Beyond the Silk Road: Staging a Queer Asian America in Chay Yew's Porcelain

By Diehl, Heath A. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Silk Road: Staging a Queer Asian America in Chay Yew's Porcelain


Diehl, Heath A., Studies in the Literary Imagination


David Drake: As an artist, how do you see yourself in the American landscape?

Chay Yew: I'm not really sure. I guess the best way to describe my situation is the fable about a crow and a sparrow I wrote about in my play Porcelain--that's how I always felt about my being in the world: That you can never belong to a tree of crows or a tree of sparrows. You belong to a tree of your own because you're in-between. There's an inbetween-ness about me--coming from Asia, living in America, being in LA, going to New York all the time, working in one rehearsal room to another. And with this template, this is how I look at how I fit in.

--David Drake, "Fusion"

INTRODUCTION

The drama of Chinese American playwright Chay Yew is steeped in controversy. His first play, As If He Hears, was banned in his native Singapore because it dealt with "issues not true to Singapore values" (Drukman 58)--namely, homosexuality and AIDS. Another of Yew's plays, Porcelain, was originally completed as a film script for his undergraduate thesis project at Boston University, but the script was shelved for several years because no college student wanted to audition for a film about a gay Asian man who murders his Caucasian lover in a London public lavatory. And after his play g Language of Their Own premiered at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre, Yew recalls: "Some 60-year-old guy came up to me and said, 'I really like your play but I wanted to know about Asian peoples and the Asian continent.' I thought, 'God, what am I? An Asian almanac or some walking PBS documentary like The Silk Road?'" (qtd. In Drukman 58-60).

As one of the most visible, prolific, and accomplished Asian American theatre practitioners on the contemporary scene (aside from, of course, David Henry Hwang), it is perhaps not surprising that Yew often bears a weightier responsibility for his work than lesser-known Asian American playwrights. As Rachel C. Lee explains in The Americas of Asian American Literature, "Asian American cultural producers face increased pressure to emphasize the broad value of their works" because those artists are "already imagined by mainstream presses as appealing only to ghettoized interests" (3). Lee assumes that whiteness constitutes the unmarked but ever-present yardstick against which the decisions of "mainstream" publication and/or production are made, thus implicitly signaling that fewer minority writers will see their work in print or on the stage (and, of course, literary and theatrical history bear out the validity of this claim). The few minority writers who manage to break through the firmly entrenched racial barriers to have their work published/produced often are saddled with the added responsibilities of representativeness, authenticity, and universality. Yew's plays, for instance, consistently have been judged against the backdrop of the Eurocentric culture in which they are received and deemed either "positive" (read: acceptable) representations of Asian America, as was the case with Red, or "negative" (read: unacceptable) representations of Asian America, as was the case with Porcelain. (1) As a dramatist and also as a theatre practitioner, Yew himself has been subjected to similar kinds of public scrutiny by theatre-goers and critics alike who question whether the playwright and his work are "Asian enough" (as was the case with the spectator at the Public).

Questions of authenticity and universality are not unique to Asian American drama; indeed, issues of how to represent communities and individuals on the margins of American culture have, at various times and to varying degrees, plagued all identity-based drama produced in the United States. (2) But these questions do take on a heightened importance with regard to contemporary Asian American drama because, as Velina Hasu Houston notes in her introduction to The Politics of Life, that drama reflects a community whose boundaries are constantly contested as a result of increasing numbers of interracial marriages and relationships, shifting patterns of immigration and emigration, and ever-broadening conceptions of what constitutes American national identity (9). …

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