14 December 2013

Book Review: Staging Hong Kong

Rozanna Lilley is an Australian anthropologist who previously lectured on anthropology and was the editor of the Australian Journal of Anthropology for several years. She has returned to school and is a Ph.D candidate in Early Childhood. She spent 10 years of her life (including her first Ph.D) studying ethnicity and gender in Hong Kong. Staging Hong Kong: Gender and Performance in Transition is a product of that period.

Written at the time of the handover, she does an excellent job of critiquing just about every position and doesn't align herself with any of the dominant positions in the late transition period: colonial apologists, neoliberal apologists, Maoist apologist, etc.,. The object of her study was Zuni Icosahedron, which continues to exist, as an avant-garde (I'd say Deleuzean) performance art company. Zuni, very self-consciously, has always attempted to be at the margins and therefore has attempted to not align itself with any particular ideology.

While there is much that can be chalked up to Chinese studies, this book is equally a LGBT studies book. While it is about "gender" the focus is mostly on masculinity and sexuality as opposed to any feminist interrogation. I fondly remember back to the transition period and the boys who were from Hong Kong, more on that can be found in my review of Amphetamine.

Quite interesting was the extremely extended review of Hong Kong politics and arts/culture politics and how Chinese related to Maoist-Leninist-Marxist thought in 1997. I recall the pain and devastation of Tienanmen Massacre I myself felt and most diasporic Chinese that I knew. The circuitous wandering on sexuality and masculinity was also fascinating but not quite as interesting. This is, in part, because I easily get bored with discussions of performance art if I myself didn't see it. She did a great job in trying to put the reader in the audience for Edward Lam's Scenes from a Man's Changing Room.

But what was most interesting, if I may say so, was her analysis and discussion of how a group that ascribes to the rhizomatic approach to theory, practice and creativity can easily slip into arborescent, hierarchical forms of authority (and how easy it is to rationalize and psychologize criticism). I would be interested to read a follow up of the group and how it functions now 15 years later. I did find out that Mathias Woo and Danny Yung are still in charge -- which sounds like ossification to me, but hey, I'm not Chinese.

In my creative capacities, I was very much impacted by the manipulation of "traditional" Chinese narratives and propagated "traditional" Chinese narratives to return the ideological forces back onto the manipulators or propagators. I feel that real creative work opens a dialogue with what exists and then interrogates it about existence.

If you aren't into analysis of performance art, it can get a bit dry at times. But its worth the suffering (or skimming) to get to the interesting stuff.

The version I read was in English at 256 pages in paper published by the University of Hawai'i Press (October 1998) with an ISBN-10 of 0824821645. The least expensive version I found online was at amazon.com

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