Sinophone Malaysian Literature:
Not Made in China

By Alison M. Groppe

Reviewed by Tzu-hui Celina Hung
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2016)

Alison M. Groppe, Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China. Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2013. x + 325p. ISBN: 9781604978551. $114.99 (cloth); $8.99 to $39.99 (e-book).

Alison M. Groppe, Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2013. x + 325p. ISBN: 9781604978551. $114.99 (cloth); $8.99 to $39.99 (e-book).

Nearly a decade has passed since the publication of Shu-mei Shih’s trailblazing Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific (2007). In both English- and Chinese-language scholarship, the ensuing waves of interest in and debate over the use of Sinophone studies as a critique of the nation- and lineage-based narratives of modern Chinese studies have, so far, yielded a welcome multidisciplinary network outside Mainland China.[1] For literature emerging from global huayu (華語)-speaking circles, this development also occasioned a long overdue breakthrough. Although Chinese-language writings rooted in multiethnic Southeast Asian history have witnessed a steady flourish since the 1990s—primarily through the plowing and tilling of writers and scholars based in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore—they had not been systematically analyzed in English. This recently changed, when literary imaginations of the South Seas entered several article- and book-length publications on both sides of the Pacific.[2] From this chorus of intellectual responses appears Alison Groppe’s Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China. This is the first English-language monograph devoted exclusively to Chinese-language writings hailing from Malaysia, the literary stronghold of huayu-speaking Southeast Asia. It is a timely and lucid reference work on the vibrant Sinophone Malaysian literary world, its intellectual history, aesthetic practices, and intersecting literary genealogies.

The introductory chapter draws on the works of Salman Rushdie, Stuart Hall, and Chow Tse-Tsung to characterize the intermediate position of the group of contemporary Malaysia-born, Chinese-language writers of Chinese descent under examination (2, 19–20). Groppe stresses that these writers, although marginalized by both the bumiputraism of postcolonial Malaysian national literature and the landlocked discipline of Chinese literature practiced thus far, have turned inhospitable conditions into a fertile territory of double traditions.[3] Basing her textual analys­is on how these writers craft literary strategies from this unique positioning, she proposes to offer insights into both the problematic of Chineseness and the identity-forming effect of the writers’ intricate affiliations with varied ethnolinguistic and nationalist expectations, which are often at odds. For Groppe, the Sinophone approach here serves not to prescribe “language or point of origin,” but to facilitate an understanding of what Tee Kim Tong, following Itamar Even-Zohar, calls an evolving “literary polysystem,” and through this, to carry out what Shu-mei Shih calls a “multi-directional critique” (in Groppe, 12–13).

Chapter 2 outlines the nexus of historical contexts and cultural politics in British Malaya, post-independence Malaysia, China, and Taiwan that informs the development of Sinophone Malaysian literature. Groppe holds that although local Chinese-descended communities have published in languages like Baba Malay, English, and classical Chinese, it is writings in vernacular Chinese (白話) that have constituted the primary arena of debate with regard to questions of Chinese influence and Chinese identity. Referencing Fang Xiu, Wong Sengtong, Tee Kim Tong, and Sharon Carstens, Groppe outlines how vernacular writings “sprouted,” “leafed,” and “flowered” locally through two important institutional channels already in place in the late nineteenth century—Chinese-language schools and the literary supplements of Sinophone newspapers (30, 34). In this chapter, the parallel between literary history and major sociopolitical changes, as well as the border-crossing nature of both, is noteworthy. Along a chronology of massive shifts from colonial to postcolonial eras, Groppe maps out important debates surrounding the orientation and socio-aesthetic goals of Sinophone Malaysian literature. Key issues addressed include: how, in the first half of the twentieth century, writers responded to the winds of China’s modernization, literary revolution, and leftist ideologies; how concepts of Nanyang literature, Malayan literature, and war-resistance literature took turns shaping intellectual debates regarding the practices of localization and diasporic patriotism in the 1930s; how realist and modernist aesthetics competed as means of expressing the Sinophone experience amid the tumult of communist insurrection, merdeka (independence), postcolonial ethnic conflicts, and the ensuing Malay primacy and its national policies; how Sinophone Malaysian literature has subsequently engaged in what Hobsbawm and Ranger call the “invention of tradition” and how, in some cases, it “hypostatized” signs of Chinese culture for self-valorization (45–47); how the postwar educational passage to Taiwan helped support an important diasporic contingent—if not all—of Sinophone Malaysian writers prior to China’s resurgent influence in the 1980s; and lastly, how issues of anthologization and canonization emerged alongside literary awards and criticism in the 1990s.

Chapter 3 revisits the views of literary critics on the challenges faced by Sinophone Southeast Asian writers. One such challenge involves articulating the cultural sensibility of southern Chinese topolects through a written Chinese system traditionally more conducive to that of northern Mandarin. Groppe first surveys the realist responses from earlier Sinophone Malayan writers, including Miao Xiu, Tie Kang, and Zhao Rong, who sought to insert the colors and sounds of colloquialism and foreign idioms into the standard written language. Then, as a comparison, she recounts the criticism Ng Kim Chew 黃錦樹 developed in the 1990s. Ng, in reading Wang Anyi’s comparison of Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese uses of literary language, advises Sinophone Malaysian writers to avoid conscription by the Chinese/zhongwen (中文) textual tradition; indeed, he encourages them to cultivate a Sinophone/huawen (華文) sensibility beyond narrow phonetic-based transliteration. Groppe sees the value of Ng’s criticism, but also the problems associated with it. In her view, not only does Ng’s zeal to expel the Chinese aesthetic tradition expose his own anxiety over its haunting power, but, in emphasizing Wang’s observation that Mainland Chinese fiction displays greater unison between writing and speech, he also inadvertently joins the former in advocating for a mode of speech-based writing that he himself criticized (84, 85, 87). In concluding the chapter, Groppe invokes Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “minor literature” to describe this challenging Sinophone project as one striving to “realize in written Mandarin a cultural identification that would seem to resist realization in that language” (96).

The next four chapters offer detailed analyses, arranged by author and theme, of a spectrum of contemporary Sinophone Malaysian literary practices. Chapter 4 discusses Ng Kim Chew’s short stories, in which the common trope of quests, or the search for a missing person from China, generates questions about cultural identities with satiric, iconoclastic effects. In Groppe’s reading, Ng draws on legendary historical figures to construct postmodern parodies in order to advance a critical agenda. The historical “legends” in question are, first, the eminent sojourning writer Yu Dafu 郁達夫, whose posthumous presence has long overshadowed the Sinophone Malaysian literary imagination, and second, the Ming-dynasty maritime general Zheng He 鄭和. Ng’s agenda here is to problematize Sinophone Southeast Asian writers’ necrophilic obsession with Chineseness, on the one hand, and their concurrent effort to give birth to a localized literary imagination, on the other. Read alongside Ng’s own marginalization and creative rebelliousness as a writer in the shadow of Chinese literary tradition, these stories impart the idea that Sinophone Malaysian identity is always a work in progress.

In contrast to this bold challenge to literary genealogy, Chapter 5 traces a tone of nostalgia—routed through the cultural vestiges of Republican Shanghai, pre-1997 Hong Kong, and Taiwan—which underlies the “imagined community” in the short fiction of Kuala Lumpur-born writer Li Tianbao 李天葆 and in the cinema of Kuching-born, Taiwan-based, film director Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮. Readers will find this chapter refreshing for its exploration of the soundscape and cinemascape of shidai qu 時代曲 (Mandarin pop of the 1930s through the 1960s) in the Sinophone Pacific, as well as the intertextual flows that result. Of Li Tianbao’s “intertextual linkages,” Groppe goes beyond the usual interpretation, which traces their origin to Zhang Ailing; by adding Han Bangqing and Bai Xianyong to Li’s literary map, she presents instead examples of a “minor literary tradition” that connect various southern writers (154). Tsai’s transnational cinemascape is a parallel example of these Sinophone linkages. He grew up in Kuching with memories of movies made by the Shaw Brothers and Cathay Studios. As Sinophone cinema and other pop culture productions travel south and take root in the South Seas, Groppe argues, they eventually find ways to reappear in Tsai’s films, with a patina effect.

Both Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 address the issue of memory work. Groppe begins the former chapter with a brief review of Li Yongping’s 李永平 oft-quoted Sinophilia, best exemplified in Chronicles of Jiling (吉陵春秋) through his “pure” and “unlocatable” “Chinese” literary form, as described by scholars such as Kuei-fen Chiu, Jing Tsu, and David Der-wei Wang (in Groppe 188—191). The chapter’s primary aim, however, is to examine the self-reflexive dimension of Li’s more recent work, The Snow Falls in Clouds (雨雪霏霏), a fictionalized memoir of growing up in Borneo. Here, applying Svetlana Boym’s notion of “reflective nostalgia,” Groppe finds cathartic value in the way Li’s memory narrative facilitates his reconciliation with the idea of home, especially with reference to the Hakka migration, Japanese military occupation, and communist insurgency (194). This is also reflected in Li’s conversational device of pairing up an older, introspective male narrator (Li Yongping) with an intellectually precocious young girl (Zhu Ling). Not only is Li’s “Chinese” identity revealed to be “a counterresponse to the value hierarchy under British colonialism” rather than a straightforward representation of homesickness, the act of storytelling and “home” writing further betrays the narrator’s need, as an exilic drifter in Taipei, for confession (203).

Individual memory assumes a collective and more explicitly political function in Chapter 7. Here Groppe studies the short stories of Li Yongping, Ng Kim Chew, Zhang Guixing 張貴興, and Li Zishu 黎紫書, which depict ordinary people remembering their family or friends involved in the communist insurrections (1948–1960). She argues that the kaleidoscopic ways in which these muffled traumas are relayed and reconstructed in hindsight by the fictional characters make room for an unorthodox engagement with Malaysia’s official history—a narrative practice John Bodnar calls “vernacular expressions” (235). As a critique of the government’s denigration of the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP), these fictional works humanize the underground movement by revealing a disquieting range of affective experiences and conflicting views within it: Groppe shows, for example, that members of the movement were powered by idealism but also beleaguered by factionalism; that the families involved struggled to comprehend the traumatic events associated with the movement’s suppression; why the MCP’s relationship with China must be questioned; and, last but not least, how narratives of heroism often coexist with unsavory gossip and questionable memories.

In the concluding chapter, Groppe alludes to Lim Kien Ket’s seminal essay, “Why Sinophone Malaysian Literature?” (1993), and Tee Kim Tong’s more recent piece, “(Re)Mapping Sinophone Literature” (2010), to reiterate the urgency of the Sinophone approach toward Chinese-language literature outside conventional categories like Chinese and Malaysian “national” literatures. Note that in doing so, she keeps a distance from the raging debate of recent years over China’s exclusion and inclusion in Sinophone studies. Rather than adopting an either/or approach, she urges scholars to acknowledge these literary boundaries as porous but present. This recognition, she holds, necessitates a contextualized analysis of the “Sinophone repertoire” as noted by Tee (in Groppe 288). This, I would add, in turn necessitates an analysis of Sinophone sensibilities, flows, tensions, and exchanges across cultural boundaries.

Groppe’s commendable coverage of the history, literature, and identity politics relevant to the Sinophone experience in British Malaya and contemporary Malaysia allows future researchers to delve into areas yet untapped or just gaining notice. For one, Sinophone Malaysian literature’s multilingual and transnational sources of inspiration should prompt us to also consider the role of translation within this cross-cultural network. In particular, translations in the nineteenth century—of religious scriptures into Chinese and Romanized Malay by Christian missionaries, and of Chinese literary classics by Baba Chinese into Romanized Malay—suggest alternative ways of constructing this literary genealogy.[4] Although Groppe is right in noting that it is vernacular Chinese that provoked the most elaborate intellectual debates on Sinophone cultural identity, it would benefit future scholars to also consider how local practices of multilingualism and translation between linguistic and cultural conventions conditioned the negotiation of that identity. This multilingual sensibility might help to release the words “Sinophone” and “hua” (as in mahua 馬華, huayu, and huawen) from their frequently misconstrued monolingual register and unlock their comparative, analytic potential. Both, after all, are dynamic concepts, describing the give and take between intersecting geopolitical and linguistic forces, rather than mere nominatives that prescribe a linguistic or identitarian destiny.

Issues of translation aside, the modern formation of Chinese and Southeast Asian nation-states appears to be another area of contestation for the intellectual project of constructing a literary history. In writing the book, Groppe is apparently aware of the earlier common roots of literary practices underlying the postcolonial categories of Sinophone Malaysian literature and Sinophone Singaporean literature. However, what is meant by these shared roots and by the region’s geopolitical changes in the mid-twentieth century with regard to how we understand the book’s eponymous literary category perhaps begs further delineation. Furthermore, as Ng Kim Chew, Tee Kim Tong, and David Wang suggest in their more recent criticisms, the conventional scholarly reference to Fang Xiu (who considers China’s May Fourth and New Literature movements to be the start of mahua literary history) frequently presumes the established narrative of a Chinese nation-state riven by dichotomies between the old and new, imperial and republican, and classical and vernacular-cum-revolutionary literature. Consequently, much of the discussion of Sinophone Malaysian literary history has been premised on this revolutionary, ethno-nationalist subtext.[5] Although the development of localization discourse in the Sinophone Malaysian literary field has provided a conceptual alternative to understanding literary identities beyond the conventional affiliation with Mainland Chineseness and its sometimes centripetal cultural politics, even this discursive reorientation does not by itself release writers and critics from the grip of ethno-nationalist identity politics in general, Chinese or Sinophone. In this light, Groppe’s opening question, “What does it mean to be Chinese-speaking and of Chinese descent in postcolonial Malaysia?,” perhaps unleashes an even more intricate—and fraught—aspect of the role of literary criticism than the book modestly proposes (4). The relation between literature and identity is not one of straightforward causality, and a critique of Chineseness as such must also address how identity politics bear on our modes of literary criticism and vice versa.

All in all, Groppe’s monograph is a valuable addition not only to the emergent body of Sinophone studies scholarship, but also to the wider discursive arenas of comparative and world literature, where writings by Sinophone Southeast Asians have been traditionally underrepresented or subsumed under the category of Chinese literature. Both literary scholars and those broadly interested in the history of Chinese migration and global Sinophone cultures will find this work engaging and richly informative.

Tzu-hui Celina Hung
NYU Shanghai

[1] Besides the traction gained among literary scholars, varying degrees of interest can be seen in such fields as film, theater, history, and cultural studies. For example, see the edited volumes Queer Sinophone Cultures (2013), Sinophone Cinemas (2014) (transformed from a special issue in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas), and the recent conferences in Taiwan, Sinophone Onstate: New Voices and Discourses in Chinese Theater and Performance Studies (華語舞臺的新聲與複調: 華語戲劇暨表演研究新趨勢) (Oct. 2015), as well as in Hong Kong, Sinophone Hong Kong: Issues and Debates (Dec. 2015).

[2] For example, the edited volumes Global Chinese Literature: Critical Essays (2010) and Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader (2013) contain articles about and by Sinophone Malaysian writers. Monographs like Jing Tsu’s Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora (2010), E. K. Tan’s Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World (2013), and Andrea Bachner’s Beyond Sinology: Chinese Writing and the Scripts of Culture (2014) also include chapters on Sinophone Malaysian literature. Tee Kim Tong’s On Sinophone Malaysian Literature (馬來西亞華語語系文學) (Petaling Jaya: Got One Publisher Sdn Bhd, 2011) is yet another notable recent book on the subject. It was published in Chinese as an updated collection of essays he had developed over the past two decades. The newest on this list is Brian Bernards’ Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature (2015).

[3] Bumiputraism reflects a set of Malay-centered ideologies as well as economic and cultural policies adopted by the postcolonial Malaysian state, whereby the bumiputera—meaning “sons of the soil” and referring to communities comprised of ethnic Malays and those of indigenous descent—are given preferential treatment. Malaysian citizens of other backgrounds, such as Chinese and Indian, are, therefore, excluded from this designation and its perquisites.

[4] See Tan Chee-Beng, “Baba Chinese Publication in Romanized Malay,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 22 (1981): 158–193 and David Der-wei Wang, “When the Wind of the Sinophone Blows: Malaysia and Sinophone Literature” (華夷風起: 馬來西亞與華語語系文學) Sun Yat-sen Journal of Humanities 38 (2015): 1–30.

[5] See Ng Kim-chew, 文與魂與體: 論現代中國性 (Textuality, soul, and boy: on Chinese modernity) (Taipei: Maitian, 2006), 89–95; Tee Kim Tong, On Sinophone Malaysian Literature, 46–65; and David Wang, “When the Wind of the Sinophone Blows.”