Hongwei Bao (HB): You have lived in and travelled to different cities including Edmonton, Vancouver, Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin. How do you like these cities? And what do you like, or don’t like, about these cities?
Wayne Yung (WY): I lived in Edmonton for the first 23 years of my life. I only had white friends there, partly because there weren’t all that many Asian kids (in a class of 30, there was generally just one or two of us), and partly due to my own internalised racism (“Asian kids are uncool, unattractive, uninteresting, etc.”) I came out at 16, which turned me on to gay activism, and when I entered art school at 19, it further increased my awareness of other activist issues. But again, this wasn’t with other Asians. I only met maybe two other gay Asians in Edmonton and found them extremely uninteresting.
It wasn’t until November 1993, when I visited Vancouver to perform at an arts festival, that I suddenly met really interesting people of colour, including Asians. They were smart, funny, creative, angry, and loud. A local Asian-Canadian dyke introduced me to Richard Fung’s essay “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticised Asian in Gay Video Porn”, which opened my eyes to gay Asian politics for the first time. I wanted more of this.
By January of 1994, I had moved to Vancouver. Pretty quickly, I was getting involved with the artist/activist scene, including many queer Asians. The number of Asians was much higher there, and we were present everywhere. The city was also much more connected to what was going on in other cities. The art scene was much bigger, with plenty of opportunities to learn, make, collaborate, exhibit, and get inspired. I was there for seven years, and it was the most creative period of my life.
In 2000, I spent five months in Hong Kong. At first, I was really impressed by the hectic energy of the place, as well as the intense sense of familiarity: not only did they speak my parents’ language, their behaviour also reminded me of my family. But I eventually became very lonely there – I found the gay scene extremely materialistic and apolitical, while the art scene was very small and hard for me to access, due to my poor Cantonese. I came to realise how Westernised I was, especially in my expectations of gays and artists.
In 2001, I went to Berlin to do a three-month project, but it soon became clear that I wanted to stay. Both the gay scene and the arts scene are very large and diverse, including a great many queer activists and artists. I stayed in Berlin for five months, but then moved to Hamburg, to live with my boyfriend. After two and a half years, I decided to go and attend film school in Cologne, where I stayed for four years. Then I moved back to Berlin, where I’ve now been for the last four years, since 2008.
HB: Do you have a favourite city or favourite cities? Which one(s)? Why?
WY: I remember visiting Edmonton in the mid-90s, and thinking how backwards it seemed after having moved to Vancouver. Then I visited again in 2008, and as I was listening to people chatting around me, I suddenly realised they had exactly the same accent as me. I’ve never even noticed my own accent before, until I finally heard Edmontonians again. That week, I began noticing how their habits, rhythms and social interactions made so much sense to me. For example, my Berlin friends think I’m odd because I insist on eating supper at 6pm, but that week, when my Edmonton friends invited me to supper, they automatically said “I’ll see you at six,” as if it was the most normal thing in the world. For me, it was a sudden sense of home and belonging.
After moving to Germany in 2001, I often got nostalgic for Vancouver. It’s my natural “homeland,” because Chinese-Canadians are so entirely common there. Not only are there so many of us, but other Canadians are not at all surprised when I open my mouth and a Canadian voice comes out. They don’t even ask where I’m from, as everyone has known Chinese-Canadians since kindergarten. When we go to Chinese restaurants, my white friends need no explanations or special allowances, as they’ve already tried everything and will eat the same as me.
However, last time I visited Vancouver in 2011, I suddenly realized that I’m nostalgic for a city that no longer exists, because so much has changed since I left. What I miss is not really Vancouver today, but Vancouver of the 1990s – or maybe I just miss being an emerging artist in my 20s, when all my friends were as young and enthusiastic as I was.
Now, whenever I travel, I tend to miss Berlin – especially when I visit the nightlife in other cities. I was in Toronto last year, and was shocked when my local friend reminded me that we had to rush, as the bars were closing at 2am; after all this time in Germany, I’d entirely forgotten that bars might actually have a closing hour!
But maybe it has more to do with simply missing whatever city my apartment is currently in, i.e. missing the comforts of my own living room. I have lovely memories of the four years I lived in Cologne, and it’s the only other city I could imagine living in, besides Berlin. This week I’ll be visiting Cologne, and I know it won’t be the same for me, as I’ll only be a short-term guest there.
Last year I visited Hamburg for the first time in a long time, and suddenly appreciated being in West Germany again, as opposed to Berlin. I love Hamburg, I feel less tension on the streets; people don’t just hang around on park benches or in the U-Bahn stations like in Berlin, because they actually have jobs to keep them busy and money for going out. There’s also a lot less tourists in Hamburg, who can be very unpredictable in Berlin – they come to get drunk, they have no idea how our bike paths work, and you can’t always talk to them, as they may not understand German or English. I’m always on guard in Berlin, which I don’t notice until I go to another city where I don’t have to be so on guard.
Whenever I visit North America these days, I do enjoy being completely fluent in the language and culture and being treated as entirely ordinary. But after 11 years in Germany, there are just too many things that I like about living here, especially in Berlin (despite its constant background stress). I could live in Canada again if I had to but have no particular desire or reason to do so. It’s enough for me to occasionally visit there, and to have some North American friends here in Berlin.
HB: After having lived in Germany for more than ten years and after having obtained the German citizenship (please correct me if I am wrong), do you feel that you are German (apart from being Canadian, Asian, queer, artists etc.)? Let me rephrase the question, do you identify with the ‘German cultural identity’ that an immigrant is often expected to subscribe to? Like many Asian immigrants in Germany, you seem to fit into the stereotype of a ‘model immigrant’: being fluent in the language and familiar with the culture of the country one lives in. What is your political stance in the debate of multiculturalism and integration in Germany in recent years?
WY: Germany doesn’t allow dual citizenship, and I’m not ready to give up my Canadian passport, so I’ve settled for permanent residency, which is quite enough for now.
I’m not sure it’s possible to “become German” unless you’re white. For example, I remember meeting some Germans in my first year here, and only realised they weren’t exactly German when I learned their family names: one was Polish and the other was Greek. But because they were white and had grown up in Germany, other Germans accepted them as truly German. But if you happen to have brown skin, then no one will treat you as a “true German”, even if you were born here, are a German citizen and speak German as your native language. Germans will always ask: “But where do you ‘really’ come from?”
“Becoming Canadian” is much easier; theoretically, it simply means getting a Canadian passport. Back in the 1970s, my parents used the word “Canadian” to mean “white” (as in: “is your friend Canadian or Chinese?”), but that stopped around 1985. Since then, “being Canadian” has little to do with your skin colour. When I meet strangers in Canada, nobody ever questions my Canadianness.
I think that had a lot to do with Canada’s official introduction of multiculturalism in 1971, the year I was born. During the 1970s, it seemed like the policy was not only to integrate immigrants (particularly teaching them English or French), but also to change white people’s idea of Canadianness, so that it no longer had to necessarily include white skin. Germany is nowhere near that – Germanness still necessarily includes white skin, at least in the minds of most Germans. This could change with time, as more and more brown-skinned children grow up next to white-skinned children in Germany, so that they come to see each other as “ordinary”.
When I decided to enter film school in Cologne, part of my motivation was to become a “German filmmaker”. But I eventually realised that it would never happen; not only would I never become a German, but I was also missing the cultural fluency that only comes with growing up in Germany. For example, I was once given a small present that included a typical German children’s drink; my German friends thought it was quite charming, as they all recognised that drink from childhood, but for me it had no meaning at all.
Although I don’t feel “German”, I certainly do feel “Berliner”. When I visit Canada now, I find myself having to censor myself, avoiding not only German words, but also German concepts (e.g. my Vancouver friends caught me saying “euro” instead of “dollar”, and “toilet” instead of “bathroom”). I can speak most fluently with other Berlin-based English-speakers; they understand not only my native language, but also our shared local experiences, like swerving around tourists on the bike paths, or getting pulled into a Eurovision party.
I do believe in the necessity of learning the local language, although not necessarily forcing it through proficiency tests for prospective immigrants. My parents and grandparents didn’t have to pass a language test and never became very fluent in English, but they certainly recognised that it held them back economically, and therefore pushed their Canadian-born children to become native English speakers. I learned English from television and kindergarten, not my parents, and that was enough to make me a native speaker.
In any case, I do recognise that my immigrant experience in Germany is quite a privileged one. Firstly, Germans seem much less threatened by Asian-looking immigrants than by Middle-Eastern-looking ones. Secondly, my Canadianness has made it much easier to integrate here, as I’m already culturally Westernised, and the leap from English to German is not that far – it would be much harder if I were culturally and linguistically Chinese like my parents. Thirdly, Germany gives privileged treatment to immigrants from select countries (specifically USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Israel), meaning that my paperwork was not especially difficult.
HB: How has your identification with ‘Chineseness’ changed over the years, especially after your actual visit to China?
WY: When I was child, I wished I was white. By the time I was a teenager, it was clear I couldn’t ever become white, but I certainly wasn’t happy to be Chinese. It wasn’t until I moved to Vancouver that I really started enjoying this part of my identity, especially through making Chinese-Canadian friends for the first time and joking around with them in broken Cantonese.
However, my burgeoning Chineseness hit a limit in Hong Kong, where I realised that I didn’t actually want to become more Chinese. My identity is very firmly “Chinese-Canadian”, which is an independent and perfectly valid category, not some kind of insufficient Chinese. This connects to my experience as a child in Edmonton’s Chinatown, where Chinese shopkeepers would consider me “jook-sing”, meaning “bamboo”: yellow on the outside, but hollow on the inside.
My first time in Mainland China was in 2002, when my grandfather took me to his home village in Zhejiang. I never understood his native dialect (which he shared with my father and uncles), but the sound was certainly familiar to me. And it was interesting to be in a village where so many people were related to me, sharing certain facial features. But I was still essentially foreign, due to language, culture, and economic privilege.
My second time was in 2011 to Beijing, where I don’t even have family connections, and the dialect is like nothing I heard as I child. Even the food was foreign to me, as I was raised on the Hong Kong cuisine of my parents. I certainly recognised the basic structures of Chinese culture there, but it’s still quite different from the Hong Kong culture that my parents taught me.
I call myself “Chinese-Canadian” but feel little personal connection or resonance with what is happening inside China itself, except in my grandfather’s village and my parents’ hometown of Hong Kong. For me, Chineseness is something that only exists in the familial context; I have no investment in Mainland Chinese politics or pop culture, as I was never immersed in Chinese schooling, media, etc. My Chineseness is very much a diasporic one, centred on North American Chinatowns.
HB: Do you identify yourself as a ‘global citizen’? Do you still need a home (both in the sense of homeland, home country and hometown, and in the sense of family, marriage and kinship, understood in broad terms to encompass hetero- and homosexual relationships) after so many years of travelling and (re)settling as a transnational diaspora?
WY: I tend to be very much anchored in the city where I live – not only because of my apartment, but also because of my local circle of friends, who happen to be experiencing roughly the same environment as me. Whenever I visit my previous home cities (Cologne, Hamburg, Vancouver, Edmonton), I certainly enjoy the sense of familiarity, but things have inevitably moved on, and old friends are doing things I know nothing about. I no longer feel at home in those cities because they lack a sense of currency for me, and are bound to a period of my life that is no longer very relevant.
When I moved from Edmonton to Vancouver, there was no internet or email, so I lost my old set of friends fairly quickly. But since then, it seems like I don’t ever “lose” anyone anymore, and even those old Edmonton friends (also from my early childhood!) have been getting in touch via Facebook. But I barely have enough time to see my local friends, and so try to prioritise them, largely ignoring any “how are you” questions that arrive from other cities. I want to stay focussed on the here and now, confining my sense of “home” and “kinship” to Berlin and other English-speakers living in Germany.
HB: You mentioned that, as an Asian Canadian, you seem to occupy a privileged position in Germany’s immigrant community. Is it fair to say that your queer identity also contributes to that ‘privileged’ position, compared to many immigrants whose (heterosexual) sexuality makes them less flexible in the transnational communication of desires? What role does sexuality play in your cultural identity/identification?
WY: Certainly, migrating to Germany is much easier for gay men than for others, as gay chat offers an easy way to meet locals, very quickly and intimately. I think heterosexuals are much more reluctant to meet strangers. Of course, it also helps to arrive when you’re young, confident and reasonably attractive. Not all gay men find it easy to establish friendships and romantic relationships in a new city.
As a gay Asian, it’s also been quite an advantage to have so little “competition” in Germany. In Vancouver, there were lots of other gay Asian men, so I wasn’t as “special”. Furthermore, many German men seem relatively open to non-white partners; when I was a tourist in Israel and Poland, I found that local men tended to have much less interest in Asian men, so my “exoticness” was no advantage at all. My success at finding sex and love in Germany has certainly been a big factor in why I’ve chosen to stay here – although it’s not as if I was all that unsuccessful in Vancouver.
HB: Why do you choose to use a video camera, together with a type of autobiographical and highly intimate cinematic language, to engage with your queer politics?
WY: I like the spontaneity and immediacy of video, which results from its low costs and technical convenience. My friends who do celluloid film need a lot more time and money to finish something, and I can easily lose interest if a project takes too long.
I started learning video in 1994 at Vancouver’s Video in Studios. My first teachers were queer activists, and the facilities offered a huge library of videos by artists and activists, stretching back to the early 1970s. So my training was strongly informed by that established canon, which included a lot of experimental works that were both political and personal. My peers were less interested in practicing traditional cinema and television – when we learned those techniques, it was in order to critique and subvert them.
Before learning video, I was a performance and installation artist. It was much harder to present my work, especially if a gallery needed to buy me a plane ticket. Galleries also attract a rather small and elite audience, which limited the reach and resonance of my work. And finally, I would have to store all these works after the show just in case they were needed for another show. Video is much more practical: it can be sent around the world for the price of postage, it reaches much bigger audiences through film festivals, and it can easily be stored for many years, taking just a little space on my bookshelf. I have videos that are still requested after 18 years.
This issue of audience reach is particularly important for me, as the queer Asian audience is so small and scattered.
HB: Do you go to CSD (Christopher Street Day) or other LGBTQ public events? What is your queer politics? How do queer Asians living in the West achieve visibility and political representation within the predominantly white gay community?
WY: I took part in Edmonton’s first gay pride parade, which was very small, just a couple hundred people. As there were so few participants, it was very important for each of us to be there. We walked down a major shopping street, consciously invading a “mainstream” space.
In Vancouver, the parade was much larger, and went through the gay ghetto. It really didn’t matter if one person more or less participated, and it certainly didn’t invade any spaces that weren’t already gay on every other day of the year. It was basically an occasion to organise lots of big parties with high ticket prices.
Berlin has the luxury of having two contrasting parades on the same day, one being a typical commercial event, the other a non-commercial and highly political one. Although I very much support the goals of the non-commercial parade, I don’t actually go, as I don’t really like being in big crowds anymore, even if it’s a crowd of my friends and allies.
As a gay Asian artist, I’ve achieved a certain amount of visibility through film festival screenings. I’ve also joined various activist projects in the past. Direct and active participation has been my political strategy for broadening the representation of Asian men. We really can’t expect white people to do this work for us; gay Asians have to speak for themselves, and loudly.