I have wanted to write a poem exploring the relationship between Soho and Chinatown for many years, and it was Jamie’s invitation for me to perform at the Queer Chinese Art Festival which finally catalysed me to create a finished edition of the poem. This poem is partially written in response to gay white poetry which idealises Soho as the final destination for queer liberation.
“We are the queer groups, the people that don’t belong anywhere, not in the dominant world nor completely within our own respective cultures. Combined we cover so many oppressions. But the overwhelming oppression is the collective fact that we do not fit, and because we do not fit we are a threat.” – Gloria E. Anzaldua in ‘This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color’ (1981)
Neon signs and elusive characters,
Bustling traffic and spilt drinks…
If I walk down the intersection between Soho and Chinatown,
Where do I belong?
For if I should belong in both,
Do I belong in neither?
I’ve always wandered
If these two great cultural worlds
Ever shared more than a glance?
One summer, I took my friend on a pilgrimage to the promised land,
When she saw the holy grail, draped in rainbow flags,
She said: “I have never felt so marginalised.”
Soho is the destination of liberation and fulfilment,
but for who?
The territory of Soho is marked by white masculinity: the scent of capital and alcohol,
London’s last standing lesbian club hides in the corner of its streets,
And where is the space for our trans siblings who started our revolution?
For cityscapes are shaped by capital,
Beautifully and brutally so.
If I seek refuge in the other side of the street,
Is there any sanctuary to be found?
Amongst the rising rents and underpaid workers,
Old community treasures culled by gentrification1,
Replaced by high dining and trendy drink shops,
Where community once gathered around
A rich red pagoda in the middle of town
Stands nothing but emptiness. 2
Tourists push us aside to take photos of the Chinatown gate,
White people have always valued our art and cuisine more than our humanity.
Drunk white men have no issue marching down the street shouting
Expletives and making fun of a six-thousand year old language.
Why did I ever expect that a street owned by a white man could ever be ours?
Cityscapes are shaped by capital,
Beautifully and brutally so.
Why are we always faced with the dilemma
Of bending ourselves
To fit in
And made to choose between
A sea of whiteness
A sea of straightness?
Trying to fit between the narrow passages between two worlds,
Squeezing yourself to fit in between the boxes,
Compressing yourself until your identity is so paper-thin,
That the alley seems to be closing in on you
As you walk down the night streets.
Until you hear whispers from history…
Queer Gods and emperors,
Myths and legends,
Tales of a half-eaten peach3 and lovers’ cut sleeves,4
Shrines for a fallen soldier turned queer deity,5
and a Sapphic Island responsible for sinking ships,6
Shapeshifting animal spirits in the afterlife,
Trans’ing the River Styx,7
Transforming the most cishet couple in human life
Into trans star-crossed lovers queering the heavens.8
Muffled yells from those whom history forgot.
Our inheritance which has been severed from us.
Queer Asians who marched in gay liberation protests and anti-war demonstrations,
Who walked with the Civil Rights Movement with pride.9
Back in the day,
The year was 1980,
Queer Asian Americans protested against racist gay bars.10
Spoke out against racism in activist circles.
They fought for a space for us.
Surviving at the forgotten intersections of society, we see the unseen.
We are capable of imagining a thousand visions they cannot.
Life at the margins provides unparalleled insights,
If we let go of the need for neat answers and the logic of our rulers,
We can see with a thousand eyes,
Like urban spiders who use their eight eyes to read
The webs of power.11
For so long they’ve held the cold colonial measuring stick against our unruly bodies,1213
Eyes not large enough, not creative enough, not fluent enough.
Too sexual and not at all.
Too feminine and not masculine enough.
Too homosexual and not Christian enough.14
Too good at maths and not quite human.
To escape the colonial gaze,
Break the world’s shell,
To be born,
We must fight.15
Confront systems of oppression and predetermination.
The world is on fire.
The social order cannot go on as it is.
The old order is dying, and a new world is yet to be born.16
The future calls to us.
The call of the cyborg,
A creature fluid and undecipherable in its resistance to power and hierarchy.17
Those living at the margins possess the unique creativity and insight
Voyants who will s(t)eer a way into a new world
Of liberation and equality
Impossible and inconceivable for those who still
Worship hierarchy and fixed boxes
The brainchild of colonial intellectuals and male architects 18
Who wanted to create an oppressive world order
By keeping everyone in their tightly constructed boxes.
In spaces like this,
We stake our claim, challenge the order of things, who gets to create art, whose gaze matters,
Belonging can be beautiful and fluid, like dance.
And solidarity is the golden rod that paves the way to the future.
We do not need permission from those above us in the hierarchy to ‘belong’
We meld our own spaces and histories with our own worn-out hands,
We unearth our own queer, Asian paradise lost from the archives of yesteryear,
We have the power to create our own futures, free of domination, hierarchy and inequality,
Fused by the potent power of solidarity and a celebration of difference.
A feminist once wrote:
“Cyborgs are the people who refuse to disappear on cue”,19
We will stand here between Soho and Chinatown,
No matter how they try to push us away,
With gentrification and racism,
We refuse to leave.
Because this space, is also ours.
Let us call out to the queer Asian gods in the heavens,
The forgotten icons of history,
And today’s diverse torchbearers,
And may the gates of heaven flood open for us,
And light the way to revolution.
1.The rent prices for buildings in Chinatown have doubled over the short span of a few years, leaving businesses struggling whilst the property owners have made huge profits. https://www.vice.com/en/article/gqmxnj/threat-to-londons-chinatown-304
2.In the mid-2010s, the owners of Chinatown decided that they wanted to ‘regenerate’ (gentrify) the area and many older shops and landmarks were taken down and/or replaced. http://westendextra.com/article/chinatown-pagoda-is-demolished-as-part-of-regeneration-scheme
3.Duke Ling of Wei, who lived around 500BCE, favoured his courtier Mizi Xia for his youthful beauty. One day, Mizi Xia ate such a delicious peach, that instead of finishing it, he gave the bitten peach to his lover as a gift. Sadly, the Duke would later turn his back on Mizi after his looks faded and accused him of giving him a half-eaten peach. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mizi_Xia
4.Emperor Ai ruled China around 1 BCE, and his relationship with his official, Dong Xian, has been documented by historians. One day, Dong Xian fell asleep next to Emperor, and instead of waking Dong Xian up, the Emperor cut his own sleeve so that his lover would not be disturbed by the Emperor’s movement. Sadly, Dong Xian met a tragic fate after the Emperor’s death. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emperor_Ai_of_Han
5.According to at 17th century folk tale which circulated around Fujian, once upon a time, a soldier fell in love with a provincial official and tried to see him naked. After catching the soldier spying on him, the official orders that the soldier is beaten to death. After the soldier dies, he reappears in a villager’s dream as a young rabbit, asking for a shrine to be made for him. Members of the underworld decided that the soldier should be appointed as a god of homosexual love in order to correct the injustice which caused his death.
7.In Greek mythology, the River Styx is a river that divides the boundaries between the realm of the living and the underworld.
8.Some Chinese tales have trans themes, see “Chinese Mythology” by Samshasha :http://www.glbtqarchive.com/literature/chinese_myth_L.pdf
9.See the article “Silencing Silence: Asian progressives speak out”, by daniel c. tsang. In this article, various queer Asian American activists recall their experiences of activism between the 1960s and 1990s.
10.In 1980, queer Asian activists protested outside of gay bars in San Francisco, USA, which pursued discriminatory policies which excluded people of colours from entering gay venues, or made it extremely difficult for them to enter. https://www.instagram.com/p/BBsAl1SMMxP/?hl=en
11.Chela Sandoval’s idea (1984) that marginalised peoples who do not fit into neat identity categories can decipher power in unique ways and form ‘oppositional consciousness’.
12.“We are the queer groups, the people that don’t belong anywhere, not in the dominant world nor completely within our own respective cultures. Combined we cover so many oppressions. But the overwhelming oppression is the collective fact that we do not fit, and because we do not fit we are a threat.” – Gloria E. Anzaldua in ‘This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color’ (1981).
13.Foucault’s idea of unruly bodies which refuse to be docile and bend to fit hierarchical categories and binaries. Hegemonic powers view unruly bodies as subversive and threatening. See Rhea Ashley Hoskin’s article, “The Westernization and The Transmogrification of Sailor Moon” (2016): https://www.academia.edu/26316280/Westernization_and_The_Transmogrification_of_Sailor_Moon.
14.Homosexuality and bisexuality were quite common in various eras of ancient and pre-modern Chinese history. However, after introduction of Western Christianity, Chinese attitudes towards queerness became less tolerant (alongside other factors). For example, Christian missionaries descried homosexual activities in China as “unnatural perversions” and the “abominable vice of sodomy”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_history_in_China https://www.inkstonenews.com/society/china-embraced-gay-marriage-long-taiwans-law-west-perverted-history/article/3012086?fbclid=IwAR3hx3LEqvUVDlJCkor9zFn9vfcY4B7jvvZ3oqH3B_pD3mnM5WgDiuR4448
15.“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world.” This quote originally feature’s in Herman Hesse’s 1919 novel, Demian. This quote is later reappropriated by the queer Japanese animation series, Revolutionary Girl Utena (1996-1997): “If it cannot break out of its shell, the chick will die without ever being born. We are the chick. The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without ever truly being born. Smash the world’s shell. FOR THE REVOLUTION OF THE WORLD!”
16.Paraphrasing a quote by the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Antonio_Gramsci
17.Inspired by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985)
18.Modern racial, sexual and gender categories, which tend to be fixed and given hard characteristics and boundaries, were vital to the formation and maintenance of colonial and capitalist hierarchies. https://cyborgtheory.wordpress.com/2021/07/09/foucaults-history-of-sexuality-and-the-modern-subject/ https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227782781_Global_Capitalism_What’s_Race_Got_to_Do_with_It
19.Quote from Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985)