Archipelagic Literature: Review of Brian Bernards’ Writing the South Seas

The following is my review for newbooks.asia of Brian Bernards (2015): Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Archipelagic Literature: Beyond a Concentric Conception of Culture (Review)

In his recent study, Brian Bernards analyses the motif of the Nanyang (the South Seas) in postcolonial fiction from Malaysia, Thailand, Borneo, Singapore and Taiwan. Through a focus on the integration, assimilation and confrontation between (descendants of) Chinese settlers and the local populations, Bernards’s analyses reveal the internal heterogeneity of each perceived group. This book reminds us, through concrete examples, that any ethnic group, national culture or language is always already ‘contaminated’ – a term he uses in a fittingly positive sense; after all it is contamination not sterility that brings life.

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Sidelong glances
Bernards begins his book with two chapters that present the Nanyang motif as an integral, if not major, part of modern Chinese literature. He writes: “Not to be written off as New Literature’s detour into exoticism, the impressionistic South Seas color in the short fiction of Xu Zhimo and Xu Dishan … suggests a broader conception of and enquiry into ‘the world’ than typically attributed to the New Culture movement” (p. 30). The positive effects of structuring the book in this way, is that the early chapters provide a historical context for the Nanyang motif and thus set the scene for the later postcolonial analysis. Just as importantly, they bring to light lesser known aspects of the New Literature movement as well as non-canonized works of famous Chinese writers such as Lao She. On the downside, rooting the whole study in the context of modern Chinese literature does not further Bernards’s bold and otherwise successful project of shifting analytical focus from a cultural centre to a network of cultural connections.

Thus situating his innovative analytic focus in the well-known context of modern Chinese literature, he goes on to provide a short literary history of the Nanyang motif as an expression of the combined pride and despair felt by Chinese writers of the 1920s and 1930s towards their own culture: Bernards’s description of how Yu Dafu championed Sinophone Malayan literature as a literature in its own right, only to go on telling the Malayan writers how best to develop this genre (p. 77), calls to mind the strange mix of arrogance and fascination that characterised the ‘primitivism’ popular among European painters from the late 19th and early 20th, who sought artistic (and sometimes sexual) liberation from so-called ‘primitive’ cultures in the colonies.

Though I find Bernards’s translation of baihua as ‘pure speech’ (p. 33) rather than for instance ‘plain speech’ somewhat misleading, his argument that the enlightenment project of the New Literature movement was not simply a vernacular liberation, but also led to cultural homogenisation, is an important and often neglected one.

No margins no centre
The single greatest contribution this book makes is, in my opinion, that it turns our way of thinking about and analysing literature away from a supposed centre by creating a kind of empty centre (the sea) from the vantage point of which every literature, culture and language is an island in an archipelago of other interconnected islands. This is a brilliant and a much-needed step in literary studies. While I fully recognise the debt to Shu Mei-shih’s work on Sinophone fiction, Bernards’s book adds a new archipelagic focus and, as most pioneering studies, it suffers from a few weak points. Firstly, the very structure that allows multiple geographic points of departure also proves quite challenging to a reader less familiar with the mosaic of southeast Asian colonial and national histories. Bernards does his best to remedy this in the text, but a timeline or some other visual historic overview (such as the very helpful map provided in the introduction) might help the reader navigate between chapters.

Another issue is how the term Nanyang itself simultaneously makes possible and defeats the aim of the book to move beyond national or linguistic literary boundaries. The term ‘the South Seas’ presupposes a point that one is south of; in this case, that point is inescapably China. I do not see how Bernards could have done otherwise, but this dilemma helps to remind us that we are still struggling to get beyond notion of centre-periphery.

While generally thrilled with the works and authors presented, I could wish for more methodical congruity in the literary analyses. Some chapters provide biographical interpretations, other offer sociopolitical readings and one gives a comprehensive narrative analysis. Personally, I find this last instance – which includes a diagram of the author Pan Yutong’s ‘concentric narratology’ – absolutely fascinating, and I can’t help feeling that a consistent comparison of either narrative patterns, character development or literary reception of fiction dealing with postcolonial Nanyang identities might be a highly interesting continuation of the project.

Archipelagic literature
Brian Bernards’s enjoyable and illuminating book successfully diversifies the way we think about national literatures as well as about Sinophone literature as essentially a diaspora phenomenon, for, as Bernards excellently puts it, “rarely (if ever) are the terms ‘British diaspora,’ ‘French diaspora,’ ‘Spanish diaspora,’ and ‘Portuguese diaspora’ applied to communities in the New World of the Americas” (p. 198). Bernards’s study shows that not only are such concepts challenged by hybrids and misfits at the margins, but the so-called margins themselves reach the centre and affect/hybridise it to a degree that renders such concentric vision impractical. With an unswerving eye for the role language plays in creating literatures as well as for the innovate power of fiction in creolising language (and with due attention to original terms available in an extensive glossary), this book will prove an eye-opening read, not only for scholars and enthusiasts of Sinophone and southeast Asian literatures, but for linguists and literary scholars everywhere

Qiu Xiaolong: Crime Fiction Between Languages

On May 3rd, I attended a charming lecture by poet and crime fiction writer Qiu Xiaolong 裘小龙 at New York University’s Shanghai campus. Born on the Puxi side of Shanghai, Qiu embraced the opportunity afforded by his visit to the campus to walk around – and have his famous Inspector Chen walk around – Pudong’s futuristic vertical landscape. A graduate from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, Qiu Xiaolong was studying in the US when the aftermath of the June 4th incident of 1989 (also known as the Tiananmen Massacre) made it untenable for him to return to China. His decision to start writing in English was prompted by an announcement from his Chinese publisher that his works could no longer be published in China.Between 1988 and 1996, Qiu remained in the US, but since then he has returned to his native city of Shanghai at least once a year, only to be amazed at the changes and transformations he observes. While humbly acknowledging that he is now much less familiar with Shanghai than local writers, and much less familiar with the English language than native English speakers, Qiu suggested that his unique position as an ‘outside insider’ might be part of the recipe for his hugely successful novels.Another interesting product of Qiu’s in-between position is his approach to literary discourse. He described how, while composing in a second language, one need not necessarily shot out completely one’s first language, but rather use it to creatively combine and reshape linguistic thought patterns. As he puts it “a cliché in one language might be an innovation when translated directly into another one.”This approach breaks with practises of composition and translation that seek to ‘domesticate’ foreign idioms and phrases to secure what translation theorist Lawrence Venuti has called ‘the translator’s invisibility’. So, while Qiu’s lack of ‘domestication’ might risk sliding into auto-Orientalism, it more importantly serves to call attention to the text’s conception between languages.

(All photographs by Astrid Møller-Olsen, Shanghai 2017)

 

Yu Jun and Chen Cun on Shanghai Memories and Illusions

While in Shanghai, I attended a very relaxed and intimate conversation between painter/author 郁俊 Yu Jun and author/photographer 陈村 Chen Cun, at the Old China Hand Style coffee-house 汉源汇 at 374 Shaanxi Road South.

Seated between Shanghai-born US-based writer 薛海翔 Xue Haixiang and a ceaselessly belching young man, I immediately felt the peculiar mix of aesthetic appreciation and laid back familiarity, which, according to Chen Cun, characterises Shanghai of recent years.

Displaying his passion for the city in both word and manner, Chen Cun remarked several times upon the liveliness and aesthetic lushness of Shanghai as well as its capacity for accommodating people from very different walks of life, not least a multitude of writers and artist. Apart from his short stories, Chen Cun is famous for being among the first in China to seriously promote online fiction (see Michel Hockx recent book Internet Literature in China for details), and under the name of 老鼠 (Mouse), Yu Jun is an active member of his literary online community Minority Vegetable Garden (小众菜园).

Quite a few questions from the audience centred on Yu Jun’s novel Red Light District (红灯区), about the hidden brothel quarters of Shanghai. Several local readers confessed their surprise at discovering that such areas existed within the boundaries of their own city. Others had, from the title, expected a novel about the Cultural Revolution (in China, yellow is the colour usually associated with sexual promiscuity, while red is the colour of luck and the Communist Party among other things, and red lamps especially are associated with the revolutionary opera Legend of the Red Lantern 红灯记).

(All photographs by Astrid Møller-Olsen, Shanghai 2017)

Between Occident and Orient: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In Tasman Ile’s (Alan Palamountain) novel Shanghai Nights, published by the author in 1929 (), the metropolis’ status as a gateway between east and west is portrayed through the metaphor of a split-up household: For once the seductive/destructive power of Shanghai is not only played out in the stereotypical romantic relationship between a Chinese woman and a European or American man. Rather it is the union of a wealthy Chinese merchant and an impoverished British woman, which produces the ethnically mixed offspring that is Shanghai.

Alas, far from resulting in harmony between the Occident and the Orient, the daughter despises both her parents: “Her feelings were then double-barreled – scorn for her mother for having married a Chinese; hate of her father for being one.” (36)

Not surprisingly, she is herself the victim of the same cultural logic, which makes it impossible for her to accept her parents. Unable to bridge the two cultural spheres of her parents, she fails to belong to either side: “a girl upon the world who from her birthday wore a double yoke – unwanted by the Occident; despised by the Orient.” (37)

Zhang Ailing’s (张爱玲) ‘Aloeswood Incense’ (沉香屑·第一炉香) is another example of how the traditional motif of the seductive/destructive metropolis is transposed and complexified. In this short story, first published in 1943, the Shanghainese protagonist develops a taste for Hong Kong high society and falls in love with the dashing ‘mixed-blood’ playboy, George Qiao.

Here, in contrast to Shanghai Nights, being poly-ethnic seems desirable as witnessed by the unsurpassed popularity of George’s sister: “This was Zhou Jijie, peerless among the party girls of Hong Kong’s younger set. Her genealogy was said to be very complicated; it included, at the minimum, Arab, Negro, Indian, Indonesian, and Portuguese blood, with only a dash of Chinese.” (Zhang 2006: 38, translated by Karen S. Kingsbury)

Yet the practical problems facing these jet-setters, as a result of cultural agoraphobia and plain racism, are the same: “We can’t marry Chinese – we’ve got foreign-style educations, so we don’t fit in with the pure Chinese types. We can’t marry a foreigner, either – have you seen any whites here who aren’t deeply influenced by race concepts?” (ibid. 44)

Though Ile’s novel quickly descends into a cliché narrative of the Shanghai seductress, these two stories never the less add an interesting multiethnic perspective to the cosmopolitan status of Shanghai and Hong Kong, reminding their readers that what we embrace today as multiculturalism was often a carefully managed coexistence of separate groups with difficult lives in store for the few who transgressed the cultural boundaries.

Straight Baby Talk: Children of Shanghai’s International Settlement

In the 1920s Shanghai was divided into three administrative zones: The International settlement 公共租界 around Suzhou creek and along the north bank of the Huangpu, the French Concession 法租界 inland from the South end of the Bund and the Chinese old walled city 老城厢 on the South West bank of Huangpu jiang.

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In the international settlement, three of the largest groups of foreign residents (along with the Portuguese and after 1922 the Russians) were the Japanese, the British and the American. The children of these families were sometimes thrown together, if not through the urbane internationalism of their parents (despite Shanghai’s cosmopolitan image, racial prejudice was still prevalent), then due simply to physical proximity.

41dgiq8docl-_sx343_bo1204203200_In the satirical tidbits of American journalist Elsie McCormick’s The Unexpurgated Diary of a Shanghai Baby from 1927, we see the ‘Paris of the Orient’ through the eyes of an American toddler. Most of the baby’s revealing observations satirize the foreign settlers’ ignorance of everything beyond their own small social sphere (including the everyday life of their own child). The baby itself has an even more limited social life: Apart from its amah, its only social intercourse is a distance aquantainship with a Japanese baby – perambulators that pass in the night… One might compare the baby’s mix of awe and resentment towards the ‘fresh Jap baby’ to the American attitude to the growing Japanese militarism of the time:

“May ninth

Went to Hongkew Park and saw fresh Jap baby wearing white apron on top of kimono and little flat red hat on head. Silly getup. Jap famility excited because baby could step alone. Awfully stuck on itself. Have decided not to throw wooden elephant, as didn’t know Jap baby could walk.” 61

In a much later novel by Japanese born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, we likewise view 1920s Shanghai through the eyes of two children of the international settlement. This time, the two neighbour kids, one British the other Japanese, are both equally cut off from the world outside the settlement:

“I for one was absolutely forbidden to enter the Chinese areas of the city, and as far as I know, Akira’s parents were no less strict on the matter. Out there, we were told, lay all matter of ghastly diseases, filth and evil men.” (When We Were Orphans, 2000: 54)

shanghai_municipality_flagSeen through the eyes of its (fictional) younger inhabitants, the international community of 1920s’ Shanghai reveals itself to be not so much decadent and cosmopolitan as suffering from ineffectual self isolation and quite a lot of prudish village atmosphere. If the settlement was itself a little ethnically confused (witness the municipal flag), the important part was that it was not Chinese. The arbitrariness and impotence of these lines drawn in the sand become humourously apparent when narrated from a child’s perspective. After reading quite a lot of literary descriptions of Shanghai as “the adventurers’ paradise” towards the undoing of all good men and women, it is quite liberating to see that image messed up a bit.2079718218_d736b7b10c_b

Finally, should you wish to discover the real Shanghai outside your own comfort zone, I recommend the strategy of this baby flâneur:

“April twentieth

Went out this morning with amah and wooden elephant. Elephant very nice to bite tooth on, but always falling out of perambulator into street. Amah kind about picking it up and giving it back to me. Know taste of every street in Shanghai.” 25

Traveling to Hong Kong with imaginary tram

ding_ding_tram_on_hennessy_road_in_hong_kong“With a number of twists and turns, the tram skirts Victoria Park and the Tin Hau Temple (one of Hong Kong’s oldest) on its way to North Point, Quarry Bay, and Shau Kei Wan at the eastern tip of the island. The ride is convenient, if not comfortable, and the panorama of buildings and people moving by in slow motion gives one the feeling of travelling backward through time – a nostalgic antidote for the stomach-churning, competitive pace of Central Business District.”

This is how literary scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee describes a ride on the Hong Kong tram (established in 1904 nicknamed the Ding Ding 叮叮) in his highly enjoyable introduction to Hong Kong history, culture and literature City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong. The idea that the pace of transportation itself, rather than the appearance of the tram cars which have changed a lot over the past 100 years, induces a sense of, and longing for, the past is fascinating.

Reading about nostalgia in Shanghai, it seems to me that the past is often evoked by imagery (think of all the reprints of old photographs, picture postcards, commercial posters), sometimes by audio (1930s jazz) and less commonly but very potently by smell (imported perfumes, hair oil, coffee). But thinking about pace should prove very interesting indeed, though not a simple case of then=slow, now=fast I should imagine.

For me, planning my first ever visit to Hong Kong, Lee’s narrative tram ride is a much more effective point of entry into unknown territory than any map would be. It reminds me of Michel de Certeau’s distinction between the two dimensional, ‘readable’ city space seen from above and the city space you ‘enunce’ when you walk its streets (‘Walking in the City’ in The Practice of Everyday Life). Perhaps the tram ride is somewhere in between: From the second story of a tram, you see watch the streets unfold beneath and before you, slightly elevated from the hustle and jostle, yet unable to see the whole picture as your line of vision in tantalizingly blocked by buildings, street signs and fellow passengers.

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Would you like another ride? Take a Hong Kong tram from 1970s or  2015. South China Morning Post has made a history of the Hong Kong tram, but here you have to imagine the pace from still photos. In Shanghai, trams were in service 1908-1970s, then, in 2010, the Zhangjian/Translohr monorail trams were introduced. Some of these videos are really home videos, which just goes to show that there are still a lot of tram enthusiasts (and nostalgics) out there. (Quite a few of the are here: www.hktramstation.com)

A little closer to (my) home, there were trams in Aarhus untill 1971 and in Copenhagen untill 1972 while Stockholm still has a few (lovely old footage complete with very nostalgic song hits).

Dying in Shanghai

Both Mao Dun’s canonical Shanghai novel 子夜 from 1933, translated as Midnight by Hsu Meng-hsiung, and Chen Danyan’s 成为和平饭店 from 2012, translated by Liu Haiming as The Peace Hotel, begin with an old man dying.

img_25361In Midnight the head of the Wu family, a pious country gentleman, expires on his very first day in Shanghai from sheer shock of its depravity. The city itself seems to him monstrous, while at the same time curiously ephemeral, and intent upon wrecking moral havoc on all who enter: “Good heavens! the towering skyscrapers, their countless lighted windows gleaming like eyes of devils, seemed to be rushing down on him like an avalanche at one moment and vanishing the next.” (15)

waitan-40Signifying the quick demise of old traditions and values in the new world of the 1930s, with its unpredictable civil war and its extreme financial instability, the scene is set for a dramatization of a historical changes in China. The natural stage for such a scene is Shanghai, enabling professor Yu-ting, when a young lady asks him to describe contemporary society, to answer:

“It’s a tall order your question. But you can find the answer in the next room. There you have the successful financier and a captain of industry. That little drawing-room is Chinese society in miniature [中国社会的缩影].”
“But there is also a pious old man – a believer in the Book of Rewards and Punishments [太上感应篇].”
“Yes, but the old man is – he’s dying fast.” (29)

waitan-18The dead man in Chen Danyan’s story (though true to a certain type of character in recent Shanghai history, being a dispossessed factory owner with children educated abroad) is more important for the sense of emotional loss his death induces. The loss of one personal version of the past.

Though saturated with nostalgia, the novel acknowledges that the object of nostalgia is itself elusive and highly subjective. To the dead man and his mourning family, the Peace Hotel witnessed the transformation of their family fortunes as the place where capitalists were to hand over their ill-gotten gains during the five antis campaign in 1952. To other characters in the novel, it signifies the colonial splendor of the 1930s, the international ties of socialism in the 1970s or the first glimpses of the dawning Shanghai nostalgia craze of the 1990s.

Waitan (24).JPGChen Danyan’s somewhat eclectic “non-fiction novel” is a testament to the plurality of personal and emotional ties to the Shanghai of yore as well as to one of its most spectacular iconic spaces, the Peace Hotel: “Regret for it’s being ‘unlike how it was in the past’ welled up inside me, yet, interestingly; I found it hard to pin down the ‘past.’ The people I had interviewed and I myself couldn’t help talking about the hotel’s past, which often meant our respective first encounter with it.” (252)

Written 80 years apart, the two novels convey an image of Shanghai as a city of tremendous change tinted with loss. For those of you feeling nostalgic, Christian Henriot and co.’s amazing Virtual Shanghai project with photographs from the late 19th century till today is always worth a visit. .

Stockholm Dreaming China

800px-veterinc3a4rhc3b6gskolan_2011aEarlier this month, I attended the conference Exploring the China Dream at Stockholm University – glorious good fun including more  inspiring and informative presentations than I can mention here, so just a few samples:

At the panel on film and visual culture chaired by eminent organizer Elena Pollacchi, Prof. Paola Voci introduced us to different types of virtual soft power with hilarious and scary examples of short internet films like this one (》低头人生《 about what can happen to people who live with their heads glued to small screens).

Prof. Irmy Schweiger chaired my panel on dreams in literature, in which Martin Winter (who is much quicker on the keyboard than I am and has already blogged about it here and  here) read us a poem by Xu Jiang and talked about his translations of Yi Sha’s dream inspired poetry. It reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams as well as Nietzsche’s argument in The Birth of Tragedy that good art combines the Apollonian act of dreaming with Dionysian drunkenness.

jorge_luis_borgesMy own presentation was a comparison of the dreamscapes in two short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and Can Xue. I talked about writing as a kind of literary incubation, the dream as a space of transgression/multiplication/splitting of the individual, and the Zhuangzi-like uncertainty about the reversible relationship between dreamer and dreamed pervading both stories. (Read my abstract here)

126250099The conference convinced me that, even if the official China Dream campaign seeks to promote the kind of dream that pretends to look forward while really looking back (not unlike Trump’s rhetoric of “making America great again,” or the cultural conservatism of European neo-nationalisms), there exists an undercurrent of uncontrollable visual and literary dreams, which move in many direction at once, expressing anything from sharp political criticism to plain individual confusedness to aesthetic and existential curiosity.

 

 

Heritage and Memory in Copenhagen: 8th International ADI conference

What makes certain practices and sites cultural heritage? This week I took part in a very interesting panel on ‘Heritagizing Asia: The politics of time and space in Asian cities’, part of this year’s Asian Dynamics Initiative international conference in Copenhagen.

salamanca_-_patrimonio_de_la_humanidad_-_world_heritageVietnam scholar and Professor of anthropology, Oscar Salemink came up with the idea of using the verb form of the word heritage – heritagization as a process rather than something which is merely there to be recognised and preserved. As it came out in our discussions, heritagization seems to be quite a complex process of simultaneous construction and selective erasure, taking place from the present cultural political context, directed towards the past, for preservation into the future.

Several interesting and thought-provoking examples of ambiguous and problematic issues of heritage came out during the ten presentations. Anthropologists Bente Wolff and Caroline Lillelund, who talked about the local reactions to the restoration of Danish colonial buildings in India, touched upon an interesting if unintentional effect of heritage preservation: The preservation of the empty space surrounding a heritage building, which seemed to be even more treasured by the local populace. If certain practices can be recognized as intangible cultural heritage that needs to be preserved, can empty space as room for such practices also be included?

12304183263_c248552c90_bUrban geographer, Rishika Mukhopadhyay described how the idol makers of Kumartuli became the victims of their own heritagization, when their workshops were demolished in order to create a more suitable site for their heritage craft. Apart from the plight of the craftsmen now having lived in ‘temporary’ exile from their homes for more than six years, this understanding of heritage as something that can be contained and detached from its spatio-temporal context, acutely problematizes the distinction between material and intangible heritage.

Professor of Modern China Studies, Marina Svensson’s paper about the development of Nanluoguxiang 南锣鼓巷 and the creation as well as commercialization of heritage neighbourhoods in Beijing reminded us to transgress the visual bias and include more senses when engaging in cultural research.

taipei_101_from_afarMy own presentation dealt with the relation between memory and heritage. I read Zhu Tianxin’s 朱天心 novella ‘Old Capital’ 古都 from this perspective, discovering that in the instance of this fictional investigation of Taipei, the notion of heritage preservation detached from lived experience could be as problematic as heritage destruction. In this work, preservation as a nostalgic project that excludes complicated or painful memories risk removing urban heritage from the citizens, producing alienation rather than a sense of belonging.

Lena Scheen on Shanghai myths

The Bund, Shanghai, 1880

This August Assistant Professor Lena Scheen of NYU Shanghai visited Copenhagen to talk about Shanghai. One of her most interesting points were to do with the narratives involved in producing the image of Shanghai as a new and vibrant global city.

Scheen identified two myths concerning the origins of Shanghai city. One has it that Shanghai was nothing but a small fishing village until the British settled there 160 years ago. In reality Shanghai had been an important city for Chinese trade for centuries, but this narrative represents Shanghai as a young city, cosmopolitan from the very beginning.

Manhattan, New York, ca. 1931

The second myth has to do with the so-called ‘Pudong Miracle’. In 1993 Pudong became a special economic zone, and the radical transformation of its cityscape began. Scheen explained how highrise landscapes were originally the result of limited space for urban expansion on a horizontal level (such as on Manhattan Island in the 1920s), and only later became symbols of the global city. But in Shanghai it was the other way around.

Pudong, Shanghai, today

When the Pudong skyline was begun in the 1990s, 80% of the buildings were empty. The strategy was criticized for constructing a mere facade, for trying to build the shell of a global business metropolis and then hope vainly that the shell would fill out itself. The surprising thing is that it worked.

As with the fishing village myth, this narrative claims that Pudong was just empty countryside before the ‘miracle’. It ignores that at least 52.000 households were moved in order for the impressive new skyline to take form.

In her book Shanghai Literary Imaginings, Scheen traces both these myths through various works of fiction about Shanghai. Among other things, she finds that real memories of pre-1990s Pudong as a residential area, and myths of its ‘miracle’ creation can live happily – if contradictory – side by side in Shanghai people’s understanding of their city.

For more wondeful images and maps of old Shanghai visit Virtual Shanghai.