Richard Fung shot “Orientations: Lesbians and Gay Asians” not as a documentary meant for mainstream audiences, but as a film intended to shed light on then-virtually unknown Asian-Canadian LGBT communities in the 1980s. More than 30 years later, the same film will bring him to a New York City stage, where he will receive the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies' (CLAGS) Kessler Award.
The CLAGS award, which will be given to Fung on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at the Graduate Center at City University of New York's Elebash Hall, is given annually to "a scholar who has, over a number of years, produced a substantive body of work that has had a significant influence on the field of LGBTQ Studies," according to CLAGS.
Fung will also deliver a lecture as part of CLAGS' Kessler recognition on Wednesday after decades of films and video essays exploring LGBTQ issues. Since the release of “Orientations” in 1985, Fung’s work has unpacked everything from racial identities to sexuality, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS to immigration, and how those topics have defined LGBTQ and social movements through time.
In an interview with NBC News, Fung said his childhood was a catalyst for many of his films prior to his move to Toronto in 1970. His family’s status as Chinese-Trinidadians in a highly multicultural and multiracial country saw the Fungs navigating a society with different opportunities depending on one’s race. But as a child during Trinidad and Tobago’s period of independence and the rise of the Black Power Movement, the island’s history profoundly influenced Fung’s sense of identity.
"To whom do I want to address this statement, and what do I need to state it so?”
At that point, Fung’s childhood contrasted with that of his mother’s, a multi-generational Chinese-Trinidadian whose family had long been on the island.
“The kind of education [my mother’s family] received, their orientation to their world was different in the post-independence period,” Fung told NBC News. “The government of Trinidad really tried to re-align themselves horizontally to what we might think of as the South-South relationship as opposed to a North-South relationship towards Britain or the United States.”
This juxtaposition between colonial and local, or rather the perspective of outsiders versus the true island culture, made its way into many parts of Trinidadian life. The difference was particularly prominent during the 1960s as television gradually made its way into Trinidadian households. For Fung, the Hollywood images of the Caribbean were representative of an outside perspective attempting to look in.
“Growing up, looking at Hollywood cinema or at American or British television, I was very much aware of looking in as if you're kind of looking through a window into this world, a window from the outside looking into a living room,” Fung said. “On the other hand, whenever there were films made about the Caribbean they always misrepresented it.”
Fung said his experiences with Western media while in Trinidad shaped his eventual work and motivated him to center his work around the audiences he aims to represent. From documentaries like “Orientations” to “My Mother’s Place,” which details his own mother’s upbringing, Fung delivers his films straight to the audience, whether his main target is LGBTQ or minorities looking to make their way into new communities.
“Teresa de Lauretis, a film theorist, made a very important statement," Fung said. "She said a feminist film addresses the spectators as women, and that was very key to me in terms of thinking of doing either work that addresses Caribbean subject matter or Asian subject matter. To whom do I want to address this statement, and what do I need to state it so?”
To make his point, Fung raises his film “Dirty Laundry” as an example.
“The history of prostitution in the early generation of Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian women, or the kind of history of the accusations of sodomy or gambling had been suppressed,” Fung said. “I think many of those histories of those films were addressed to a white audience in an anti-racism gesture, which is fine, but I also think that often ‘dirty laundry’ needs to be raised within communities as well.”
He added, “Difficult questions need to be raised, and if one is only addressing an audience outside, like a general audience or mainstream audience, you never actually gets to deal with some of those more difficult questions.”
Many of these difficult questions and concepts were raised when Fung first tackled “Orientations” and offered a glimpse into the lives of Toronto’s LGBTQ communities. As co-founder of Gay Asians of Toronto, his work convinced him to incorporate the views of LGBTQ Asians, a group that many believe even today still lacks a certain visibility within LGBTQ communities.
“I was interested in the political work of making films because I was a co-founder of Gay Asians of Toronto back in 1980, and ‘Orientations’ was really meant as a kind of consciousness raising, too. It was almost by accident that it was picked up for a couple of film seminars and then began to circulate, and that was a bit of a surprise to me," he said.
Many issues affecting Asian LGBTQ remained unaddressed, Fung observed, which pushed him to break down the impact of the disease in Asian communities. After "Orientations," Fung released documentaries like “Sea In The Blood” and “Fighting Chance,” both of which address the presence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Visibility was very important because part of the problem was that there were few representations of gay Asians or Asians generally with HIV meant that those people who chose and converted felt particularly isolated because it felt like, ‘There's nobody else like me, nobody understands me.’” Fung said, referencing “Fighting Chance.”
While much of Fung’s work with LGBTQ Asians is centered in the '80s and '90s, the filmmaker is set to revisit and revise his first work, “Orientations.” A follow up to the documentary is currently in the works and Fung has revealed that a few of his old subjects for “Orientations” have made a return. But this time a handful of the younger generation has joined, offering a comparison and documentation of Asian LGBTQ communities today.
In Fung’s eyes, some things have remained the same with new challenges. Today’s digital age offers younger LGBTQ Asians the chance to express their identities online through avenues like social media, but the same outlets have also opened new channels for less friendly waters.
“Growing up...I was very much aware of looking in as if you're kind of looking through a window into this world, a window from the outside looking into a living room."
“What we have now is a situation that allows a kind of populous circulation of ideas and opinions, which is fabulous on one level, but it also allows nastiness to circulate in an unedited kind of way," Fung said. "That's the kind of thing that if you were somebody who was Asian, Canadian, and LGBT would make you, in a sense, be aware of ‘your place," or ‘lack of place’ within the imaginary.”
This sense of place can often be hard to define, as LGBTQ movements and communities themselves are more transnational than ever before, according to Fung. The shift in battles have fascinated him in the follow up to “Orientations,” as the fight for gay rights has transitioned into a more legal and rights-based conflict.
“When you think of sexual liberation, which is what people understood in the 70s to be LGBT rights, it's a very different model that requires different kinds of activism,” Fung said. “[Now] the role of lawyers has become much significant. Issues around same-sex marriage [for example], requires people who are far more normative in terms of both what is being asked for...If you look at the United States, you know, serving in the military, or getting married, those are demands to participate in the traditional roles of citizenship, let's say. Whereas sexual liberation was about being radical and out there, and breaking from tradition.”
Those points are among some of the topics Fung is preparing ahead of Wednesday when he receives the Kessler Award. Fung added that he never imagined he would receive such recognition for his work in what began as an earnest exploration and a quest for visibility for Toronto’s LGBT community.
“I never wanted to make films for mainstream distribution or to win awards, but I want to thank everyone who nominated me,” Fung said. “I am honored, to say the least.”