the Desexualized Asian Male
in the Works of
Ken Chu and Michael Joo


Joan Kee

Harvard University

Copyright © 1998, by Joan Kee, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. Asian American male sexuality has long entailed a discourse of nothingness. The Asian or Asian American male is perhaps best known for his absence in the colonizer's sexual hierarchy. This strikes a sharp contrast to the colonizer's perception of the Asian female as an embodiment of excessive sexuality. Asian American males have been consigned to positions of inferiority within the hierarchy -- the Asian male as sexually impotent voyeur or pervert is a reoccuring icon, appearing throughout American cultural history and especially in film. Notable examples of this include Mickey Rooney in "yellowface" as the bucktoothed Japanese landlord who sneaks peeps at Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) or the pathetically asexual nerd Long Duk Dong in John Hughes' adolescent classic Sixteen Candles (1984).

  2. In the postcolonial era, however, Asian American artists have begun to subvert these crystallized colonial perceptions with their own subtle critiques of the colonizer's perceptions and through their own delineations of maleness and sexuality. Two artists who have been especially active in the critique and creation of Asian American male sexuality are Chinese American artist Ken Chu and Korean American artist Michael Joo. In their works, the colonizer's notions of what constitutes "ideal" sexuality and sexual desire are evoked, satirized and ultimately subverted. To second generation artists who have essentially grown up outside of Asia, the stereotype as residual legacy of colonialism is of particular interest. Unlike first and 1.5 generation[1] artists who have had extensive experience with colonialism in the form of military imperialism and intervention through such events as World War II and the Korean War, the postcolonial aspects in Chu's and Joo's works revolve around the notion of the stereotype.

  3. Both artists employ similar strategies, such as masquerade, questions of spectatorship and camp as a means for exploring notions of the desexualized Asian male. "Desexualized" is an apt term in this context as the colonizer has actively engaged in the process of emasculating or "demasculinizing" the Asian male. In Ken Chu's pastiche-like, mixed-media work I need some more hair products (1988), the artist denotes the yearning of the Asian male who applies hair spray in an attempt to become white. Transforming oneself into a white man is a prerequisite in securing a sexual partner, according to the arbitrary ideals of the colonizer, here represented as American mass media and popular culture. Michael Joo's installation piece Miss Megook (1993) expands upon the masquerade by posing as an Asian woman on several pieces of an actual B-52 bomber used in the Korean War. Both artists fight the process of desexualization through the blatant evocation of sexuality in their works.

  4. Despite the primacy of sexuality as a theme in these works, the works have been contexualized solely as works relating to the racial or ethnic heritage of the artists. The insistence on such one-sided interpretation indicates the extent to which the colonizer as the American art world persists on desexualizing Asian American males. Simplification is a powerful ally of the colonizer and neglecting to acknowledge or discuss the very explicit themes of sexuality in the works of Chu and Joo is a convenient means of skirting the issues raised in their works. In the Decade Show of 1990, Ken Chu's works were read in the exhibition catalog by curator Margo Machida as "adaptations of Asians to American culture" (Machida 112). As part of a supposedly Asian American contingent to the show, the significance of Chu's works within the confines of the exhibition lay only in the ostensible race-related themes of the work. Chu noted that "it does bother me that people don't pay attention to the sexual content of my work, but then again, I'm just happy to have people pay any attention to my works at all" (Chu, personal interview). Such grouping by race is problematic because it implies that an Asian American artist must deal with issues of race in order to be included in a show and simultaneously suggests that race is a more important issue than sexuality. It is also problematic because the show was perceived as a representative exhibition of Asian America and subsequently confirmed American popular perceptions that Asian American art could be pigeonholed as an aesthetic of race, exclusive of all other issues.

  5. Similarly, in reviews of Michael Joo's installation piece displayed in the Aperto section of the 1993 Venice Biennale, only obvious racial and ethnic-specific signifiers such as the word "megook," (meaning "American" in Korean) stenciled on Michael Joo's installation piece were mentioned. In Matthew Ritchie's review of Joo's work, he noted that Joo "uses legacies of his Korean ancestry" (Ritchie 69) but neglected to mention how such signifiers interacted with the subject of sexuality addressed by Joo. This selective attention emphasizes the Otherness of the work, rather than its content, or how such signifiers function to coalesce issues of sexuality and stereotypes.

  6. To a lesser degree, this emphasis on the element of race also occurred in shows already based upon themes of race or ethnicity like the 1993 traveling show Asia/America first held at the Asia Society Galleries in New York and the 1993-1994 exhibition Across the Pacific: Contemporary Korean and Korean American Art held at the Queens Museum. In the exhibition essays, the artist's individual experiences became more prominent, but such experiences were interpreted only in terms of how they fit the theme of Asian American (Ken Chu) or Korean (Michael Joo) identity. Sexuality became what Asian American sociologist Dana Takagi terms "a kind of ad hoc subject-position, a minority within a minority" (Takagi 24). The danger in this prioritizing is that race and sexuality are seen by both Asian and non-Asian audiences as discrete elements that can be placed in a sequence. These dimensions are inextricable as Ken Chu and Michael Joo demonstrate in their treatments of the desexualized Asian male subject.

  7. Granted, Asian American theorists Margo Machida and Elaine Kim have attempted to examine sexuality as a theme in the works of Chu and Joo, but their observations are more sociological as they look at Chu and Joo more as Asian Americans than as men, or even as artists. Likewise, even in similar analyses of Asian American gay and lesbian artists, the authors concentrate almost wholly on the personal history of the individual artists and do not explain how the elements of a work function in that particular artist's interpretation of his or her sexuality. Personal history and socio-cultural issues in the content of the work are critical, but how the work manifests these personal experiences and ideas of sexuality carries equal significance.

  8. Gay sexuality serves as a primary theme for Ken Chu, who simultaneously depicts his own frustrations with the overwhelming dominance of the colonizer's sexual hierarchy and his tireless search for an alternative to that hierarchy. In I need some more hair products, the artist depicts a young Asian man in a steel blue picture frame slicking his hair back in front a mirror. (Fig. 1)

    Measuring 21 x 25 x 5 inches, the work is a collection of various icons from popular culture made of acrylic on a yellow rectangular foamcore background. The scattered icons of popular culture along with the title resembles Pop Art precursor Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? The sharp rhombus-like steel blue frame occupies the center and alongside the Asian man floats a cartoon bubble with a head of a blond white man. Emerging from the picture frame is a swirling stretch of black highway, a red convertible with a young heterosexual couple in the front seat and an orange surfboard protruding from the backseat. The undulating curves of the highway and the sharply angled diagonal edges of the picture frame along with the heavily slanted elliptical wheels of the car suggest that the work is in a constant flux of movement. The ponytail of the young girl in the car which blows in the wind implies movement as well.

  9. Punctuated by small icons of both American and Asian cultures, these icons evoke Chu's upbringing in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok and California and contribute to the whirling flux of ideas in the work. In Chu's work, an encased porcelain Virgin Mary reminiscent of Chu's Catholic school days stands in the upper left hand corner with a pair of chopsticks approaching a hotdog. In the lower right hand corner, a bowling pin, cactus and record player appear as refrigerator magnets that serve as reminders of Chu's adolescence in California. More than just signifiers of Chu's personal experiences, these icons constitute Chu's Pop Art-influenced vocabulary: "Asian Americans have been so defined by popular imagery that the only way to thoroughly discuss Asian American stereotypes is by using such imagery" (Chu, personal interview).

  10. However, Chu does not regurgitate the icons, but instead redefines them to delineate and undermine the stereotype of the desexualized and undesirable Asian male. The redefining quality of his visual vocabulary emerges as the Asian man takes center stage in Chu's narrative. Instead of being relegated to the literal margins of the work, the white-shirted Asian male dominates the central space of the work while the head of the white man becomes secondary.

  11. Such dominance is similar to Chu's other works of this period such as the earlier 1988 mixed media work Then one night, I saw Sam Fuller's 'Crimson Kimono', which memorializes the 1959 B-film Crimson Kimono. (Fig. 2) Contrary to popular images of the submissive Asian eunuch in the 1950s and 60s, the film depicts a dominant Asian man who succeeds in defeating his white rival in their simultaneous pursuit of an upper-class white woman (Marchetti 219). In Chu's memorial work, the Asian man's face is literally on top of the woman's, in a Clark Gable-like pose. This earlier work ties into gay activist Richard Fung's statement that the representation of Asians with sexual desire in motion pictures is a necessary condition in the representation of Asians as having homosexual desires (Fung 63).

    Concurrently Chu's works invite the idea that the process of resexualization is for both gay and straight Asian American males. However, the effiacy of Chu's message is somewhat diluted in Then one night I saw . . . because in order to appreciate the significance of this recontextualization of the Asian male, the viewer must be familiar with the era in which the film was produced (conservative, post-World War II 1950s).

  12. Chu's inclusion of both gay and straight scenarios within the narrative of I need some more hair products along with the central positioning of the Asian male subject suggests that all sexual possibilities should be open for the Asian male. The artist "re"-sexualizes the Asian male by putting his sexual concerns at the forefront of his works. In this work, Chu depicts the idealization of the white male, both as the sexual ideal and as the ideal sexual partner. Surrounded by a halo of short golden ripples, the image of the white man hovers in a cartoon bubble on the Asian man's right. The head resembles a Ken doll, a well-sculpted white male doll intended to be the boyfriend of Barbie, the popular American girls' doll. There is a deliberate double entendre as the shared name of Ken between the artist and the doll signifies the artist's own teenage desire "to become a Ken doll, the projected apex of sexual attractiveness who is the American dream girl Barbie's perfect complement" (Chu, personal interview). In other words, Chu perceives the Asian male as wanting to be a Ken-figure as a successful means of securing a sexual partner. The Asian male must subscribe to the colonizer's sexual hierarchy in order to have any chance at satisfying his own sexual desires.

  13. The heterosexual reading of the work is strengthened by the young couple in the red convertible that drives out of the picture frame into an unpictured but implied sunset. The road that leads directly from the mirror image suggests a cause-and-effect relationship between cosmetic appearance and the Asian male's success in securing a heterosexual partner: if the Asian male acquires more hair products, such as blond dye, he will be able to date, as indicated by the bowling pin and the record player. In turn, if he succeeds in dating, he will subsequently be able to get the girl and drive off into the sunset.

  14. Chu incorporates his film production background into the work as the fairytale scenario is reinforced by the cinematic sequence of the heterosexual narrative. There is a distinct sequence that reinforces this cause-and-effect relationship as the highway originates from the image in the mirror, which then progresses to the bowling pin, an indication of informal, more platonic activity to the record player, a symbol of dances and "romantic interludes" (Chu, personal interview). The sequence culminates in the consummation of the relationship as denoted by the pointed, phallic surfboard in the back seat of the car. The entire sequence is infused with an immediacy presented by the fresh hues of the vivid red car, the saturated black of the highway and the vibrant green cactus, reminiscent of Technicolor, advertising, and the bright primary hues of Asian folk art.

  15. Despite the heterosexual reading of the work, however, Chu also addresses the gay spectator by depicting the white male as the perceived object of sexual desire. Like the heterosexual scenario, the Asian male needs more "hair products" or cosmetics to make himself attractive for the white male. The hot dog and chopsticks on the Asian man's left depict his pursuit of the white male, especially given the function of the chopsticks as eating implements and the hot dog as food. The consumption-oriented nature of the chopsticks and hot dog can easily be translated as a metaphor for the Asian's sexual pursuit of the white male as the hot dog strongly resembles the phallic surfboard and Chu's illustration of penises in his other works like Touching Myself (1988). Chu thus uses popular, if banal, associations between chopsticks and Asians, hot dogs and Americans to upset the stereotype of the passive Asian.

  16. However, Chu's narrative in I need some more hair products is predicated upon the sexual hierarchy between desirable whites and physically unattractive Asians delineated in American popular culture and society. Chu uses the mirror as a means to portray the image of the Asian in popular culture and while the Asian man's back appears muscular and virile like Chu's portrayals of boxers, he is portrayed in the mirror as a skinny, sallow caricature of an Asian, complete with flattened, geisha-girl-like features. The mirror symbolizes American popular culture that "projects the desexualized and effeminate image of Asian Americans with no attempt at representing reality" (Chu, personal interview).

  17. Completely ensconced in a society of stereotypes, Chu's work asserts that the Asian man often accepts the denial or debasement of his male sexuality whether the Asian man is straight or gay. The cartoon bubble denotes that the Asian man accepts and thinks of the white man as a sexually superior being in terms of desirability. As the artist notes in Margo Machida's essay for the Asia/America exhibition: "When everyone around you is non-Asian, it's like you don't have an identity and you just identify yourself within that non-Asian environment" (Machida, 89). While the strong primary colors and the campy 1950s memorabilia make the work seem light-hearted, the humor underscores the tragedy of the Asian American male who, Chu states, "suffers from internalized racism which destroys his self-esteem" (Martin).

  18. At the same time, the hovering Mary figure as emblem of religious repression poses another constraint on Asian male sexuality. She hovers on the periphery of the painting, signifying her marginalized position in the thoughts of the Asian male. Nevertheless, the pallor of the figurine casts a stark contrast to the other vivid icons, thus connoting a certain extent of disapproval over the Asian male to emote any kind of sexuality, whether gay or straight. As the church plays a significant role in the lives of many Asian Americans, Chu appears to be addressing Asian American males who are thwarted in the expression of their sexuality by the constraints imposed by the church.

  19. While Ken Chu's work thus illustrates the situation of the Asian male who attempts to pursue the white man or woman in accordance with the sexual hierarchy established by the colonizer, Michael Joo delineates the Asian male as an object of desire in his 1993 installation Miss Megook. (Fig. 3)

    © Michael Joo

    Having composed his work of six discarded 8 x 6 foot pieces of actual airplane fuselage taken from a cargo plane, Joo has applied painted black-and-white decals of himself along with the legend "Miss Megook" (Miss America) in thick black chopstick lettering. The work was created for the Aperto section of the 1993 Venice Biennale which aimed to present works of emerging international artists. Entitled "Emergency," the section attempted to address problems of violence, difference and entropy.

  20. While the sociopolitical aspect of Miss Megook was emphasized[2] by the media and by the exhibition's organizers, the form of the work also indicated Joo's predilection towards older trends such as Minimalism. Like his other installation pieces such as the colossal Salt Transfer Cycle (1993-1994), the huge scale of the fuselage pieces and, especially, the curvature of the pieces imply Richard Serra's installations. (Fig. 4)

    © Michael Joo

    Precariously balanced in various formations or deliberately piled on top of each other, the curved slabs of metal are reminiscent of Serra's calculated works, which Joo cites as an influence along with Robert Smithson and Joseph Beuys (Joo, personal interview). The long tubes of Plexiglas along with the fuselage pieces allude to Serra works. Smithson's influence can be seen in the site-specificity of the work, which was situated during the Aperto in a former arsenal used by the Italian military. These associations strengthen the declarative impact of the work and especially magnify the presence of Joo's stenciled self-portrait.

  21. 21. Miss Megook resembles parts of a real B-29 bomber of the same name which flew over North Korea during the Korean War. The image of Joo is intended to parallel "nude or semi-nude women painted on airplanes, particularly in the 1940s and 50s" (Joo, personal interview). As a reminder of colonialism, the use of plane parts is effective, given the obvious and aggressive objectification of women but also because aerial battles signify the domination of Korea by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Unlike Chu's works in which the colonizer was represented by American popular culture, the colonizer in Joo's work is American, or more broadly, Western imperialism as symbolized by the military. The superpowers of the Cold War fought over Korea through such aerial battles, in which Koreans on either side took little part. Incorporating actual materials imbues the installation with immediacy and a sense of urgency which eliminates the supposed distance between the viewer and a past era in which Korea had little say in light of U.S. and Soviet machinations.

  22. With this allusion, Joo thus concretizes his dissection of pervasive sexual and ethnic stereotypes and in keeping with the Aperto's theme of emergency, implies that the practice of racial tolerance is in critical condition. This dissection is intended for an international audience although the artist uses specific imagery relating to certain cultures and from a particular era. Joo's dissection of stereotypes encompasses stereotypes that relate to a wider Asian diaspora and his work does not concentrate on Joo's own Korean ethnicity. Long tubes of Plexiglas filled with MSG support the panels and at the center of each tube are different objects related to sexual stimulation for women, such as synthetic testicles, ben-wa balls[3] and peeled lychee fruit, a common aphrodisiac in Chinese culture. Joo's recurring interest in esoteric and often obscure details originates from his perception that "at every level in society, stereotypes also manifest themselves in esoteric and obscure ways" (Joo, personal interview). This idea ties in with Homi Bhabha's assertion that the stereotype is a complex and contradictory mode of representation (Bhabha 70). [4]

  23. In the work, Joo illustrates the stereotype of the desexualized Asian male through the deliberate ambiguity of the pinup "girl" featured on the plane fragments (Fig. 5). "Desexualized" refers to the idea that Asian men lack any sexuality at all (e.g., the eunuch) or if they do, they are effeminate, subservient creatures. The synonymity of "effeminacy" and "desexualized" as posed by Joo's depiction of the colonized highlights the colonizer's inherent sexism--the feminine becomes collapsed with the negativity of desexualization. On the decals, the viewer cannot easily recognize the "girl" as a man. Joo's long black hair and one bent leg conceal his genitalia, chest hair, and other indicators of his masculinity. Only his eyes coyly peer out from behind his lifted shoulder or through his copious mass of black hair. This, along with Joo's smooth, hairless body, enables him to pass as an Asian woman. The unpainted metal of the fuselage body highlights the sensuality of Joo's curves as it contrasts with the articulate modeling and plays of shadow over Joo's body. The ambiguity is an "intended design used to mirror the ambiguous sexuality that Asian men are perceived to have, if they are perceived to be sexual beings at all" (Joo, personal interview). This ambiguity is underscored by the MSG that fills the Plexiglas tubes: "MSG can only be detected when it is added to food, but alone, it has no taste, color or smell--it has no identity" (Joo, personal interview). [5]

  24. The decals of Joo, then, become a kind of litmus upon which the viewers can project their own assumptions and unconscious stereotyping. Joo's pose as an Asian woman is not a result of an active masquerade or transvestitism on his part, but is easily produced by the instant concealment of the penis, the one decisive indicator of masculinity. Here, the spectator's awareness of Joo's gender is crucial as it determines the sexual orientation of the interaction between subject and viewer. The reading of Joo as a prototypical Asian woman is highly feasible, given his long black hair, a stereotypical attribute of the exoticized Asian woman. The "Miss Megook" legend stenciled on the fuselage in lettering reserved for "Oriental" (as opposed to Asian) food markets and restaurants pushes the Otherness of Joo's image to the limit. This is especially notable as "Megook" also refers to the racial epithet of "gook" coined by U.S. soldiers who thought that Koreans who called them "Megook saram" (literally, American person) were actually saying "me [a] gook" (Chung, telephone interview).

  25. Different audiences perceive in different ways and Joo has always been interested in the way audiences unconsciously apply stereotypes of race and gender in their perceptions. He notes that "back in Missouri [where the artist attended Washington University in St. Louis as an undergraduate] people would look at my long hair and think I was Native American" (Joo, personal interview). Likewise, in this installation, many viewers automatically assumed that the pinup "girl" was indeed female because of such stereotypical attributes such as unblemished, hairless skin and the long mane of thick, black hair. The instant transformation of Joo's gender implies that Asian American men have been "desexualized in the U.S." (Joo, personal interview) to the extent that the Asian man can easily be collapsed into the female gender. Joo poses as a player in what Kobena Mercer termed "phallocentric fantasy in which the omnipotent male gaze [in this case, the gaze of the American pilots flying the aircraft as well as enemy pilots] sees, but is never seen" (How Do I Look? 174). [6] The repetition of Joo's image on each of the fuselage pieces scattered nonchalantly on the wall and the floor of the exhibition space also reflects the idea that Asian sexuality is a commodity that can be mass produced and readily replaced. Joo implies that sexual possibilites for Asian men and women are strictly limited by the colonizer's perception of Asians as objects to be purchased, reproduced, consumed and disposed.

  26. Not content with the single stereotype of the desexualized Asian man, however, Joo broadens his dissection of stereotypes and assumptions by upsetting colonial sexual fantasies of "Other" women by white male colonizers. Once the identity of the "girl" is revealed upon closer scrutiny of Joo's muscular body and strong facial features, Joo upturns the objectification of the Asian woman by transforming the gaze of heterosexual desire into gay desire. Joo's intention to "subvert the system using the language that created it" ("Learning from Waco" 84) is reflected as he uses "nose art" to undermine the seemingly clear-cut system of the female Other and white male. In the original context of "nose art," or the paintings of pin-up girls on plane nose cones, the intended spectator and consumer of these images are U.S. military men, considered as "uniformly white, heterosexual and male" (Joo, personal interview). He reveals that the clichéd Asian woman/white male relationship is based on self-conscious signifiers like long black hair which, according to Richard Fung, are "part and parcel of a colonial fantasy" (How Do I Look? 156). Joo contends that the colonial fantasy has extended beyond the 1940s and 50s and has permeated the society of the 1990s.

  27. Given the geopolitical context of the 1993 Aperto exhibition and Joo's deliberate ambiguity, the macho pilot of the 1940s and 50s is a metaphor for the homophobic white man who is also a consumer of the Other. The revelation of Joo as the pinup girl undermines the gaze of the homophobic white consumer and subsequently renders him as a gay consumer of Joo. At the same time, Thomas Mann's tale of homosexual desire, "Death in Venice," [7] makes Venice less a venue of subversion and more an appropriate arena for Miss Megook's discussion of Asian sexuality. Unlike the scenario of the dominant white male and the submissive Asian female or the equally submissive Asian male à la David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, it is Joo who asserts control of the scenario. Through the deliberate concealment of his gender, Michael Joo opens the possibility of the Asian man as object of white male desire in Miss Megook. The emergence of this new sexual role for the Asian man literally manifests itself in the fragmented plane parts. The scattered parts indicate that the original plane appears to have exploded as a result of internal combustion.

  28. Despite this evocation of a sexual role for the Asian man, Miss Megook is a pessimistic piece, for Joo implies that this objectification is only possible if the Asian man is seen as an Asian woman. The Asian man cannot openly be regarded with desire by the white man but remains desexualized for both straight and gay white males. The grim metallic gray of the plane fuselage and the stark black and white representations of Joo make Miss Megook an unrelenting indictment of Asian stereotypes. The coalescence of sexuality and race in Joo's discussion of the desexualized Asian male challenges the "relative invisibility of sexual identity as compared to racial identity" (Takagi 24).

  29. Joo's meticulously crafted installations portray him as a careful observer whose eye scrutinizes much and misses little. A certain measure of objective detachment stems from his fascination with the positioning of Asian Americans and other minorities within the context of contemporary society's obsession with high-technology gadgetry. To extract the essence of Joo's dissection of the desexualized Asian male stereotype in Miss Megook, the viewer must also consider the formidable physicality of the work itself, lest the viewer subscribe to the essentialist and postcolonial notion that insinuates that non-whites can be perceived only through a sociopolitical lens.

  30. With Chu and Joo, the spectator forms an integral part of their works. However, while Chu intends the spectator to read a finished work, Joo's work requires the viewer's response in order for the work to operate as a discussion of the desexualized Asian male and oversexualized Asian female. Certainly, both artists' works are open to heterosexual and homosexual readings, but it is only in Joo's work where the orientation of the reading hinges upon the spectator's awareness of Joo's masculinity. In Miss Megook, then, the spectator becomes more of a participant who contributes to the delineation of Asian man as object of gay desire whereas Chu vividly illustrates popular culture's projection of an Asian male incapable of attaining a white sexual partner. Moreover, Chu attempts to rouse many apolitical Asian Americans who consume such American popular perceptions in an unthinking manner.

  31. Masquerade is another crucial element and I need some more hair products asserts that popular culture requires that the Asian man must attempt to transform himself or at least masquerade as a white man in order to secure a sexual partner. Chu's assertion is targeted for a white audience that would take such popular perceptions for granted and an Asian American audience that would identify with such a situation. Although the masquerade assumed by Joo is not deliberate, unlike the masquerades of Cindy Sherman or the earlier precedent of Marcel Duchamp as Rose Selavy, Joo still manipulates the spectator's stereotypes regarding Asian women and men. True to his other works such as his 1996 installation in Chinatown featuring the names of unsung Asian American athletes, Chu informs the viewer of the societal standards that the Asian male is often forced to adhere to, while Joo defies such requirements through his manipulation of appearance. Masquerade becomes a crucial element as it destabilizes colonial assumptions and enables a multiplicity of different readings.

  32. In their works, race and sexuality are ultimately intertwined and the artistic identity of either Ken Chu or Michael Joo does not center on race alone, and to deny or deprioritize the integral themes of male sexuality would be to emasculate the potency of their works. Bhabha claims that "an important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence on the concept of 'fixity' in the ideological construction of otherness" (Bhabha 66). Certainly the critique of the colonizer could be strengthened if Chu and Joo had concentrated their efforts on proposing their own ideas of Asian American male sexuality. Aijaz Ahmad claims that the word "postcolonial" in itself periodizes history which in turn, allows "colonialism to become the structuring principle" of history (Ahmad 30). Focusing on the colonizer, then, inadvertently puts the colonizer's hierarchy and perceptions at the center of the artists' discussions. However, by inverting and subverting the assumptions of the colonizer, Chu and Joo break with the colonizer's discourse that attempts to rob the Asian male of his sexuality and, instead, they convey images of that sexuality as a complex concept based on fluidity beyond the "disorder, degeneracy and daemonic" (Bhabha 66) state of an unchanging colonial existence.


  1. A frequently used notation in Asian American studies, "1.5" generation is used to denote those who were born in Asia, but emigrated to a non-Asian country at an early age. Back

  2. The Aperto was particularly criticized for being too politically correct. See Camnitzer. Back

  3. Ben-wa balls are a masturbatory device used by Japanese women. Joo, personal interview. Back

  4. This assertion is especially applicable to Asian Americans; on the one hand, Asians can be seen as the faceless, menacing "Yellow Peril" that threatens to overrun Western civilization. The opposite stereotype of the weak, ineffectual eunuch or subservient houseboy also persists. Back

  5. MSG has been cited as a reason for male impotence, and while Joo was unaware of this fact when I talked with him, his incorporation of MSG in the work strengthens his exploration of the desexed Asian male, devoid of all virility. Back

  6. For a longer discussion, see Mulvey, 57-68. Richard Fung cements this assertion by noting that Asian women have "long been featured in Western representation for the pleasure of the white man's eye" (63).< a href="#six">Back

  7. I am grateful to Judith Wilson for pointing this connection out to me in an earlier draft. Back

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. "Postcolonialism: What's in a Name?" Late Imperial Culture. Ed. Romàn de la Campa. New York: Verso, 1995, pp. 11-32.

Aperto 93: Emergency. Venice Biennale, 1993.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Camnitzer, Luis. "Aperto 1993." Art Nexus Sept.-Dec. 1993: 56+.

Chu, Ken. I need some more hair products. Private collection of Leah and Arthur Ollman.

---. Personal interview. 23 November 1996.

---. Then one night I saw Sam Fuller's 'Crimson Kimono'. Private collection of S. Hirose.

---.Touching myself. Private collection of the artist.

Chung, Y. David. Telephone interview. 20 November 1995.

Fung, Richard. "Center the Margins." Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts. Ed. Russell Leong. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1991.

Gillick, Liam. "Miss Me." Art Monthly Apr. 1995: 11-13.

Heartney, Eleanor. "Import/Export, Hybrid Identities." Art in America Sept. 1994.

How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video. Ed. Bad Object-Choices. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991.

Joo, Michael. Miss Megook. Private collection of the artist.

---. Personal interview. 8 February 1997.

---. Salt Transfer Cycle. Private collection of the artist.

"Learning from Waco." Flash Art, Jan.-Feb. 1994: 84+.

Machida, Margo. "Out of Asia: Negotiating Asian Identities in America." Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art. New York: Asia Society Galleries and the New Press, 1993, pp. 65-109.

---. "Seeing Yellow: Asians and the American Mirror." The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity. New York: Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Studio Museum of Harlem, 1990, pp. 108-127.

Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the "Yellow Peril": Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Martin, Richard. "Masculinities: Heroes and Male Homosexuality in Some Contemporary Asian American Artists." New York University Asian American Conference, New York. 4 Mar. 1995.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, 1988. 57-68.

Ritchie, Michael. "Imagine." Flash Art Nov.-Dec. 1994: 68-70.

Takagi, Dana Y. "Maiden Voyage." Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. Ed. Russell Leong. New York and London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 21-36.

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