In July last year, I drew a portrait of Alvivi.
Alvivi are Vivian Lee and Alvin Tan. I follow them online. It’s like following a meteor as it trolls brightly through the Internet, trailing controversy and naked pictures in its wake.
This time though, the stakes were different. It was Ramadan, the holy month. Alvivi uploaded a photo of themselves eating pork soup, wishing Muslims ‘happy breaking fast’, and included a HALAL logo in the corner.
The public outcry was intense. They were arrested, denied bail, sent to prison for 8 nights and charged with the Film Censorship Act, the Sedition Act and Section 298A of the Penal Code.
As is usual with controversies, especially ones online, and especially in Malaysia, you’re either for or against. I drew Alvivi’s portrait as an escape route, an attempt to look at them (and our reactions to them), differently. I wasn’t very successful. There is a limit to the insight you can gain when you only know your subjects through the Internet.
That portrait eventually led to me meeting Vivian in person. She saw it and friended me on Facebook. Months later, I sent her a message asking: ‘Can we hang out? I want to make art about you.’
I’m not sure if she found it flattering, or creepy. Possibly both. Anyway, she said yes.
Meeting Vivian for the first time was surreal. My brain kept recalibrating the online image I had in my head with the reality of the human being, both simpler and more complex, in front of me. I’ll be honest – I was inclined to be sympathetic from the outset, and had trouble keeping my projections in check.
My affinity for Vivian comes not just from being a woman, but one whose life, work and self-image are closely tied to the Internet. I met my first boyfriend in an IRC chatroom (back in the earlier days of the Internet) when I was 16. Almost 2 decades later, the Internet is allowing me to build an independent art career by connecting me directly to my audience. At the same time, my Facebook feed shows me ads for weight loss and vaginal tightening creams because its algorithms predict that’s what I’m mostly likely to buy.
Vivian is 10 years younger than I am. She was about 11 or 12 when she first encountered the Internet. She started chatting over MSN Messenger, and moved on to the proto social network site Friendster. When she joined Facebook, she was extremely self-conscious and cautious about posting there because her family and friends shared the same network. Her mother, a conservative single parent, would nag her based on her status updates.
Tumblr was different. The blogging and social media platform has relatively low usage amongst Malaysians. It was there that she and Alvin started their (now defunct) sex blog Sumptuous Erotica in 2012, which was followed by international fans and a handful of close friends. She spoke with sadness about no longer having the blog. She had lost a place on the Internet where she felt free to be, as she put it, ‘my true self’.
Vivian maintains she never wanted controversy or fame. She regrets that Alvin shared the link to their sex blog on forums like hardwarezone.sg, which led to it being picked up by Singaporean media. Whether he did so to connect with more like-minded people, or to boost the Alvivi signal online, is open to question. This sheds light on Alvin and Vivian’s relationship and the Alvivi ‘brand’ – while they may have differing approaches to fame and the Internet, they bear the outcomes of each other’s actions together.
Many accuse Alvivi of being low-rent attention seekers. But who’s really mining and exploiting our human attention spans? In today’s economy, ‘eyeball hours’ are the new raw minerals. Stock prices depend on views, likes and shares, while Youtube sensations leverage their millions of subscribers for lucrative partnerships with big brands. An indication of what Vivian does for web traffic: a photo posted to my Facebook page usually gets 200 – 600 views. A photo tagged with Vivian got 2,000. When The Star broke the story of Alvivi in Malaysia, it garnered record page views, and continued to feature them in print and online every day, for a week.
In the press and their social media channels, Alvin’s voice dominates. Negative comments on their Youtube videos reveal a marked difference in the way people perceive him compared to Vivian. He’s ‘wasting his future’, while she’s ‘stupid for being used by an asshole’. She said that most of the ‘shameful’ and ‘slut’ comments were directed at her. Even though Alvin was derided for embarrassing his family, she was seen as ‘incurring the most loss’ because no one would want her as a wife. It seems that women can’t even be harlots on their own terms; they’re bad not because they’re bad, but because they’re unmarriageable.
When I asked Vivian what she had learned about race and religion in Malaysia since the Ramadan pork soup controversy, she could not answer. I’m not sure if it was because she didn’t understand my question, or because there was nothing she had learnt. I rephrased: ‘what do you think about race and religion in general?’ She expressed frankly that she likes the fact that she’s Chinese, and that there must be reasons why people don’t like different races, for example: because Chinese are greedy, Malays are lazy and Indians are violent.
She felt that people should be less sensitive about race and religion, and wondered ‘why make such a big deal out of it?’ On the one hand, she seemed to buy into racial stereotypes. On the other, she felt that race and religion were forms of social control, and saw no difference between being offended by racial or religious self-expression and being offended by sexual self-expression.
This is where my values differ from Vivian’s. Freedom of expression is a poor defense for holding and expressing racist views. Maintaining the right to individual self-expression, while expressing a group racial identity (e.g. Chinese eating pork soup) to address another group racial identity (e.g. Muslims fasting during the holy month), is hypocritical.
Vivian said if she had known that the consequences of posting the Ramadan picture were jail and criminal charges, she would not have done it. Not because it was hurtful or offensive, but because it was ‘not practical’. This is important. It tells us that criminalizing offense does nothing to impart understanding. It only enforces obedience based on fear. As long as we turn to repressive laws to manage our cultural differences, we will continue to live in fear.
Vivian’s racism does not diminish my affinity for her in other respects. Looking at her honestly enough to make a portrait that has a kernel of truth and meaning trains me to look at Malaysia the same way. The picture that emerges is complex: brave, ugly and challenging all at once. She is neither good nor bad, she is simply herself. Looking deeply into the individual, we may find a way to understand the whole.
Many thanks to Zedeck Siew, Danny Lim, Maryann Tan and Sunitha Janamohanan for editorial help on this essay.
The Good Malaysian Woman: Ethnicity. Religion. Politics is showing at Black Box, MAP Publika, from 18 – 25 May 2014.