Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone
Identities in the Nanyang Literary World

By E. K. Tan

Reviewed by Karen Thornber
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2013)

Book cover for Rethinking Chineseness

E. K. Tan.
Rethinkinng Chineseness:
Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World.
Amherst, NY: Cambria Press (Sinophone World Series), 2013. 262 pp.
ISBN 978-1-60497-840-7

The first English-language monograph centering on late twentieth- and early twenty-first century Sinophone Southeast Asian literature, and in particular that of Singapore and Malaysia, E. K. Tan’s interdisciplinary Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World makes important contributions to Sinophone studies, Chinese studies, and Southeast Asian Studies, as well as to scholarship on diaspora, comparative literature, and world literature. Well-written and researched, Tan’s volume focuses on the relationship among the Nanyang Chinese, their original homelands of Borneo, Malaysia, and Singapore, and their imaginary homeland of China, through the writings of Kuo Pao Kun (郭宝崑), Chang Kuei-hsing (张贵兴), and Vyvyane Loh (罗惠贤), all of whom have been neglected in English-language scholarship. Of particular concern to Tan is how, by destabilizing notions of “Chineseness,” these writers have “endeavored to reclaim a sense of belonging to the homeland” (3). Rethinking Chineseness centers on the themes of loss and displacement, discussing how and why “Chineseness as an identity category is repeatedly reconstructed in the works of Nanyang Chinese as a way to suggest broader implications of Sinophone cultures in the age of globalization” (3). Tan demonstrates how Nanyang Chinese writers use narrative to evaluate their complex and multifaceted identities.

Chapter 1—“Filling in the Blanks: War and the Inscription of a Sinophone Malayan Identity”—focuses largely on the Malaysian-American novelist and physician Vyvyane Loh’s English-language Breaking the Tongue (2004), which centers on the Japanese invasion and fall of the island of Singapore during World War Two. Claude Lim, the protagonist of Loh’s novel, is brutally tortured by the Japanese; in leaving him dangling somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, the Japanese fragment even further his already fractured identity. This problem with identity stems from the fact that Claude is aPeranakan Cina, in other words, an English-educated second-generation Sinophone subject. Claude’s father has become Anglicized, believing that adopting British mores is the only means of obtaining and securing social status. This leaves Claude’s Grandma Siok, who devotes herself to teaching him Chinese myths and classics, his only real connection to his heritage. Also important to Claude is Ling-li, a spy for the British in the war against Japan, from whom he learns the Chinese language. Claude does not, however, in so doing uncritically adopt a Chinese identity. Instead, Tan argues, he “reinvents the Chinese culture into a Sinophone Malayan one spawned by his immediate experience of the war and realization of the need for a local identity” (56). Furthermore, it is by piecing back together the trauma of his encounter with the Japanese and reconstructing the event as a therapeutic narrative that Claude develops the ability to embrace his fragmented and continually evolving identity, a “translational one that is both conceptual and situational” (59). Effectively weaving unofficial accounts into the official war narrative, Breaking the Tongue replicates in its structure the process of psychoanalytical sublimation, “a transference of libidinal drives through processes of abjection” (103).

Book cover for Breaking the Tongue bu Vyvane LohIn Chapter 1, Tan contextualizes the fall of Malaya (December 7, 1941) and even more importantly works to recuperate some of the lost narratives of the Japanese occupation of Malaya, focusing not on the narratives constructed by the British and the Australians, which to date have received most of the critical attention, but instead giving voice to Nanyang Chinese and their mechanisms of memory and memory reconstruction. He argues that the Japanese occupation triggered the creation of a new “local identity and consciousness” among the Sinophone Malay, ultimately helping them create a postcolonial Sinophone Malayan identity (102).

Whereas the first chapter of Rethinking Chineseness centers on an English-language writer, the second chapter—“Prosthesizing an Origin: Metanarratives and the Making of Sinophone Malaysian Myths”—addresses the paradox of Sinophone Malaysian literature, a corpus that employs a “major” language yet can be understood as a “minor literature,” along the lines of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Tan focuses in this chapter on the Sinophone Malaysian writers Chang Kuei-hsing and Li Zishu (黎紫书), who in his analysis have “adopted a transgressive role in order to investigate and manipulate the structural limits of language and cultural supremacy in their (re)shaping of identity, identification, and the politics of acculturation” (111). This is in part because, Tan rightly observes, although Sinophone Mayalsian literature follows Chinese Mandarin semantics, it is garnished with loan words and expressions from other “major” languages and cultures, including English and Malay, as well as from such “minor” Sinitic languages as Hokkien and Teochew. Writing, as Tan understands it, involves the “simultaneous act of possession and dispossession of the languages and cultures involved” (112).

Of particular interest to Tan is Chang Kuei-hsing’s novel Elephant Herd (群象, 1998), where Chinese identity becomes a “fluid designator,” and where Sinophone Malaysian identity is realized via the construction of myths enabled by a number of narrative strategies, including metanarratives such as metahistory and metafiction as well as inventive language. In his discussion of Elephant Herd, Tan explores the paradox of writing in Chinese. On the one hand, using the Chinese language suppresses the creativity of Malaysian writers, forcing them in many ways to dampen if not sterilize multicultural and multilingual tendencies. On the other hand, Tan sees this act of translation within a minor literature as revealing the inability of the Chinese language to translate any number of non-Chinese expressions.

Elephant Herd takes place in the tropical rainforest of Borneo, East Malaysia. The novel tells the story of two Chinese immigrant families, the Shi and the Yu, at the time of the demise of the Sarawak communist party. Casting light on the experiences of the young male protagonist and his maternal uncle, the communist leader Jiatong (via his journal), the novel touches on various aspects of colonialism, ethnic struggle, racial tension, war, and identity construction. Especially noteworthy is the young male protagonist’s connection with elephants and how the narrator of Elephant Herd draws comparisons between these animals and Sinophone Malaysians more broadly. Tan shines the spotlight on the communal tendencies of elephants, their social structure based, not unlike that of human societies, on clans and families. He also rightly notes that just as the elephants whom the characters encounter seem conscious of being separated from their homeland, so too are the Sinophone Malaysians forever aware of themselves as roaming “in a psychological wilderness brought about by immigrant history” (134). Even more important have been the atrocities inflicted on both by colonial outsiders: just as the piles of elephant skeletons the Sinophone Malaysians discover under a dried lake are the result of a British massacre, so too are the Spanish and Dutch responsible for killing tens of thousands of Malays. Ironically, however, when the Chinese and Malays battle in Kuala Lumpur, it is the Chinese who suffer the greatest losses.

Tan also gives ample attention to Chang Kuei-hsing’s literary style, and in particular his use of poetic language and metafiction, which has enabled him to challenge the seemingly restrictive nature of Chinese literary conventions. Remarking on the self-reflexivity of Chang Kuei-hsing’s oeuvre, Tan argues that his writing reflects his background as a third-generation Sinophone Malaysian with a creolized identity.Elephant Herd incorporates expressions in any number of languages, including Chinese, English, Malay, Dayak, Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Tamil, and Dutch. But Chang Kuei-hsing and his narrator do not explicitly draw attention to the diversity of languages included. Furthermore, the kind of language Chang Kuei-hsing’s metalingual structure ultimately constructs remains somewhat unclear. Regardless,Elephant Herd attempts to strategically reground the identity of Sinophone Malaysian writers, on account of their creolized environment and experiences. Transforming the homeland into a linguistic sign transcending geographical fixity, Tan argues, allows for the feeling of being at home, regardless of where one actually lives: homelessness, in other words, is the first step to feeling at home. Sinophone writings, in other words, do much more than document exile. Indeed, their linguistic fluidity constructs the sense of belonging, the “state of mind of being at home” (164).

Chapter 3—“Transcending Multiracialism: Open Culture and the Making of a Sinophone Singaporean Identity”—turns the spotlight to Singapore, and in particular that island city’s renowned playwright Kuo Pao Kun, who strived to construct a multicultural local identity even while imprisoned. Tan is particularly concerned with Kuo’s explorations, through his writing, of Singapore’s multiracial politics. Through close readings of Kuo’s multilingual play Mama Looking for Her Cat (寻找小猫的妈妈,1988) and multicultural melodrama Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (郑和的后代, 1995), Tan discusses Kuo’s promotion of “open culture.” Promoting “exchange, diversity, inventiveness, and transformation in the production of a cultural identity unique to the Singaporean experience,” open culture celebrates the intermingling of cultures beyond constraints of linguistic and racial origins (171). In contrast to the national ideology of multiracialism stratified by language policies, Kuo called on Singaporeans to build a “common culture shared by the state’s various ethnic communities on the basis of racial peace”; he believed that one of the best places to do so was in the theatre, an art form that enables Singaporeans to “transcend the compartmentalization of multiracialism” (177).

Flier for the Chinese play, Mama Looking for her CatKuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking for Her Cat, Singapore’s first multilingual play (incorporating Singapore’s four official languages of English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, as well as several Sinitic languages including Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese), is a key—albeit controversial— example of this phenomenon. The play centers on a Hokkien-speaking mother alienated in a rapidly changing Singapore; her children having adopted the official languages of Mandarin and English, the mother turns to her cat for companionship. But Mama Looking for Her Cat does not simply criticize Singapore’s multiracialism, multiculturalism, and language policies. The play also works to propel forward the nation and push its people “to imagine a common culture that transcends the compartmentalization of the country’s diverse communities while still appreciating their differences” (183). Mama Looking for Her Cat relies on what has been termed shared group multilingualism, in which the audience is comprised of individuals proficient in different languages or different combinations of languages; failure of communication is an important part not only of the play itself, but also of the audience experience.

For its part, Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral is based on the life of Admiral Zheng He, the Ming dynasty Chinese eunuch who through his decades of travel from China to Java, Sumatra, India, Ceylon, Central Asia, and Kenya embraced various cultures and religions; Kuo Pao Kun looked to Zheng He as a model for the multicultural subject, an individual who understood the potential of multiculturalism better than did Singapore’s contemporary leaders, and one who, although castrated, embraced life and exploited his rootlessness in ways that contemporary Singaporeans had yet to do. Kuo was particularly enticed by Zheng He’stranscendental identity—his ability to maintain his Islamic and Arabic faith, language, and culture, even while embracing Buddhist teachings and Han Chinese culture. And in Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral Kuo celebrates Zheng He’s finding home through mobility, through routes, not roots. Concerned with creating a cultural identity among Singaporeans, Kuo used multilingual theatre to expose the limits of multiracial policies in creating a common national culture.

The postscript of Rethinking Chineseness, titled “Exploring the Neglected Links: Sinophone Kinship,” rightly draws attention to the importance of the lateral networks connecting peoples and ideas, and in particular the great drawbacks inherent in attempting to conceive of Chinese identity as a fixed, monolithic entity. Tan calls attention to the frequent erasing of local communities, the implication that they can access the global “only by succumbing to the rules and hegemony of global superpowers” (219). Rethinking Chineseness provides a different, and welcome vision of Sinophone communities participating in global cultural production without sacrificing their “localness” to the desires both of the West and of China. Tan concludes the volume by arguing that, “the reconceptualization of the Nanyang Chinese experience as a Sinophone culture unravels the complicated relationship between the Nanyang Chinese and their ancestral culture by illuminating the significance of an articulation unmarred by a homogeneous China-centric discourse” (222). Although the articulations of the Nanyang Chinese are hardly “unmarred” by China-centric discourse, which itself is far from “homogeneous,” Tan’s larger point rings true: Sinophone subjects, wherever they might live and in whatever language they might write, can readily deconstruct essentialist concepts, avoid reproducing oppressive discourse, and create spaces for interaction and negotiation between and among numerous diverse cultures.

Rethinking Chineseness opens up numerous avenues for future scholars, who will want to look more closely at a greater variety of texts. As the field progresses, and more Southeast Asian Sinophone literature is read both in the original and in translation, the need will decrease for the type of extensive plot summaries that Tan provides, more space will be given to analysis, and questions of identity and identity formation will be incorporated with discussions of the many other concerns of Sinophone peoples. Also vital will be discussion of the multilingual nature of Southeast Asian and other literary spaces where the Sinophone is found, and the relationship of Sinophone literature with these other varied corpuses.

Karen Thornber
Harvard University