This Again: “Asian Flavours” in SFF

It was a big weekend, and Liz and Steph were pretty distracted by the AFLGF (and also Steph had a busy Singapore weekend), so somehow we managed to miss the theme of Canberra’s SFF con, Conflux, this year with three white guests:

Chinese watercolour-style design of a monkey and some poorly-painted mountains forming the Conflux 12 logo

Three white guests, and the theme ‘Red Fire Monkey.’

Thanks to Friend of No Award Rivqa who messaged us on Monday to let us know, because we’d totally missed this and we’ve got some questions.

Question: Why was it called Red Fire Monkey?

Yes, obviously, because it’s a fire monkey year, thank you. I’m Chinese, I know perfectly well what year it is. But, like, WHY was it called Red Fire Monkey? You don’t think that’s a little disrespectful?

As a conrunner, I get that naming cons is hard. (I named Continuum 9 ‘Contraindicators’, but in my defence I spent the beginning of my time as chair living in China, I was just trying to get shit done) But ‘Red Fire Monkey’ isn’t a fantasy to some of us.

Question: So the Opening Ceremony was a good idea?

I’m…sorry? What? He’s doing what?

Hey so, I would have walked out at this point! JUST FYI. I probably wouldn’t have made a big deal of it, though I’d definitely have been tweeting about it and texting Liz in all caps, and telling Rivqa to keep me updated.

You have no idea the face I’m making right now, it sort of looks like Gong Li does through basically all of Curse of the Golden Flower / 《滿城盡帶黃金甲》.

I'm going to throw this pu-erh in your face
I’m going to throw this pu-erh in your face

 

It’s not that you can’t have a lion dance to open a SFF con! And good on those Chinese-Australians for getting money from white people wanting to consume our culture, always. But, like, it’s a Chinese tradition. (There is a smaller tradition in Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean communities, too) It’s an important thing we do to bring luck and prosperity, and has a lot of significance, and it’s not that you can’t appreciate the skills and traditions of our culture, it’s that in the context of a con that’s mostly white (I don’t know if the concom had any azn let alone Chinese-hyphen peeps on it) it feels like you’re using lion dance as shorthand for exotic.

[ETA: I have just been informed that there was no context given before the lion dance! It was just ‘hello here is the opening ceremony oH A LION’ which somehow makes it worse? Because let’s face it, many Aussies don’t know the significance of a lion dance, so it’s just contextless Asian-ness! FANTASTIC. (Not fantastic)]

Speaking of which:

Question: Did you know my culture isn’t a costume?

From the Progress Reports for Conflux 12:

On Saturday, from lunchtime onward, the theme of the cosplay will be ‘Red Fire Monkey’. We hope to have relevant movies and other entertainment on hand to get everyone in the spirit. Look up ‘Monkey King’ on the internet for inspiration. Our mystery judges will be on the lookout to award special prizes for cosplayers!

On Sunday, again from lunchtime onwards, the theme of the cosplay will be “Star Trek”. Once again our mystery judges will be selecting cosplayers to win special prizes – these will be awarded at the special Ten Forward event on Sunday night – open to all in the Hotel bar.

So, on Saturday, the fantasy theme is ‘Red Fire Monkey’, a perfect chance for everyone to get into yellow face. As if to help me prove my point that ‘Chinese mythology’ is here being treated as fantasy, like SFF, Sunday’s cosplay theme is ‘Star Trek’, an ACTUAL work of fiction! COOL. GOOD TIMES. DID YOU KNOW MY CULTURE ISN’T A COSTUME?

Obviously I know the Monkey God isn’t real, except…did you know he’s a god some people worship? (There is in fact a temple dedicated to him just down the road from where I’m living in Singapore.)

Question: What does ‘Asian flavoured’ mean?

The theme for this year’s banquet is, of course, Red Fire Monkey. The banquet has been especially designed for Conflux 12 by the Novotel head chef. It will be Asian flavoured and can provide for special requirements.

Asian flavoured? ASIAN FLAVOURED? EVERYBODY GET OUT, ASIAN ISN’T A FLAVOUR.

[Liz: It makes it sound like the con equivalent of Maggi instant noodles.]

Question: Was it really a good idea to have a panel about Asian SFF featuring one Azn?

I’m talking about this panel, Asian SFF, live-tweeted by Elizabeth.

I’m super into non-Asians reading and interacting with more Asian SFF! There are so many great writers, and publishers, and fantastic stuff in Chinese and Malay that you could be reading (some of it is even translated into English), and I’m glad that they mentioned Lontar which is a great journal doing great stuff! And obviously one isn’t an expert on Asian SFF simply by being some denomination of Asian. But falling into the trap of ‘oh I lived there, so pick me’ is such a fallacy, and it helps to create these environments where we don’t feel we’re welcome.

As an Asian person, I don’t want to be on a panel just for diversity or whatever. I am on many panels that aren’t the thematically enclaved Asian stuff, diversity in specfic or whatever. But if a panel about Asian stuff can be mostly filled by non-Asians, at a con with no Asian guests but covered in the trappings of Chinoiserie and the hints of Asian as fantasy, well, why would we ever think we were ever wanted, or valued, in this community?

Question: Tell me, did you not hear about Spicy Asian Zeppelins, or was it just that nobody cared? Secondary question: also, do you remember the Lionel Shriver stuff from literally four weeks ago? Now I’m gonna think you agree with Lionel Shriver.

In August, the World Fantasy Con program went live, featuring the panel ‘Spicy Oriental Zeppelin Stories’, apparently an in-joke, which sounds fake but okay, because it’s also super racist! And after the program went up, there was a bunch of people being like ‘oh, that’s not okay‘ and then the panel was renamed! Because it was inappropriate.

Also here’s some other problems with WFC:

The WFC 2016 program is frustrating, not just because it’s so manifestly disinterested in the ongoing development of SFF, but because it can’t even pretend with any degree of subtlety that its objections to those developments are anything other than a deep-seated preference for the opinions of straight white men. I’ve harped on the animal fantasy panel because Schweitzer’s response to Pinsker about it perfectly encapsulates the dissonance in his attitude, but it’s the same thing wherever you look. For god’s sake, there are more references to men born in the 1800s than to any women, living or dead. How can that possibly make sense at a convention where people are meant to go to discuss the genre’s future? How can such a convention even have a future, when it’s so hellbent on dismissing the reality of its inheritors?

This is not directly what appears to have happened with this year’s Conflux, but I don’t think we can say that, despite being Australian fandom, we’re not suffering from some similar and related problems.

Just a month ago, we had to experience Lionel Shriver’s totally racist defence of cultural appropriation at MWF. (I note here that Shriver is speaking at Singapore Writer’s Festival AND Ubud Reader’s and Writer’s Festival, both of which I’m attending, so, uh.)

[Liz: Oh God. I need to keep my phone charged those weekends, to accommodate the angry messages I’ll no doubt be receiving. I may also have to stock up on gin.]

We didn’t attend this con. Steph is currently in Singapore, and Liz couldn’t swing it. So we’d love if it seemed like we were being unfair. But in a world where the dominant voices defend cultural appropriation and racism and get defensive when called out, in a world where these patterns happen every year and, in Australia, pass muster as thoughtful programming, there’s nothing left to do but assume the worst.

Question: When will Australian SFF fandom stop being so thoughtless, and so white?

Australia’s Asian population is approximately 12% (according to wiki, sorry!). So why is SFF so fucking racist? Why is it so white? Why are we being driven away by thoughtless shit like this?

Why are we still having to put up with this? I don’t want to have to keep getting into fights over and at Aussie cons, but I will! (And then Liz will have to come help, and she’ll put on that voice she puts on where she’s channeling her mum, and you don’t want that at all.)

[Liz: No, you do, it’s great.]

Further Reading:

Steph on papercuts at Aussie cons: on asian girls who go to cons

Steph on racism and appropriation in our spaces: taking up room in con spaces

The original title for this was ‘the exotic as future’ but with its title change it’s still relevant: Space racism: on Hollywood actors & their whitewashing

 

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15 thoughts on “This Again: “Asian Flavours” in SFF

  1. Thoraiya

    Hi Steph (and Liz). Thank you for your perspectives on the selection of “Red Fire Monkey” as a theme for Conflux 12, it has helped me understand that things I found fun were in fact hurtful.

    A couple of things. Alan Baxter, who teaches lion dancing, did provide commentary on the symbolism of the dance. Millions of white Sydneysiders celebrate Lunar New Year at lion-dance-filled street parties in Chinatown that are organised with the express purpose of bringing folk of different backgrounds together, so I admit I didn’t consider the fact that Canberrans might not have the same readily accessible context.

    In the context of a banquet, I kinda think Asian does have a flavour. Of course, it includes falafel flavour, what with Lebanon being an Asian country and all, but I have many “Asian Flavour” cookbooks including Adam Liaw’s Asian Cookery School and Mai Pham’s Flavours of Asia.

    In the context of Spicy Asian Zeppelins, it was no doubt a misstep. I’m not sure whether the Conflux committee were aware of WFC programming fail. They could tell you more about it, but when I asked if the theme of “Red Fire Monkey” had been chosen because of committee members’ interest in Chinese astrology or because Kung Fu teacher Alan Baxter was the guest of honour, I was told there had been other/another (?) planned guest who had fallen through, and was left to speculate that the theme was already set by that stage. I don’t think the panel “Beyond Cleverman” went ahead in the absence of Indigenous panel members who weren’t able to make it. Perhaps in future, with respect to the volunteer time and money that goes into what I found to be a hugely enjoyable convention, themes based on guests who cancel can be changed to something more appropriate.

    Cheers,

    Thoraiya

    1. The CNY celebrations in Sydney are a Chinese tradition that, despite a white audience, does not exist to jazz up events that equate being Chinese with being a fantasy element in someone else’s story. Please examine the fact that you’re trying to use your passing familiarity with it to justify them to me, a Chinese-Australian. It’s that mindset that leads to inappropriate conflation at conventions like this one.

      That Asian cookbook authors have to label their books “Asian Flavours” in an attempt to court a white audience that’s more interested in feeling as if they’ve achieved the general adjective of Asian than in the specifics of a particular culture is a part of the wider problem I’m addressing in this post and with No Award. It’s incredibly common for our things to be used as trappings and decoration, especially in SFF and in food (Australia is a major culprit of pan-Asian multiculturalism via cuisine), and this is just another painful part of that. And I’d like us to move away from it in fandom so participating isn’t quite so uncomfortable.

    2. Lisa

      Actually there are Lion dances (& other events) for Luna New Year in Canberra. Go to Dickson- there are always big festivities there and often events in other parts of the city. There we’re also public events for Mid-Autumn Festival last month which included Lion Dance and other traditional dances by actual Chinese people & was run by the Chinese community.

      It’s pretty insulting to suggest that Canberra is some sleepy cultural backwater to justify your racism.

      Perhaps you should try and make your con more appealing to the broader community so you do get a diversity of people? Your con was literally a 10min walk from my house, but as it’s usually a program for navel gazing (white) writers I had no desire to attend. I know several people who regularly attend Continuum & Swancon who also skip Confux despite it being in the city they live in. Finding out there was this exclusionary racist crap this year means I’m unlikely to bother even looking in the future.

  2. Thoraiya

    Sorry again. I was mentioning LNY only in passing as I mused about my own ignorance. I am ignorant about LNY and also how ignorant about how much every single Chinese-Australian knows about the ties between lion dances and kung fu schools, it would be racist of me to assume that every Chinese-Australian knows about kung fu, so I erred on the side of mentioning our white guest’s profession. I also freely admitted my ignorance about Canberra, I do not live there. How astute of you, Lisa, to point out my unthinking ignorance after I pointed out my unthinking ignorance. Perhaps I can point out that I wasn’t on the committee after I already pointed out I wasn’t on the committee.

    My comment was really only to give Steph information, about the change in guest, that she didn’t have, she seemed like she wanted that information, she said she had some questions (“But, like, WHY was it called Red Fire Monkey? ” “Why are we still having to put up with this?” & “there’s nothing left to do but assume the worst”). Were those questions rhetorical, and are there actually no possible circumstances under which she would be happy with a con themed “Red Fire Monkey,” whether the GoH was Alan Baxter or Liu Cixin? Steph knows, I hope, that I appreciate the work she is doing here, including asking me to examine things that should be examined, even if I don’t think it’s fair on Conflux 12 to assume the worst. I attended ten panels, two presentations and two GoH interviews, and every one of those ten panels had greater than 12% people of Asian heritage, in other words was representative of Australian demographics. If the GoHs had been different, then the two presentations and GoH interviews might have been a different story. Unless, as I already asked, no possible different story could have made this theme OK?

    Cheers,

    Thoraiya

  3. I actually think that bringing up demographics is irrelevant. Demographics is constantly used to justify why representation should be a factor (when in reality, representation is important regardless of how diverse your community is). And as is, smart cookies like Thoraiya than act as if 12% representation on panels / other media = adequate while comically missing the point as to why representation is important.

  4. kateorman

    As you probably know, Australians of a certain age (coughs) are familiar with the Monkey King from “Monkey”, an English-dubbed version of the late seventies Japanese show Journey to the West. I’d read recently that he was invoked by spirit mediums in Singapore, but I didn’t know that he was also worshipped in temples and festivals in Singapore and in China. That puts the Monkey King into a very different context than the familiar fun pop culture of the TV show. (Wouldn’t this make a great panel?)

  5. kateorman

    Alas, I missed the Asian SFF panel, so I’m grateful for the Twitter summary. A thought: perhaps T. R. Napper was included on the panel not because he has lived in Asia, but because he’s “doing a PhD on how a Chinese future is imagined, both by China & their nrighbours”.

  6. Just throwing my two cents in here, as I’ve had a couple of people show concern that my tweets are used in this piece (as if my permission is needed; they’re publicly available!).

    This con was a great con. The panels I attended were reasonably diverse (in both demographics and opinion). Lionel Shriver’s speech came up numerous times and was discussed critically, and most people I talked to and heard speak are trying their best to learn so that they can write sensitively about experiences other than their own.

    However, that’s not necessarily enough to provide a welcoming environment. The question isn’t so much ‘can the theme EVER be cultural because I WANNA’ as ‘why do we want to do this?’ and ‘who might it affect?’. (After all, if I were ever successful/fortunate enough to be a con guest, I’m not sure I would want it to be themed around Jewish cultural elements just because I happen to be Jewish).

    The theme of this con led to a few missteps — definitely not on the level of WFC — that I think should be seen as a learning opportunity more than anything else. It’s only natural to feel defensive but the best course of action, in my opinion, is to think about how we can do better next time for writers and their fans, regardless of their background.

  7. Leife Shallcross

    Hi guys
    First off, thanks for the feedback. We’re a small con, but we have a deep and serious commitment to diversity and it’s really gut wrenching when we get it wrong. So please accept our apologies and our promise to do better in future.
    I do the bulk of the programming at Conflux and most of the work in sourcing and wrangling the panellists. For this reason, any issues with the con programming fall squarely on me. I’m a strong believer in using failure as an opportunity to work out how to do things better next time though, so I’ve read through your comments & questions carefully.
    We are run by a small committee of seven regulars and another two or three who help out over the con itself. By way of giving you a sense of the diversity of the committee, we have one bloke, one genderqueer person, two people with Australian Aboriginal heritage, two Americans, one person with a mobility impairment and one person who grew up with two mums. We don’t have any Asian-Australians on the panel and I accept that we should have identified that as a flag to go out and do some consulting when we selected the theme of this year’s con. (If you’d be interested in being involved, Steph, we’d be happy to have you on board, especially with your experience with Continuum.)
    The theme of Red Fire Monkey was primarily chosen because we decided an interesting focus of this con would be to celebrate the current boom in speculative fiction written by authors with Asian heritage in the English-speaking market. Of course I’m disappointed that our mistakes have overshadowed our intention to celebrate cultural diversity and encourage curiosity about other cultures. Our aim had been to approach the theme in a respectful and affectionate fashion, but we obviously have failed in that regard, and we accept the criticism.
    I also accept the description of the banquet could have been more appropriate. In that case we were somewhat at the mercy of the hotel catering service. For what it’s worth, we are reconsidering how we go about convention banquets in the future.
    I note neither Steph nor Liz was able to attend the con, so I’ll just mention a couple more things to round out the efforts we made to make this con a celebration of culture. One of the books offered to members as con bag loot was “The Three Body Problem” by Liu Cixin. We also offered a workshop on “Writing Cultures Not Your Own”. Regarding our panel on Asian SFF, you are right, I could have made a stronger effort to reach out to the Asian-Australian SFF community to find more people with roots in the range of cultures we were wanting to explore. While we did put out broad calls asking for people with diverse perspectives on SFF to volunteer for panels, I made a specific effort to reach out to people with relevant backgrounds in assembling the panel on representations of disability in spec fic and the panel on Australian Indigenous voices in fiction, which we cancelled when we could not source appropriate panellists. I can only apologise I was not similarly assiduous in seeking out panellists for the Asian spec fic panel.
    If you’ve got to the end of this extremely long post, thanks for giving me the opportunity to be part of this discussion. I want to emphasise the importance the Conflux Committee places on Conflux being a con that welcomes and celebrates diversity of all kinds. We are always open to pitches for panels and workshops etc on stuff we haven’t thought of, and actively encourage people with diverse perspectives to take part. The best way we have of knowing how we’re tracking is through feedback from the Australian SFF community, so please get in touch with us at confluxchair@gmail.com if you’ve got suggestions, complaints or anything else you want to raise with us.
    Kind regards
    Leife Shallcross, Conflux Committee Co-Chair

    1. Hey Leifa. Thank you very much for commenting, and for taking my feedback on board. I’m not currently in a position to assist with developing cultural awareness at Conflux specifically, but will get in contact if that ever changes.

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