Kelly Sans Culotte


Asian Dykes Take to Celluloid
An interview with an organizer of the upcoming First Asian Lesbian Film and Video Festival to be held in Taiwan.

Mai Kiang

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MARCH 31, 2005. A lot has changed in Taiwan since the 1950's, when the nationalist ruling party, the Kuomintang, used to jail lesbians and gay men for "degeneracy" and "subversion." In 2000, Taiwan held its first democratic presidential election, and in mid-July this year, the capital, Taipei, will play host to the First Asian Lesbian Film and Video Festival.

The lineup will include the 30-minute long, "The Girls That Way" by Beijing filmmaker Shadow Zhang, and shorter pieces that run the gamut from expressionist to documentary works, personal essays, and fiction.

The Gully spoke with one of the festival organizers, Mai Kiang, a Taiwanese lesbian who lives in New York and works as a film librarian.

THE GULLY: How did the festival come about?

MAI: Several of us had had the same idea of building a lesbian film festival in Asia. It came together last year when some lesbians from the Gender / Sexuality Rights Association of Taiwan [GSRAT] were in New York and we all had a chance to meet. The main thing we wanted to do was focus on Asian dykes only. My sisters in Taiwan and Hong Kong are hungry for works by other Asian lesbians. What they have seen are mostly Western and U.S. films.

It seems like Asian lesbian communities from different countries have to find a way to talk to each other. The Philippines, Korea, Japan — we're still finding out who you contact to find great work, so the festival is also an effort to build more of a network.

THE GULLY: The lesbian focus is unusual. When you think of queer Asian filmmakers, it's mostly guys that come to mind, like Stanley Kwan.

MAI: That's true. Dykes are definitely less well known, partly because they have less access to media equipment and independent production funds, as well as promotion resources and venues. But there are definitely a lot of Asian dykes making films.

Mostly they're in the commercial industry, or they're making TV shows, not so much independent films. Yau Ching makes her own 35 millimeter feature films, but that's very rare.

One thing we're trying to do with the festival is encourage the community to create work.

When we first put out the call for entries, in early winter, we got a lot of emails from people saying they wanted to create something just for the festival. It started them thinking. Some already had scripts that they wanted us to fund, if we could, and help produce. In a lot of cases, people are held back by access to equipment and things like that.

THE GULLY: How did most of the organizers meet?

MAI: One was an old friend, Yau Ching, the filmmaker from Hong Kong. I first learned about her work through Cinema Studies at New York University, and through the job I had for a while at the film distributor Women Make Movies. I was also in touch with her through Asian lesbian circles. I helped promote her recent film, Ho Yuk (Let's Love Hong Kong), in New York.

I met the Taiwanese organizers, the hosts of the festival, when they were in New York last year to receive an IGLHRC award for their work in GSRAT. I grew up in Taiwan, so my friends urged me to meet them. In fact, we hosted a welcome party for them.

THE GULLY: You are holding the festival in Taipei. How gay- friendly is the city?

MAI: I haven't lived there in a long time, but my impression is that Taipei is friendly. Last October they had a pride parade. It was all over the internet. I felt so proud. And last year, Taiwan's President had same-sex marriage on his agenda.

It's controversial. Some say that it's just a tactic to get votes, that it's not a real commitment.

THE GULLY: But even if it's all just talk, it's still exposure for the issue.

MAI: Yes, it's important that the President's press office has actually acknowledged the issue.

But I think that somehow they want to be the first country in Asia that legalizes same-sex marriage. It would promote Taiwan's status as a country. I think that's another reason they might be supporting it.

THE GULLY: How does the festival fit into Asian dyke organizing overall?

MAI: Well, I have the most contact with the folks in Beijing. What they realized just this year was that all the lesbians there are working for some kind of gay organization or hotline. Most of them are health-related -- that's where the funding is. There's no separate lesbian project, or even independent lesbian organization at all, and they haven't really felt like they should step out and do that until recently.

We [lesbians] have to spend time building our community, too, not just work as partners to gay men, or serve other needs. We have to build our own community. There should be parity.

For instance in Beijing, lesbians can't even find a place to meet. If a lot of funding came their way, that would be my first recommendation, that they use it to get a permanent place where they feel safe. They sometimes go to restaurants. But a lot of lesbians live at home and there's just not enough space for them to meet.

THE GULLY: What's the legal status right now of lesbian and gay men in China?

MAI: On the books it's decriminalized, but that's the tricky part. The police can do whatever they want. They can still harass you under a different law.

I've heard that the strategy is that Chinese queers want to start having some cases so that they can build case law. China doesn't exactly have a case law system, it's different, but at least it would make judges begin to talk about it. Like if they rule, they have to talk about it, and then queer organizers would have something to build on.

THE GULLY: Is it mostly gay men, or are dykes harassed, too?

MAI: It's mostly gay men, yes. But two or three years ago, a group on the internet was beginning to organize a lesbian culture festival. It was broken up pretty badly by state security police.

Security went on the website, and left postings posing as different people. Later, members were detained, and questioned several hours, and they were forced to testify against each other. The leader left the country.

THE GULLY: Do any of the works in the festival deal with this kind of oppression? What are the films about?

MAI: We haven't settled yet on our exact program, but among the submissions we received the content really runs the gamut. We've gotten a one-hour documentary from the Philippines on Manila's lesbian organizations, a contemporary lesbian ghost story from Japan, and an amazing visual essay from India about what it means to be a lesbian there today. A filmmaker from Beijing sent us a heartbreaking documentary about a group of Chinese lesbians. Several other pieces are on their way to us.

THE GULLY: Do you have any thoughts on the Taiwan issue of independence versus annexation with China?

MAI: Wow, that's a really complex issue. Ethnically, my parents were Chinese, but I grew up in Taiwan. I identify with the Taiwanese.

China shouldn't claim anybody until they take care of their own human rights issues, and not just human rights. I think people have a right to have a free press, and the right of assembly.

That's what our comrades in China are encountering in queer rights issues, that we can't talk to the press, we can't get press coverage. Only people who have access to the internet can get information. That usually excludes parents, or grandparents. Without access to the press, how do you expose them to queer issues? That's a challenge, and we need to start working on PFLAG issues, with Chinese families in China.

State-controlled media is just very hard to break into.

From the Web

Institute for Tongzhi [Queer Asian] Studies, City University of New York
Gender/Sexuality Rights Association Taiwan English, Chinese
Yau Ching's Ho Yuk "Let's Love Hong Kong"

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