Justin Chin and the Art of Activism
Over the past two years, he has received good reviews in San Francisco for his provocative and sometimes controversial works, “And Judas Boogied Until Hissli
"Jewelle Gomez says any artist that is not an activist is getting a free ride and I've taken her words very much to heart."
by Sidney Brinkley
Justin Chin is an emerging Chinese activist, writer, and performance artist who is at a point in his career where he is either about to make the big leap, or remain a talented but local star.
Over the past two years, he has received good reviews in San Francisco for his provocative and sometimes controversial works, “And Judas Boogied Until His slippers Wept” and “M. Cockroach.”
With last year’s release of “Men on Men 5 – Best New Gay Fiction,” in which he has a short story, he is becoming known to a national audience, and now he is preparing to take his show on the road.
That show, “Attack of the Man Eating Lotus Blossoms,” is a multimedia production that uses film, video, slides, and Chin in various personas to look at the larger political issues of how Asians are portrayed in Hollywood, interracial relationships, as well as Chin’s personal interest in sadomasochism.
Standing about 5 feet 6 inches tall, a trim 135 pounds, shaved head, and a body adorned with several tattoos, Chin is a compact bundle of energy on stage.
He was born in Malaysia in 1969 where his family still lives. He first came to the United States eight years ago to attend the University of Hawaii. In 1990, he attended the OutWrite conference in San Francisco, fell in love with the city, and moved there one year later and eventually graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in journalism.
His day job is teaching creative writing to Chinese youth in Chinatown. All other time is spent either reading, writing, or performing. Much of Chin’s work comes across as if he’s talking about his life and he will not say how much is autobiography and much is creative imagination.
“My work reads like non-fiction, but I just call it writing,” he says. “In some ways, I do it to subvert that notion of what is fiction and what is biography. That’s what I like about performance art. Words represent one thing on a page, speak them and they take on a different meaning, add gesture and they say something else, different layers of meaning. Performance art is immediate, and everything comes all at once.”
As a fairly recent Chinese immigrant, Chin views Asian Americans from a perspective different from those who have been in the United States for several generations. In particular, he sees a growing influence of African American culture on Asian American identity.
“In one of my performance pieces, I have a line that says, for young Asian kids, it is more important to be Black than to be Asian, and that is true. For a lot of Asian kids, the primary role models are African American. They dress like Black people, and try to speak like Black people, and try to do the full ‘homey’ thing.”
But Chin appears more concerned about the interaction between Whites and Asian Americans, and in his work he expresses some anger at White society in general, and White Gay men in particular, for objectifying Asian Gay men and relegating them to what he feels are largely passive and powerless roles in personal relationships.
It's terrain that other Asian Gays have explored before, and Chin says he has had relationships with White men in the past and is presently involved in an interracial relationship. However, if Chin can articulate the issue so clearly, why does he continue to be a willing participant in a scenario he apparently dislikes?
“Different people want different things out of that type of relationship,” he says. “I see some ‘rice queens’ [Gay men who have a preference for Asian men] and how they carry on with their Asian boyfriends...It’s wrong mixing personal relationships with power dynamics but all relationships face problems. When I go out with Chinese American men, I am looked on as a first generation immigrant and we have different ideas of where Asian Americans are going.”
As he receives wider recognition, Chin is beginning to look at who makes up his audience. who publishes and reads his work, and who buys the tickets to his shows. That audience is primarily White.
“Within the Asian community in San Francisco, there are a large number of Gay males, yet I don’t see many Gay Asian men in my audience and it troubles me a little bit.”
After his performance, he received a standing ovation and backstage he is being courted by a clearly fawning member of the audience. Later, I asked what does he feel when people make a fuss over him. Does he ever question if it's a true appreciation of his art or is he simply the man of the moment, to be replaced with someone else next month or next year?
Chin did not clearly answer those questions but he does respond to questions about various contradictions in his work concerning sex, relationships, and race. What Chin says, and what Chin does, can be two different things.
“In life, love, and politics there are tons of contradictions,” he says. “Just when you think you know someone, then there’s a contradiction going by, but overall, I’m happy with who I am.”
And if 1995 turns out not to be his breakthrough year, Chin says his life will go on as before.
“I will continue writing and I will continue to be an activist,” he says. “Writer Jewelle Gomez says any artist that is not an activist is getting a free ride and I’ve taken her words very much to heart.”