"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
A lot of guys might jump at the opportunity to take a free trip to Los Angeles, have sex with a beautiful Asian woman and be paid for it. But it took months for Darrell Hamamoto to get someone to take the bait because there was a catch — the tryst would be filmed for an adult video titled “Skin to Skin” being produced by Hamamoto.
Casting a porn shoot is not a big deal in Southern California, the capital of the multibillion-dollar adult movie industry. What made Hamamoto’s request unusual was that he wasn’t looking for just any guy with the “right equipment” for the job. He wanted an Asian-American stud to costar with an Asian-American woman for his video — something unheard of in the industry, which produces thousands of heterosexual porn videos in the United States every year.
Asian porn is a popular genre and female stars such as Asia Carrera, Annabel Chong and Mimi Miyagi are household names to adult video fans. But straight porn is short on Asian-American males and Hamamoto wants to do something about it. For Hamamoto, an Asian-American studies professor at the University of California at Davis, the project is his statement about Asian-American sexuality, and if all goes as he plans, the start of an Asian-American media company.
Hamamoto wants to start a discussion about Asian-American sexuality, which he says has been damaged by years of colonialism and racism that has turned Asian women into a sexual fetish and Asian men into eunuchs. Asian-Americans have internalized these attitudes, Hamamoto says, causing a rift between the genders and perpetuating the stereotypes.
“As Marvin Gaye said, we need ‘sexual healing,’ and I’m the doctor,” Hamamoto says. “I’m trying to do it in the most direct, visible way possible, by promoting and producing Asian-American erotica for Asian-Americans by Asian-Americans.”
Hamamoto shot footage in March with Lyla Lei, 20, who has more than 60 videos to her credit in a little over a year in the porn business. Her costar, Chun, 25, who asked that his last name not be used, heard about the project from an interview with Hamamoto published on AsianAvenue.com. Like most guys, his reaction was, “Yeah, I could do that.” He e-mailed Hamamoto, “just to get more information,” and the next thing he knew, plans were being made to fly him to Los Angeles.
Several other potential male stars had committed to the project, only to back out at the last minute, Hamamoto says.
“There is no shortage of Asian-American women who don’t mind going on camera and engaging in sex, showing their faces and bodies,” Hamamoto says. “You’d think there would be tons of Asian-American men who’d want to do this. What it comes down to is [Asian-American males] don’t want to represent. If they continue to do that, they deserve all the shit they get” from stereotyping.
Many guys fantasize that it would be great to be a porn star, but when they realize their face and everything else will be on the screen for everyone to see, the machismo wears off. But Chun went through with it. He said he was intrigued by Hamamoto’s ideas and by the chance to be in a porn movie.
“I thought it would be really cool. It’s certainly something I’ve never done before,” he says. “I always wanted to be an actor, but of course this is not really acting.” He was nervous, but, he says, “The last thing I wanted to do was let them down. I committed. Then of course the conservative side takes over and says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
A hotel in Torrance, Calif., served as the studio for the video, with Hamamoto and his girlfriend, Funi Hsu, doing the camerawork. “Skin to Skin” is standard porn fare, at least from the snippets in a preview tape provided by Hamamoto. There’s a knock on the door, Chun greets Lei and after some flirting on the couch while playing video games they proceed to do what is done in most porn videos.
Lei, who is part Thai and part Cambodian, has long brown hair that frames a wide smile and meshes seamlessly with her dark bronze complexion. Chun is a tall, strapping Korean-American who exudes a youthful charm on the screen. Lei said Chun was her first Asian male costar and she enjoyed the experience. “I feel like when it’s Asian and Asian, it’s more comfortable,” Lei says. “I don’t feel awkward when I kiss him.”
The idea for Asian-American erotica, or “yellow porn” as Hamamoto calls it, took root in 1998, when he began to ask students in his class on theoretical perspectives in Asian-American studies whom they fantasized about sexually. Invariably, the images were of white, blond-haired beauties, both male and female. What that meant to Hamamoto was that the sexuality of black, brown and yellow bodies had been subjugated. Asian-Americans of both genders didn’t view each other as sexual beings. He laid out his thesis for making an Asian-American porn video in an essay titled “The Joy F**K Club” that was published in an academic journal in 1998.
With graying hair and mild-mannered demeanor, Hamamoto is an unassuming presence that belies his new status as a budding porn producer. But he is forceful in his opinions. “The whole sexuality part of our lives is warped and deformed from larger white racism,” he said. “I want Asian-American people to look at it and examine it themselves, take matters in their own hands and come up with a solution.”
But can porn, which by its nature causes controversy, be used as a tool to debunk stereotypes and start a serious dialogue about sexuality?
“I think there are two different things going on here: the image of Asian-American male sexuality and power. Who controls what is sexy in film, and basically what is sexy, is defined by white guys,” says Joyce Guan, who works at the Asian-American Telecommunications Association, and had just seen “Masters of the Pillow,” a documentary about the making of Hamamoto’s porn video. “Seeing an Asian-American male in a film or in roles where they are sexual is a good thing.”
But those roles in porn or mainstream entertainment are lacking, largely because film studios, movie producers and TV news directors assume that Asian-American men can’t hold an audience.
“Asian-Americans are stereotyped in a negative way,” Rick Lee, creator of the porn site Asian-man.com, says in “Masters of the Pillow.” “A straight, Asian-American guy is impossible to find in porn. If you find one, he’s gay and a bottom.”
Lee charges a monthly fee to view his Web site, which features pictures and video clips of himself having sex with women. He was a guest speaker for one of Hamamoto’s classes and was considered for the lead in “Skin to Skin.” But Lee doesn’t show his face on Asian-man.com and wouldn’t do it for Hamamoto’s video. But he hopes that there will be an Asian-American male porn star someday. “If an Asian-American goes into porn and has the size, he’ll do well,” he says in the documentary. The porn industry is about making money. “There’s no racism like some might think.”
“Masters of the Pillow” is the work of San Francisco filmmaker James Hou, 27, who was a student of Hamamoto’s at U.C. Davis in 1996. Asian-Americans have been distorted by the media, Hou says, and “Darrell, with [his] film, wants to tackle the issue head-on and see what happens. People are going to love it or hate it.”
Asian-Americans have long complained about being stereotyped or just plain ignored in movies and television. Hollywood has few successful Asian-Americans, with most — such as Lucy Liu and Ming-Na — being women. Most of the well-known Asian male stars, such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat, are imports from Asia and tend to play one-dimensional martial-arts characters who kick their way through movies.
“It seems clear to me that Asian-American men aren’t represented in American media in their full complexity, including their sexuality,” says Peter X. Feng, author of several books about Asian-Americans in film and an associate professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Delaware. “Hamamoto will tell you that this carries over into pornography. The question is, what is the effect of this on my psyche as an Asian-American man?”
Media images alone may not affect the self-esteem of Asian-American males, Feng says, but they can perpetuate stereotypical beliefs. “So do I need to see an Asian-American man in porn to know that Asian-American men can be sexual and can express themselves sexually? No, I don’t need to see that,” he says. But, “it might change how other people think.”
The stereotype of the asexual, geeky Asian guy has endured, affecting much more than porn. During the last 30 years, interracial dating has become common in the United States. Asian-American women are among the most likely to date or marry someone of another race, to the dismay of many Asian-American men. According to the 2000 census, Asian-American women married white spouses 3.08 times more often than Asian-American men did. And if the media is any indication, Asian men aren’t viewed as sexually desirable by much of American society. This, he says, leads to the conflict between the sexes that Hamamoto said he is trying to quell.
Much of what is produced in the mass media is created for the pleasure of white men, according to Elaine Kim, an Asian-American studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “[White men] can have every woman of every race. For Asian men, they’re just not supposed to be men,” says Kim, who was also an associate producer of the documentary “Slaying the Dragon: Asian Women in U.S. Film and Television.” “If you conquer Vietnam, Korea or Japan, then it all fits in the fantasy that you get the women and vanquish the men.”
Hamamoto’s plan is to use Asian-American porn as a springboard to finance a media company that would produce and distribute mainstream entertainment for and about Asian-Americans, much like BET provides to African-Americans. He believes there is a piece of the lucrative porn market among Asian-Americans who want to see themselves on-screen and a huge crossover audience, similar to how suburbia has embraced the urban hip-hop music scene.
Many other media ventures have tried and failed to tap the diverse, niche Asian-American market, with several magazines and Web sites going out of business in the last few years. Hamamoto says he’ll succeed because, “I’m going for the groin. I’m going to satisfy a more basic need.”
Hamamoto wants to market the 50-minute “Skin to Skin” to adult cable and satellite TV outlets or possibly through the Internet. An 11-minute video adapted from “Skin to Skin” (with more pointed messages about race and sexuality) and “Masters of the Pillow” have both been accepted at the Hawaii International Film festival, which begins Oct. 30.
“I’m talking about a lot of very fundamental issues in our society,” says Hamamoto. “Sexuality, race and power. I’m touching all the hot buttons. As a professional intellectual, as a writer and as an artist, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Harry Mok writes for Inthefray.comMore Harry Mok.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)