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Shou-An Chiang, “Yurika and Shao Shuai”, Queerasian
Shou-An Chiang, “Yurika and Shao Shuai”, QueerasianPhotography Shou-An Chiang

These photos reclaim young queer Asians from tired stereotypes

Shou-An Chiang’s ongoing project, Queerasian, defies the media’s narrow depiction of queer Asian youth culture

“One day, I noticed an advertisement on the tube showing how friendly, inclusive and open the London tube network wants to be,” photographer Shou-An Chiang recalls. “This was represented by a photograph of two girls embracing with a look of love in their eyes. The slogan was brief, saying ‘dinner date’, with the implication that the two in the photo were romantically involved.” 

Chiang’s initial impression of the image was positive: “Seeing that these two girls were people of colour, I appreciated that TFL was attempting to be inclusive.” But her response to the advert began to alter the following day as it occurred to her how rarely she saw queer Asian people represented in the media. The Taiwanese-born, London-based photographer explains to Dazed in a conversation over email, “The inclusion of our faces in adverts is not uncommon among all sorts of media, but always in bland and monotonous contexts in themes such as business, school, or science.”

Struggling to understand why the dominant portrayal of Asian people is so narrow and desexualised, Chiang began to conceive of a photo project that would speak to this lack of representation: “Where does this Western notion of Asia come from? And why does it always fall short of showcasing the real diversity in our lives? As a member of this community, I know that we are more than the flat profile presented by most advertisements. I wanted to offer the diverse possibilities of this community without prejudice.”

Queerasian is an alluring series of portraits of individuals from within the queer Asian community in London. Part documentary and part staged, Chiang’s beautifully composed pictures allow her subjects to retain their own varied and glorious subjectivity. “I went to each participant’s home to take pictures. They dressed up in whatever way they felt comfortable… I wanted to capture them in their own lives in a way that was a little out of the ordinary but not too contrived. The principle of the whole process remains the same: they should be comfortable and at ease.”

What emerges is a meditation on the breadth and depth of expressions of sexuality, gender and identity within the queer Asian community. “I think the stories are in the details – through the objects in a scene, you can see how each person lives, what they do, their background, their interests and so on. Through the way they dress, we can see how they want to present themselves. When we look at these images without preconceptions, we find that self and identity do not need to be labelled – they can be fluid; they can be self-constituted.”

Chiang shared a number of poignant and enduring memories from among the many Queerasian shoots. One particular moment that stayed with her was a conversation with one of the mixed-race participants: “He said that whenever he had to fill in some equality and diversity monitoring forms there are no black-Asian boxes. He told me, ‘I can only use ‘other’ to explain who I am and what I belong to.’ This is something I hadn’t noticed before. If I hadn’t met him for this project, I probably wouldn’t have realised that there were more inclusive possibilities in these forms that are actually created to promote diversity.”

In the future, Chiang hopes to increase the breadth of the project by photographing as many people from different parts of Asia as possible. As an ongoing project, Queerasians continues to contribute to a vital dialogue. Chiang describes how the process of making these images is enlarging her empathy and understanding while stimulating important wider conversations around the work: “Every time I hear a story it opens my mind a little more. One of the subjects shared her identity anxiety with me. Even though her relationships were with cis men, she did not consider herself to be a purely heterosexual woman. But she was worried that she did not have enough relationship experience to qualify as a ‘queer’. When I shared this story at the exhibition, I was touched by the feedback of one of the audience. She said she could relate to it very much. In her experience, she too had some vague and ambiguous desires, but circumstances prevented her from taking any action at the time. Now, years later, she is afraid to call herself a queer even if she wants to. She feels guilty because she didn’t contribute to the community. And now she feels like she is not eligible to reap the fruits of predecessors’ efforts.”

Take a look at the gallery above for a glimpse of Shou-An Chiang’s Queerasian.