Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias by Eng-Beng Lim (review)
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Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias. By Eng-Beng Lim. New York: New York University Press, 2013. Cloth $75.00, Paper $24.00. 256 pages.

Eng-Beng Lim’s Brown Boys and Rice Queens is an ambitious project manifesting the interdisciplinary and global potential of performance criticism. His geographically wide-ranging case studies are united by his development of key concepts that govern the theorization and structure of the book. Lim uses his primary trope of the white man/native boy queer dyad to trouble “the global system of representation that positions the racialized embodiments of the Asian male in [End Page 98] transnational queer performance and everyday life” (10). He attempts to break the dyad’s “tropic spell,” a term he creates to describe the reciprocal relationship embodied by the dyad that naturalizes its unequal power relations, where the native boy performs an exotic, feminized Asia constructed in a colonial imaginary. This serves as the foundation for three effectively argued chapters that expand on the skewed systems of representation between Asia and the West through an analysis that incorporates elements of performance, colonialism, postcolonialism, and neoliberalism.

Lim fills in his concepts with four examples stretched over three chapters and a conclusion. His first chapter examines the kecak dance, a collaboratively choreographed effort by German artist Walter Spies and native Balinese boys, now mostly credited to Spies. By inserting into Spies’s biography previously omitted details about his sexual relations with native boys and analyzing the homoeroticism in Spies’s photographs of the latter and in the kecak dance itself, Lim raises overlooked “questions of race and sexuality in colonial contexts” (63). His contribution lies in his claim that, “in the case of kecak, the queer and orientalist history of Bali’s colonization as prefigured in the dyad could serve as a model for thinking about the homoerotic strands of interculturalism that have yet to find their place in theater and performance analysis” (52). Lim convincingly argues that the queering of this dyad exposes its tropic spell, where widely accepted structures of analysis involving kecak and the exaltation of Spies’s artistry fail to address the naturalization of colonial encounters not just within the dyad relationship, but also in the exotification of Balinese culture as a whole.

In the second chapter, Lim expands the “white daddy/Asian boy binary” (28) in his dyad construction to read through Alfian Sa’at’s plays regarding the ways in which the Singapore state has replaced the white male figure with the Asian boy, now imbricated as cultural capital with the state’s neoliberal agenda. While this might appear to be too wide a theoretical leap, Lim’s purpose is to encourage readers to move away from analyzing uneven power relations framed by East/West binaries to ones influenced by the intersections of global economics and local politics. By inserting his theory of “glocal queering,” Lim demonstrates how queer performances are predicated on regional and intra-cultural influences, and that “‘acting gay’ in this new global city has many inter-Asian dimensions that are not accommodated by Euro-American models” (135).

Lim continues to argue for an intra-cultural method of queer analysis in his third chapter on the G.A.P. (Gay American Princess) performance of Asian American performance artist Justin Chin. He argues that Chin’s queering of the submissive Asian female in Western media and the performance’s references to various Asian locales where the dyad is at work make Chin’s work the Asian-American version of glocal queering. Lim’s attempt at drawing theoretical connections between queer performances in neoliberal Singapore and the United States is effective. [End Page 99] He attempts to make further connections by positing the G.A.P. as a transnational figure that extends earlier representations of characters in Asian-American and Latin-American playwrighting in ways that performatively and transnationally connect postcolonial and postimperial sites of queer agency (157, 164–165). This chapter at once exposes one of his key purposes of enriching the theorization of marginal subjectivities through transcultural comparative theoretical readings, and sets up his next major methodological intervention.

Lim’s proposal of...