Though some progress has been made towards accepting LGBT people in modern Vietnamese society, there is still a wide divide between the two. Despite many campaigns to battle misinformation and promote awareness to the local populace by various gay rights organizations, homosexuality still bears a lingering stigma. A majority of young gays and lesbians typically do not discuss issues specific to their orientation and lifestyle unless they’re in the exclusive company of similarly oriented people. On the other end of the spectrum, others tend not to go out of their way to inquire about the personal lives and problems of their LGBT acquaintances. While some may see this ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy as respecting personal privacy, many gay rights activists have started to view this as a potential problem.
“Distance creates lack of understanding, and lack of understanding births apathy and alienation. From that point on, it’s all too easy to foster unfairness and bigotry,” says Hai Au, content manager at book company Nha Nam who supports gay rights. “To bridge this gap between queer and straight folks, shared grounds where people can come together and hold conversations on complex issue are required.”
According to Hai Au, these shared grounds are happening in unexpected places: in alternative entertainment featuring gay stars whose target audience, surprisingly, includes an overwhelming percentage of straight readers and viewers. The oldest of these are select Korean dramas serials and movies. And the newest are several subgenres of Chinese imported romance novels, which, incidentally, are Hai Au and her team’s publishing specialty.
Since 1997, Korean films, being much cheaper and far more culturally relatable to Vietnamese broadcasters and viewers, quickly made headway into the local market. The very first Korean series broadcast in Vietnam was Nguoi Mau (Model), and since then there has only been an upward trend for Korean movie exporters. Now, Korean films, dramas and soap operas dominate Vietnamese television screen time.
It is inevitable then that, since popular Korean culture is far more prominent in its acceptance of LGBT issues than Vietnam, homoerotic Korean films have trickled in one by one via both legal and illegal means. The homosexuality described in these Korean dramas is wrapped in pretty packages featuring young actors and actresses and masterful cinematography. Homosexual people in the films appear not as the depraved “pede” of Vietnamese culture, but as beautiful, compelling, and often tragic people. But more than that, their lives are told as riveting and believable love stories. To the urban Korean film fans in Vietnam, Korea’s version of homosexuality has suddenly become a lot easier to handle.
“There actually aren’t that many queer Korean films in Vietnam. A handful I think. But the ones that make it here tend to have lasting impressions,” says Hai Au referring to popular titles such as The King and the Clown (a love story between a king and a male court jester) and Frozen Flower (a homoerotic love triangle between a king, his queen and an imperial guard captain). These may be seen as frivolous entertainment by the older and more traditional Vietnamese generation, but it is these Korean gay movies, many of which have been introduced to Vietnamese viewers as early as the 1990s, that sparked the first generation of LGBT rights supporters as well as increasing public acceptance of gays.
Korean dramas aren’t the only source of outside influence on the modern Vietnamese LGBT community. A second source of influence hails from Japan under the form of comic books featuring homoerotic relationships. “Boys and girls love comics,” Hai Au explains. “We have names for the genres: shounen ai and shoujo ai. Those were the rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They still are today.” The third source, subgenres of imported Chinese romance novels called Dam My and Bach Hop, another Nha Nam specialty, is the newest edition to entertainment straddling the line between gay and straight audiences.
According to her, all three categories of alternative entertainments share many similarities. They are a subculture unto themselves. They have a cult following across the globe, with millions of readers and viewers. And finally, they are written mostly by straight authors for a mostly straight audience.
“Society has rigid rules on sexuality and gender roles. In traditional societies such as Vietnam, Japan, Korea and China, it is doubly so. Of course, wherever you have repressive rules, you always have people feeling stifled about things. Homoerotic literature and movies offer straight viewers the chance to play with different identities, genders and sexualities in the safety of their home and without being judged by the public,” Hai Au explains. “That’s why it’s the girls who read gay erotica and the boys who read the lesbian version. But that does not mean that queer folks can’t enjoy these homoerotic entertainments. What happens over the years is that as the genres become more and more popular and the quality of writing improves, more and more queer audience have been flocking to Korean dramas, Japanese comics and Chinese gay-literature.”
Inadvertently, this creates a shared playground where gay and straight people can mingle and discuss complex issues though the frameworks of the stories told in the dramas, comics or novels. Deeply personal things that people normally don’t bring up can be brought out and discussed by both sides.
“Discussion brings understanding,” says Hai Au. “And understanding eventually leads to empathy and acceptance. I know this all sounds very strange if you aren’t already in those specific subcultures or communities. But I don’t think we should disregard the power of good entertainment with universal appeal. When people are passionate about the same thing, they are more likely to want to be open up to each other and to hear each other. It was Brokeback Mountain that brought an international spotlight on gay issues back in 2005. Something similar is happening here, albeit in a much less flashy manner but reaching just as wide an audience.”