Tiffany Zhao 「Exclusive Interview with Richard Fung | Sense of Wonder」

Posted on May 26, 2010

Richard Fung is a Toronto-based, Trinidadian-raised video artist and educator, whose work has already earned him the Bell Canada Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001. From his earliest piece, 「Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians」 (1986), to his Reel Asian feature project 「Rex vs. Singh」 (2008), Fung’s work on place and history, sexuality and pop culture, family and diasporas, is pioneering. He is widely lauded as a master of his chosen medium, and even canonized as an essayist and public intellectual.

Fung describes his work as explorations, some of which involve re-venturing into the past and posing questions that were left unanswered, or unasked. Such is the endeavour in 「Rex vs. Singh」, a collaboration between Fung and two other directors, in which they approach a Canadian court case accusing Indian mine workers of sodomy just a year after the famous Komogata Maru Incident.

I was honoured to have the opportunity of interviewing Fung, to learn of his inspirations, past work and present occupations.

You are of Chinese heritage, were born in Trinidad, went to school in Ireland, and are now based in Canada. How have the themes of your work been shaped by place and ethnicity?

I recently realized that space/place is the uniting theme in all my video work. I guess I am interested in how people relate or not to their surroundings, and how environments shape people and limit or open up possibilities. My very first independent video, 「Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians」 (1984), looks at sexual identities in the context of diaspora. The self-image and the feelings of exclusion or belonging experienced by the documentary’s subjects arise from their living in Toronto, not in the Asian countries they or their ancestors come from.

In 「My Mother’s Place」 (1990), I consider my mother’s sense of self as Chinese and as a woman, and her feelings about one’s social “place” is shaped by her life experience as a third generation Trinidadian [who] moved to Canada, and as someone who grew up poor but worked her way into the middle class. In 「Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher Cozier」 (2005), the artist has a successful international career, but it is a struggle for him to continue to live in Trinidad, even though this is where his inspiration lies. This is due to the lack of funding, exhibition and work opportunities, the political and artistic environment and the fact that it is often difficult to physically travel from such geopolitically marginalized spaces. He describes how hard it is to get to his exhibition in Denmark when the nearest consulate to obtain a visa is in New York.

More recently, in the video installation 「Jehad in Motion」 (2007), I explore how a Palestinian-Canadian man responds to the extremely different physical and psychic spaces of the two cities he calls home: Toronto and Hebron. For example, while he has many Jewish friends in Toronto’s West Bank, the only Jews he comes across are the Israeli settlers and soldiers ho occupy his ancestral land. Modifying all the talk of Diasporas, which is about tracing connections and commonalities among people with similar roots but living in different locations, I notice that my relatives in the U.S. think like Americans, those in Britain have British values, and those of us in Canada use Canadian lenses to view the world. Place and location are incredibly important and interesting.

Memories influence the art we create, and art keeps memories alive. You draw on your mother’s oral history in 「My Mother’s Place」 (1990), your uncle’s stories of playing a Japanese soldier as a Chinese extra in 「Heaven Knows」, Mr. Allison’s blurred Asian identity in 「Islands」 (2002), and your loved ones’ struggles with illness in 「Sea in the Blood」 (2000). Could you comment on the importance of de/re-constructing private and public histories through your medium

The more recent family tapes, 「Sea in the Blood」 and 「Islands」, really come from particular circumstances, in the former case realizing that unlike most of my friends I’ve always lived close to illness, and in the latter thinking that my uncle’s experience as an ethnically transvestite extra said a lot about my relationship to cinema as a viewer. But I think more deeply this ongoing interest comes from my formation in the Caribbean.

In Trinidad, I grew up with the terms inside and outside children, meaning those born within and outside a marriage. Many men have one or more families and these two groups usually know of, if not direction know, each other. It was and is a society with many open secrets, one in which private and public information blur in different ways than in Canada. I think it is the experience of migration, the move from one context to another, that put the conventions of both into relief. I think this is how I came to make these tapes which critics have called autoethnographic.

I believe the will to reconstruct family histories is amplified with a condition of diaspora. Wondering about one’s ancestors comes about precisely because one is cut off from that knowledge. I know that my maternal great grandparents came to Trinidad in the 1860s from Fujian in Eastern China, but I have no clue beyond that. My father came from China in the 1920s, but I only visited China once, in the 1980s after his death, and I am cut off by language from my relatives in Hong Kong and China. In this absence of history there is speculation, conjecture and a reliance on memory. This is the case with all groups in Trinidad, those of Indian and African heritage included. I would say only the French creole elite can more easily trace their aristocratic lineage using conventional methods.

Your past video projects have dealt with areas where homophobia and racism overlap or intersect. Is your Reel Asian feature project 「Rex vs. Singh」 along similar lines?

「Rex vs. Singh」 is a speculative history using the court documents from a sodomy case involving two Sikh men in 1915 Vancouver. This was the year after the notorious Komogata Maru incident, in which over 300 would-be immigrants from India were turned away from Vancouver’s harbour after a lengthy stand-off. Their treatment laid bare the racist underpinnings of Canada’s immigration regulations, but this was also a period of organizing within the South Asian communities and a period of particular harassment against them. It is interesting to look at the court records from that time and see the number of sodomy cases all referred to as 「Rex vs. Singh」, in reference to King Geoge V and to the common Sikh surname.

「Rex vs. Singh」 came about because filmmaker John Greyson was commissioned by Out on Screen, the gay and lesbian film festival in Vancouver, to make a film on queer history. He wanted to work with the cases of Sikh men charged with sodomy in early twentieth century Vancouver, and he invited filmmaker Ali Kazimi and myself to collaborate. In 2004, Ali directed 「Continuous Journey」, the definitive feature documentary on the Komogata Maru Incident. For my part, I made a video called 「Dirty Laundry」 (1996), which looks at the erasure of outlaw sexuality from official retellings of Chinese Canadian history of the nineteenth century, the fact that many of the first Chinese women to come to Canada were prostitutes and that Chinese men, living in the almost all-male “bachelor” communities, were thought of as sodomites.

「Rex vs. Singh」 is divided into four discrete sections. In the first, we three collaborated on a dramatic recreation taking all dialogue from the court transcripts. This was shot at Toronto’s Old City Hall, now a court house, in period costume and using fiction film conventions. Next, Ali created a documentary exploration of the actual history surrounding the case featuring an interview with Gordon Brent Ingram, on whose research the film is based. In the third section, John created a postmodern musical mash-up that brought out some underlying notions, and finally, I produced a suggestive video meditation on history and cinema.

Given how challenging it is as a concept and as an experimental film, 「Rex vs. Singh」 has been surprisingly successful, and won the Silver Lion at the Sikh Film Festival in Toronto. It has also screened at several festivals in Europe and North America as well as at the Mumbai International Film Festival in India.

You’ve worked on the representation of Asian gay men in Western pornography and the media (「Chinese Characters」, 1986). Also, one of your pieces features historian Nayan Shah saying ‘the idea that sexuality is an integral part of identity is brand new’. What is your view on both subjects now?

「Chinese Characters」 came out of an interest on how the self-image of gay Asian men related to racial stereotype, which in turn related to their visibility, or rather invisibility, in gay sexual imagery. The videos were done in concert with a couple of essays, one of which, 「Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn」, has had a surprisingly long shelf life after its first publication in 1991: it’s been reproduced in several anthologies and someone’s just approached me to reprint again.

I don’t do much work on racial representation in porn anymore, and the last time I went to a video store and I asked the attendant if many men ask for gay porn with Asian actors he said, “no, just you.” But from my casual exposure, I’d say that while there may be more available sexual images of Asian men, especially in the fragmented and personalized space of the web, in the “mainstream” spaces of the homosexual marketplace the featured actors are as uniformly white as ever before. And you seldom see mixed-race gay images unless it fetishes that difference. This, I’d have to say, is not what I observe of real gay men in real gay spaces, where there is more and more multicultural mixing.

Nayan Shah’s statement comes from 「Dirty Laundry」, and relates to the work of the late gay scholar Michel Foucault, who pointed out that while same-sex sexual practices have occurred everywhere and across time in human society, the idea that what one does in bed–or wherever one does it–constitutes an identity, or as Nayan puts it, “says something about who we are,” is relatively new. The tape points out that the word “homosexual ” was only coined in the late nineteenth century, and that the word “heterosexual” only came into use after that.

This is hard for people today to comprehend, as we have come to see these identity categories as natural and mistakenly apply them across time and geographies. In his book『Desiring Arabs』, the writer Joseph Massad takes particular exception to what he sees as the negative fallout from what he again sees as the imposition of sexual identity categories into an Arab context in which sexual practices were not linked to identities, at least not those of hetero, homo and bi.

This is a difficult and fascinating area as homosexuality has come to the political forefront in many parts of the world. In India, activists have finally managed to strike down the old British sodomy laws introduced around the world during the period of British Empire. In many countries in Africa, meanwhile, there are attempts to amplify these laws with a populist mixture of anti-First World nationalisms and Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms.

Having travelled within Asia and Africa recently, it seems to me that sexual identities are now everywhere unstable, if stability was ever there, and that while there are folks who find no reason to build an identity around who they find sexual pleasure with, there are those who find a gay or lesbian or trans identity attractive and possible, and this is not only within a “Westernized” elite. But Massad’s point is important: we must not carelessly use terms like “gay,” as they erase other ways in which people see themselves.

Who and what have been your artistic inspirations to make videos? What is it about the medium that attracts you more than others?

I make videos about things that fascinate me and I want to explore more. My last project was on the relationship between British painting and the transformation of indigenous Canadian landscapes through colonialism. The current project I am researching is on the journey of the roti, or more correctly dhalpoorie, from northeast India to the Caribbean and then to Canada. In its travels across time and space this flatbread has changed composition and shape, and taken on different meanings and identities. As an object it bears the marks of its multiple migrations, of indentured labour in the sugar fields, of the hopes and homeward longings of Caribbean immigrants to Canada.

What advice do you have for current/prospective filmmakers and video artists out there?

The scene has changed greatly from when I was starting out. It is much easier to produce work and to get it seen, particularly on the internet where you make no money. But it is harder to get grants, to get into those showcases that position one to form a career. The whole art scene is more professionalized as neoliberal values–the ideology that champions the shrinking of governments, taxes and regulations for corporations, that places profit-making above all else, that turns citizens into consumers–have saturated institutions of funding, education and exhibition, as well as individuals.

I think the most important thing for young artists is to have something to say. This requires living, though that life can certainly be internal, and reflection, which is key. It is crucial to see a lot of and different kinds of work, and to develop a sense of how different languages of expression function. It goes without saying that developing skills that allow one to express these ideas is important, though the platforms for making films and videos are ever changing and so keeping up is a challenge and expensive. My most important advice is to make things.

Author: Tiffany Zhao/Date: May 26, 2010/Source:

Richard Fung
Official Website: