender, and culture on a phantasmatic level. He engages in a kind of sonic drag that, by crossing the boundaries of race, gender and culture through singing, recreates the mise-en-scène for his subject formation. This recreated mise-en-scène, so to speak, is key to Coco’s staging of a subjectivity that is different from the Chinese mainstream, and that is foremost marked by gender ambiguity and queerness. While Coco’s particular performing style allows him to exercise his queer agency, it also provides Coco with a strategy to negotiate his gay identity in public, where he can strategically act out—but not specifically spell out—his queer identification. This strategy was especially significant before March 2001, when homosexuality was finally classified as “normal” sexual behavior by the Chinese Psychiatric Association.
When Pickowicz criticizes Coco as a “neocolonial invention and soulless plaything” patronized by Shanghai’s expatriate community, I find Pickowicz essentially takes a macro approach, trying to critically define Coco’s performance in relation to a cultural framework dominated by the West. His criticism somehow neglects Coco’s gay identity, along with Coco’s negotiation for his queer subjectivity through musical performance. In his critique of Coco’s lack of agency, Pickowicz also conveniently ignores the fact that Coco does not stop at imitating Billie Holiday or being what Pickowicz describes as a “lesser version of the original” (9). As the film shows, Coco and his band have been avidly experimenting on fusing jazz to a variety of music, ranging from Chinese percussion music, to Chinese folk song, to bebop. Those musical experiments, of course, point to yet another layer of negotiation in Coco, who is first and foremost a self-conscious musical artist besides a gay vocalist.
As a Beijing-based stage performer, Meimei, like Coco, is not native to the metropolis, but was born and raised in Dandong, a small border city in Northeastern China (10). Meimei’s gender-bending performance, unlike Coco’s though, involves both vocal style and costuming. Shot between late 2003 and early 2005, this documentary consists of three sections. While the first section leads to Meimei’s “farewell concert” before his marriage to a man, which turns out to be short-lived, the second section revolves around Meimei’s attempt to return to performing life, which is eventually cut short by his illness, and the third section depicts Meimei’s sojourn in Dandong with his parents. While the film involves the subject’s travel between Beijing and his hometown, it notably sheds light on certain aspects of cross-dressing that are mediated by the changing geo-politics. For instance, when in Beijing, Meimei sometimes chooses to wear skirts even when he is offstage. But when Meimei leaves for Dandong, he must wear trousers instead, so as to eschew the scrutiny and gossip of the locals. Clearly, Meimei enjoys more autonomy in regard to his looks in Beijing, a metropolis, than in hishometown, a remote small city. As a small-town sexual dissident whose personal desire contradicts public expectation, Meimei could have sought relative autonomy in Beijing. However, by the film’s third section Meimei cannot help but concede to the more constricted regulatory institution of his hometown after losing his mobility due to his poor health and economic distress. Not only must Meimei give up his preferred feminine apparel and long hair, but he loses the stage for cross-dressing performance in his desired fashion. Meimei, during his protracted recovery, nonetheless starts to learn and practice Peking opera. In a broader sense, we must take into account that in Peking opera, a matrix of “formulated” (chengshi hua) skills associated with various role-types (hangdang) together with an abstract signifying system of stage installation have been developed throughout the centuries. While the gender system in Peking opera is not fully subject to the principles of “reality,” the operatic cross-dressing is also justifiable as a form of “art.” The fact that Meimei practices Peking opera while stranded in Dandong can thus be understood as an expedient through which he can moderately channel his desire for female impersonation, yet simultaneously distance himself from the negative imaginaries associated with “gender inversion.”While Coco’s jazz performance, as noted, registers a postsocialist ramification in its emphasis on personal expression and a Westernized outlook illegitimate in socialist China, Meimei’s cross-dressing performance inBeijing is likewise inflected by postsocialism on at least two levels. On one level, Meimei justifies his transvestite performance by arguing that he earns his living by his own labor (kao ziji de laoli zhuanqian). This argument acutely blends “money” and “labor” into each other, where money and labor represent two valuations most foundational to capitalism and socialism, respectively, while China’s postsocialism, as has been pointed out, is exactly marked by the uneasy coexistence of capitalism and socialism. On another level, Meimei’s rendition of Chinese pop songs from Hong Kong (particularly Anita Mui’s “Woman as Flower” [Nüren hua]) further indicates a cosmopolitan dimension in his queer subject formation that desires phantasmatic transcendence of the local by way not so much of the West (e.g. Coco’s case) as of the regional.
In sum, my analysis of Snake Boy and Mei Mei foregrounds the queer agency negotiated through a spectrum of gender performance, and it is played out against the parameter of temporality—namely postsocialist vs. socialist eras—and the parameter of spatiality, particularly the urban/rural divide, and the local-regional-global nexus. The subjects’ negotiation of their dissident subjectivities also brings into focus China’s postsocialist economy, as exemplified by how the subjects come to terms with such valuations as individuality vs. collectivity, and labor vs. money. Together they shed light on the intricate dynamic between queer agency and queer chronotope in a postsocialist setting. These two documentaries manifest a crucial part of the queer experience that is socially grounded yet marginalized in official discourse. With the commitment of the filmmakers and their queer subjects alike, such queer experience also becomes an indispensable dimension of the expanding alternative archive contributed by China’s New Documentary Films as a whole.
1. Chris Berry, “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Postsocialism.” In Zhang Zhen (ed.), The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. 115-34.
3. Lu Xinyu. Jilu Zhongguo: Dangdai Zhongguo xin jilupian yundong. Shanghai: Sanlian Shudian, 2003. 14-15, 335.
4. For a discussion of the lesbian documentary films from China, please see my article, “Coming Out of The Box, Marching as Dykes.” In Chris Berry, Lu Xingyu and Lisa Rofel (eds.), The New Chinese Documentary Film: For the Public Record. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. 77-95.
5. Paul G. Pickowicz, “Social and Political Dynamics of Underground Filmmaking in China.” In Paul G. Pickowicz and Yingjin Zhang (eds.), From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006. 16.
6. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge, 1993.
7. Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
8. Berry and Rofel, “Alternative Archive.” In Chris Berry, Lu Xingyu and Lisa Rofel (eds.), The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. 135-54.
9. Pickowicz, “Social and Political Dynamics of Underground Filmmaking in China.” 16.
10. For a more detailed discussion of Mei Mei along with Zhang Hanzi’s Tang Tang, please refer to my article, “Performing Gender, Performing Documentary in Post-socialist China.” In Yau Ching (ed.), As Normal As Possible: Negotiating Sexuality and Gender in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. 151-75.