Remapping Chineseness

Reviewed by Guy Beauregard

In Transpacific Articulations, Chih-ming Wang has productively theorized the term Asia/America as “a structure of feeling shaped by colonial histories, imperialist domination, and . . . neoliberalist imagina- tions.” For Wang, this term enables us to rethink “the movement of Asian/Americans as they travel to shake, link, and reconfig- ure both places of ancestry and residence across the old and new spatialities and temporalities of family, nation-state, and empire.” The three books under review help to extend this project by working across the complex terrain of what might be called Asia/Canada. In doing so, these texts imaginatively and critically remap discrepant histories of Chineseness in Canada and beyond in sometimes startling new ways.

Julia Lin’s debut short story collection Miah is not the first fictional text published by a Taiwanese Canadian (a considerable number of sinophone texts have appeared in print), but it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first book-length Taiwanese Canadian text in English to fictionalize the links between Taiwan and Canada. The collection’s interlinked stories ambitiously cut across the Pacific, from rural communities in southern Taiwan to Vancouver’s West Point Grey, from the factory zones of Shenzhen to East Vancouver. In doing so, Miah directly confronts the complexities of Taiwan’s modern political history, including the impact of Japanese colonialism (1895-1945) and the damage inflicted on the people of Taiwan during the White Terror (1949-1987) following the Chinese Nationalist takeover. These stories occasionally labour to explain parts of this history, at times obtrusively glossing terms in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) and Mandarin, and at times oddly using Hanyu Pinyin to romanize the names of characters in Taiwan. But Lin’s text nevertheless movingly narrates histories of loss and defiance. As one character, Ah-Bing, declares while being interrogated by Chinese Nationalist police: “I do not belong to the Japanese. I do not belong to the Chinese. I am a Taiwanese who answers only to truth and liberty.”

Lin’s stories move through these histories and across multiple migrations to Canada, which are often represented with deft irony. When one character, Ah-Hong, boasts to her neighbours in Taiwan that she will be emigrating to Canada, she is met with a blank response until she explains that “[i]t’s next to America”—after which she is heartily congratulated. As she departs Taiwan, Ah-Hong “feels herself flying away not only from the oppression that she suffered under the Japanese and the Mainlanders but also from the constraints of male-dominated village life.” While she anticipates a “life of liberty and luxury,” Lin’s text persistently undercuts notions of Canada as a place of refuge, instead drawing our attention to the various challenges—and the sometimes candidly expressed biases—of a memorable range of characters including “parachute kids” left to be educated in Canada, missionaries who have worked in Asia, and “factory girls” who have made their way from southern China to forge new lives in Canada. Especially impressive is the concluding story “Gentle Warriors,” which shows, through multiple points-of-view, how such apparently disparate lives can intersect.

Weyman Chan’s Chinese Blue, by contrast, puts forth a poetics of non-convergence by persistently tracking the space “between the word and the thing.” Chan’s earlier work as a poet has quietly gained recognition. His debut collection Before a Blue Sky Moon won an Alberta Book Award, and his second book Noise From the Laundry was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. Chinese Blue is a worthy successor that effortlessly moves across references to pop culture, glimpses of working class family life (evoking, at times the remarkable work of Fred Wah), images of environmental damage (notably in the poem “Alberta blues”), and even a conversation with the late Robert Kroetsch! Chan’s text scrupulously approaches the Chinese referenced in the collection’s title as an unstable referent, noting slyly at one point that “you can’t always define it but you’ll know it when you see it.” But who is authorized to define “it”—and at what cost? Chan’s poem “exclusion principle” provides one possible response:

What sounded like dropped-fork names–
Ping, Pang, Pong—
bounding down the stairs
to the foot of the prairie
were less than rain to those who came and went.

At stake here is not the “more than two thousand years of ancient Chinese tradition” referred to on the back of the edition under review, but instead the inventive ways that Chan’s text could help us to envision how such Orientalist framings might be undone.

While Chinese Blue maps out what Gerry Shikatani has called the imagination’s “vivid
disjunctive trajectories,” Lily Cho’s critical study Eating Chinese focuses tightly on one site: the ubiquitous small-town Chinese Canadian restaurant, which Cho persuasively reads as “an awkward reminder of the ways in which modernity sometimes stammers, prematurely announcing the death of that which is not yet dead.” For Cho, “these restaurants function as a locus for examining diasporic culture” as well as a way of rethinking “the juncture between old and new diasporas.” Cho reads these restaurants as “culturally productive space[s]” that should not be viewed as straightforward reflections of Chineseness or of small town Canadian culture, but instead—follow-
ing the work of critics such as Meaghan Morris—as resonant cultural sites.

At times, some readers may find the range of textual materials addressed in Cho’s study to be somewhat thin, especially perhaps in the discussion in chapter 3 of folk songs by Sylvia Tyson and Joni Mitchell. And it is difficult to imagine any reader being pleased with the multiple errors that appear in the list of Works Cited—errors that could and should have been corrected in the 2012 reprinted edition under review. But despite these apparent and actual shortcomings, Eating Chinese is a powerful and rare work of criticism. There are few scholars working in Canada today who are capable of integrating, in such a seamless manner personal reflections, readings of the colonial archive (including, in chapter 1, a brilliant discussion of a panic over food poisoning in British colonial Hong Kong in 1857), contributions to literary studies (including, in chapter 5, a forceful intervention in what Cho calls “the dilemma of Wah criticism”), and discussions of visual culture (including, in the conclusion, an evocative reading of a figure labeled as “a woman in disguise” on the back of a photograph taken in a lumber camp in British Columbia in 1905). Toward the end of her study, Cho readily acknowledges “other histories yet to be unfolded.” In this way, Eating Chinese generously points us forward, inviting us to imagine how acts of remembering a past that is not yet past could help clarify “work that has yet to be done.”

This review “Remapping Chineseness” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 145-47.

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