Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

High-wired act


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Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms by Justin Chin; Suspects Thoughts Press, $16.95

Popular and controversial San Francisco performance artist Justin Chin's best set-pieces, presented nationally and abroad from 1993-2001, have been translated into text format and assembled into book form in this extraordinarily creative collection. Included are original advertisements for each performance, many hosted at Josie's Juice Joint and Cabaret, a venue longtime San Francisco residents will remember with nostalgic longing.

All of the performances contained within the book are engrossing. Many brilliantly wrestle with notions of race and class, or of prayers to God, some offering startlingly profound musings. "There are too many people that believe in love," Chin muses in a vignette that shares the book's name. "But what they perceive to be love is merely a mistranslation."

The bulk of the book is comprised of transcripts of Chin's varied but always titillating performances, some thought-provoking and contemplative in the way that the best web-blogs can be, and some laugh-out-loud funny. This is most evident in Chin's breakdown of Castro Street popular culture into a game called Fagtown Bingo. Though this idea and many other spoken-word performances were conceived and executed in the mid-to-late 1990s, some things never change. Chin targets the ever-enduring proliferation of Castro types like the "Diva Without a Cause," "Butch with Nelly Dog," "Speed Queen," "Super Angry Fag," "Holier-Than-Thou Bike Fag," and the elusive "Leather Titleholder Wearing Sash while Grocery Shopping."

The ability to laugh at oneself is key to understanding Chin and his performance purpose, since the actor himself laughs at his own shortcomings while poking fun at everyone else. Translating this kind of humor to an audience, especially in the dark days of the early 90s, when many had lost their ability to laugh at all, was indeed tricky, but was and is precisely what makes Justin Chin unique and a star in his own right.

Chin's performances are not only confined to the spoken word, his shows were visually stimulating as well. Backdrops ranged from the favored minimum of a bare light-bulb to stimulating photographs of puckered assholes, the use of a bullhorn, and on to the bizarre and symbolic, as in "Missionary Positions," where he slathered himself with Vaseline and covered his slick flesh in rice. Chin's "Mea Culpa" performance required an audience member to whip him onstage stripped down to a T-shirt and underwear, while he apologized for a lexicon of faults like "not believing when I should have," "when I laughed when I said that I wouldn't," when "I contributed to a friend's assisted suicide," and for "not being discreet." Cooking hotdogs in a microwave on stage, Chin uproariously described genitalia from an assortment of popular countries: the "pungent" French cock, the "garlicky" Italian dick, the American penis ("you can charge it to your VISA/AMEX.")

This is an ultra-fine collection of provocative set-pieces that, once digested, will surely elicit feelings of missed opportunities in many readers. The performances are long gone, as are the time and place in which they once thrived. On the stage, and now in book form, Chin's body of work merits shelf-space alongside the best of San Francisco's fringe performance-art histories.

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