“Brown Boys and Rice Queens”: A Review

"Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias" by Eng-Beng Lim (NYU Press; 233 p.p.)

“Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias” by Eng-Beng Lim (NYU Press; 233 p.p.)

The crossroad of homoeroticism, Asian theater, and Western imperialism is relatively uncharted in academia. Even though Eng-Beng Lim (Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) initially viewed such connections as “far-fetched”, his analyses of the influences of Western imperialism in East Asia on the development of the arts in those locales masterfully draws and defends these connections. Many of the theatrical performances were influenced, or arguably created, by expatriates from the West.

Lim discusses the role that these white colonial figures had in fetishizing Asian men through their artistic work. Using Balinese and Singaporean theater and dance to push past the façade of Western imperialism, Lim reveals the subtle, homoerotic undertones that drove the emasculation of Asian men. Lim examines the movements and dress of a number of “native” Balinese performances, as well as more modern Singaporean performances, to deduce their underlying emasculating, and often pedophilic, implications.

In one of the finest parts of his book, Lim challenges the legacy of one of the most untouchable cultural figures in Bali: Walter Spies. Spies was a Dutch expatriate who lived in Bali in the early twentieth century and rose to prominence as the de facto cultural tour guide for Europeans visiting Bali. One of Spies’ most notable accomplishments was his part in developing the dance “kecak,” a dance that is viewed as a traditional Balinese performance, but which Lim argues played a role in fetishizing and emasculating Asian men. He uses Spies and these native boys to draw a comparison between the imperial relationship of colonizer/colonized and the sexual relationship of European white man/Asian boy. The precedent set by previous academics studying Spies was that his sexual life was off-limits – his biographies did not include any details about his relationships with males – as many of them believed these details could harm his legacy. Despite Spies being investigated for having sexual relations with underage boys more than once, those who have studied his works have left out any acknowledgement of the possibility that Spies’ homosexual relations influenced or inspired his artistic expression, even though it is likely that many of these boys were dancers in his performances and the subjects of his photography. Lim largely stands alone in academia in his assertions that there is a connection between Spies’ homosexual relationships and his professional work, specifically in his development of kecak. The strength and quantity of evidence that Lim offers to support his claims raises the question of “Why did everyone else ignore this?” Lim’s disregard for the preservation of the fabricated legacy of Spies, in pursuit of a deeper examination of Spies’ works, borders on roguishness, but he lacks the malice that many of his peer-critics attribute to him. Lim addresses the controversial nature of his inquiries and research, quoting a German professor who told him that he would “stop to compose and become a peasant” if Spies’ homosexual relationships were the primary inspiration for kecak. The originality of Lim’s analyses, evident from the backlash from his peers when researching Spies, is a major strength of his book, offering a new perspective that has gone unexamined for decades.

When Lim switches his focus to Singapore, he examines the relationship between the gay men of Singapore and the government of Singapore. For a more conservative reader, this part of Lim’s book may be a hard pill to swallow. The right-wing viewpoint is notoriously dismissive of anti-West, anti-heterosexual rhetoric, and Lim, in his ruthless objectivity, includes some of these elements. Lim asserts that the relationships between colonizers/colonized and European man/ Asian boy are analogous to the relationship between the Singaporean government and the gay citizens of Singapore. Lim defies expectations in his equal criticisms of the East as well as the West in this analysis. He denounces Singapore’s hypocrisy as it continues to defend Victorian-era laws that prohibit homosexual sodomy, while simultaneously accepting and embracing the growth of gay bars, clubs, and other similarly related queer spaces. The fairness of Lim’s analyses is indicated by his criticisms of both the imperialist West and the colonized East.

As a whole piece, Brown Boys and Rice Queens is well-crafted, intriguing, and sophisticated; however, there are a number of weaknesses that take away from the strength of his argument.  The most impairing of these weaknesses is the inaccessibility of the book due to the writing style and language. Lim’s target audience is undoubtedly academics with similar interests and academic experience as him. As someone who has little-to-no knowledge of theater or gender and sexuality studies, I had to learn a great deal about those topics elsewhere before I could even finish reading the introduction. While Lim’s analysis is certainly elevated by his impressive diction, it is also rendered inaccessible to many potential readers of different academic backgrounds than his own. Lim likely did not intend for people outside of his academic realm to read this book, and therefore he wrote in a style that was best suited for sharing academic work with the people in that realm. Despite this well-justified intention, there is definitely merit in crafting an argument that people outside of the intended audience can understand to some degree of proficiency, something that Lim fails to do. 

When reading an academic paper or book, there is an expectation of a certain degree of seriousness and decency. While Lim exceeds these expectations for the vast majority of his book, he breaks from seriousness a few times and makes unnecessary innuendos that create a cringe-worthy awkwardness that damages the effectiveness of his argument. For example, he begins the conclusion of his second chapter with this metaphor: “As a pornographic trope, Asian Boys straddles white colonial desire for ethnic men on the one leg, and autoexotic display of Asian sensuality on the other leg. In such a position, as queer straddling practices go, the paradox infuses the fantasy of the ‘legs wide open’ native boy with the overachieving ethos of a modern Asian state trying to be sexy.” While the “pornographic trope” does make sense, it is simply inappropriate, even for a book that discusses fetishized Asian men, homoeroticism, and Western expatriate pedophiles. After the initial chuckle from the cleverness of the metaphor, a rush of discomfort ensues because of its position in an academic analysis otherwise adhering to a level of seriousness that does not accommodate “dirty humor.”

Brown Boys and Rice Queens is definitely not my typical “book to read by the fireplace during a cold, Massachusetts winter,” but I was pleasantly surprised. As a millennial from a state with a vibrant queer community, I have been exposed to a handful of theatrical performances and drag shows with varying degrees of queerness. However, at the time that I chose to read Brown Boys and Rice Queens, I had little interest in reading about “a transnational study of Asian performance shaped by the homoerotics of orientalism.” Lim’s depth and originality in his analyses transformed my dismissive view of the book to genuine interest. His ability to turn a critic into an admirer should be credited.

Lim’s exploration of sexuality, performance, and imperialism offers a nuanced viewpoint that conservatives often dismiss. However, in reading this book, I have found that it has informed my conservative political and social views. To be blunt, I would recommend this book to the intellectual conservative in pursuit of ideas that challenge their preconceived notions about queer culture.