In the first of its kind for the HKRB, Carolyn Lau curates a special issue on the pioneer of Taiwanese queer literature, Qiu Miaojin (邱妙津).

Daniel C. Tsang talks to film director Evans Chan about Love and Death in Montmartre, a documentary on the pioneer of Sinophone queer literature Qiu Miaojin.

“A Conversation with Evans Chan”

Love and Death in Montmartre蒙馬特之愛與死》(Dir. Evans Chan, 2019) is the first feature length documentary about the pioneer of Taiwanese queer literature Qiu Miaojin (邱妙津), who committed suicide in Paris in 1995 at the age of 26.  Considered the first “out” lesbian author in modern Chinese literature, Qiu has prevailed as a global Chinese LGBTQ icon. Two decades after Qiu’s death, the author achieved a belated international literary stardom, marked by the recent landmark English translations published by New York Review Books. The translation of Notes of a Crocodile《鱷魚手記》was hailed as a “thrillingly transgressive…masterwork” (New York Times) while her second and final novel, Last Words from Montmartre 《蒙馬特遺書》has been favourably compared to writings by Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller (bookforum).

Qiu Miaojin

In 2019, Taiwan became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Qiu Miaojin’s has been memorialized by the island’s gay rights movement as a martyr and she has achieved even greater relevance today. In the documentary Love and Death in Montmartre (hereafter abbreviated as Montmartre), the veteran documentary filmmaker Evans Chan probes into the mysterious circumstances surrounding Qiu’s suicide and was able to gain access to Qiu’s friends from her Taiwan days and her Parisian acquaintances. Most importantly, Chan maps the intercultural and transnational network of Qiu and her work by conducting interviews with her posthumous literary interlocuters, including her translators (Ari Heinrich, Bonnie Huie) and publishers in Europe and America (Brigitte Bouchard, Edwin Frank). Chan also tracked down notable cultural figures associated with Qiu, including the American counterculture icon and poet Eileen Myles and French feminist critic and theorist Hélène Cixous, who was Qiu’s former teacher at the University of Paris VIII. In the film, Chan traces Qiu’s lovelorn footsteps from Taiwan to Paris and Tokyo, creating a tragic Chinese counterpoint to La vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color) (2014). Love and Death in Montmartre is a penetrating exploration of the trauma and exhilaration of sexuality, exile, creativity in Qiu’s valiant struggle with mental illness. At the same time, it celebrates, as in Qiu’s writings, hope and life in face of the temptation of death.

A note from Evans Chan

Image by Daniel C. Tsang

Love and Death in Montmartre started off as a commission by Radio Television Hong Kong. It was originally conceived as a two-part film for the Outstanding Chinese Writers 2016-2017 series.  In January 2017, a 52-minute version titled Death in Montmartre 《蒙馬特 · 女書》was broadcasted in Cantonese. A work-in-progress version was screened in November 2018 at a retrospective of my films at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The following conversation discusses the final version of the documentary running to 110 minutes.  

Love and Death in Montmartre received its world premiere at the Hamburg International Queer Film Festival in the competition section in mid-October 2019. Ulrike Helmer Verlag will bring out the German edition of Crocodile in early 2020.  I have in mind a small film tour in Germany, in conjunction with the book launch. I hope it’ll travel to other destinations in the world, since Qiu’s books are now available in English, Japanese, French, and Italian.

The Interview

TSANG: It is lamentable that it is only after her death that Qiu Miaojin’s works were embraced and her literary importance recognized. Your film is a beautiful commemoration of her life and legacy. What got you interested in Qiu and even making a film about her?

CHAN: When I was invited to contribute to RTHK’s inaugural series of Outstanding Chinese Writers in the 2014/2015 season, I chose Hong Kong’s leading novelist Dung Kai-cheung (董啓章) as my subject in The Rose of the Name 名字的玫瑰. Tung suggested that I should interview Luo Yijun (駱以軍), Tung’s old friend and  eminent Taiwanese novelist. During my interview with Luo, he started enumerating authors of his generation whom he considered challenging but major figures. The name Qiu Miaojin (Chiu Miao-Chin in the Wade–Giles system) kept coming up.  I then learned that Qiu was a lesbian author who committed suicide in Paris in the mid-1990s.  Though her death was sensational news back then, it flew beneath my radar. 

Yet not long after our conversation, and when The Rose of the Name was aired in 2014, I noticed that the New York Review Books (NYRB) had brought out Ari Heinrich’s English translation of Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu.  I became a huge fan of the New York Review of Books back in my college days in Hong Kong.  I had fond memories reading all those latest and back issues at the United States Information Service Library before my arrival in the US in the late 1980s.  As the magazine’s book-publishing arm, NYRB has reissued an impressive list of my favorite novels. An important reissue for me is Eileen Chang’s (張愛玲) Korean War novel, Naked Earth 《赤地之戀》in 2015.  I had adapted Naked Earth into an off-Broadway play for the Bank Street Theatre in New York in 2000. It also dawned on me that Qiu and Chang were the only two Sinophone authors that NYRB had published at that point. “Well, Qiu is in great company,” I thought.  So I picked up Ari Heinrich’s translation, as well as Qiu’s Last Words from Montmartre in its original Chinese. It was a total surprise.  The intensity of Qiu’s writing was dazzling.  Here’s definitely a world class writer, I told myself.  In my personal pantheon, only a handful of Chinese writers fit that bill.

I’m older than Qiu, but inevitably I saw some parallel between my life and hers – coming to terms with our sexuality, opting for exile for intellectual nourishment and personal freedom.  Before coming to New York, I’d toyed with the idea of going to Paris instead, due to my abiding love of French arts and philosophy. We also share similar tastes in art and film, admiring the same figures like Genet, Marguerite Yourcenar, Derek Jarman, Angelopoulos, and even the same books, like Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah.  And I also have my share of a lifelong debilitating, but thankfully mild disorder.

TSANG: Were you given full reign in making the film?

CHAN: The kind of constraints that RTHK put on filmmakers have to do with broadcasting guidelines, which, for example, the prohibition of smoking or sexually explicit scenes.  Other than that, I can’t say I’ve encountered any constraints on artistic creation.  In fact, a French audience in Paris expressed her surprise that Hong Kong’s public broadcasting service green-lighted such a project.  She might have thought that Hong Kong is just part of conservative Asia. 

Asia in general isn’t at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement.  But I have to say that Hong Kong is spearheading queer politics in the sense that the only “out” gay and lesbian pop artists in the Sinophone world, Anthony Wong (黃耀明) and Denise Ho (何韻詩), are based in Hong Kong but not in Taiwan or Mainland China [1]. While it’s understandable that it’s not easy to be an out entertainer in China, Taiwan surprisingly isn’t as progressive as I thought.  It would be interesting to work with Taiwan’s LGBTQ musicians for the soundtrack of Montmartre but I couldn’t find any. I did end up using the atmospheric chamber music by the Taiwanese female composer, Yen Ming-hsiu (顏名秀), who has been working on an orchestral commission from the Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra to commemorate Qiu. Through the poet, filmmaker and theatre artist Hung Hung (鴻鴻), I engaged Hsu Yen-ling (徐堰鈴), known as the diva of independent theatre in Taiwan, to perform Qiu’s voice. She is wonderful.  

TSANG: RTHK broadcasted only sections of Montmartre, instead of airing the full film. What happened?

CHAN: Even when I was halfway through shooting, I could tell the material I amassed would definitely exceed the 52-minute duration of a single episode for RTHK.  So, for the TV film, I could only cover the basics, such as introducing Qiu and contextualizing her with interviews. But there was simply no time to examine the complex circumstances of her death.  For me, the dramatic core of Montmartre is Qiu’s dark journey towards her exit, which brings out the poignancy, pathology, or heroism when we reflect on her life and work.  I felt compelled to reveal the full story about Qiu’s demise.  With the permission of RTHK, which still owns the copyright of the TV film, I developed the episode into a feature length documentary under a new title, Love and Death in Montmartre.

TSANG: Did you cut out any erotic scenes?

CHAN: Since broadcast guidelines no longer apply to the feature film version of Montmartre, I’ve included some scenes with Qiu smoking, and one sexually explicit scene of two women in bed, which I superimposed on the Seine.  However, it’s not a sex scene staged by me.  Montmartre also uses “found footage,” mostly drawn from the two short films Qiu made herself, Guide me to Sleep 《請指引我睡眠》and The Revelries of Ghosts 《鬼的狂歡》. Qiu was a cinephile and had serious film-making ambitions.  Had she lived, her career might have resembled that of Marguerite Duras, though Qiu wasn’t particularly drawn to the French tradition of experimental cinema.  Angelopoulos and Tarkovsky were her heroes.

Still from Love and Death in Montmartre (Dir. Evans Chan, 2019)

The found-footage sex scene I used was excerpted from Last Letters from Montmartre by Lotte Yue (岳樂天), who made this short film while attending film school at the Hong Kong Baptist University.  It’s an earnest attempt by a young bisexual Chinese woman from Shanghai to grapple with the themes of Qiu’s writings and life  love, death and the taboo of lesbianism.  Lotte is also an interviewee in the film, channeling the wishes of the LGBTQ community in China.

TSANG: Can you talk about your own re-enactments?

CHAN: In these scenes, Qiu is either wearing a crocodile mask, or is played by a veiled woman or several veiled women.  I think the use of the crocodile mask is pretty self-explanatory, since Qiu was famously the creator of Notes of a Crocodile.  In the novel’s fantastical subplot, Qiu allegorized lesbians as crocodiles to underscore mainstream society’s voyeuristic and dehumanizing attitude towards sexual minorities.

Some of my friends who attended the film’s previews, such as NYRB’s Edwin Frank, commented on the “bridal” look of the veiled imaging of Qiu.  He was correct.  My film opens with an entry from Qiu’s diary, in which she pleaded for “the eternal vow of love, the vow to God” from her beloved. And in Montmartre, Zoë (very much Qiu’s alter ego) did refer to her “honeymoon” and deteriorating “marriage” with her girlfriend in Paris.  Maybe in Zoë/Qiu’s mind, “marriage” represented a stronger bond than mere relationship.

Still from Love and Death in Montmartre (Dir. Evans Chan, 2019)

Anyhow, over the course of the making of Montmartre, between 2015-2019, the same-sex marriage legalization battle in Taiwan was brewing. After much contestations, the bill was finally passed in May 2019.  That’s another reason, apart from my reader’s intuition, to have Qiu appear in the film as an ambiguous bride-like figure – perhaps a would-be bride? A self-deluded bride? Or an imaginary bride in the mind of a yearning and determined woman?  Meanwhile, white is also the color of mourning in Chinese culture.  So maybe an unhappy, mourning bride too? Or the ghost of a bride.  

TSANG: Qiu had kept diaries and you had access to her letters too.  But her extant published writings were fiction.  How did you balance the fictional and autobiographical in the film?

CHAN: Qiu’s diaries were edited by Lai Hsiang-yin (賴香吟) and published in 2007 in two volumes.  But Qiu’s hundreds of letters to her lover (Xu in Last Words from Montmartre) are, if intact, in the addressee’s possession. Lai has kept some of Qiu’s letters, but she didn’t share them with me.  The few letters by Qiu that I saw were those she wrote to Xie Wantong (謝宛彤), one of which I excerpted in the film.  That’s pretty much the extent of my “access” to Qiu’s correspondence.

Did I conflate fiction with autobiographical content?  Yes and no, I guess.  In most cases, I included the sources of the texts cited in the film. Both of Qiu’s novels come across as remarkably autobiographical. When I first contacted Lai Hsiang-yin, I asked her how factual Montmartre is.  She said, “You might say everything in it is true.  Yet, Qiu’s unique presentation has turned everything into fiction.”  Meanwhile, Qiu’s English translator Ari Heinrich has called Last Words from Montmartre an “experimental memoir,” rather than a novel. Hélène Cixous was not named in the novel, but all of Qiu’s friends were aware of her enthusiasm about having Cixous as a teacher and mentor. Cixous confirmed that Qiu picked the name Zoë as an alter ego in the text, and the book launch party in the book did happen.  In fact, after receiving a copy of the earlier version of the film from me, Cixous threw a viewing party in her apartment.  One viewer was the Icelandic school friend Qiu mentioned in Montmartre and “depicted” in my film.  Cixous said they all felt that that was the Qiu Miaojin they remember, and they were all moved by the film.

Still from Love and Death in Montmartre (Dir. Evans Chan, 2019)

I think the audience will know that they are watching an experimental hybrid documentary, as suggested by the stylized imaging of Qiu and the use of “reenactment.”  The film tries to reimagine Qiu’s life and work, allowing the two dimensions to interact and to have a dialogue with our cultural milieu two decades after her passing.      

TSANG: I’m impressed by your ability to track down Qiu’s social circle and literary acquaintances.

CHAN: Lai Hsiang-yin was Qiu’s close friend, an outstanding novelist in her own right, and the longtime executor of Qiu’s estate.  She arranged for me to interview several of Qiu’s close friends and acquaintances.  I’ll always be grateful for her facilitation and for granting me the permission of making this film. When I first approached Lai for approval, she hadn’t seen any of my film work. She was however aware of my involvement in editing and translating three Susan Sontag books into Chinese for a Taiwan publisher [2]. Lai later told me that she picked me partly due to the fact that I am an “outsider” who wouldn’t view Qiu’s life and work with a prurient interest.  

It must have been the Sontag connection that prompted Lai to say to me on one occasion that she wished I could bring “an international perspective” to the subject.  I hope that by featuring in the film Qiu’s two translators, two foreign publishers, Eileen Myles, and Cixous in particular, has met Lai’s expectation on some level.  For me, the filming process was intense.  It’s like living through a literary thriller, as we step closer and closer into the dizzying void of Qiu’s obsession and final self-annihilation.  Even though twenty years had passed after her death, a few interviewees wept during the interview. They still haven’t gotten over her passing. Maybe this is a testament to the warmth, generosity, and magnetism of Qiu. I was honestly moved. Meanwhile, the unexpected opportunity to meet Cixous was a delight, an unexpected intellectual treat.   

Derrida was the other French professor who impacted Cixous’s life in Paris. And if he had met Qiu and remembered her, I’d of course have wanted to find out more.  But I doubt there had been much interaction between them.

TSANG: There’s a hint of political subversiveness in Qiu depicted in your film when she’s reflecting on Cixous and talking about “revolution”. To what extent was Qiu “political”?

CHAN: To begin with, Notes of a Crocodile is an important intervention in identity, viz LGBTQ politics in Taiwan and the entire Chinese-speaking world. But I guess you were talking about politics in a broader sense.  In the book, the “revolution” Qiu/Zoë mentioned concerns intellectual freedom and the opposition of state oppression.  Qiu/ Zoë was then enrolled in the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines, Europe’s first woman studies program founded by Cixous. The French right-wing government at the time threatened to annul it, another real-life event that Qiu inserted in the novel. 

Qiu burst onto the literary scene in the decade following the lifting of martial law in Taiwan.  This new era of freedom of expression was the backdrop against which Qiu’s Crocodile emerged.  She must have been aware that she belonged to a generation benefiting from the withdrawal of state repression.  Qiu was unquestionably shaped by Taiwan, evidenced even in an expatriate novel like Montmartre.  I understand that Qiu had been concerned about the island’s diplomatic isolation after Taiwan’s seat at the UN was taken by China in 1971.  Yet her novella, The Lonely Crowd, published in 1990, the year after the Tiananmen massacre, is about a pair of gunned-down ghosts from Tiananmen hovering over a protest rally in Taiwan.  Clearly, Qiu’s political sympathy at that point was pan-Chinese, if you will, before Taiwan’s localist sentiment hardened into proto-independence clamour in the ensuing decades.

A character in one of Qiu’s early stories said: “I love Art.  But Politics is that inescapable conscience implanted in me after reading some books.” It’s a touching statement.     

TSANG: Can you elaborate more on Qiu’s queer politics? We know Qiu eventually became an icon for Taiwan’s queer movement. How relevant is she today?

CHAN: Before the RTHK version of Montmartre was aired in Hong Kong, a local female reporter requested an interview with me, during which I told her that the TV version is not really a complete film, because it couldn’t go deep enough into the circumstances surrounding Qiu’s suicide, which is important for us to be able to fully evaluate her legacy.  The reporter went ahead to file her story, which is fine.  But I wasn’t crazy about this statement from her report: “The self-disgust exhibited by Qiu’s characters and their conviction that being a lesbian would only bring a life of misery, not to mention Qiu’s own suicide, hardly make her a good role model…” (SCMP).

I don’t know when it has ever been literature’s job to provide role models!  It’s more likely to be the responsibility of state propaganda.  And like state propaganda, the LGBTQ history, as implied in this reporter’s statement, must be purged of “self-disgust” and redeemed from “misery.”  Moreover, it’s simply ignorant to assert that Qiu’s characters hold the “conviction that being a lesbian would only bring a life of misery.”  Her non-lesbian characters are not too happy either, for different reasons.  And Qiu had a comic flare, as we can tell from Crocodile

Qiu is a role model because she dares to confront repressive social norm of her times by publishing a novel like Crocodile under her own name. Crocodile’s tremendous impact is not limited to literary history.  In the film, I’m lucky enough to be able to include a discussion with Chi Chia-wei (祁家威), the pioneering gay rights advocate whose ongoing legal battle with the Taiwan government since 1986 finally brought about the Marriage Equality victory this year. The interview took place in New York, when Chi came to attend the Stonewall-at-50 Pride celebration two months after Taiwan began registering same-sex couples to get married [3]. He explained most eloquently how Qiu’s Crocodile, together with her suicide, have changed social attitudes, paving the way to today’s trail-blazing triumph, not only for Taiwan, but for Asia.

TSANG: Your film captured well Qiu’s sense of freedom in her three years in Paris, even as she was plagued by self-doubt about her sexuality and relationships. While you’ve pointed out that Qiu was deeply connected to Taiwan, she also insisted she won’t go back because she never came out to her parents.  

CHAN: I think Qiu wasn’t saying that she wouldn’t even go back to Taiwan for a visit. She was not going to move back and settle down. Maybe she felt hurt by Taiwan’s explicit homophobia at that time. Or maybe it’s because of  her unhappy memories of love. Another factor could be her ambition to become a Paris-based global artist/writer.  But all in all, I think it’s an expression of her sweeping disenchantment with the “Chinese” civilization. In a journal entry, she wrote, “Oh, Chinese! Oh Chinois!  Why are you so stupid?  Why are you so ugly?”  Has Qiu been unjust to Taiwan? To “the Chinese”?  Was she making a gross generalization?  All that I can say is that this disappointment with traditional Chinese culture, of which Taiwan is a distinct and hybridized variety, has been a salient feature of Chinese literary modernity, dating back to Lu Xun.  Deeply sinister elements in Chinese civilization, which some described as Asiatic despotism, have survived through centuries into the Sinophone world today. China’s authoritarian ascendancy is an example. In this sense, I imagine Qiu was reacting, in a moment of despair, to her “cultural roots,” and not just to Taiwan.

TSANG: Of course, it was only after her death that she became a literary icon in Taiwan and beyond. Yet her writings paint a dark picture of queer relationships and life a few decades before the legalization of same-sex unions.  Was her darkness something that especially captivated you as a filmmaker, and was it more of a challenge than, say, documenting political struggles in Hong Kong as in your documentaries Raise the Umbrellas 《撐傘》(2016) or We Have Boots 《我們有雨靴》(2018) ?

CHAN: I made the two Hong Kong films and the Qiu documentary over the last five years, when my husband of thirty years was critically ill, had a brief reprieve, then died in March 2018. Those were the toughest years of my life. And should I even thank the hope and despair of Hong Kong as well as Qiu’s darkness, which have helped me through those darkest days of my life? Looking back, some of my films are rather dark. For example, my dramatic feature Crossings 《錯愛》 (1994) was inspired by a subway murder in New York City in the 1990s. The Map of Sex and Love 《情色地圖》 (2001) has a segment investigating what might have been a hidden chapter of the Holocaust in Asia during WWII [4].

Still from Raise the Umbrellas (Dir. Evans Chan, 2016)

Umbrellas and Boots are rather dark, underlining Hong Kong’s uncertain, ominous future. Some viewers have found similarities among Montmartre and the Umbrella Movement documentaries: all these films are about human rights in Sinophone societies.  They illustrate that being Chinese (in the broadest sense) and the embrace of equal rights and democracy are not antithetical at all. And I agree with and am thankful for such an observation, since the triumph of marriage equality in Taiwan should also be viewed in the context of Taiwan’s evolution as a democratic society. Maybe the Hong Kong and Taiwan comparison is apt here. When the social attitude in Hong Kong is so much more liberal, such as the presence of openly gay entertainers, the absence of full democracy here has apparently made marriage equality a much more distant dream than in Taiwan.

Daniel C. Tsang is Distinguished Librarian Emeritus at University of California, Irvine. He has served as a Fulbright Research Scholar in Hanoi, Vietnam and more recently in Hong Kong. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Honorary Data Archivist at Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, and Honorary Research Fellow in Social Sciences at University of Hong Kong. He has been a film studies and French literature bibliographer (among other subjects). He has also been an activist since the early days of gay liberation. He has freelanced for Far Eastern Economic Review, San Jose Mercury News, AsianWeek, Frontiers, OC Weekly and Hong Kong Free Press, where he interviewed Evans Chan twice. His op eds have appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He blogs occasionally on subversities.blogspot.com and interviews writers, filmmakers and activists for his Subversities Show podcasts (on KUCI and iTunes). He alternates his time between Orange County, California and Hong Kong, where he was born.

Evans Yiu Shing Chan (www.evanschan.com) is a New York and Hong Kong-based critic, librettist and an independent filmmaker of more than a dozen fiction and documentary films, which have been screened at the Berlin, London, Moscow, Vancouver, AFI-Docs, and Taiwan Golden Horse film festivals, among others. His directorial debut To Liv(e) (1991) was listed by Time Out as one of the 100 Greatest Hong Kong Films. He was the librettist for the opera, Datong: The Chinese Utopia, which is based on his Datong: The Great Society, named Movie of the Year by Southern Metropolitan Daily in 2011. A critical anthology about his work, Postcolonalism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan was published by the HKU Press in 2015. We Have Boots and Umbrella Road are his latest films about Hong Kong’s democratic movement and ongoing protests. Both films were preceded by his acclaimed documentary, Raise the Umbrellas (www.raisetheumbrellas.com), which explores the 79-day Occupy/Umbrella Revolution of 2014. We Have Boots was premiered at the 2020 Rotterdam International Film Festival.

[1] Denise Ho and Anthony Wong are featured in Chan’s documentary Raise the Umbrellas (www.raisetheumbrellas.com), which is about the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.  Their equal rights activism encompasses gay rights and democratic rights.

[2] See Evan Chan’s interview with Susan Sontag: http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/issue.901/12.1chan.html 

[3] Taiwan’s supreme court ruling on marriage equality was issued in 2017, but it didn’t really come into effect until 2019.

[4] To Liv(e), Crossings and four other films by Evans Chan can be found in a DVD set accompanying the printed edition of Postcolonialism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan edited by Tony Williams and published by HKU Press in 2015.

2 thoughts on “Special Issue on Qiu Miaojin: A Conversation

  1. Pingback: HFT Newsletter #4 – hummus for thought

  2. Pingback: Qiu Miaojin - Aufzeichnungen eines Krokodils - Taiwan in Vienna

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