Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies, and other events. You can find all other Sitdown entries here.
Richard Fung is an artist and writer born in Trinidad and based in Toronto. His work comprises challenging videos on subjects ranging from the role of the Asian male in gay pornography to colonialism, immigration, racism, homophobia, AIDS, justice in Israel/Palestine, and his own family history. He was a Rockefeller Fellow at New York University and has received the Bell Canada Award for Outstanding Achievement in Video Art and the Toronto Arts Award for Media Art.
A programme of Richard’s films is part of the eleventh edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, available on demand, 29 April – 3 May.
Listen to a conversation between artist in focus Richard Fung and the programme’s curator Jonathan Ali, whose contextual essay can also be read below.
Jonathan Ali (JA): Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation with me. I’d like to start at the beginning of your filmmaking career. Maybe you could say a little bit about the context in which it started – both in terms of where you were, professionally speaking, how you came to make films, you know, and both in terms of your own sort of historical or life trajectory. I mean, as someone who, you know, was in Canada at the time, but had been born in Trinidad and, you know, subsequently moved.
Richard Fung (RF): My… well, I started my academic career because I came to Canada at 19 from Dublin, where I had finished high school. And in the first three years, I switched from wanting to be an architect to studying sociology and geography, to then studying industrial design. And then while in art school studying industrial design, switching to photoelectric arts, which is primarily photography, and then ended up in my first job doing community television at a time when community television in Canada was actually very interesting, because of the – partly because Canada was a real pioneer in terms of cable television. Because the country is so vast, and the majority of the population is strung along close to the border with the United States. So cable TV was developed to bring in American television. But in order to do that, the government said that cable television stations should give 10% of its income to community television.
This was not – it didn’t last a very long time. And I happened to be there when it was developed. I had taken a couple of video courses, but that was my first job. And my first job was actually working with a public housing community. I guess in Britain – what is the word? – council housing, I guess, is the – it would be the equivalent in Britain. And they had – it was a particular community that have received bad press around crime. And so my job was to work with community members to make television – to train them to make television about themselves. It was then shared on, on television. And so this idea of democracy and and and also the kind of talking head – the testimonial – was bred right there at the beginning of my working as, I don’t know how old I was, 23 year old, 22 year old. After I’d finished school. So then I, then I decided to become a film theorist. And while I was preparing to kind of be – I finished my art degree and my university degree at same time at the University of Toronto, going back and forth between the two institutions. And yeah, but my idea was to go to NYU, perhaps, I mean, that was the ambition. I don’t know if I would ever, if I would have allowed myself to leave my partner, my parents who were here that time, who are elderly. But to go to NYU and do a PhD in cinema studies. But then John Greyson, the filmmaker, came back from New York, and he said, I will shoot anything you want to shoot, but you shouldn’t be a theorist, you should be a maker, you should be an artist. So let’s shoot anything.
So I had been an organizer in 1980, of a group called Gay Asians Toronto, which was the first group for racialised, now what we would call queer folks in Canada. And I decided to do this video that was a kind of consciousness raising group video for the group to show people that there were others like them, you know, that they were not alone. This was… this was 1980, when being gay or lesbian was legal grounds for dismissal from jobs or not getting housing and stuff like that. At the same time, I happened to be working with a distributor, a non-profit distributor called DEC Film – Development Education Center. And I was hired to work on the first anti-racism film festival. So I was doing kind of programming and organising and they asked me what I was doing, and I said, I was making this video and they asked to see it. And- and then when they saw it they said they wanted to distribute it. And so it happened to be then programmed at the Grierson Film Seminars, and then, and then later by the Flaherty Film Seminars in the States, which, you know, brings together a lot of film scholars and key programmers and then so I had a completely accidental career
JA: And was this, was – sorry.
RF: That video was not meant to be made as a film or a documentary, exactly. It was a, it was like a kind of community organising tool.
JA: So was this Orientations or was this not?—
RF: This was Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians.
JA: So your first work in in 1986? Just before—
JA: ’84, Okay. Right. So, first work yes.
RF: Okay, so this is interesting in terms of film programming because I had studied at this point with Kay Armatage, who was a really key programmer. She was a feminist film scholar, but also a key programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival. I’m not sure if it even had that name then, it might still have been called the Festival of Festivals. But Kay was key in bringing feminist film to the to the festival, experimental film and Black British cinema. So she brought you know, John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien, she brought Trinh Minh-ha, she brought, you know, all of these very kind of edgy makers. And I remember Kay came to the screening of Orientations. And she said, you know, because she said, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t apologise so much,’ because I was apologizing for this and that, and like the framing, and the cinematography and the sound and everything. I do that. But also, I was surprised that it was so conventional. So of course, you know, as artists are very sensitive creatures. So then I decided, you know, I should actually put into practice some of the kind of more kind of dialogical approaches to filmmaking that I had studied with Kay, and had seen in, in some of her programming and stuff. And so that’s that’s where Chinese Characters was birthed.
JA: So there was this very, very conscious decision to employ more experimental essayistic modes in making Chinese Characters. Had you, by then, really come to know the work of filmmakers, like John Akomfrah, who of course then was working with the Black Audio Film Collective, and the other the other Black British film collectives?
RF: Trying to figure out the exact, I would have to go back and see what was produced when. Because DEC Films ended up distributing The Passion of Remembrance.
JA: —Yes, Sankofa’s film.
RF: And so very early on, I met Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien at events in, in New York and in, in Los Angeles. In fact, I remember going to a gay bar with Isaac, Isaac and a couple of other people at a, at a kind of festival conference and Isaac getting carded. It was the first time I’d experienced this systemic racist practice in the United States. But I remember Kobena being very interested in The Sea In the Blood because… I guess because of it, it’s dealing with these issues, but dealing with it in this kind of experimental form. And I myself, at that time, really felt much more of an affinity with things that were happening in Britain.
I think around this time around, in the, in the mid ’80s, I also attended a Third World Film conference at – in the Netherlands, in which people from Third World Newsreel were there and people from Black Audio Film Collective were there – not, not John himself, but other members of the Collective were there – as well as filmmakers from Africa, from, from South Asia etc. And that was a really interesting learning experience, because I began to, to understand the different kind of stakes it is for people who might see themselves or might or might be seen as having a commonality, but how, you know, depending on where you were, and what kind of funding was available to you to produce that work, how they ended up being a kind of a – not exactly a split, but divergent sense of alliances, that were happening with those filmmakers. For example, based in the so-called Third World, who were very much dependent on these large organisations like the UN, etc, etc, that those of us who were diasporic, quote unquote, ‘people of colour’, in the First World were critical of, right? So you could see how, like material access and things really played out in terms of the different sort of political alignments that were possible.
JA: Yeah, these, these tensions that exist – even still exist today, actually. But in addition to those sort of formal concerns that were starting to show themselves in your work, there was also, as you said, you know, you started out intending to be a theorist and theory very much forms forms a part of your work. And, you know, is is quite evident. Could you say something about that, I mean, in terms of, you know, things like postcolonial theory, subaltern theory, you know, that… very much, you know, informs your filmmaking, you know, how that works alongside your, your formal concerns and – formal and other concerns?
RF: I mean, I have a – really have an ambivalent relationship to the word theory, because one of the things about theory and what’s often called theory and these theoretical terms within, you know, within, for example, queer theory, as opposed to gay liberation – which is where I was birthed – in relation to the question of sexual politics, in that theory can often be built on other theory. And I mean, I’ve been always interested in this idea of social change, and very much influenced, pretty early on, by actually a British feminist Marxist sociologist called Dorothy Smith, who has also written very theoretically. And she, you know, this idea of grounding ideas in the real world and in, you know, things as they actually are.
So Dorothy makes this distinction between that and what she critiques as, you know, the ideological. Which is that seeing the world through ideas, rather than how it actually – having the other way, having the ideas actually come out of the world that it actually operates in. And so yeah, that that’s been something I’ve been trying to deal with in the work. For example, in Chinese Characters, trying to understand how, what the complexity of the relationship of gay Asians viewing mostly White gay porn, right, that was available in that period, and how on the one hand, it could affirm identity around sexuality, but on the other hand, it othered you racially. And this is something that is so interesting, because it’s a conversation that keeps happening, it’s not ever stopped. I mean, in terms of the events that are happening around, you know, anti-Asian violence.
RF: The kind of intersection of sexuality and race, particularly, as it affects those subjects that are being constructed as oriental, have affected queer folks, it’s affected Asian women in a particular way. I mean, Renee Tajima [Renee Tajima-Peña], who, whose most famous film, Who Killed Vincent Chin, which she co-directed with Christine Choy, just has an article in the New Yorker where she’s again talking about that distinction that she wrote very early on between the, you know, the Geisha – either submissive or the Dragon Lady, the two kind of options. And then, you know, there have been those heterosexual Asian men who have been troubled by the so-called emasculation of Asian masc—, you know, Asian masculinity as being a kind of oxymoron. And so I’ve been – I’ve tried to figure out those conundrums through a kind of progressive lens that doesn’t fall into a kind of, kind of celebration of masculinity thing. You know, ‘We can fight like anybody else’ – that. So I try to figure those things out. And those kind of knots have been the things that have attracted me, I think, in in pretty much all of the work that I’ve done.
JA: And of course, what further complicates your work – and this, this also may be an impulse in terms of how you approach your practice – is your identity as, well, for some people, Asian-Canadian, but of course, born and raised in Trinidad. And it’s, it’s there in, in Chinese Characters, because there is that, that sequence where you’re speaking directly of your own experiences as someone who is of Asian descent, but not directly from Asia or not Asian-American or Asian-Canadian, but you know, from Trinidad. So you have a Caribbean accent and all these other things that that signify you as, as even further Other, shall we say. And then you explore that much more in in films like Sea In the Blood and the other films, the other essays on your, on your family. How conscious were you of really getting complicated in terms of identity and what these works would – how these works might be received by, by audiences who might be looking for a more shall we say, or less complicated kind of idea of what an Asian in North America making making video work should be making work about?
RF: I think, to trouble what people thought of as Asian in North America was one of the major drivers of doing that work, right. So my family has on my mother’s side, you know, my, my ancestors arrived in Trinidad as indentured workers in 1862. But within each generation, there was also a newcomer. So my grandfather, my mother’s father, was from China. He arrived in the 1880s or ’90s. My father was from China, arrived in 1929. So there’s been this complicated thing. And even within that relatively small community, there were these huge factions, right, around, you know, around dialect groups. So my grand— my maternal grandfather didn’t, didn’t attend my parents wedding, because he, as a Cantonese person, was upset that my mother marrying someone who was Hakka. There were the huge, you know, gaps between those people who were born in China – they were called Home Chinese. And then my, my mother’s relatives who you know, they’re all dead now – my mother was born in 1909. They didn’t use chopsticks, right, they didn’t know how to use chopsticks. They were very Creolised.
And so I, you know, I go first to Ireland for a couple of years before coming to Canada, where people at that time in Ireland, I remember – my sister-in-law is Irish, and I remember going with my brother to visit, just before they were married, to visit her relatives in the, in the countryside, and somebody said, Mrs. Maloney has Africans visiting, right? This is a time before Ireland became this, you know, the Celtic Tiger, a place where people wanted to immigrate to. It was still a period where people wanted to emigrate from, right, to seek better lives, etc. And then I come here, and one of the things at art school that struck me was that – again, a kind of wake up experience – is that Caribbean people didn’t see me as being Caribbean until I opened my mouth. And then, you know, like Jamaicans or whoever say, ‘Oh, you’re a Trini,’ right. But other people who looked like me, at art school who were like Korean, or Japanese Canadian, or from Hong Kong, or China, wherever would think I was one of them. And so I would be addressed sometimes in like Korean or something, and it would be like, it would be a bit of a shock, the way that my face and my mouth went in two different directions. So those kinds of experiences really make you think through questions of identity.
But the other thing, I think, is that as I became, as I became more politically involved, I realised that the Chinese Canadian story, and the Chinese American story is really told in relation – a bit different now in the last couple of years – but really told in relation to white supremacy. And coming from, from Trinidad, which has a very different demographic, in terms of the large groups of people – people I, when I think about my own experience, it’s really as Chinese there it was really stuck between certain exclusions of white supremacy but also privileges gained in relation to anti-Blackness, right. So, in a post-slave, post-indentured society, life is very complicated. And the other thing that strikes me is how even within within my own family that people all made different kinds of choices and different kinds of alliances of how they saw themselves. So my mother was very Chinese identified, she married my father, who is from China, the only one in her very, very extended family who did that. So I grew up with somewhat of a Chinese identity. But you know, my, my first uncle’s wife was Black. My second uncle’s wife was Indian. My aunt’s kids were like half-Portuguese or half – my, my aunt married an American soldier, which is the topic of Islands. It’s mentioned in Islands.
RF: So they all made very different kinds of choices in terms of identity. And, you know, my uncle whose wife was Black, you know, he was famous for dancing the Castilian. Which is a kind of a – they would call it, when I was growing up, they’d refer to it as Spanish Waltz, right, which is uh, Venezuelan probably in origin. But his birthday was during Lent, and he would have a party and he was very much a creole man. In fact, it was years later that I began to think, actually, Uncle David was Chinese, so he must have looked Chinese, but I never saw him as that. So again, all of these complications and those those complications, I think, almost all Trinidadian families kind of are dealing with that and also the questions of inside and outside family—
JA: Families. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. It’s, it’s something that the the Trinidadian contemporary artist, Christopher Cozier, who you made a film about called Uncomfortable, which is not in this program. He says in that film at one point, ‘Every Trinidadian is like an index to some other location.’ And to be Trinidadian is to be Trinidadian, yes, but also to have these other identities and places as part of you because if you’re Trinidadian in some way, you’re also from somewhere else.
RF: Yes. Now, when, when we made that film – which was, oh now 15 years ago or something – that was before a kind of rebirth of indigenous identities and filmmakers like Tracy Assing. And so, but the other thing that’s interesting about the, you know, the indigenous communities of Trinidad like the Carib community – the most well-known – is that many of those people also have an index to another location. You know, like the chief has an Indian name, Tracy Assing’s name, which Chinese people would not recognise, is also within the Trinidad context kind of marked as Chinese.
JA: And your, your own name Fung is an anglicisation, in a way, of Fong. Originally.
RF: Well it was, it’s a misrepresentation because it sounds… Yes, it’s written – my relatives all have a different name. And then my, you know, my mother’s side, the name Atteck, which again, in Trinidad is read as a Chinese name.
RF: If you say it to somebody from China, they would have no idea that it was Chinese.
JA: It’s uniquely Trinidadian, yes.
RF: All those A- names – Afong, Awong, Awai, Atai – they’re all known as Trinidadian names. But again, they, they’re not recognisable as Chinese to Chinese people from China.
JA: You mentioned, just now, Islands and that’s one of the films in the programme and in that you investigate the representation of the Other, specifically your uncle who appears in this Hollywood production – this John Huston film that was shot in Trinidad and Tobago. Could you say something relating to your own experience of, of Hollywood and coming to Hollywood, you know, as, as a spectator growing up and, and then you know, having this experience in your family and then coming to terms with that in your own practice?
RF: Well, my relationship to the screen was, in fact, not so much Hollywood, more television because I was born in 1954. And when I was eight years old, Trinidad got independence. And as a kind of gift to the nation, television was introduced in 1962. And we had a television set. One of those television set with legs, it looked like furniture, it had a doily on top, right, and a vase with plastic flowers. And mostly what it played was a kind of test signal, TTT – Trinidad and Tobago Television – and you would turn on the TV to look at the test signal. And then we’d start with one hour of programming. And most of the programming at that time was still like half American and half British, when I was growing up. So, like, I grew up with like Cilla Black, which Canadians would have no idea who she was. Things like The Avengers.
And so that was really the moving image. Telev – Hollywood was a treat, to go to theatre to go, to go to the cinema. But I also grew up with this idea of these films that were shot in Trinidad and the kind of glamour that came there in a period – a short period. So there was you know, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the film that my uncles were in. I mentioned one uncle but actually two uncles were extras playing Japanese soldiers. But then also Fire Down Below with Rita Hayworth was shot at around the same time. So there was a little kind of time when Trinidad kind of became this place where people were filming. But I – you know, it was this fascination by this Other, and of course we’d get films way way after they were played in, in North America. But I did have very formative experiences. I mean, one of my first homoerotic experiences was going to see Romeo and Juliet – Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet – when I was in high school, and all of the boys, actually, all of the boys kept commenting on the codpieces. Which we had never seen before ‘cos we’d never seen any kind of, you know, paintings. We weren’t, we weren’t – art education was not part of um, was not part of the curriculum in my Catholic High School at the time. But yeah, or – what else did? – You know, The Sound Of Music, those sort of things that a kid was taken to.
RF: I saw Dr. Zhivago in Trinidad. Didn’t make head nor tail of it.
JA: There was no context for it.
RF: Yeah, there was no – I mean I was also young. I remember people saying this is a little bit old for you. But that whole idea of Hollywood and, and the glamour of Hollywood was big.
JA: We’re going to have to wrap this up soon. So I just want to touch briefly on the final film in the programme, which kind of brings us closer to the present day and and more contemporary concerns – Jehad In Motion. In a way, to me, I I see that film as sort of a continuation of your, your… interest in hybrid identities and in people who’ve made journeys of migration, of exile, similar to your own. And it’s also you know, a film that, that, that shows concern for the Palestinian question. And, and the issue of, of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Could you say something about that, and in particular – because it’s something that resonates throughout the film – this idea of, of Canada’s multiculturalism and, and Jehad’s identity as, as a Palestinian, but also as, as, as a Canadian, and I mean, he has this very – in the film – strong and positive sense of his identity as, as a Canadian Palestinian, and the work that he’s doing, and the idea of multiculturalism as a positive force. And I wonder, seeing that film in the light of the present moment, what you think about that, in this current moment of identity politics, which, you know, are updating those ideas of multiculturalism now?
RF: Well, you know, I was, I have always been critical of the kind of government version of multiculturalism, which was very much about sharing song and dance and cuisine, right, but not addressing structural issues of racism. And that’s the context in which – multiculturalism also had an even more, kind of, somewhat insidious beginnings in Canada because, you know, Trudeau – Pierre Trudeau – the father of Justin Trudeau, our current prime minister – really introduced it as a way of offsetting Quebec separatism as well. Right. So, so, it kind of introduced all these Others in relation to the English, English French divide. And I mean, the question of indigeneity had not been opposed as it has been more recently. So I’ve been always critical of this idea.
In terms of Jehad In Motion, I first met him actually through Jewish friends who were anti-occupation activists and anti-apartheid activists. And I made an installation with him first – a sound installation – because I was struck by a story he told me that kids began, the kids would get scared when the helicopters were coming to, to, to bomb and the helicopters would stay far away. And what would happen is the kids began to become disturbed when they hear helicopters. So the parents started turning on the radio, but then the kids started associating the radio with something horrible, something horrible is gonna happen. So I made a sound installation about the sounds of, of Palestine and that I went with Jehad to, to Hebron.
Yes, you’re right, because one of the – in terms of thinking about these questions of identity – because one of the things that struck me about Jehad, is how he’s able to negotiate a different space in Hebron. He has different life possibilities, one of the things that strikes me is that he says, ‘You know, when I’m, when I am in Palestine, the, you know, Jews are people who are kept away from me.’ Those are the people who, you know, the soldiers – soldiers and settlers are the only Jews that he has any engagement with there. Whereas here, he’s part of a larger network of Palestinians and Jews who all, like, work together and we show the Peace Theatre that he participated right at the beginning with Kathy Wazana, who actually made a really interesting film on Moroccan Jewish identity called They Were Promised The Sea. She is, you see her reading.
And so she, we were all part of a large kind of social justice group that, I think, is not – we’re not interested in those kind of questions of – I’m allergic to nationalism. Me, I’m allergic to nationalisms. Even, you know, that kind of what may be seen as a kind of somewhat benign Trinidadian nationalism. But the kind of darker side of Trinidadian nationalism comes out in its relationship to the Guyanese, to the Venezuelans where they are now, to – and when I was growing up – to the people from so-called small islands, right, Grenada, St. Vincent, who would come to Trinidad to work. So any kind of nationalism I have a kind of allergy to and I’m often critical of. Even though I know that in, in certain instances, the kind of rallying around national identity can be a form of, not only anticolonialism, anti-imperialism, but it often has this very dangerous – it always has this very dangerous potentiality at the same time.
JA: Well, Richard, I think that’s a, that’s a great one on which to bring our conversation to a conclusion. So I want to thank you again, so much for sharing your work with us and the Alchemy audience and for sharing your time to have this conversation with me. Thank you.
RF: And thanks so much for having me and selecting the work. I’m really thrilled.