Jason Man-bo Ho reviews Aaron Chan’s memoir about growing up as a gay man in the multiracial, multicultural city of Vancouver.
Aaron Chan, This City is a Minefield (Signal 8 Press, 2019), 250pp.
This City is a Minefield tells the story of a gay man growing up in Vancouver. The author is a second-generation Chinese born in the 1980s and is now a gay-identified multi-talented filmmaker, musician and writer. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of queer-identified individuals from different communities – ranging from the traditionally homo-/transphobic top echelons of the business sector (see John Browne, a former CEO of British Petroleum), to the faith community (like Ouyang Wen Feng, the first openly gay Chinese pastor from Malaysia and Garrard Conley, a gay son of a Baptist pastor in Arkansas, US, whose story has been made into the movie Boy Erased), and athletics (see the 2017 volume Queer Voices from the Locker Room edited by McGivern and Iida-Miller). However, not many stories have been told about gay men of Asian descent living in the intersectional space of race and sexuality in the North American context. Aaron Chan’s autobiography is one of them.
Like many gay men, Chan awakened to his sexuality in his teenage years. However, the mass media to which Chinese communities were exposed in the 1980s–1990s were not friendly to LGBTIQ+ issues, even in Canada. The long-running television series A Kindred Spirit (one of Hong Kong’s longest-running series) was one of the rare opportunities that a young Chan had to see gay people in the media. However, the queer people featured in the drama were either killed or had to change their sexuality. Turning to Western media, in Queer as Folk (a popular American-Canadian television drama that was aired in the early 2000s, based on the British series of the same title) queers with Asian faces are hustlers at best, or are simply absent. No wonder the young Aaron wondered, “freaks like me don’t exist” (emphasis in the original). As if this mis- or under-representation of queers in the media hadn’t caused enough confusion to the teenage Aaron, his coming out stories will resonate with many gay kids growing up in Chinese families, in Canada and beyond. His mother’s comment, calling it a “sickness,” or his aunt’s lukewarm reaction, was not encouraging to a fourteen-year-old person trying to get a sense of who he was from affirming adults.
Identity is once again an issue to a Chinese growing up in Vancouver, in which the Chinese immigrant population is so large that it is also nicknamed “Hongcouver” or the “most Asian city” in Canada. Chan makes it clear how unnecessary it is to say that he is a “Chinese-Canadian” when no one would say “Caucasian-Canadian,” “German-Canadian,” “Irish-Canadian” or “Australian-American.” He would prefer people just say he is a “Canadian.” Another identity issue arises in Chan’s autobiography when it comes to his identity as a “gay man of colour.” Living a proud and honest life as a “completely out” queer gives Chan the opportunity to overcome the fear that paralyzes many gay Chinese men, especially those who also double as Christians (as described by P. S. Cheng in his 2013 book Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit). Chan is particularly “pissed off” when he encounters sexual racism on dating apps – posts containing what he perceives to be racialized sexist stereotypes against those, like himself, who identify as a Chinese gay man. One does not need to deny one’s own identity for not doing the same things that other gay men do, or what others expect them to be and do. To the reviewer, Chan writes about his disgust of such sexual racism with the same kind of anger demonstrated by the late Larry Kramer (who died on 27 May 2020, to our great loss), the AIDS-epidemic fighter whom Chan admires for his boldness to “[confront] both the gay community and society at large.”
If identity is one of the two key themes in Chan’s autobiography, then the pursuit of love is the other one. “The World behind Closed Doors,” “The Birth and Death of You and Me,” “A Case of Jeff” and “In the Dust” exemplify Chan’s fascinating storytelling talent for describing his ups and downs in his relationships. He makes a great metaphor when he describes single people as those who have been left behind in an examination hall, feeling desperate when all the others have found the “good ones” as their partners.
Savouring the bittersweetness of love, Chan borrows the metonymy of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” (written with the style of the melancholic tone like the cover released by his fellow Canadian mezzo singer k.d. lang in 2014) in “A Case of Jeff”:
Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet.
His stories of hopes and despair in the first fourteen chapters in the book prepare the reader to understand the metaphor of the minefield, as in the final chapter, “Minefield,” in which Chan proclaims that “Vancouver became a minefield,” in which streets, bus routes, places, singers, and songs were like visible and invisible “mines.” Some had been deactivated; but more, having detonated, were like “craters that remain from the explosion,” making him “numb to the pain, like having a paralyzed limb,” with mental scars which he no longer wanted to remember. More and more, Chan found that the city he “used to love” has “disappeared beneath these invisible explosives.” The Vancouverites to whom he was drawn were all seemingly “friendly, open, and approachable.” However, the subtle, suggested and explicit forms of racism he encountered made him slowly drift away from the Vancouverite community he once loved. Perhaps there would be no more mines in other cities. Perhaps the hidden bombs and paralyzing memories concealed in Vancouver would be cleared. That is why Chan gets on his feet and moves to somewhere else, where wounds will be healed and life rebuilt.
Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
And still I’d be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
For those who are interested in understanding the intersectionality of race and sexuality, Chan’s memoir makes a good reference.
Jason Man-bo Ho, Ed.D., is a lecturer in the Center for Language Education at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Ho is devoted to research in Content-and-Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), critical sexuality literacy education, translanguaging, multiliteracies and multimodality. He has published articles on queer language education, creative writing and academic blogging. He was elected Director-at-Large of International Society for Language Studies (ISLS) in 2019, and has served as a conference co-chair, reviewer and co-editor for ISLS. He is an openly queer academic, actively involved in LGBTIQ+ advocacy in collaboration with rainbow allies in Hong Kong and other Asian regions.