2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 160

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Beyond Chineseness: Space, Identity, and Politics in the 'Margins'

Organizer and Chair: E. K. Tan, State University of New York, Stony Brook, USA

Discussant: Jing Jing Chang, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada

For two decades, scholars such as Tu Weiming, Rey Chow and Allen Chun have transformed our understanding of the meanings and currency of “Chineseness” in today’s global setting. Their works on Chineseness as theory and practice unravel the multifaceted nature of being Chinese beyond China. Recent works by Shu-mei Shih (2007) and Kuan-hsing Chen (2010) revisit the methodological and conceptual limits of “Chineseness.” While Shih resists the cultural hegemony of Chineseness by introducing the concept of the Sinophone which debunks the misnomer of Chineseness as a unified representation of ethnic minorities in the Sinophone communities, Chen deconstructs the ethnic chauvinism latent in the concept of Chineseness by proposing the adoption of a self-reflexive deimperialization tactic in one’s scholarly works. Consisting of four interdisciplinary papers on identity politics in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, this panel engages with the marginal and complex positions of the Sinophone communities beyond China to examine the utility and problems of Chineseness as concept in such fields as anthropology, history, film and cultural studies. While the first paper problematizes genetic knowledge production about Taiwan, the second paper examines the construction of Chineseness in the postcolonial cinematic imaginary of Hong Kong. The third paper explores the multicultural status of Singapore’s Sinophone community in the play of Kuo Pao Kun, and the final paper analyses the migrant labor politics in Eric Khoo’s films. Together these papers ask the question of what a reexamination of the “margins” can offer for the rethinking of Chineseness and beyond.

Beyond “Taiwaneseness”? Genetic Inclusions and Exclusions
Jennifer A. Liu, University of Waterloo, Canada

In Asia as Method, Kuan-hsing Chen strategically places Taiwan at the center in order to draw “out the transnational dynamics of the region, allowing us to go beyond the limits of national and nationalist historiography” (2010: xii). This approach of centering the margins suggests a new path within Asian Studies. In this paper, I track how genetic knowledge production in and about Taiwan contributes to new narratives about Taiwan’s place in Asia and in the world. Specifically, some studies link Taiwan’s indigenes with an Austronesian dispersal, while others link them with a particular kind of Taiwanese identity. Both types of scientific studies play with and within notions and meanings of Taiwan and “Taiwaneseness.” Both use scientific knowledge to make their claims and rely upon a concomitant production of a specific kind of “Chineseness.” And, both draw upon ideas of originality and authenticity in ways that trouble relations between center and margins on the island and beyond. These genetic claims and projects point to the role of Taiwan as a central site of scholarly and scientific knowledge production.

War Memory and Identity Politics in Postwar Cantonese Cinema
Jing Jing Chang, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada

My presentation examines the filmic discourse of Chineseness in postwar Hong Kong cinema. For many Chinese refugees, who first came to Hong Kong to escape from the political upheavals on the mainland following WWII and the founding of the PRC, the colony was a transit place. However, it is within the colonial space of British Hong Kong where they gradually redefined their sense of being Chinese beyond the motherland. Amidst the politicized milieu of Cold War Hong Kong, it is precisely through the reconstruction of the War of Resistance against the Japanese as well as the representation of the “other” that a sense of Chineseness could be reaffirmed. The “other” in some of the postwar Cantonese social realist films, and in particular, the three war films produced by the left-leaning Cantonese film company, Zhonglian, including Blood-Stained Gold (1957), The Road (1959) and Sea (1963), was ironically not the British colonial rulers but the Japanese imperialists. While the “self” in such films is established through the representations of the heroic acts of the Chinese patriots now living in Hong Kong, the “other” is portrayed as the cowardly actions of the Japanese imperialists and their Chinese collaborators. Hong Kong remained a British colony until 1997. Yet, it is within postwar Cantonese films that the postcolonial moment arose. In this sense, postwar Cantonese filmmakers participated in the construction of an alternative Chinese identity in the colonial imaginary that gave rise to the decolonization process, albeit a cinematic one, in postwar Hong Kong.

From Mutilation to Multiculturalism: The Allegory of Zheng He’s Life in Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral
E. K. Tan, State University of New York, Stony Brook, USA

In the late 1980s, Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun embarked on a project to explore the multicultural identity of the Sinophone Singaporean subject. Kuo found the life of Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty Eunuch Admiral, fascinating because of his ability to sail across the South China Sea to establish diplomatic relations and enable cross-cultural exchange prior to Columbus. Most importantly, Kuo found the Admiral’s ability to transcend his identity of a castrated man inspiring. While preserving his Islamic faith, Arab language and culture, Zheng He, upon entering the Imperial court, embraced Buddhist teachings, Han culture, and regional cultures of his expeditions as part of his new multi-faceted identity. Zheng He’s open-mindedness towards embracing and harmonizing various cultures and religions leads Kuo to believe that there is feasibility to the practice of multiculturalism in the modern world. Zheng He’s construction of his multicultural subjectivity originates from the biopolitics of his castrated self: his body is where the power over life (the governmentality of life exemplified by his adoption of the Ming culture) and the power of life (his ability to negotiate the coexistence of multiple cultures for an alternative existence) reside. It is this aspect of Zheng He that eventually becomes a main narrative thread in Kuo’s play Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (1995). For Kuo, Zheng He is one of the earlier exemplars of a multicultural identity. Hence, in Descendants Kuo allegorizes Zheng He’s castration to initiate a rethinking of the multicultural status of the Sinophone Singaporean community.

Undocumented Multilingualism: Voicing the Foreign Worker in Contemporary Singaporean Cinema
Brian Bernards, University of Southern California, USA

The recognition of four official languages has made multilingualism an integral aspect of postcolonial Singaporean nationhood. The “official version” of multilingualism prescribes English as the “inter-ethnic” medium of communication, whereas the other three official languages are assigned to their respective ethnic domains for purposes of “transmitting cultural values.” Yet this official multilingualism is not the same as the day-to-day multilingualism on the ground, where extensive creolization continually thwarts state campaigns to keep respective languages in their properly-sanctioned spheres. This paper examines the ways that Chinese Singaporean director Eric Khoo, in his recent films No Day Off (2006) and My Magic (2008), documents unofficial processes of Singaporean multilingualism through the figure of officially “non-resident” Singaporeans. In both films, Khoo steps outside his own ethnic community to focus on the lives of migrant “foreign” workers whose status as “Singaporean” is conditional or temporary. In No Day Off, a seemingly voiceless “foreign domestic worker” from Sulawesi navigates the unintelligibility of abusive orders and insults hurled at her from off-screen by her employers in different languages. In My Magic, an alcoholic Tamil Singaporean magician exposes his body to extreme physical torture in an underground nightclub to provide for his son while mixing phrases of Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Malay, and Tamil. The two films represent a postcolonial revival of the figure of the “nameless immigrant coolie” upon which the island-state is built, a workforce that is increasingly drawn not from China but India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.