Sex In Asia
An interview with Reagan Louie
by Edgar Barrington
Regan Louie is a second-generation Chinese-American
photographer whose primary subject is life in Asia. He is
the author of Toward a Truer Life: Photographs on China 1980-90
and a contributor to China: Fifty Years Inside the Peoples
Republic. His photographs are in the collections of the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art,
and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Currently, Louie
is a professor at the San Francisco Art Institute.
In his latest book, Orientalia
(powerHouse Books), Reagan travels around Asia, attempting
to explore relationships between men and women, the East and
the West, and his own Chinese ancestry
by taking pictures
of sex workers. Why did he choose the oldest profession as
the venue? What insights did he gain? Why did his wife let
The Modernists Edgar Barrington got Reagan on the phone
The Modernist: From your travels and studies what did
you come up with as some of the differences between male/female
relationships in the East and in the West?
Louie: So you read the essay, you know that I became aware
of a difference between my interactions with women in Asia
when I first started going over there in 1980 and my experiences
here growing up in California. And the usual clichés
apply, Asia is still a pretty male-oriented society and so
there's still this kind of deference towards men. But there's
more to it. Of course I was carrying on the clichés
of exotic Asians, supplicating Asian women, but there's more,
especially in China, and I can't really find a better word
to describe it than an almost familial interaction. I talk
about going to that karaoke bar expecting a full-blown kind
of Suzi Wong fantasy, and instead it was almost like a big
family party where the women are calling me "big brother"
and I call them "little sister." So familial is
the best way I can describe it. Having said that, Im
well aware of all the fantasy and projection thats going
on. Thats their job, right? Theyre good at it.
(click to enlarge)
Did you find that familial aspect particular to China,
or did it exist throughout Asia?
Most the work for Orientalia was done in Japan, China and
Thailand. I thought those three countries represented the
spectrum from the most modern industrialized country: Japan.
. . China is sort of in the middle, and Thailand is an emerging
third world country if you like. And in those three places
where I spent a lot of time and knew people I could see that.
So its a very Asian characteristic, Asian trait I suppose.
Its changing of course. As each country becomes more
and more modern, Westernized, I suppose some of that
disappears but its still a character of the interaction
between, not just men and women, but all people.
In your essay you made a point of saying "though
I would photograph primarily sex workers, the larger subject
was modern Asian women." Are there any non-sex workers
in the book?
When I first saw this different dynamic, what we first talked
about, I began to photograph everything that I imagined had
to do with relationships, life, sex in Asia, but then eventually
focused on the world of sex workers, particularly after that
experience in Hong Kong at the karaoke bar, because that world,
sex workers and sex work, offered a heightened, almost theatrical
and visual examples of the issues I was interested in. So
I thought, "Oh okay I'll just focus in on this and hopefully
it will represent the range of the issues at large with regard
to romance sex and love."
I was surprised so many guys visiting prostitutes were
willing to be photographed with them. How did they normally
react when you asked?
Well with all the work the idea is collaboration. As I said,
you couldnt find these places in a lot of countries,
let alone photograph them without some guide. Even in places
like Kabukicho, its all in front of you but you look
at it and you dont know what youre looking at,
versus say going to Burma where do you start? In each
place I was lucky to find a guide, which ranged from the women
themselves sometimes to playboys in Bangkok, rich merchants
or generals or politicians, and Id just follow them
around to parties every night. So its a collaboration
and all the work is staged, and by that I mean it all emerges
from that world. The women, all those poses were poses they
struck. An important part of this was seeing how they wish
to present themselves. The dynamic is so curious and complex,
they're posing to degrees of sophistication, from Japanese
image club girls who are well versed in the art of presentation
to some country like Tibet, which is just kind of figuring
this out. They all have this seduction as far as their job
description. The men are not as complexly presented because
I was more interested in the women, so the men are in effect
surrogate. Theyre sort of a way for the viewer to enter
into the work. So thats why often their backs are turned,
theyre faceless. "Surrogate" is the best word
I can say. And it took a fair amount of patience and coaxing
to get the men to pose. That was tricky.
(click to enlarge)
Did you find that your Chinese ancestry was particularly
beneficial or detrimental
Absolutely. There are kinds of two worlds I traveled in in
exploring the sex workers; One, places where Westerners, foreigners
go; secondly, places where Asians or local men go to, and
theyre very different. The women are different, how
they change themselves, for example in Thailand if you
look at the book these are some of the details that Im
particularly interested in youll see, lets
say the women who have breast enhancements are always Thai
women. Its Thai women whose clientele are Westerners.
They change their bodies because they think that is what Westerners
imagine is beautiful. Whereas an Asian man does not think
thats that beautiful at all. So yeah the women that
work with Asian men are very different and thats where
you see this familial quality I'm talking about. I was, I
suppose, in the end much more interested in and drawn to places
that local Asian men would go to versus Westerners.
Did you find in China that you could fit in more with
the local places or did you find that in Asia in general?
Asia in general, because being Asian really helped. You experienced
this to some degree when you
were wandering around in Kabukicho and you finally found
one place that would let you in right? So its pretty
different if you were able to go to places that were strictly
for Japanese men, then you would see the difference.
I would think that you would have some experience being
a foreigner in those places.
Definitely, no question. But having said that I think still
being Asian and Asian-looking allows me greater access to
places. You have to work at it, in Japan even though I was
Chinese and looked Asian, right, I had difficulty getting
into places and I only could do so finding guides to make
introductions for me.
In your travels, what city were you most pleasantly surprised
When I was in Tibet last summer, I was there to climb, and
around midnight I was taking a night to walk and ran across
this street lined with all these beauty shops and barber shops
and "Gee, Tibetans like to have their hair done at midnight?"
I looked closer and in each place there were a couple of women
sitting in the window, kind of like Amsterdam. So the next
morning I asked our guide, "Is that what I think it is?"
And he said yes, and I badgered him to take me into a place.
So that was a little unexpected and you know, it's the oldest
profession in the world right? So it's everywhere.
(click to enlarge)
How comfortable are your wife and family with your subjects?
It does come across clearly that it's not exploitative or
necessarily even erotic but nonetheless
I was curious.
I have a very long leash. My wife is pretty understanding.
She knows I'm there working and my kids
well they don't
quite understand the work but they're proud that I got a book
and showing in a museum and all that. And I guess the way
that I explain it to them is that although I'm not a journalist,
I'm kind of like a reporter you know this world exists
out there and I'm just photographing it.
Barrington is co-founder of The Modernist.
this interview in The Modernist's forums.