At an art show in Chinatown, a middle-aged Chinese man stared at an ink painting, in which a god-like Asian figure was circled by children and animals flying amid clouds. After noticing the figure’s long beard and shapely breasts, the man gasped, “Is this a man or a woman?”
The gallery show was put together by two artists, Hui Ma from Beijing, and Authan Chen from Taiwan. They use watercolor, traditional ink, and digital illustration to tell their stories of sexuality and identity as Asia-born LGBTQ people coming to the US. “Semi-Freud,” the name of the show, plays with the concept of “semi-fluid” and the theory of Sigmund Freud. It illustrates the vague in-betweenness of the artists’ identities–the ambiguity of male and female, the combination of tradition and present, and the fusion of East and West–to express a series of emotions embodied in intimacy, sexual desire, social isolation, and homophobic anxieties.
Growing up in Taiwan, Chen was raised by a single mother who was greatly disappointed when Chen told her that he was gay. “It was harsh,” Chen said. “Somewhere deep inside, she kind of blamed herself for having let something happen to me.” But Chen took the opportunity to educate his mom that being gay, or LGBTQ, is something he was born with. After several years, Chen’s mother has finally accepted his identity and has also become a strong supporter of gay rights in Taiwan.
In his latest series, “Within,” Chen depicts himself growing up gay in a conservative family and experiencing the fear of coming out. Even though same-sex marriage was legalized in Taiwan in May 2019, older generations are still not generally receptive to the idea, according to Chen. “At home, homosexuals need to negotiate their identity and their relationships with family.” Through surrealistic digital paintings–flower buds shaped like male genitals, iridescent insect wings covering his face, vines and thorns bursting out of his back, blade-shaped tears penetrating his body–Chen represents himself as a monster hiding under human skin, telling beautiful lies to his family who saw the world in a strictly heteronormative light.
Hui Ma’s work is equally detail-oriented and rich in symbolism. She channeled her background in traditional East Asian hanging scroll painting to depict a kaleidoscopic hodgepodge of society “full of erotic desire and pleasure,” according to Ma. After fully embracing her queerness in 2015 when she moved to New York City, Ma has yet to come out to her family in China.
“We’re a traditional family, so we don’t really talk about our feelings,” Ma said in Mandarin. Having witnessed her Chinese girlfriend waiting years for her family to accept her identity, Ma is not in a hurry to have the conversation with her folks. “Since I’m not around them and can’t talk them through this stuff, I’ll just keep it like this for now.”
In New York, Ma enjoys greater freedom of expression and surrounds herself with queer and Asian friends. Her 300-inch-long hanging scroll, “Paradise Lust,” portrays a cross section of a building where each floor is a multicolored world screaming with erotic fun and pleasure. “In China, people have a clear definition for what male and female should be like. Transgenders are [widely regarded as] perverts,” Ma explained. “I intentionally painted them in different gender: transgender, male, female, queer. Because they’re all mixed together, you won’t notice that it’s two guys together, or two girls together. They are all normal human beings.”
Compared to Taiwan’s progressive new legislature, LGBTQ in China remains a social taboo. In 1997, sexual activity between same-sex people became legal in China. In 2001, homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness. But Chinese people still tend to refrain from coming out because of the unforgiving attitudes towards expressions of gender and sexual identity in China.
A 2016 United Nations Development Programme report shows that only 5 percent of LGBTQ people in China have come out fully, and 15 percent have come out to family. In April of last year, the popular Chinese microblog, Sina Weibo, deleted all lesbian-related content on its platform. People connected the crackdown with the ban of gay topics by Sina Weibo around the same time in the previous year. In March 2019, Reuters also reported the closing of two LGBTQ nongovernmental organizations by authorities.
Ying Xin, more commonly known as Xiao Tie, is the director of the nonprofit advocacy group called the Beijing LGBT Center. She said that LGBTQ people are still stigmatized in Chinese society and lack institutional support. In China, all nongovernmental organizations are subject to strict government regulations. Public fundraising events must be registered at the civil affairs department and are likely to be restricted or prohibited if the participants exceed a certain number or if the event happens during politically “sensitive” times, according to Xin.
Compared with other nonprofit causes in China, LGBTQ issues are marginalized and not regarded as an “NGO-type” issue in the mainstream charity causes. Beijing LGBT Center, formally registered as a private company rather than a nongovernmental organization, faces more challenges and pressure from government authorities in raising money and maintaining the center’s day-to-day operations. Xin said, “During the day, I may be joking around with the police. But at night, I’d dream of them coming after me.” Having arrived in New York in 2019, she hopes to connect with generous Asian American funders who are sympathetic to LGBTQ groups.
Like Ma and Chen, many self-identified LGBTQ ethnic Chinese in the US may be breathing freer air than people in China. But they face a unique set of problems. Hoa Nguyen, a Valdosta State University professor who specializes in the interaction of cultural and sexual identity, said that Chinese students in the U.S. are navigating the different cultures and policies within two worlds. For LGBTQ people, cultural adjustments add an additional layer to their challenges.
Both Ma and Chen expressed similar struggles they felt living in New York City. Each of them contributed to a collaborated theme, clowns, that are also exhibiting at the show. The eccentric characters, laughing, dancing, performing, and in some painting, being murdered, represent the alienation they felt as outsiders to the western culture. “Like traveling circus clowns, we have to fake our smiles. It feels like a performance, like we’re here to entertain people,” Chen said.
To both of them, living in the US at this moment feels stranger than ever. Ma reflected that after 2016 when Trump was elected president, she has seen more news on xenophobic and homophobic crimes in the country. Even though she has not encountered such offenses herself, she feared that places outside of New York are dangerous for someone like her. “The most immediate feeling is that I don’t want to go outside of New York anymore,” Ma said. “People say that NYC is a bubble. Then I must stay in the bubble.”
Ethnic Chinese LGBTQ people in the US lead a double life. As newcomers in American society, they are crafting new identities of being both culturally Chinese and members of sexual minority groups, negotiating values from both cultures.
“In the current political climate in the US, the public seems abnormal to us,” Ma said. “During this time, maybe we are the clowns that get killed.”
The show runs till February 28 at the New York Arts Center on 78 Bowery.