Transpacific Attachments: Sex Work, Media
Networks, and Affective Histories of Chineseness

By Lily Wong

Reviewed by Sijia Yao
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2018)

Lily Wong, Transpacific Attachments: Sex Work, Media Networks, and Affective Histories of Chineseness New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. vii-xiv + 229 pp. ISBN: 978-0-231-18338-3 (Cloth $60.00); ISBN: 978-0-231-54488-7 (E-book $59.99)

Intimately bound up with issues of affect, gender, race, geopolitics, politics, ethics, and modernity, the figure of the sex worker can be a poignant, complex, and defiant signifier in literature, film, and new media. Lily Wong’s new study takes a transpacific perspective on the sex worker and Chineseness, probing deeply beneath the discursive surface of this signifier and its history from the early twentieth century to the present. Wong’s Transpacific Attachments: Sex Work, Media Networks, and Affective Histories of Chineseness “identifies shifting formations of ‘Chinese’ attachments, or ‘Chineseness,’ through depictions of the sex worker in popular media” on both sides of the Pacific (6). Wong adopts the transpacific paradigm from Yunte Huang’s Transpacific Imagination to delineate the enduring features and persistent malleability of “Chineseness” in the oceanic framework. She also responds to Jing Tsu’s call to explore the understudied space between national or regional boundaries. Responding as well to the Sinophone critical interventions of Shu-mei Shih and David Der-wei Wang against Sino-centricism and the hegemonic narrative of Chineseness and its national literature, Wong theorizes a transcultural imagined Chinese community through analyses of five cases in popular Sinophone media. Drawing on a broad range of theories of affect, emotion, Sinophone studies, media studies, and cultural studies, Wong undertakes close readings of these cases, contextualizing, historicizing, and interpreting their reproduction, circulation, and reception.

The book is composed of an introduction and three parts. Parts I and II contain two chapters each, and Part III has one chapter and a coda. The three parts cover three historical intervals, respectively: imperialism/anti-imperialism in the early twentieth century; the Cold War era; and the contemporary global neoliberal order. Like Haiyan Lee in her Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950, Wong historicizes and politicizes emotion and affect, which are usually understood as private rather than public. Building on the work of Lee, Lisa Rofel, and others, Wong tailors Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling” framework to address three affective structures associated with each part of the book: “Pacific Crossing,” “Sinophonic,” and “Dwelling” (17).

Part I begins with an exploration of early Asian American literature. Chapter 1 unpacks the transnational belonging and connectedness in Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance and the first U.S. Chinatown poetry anthology, Songs of Gold Mountain. “Pacific Crossing” here indicates a mode of transgression that destabilizes concepts like “Asian/American,” to use David Palumbo-Liu’s critical terminology. Chapter 2, under the title of “Over My Dead Body: Melodramatic Crossings of Anna May Wong and Ruan Lingyu,” is innovatively structured.[1] The juxtaposition between Anna May Wong’s (the first Chinese American actress) and Ruan Lingyu’s (the Shanghai movie star) portrayals of prostitutes leads Lily Wong to some productive and provocative theorizing on the relationships among sexuality, race, emotional excess, and national identity. She forcefully argues that Anna May Wong’s murderous Chinese prostitute in the 1932 Hollywood blockbuster Shanghai Express embodies Anglo-American imperialist discourse; Ruan Lingyu’s Madonna-whore heroine in the 1934 classic The Goddess, on the other hand, ironically echoes the imperialist’s narrative—that is, the degraded Chinese national character in need of reform.

Contextualizing the two prostitute figures, as well as the reception histories of both films, Wong argues that the two sex worker figures generate national fervor and construct images of national character in their respective countries. Further developing the argument, she illustrates the surprising counter effect of the heroines’ excessive emotion, which destabilizes or suspends their supposed nationalistic use value. Wong identifies national paradoxes in the imperialist/anti-imperialist system through the cinematic figures of women on the silver screen as well as off screen. While one can appreciate and concur with her frequently insightful (and occasionally brilliant) interpretations, this reviewer found some of Wong’s assertions—such as her framing of the goddess as the product of the “encroachment of global capital”—less convincing than others (62). Considering that the business of prostitution or courtesanship certainly existed and prospered in premodern Chinese societies, Wong’s claim that Ruan’s prostitute “goddess” is a victim or result of western economic influences in modern China seems a bit of a stretch. I had similar concerns while reading Part III, which takes up the interaction between sex labor and contemporary global neoliberalism.

Part II shifts from China-US Pacific crossings to Sinophonic liaisons across the Taiwan Strait. Wong sees the figure of the prostitute in Hong Kong or Taiwan metamorphosing into a defiant icon that rejects the notion of China (broadly conceived as either the PRC/mainland China or ROC/ Taiwan) as a national component in the Cold War era. In chapter 3, Wong employs a concept of her own coining—“Sinophonic liaisons,” which “embraces infidelities toward cultural and historical orthodoxy” (102)—to link the Sinophone to queerness in her analysis of the courtesan figure Ainu in the Shaw Brothers’ films Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) and its 1984 remake, Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan (1984). Moving from (disturbing) the concept of motherland to that of the mother-tongue, chapter 4 centers on the “phone” in “Sinophone” to demonstrate how Wang Zhenhe’s novel, Rose, Rose, I love You (1984) rejects univocal calls for national or cultural authenticity.

Part III is comprised of chapter 5 and a Coda, both of which refer to the concept of “dwelling.” Chapter 5 expands the previous chapter’s focus on Sinophonic defiance, broadened to incorporate sex work with a focus on the heroine who uses her body to dwell in Taiwan or the United States. Here, Wong juxtaposes a feature film, The Fourth Portrait (2010), with the documentary Seeking Asian Female (2012) to show the ways in which transnational intimacies can erode interest in Sino-centricism and neoliberal desire. Via a rigorous theorizing of cultural phenomena, Wong defamiliarizes such concepts as “home, kinship, affective labor,” and “Chinese native” crystalized in the popular media she analyzes. Structurally, an additional chapter on the fascinating concept of “dwelling” would have better balanced Part III, vis-à-vis the previous two-chapter sections.

Leo Ou-fan Lee in his book Shanghai Modern argues for the metaphorical significance of the female figure in modern Chinese literature.[2] Wong demonstrates that the prostitute, a recurring and compelling female image in the past century, has carried more complex meaning and centrifugal force than has been acknowledged. Drawing on and contributing to the growing fields of Sinophone studies and transpacific studies, Lily Wong’s Transpacific Attachments begins to redress the lack of attention to sex workers in Chinese cultural production, with significant intervention into the notion of “Chineseness” as well. I find this book engaging, inspiring, and thought-provoking. The book’s greatest accomplishments are its transpacific perspective, the focus on the subject of the sex worker, and its various theoretical approaches to lesser-known works across a broad historical span. As a cover blurb from Andrea Bachner states, this book “effectively infuses Sinophone studies with new theoretical energy.” Wong’s familiarity with texts, contexts, and theories makes for a systematic and invigorating study of “Chineseness” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This book is destined to be an important resource and reference for anyone, whether in academia or not, interested in the aforementioned topics.

Sijia Yao
University of Nebraska, Lincoln


[1] There has been abundant scholarship on Anna May Wong and Ruan Lingyu. Yiman Wang’s essay “Anna May Wong: A Border-Crossing ‘Minor’ Star Mediating Performance” in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas (2, no. 2, 2008) is perhaps the most relevant reference. Yingjin Zhang’s well-known article “Prostitution and Urban Imagination: Negotiating the Public and Private in Chinese Films of the 1930s” in Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922-1943 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) uses a similar approach to connect Ruan Lingyu’s presentation of a metropolitan prostitute to the public intervention and social regulation in the republican years. Yet, Wong’s chapter is the first to compare these two important texts as well as the two metaphorical actresses.

[2] Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).