My South Seas Sleeping Beauty:
A Tale of Memory and Longing

By Zhang Guixing
Tr. Valerie Jaffee

Reviewed by Pei-Yin Lin
MCLC Resource Center Publication (January 2010)

Zhang Guixing. My South Seas Sleeping Beauty:  A Tale of Memory and Longing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. pp. 216. ISBN: 978-0-231-14058-4.

Zhang Guixing. My South Seas Sleeping Beauty:
A Tale of Memory and Longing
. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. pp. 216. ISBN: 978-0-231-14058-4.

Chinese-language fiction by Malaysian Chinese writers is a understudied area in the field of modern Chinese literature, and English translation of such works are rare indeed. The publication of My South Seas Sleeping Beauty marks a momentous endeavour to introduce the opulent repertoire of modern Malaysian Chinese literature to Western readers. Through the narrator Su Qi, Zhang Guixing leads his readers into both the exotic and grotesque spectacle of the Borneo jungle and the urban life of Taipei. Because it is lighter in tone than Zhang’s other books, My South Seas Sleeping Beauty is a safe and wise choice as the first by Zhang to be translated into English.

Born in Sarawak in 1956 during the British colonial period, Zhang followed the steps of other Malaysian-born ethnic Chinese writers, such as Pan Yutong and Li Yongping, to attend university in Taiwan (1976-1980). Zhang chose to remain in Taiwan and relinquished his Malaysian nationality in 1982 (his 1983 “Scimitar, Orchid, and Revolver,” an absurd story about a Malaysian Chinese student mistaken as a robber because of his inability to speak Malay, provides hints about this nationality change). Although Zhang lives and writes in Taiwan, Borneo continues to be central to his literary imagination, a trend traceable back to his debut work, Tigers in Ambush (1980). However, it was not until Siren Song (1992), a coming-of age tale of a young Malaysian Chinese man, that the Borneo memory is treated at full length. In his three subsequent novels, Zhang’s attempt to retell the history of overseas Chinese grows clearer. The Clown Dynasty (1996), which opens with and ends in diaspora, is an allegory of the Chinese overseas in Southeast Asia. Herds of Elephants (1998) revisits the history of the Sarawak Communists through a family saga, whereas The Primate Cup (2000) examines the darkness of Chinese emigration history. In My South Seas Sleeping Beauty (2001), Zhang’s historical awareness persists, but the focus of this novel is on human nature and personal desires, with the Borneo jungle exaggeratedly eroticized to bring forth the tangled emotions and dark side of human nature.

Part I of the novel focuses on the male protagonist Su Qi’s childhood and his growing up in Borneo. The novel begins with Su Qi’s younger sister’s premature death, linked to his mother’s affair, and the ensuing strained relationship between his parents. It describes the self-indulgent life led by Su Qi’s father and his friend Lin Yuan, Su Qi’s affections for Lin’s daughter Chunxi, and Chunxi’s coma after falling from a tree house. Part II recounts Su Qi’s university life in Taipei, particularly his romance with Keyi, a university student who sings part-time in a bar. The last three chapters of this part turn to Borneo, telling of Su Qi’s father’s obsession with a teenage Dayak girl. Part III unveils Su Qi’s mother’s intention to destroy the exquisite family garden, the Brunei prince’s commitment to take care of Chunxi, and Su Qi’s split with Keyi after realizing the girl whom he truly loves is Chunxi’s twin sister Chuntian.

Throughout the novel, Su Qi’s family story is closely intertwined with the larger historical context. His father’s decision to go to Taiwan for a university education, his love for a mysterious female Communist, the presence of the British at the parties he hosts, and his sex safaris suggest the “fatherland” imagination of the
Malaysian Chinese population[1], as well as Borneo’s complex colonial history and interracial relationships. After his Communist lover is killed by the British colonial government, Su Qi’s father plots his revenge. He appears to be a fervent and altruistic communist, but in fact is “just taking advantage of the Communists’ fanaticism to satisfy his private desires and hatreds” (178).

The affair of Su Qi’s mother and the romance between Chunxi and the Brunei prince also illustrate the narrative interweaving of individual desire and colonial history. The relationship between Su Qi’s mother and the Dayak man serves as a reversal of, or even retribution for, the several sexual expeditions his father and Lin Yuan embarked on. Likewise, the remarks on Brunei are because the place “is relevant to what eventually happened to Chunxi” (31). As with Su Qi’s mother’s affair, Chunxi’s falling for the Brunei prince is a rewriting of the sleeping princess story she tells Su Qi. The story, said to be written by a British author, recounts the love between a Chinese man from the Qing dynasty and a Borneo tribal princess who goes into a deep sleep after drinking some water during her elopement with him. Yet in Su Qi’s life, it is a Taiwanese girl who falls for a Brunei prince. This gender and race reversal can be taken as a subversion of the British (colonial) discourse epitomized by the tale. Nonetheless, Chunxi’s coma suggests an unlimited deferral of Su Qi’s longing, which perhaps from the beginning is merely as dubious as his reminiscences about his sister that “grew more unreal each time” until she “came to feel like a false memory” (5).

The family garden to which Su Qi’s mother is passionately devoted serves as a simile of the rainforest in Eastern Malaysia (it does “not look too different from the Borneo jungle,” 189). Similar to his mother’s mixed feelings, Su Qi’s attitude toward his hometown, represented by the garden, is ambivalent. Su Qi’s mother is portrayed as a character with a contradictory personality. As a gardener, she can be as tender as “a nursing mother,” but she can also destroy the plants with “the mercilessness of an assassin” (10). She is “dignified as the Blessed Virgin” (3), on the one hand, and reminds Su Qi of a “putrid” and “severe” empress dowager (173, 190), on the other hand. The two opposing images of Su Qi’s mother signify Su Qi’s oscillating between topophilia and topophobia. Su Qi views Borneo as a potential “paradise on earth,” but it becomes in reality a site for “the dominion of hedonism and debauchery” (164). Although the Eden is an unattainable fantasy, Zhang maintains hope for it in the possibility of redemption and revival: Su Qi’s mother burns the garden to “create a swath of pure land” (164) and frequently sets fire to the flower beds and reads the Bible there.

Race and gender are two significant components in My South Seas Sleeping Beauty. Throughout the novel, the aboriginal Dayak women are endowed with the ability to thwart the Chinese people’s plans of revenge. For example, it is the young Dayak maids working for the Su family who help rescue the party guests during the garden fire set by Su Qi’s mother in retaliation for the guests’ licentious acts. The person who causes the death of Su Qi’s father, spoiling his plan to avenge his communist lover, is also a Dayak girl. From this perspective, My South Seas Sleeping Beauty becomes an allegorical novel touching upon the racial tensions and colonial violence in Malaysian history. Regardless of their race, female characters function as the objects of the male characters’ obsessions and desires. Lin Yuan is profoundly in love with Su Qi’s mother, though it is an unrequited relationship. Likewise, Su Qi’s father develops a love-at-first-sight infatuation for the Dayak girl, and Su Qi’s recollections of his past become inseparable from his tender feelings for Chunxi/Chuantian. Interestingly, all the women that Su Qi adores, or develops a relationship with (his mother, Chunxi/Chuntian, and Keyi), are originally from Taiwan: Su Qi’s mother settles in Borneo because of her marriage, Chunxi lives in the Brunei palace, and Chuntian moves to California when she is sixteen. Rather than concentrating on his own experience of displacement (Malaysian Chinese in Taiwan), Zhang develops gendered diasporic routes. The “South Seas” for which Su Qi has been longing is therefore not necessarily limited to the geographical Borneo, but can also be an unstable and discursive sign for Chinese diaspora, or an Odyssean yearning to return to the origins of one’s being.

One can hardly avoid issues of Chineseness in the works of Malaysian Chinese writers. An emblem of Chinese culture in this novel appears in the design of the Su family garden. For Su Qi, some of the paths resemble “the brushstrokes of Chinese characters” (190). A journalist from a gardening magazine goes further in his article by claiming the plants “are arranged in the shape of a giant Chinese character” (191). Even though Zhang may not share Li Yongping’s fascination with Chinese characters, his epic stories set in Borneo are written in a highly poetic style of Chinese. When commenting on Zhang’s series of rainforest narratives, Ng Kim-chew categorizes Zhang’s language techniques as “eroticizing (qingyu hua) and literarizing (wenyan hua) rainforests.” For Ng, also a Malaysian Chinese writer in Taiwan, Zhang’s style is an “aesthetic excess” in which history eventually ends in “self-destitution” and words
become exilic.[2] Ng’s commentary is insightful because it points out a dilemma encountered by Malaysian Chinese writers–that the more they attempt to narrate their attachment to their hometown through writing, the more they come to realize the futility of such a longing. In other words, Zhang’s linguistic superfluity becomes a tactic to offset or conceal the emptiness of his “South Seas” longing.

Zhang’s use of language can also function as a strategic expediency in the context of Taiwan’s literary production and consumption in the past two decades, a period
during which Zhang published all his major Borneo epics. After the lifting of martial law in Taiwan in 1987, cultural nationalism on the island has grown increasingly
insular and exclusive. Consequently, works containing distinctive Taiwan identification are hailed as the “authentic” mode of nativist writing. Works by Malaysian
Chinese writers in Taiwan, similar to those by second-generation Mainlander writers, are often criticized for lacking (enough) Taiwanese
flavor.[3] However, it is exactly the stylistic peculiarity and thematic “incorrectness” that become a self-fashioning hallmark for
writers such as Zhang, enabling them to negotiate their position and market niche in Taiwan’s literary scene.[4] Rather than rebuking Zhang’s style as “affectation,” I would argue that Zhang’s linguistically-dense Borneo tales can be regarded as a form of resistance against Taiwan’s parochial cultural nativism and a declaration of its symbiotic relationship with other literature produced in Taiwan. Since the turn of the
millennium, two novels (including My South Seas Sleeping Beauty) by Malaysian Chinese writers in Taiwan have been translated into English and published under the
series “Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan” by Columbia University Press.[5] This fact showcases Taiwan’s dynamic role not only in transnational Sinophone literary
production but also in the translingual circulation of such production. Nowadays, the challenge for these writers lies more in how to avoid exhausting their
characteristic South Seas narrative and remain creative rather than being merely recognized.[6] In this regard, the dual settings of this novel and the
accompanying different language styles may be seen as Zhang’s attempt at linguistic and thematic reinvention.

The stylistic heterogeneity in My South Seas Sleeping Beauty is quite obvious, and would seem to be a device employed by Zhang to highlight the disparities between
Borneo and Taipei.[7] The narrative about Borneo uses complex images and elaborate sentences to tell a tale of tangled desires and unfulfilled revenge; its highly imaginative fabrications resemble magic realism. The depiction of Taipei, by contrast, captures the comic slices of student life in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are detailed, realist depictions of the folk bars, night markets, and the coffeehouse-like Study Hall frequented by students. Su Qi’s rather humdrum student life is compensated by Zhang’s portrayal of certain eccentric characters (such as Su Qi’s roommate, who keeps a record of his masturbation) and the bohemian conversations between Keyi and Su Qi. Though the Taipei narrative is less tightly organized than the Borneo narrative and the latter dominates the novel, the two parts are interconnected by Su Qi’s longing for Chunxi and his relationship with Keyi. It is after Su Qi and Keyi’s quasi first date that Su Qi thinks about Chunxi as if he was “searching for a treasure that had been lost at the bottom of the sea for two hundred years” (102). Toward the end of the novel, Su Qi rekindles his feelings for Chuntian, with Keyi’s encouragement. Shying away from a concrete happy ending, Zhang closes the novel in Su Qi’s query “Chuntian . . . Is that you?” (206), givinng Su Qi’s longing a sense of both hope and uncertainty.

Translating a book full of extravagant use of images, intricate allusions, and encyclopaedic information about tropical fauna and flora is undoubtedly a laborious task. Valarie Jaffe has risen to the challenge by providing an elegant and extremely accessible translation. In addition to an informative translator’s preface, several strategies are used to enhance the readability and assist readers to more quickly grasp the context and theme of this novel. Footnotes (sometimes the notes are directly added to the main text, such as the mention of Bai Juyi on p. 172) help to explain most of Zhang’s textual references. On several occasions, Jaffe breaks Zhang’s lengthy sentences into shorter segments and adroitly restructures them to ensure the fluency of the English. An especially salient example is found in Jaffe’s rendering Zhang’s wordy Chinese title into two parts–“my south seas sleeping beauty” followed by a subtitle “a tale of memory and longing.” Several passages (mainly in chapters 18 and 22, which treat Su Qi’s life in Taipei) are omitted in the English translation. These unexplained abridgements are likely due to the excess of detail in the original. Though some terms could have been rendered more precisely (e.g., yuanyi may be better translated as “horticulture” than “botany” [7]; Nanyang is not necessarily “Malaysia” [59]; “music dynamics” may be more precise than “musical scale” [60]; the tigers’ genitals (nahua’er) are not fully translated [76]; twenty ping is equal to approximately sixty-six square meters [93], there is actually a song called “The Greatest Song I Ever Heard” [99]), Valarie Jaffe’s translation still delivers a high degree of accuracy and fluency. The publication of this book is concomitant with a growing interest among Western academics in Chinese-language literatures from diasporic writers, but its readership should not be limited to scholars in Chinese Studies. General readers too will likely find this novel captivating and enjoyable.

Pei-Yin Lin

University of Cambridge


[1] The Chinese word zuguo, which appears more than once in the novel, is not translated. It is, however, worth
noting that Taiwan did serve as the locus for the pursuit of “Chineseness” for Malaysian Chinese writers. The Shenzhou Poetry Society (1976-1980)
established by Malaysian students Wen Rui’an and Fang Ezhen in Taiwan is a prime example of this fervent yearning for “Chinese” culture.

[2] Ng Kim-chew, “From Personal Experience to Heart of Darkness,” in Zhang Guixing’s My South Seas Sleeping Beauty ( Taipei: Maitian, 2001), p. 259 and p. 262.

[3] Malaysian Chinese writers have long encountered a double marginalization: a less visible location on the map of
modern Chinese literature, and the exclusion of Chinese-language writing from the scope of Malaysian national literature. For those in Taiwan, a
Hoklo-centered Taiwanese nativism adds a third marginalization.

[4] Zhang once declared that having a better mastery of the Chinese language is a must if one wishes to stand out in
Taiwan’s literary field. See Pan Honghui’s “The Song of Rainforests: An Interview
with Zhang Guixing
,” Liberty Times (Feb. 21, 2001).

[5] Li Yongping’s Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles, released in 2003, is the first book by a Malaysian
Chinese writer (in Taiwan) to be published in the “Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan” series.

[6] When reading Zhang’s Herds of Elephants as a judge for a prestigious literary competition, Su Weizhen already
speculated that the author was from Eastern Malaysia. She further commented that the rainforest theme has become a déjà-vu. Even though it evokes
a sense of familiarity among readers, it confuses the author’s creative subjectivity. See Su’s “Following the Map of Memory,” in Zhang Guixing’s
Herds of Elephants (Taipei: China Times, 1998), p. 239.

[7] In an interview conducted by Pan Honghui in 2001, Zhang stated that the parts on Taiwan were finished a first
and that he had later reworked his draft. The stylistic difference remains chiefly due to the time lag. See
The Labyrinth of the Fire of Love:
An Interview with Zhang Guixing
,” Liberty Times (May 31, 2001).