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At the Asian American International Film Festival last month, independent filmmaker Greg Pak debuted the steamy digital video All Amateur Ecstasy. It opens with an Asian woman dressed in a negligee, moaning and writhing in bed, then quickly introduces two other women, gasping for breath and reeling. To the cheap plunkings of a soft-porn soundtrack, the film progresses, crosscutting among the three women until they near a climaxwhich turns out be nothing more than a sneeze.
Pak's sneeze tease is just the latest of a proliferating number of works designed, in part, to cool the yellow fever of surfers who have made sites like Anal Asians or Singapore Sluts so popular. Pak, a member of the Workshop, a Manhattan-based Asian American filmmakers' collaborative, had struggled to find an audience for his comic shorts until he released one online two years ago under the title Asian Pride Porn.
Almost as soon as the film debuted, it soared to the all-time top 10 list on AtomFilms.com. Pak, who previously had toured only through independent festivals, gladly cites the keywords "Asian" and "porn" as a large part of his success. ''Sex films are the most successful films online," he says. "People often find my film when they're looking for porn. They may get off on it, or they might just find it funny, or think about something they don't normally think about."
In Asian Pride Porn, Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (who memorably confronted orientalism in M. Butterfly) plays the host an infomercial that mocks clichéd porn services like Oriental Blossoms (555-ME-SO-HORNY) and offers a healthier alternativea XXX video titled Asian Pride Porn!
Purchasing pornography is bad enough, Hwang jokes on-screen: "I don't need guilt over the sexual oppression of women of color and anger about the absence-slash-emasculation of the Asian male in the American media." Instead, he prefers "positive images of confident Asian American men and women caught on tape." After screening a skit that features a yuppie Asian woman and a virile Asian delivery guy, Hwang hawks a series of empowering porn titles like Princess Mononookie, Anna and the Kink, and Whole Lotta Hapa: The Eurasian Man-Meat Special. This porn video, Hwang boasts, takes consumers "from onanism . . . to activism."
Pak relishes the disjunct. "I'm mocking bad culture by wallowing in it," he says. "The typical polemic will only play to a certain audience, but this way, people are getting something subversive. This lets us get the message out stealthily, so they don't even know what hit them."
Tricking audiences has been at the core of Prema Murthy's work for years. On her own, and as a member of the Williamsburg collaborative FakeShop, Murthy has pioneered live digital art projects that reinvent online strip shows and CU-CMe video. Her long-running Web project BindiGirl is an ironic, slick response to the prurient fascination with Asian female bodies and to the ways technology facilitates voyeurism.
Though BindiGirl has been featured in the Walker Art Center, Murthy admits it's basically "a tongue-in-cheek amateur porn site." Upon entering the page, visitors are greeted by an adult-content warning paired with a quote from the Kama Sutra, which cautions that women may "extract from [men] all the wealth that they possess."
Next, they meet Murthy in the character of Bindi, who is entirely nude except for strategically placed digital bindi dots. Audiences navigate through sections like "LoveChat," a comic, fictional dialogue between Bindi and an impotent man ("My measurements are 36, 24, 36"); "Bio," Bindi's meditations on her life ("It gets so lonely in here"); and "Harem," a photo portfolio of other South Asian women sporting nothing but red dots. Premium contentincluding live CU-CMe performances and "exotic souvenirs"costs extra.
"Yes, the pictures are cute and glossy," says Murthy, "but if you look closely, you might notice that it is both voyeuristic and claustrophobic." Images that would be at home on any pornography site (excepting the bindi dots) are paired with proto-feminist quotes from Indian religious texts, like "Women are the perfection of wisdom." Other images are violently cropped and confined. On one hand, BindiGirl is intentionally disquieting for the accidental visitors it attracts. On the other, it provokes art audiences to debate representations of South Asian women, including Murthy herself. "By placing the project in an art context," she says, "I hope to get people to ask if I'm making a comment or just using my girlish wiles to get some attention."
Mimi Nguyen wasn't trying to get people's attention when she first went online. Back in the mid 1990s, Nguyen, of the Bay Area, was dutifully using the Internet as a research tool to find material on Asian American women's work. When her efforts turned up little more than porn sites, she got "exceedingly irritated." So she created Exoticize Thisa/k/a Exoticize My Fista Web site offering Asian American feminist resources, including original essays, journal entries, links, and bibliographies.
In a posted message on the site, Nguyen writes that "Exoticize This is a practical combination of a 'do it yourself' ethic learned from punk and riot grrrl and years of feminist and leftist activism and theorizing."
Nguyen's site has become a hub for Asian American feminists, but it has inevitably attracted its share of critics. Asian-porn fans who accidentally stumble onto her site have been vocally disappointedand worse. She's been accused of anti-male tendencies, told she's letting "foxy Asian babes go to waste," and threatened with physical and sexual violence. Mostly, she says, "I get messages about how I'm a congenital lesbian trying to start a cult."
Still, Nguyen has stuck with her project and expanded it at her current domain, WorseThanQueer.com, which has, in turn, spurred on other feminist Asian American webzines, like Big Bad Chinese Mama. This year-old Los Angeles-based site, by Kristina Sheryl Wong, satirizes mail-order-bride and Asian porn sites with pictures and biographies of Asian Americans like "Annie," a chain-smoking, pink-haired war refugee who "is very grateful to the soldiers who fed her Marlboros and Spam as a little girl."
Rather than wait for perverts to accidentally stumble onto her page, Wong decided to rope them in intentionally. She began by copying porn sites' Meta tagsthe invisible descriptions some search engines use to produce resultsand pasting them into her own site. "They were huge, and would be jammed full of search terms like 'blow job,' '69,' 'ass,' and 'dutch'I don't even know what 'dutch' is," she says. "Now I love to check my statistics and see what people typed in to find my site. One time, it was 'Eskimo-fucking Cambodian women.' "
Over the past year, Wong has promoted her site surreptitiously in chat rooms for white men looking for Asian women, in online porn-swapping clubs, and in the adult classified listings of New Times L.A. "My pitches would be just as bad as everyone else," she says, " 'Want hot Asian XXX girls? Click here.' "
Wong says her guest book is "clogged with angry perverts now" and she wouldn't have it any other way. "I used to edit it," she says, "but now I think it's important to stop insulating ourselves and see how stupid and ridiculous people really are." Recently, Wong received an e-mail that read, "I love jacking off to the pictures on Exoticize This and Big Bad Chinese Mama.' "
"It's just so pathetic," Nguyen sighs. "These messages are just about people trying to put us back in our place." Of course, that only feeds the fire. Prema Murthy's projects continue online, in galleries, and in museums; Greg Pak's films continue to attract new viewers; and Nguyen and Wong continue to expand their sites. "They write these messages to try to horrify us," Nguyen explains, "but they don't get it. If we were that easy to horrify, we wouldn't be doing this in the first place."