Sunday, January 24, 2016

Zunar Shows Pen is Stronger than Sword: Continues Drawing Despite Prospect of 43 Years Imprisonment for "Sedition"

To listen to our Subversity Online 48-minute interview with Zunar, click here.

Back cover of Zunar's recent book, Sapuman: Man of Steal.

Zunar during our interview
Irvine -- Political Cartoonist Zunar, whose pointed drawings target corruption and injustice in Malaysia, faces a combined 43 years' imprisonment in a trial for seditious tweets slated to begin later this week in Kuala Lumpur.  The tweets lampooned the decision to jail opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges.

Zunar was in Irvine as guest speaker on a UCI Law School panel of cartoonists at the Free Expression conference that lasted from this past Friday through Sunday at UC Irvine and USC.  The timing was not coincidental.  It was, after all, a year after fellow political cartoonists were gunned down in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine.  In fact, Zunar became the first Muslim to condemn the attack, and as he explained in our Subversity Online interview Saturday evening 23 January 2016, even though he disagreed with what they drew regarding Muslims.   Appearing by video hookup at the conference was also a healthy, youthful and intelligent Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower,  from exile in Russia.

In a Washington Post op ed titled "The Malaysian government has no sense of humor - and that's dangerous," earlier this month, Zunar's words detailing government harrassment are chilling, in wake of of the PRC's apparent extraordinary rendition of five Hong Kong booksellersIn that op ed, he made these points:
  • My office has been raided multiple times since 2009, and authorities have confiscated thousands of my cartoon books. In 2010, five of my books — including “1 Funny Malaysia” — were banned by the home affairs minister, who declared the contents “detrimental to public order.” Later that year I was detained by police and locked up for two days after the publication of “Cartoon-O-Phobia.” To say the least, the Malaysian government has no sense of humor.
  • In late 2014, my webmaster was called in for questioning, and three of my assistants were arrested for selling my books. I was also brought in for questioning by the police, and the company that processes orders for my website was forced to disclose my customer list. In January, the police raided my office and then opened two investigations in February under the Sedition Act. That’s when they really threw the book at me.
  • The government hasn’t just targeted me and my associates; it also has cracked down on the entire ecosystem of free expression. Three companies that printed my books were raided and warned not to print my books in the future or their licenses would be revoked. Likewise, bookstores that carried my book were raided and their licenses were threatened. As a result, no one dares print or sell my books.  
For the Hong Kong booksellers, by the PRC apparently abducting the five booksellers, the publishing house and its associated bookstore and web site, Causeway Bay Books, have effectively been shut down.

 As for Zunar, luckily around the world activists have rallied to his defense, including the Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei (left), as Amnesty International asked netizens to Write for Rights to demand the charges against Zunar be dropped immediately.

While U.S. libraries in academia and outside, such as the Library of Congress, collect some of his 18 political cartoon books, Zunar believes no libraries in Malaysia dare acquire his cartoons.  His book titles are especially inventive:  The latest takes off on Superman, with a pointed jab at his country's prime minister as "man of steal".   Meanwhile the London-based Sarawak Report suggests that the target of Zunar's pen may be negotiating a way out even with his millions.  So is Zunar's pen actually stronger than a sword in regime change?

In our interview, Zunar appeared incredibly composed and even jovial, for someone facing potential decades-long imprisonment.  He was philosophical as well, saying he was optimistic about regime change from dictatorship to democracy in the future, if not in his lifetime.  He indicated he started cartooning at age 12 but it was later during a career as medical technician that he found his true calling in political cartooning. His other target beyond the corruption and injustice?  It's capitalism.  For that is what is keeping the people poor in his country.

Zunar also believes the deportation of Hong Kong teen activist Joshua Wong from Penang last May is because, after Arab Spring, the authorities in Malaysia do not want any trouble from young people in the country.  While Zunar's books are banned from stores in Malaysia, he continues to proliferate his art online through social media, which is, as he told me, alternative media.  His Facebook fan club has over 100,000 "likes".  So he's extremely popular in Malaysia despite what the state tries to do to silence him.

Subversity Show Online interviews Zunar

Cover of Zunar's recent book published in January 2015

Monday, January 18, 2016

Justin Chin in Hawaii: A Remembrance

The feet of warriors form the colors of the rainbow.[1]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My old and good friend, Justin Chin, died in San Francisco just before Christmas.  I just found out via a post on Facebook.  Here are a couple of obituaries:

I first met Justin at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in the late 80s when he was a journalism student there and a reporter for the campus newspaper, Ka Leo o Hawai‘i.  He lived in the student dorm on the lower campus, the one with the painting of the tidal wave flooding Honolulu.  He frequented the gay beach at Waikīkī, where he made many friends and interviewed many people for the paper.  His great love was poetry, and he wrote searingly beautiful and frightening poetry.  He is surely the best gay poet I know of, but he did not write for the squeamish for faint-hearted.  Of his several amazing books and collections of poetry, my favorite is Bite Hard (1997).  I have quoted it in my own writings.

With several other friends, he became part of an informal writers’ group that met at our homes once a week to read each other’s writing and offer help and criticism.  Justin’s presence and influence on our work were palpable.  My short story, Trade, emerged from that group.  It contains much of Justin, both within the story itself as well as in his deep influence on the writing:

Robert J. Morris (1991) “Trade,” Tribe: An American Gay Journal 1(4): 51-63 (short story).

He moved to San Francisco to pursue performance or “slam” poetry, at which he excelled.  Over the years, he returned to Honolulu several times, sometimes to visit friends, and sometimes on his way to or from visiting family in Malaysia and Singapore.  On those visits, we usually met at the Spaghetti Hale near Ena Road for dinner and conversations about writing.  We could talk for hours.

            Justin was a good guy.  I knew him as very kind and gentle and funny, retiring and soft-spoken in person, yet with a fierce intellect and curiosity that came out when he performed—a good ally to have in the culture wars.  He was 46, much too early to leave us.  But we have his books, and you can find him reading his poetry on You Tube.  He was an eloquent witness to our lives and struggles.  My thoughts go with him in the words of another favorite slam poet (William Shakespeare, Hamlet):

“Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. ”

Retired Professor, University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law

[1] Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986), p. 26; my translation.

[2] Reproduction of petroglyph of two males in close proximity from a site in Moanalua Valley, O‘ahu, in Elspeth P. Sterling and Catherine C. Summers, Sites of O‘ahu (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1978), p. 338.  The Hawaiian text is from Hawaiian Dictionary, op. cit., p. 338.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Remembering Performance Artist and Poet Justin Chin

 Irvine -  Over the holiday break came sad news of the passing 24 December 2015 of a powerful gay Asian voice, that of the performance artist and poet Justin Chin.  Born in Malaysia, he grew up in Singapore and subsequently emigrated to the United States.

Justin Chin

In 1999, I interviewed him perhaps when he was already a rising and powerful alternative voice, by phone from San Francisco where he was ultimately based after a detour in Hawaii.  His interview delves into controversial issues (he first had sex when he was 12), Bill Clinton's sexual liaisons and impeachment, oral sex, Asian identity and small press publishing.  The original interview was webcast in January 1999 on KUCI's Subversity Show, in RealAudio (remember that format?).  I've converted it to mp3 and uploaded it to the KUCI server.

Listen and remember him! I shall miss his biting and raw literary voice.  -  Daniel C. Tsang.
To listen to the KUCI Subversity Online reformatted podcast of my 1999 interview with Justin,  click on:

See also:
Lambda Literary remembrance.
Obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle by its book editor.
KQED report on his passing.
SF Weekly earlier account.
Poetry Foundation profile.

The original press release announcing his then-forthcoming show appearance is as follows:

Date: Fri, 15 Jan 1999 23:44:35 -0800 (PST)

Peformance artist/Author on Subversity webcast

Irvine -- Subversity, a KUCI public affairs radio program, this Tuesday features an interview with gay Asian Justin Chin, the author of "Mongrel," a new book of "essays, diatribes and pranks" from St. Martin's Press. The show airs from 5-6 p.m. on Tuesday, January 19, 1999, on KUCI, 88.9 FM in Orange County, and is also Webcast live at The topic: "Performance artist as writer." Chin is also a performance artist with a long list of achievements. His earlier work was Bite Hard (Manic D Press), a finalist in the Firecracker Alternative Book awards and the Lambda Literary Awards. His writings have also appeared in Queer 13 (Rob Weisbach Books), Best American Gay Fiction 3 (Little, Brown), Flesh And The Word 4 (Plume), and Men On Men 5: New Gay Writing (Plume), among others.
His solo performances, described as "the raw stuff of serious risk taking," (San Francisco Bay Times), include "And Judas Boogied Until His Slippers Wept," "Go, or, The Approximate Infinite Universe of Mrs. Robert Lomax," "Born," "These Nervous Days," "Holy Spook," and "Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms." He has performed his work nationally, including at Highways and East-West Players in L.A; P.S. 122 and Dixon Place in N.Y.; Josie's, Center for the Arts, Intersection for the Arts, the LAB, the Asian Art Musuem, and the SF Art Institute in San Francisco; the Cleveland Performance Art Festival, and the New York International Fringe Festival.
Along with Dan Schott, he wrote and co-directed Downloads, an experimental video documentary that was screened at film festivals in New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, London, and Amsterdam. Other collaborations include Cockfight, a performance work with L.A. performance artist Hung Nguyen.
Chin received fellowships and grants from the California Arts Council, the Djerassi Artist Residency, PEN American Center, and PEN Center USA West, and the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art. In 1996, he was awarded a "Goldie" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian in their annual awards honouring local artists. Chin was on the 1995 and 1996 San Francisco National Poetry Slam teams.
Chin will be interviewed by show host Daniel C. Tsang. Listeners can call (949) 824-5824 to chat with Chin during the show, or send us comments or questions via e-mail to