- Good Clean Fung
A subjective handheld camera moves attentively through a gay male sauna past towel-wrapped clients in the corridor and the cubicles, to an upbeat disco-ish soundtrack. The subject, soon revealed as a slim young Chinese man in a jaunty baseball cap, consi ders several potential sexual partners and is declined by others, before finally coming to an unspoken agreement with a South Asian man of the same age. In the latter’s mirrored cubicle, the two engage in kissing and caressing and then anal intercourse, the seated Chinese man penetrating his partner who is astride his lap. The men’s bodies as well as their condom and lubricant are all carefully and graphically shown in closeup operation. Safe sex slogans scroll by in several languages and then the fina l credits.
This 1990 videotape, Steam Clean, has a symptomatic place in the videography of Richard Fung, positioned halfway through the nine-work career spanning from 1984 to the present. But it is absent from Fung’s own personal curriculum vita, perhaps because it is a commission produced jointly by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) of New York and the AIDS Committee of Toronto. I start with it, because neither my auteurist training nor my affinity towards social activist documentary allow me to discount commissions, especially those undertaken with community organizations, and also because the growing [End Page 165] literature on Fung prefers to canonize the postcolonial queer hybridity of his more complex autobiographical works rather than something as bluntly instrumentalist as this and other community-based tapes. This literature also downplays the sexual discourse and performance, queer at that, that I think are at the center of Fung’s production, and thus downplay the full constellation of intersecting identity and political practices that his work embodies. I would first like to reclaim Steam Clean as the key to his oeuvre and its full range of issues, and secondly take Fung’s latest work, last year’s Dirty Laundry (1996), and hang it out to dry.
Let me make several points about Steam Clean, first by quoting Sara Diamond’s Foucauldian reading of the tape: “In Steam Clean, a safe sex tape addressed to Asian men by Richard Fung, a surveillance camera happens to discover two men having sex in a steam bath.” 1
An obvious error, stemming not only because the author presumably prefers French theory to Greek active, but also because like most of us academics and theorists, she writes about the works she would like to see and make rather than what is on the screen—as if a political modernist overlay about the panopticon could possibly help Fung in achieving his goals of encouraging the discourse and practice of safer sex, of saving lives among the gay Asian community. 2 Here is a typical example, I am afraid, of the demotion of the sexual in academic discourse around queer culture. Sexual representation, in fact queer sexual performance, is an important but unacknowledged commonality that Fung shares with a disparate body of contemporary work in hybrid documentary that Nichols has lumped together as performative, 3 from Pratibha Parmar’s Khush (1991) to Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1991), and one can certainly add artists from Sadie Benning to Gregg Bordowitz to his grouping. Laura Marks has called the sexual element in so many of these works the “engaging [of] desire,” the “reclaiming [of] sexual pleasure on their own terms.” 4 But the critical reception of all of such artists often reveals a symptomatic softpedalling of the hanky-panky. As another example, one reviewer of Dirty Laundry repeatedly intones the...