Jack Smith 「Interview: Gaysia author Benjamin Law」

Posted on March 10, 2015
Benjamin Law. Photo: James Brickwood

Nudity, family valuers and the unique ‘gaysian’ experience

He’s accepted motorcycle rides from Balinese gigolos, jostled with media for a gawp at Japan’s biggest celebrity ladyboy and explored the horrific realities of being gay and HIV-positive in Myanmar.

Benjamin Law’s travelogue『Gaysia』, both humourous and poignant and now in its second edition, is a must-read for anyone wishing to learn about contemporary queer culture on the world’s most dynamic continent – including a chapter on what Law calls ‘that glorious beast of a city’, our beloved Beijing.

What prompted the decision to write『Gaysia』?

I’m a double-barrelled minority in Australia, and my friends have been calling me ‘gaysian’ for a long time – as a joke. My first book,『The Family Law』, was a memoir, and memoir-writing involves a whole lot of staring at the wall and trying to write about things that happened years ago, as you gradually go insane.

Whenever I’m working on a big-ish project, I’m always distracted by what else I’d rather be doing, and what I’d rather have been doing while writing『The Family Law』was travelling the world.

I also noticed a lot of the news stories I was reading were queer stories set in Asia: transsexual beauty pageants in Thailand; ex-gay organisations [that claim they can ‘cure’ people of being gay] in Malaysia; the decriminalisation of homosexuality by Delhi’s High Court [since re-criminalised]. I became curious about the human stories behind the news.

Finally, as a child of migrants, I tend to think a lot about what-if scenarios. Your parents’ lives are so removed from yours: not only are they a generation older, but they were also raised in another culture altogether. What would it have been like if I’d grown up in Malaysia, where my mother was born? Or China, where my father was born?

Do you feel there are themes that distinguish Asia’s gay awakening from the West’s?

Throughout all the countries I visited was the ongoing pressure to marry. Though a huge generalisation, Western and Asian narratives are often different in that the oppression in many Asian countries isn’t vocal – it’s the silence that’s often oppressive.

After your time in Beijing, what was your take on how queer culture is developing here?

There’s not much vocal or persistent homophobia, at least as we know it.

The gains being made are minor but important, like the man who recently took legal action against a clinic in Chongqing for trying to convert his homosexuality.

Did any tales from Beijing not make the final cut?

There was one particularly filthy evening at [gay club] Destination that didn’t make the cut. Mostly because it didn’t relate to anything else, but partly to maintain standards of decency.

How did you find the seedier side of gay Asia? Any changes to your own boundaries like, say, public nudity?

After Balinese nudist resorts and Japanese onsen, I’m pretty good with public nudity nowadays!

Since writing this book, various editors have gotten me to report on other stories that involve nudity, like nude yoga classes. Let’s say『Gaysia』relaxed me when it came to getting my junk out.

You outline religious, social and family conflicts as obstacles facing gay Asians. Which do you see as the main hurdle?

It’d be misleading to pick one, as if all three aren’t related to each other. People – especially Westerners – often talk about these aspects of life as being external, as if religious or family pressure would disappear if you could excise religion or family from your life. It’s not that simple.

Did your perception of Chineseness, both in the abstract and as applied to your own identity, change after you visited the Mainland?

A little. Even though I’m Chinese myself, spending so much time in Beijing made me realise that culturally, I am far more strongly Hong Kong Chinese than Mainland Chinese. Language-wise, I knew it was going to be different of course, but I don’t find it surprising at all that most young Hong Kong people see themselves as Hong Kongers first and foremost.

Do you think there’s anything old-world Hong Kongers and overseas Chinese can learn from the newly ascendent Mainlanders? Might your dad yet be convinced to don some made- in-China shreddies?

[Laughs] No, not quite yet.

Does your dad still think you made a choice to be gay?

That’s a good question. I don’t think so. He’s happy for me and my boyfriend, and takes our relationship seriously. He respects it.

And does your mum still put your being gay down to something going wrong in the womb?

[Laughs] Probably. But that’s her way of telling me she loves me, really.

From your perspective, is gay marriage something that can be slotted into Asian culture?

Some of my friends argue the necessity of same-sex marriage is far more important in Asian cultures, especially in China, where your ability to start your own family is vital to your parents’ social security as they grow older. But I’m sceptical whether social need outweighs cultural taboos.

If you could only return to one of the countries you visited while researching『Gaysia』, which would you choose, and why?

India. I’m in utter love with that country. It’s intoxicating. Despite the gastro.

Do you have any plans for a follow-up?『Gaysia』revisited? What’s your next big project?

I’m currently writing a TV show based on『The Family Law』. It’s being made for Australian television and we start shooting in May. It’s kind of nuts!