Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
A few dozen students attended Nguyen Tan Hoang’s lecture and multimedia presentation exploring the intersection of visual culture and queer male Asian American identity on Wednesday evening. His films all explore what he called “my own sense of perverse identification with pop cultural texts which I invest with my own queer and of color desires.”
SAO, SQU, Colors, PersuAsian, and the Film and Media and Gender and Sexuality Studies departments came together to bring Hoang, currently a professor at Bryn Mawr, to campus.
Hoang was born in Saigon in the early 1970s and left with his family when he was seven as one of the “boat people.” He grew up in Silicon Valley, which has the second largest population of Vietnamese Americans, and majored in Art and Art History as an undergraduate. “The connection between critical studies and art practice has always been important to me,” he explained.
The bulk of the presentation consisted of Hoang’s experimental videos, many of which were made while he was in art school at UC Irvine. “Like most artists who work in the experimental form, I do most of the stuff myself,” he said. “I don’t have a crew or anything like that… I work with my friends. It comes out of sense of close community… that’s important for me.”
Hoang described himself as “very committed to filling in the absence of sexy images of Asian men… very quickly my work shifted to exploring how queers and people of color negotiate their relationship with dominant culture… [as] critical spectators and consumers, a dynamic and vibrant public.” He wants to contest both “the imagery that already exists but also the absence of stuff I want to look at.”
The first film shown was “Forever Bottom!” made in 1999, which was inspired by “my exposure to the work of Richard Phong, who wrote “Looking for my Penis” about gay Asian men in North American video porn… due to the way we are gendered in the west, invariably we are positioned as the passive bottom… [I wanted to] present a critique [of that idea] that doesn’t reinforce heteronormative standards of what masculinity is or can be.”
“Forever Bottom!” shows an Asian male happily bottoming—in bed, in the shower, in the car, on the roof—for four minutes, and when it wrapped, Hoang joked that making the film had been “much better than writing a 300-page dissertation on gay male bottoming.”
Next was K.I.P., which projects “The Best of Kip Noll,” a white porn star from the late 1970s, over the face of a porn viewer. The image quality was grainy, and Hoang explained that “VHS tapes become distressed and break down very easily… I was interested in the material residue of previous viewers, kind of like a community of viewers of this artifact.”
The film also needs to be understood as a document from a man who “came out in the late 1980s… so I was socialized in terms of the AIDS epidemic, and watching pre-condom porn from the 70s… has this mythological status of all these orgies that I missed out on, so that’s another part of my investment in these porn videos.” Hoang continued, “I see porn as constituting an important gay historical archive… [but] film museums are not going to be restoring the best of Kip Noll anytime soon, so it’s important for me to revisit this work and recirculate it.”
Hoang also showed a clip from “the first video I ever made… it’s kind of embarrassing,” “Seven Steps to Sticky Heaven,” which is about Asian men interested in dating other Asian men, sometimes referred to as “sticky rice” in the gay community. “This comes out of the idea… that Asian men don’t find one another attractive based on the normative beauty standards of the gay male.”
“Maybe Never (But I’m Counting the Days)” was Hoang’s MFA thesis short, and it “plays off of that drinking game… it’s important to see Asian bodies having sex, talking about sex on the screen.”
Another video explored the image of Dalena, “a blonde-haired blue-eyed white woman from Muncie, IN who happens to be a huge Vietnamese-American pop star… she claims not to understand a word she sings.” Hoang originally saw her as “once again, a white person appropriating our cultural production,” but “the more i looked into her, the more I became a fan… I wanted to ask, what are the investments of the Vietnamese community in her work and her performance, and what does that say about our culture?”
The last video, “Pirates!” re-imagines Hoang’s history as a boat person as a proto-queer story, juxtaposing images of “boat people” with images of pirate-themed gay porn. “I remember very little of the trip, but one image stays with me… after being rescued by this German ship… there was a German sailor, he gave me a piece of chicken and flexed his muscle for me, to say ‘Eat this, it will make you strong’… so that is something that has remained with me, and I wanted to tell this story as a boy’s fantasies about sailors and pirates… a way to make sense of this narrative that I did not have a full grasp on.”
After screening all the films, Hoang stayed to talk with students about the new media landscape for queer film in the age of the Internet. He said that there is “still very little work that addresses Asian-American queer men” and worried that “queer film is now becoming corporatized… there’s no place for experimental work,” but stated that he wanted to think more about the Internet’s possibilities in the future.