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, 2014. Xxii + 231 pp. $24.00 paper. $75.00 cloth. ISBN: 9780814759400.

In Brown Boys and Rice Queens, Eng-Beng Lim argues for the often overlooked yet critically important “white man/native boy dyad” in performance studies. He asserts that the “white man/native boy’s conceptual, historical, and sexual couplings” in fact form the “substance” of Asian encounters in a colonial-transnational frame. He provocatively reconfigures “queerness and the perverse love for the Asian boy” as central in epistemologies of Asian performance (8). Notably, Lim’s analysis of colonial and postcolonial relations is less about rehashing power differences between the white male and the exotic other and more about shifting the lens to consider “comparitivity, lateral relationality, and coalition.” In other words, Lim aims to look at articulations of difference and outside of the “naturalized” binary between the colonized and the colonizer (173).

Lim focuses on four sites of performance—Balinese kecak and German expatriate artist Walter Spies, Malay playwright Alfian Sa’at’s production of the “Asian Boys” trilogy in Singapore, Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, and Justin Chin’s adaptation of The World of Suzie Wong. In chapter 1, Lim traces how Spies’s obsession with Balinese men saturated and motivated his work despite protest from scholars on kecak who insist otherwise. In chapter 2, Lim traces the production and popularity of “Asian Boys” to detail how the Singaporean government deliberately traded on the sexual allure of the native boy in their efforts to market themselves as a modern, progressive nation that mirrored queer-friendly ideals of the West. In the third chapter, Lim juxtaposes M. Butterfly and the adaption of The World of Suzie Wong to illustrate how infantilizing and Orientalist heterosexual desire for Asian women by white men also embodied a “white man/native boy dyad.” Throughout the book, Lim refuses to see “native [End Page 373] boys” as mere pawns in the production of homo-colonial pleasure. He deliberately employs “camp” in both his analysis and language to discourage easy conclusions of top-down oppression and submission in his “white man/native boy dyad.” In his use of playful headings such as “Queer F(r)ictions” and “Singapore Sling,” Lim’s “Gay Asian Princess” from chapter 3 at times seems to be sitting on your very lap. In the concluding chapter, Lim uses Chin Woon Ping’s Details Body Cannot Wants to explicitly elaborate on “transcolonial boderzones” that decenter more conventional ways of thinking about power as a set of vertical relationships. He calls for an “epistemic relocation” that actively considers the complicated compositions of people and performance within a diasporic global economy.

Lim’s work makes important contributions to Asian studies, ethnic studies, performance studies, and queer studies in its particular attention to race, sexuality, and postcolonial/transnational theory. In Asian/Asian American studies his work joins a growing body of literature that simultaneously considers Asia and Asian America and complicates power across variegated ethnicities, nationalities, and mixed identities. In particular, his book addresses a diverse Asia that has just recently begun to receive academic attention for its heterogeneous populations within single countries. In ethnic studies, Lim’s work pushes students to think outside of the traditional oppressor/oppressed binary and highlight the stage as a productive site of analysis. Indeed for those who see performance as a robust site of reenvisioning gender and sexuality, Lim illustrates the struggles of queering a field that social scientists might too quickly assume has already been liberated. Finally, by centering Asians in a book on gender and sexuality, Lim does the important and much needed work of filling a desperate void on Asians in queer studies. Lim’s project, however, does more than simply shed light on a neglected topic or perspective. His excavation is fundamentally about changing an interpretive or analytical framework that many of us may have come to take for granted around power, imperialism, and sexuality. In its most radical interpretation, Lim’s work might be used to argue for how the attraction between...