Gay Asia gets the hook-up

The cheap and anonymous Internet has been a great enabler of gay culture, say the authors of 'Mobile Cultures'

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, Sep 12, 2004 - Page 18

Early in this collection of essays on what the editors call "new media in queer Asia," one of the contributors remarks that what Stonewall was to the gay US, the Internet has been to gay Asia. It's an interesting thought, and will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever taken a glance at Taiwan's profusion of lesbian/gay/queer (l/g/q) bulletin boards, chat rooms and the like. What is even more surprising is that the data collected for the book's chapter dealing with Taiwan was collected between August 1997 and January 1998. Even greater proliferation has taken place since then.

Of course not everywhere in Asia is like Taiwan. But even in conservative Malaysia, Internet users are effectively subverting the original intentions of the founders of Cyberjaya, the country's envisioned hi-tech crossroads, and using the Internet for personal contacts almost on the scale of Taiwan or Japan. India, too, is covered, where cyber-cafes serve to combine anonymity with cheapness, and Vietnam gets a mention on the basis of a certain Ho Chi Minh City coffeeshop that's said to evoke on Sunday mornings San Francisco's Castro district.

There's no doubt that Taiwan is at the forefront of both hi-tech usage and gay awareness. A whole chapter is given over to Taiwan-born media artist Shu Lea Cheang and her digital sci-fi porn film I.K.U.: A Japanese Cyber-porn Adventure. This artist is described here as a "trickster agent of digital capitalism," and her film, simultaneously erotic and perplexing, is characterized in the following manner. "Ultimately, I.K.U. severs the cumbersome tentacles of the wired 90s' cyborg entity and initiates the body as a gigabite hard drive, self-driven by a programmed corporate scheme."

As a friend of mine likes to say: "Is that so?"

This book will be less useful to those who actually know and use these sites than to those unaware of their existence. The time-lag between research and publication is unfortunate (the latest date I could find even in the book's footnotes was 2000), but nonetheless if you don't know what MOTSS BBS are ("member of the same sex bulletin board systems") and want to find out, this book would be one place to start.

For the rest, who would have thought that there was a Thai Web site called xq28.hypermart.net -- named after the scientific identity of the supposed gay gene -- let alone that it seeks to promulgate an acceptance of homosexuality within the parameters of Buddhist orthodoxy (on the grounds that a man who pursues his own goals without disturbing others is a moral being)?

Not that everything's gay-friendly even there. One non-gay contributor is recorded as expressing the view that the site is a good one as it will help gays meet each other, and so prevent them marrying women and spreading their "faulty gene" through the rest of the population.

The book's main omission is any real discussion of China. None of its authors appears to know much about gay uses of the Internet there, and it's a pity. Even Hong Kong is largely absent. The editors admit this in their introduction, and express the hope that more analysis will emerge soon.

Gay Asia, as many of these authors argue, is not by any means a duplicate of gay America. One highly instructive chapter, for instance, looks at the popularity in the West of Japanese comics called "june" (pronounced ju-neh). Few of their many non-Japanese fans can understand a word of Japanese, and as a result their guesses at the plots are often woefully off-beam. In one example, a Westerner understood a story as being about a young boy who meets an older man, comes off drugs, then is abandoned, but later happily meets up again with his former partner through a prostitution agency. The actual story turns out to involve the secret child of a famous actress who is likely to die after being hospitalized in childhood with mental illness. He meets an older man through his doctor's gay brother, and eventually dies a romantic death in the home and the arms of his older admirer.

Japan generally provides much absorbing material for these academic analysts. The existence of a huge female audience there for boy-love stories is only one case in point. Beautiful young deaths (as in the instance above) are also a national specialism. The implication of youths too perfect ever to grow up has, of course, its parallels in the West, but even so the emotional tone and the kind of interest aroused -- yearning for one's own lost youth in the West, whimsical and aesthetic fascination in Japan -- are very different.

Also strikingly different are some Japanese sexual fantasies, as witnessed here by a few small-scale reproductions from comic strips. Views from inside the body outwards appear to be particular favorites with these artists.

There are many variations across the region. One writer states that his interviewees in Indonesia were unlikely to be on-line because 90 percent of them earned US$60 a month or less. The Internet provides contacts, but only if they have electricity (and, even less likely, access to a computer). And in Singapore, described as a modern state with strongly puritan characteristics, much attention is given to a gay Web site with the seductive name "Yawning Bread."

Cellphones are also included in these writers' briefs but don't get much attention. The editors regret the absence of any analysis of Manila's unique gay text-messaging argot in their pages.