A Review of Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America

During my Davidson career, I have become increasingly interested in Asian American Studies. For my book review, I decided to take advantage of the flexibility of the topic and expand on my knowledge in the subject. In Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America, David L. Eng creates the argument that race and sexuality are connected. Eng supports his argument by analyzing the subject of Asian American masculinity. By applying psychoanalytic theory to literary works, Eng shows that race and sexuality cannot be separated from each other. Overall, his argument brings new insight to the subject of Asian American masculinity and also Queer studies, but a couple writing decisions that Eng makes prevent full comprehension of the topic.

Firstly, Eng analyzes two works, China Men and Donald Duk, that question the historical photo of the “Golden Spike” ceremony, the event where the east and west sides of the transcontinental railroad were connected. In the photo, the Asian American workforce was not represented, rendering their work and the lives lost invisible. Eng begins his analysis with a deconstruction of photographs as a medium of information and connects them to gaze, look, and screen from the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. I believe, however, that this connection required too much explanation. While the information is applicable to China Men and Donald Duk, it isn’t necessary to be able to understand the analysis and arguments made in the rest of the book.

In Donald Duk, Frank Chin tells the story of a boy, Donald Duk, who at first rejects his Chinese American culture, but eventually grows to embrace it. Eng uses psychoanalysis to come to the conclusion that Donald Duk’s dreams provide him an outlet to escape societal structure. Through his unconsciousness, Donald Duk is able to connect with his Chinese culture and is eventually able to bring this connection to his conscious state. Eng, however, criticizes Chin’s vision for the Asian American identity for excluding Asian American women and gay men.

Next, Eng analyzes the primal scene in “The Shoyu Kid” by Lonny Kaneko. The story takes place in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. Itchy, looking for the Shoyu Kid, finds him being sodomized by a white, male camp guard. This causes Itchy and his friends to lash out and denounce Japanese culture and homosexuality. Eng relates this scene to how people react to Asian American sterotypes of homosexuality and femininity. He criticizes this reaction, saying that, “Psychic Salvation for the Asian American male cannot be the monopoly of a masculinist compulsory heterosexuality” (Eng 136). Eng again challenges society’s view on race through the lense of sexuality.

Eng narrows her scope in her analysis of M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, looking at Gallimard’s racialized homosexuality. In this play, Gallimard has an affair with Song Liling. Even though Song is male, his Oriental identity prevents Gallimard from seeing Song’s penis. Eng explains this phenomenon of misgendering Song through Freud’s theory of the divided ego. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is usually used to describe female castration, in which men will fetishize a part of a woman, such as her hair, in order to project a substitute of a penis onto her. Gallimard’s situation however, is an occurrence of racial castration. Gallimard’s reverse fetishism of Song’s asian identity projects Song as a female, even though his penis is clearly visible. Eng believes that this is possible due to the situation’s commonality with traditional power relations. In Gallimard’s relationship with Song, the white male is in the same dominant position as a traditional relationship between a white male and female. Eng argues that M. Butterfly portrays the silent oppression of compulsory heterosexuality and whiteness and that the key to eliminating their power is to make them visible.

In Racial Castration, Eng also addresses the Asian American phenomenon of male hysteria. Hysteria, understood to predominantly be experienced by women, occurs when the emotions that come from the refusal to accept a societal position cannot be explained through language and are thus expressed through the body. Freud attempts to explain the possibilities of male hysteria, but is unable to due to his positionality. Eng clams that, “in a patriarchal world, the presence of the male hysteric would paradoxically imply the refusal of that male subject to occupy a symbolic position that prizes his social role above those of all others” (177). Male hysteric, however can be theorized in the case of Asian American men due to systemic oppression. Hysteria occurs in Asian American men when they refuse to play the role of the emasculated man. Eng gives an example of such hysteria in Eat a Bowl of Tea by David Wong Louie. When Ben Loy is finally able to bring his wife from China to the U.S., he is unable to consummate their reunion due to his impotence, revealing his lack of power and masculinity.

While Asian American male hysteria was caused by Yellow Peril and its exclusion acts, Eng claims that the Model Minority myth also causes the same issue of hysteria. He labels the psychological burden of the myth, “internal exile”(199). By attempting gain acceptance and achieve assimilation by living out the Model Minority myth, Asian Americans are making personal sacrifices toward a lost cause. Eng refers to “Birthday” by Louie for his analysis of the model minority myth, which feels out of place in his argument due to the lack of psychoanalysis. This ultimately makes his connection between Yellow Peril in the Myth more of a mention than a strong argument.

In his last section on male hysteria, Eng refers to Pangs of Love once again, but this time to address the hysteria that could occur in the queer community. Bagel is a gay Asian American that lives with three other gay men who are white. In their house, everything is white. The only thing that isn’t is Bagel. Not only is he Chinese American, but his muscle tone, and his colored clothes make him out of place in the environment as well. Eng states that: This is a queer affiliation, which demands the imitation of whiteness but ultimately finds this imitation intolerable” (201). While Bagel identifies as queer, his surroundings symbolize the white, silent denial of assimilation into the queer community.

Eng concludes his book with the subject of queerness and diaspora. In his epilogue, Eng increases the scope of his discussion and proposes that the intersection of queerness and diaspora with Asian American studies should be addressed in scholarly conversation. She states that the knowledge jurisdiction of Asian American studies is expanding using post- 1965 Asian immigrant communities as an example, as most of their identity was created outside of the United States. I think that Eng is arguing that as knowledge continues to extend outside of the United States, a diasporic approach needs to be taken towards analysis.

Eng also addresses the argument of whether or not to place a hyphen between, “Asian American.” Eng sees the hyphen as a symbol of repression and believes that it should be omitted: “the elimination of the hyphen from this term clams not only psychic but also spatial entitlement to Asian American membership within the larger U.S. national collective” (211). Eng appears to be referring to a previous debate about the subject, but seeing that this book was published in 2001, I am too young to remember this academic conversation and will have to do further research to understand it.

While Eng uses the epilogue to present many questions, by doing so explicitly he makes it difficult for the reader to differentiate which ones will be answered later in his discourse. This leads to paragraphs that contain nothing but questions, breaking the reader’s attention. Ultimately, Eng’s approach to raising questions takes away from the structure and message of his closing remarks.

Finally, Eng analyzes Rolling the R’s by R. Zamora Linmark to show the power of intersecting queer and Asian American perspectives: “Indeed, Linmark extends this project to its imaginable limits by bringing together the model minority myth with the image of the flaming Filipino faggot” (227). Through Linmark’s work, Eng believes that the combination of identities, “allows this explosion and reworking of stereotypical images and categories” (228). In conclusion, Eng achieves her objective in Racial Castration and starts the conversation of how race and sexuality can bring valuable insight to the subject of Asian American masculinity.

Works Cited

Eng, David L. Racial castration: managing masculinity in Asian America. Duke University Press, 2001.