Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias by Eng-Beng Lim (review)
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Reviewed by
Eng-Beng Lim. Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias. New York: New York University Press, 2013. Pp. xxii + 256. $67.50 (Hb); $19.14 (Pb).

The title of Eng-Beng Lim’s Brown Boys and Rice Queens offers, in reverse, a more colloquial and attention-grabbing rendering of the book’s key topos, the “white man / Native boy” coupling that is constitutive of an important and importantly “queer dyad” (7). A variation of the white man / Native other dyad that, in Lim’s reckoning, structures and saturates a host of relations in colonial, postcolonial, and transcolonial modernity, this coupling has garnered much less critical attention than the rendition of the dyad as white man / Native woman. In tracing the relationship between these two versions of the white man / Native other dyad, while, at the same time, bringing more fully into focus the “actual or conceptual native boy” (4; emphasis added), a term that can mean either “minors … [or] nativized men who are treated as less than adults” (7), Lim also foregrounds sites of performance across the Asias. His critical inquiry is guided by two central questions: “What are the tropes … associated with the white man / native boy dyad in the wide spectrum of imaginaries and practices organized under the rubric of Asian performance or Asian encounters?” (xii); and, “How might we reorient our understandings of Asian performance and/or encounter if we consider the dyad as its constitutive interface between evolving bodies and positionalities that sometimes preconditions meaning and sometimes prevaricates it for different outcomes or effects/affects?” (xiii).

Over the course of an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion, Lim finds a multivalent answer to his first question, as he identifies three central “tropes,” among others, through which to understand the various implications, stakes, and effects of the white man / Native boy dyad: (1) “tropic spells” (heard as both trope-ic and tropical), which cast their magic on the white man and also in multiple, erotically charged directions, which Lim traces, most closely, through colonial encounters in Bali in the first half of the twentieth century; (2) “glocalqueering,” which indexes the simultaneous local and global currents of queerly expressive behaviour in postcolonial, millennial Singapore; and (3) “ethnic camp,” which insists on the centrality of racial problematics to parodically gendered and sexualized embodiments and which emerges, for Lim, most clearly and pointedly, in the contemporary Asian American stage work of the “G.A.P. (Gay Asian Princess)” (10–11).

In identifying just how supple and elastic the white man / Native boy dyad may be as it organizes a vivid range of practices and exchanges at different times in history, Lim also offers an answer to his second central [End Page 438] question: far from enabling a critic only to tell stories of the suppression, deformation, or sheer erasure of the Native boy’s subjectivity – though those stories are crucial, and crucially told here – attention to Lim’s dyad, “an inherently unstable interface,” enables another “story of migration, memory, and misfits” (xiii) who, quite literally, don’t fit into schematic accounts of baleful colonial domination, equally baleful capitulations in postcoloniality to neo-liberal capitalism, or any sense of fixity (of identity, of location) in the “transcolonial borderzones” of the present (33). That second story – in essence, one of movement and mapping – is likewise a re-mapping of the concerns that animate Asian studies, Asian American studies, and their sometimes uneasy relationship to each other and to other versions of area and/or transnational studies. Lim’s “configuration of Bali, Singapore, and Asian America as the Asias” (xiv) constitutes an admirable method for the achievement of a goal every bit as passionate, in political terms, as it is original, in scholarly ones: “to consider the unexpected connectivities across locations that have traces of the dyad without necessarily using U.S.-America as the pivotal point” (xiv).

Pivoting, thus, away from U.S.-America and toward Bali for the first chapter’s analysis of kecak – a performance form severed from Balinese religious ritual and developed, rather, in the colonial (that is, nascently touristic) crucible of “tradition’s” remediation – Lim investigates what is vividly, vibrantly queer...