I’ve been a media fan since I was 11, when – like so many others of my generation – I fell in love with Star Wars (1977 aka “A New Hope”) and gobbled up as much movie merchandise as I could get my hands on. As it happens, that was comparatively little since I saw Star Wars in Hong Kong, where my family had moved six months earlier, and only some goods were available in local toy stores and bookshops (although we had greater access to some wonderful Japanese Star Wars stuff). Looking back on it now, it seems safe to say that this was arguably the formative moment in my evolution as both a fan and, ultimately, a fan studies scholar, as much because of the conditions of being a Star Wars fan in Hong Kong as the film itself.
My PhD dissertation was a study of Japanese women fans of Hong Kong stars in the 1980s and 1990s – a fandom that I participated in, albeit peripherally, throughout this period. The only other person to have written on it at the time was Koichi Iwabuchi, in his book Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism and a related essay in the journal positions: east asia cultures critique, and he once said to me in passing that the one question he never answered to his satisfaction was ‘why women?’; thus was my own project born. It’s a great question, given the overwhelmingly male makeup of (non-diasporic) overseas fans of Hong Kong movies, but the then-existing framework for interrogating it was essentially the media globalization studies version of ‘resistance’ discourse in cultural studies, a ‘moral binary’ (to borrow from Matt Hills) intended to answer the question of whether or not cross-cultural fandom fosters greater understanding across cultural borders.
Given my own experiences of media fandom generally, and Hong Kong star fandom in Japan specifically, this question proved to be an insurmountable hurdle for the first few years of the dissertation process. I could answer it both affirmatively and negatively, depending on the case in question, and at the same time it seemed unrelated to the whys of the fandom as revealed both in my data and my own experiences.
At about the time I was considering throwing in the towel altogether over this conundrum, I was also being daily defeated by a toddler and an infant. All of this contributed to an extended dissertation hiatus, during which I happened to be watching The Silence of the Lambs one night and took bleary-eyed notice of the ‘First Principles’ scene:
Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice: simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius, "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?" What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women.
Hannibal Lecter: No, that is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does, what needs does he serve by killing?
Clarice Starling: Anger, social acceptance, and, uh, sexual frustration …
Hannibal Lecter: No, he covets. That's his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer, now.
Clarice Starling: No. We just …
Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don't your eyes seek out the things you want?
I’m in a kind of sleep-deprived fugue state listening to this, and perhaps because of that something clicked for me. Everything Clarice says here – anger, social acceptance, sexual frustration – sounded eerily similar to how the motivations for becoming fans were sometimes discussed, both popularly and in some scholarship. But that answer – we covet what we see everyday – effectively helped me to step out of the paradigm I was stuck in and got me thinking in another direction.
As it turns out, one key thing that was different in the Japanese women’s fandom from all other overseas fans of Hong Kong films was that Japanese women (for a variety of reasons, detailed here) came into contact with Hong Kong films in their everyday lives in ways that people simply didn’t in other countries. In other words, I ended up arguing that women became fans because 1) they came into contact with Hong Kong stars and movies, and 2) they liked what they saw. And that anything that came from those two conditions, be it a better (or worse) understanding of Hong Kong, fetishizing Hong Kong men, intensified identification as East Asian, or whatever, was incidental to the fundamental condition of fandom – loving something.
I’ve gone on to argue at greater length about what the conditions for cross-cultural love of a thing might be, and from there the politics of that love, but underpinning all of my work is a conviction that all fandom is transcultural. This requires a somewhat expansive understanding of ‘transcultural’ as something that we’re as likely to find in the intersection of cultures of races, classes, genders, and so on as between people from different national cultures. Historically, fan studies research has focused on the definition and discussion of discrete phenomena and objects - MCU fandom, or a kind of monolithic ‘fanfiction’, or ‘fandom’. Today, I find myself arguing a lot, that kind of discreteness is a rapidly vanishing thing. Online women’s fandom, for example, has evolved from closeable communities of mostly monolingual and monocultural fans to a global mélange of interests and the myriad cultural experiences that inflect them. As such, our understanding of what we think we know increasingly is predicated on being able to consider it in its transcultural contexts. Is ‘fandom’ a safe space for affective play? It depends on one’s cultural relationship to the norms of that fandom.
Put simply, I believe we can no longer adequately account for the diversity of fan experiences and expressions – even of seemingly ‘known’ objects – without taking into account the transcultural contexts in which they are performed.
Like you, my journey into being a fan begins early - probably when I was 9 during a particularly dark and lonely moment in my life. At that time, I had been living in Kathmandu for 2 years after our third move between Nepal and what was then Czechoslovakia (and later became the Czech Republic). We didn’t have a TV at home and the only radio available was run by the state. Though I wasn’t aware of it as such, my life at that time was marked a profound sense of isolation, a sense that I didn’t fit in anywhere given my Czech and Nepalese backgrounds. Before leaving for Nepal, I had been ostracized by my Czech classmates for being the daughter of a foreigner (not a good thing under communism). My new classmates at the international school in Kathmandu refused to eat lunch with me because I was from the eastern block (I didn’t even know what that meant at the time). My Nepalese family constantly reminded me that they did not accept my mother, and that though her, I also did not belong. I felt disjointed, disconnected, torn, split between cultures.
I discovered Bollywood (or Hindi films as they were called then) through my (older) cousin who ran an illegal video rental shop. Through the hours and hours of films I encountered as he duplicated VHS tapes on multiple VCRs hooked up in the family living room, I entered the world of Bollywood dance. In the remorseless mixing of dance genres, the diverse costumes, and culturally blended music, I saw hope for my own shattered existence. I saw that there could, maybe someday, be a way for me to reconcile the cultural conflicts that defined my life at that time. I thought that, perhaps, I too could find a way to mix, remix, and blend my, by definition, transnational identity. I felt like I had finally found my home.
I became a dancer, because of this experience with Bollywood dance.
As time went on, Bollywood, in particular an understanding of Bollywood as an uncomfortable blending of cultures, helped me find my people, so to speak, as I connected with other fans, who were drawn to the films (and dances) for the same reasons. In 2001, a small group of us started a Bollywood Film Festival in Prague - a festival that aimed to use Hindi films to support the creation of a space that celebrated diversity. Our initial impulse was very much about celebrating our fandom of Bollywood films and using the festival as a mechanism to invite others to join in. We soon established a strong community of people who were drawn to Bollywood. The initial, unfunded, years were really about that community. We would barely scrape together money to rent a space and cover screening fees and made things happen through broad based volunteer participation. One person brought the projector, another brought a stove so we could cook Indian tea. As we revelled in the shared space created through the films screens, I felt I finally belonged.
While I still recognize the importance of the participatory culture that was supported through the early years of the Bollywood festival, I am now also very cognizant of the ways in which nationalism, politics, corporate interests were also very much part of this nascent transnational community, and how I chose to temporarily ignore these realities. Over time, the pressures created by the Indian Embassy regarding how India was represented, increasingly untenable financial demands placed on us by film distribution companies, and my growing sense of a disturbingly enduring Orientalism (Said) permeating public perceptions of our event (despite our best efforts) became more and more apparent. As the festival organizer (and Director of Programming), I tried to negotiate these challenges with the hope that we could still protect (what I saw) as a thriving fandom based in an understanding of Bollywood as a diverse and truly transnational content world.
After 11 years, I gave up and left the festival frustrated, hurt and disillusioned with how our effort had been stifled by the ideological and institutional powers that sought to moderate, and ultimately control, our fannish experience of Bollywood films. As I look back at it now, I feel that my experience with the Prague Bollywood Festival has much to teach us (and me) about transnational fandom and how its experience is necessarily imbricated in complex power dynamics and am left with the question of how we can begin to productively unpack the experiences of fans given these realities.
Though our experiences of transnational fandom are clearly different, I feel they connect in surprisingly productive ways as we are both grappling with these pervasive questions in our own ways.