Gary L. Atkins, Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore

Hong Kong and Chiang Mai: Hong Kong University Press and Silkworm Books, 2012. Pp. x, 316; photographs, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Simon Soon.

One hundred years represent a longue durée in twentieth-century Southeast Asia. Uneven historical developments in its interactions with various colonial powers and the subsequent emergence of new nation-states mean that it seldom happens that an author is able to wend his or her way through the region’s multifarious contexts with enough verve to map out the its complex co-existing and interconnecting faces.

Within the academic world of area studies, Southeast Asianists have therefore conventionally resorted to specialising in specific sub-cultural or national arenas. Anthologies that bring accounts of all these disparate arenas together under regional consideration often read like voices speaking over and across each other. There is so little in common from one essay to the next that one wonders what is it that holds the region together. This is not to suggest that there was ever an essential quality to the concept of regionality, since “Southeast Asia” as a geographic appellation is a relatively recent one, an area shaped largely through the theatrical compartmentalisation of the world resulting from the Cold War. It is much easier to speak of its artificiality than to argue for its coherence, and many have done the former. Others, however, are beginning to see how this region has its own reality, that this reality that can also seemingly possess deep roots.

One way of gaining access to this reality is demonstrated in Gary Atkins’s Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore. The book is an attempt to locate a queer narrative for modern Southeast Asia by chronicling the lives of five men: King Vajiravudh, who ruled Siam from 1910 to 1925; the German artist Walter Spies, who found home in Bali from 1928 until his tragic death aboard a prison ship in 1939; Bangkok World editor Darrell Berrigan, who was brutally murdered with his pants down; the owner of contemporary Bangkok’s pre-eminent gay bathhouse and pleasure dome, who goes by the name of Khun Toc; and Singapore’s Stuart Koe, who founded Fridae–one of the most successful international gay Asian Web-sites. With each biography recounted in episodic form, the five men’s stories serve as palimpsests to one another. They are divided into chapters of varying length; each of the stories begins at different points in the book. This approach buttresses Atkins’s general thesis, which concerns “hunting for home and founding paradise instead” (page vii): that the actions of his protagonists spoke and reverberated across the generations.

The brilliance of this sweeping yet intimate construct is that these stories are not only a record of the changing social mores in Asia’s encounter with modernity and the desire of these men to challenge limits. The stories also demonstrate how cultural memes move, transform, and find new resonance across a long period of time, especially in this part of the world, as Southeast Asian nations have encountered Western modernity and in effect taken on their own modernising agendas.

In the age of Web 2.0, when a transmissible meme lives and dies in a matter of days on within a month, it is rather captivating to see how forms of representation resurface in different contexts across the decades. More significantly, Atkins posits that this circulation of styles was never preciously contained within the domain of fine art but rather that it underpinned the philosophical direction of broader cross-cultural agendas, as the aesthetic was harnessed towards unorthodox identity-centred self-fashioning.

From Alexander Scriabin to Johann Joachim Winkelmann’s revival of the classically anchored aesthetic of the masculine, from Homeric Phaeacia to the Chinese homo-social brotherhood with their valorisation of martial prowess, from F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to the Thai notion of siwalai (a transliteration from English and self-constructed notion of what being civilised is), the breadth and scope of this cross-generational interplay of ideas and forms deployed sometimes for and other times against what Atkins calls the triple supremacies (of the romantic, the monogamous and the heterosexual) constitute an immensely rich cultural history of queerness.

One example of this richness is evident in the imaginative manner in which Atkins is able visually to rhyme an element of queerness in the aesthetics of Balinese kecak dance – devised by Walter Spies in the early 1930s, now so inescapably part of the tourist must-see in Bali – to the Singapore rave dance party Nation, organised by Stuart Koe in the early 2000s. Atkins observes of the Nation dance party

As the music played, male bodies heaved, sank, pressed rhythms into the holes formed by the circles of multiple heads. Some men danced with their eyes closed . . . On stands surrounding the centre, men swayed their bodies, stood in lines, and then shot their arms into the air, fingers piercing the laser above and twining the air between . . . What Walter Spies and Beryl de Zoete had written of the male kecak still seemed true decades later and hundreds of miles away from Bali. (p. 250)

An equally central narrative concerns King Vajiravudh’s subversion of the narrative of siwalai by supporting and promoting the notion of romantic monogamous heterosexual through many of the plays that he staged and in which he acted and at the same time making it an unattainable ideal in order to excuse himself from ever fulfilling its demands. Though Vajivarudh did eventually marry twice later in life, he was known to prefer the company of men in his Saranrom Palace. However, this is not to suggest that Vajivarudh was a homosexual, as Atkins pointed out. Instead, it demonstrated the changing world in which new forms of social models and relationships were being explored the Siam of the first part of the twentieth century. This openness to possibilities other than criteria of intimacy that revolves around romance, monogamy, and heterosexuality was something that was revisited in the 1980s. In an homage to Vajiravudh’s pleasure dome in the Saranom Palace – in which homosocial bonds were allowed to develop through the staging of theatrical plays – Khun Toc’s late twentieth century bathhouse Babylon, where a portrait of Vajivarudh hangs next to the entrance in a wooden frame studded with nails, sought to reimagine the former historical space for modern Bangkok, affording an enclave for the cultivation of a myriad of forms of male-to-male relationship.

At times the outcome of such relationships was tragic, as in the murder of American editor Darrell Berrigan in Bangkok in 1965. Berrigan’s manner of death, which suggested that he played the passive role as a homosexual, confounded prevailing understandings of male-to-male sex in the mainstream Thai media and society. This confusion was due to Thai social understanding’s having limited the passive role in male-to-male intimacy to kathoeys or effeminate men belonging to a third gender. This image did not fit Berrigan’s profile as a middle-aged foreigner. Atkins thus demonstrates that media reports and public debates reflected a collision between Western and indigenous discourses on sexuality and engendered the formation of a hybridised homosexual identity.

Similarly, Walter Spies’s escape from Europe is told primarily as a search for a cultural world in which he could enter into a gentler compact of masculine expression, one not burdened by the weight of hetero-normative sexual codes gaining ascendency in the Western world at the time. It is therefore counterproductive and futile, according to Atkins, to read Spies’s attraction to the Balinese male social sphere as pederastic. Atkins proves that pederasty was a baseless charge brought against Spies in 1938, a charge anchored solely on the consummation of a sexual perversion. Paradise is always more than that. It is the presentation of the relay of styles within cultural production that resists attempts at defining the male bodies over time as needing to conform to specific expectations of maleness. The creation of such make-shift, idiosyncratic queer paradises provides shelter, community, and belonging for many who have refused to fit into such narratives in Southeast Asia as it has entered into an often unequal dialogue with the West in the past hundred years.

Imagining Gay Paradise marks a nascent attempt at uncovering that history. The next task is further to map other culturally sophisticated enterprises in the region, often studied in national isolation, that can be explored and networked on a regional level. This is not to forget that Mainland Southeast Asia is often omitted from the broader regional narrative and that in recent years Laos has founded its own Pride event, that Cambodia’s king since 2004 has been described by his own father as one who “loves women as his sisters”, and that Vietnam’s national assembly will debate the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013. All these developments point to new horizons. These horizons suggest a need for greater flexibility in thinking about how ideas travel not just down time but also laterally across this spatial reality that is Southeast Asia.

If the concept of homeland is rooted in the achievability of near-perfect happiness, that of paradise is also at times myopic and delusional. The spike in methamphetamine abuse, the cross-cultural racism that is increasingly prevalent in many gay-identifying circles, the growing desire to identify with a global homogenised gay culture in which the hyper-masculinised male serves as the new ideal, the lack of community-driven resources and development for those who identify themselves as gay or queer are all contemporary blind spots that point to the fraying of the foundations of the paradises that Atkin has so painstakingly illustrated. But this fraying in no way discredits Atkin’s central argument, which rests on the ingenuity of those who continue to turn to art, music, and all the culturally edifying things in life in order to reshape them into contingent personal spaces that will remake themselves endlessly and thereby carve out protective worlds for those whose desires do not reflect the orthodoxy of how one should establish intimacy on the basis of such criteria as “romance”, “monogamy”, and “heterosexuality”.

Simon Soon is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the University of Sydney, where he researches left-wing art communities in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines during the 1950s-1970s.

Image source