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Orientalia: 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 People’s 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 him go?

The Modernist’s 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, I’m well aware of all the fantasy and projection that’s going on. That’s their job, right? They’re good at it.

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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 it’s a very Asian characteristic, Asian trait I suppose. It’s changing of course. As each country becomes more and more modern, Westernized, I suppose some of that disappears but it’s 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 couldn’t find these places in a lot of countries, let alone photograph them without some guide. Even in places like Kabukicho, it’s all in front of you but you look at it and you don’t know what you’re 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 I’d just follow them around to parties every night. So it’s 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. They’re sort of a way for the viewer to enter into the work. So that’s why often their backs are turned, they’re 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.

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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 they’re 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 I’m particularly interested in— you’ll see, let’s say the women who have breast enhancements are always Thai women. It’s 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 that’s that beautiful at all. So yeah the women that work with Asian men are very different and that’s 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 it’s 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 by?

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.

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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.


Edgar Barrington is co-founder of The Modernist.

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