Editor’s note: Russell Leong is on GSJ’s Editorial Board and former editor of Amerasia Journal (1977-2010), UCLA’s academic journal in Asian and Pacific Islander Studies since 1971. Russell is also founding editor of City University of New York’s CUNY Forum and author of Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories (2000). Russell has traveled and taught extensively in Asia. Russell is the son of pioneering journalist Charles Leong, featured in Gum Saan Journal 2021.
“Are we dancing the human dance gone askance?”
(from author’s poem, “Wuxia Flick”)
Twenty-twenty. COVID-19 was a painful slap in the face: Thirty years rushed back to me, tensing and taunting my body and mind across the green Pacific. COVID? AIDS? SARS? What were the possible linkages between destiny, desire, and disease that these strangely-coined terms carried? How was I connected to all of these as a person, as a part of America. And, does my being a bisexual Asian American man bring a different perspective to all of this? In thinking about these connections, I discovered strands around that crossed places and oceans – and time.
So this commentary – “Pacific Overtures” – touches briefly upon these linkages, and murkier undercurrents of destiny, disease, desire and stigma as it manifested itself during the past three decades or so. After all, Pacific Overtures (1976) wasn’t just another Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical. It was, in fact, about the West’s forcible opening up of Japan in the 1853. More important, its cast employed Asian American male actors in major roles. The original production was done in Kabuki style, with the majority of male actors in female roles who were uncloseted gay men, at least within the industry.
The 1980s and 1990s was a time in which AIDS scourged men, women, and children of the world. Yet, the western media’s initial focus was on the gay men who contracted HIV or lived or died with AIDS through sexual activity. In the U.S., it was not until the Samoan American diver, Greg Louganis, came out as gay and HIV positive in 1995 that Asian Pacific Americans tallied in the CDC’s epidemiology of those affected or who had died.
Native Americans and APIs were last to be included, probably because we were not seen as part of the mainstream American population – but rather as marginalized peoples who could be ignored. Besides, Asian Americans were still being seen in large part as a “model minority” who worked hard, were heterosexually family-oriented, and were not notorious for their sexuality or activity in that field. In a sense then, APIs were, in their urban or suburban enclaves, untouchable – by AIDS as well. None of the above was true of course, once you got down to the personal level. Many API families had bachelor uncles or aunts who never married, or sons and daughters who were LGBTQ. Yet, sex, like drugs and alcohol, were taboo subjects within most API families.
Friends of friends I knew had died of AIDS – these included men and women – writers, fashion designers, dancers, actors, as well as restaurant workers, even students. AIDS did not discriminate – and often it spread to women through gay men, as some Asian native-born and immigrant men were not out to their wives or families and had sexual relations outside of marriage, thereby unknowingly passing along the disease.
It was not until those close to me had contracted HIV or died of AIDS did I have the courage to face up to the disease. I became a volunteer with the Asian Pacific American AIDS Intervention Team in Los Angeles in the early 1990s to do what I could. There, I held writing workshops for English-speaking clients and utilized writing as a tool for them to talk about their lives. Additionally, I became a coordinator of the Chinese-speaking support group for seropositive men. This volunteer experience challenged me to utilize techniques outside of the classroom, and also shattered the narrow social bubble I worked within that consisted mainly of API professionals, technocrats, and academics. I learned more from clients than I ever taught them.
Our writing class, for example, was based upon Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in which her protagonist expressed her life via writing letters to God. In my class, I had clients chose a real living person to write a letter to. One person wrote to his daughter in Hawaii; another wrote to a journalism teacher in the Philippines who had inspired him. Then, the letters had to be sent. At that time, there was little usage of email or internet, so such letters went through the regular post – paper, envelope, stamps.
In the Chinese-speaking support group, some clients were from mainland China, while others were ethnic Chinese from Vietnam or Cambodia. Through our bi-weekly sessions we got to share daily issues around finding or losing jobs, documented or undocumented visa status, relationships, and the effects of new protease inhibitor medicines on their health, together with talk about each person’s T-cell count, a higher count above 500 which was important to sustain health. Certain types of traditional Asian foods, such as bitter melon, were seen as useful to combat the disease and maintain or raise T-cell count. Chinese and Filipino clients particularly championed bitter melon – not only the fruit itself but stems and leaves that were readily available at local ethnic Chinese and Filipino markets in L.A.
Decades later, when I taught at Hunter College and worked in New York City between 2013-2018, I volunteered to develop bilingual literature about STDS and other transmittable diseases for a mainly immigrant clientele base. This was for a Chinatown service agency in Manhattan. Again, dealing with a mostly immigrant population, we needed to produce informational literature which did not moralize, stigmatize, or make judgments around extramarital sex or sexual orientation, as many of those affected by the disease were in fact men married to women with families. Homosexual behavior or drug usage, for example, were not our primary focus. Our outreach to Asians included their families in the whole disease recovery treatment through having Lunar New Year parties, family get-togethers. Bilingual social workers spoke Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean, and informational literature focused on the positive effects of getting tested and treating the disease, like any other.
We had to avoid traditional cultural norms around sexuality and biases around sexual orientation in order to reach people who were as afraid of the social stigma of their disease as the consequences of the disease itself. My mind flashes forwardto the SARS pandemic in Hong Kong in 2003, in which working class folks, and Filipino and other South Asian workers were often stigmatized as well.
In 2003, I found myself working at the University of Hong Kong. It was March of that year that the first signs of a strange disease carried to the city by a doctor from southern Guangdong manifested itself. It was later termed SARS 1. (Current COVID is actually a SARS 2.) Life changed and the city almost became a closed port; its reputation as a financial hub of Asia and a global tourist designation was tanking. Here is a description of daily life during these times.
Excerpted from a memoir, I describe both the civil response and the class inequities between local Chinese and their Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers shopping for their at-home employers, not unlike the inequalities between stay-at-home workers and essential workers of color in the U.S. around COVID-19.
Then overnight, it seemed, my destiny changed… Riding the sixteen-passenger siuba, or mini-bus, from Sham Shui Po, where I lived, to Tsim Sha Tsui, where I worked, my ears picked up, for the fourth time, the public service announcement on the TV monitor to the left above the aisle.
To prevent severe atypical respiratory syndrome, or the disease commonly known as SARS, avoid shaking hands. Avoid touching public facilities – door handles, telephones, elevator knobs. Avoid the spread of SARS. Wash your hands often. Wear a face mask. Your health is in your hands.
On the screen, thirtyish guys in gray business suits and blue surgical masks covering their mouth and jaw, bob their heads and bow to each other, rather than shake hands. An official voice recounts the figures again, which are rising by the day. Over 1,500 infected in this city alone, more than 100 dead, and more infected frontline health workers and people from housing projects. Across the Taiwan Strait, 2,000 people are already infected in Beijing. Together with the bus driver, most of the riders also have on masks. This report would reach our ears and eyes at least a dozen times a day, whenever we ride the bus, or pick up a copy of the Mingpao Daily or Next Magazine. SARS, like breathing, was becoming a part of life for the past two months. And when we stopped breathing, we’d die.
Wherever I walk, chain drugstores – Watson’s and Mannings – and discount stores hawk hygiene products: liquid soap, rubbing alcohol and other cleansers, cotton swabs, packets of surgical masks, latex gloves, and fancier rubber and plastic gas masks. Lines of Filipina or Indonesian maids stock up on bagged rice, canned meat and fish, coffee, tea and sugar in case Hong Kong is declared an infected port.
Supermarkets restock their supplies of vinegar and garlic, household remedies against sickness. Chinese herbalists display gold boxes of pricey immune boosters – Jilin red date and rock sugar jelly spiked with ginseng, or essence of chicken tonic for building up the body. Silver foil packets of Ban Lan Gen, a mixture of isatis root and cane sugar, promises to clear the body of heat and to flush out toxins. I buy a box of 12 packets for twenty dollars. I wonder why blonde-haired Australian and British sluff off SARS as an Asian disease; few wear masks. Other locals suspect a new form of biological terrorism. But who’d do this to my home? I don’t know.
When SARS 1 first appeared in Hong Kong, it was first confined to the inhabitants of a lower-middle-class housing project, the Amoy Gardens. The rich Chinese or Western expatriates who lived in the exclusive “Peak” areas were seemingly immune. Their cases went unreported or hidden. The media gossiped about the unclean sanitary habits of the workers of those flats; only later it was discovered that faulty cheap plumbing that collected and carried wastewater in traps from floor to floor was the culprit, not the inhabitants’ lifestyle.
Nonetheless, for months, residents of those housing blocks were stigmatized; some temporarily quarantined in government camps as well. At one point, to develop remedies, world-renowned scientist Dr. David Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Institute in NYC was flown over to try to develop similar protease inhibitors for SARS sufferers, since some of the medical symptoms seemed to overlap, including a weakening of the immune system.
Here, both the initial media stigma surrounding SARS as due to poor hygienic or sexual behavior prevailed; similar to the response around HIV and AIDS a decade or so earlier. In the case of AIDS, the “blame” group was primarily gay men; in the case of SARS in Hong Kong the “blame” group was working-class citizens. Sadly, in 2022 China, those who have a history of COVID infection are often fired from jobs or simply not hired – affecting students and migrant workers most heavily. This discrimination also extends to the patient’s family and friends, due to China’s strict electronic monitoring system. For both groups, the stigma surrounding their predicament was painful and agonizing.
Ironically, the appearance of SARS 2, currently known throughout the world as COVID, provided me as an Asian American a chance to think more deeply about the convergences between SARS, AIDS, and COVID. I share my thoughts in a poem from a publication, “Corona Conversations” on Asians and COVID, which I edited for the CUNY FORUM.
For me, COVID and other modern diseases reflect the destiny of our human interference with Nature through greed and pollution which creates mutations; the desire to stigmatize marginalized social groups including the poor, AIDS victims, LGBTQ persons, and persons of color, and lastly, a lack of compassion and lack of responsibility around the world we have jointly created.
Produced by Corona Studios, Unlimited, 2020.
A decade before, the world in 2009
Was divided into diseases of pigs and birds –
Split into desires with stunted names
Like SARS, AIDS, FLU that flew
From tongue to lavender tongue, that entered through moist boba pearls
Of saliva, blood & unprotected sex, that hinted at strangers and animal
Mutations of the human dance gone askance.
In 2020, the world is no longer divided by animals or borders
But circled entirely by Corona, by droplets that move and mutter
A virus that flaps and flutters, jumps species, travels countries
Within crowded airport escalators or movie theatre lobbies
In Wuhan, Milan, New York.
Actors: (Stars and Extras)
Corona wings its way across continents of heat and cold
Sticks to fingers and throats, where premiers and popes
Pontificate from golden balconies.
(While ordinary people – the working poor, single mothers,
Queers, delivery men, are always fingered by sooty rain
Falling through corrugated tin roofs.)
The world hisses its warning of foreign wings and displaced genes
Do not kiss me then.
I will not touch you now.
I will throw off my clothes & shoes
Altogether at the door.
Whenever we eat
We will not share our meat or rice with anyone.
Hotpots and dim sum are banned from the table.
Good and Evil:
Oh, I will not make blind love to you.
With bruised bluish eyes we see that
We are only the latest pawns in the playbook
Of pandemics and politicians –
As heroes of the people struggle
To obtain masks, ventilators, gloves
And beds from government warehouses full of loot and gold –
(As everyone knows, in wuxia flicks, the fight is always
about revenge, righteousness, and heroes)
The hero always gets their speech right in the end:
She, or He, has the last word, the last breath, the last
Look, through an N95 mask, at their beloved.
Then the pudgy director cries out:
“Cut. Redo. Almost, perfect.
But can you smile a bit through your tears?
Today, we need hope!”
Mindful Beyond Ourselves
As Asian Americans, we must view ourselves as part of the whole of human society – transcending our narrow anxieties as innocent victims of disease; our ethnocentric concerns around anti-Asian hate; or our conventional biases in relation to ethnic or gender prejudice.
We must become more mindful of the undercurrents and overtures of our intertwined destinies, dreams, and desires as they play out in Southern California, the U.S., and across and within the Pacific.