“Rice queens love labels,” says Jonathan Le. Originally “one of those boat people,” Le grew up in a Vancouver where white guys interested in Asian guys increasingly found themselves in a buyer’s market-and one where race and sex have become inextricably linked.
“Guys who like Asians ask right away, ‘So what are you?'” says Le. “It’s very interesting because you don’t see Asian guys asking what kind of white guy you are. Are you Scottish?”
Daniel Gawthrop’s latest book, The Rice Queen Diaries (Arsenal Pulp), follows Le’s rule. “So what are you?” is the fuel for this sex-tourist memoir.
Whether at home in Vancouver’s West End or living as an ex-pat in the sauna-strewn streets of Bangkok, Gawthrop falls “under the spell of countless ‘Orientals’ with dark eyes, lean brown bodies, smooth skin, and ‘inscrutable’ charm.”
At home and abroad, Gawthrop is a voyeur, an AWOL journalist attempting to solder his own libido to the sex lives of exotic others.
The obvious objection to a book of rice queen musings (and the inevitable fetishization of Asian gays that results) is a post-colonial stance.
Gawthrop attempts to deflate those arguments in his preface where he assures us he knows all about those “Radical feminists like bell hooks [who] accused white men attracted to non-whites of ‘commodifying Otherness.'”
But the quasi-academic preface (complete with requisite quotations from Edward W Said’s Orientalism) comes off as apologetic, rather than explanatory.
The memoir itself, true to Gawthrop’s activist roots (which include a tenure as this newspaper’s first editor) is anything but apologetic.
Gawthrop’s memoir, to the contrary, is an unabashed, personal revelation that balloons into meditations on sex, race and the hubris of colonization.
“This happens in a big scale everywhere,” he says. “And no one is really talking about it. We have this city where all these different cross-cultural, interracial couples are meeting…Somehow the protocol is not really talked about, because it’s so politically incorrect.”
Politically correct censure can be paralyzing to writers, and yet the injustices that inspire such “correctness” aren’t imaginary. In The Rice Queen Diaries, Gawthrop takes the plunge, risking all manner of offences: “The only way to break through that silence was to adopt the Rice Queen label, temporarily, as a kind of experiment: to embark on a physical, emotional, and intellectual journey of Rice Queendom that would deconstruct and, hopefully, demystify the label.”
Evan Mo, a five-year outreach educator at ASIA (Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS) believes that, in Vancouver, those labels are beginning to deconstruct on their own. “The racial dynamics are changing,” says Mo. “The age gap [in Asian-Caucasian relationships] is closing. Which at least breaks the stereotype.”
Typically, a rice queen is understood as being older, wealthier, and more powerful than his Asian partner. Mo doesn’t judge rice queens, remarking simply that “the phenomenon is there. Not every relationship is equal. And that’s not always a bad thing.”
There may be nothing wrong with a non-abusive power dynamic, but The Rice Queen Diaries begs the question: when does a power dynamic become immoral? At what level do we, individually and collectively, condone the romantic manifestation of inequality?
In “Hongcouver”, unequal Asian-Caucasian relations have been simmering ever since 10,000 Cantonese labourers were imported to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. Times change (people, less so), and, as Gawthrop notes, “Yellow Peril” has given way to a new kind of cultural imperialism-“Yellow Fever.”
The Rice Queen Diaries posits two salient facts to navigate the whole “cultural imperialism bad” situation. First: everyone’s a little bit racist (so get over it). And second: making Asian guys out to be constant victims is a dehumanizing approach, and a racist one in itself.
“To really understand this stuff,” says Gawthrop, “you’ve got to go in there and be with those people, and talk to those people, and fuck those people.”
So there, bell hooks.
A large section of The Rice Queen Diaries is devoted to an account of Gawthrop’s travels among “money boys” in Thailand where he lives like a king among often desperate sexual partners, who tend to be more interested in Gawthrop’s wallet than his heart.
Borrowing his sex-as-outreach-work rationale from Stan Persky’s Then We Take Berlin (1995), Gawthrop is not irked by the economics at play. “If I exploited some of the Thai guys on my trip,” he says, “it wasn’t out of paying them for sex; it was out of not paying them enough.” For Gawthrop, the erotic element is inherently unequal. “Where is there a 100 percent consensual relationship?” he asks.
Certainly nowhere in this book.
But The Rice Queen Diaries-a labour of love 10 years in the writing-is born from an honest tradition. It continues the tradition of linking travel (or a sense of the exotic) with sex.
Some travellers leave home exclusively for the purpose of attaining sexual freedom. Flaubert, if his own diaries are to be trusted, was entirely led by his nether regions through his Egyptian journey.
And Edmund White, in States of Desire (1980), sketches a map of his American travels entirely outlined by “gay life-rich, messy, promiscuous.”
There is a pattern here-one that Gawthrop has sewn himself into. The thrill of a new culture frees us-or, at least, it frees our libidos.
Check out these voices from the flip side of the rice/potato conversation: Rafaelito V Sy’s novel Potato Queen and Ang Lee’s film The Wedding Banquet.