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  • Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spell-Binding Performance in The Asias by Eng-Beng Lim
  • Arnab Banerji
Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spell-Binding Performance in The Asias. By Eng-Beng Lim. Sexual Cultures series. New York: NYU Press, 2013; pp. 256.

Kecak, the Ramayana-inspired trance-dance, is a regular and important feature of tourist attractions in Bali and is performed to full houses in palaces and temple complexes in Ubud. Tourists watch mesmerized as semi-naked men chant, dance, scream, and prostrate themselves in front of them. The queer colonial encounter that led to the creation of this homoerotic spectacle is seldom mentioned before, during, or after the performance. Cut to Singapore, the wealthiest city-state in Southeast Asia. The island nation is often touted as the gay capital of the region, and yet conversations about homosexuality have to happen behind closed doors and administrative clampdowns on queer people follow the retention of the antiquarian article 377A in the country’s constitution, which criminalizes homosexuality. Sex and sexuality, in other words, continue to be contested and under-written discourses when it comes to conversations about the colonial encounter in Asia, the homogeneous category of “Asia” in the Western imagination, and in the context of contemporary Asian performance. Eng-Beng Lim’s Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias problematizes this aspect of the colonial encounter by productively inquiring into this murky territory.

Lim’s exploration is based on what he calls the “colonial dyad”: the relationship between the white man and the native brown boy. Lim writes that “an understanding of Asian encounters . . . is not merely incomplete but lacking in its central substance if it does not take account of queer couplings, exemplified by the white man/native boy’s conceptual, historical, and sexual couplings” (8). Lim notes that extant scholarship has often looked at the perspective of the white man while relegating the native boy “as a superfluous character, a neglected critical trope, or simply missing from the archives” (9). For Lim, the native boy takes the center stage because “understanding the native boy in multiple contexts is . . . crucial to the erotohistoriography of performance traditions in the Asias” (12).

The first chapter is the tour de force section of the book and explores the origins of the kecak dance, now considered an iconic sample of Bali’s cultural heritage. The chapter finds the perfect middle ground between archival research, personal anecdotes, and a rigorous historiographical and queer reading of colonial histories. We are introduced to Walter Spies, the German artist, musician, and adventurer who made Bali his home and played [End Page 159] an important role in promoting Bali as a “tropical paradise” to Western travelers, artists, and scholars. Lim unearths a cache of photographs to expose how Spies staged and orchestrated the encounters between his “cultured” guests and the “unharmed” cultures of Bali. He digs through extant archives and exposes Spies’s role behind the narrative that emerges at the turn of the twentieth century about Bali in films, ethnographic accounts, and tourist books. The chapter concludes with the fascinating account of the way in which kecak was conceived and choreographed by Spies for the 1931 orientalist film Island of Demons by Victor von Plessen and Friedrich Dahlsheim. Lim highlights the fact that the idea of the exotic that was imposed on Bali has perpetuated and is today used as the basis for the tourism and art industries that form the backbone of the island’s economy. Lim’s engrossing study helps us in reading and evaluating the mélange of Balinese exotica through a queer lens and as a result of a queer colonial encounter.

The second chapter of the book, although not as rigorous as the first, is nonetheless an engaging study of Singapore as the gay “mecca” of Southeast Asia. Lim explores the city-state’s status as a gay haven vis-à-vis its stringent antiquarian laws that criminalize any non-peno-vaginal sexual act. These antiquarian laws are a British legacy and can be found in several former colonies, including India and Sri Lanka. Lim studies the evolution and growth of the burgeoning “pink-dollar economy” in...