Postcolonial Text / Author

Histories of the Present: Reading Contemporary Singapore Novels between the Local and the Global

Philip Holden
National University of Singapore

There is a situation of reading which I now find myself in with increasing frequency. I undo the packaging from, or open the plastic bag from Kinokuniya, and I pick up a novel which is about Singapore, indeed in some important way of Singapore, and yet published elsewhere. In this particular case, the tired metaphor of the title, Shadow Theatre, is mirrored in a cover design in which puppets from wayang kulit are superimposed over two blurred Asian faces reduced to an eroticized anonymity of soft-focused eyes and lips. The blurb on the back cover promises a "lushly exotic story of mothers, daughters, friendship and tragedy," "mythic timelessness," contained in a "lovely and exotic novel" about contemporary Singapore. I open the cover and begin reading. I am surprised to learn in the attached "compiler's note" that colonial rule ended in Singapore in 1955 "when Singapore became the only predominantly Chinese state in the Federation of Malaya" (Cheong xi). In fact, the Federation of Malaya achieved independence in 1957, while Singapore did not achieve limited self-governance until 1959. As I move further into the text, I become a resisting reader, searching for further signs of inauthenticity which now come thick and fast.

Yet in the process of reading Fiona Cheong's Shadow Theatre, I'm also dissatisfied with my own resistance to the text. Cheong's novel is one of a growing number of literary works written about Singapore which participate in a complex transnational politics of representation. Recent novels such as Shadow Theatre, Tan Hwee Hwee's Foreign Bodies and Mammon Inc, Ming Cher's Spider Boys, Shirley Lim's Joss and Gold, Lau Siew Mei's Playing Madame Mao, Lydia Kwa's This Place Called Absence, and Vyvyane Loh's Breaking the Tongue are the products of both their authors' long residence in Singapore and their experience of expatriation, of living elsewhere. A critical practice that measures their authenticity against an arbitrary standard is surely the worst form of parochialism, inevitably producing an inward-looking canon of Singapore Literature. Indeed, an insistence on reading such texts through the lens of the nation-state seems particularly quixotic in Singapore, given its history of entanglement in global capital flows and its present status as the most (or, at worst, the second-most) globalised country in the world (Koh 172). Is it possible to develop a critical practice that might disrupt both a parochial insistence on "authenticity" within a national context on the one hand, and a dehistoricized recuperation of Singapore - and by extension other "local" - texts into the categories of the Asian American, postcolonial, or diasporic on the other?

In approaching the question of such a situated reading, I want to avoid two potentially useful, but finally limiting, frames of reference. The first is that of Orientalism. One could, of course accuse many transnational Singaporean texts of Orientalism, much as Sheng-Mei Ma identifies Amy Tan as "a new Orientalist" flaunting a romanticized chinoiserie to an American reading public (110). Yet merely reading texts for internal signs of Orientalism is a self-confirming strategy: any representation of cultural alterity is potentially readable as Orientalist, and such analyses often seem to me to be unconsciously reliant on unacknowledged a priori judgments of the text's political worth. The second frame is Graham Huggan's notion of the "postcolonial exotic." Huggan's discussion of the manner in which postcolonial texts are consumed in Europe and North America is useful in its consideration of both internal textual and external social constraints: careful attention to the novels of Arundhati Roy or Salman Rushdie is matched by the consideration of institutions such as the Booker Prize and the Heinemann African Writers Series. Yet in flitting from social to textual readings, it seems to me that Huggan's analysis of the postcolonial exotic frequently becomes circular. The reception of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, in Huggan's account, indicates that it was frequently read as an exotic spectacle by a Western audience. Yet, if we look closer, Rushdie is clearly aware of this possibility, and parodies the "metropolitan . . . reader-as-consumer" (72). And yet again, in a further twist, Rushdie's "meta-exoticism," Huggan argues, is reliant on the skill with which he can "manipulate commercially viable commercial codes" (81). One is tempted to wonder if in this kind of reading any postcolonial text is thus simultaneously hegemonic and counter-hegemonic.

To escape from this labyrinth of interpretation, we can usefully turn to two conceptual tools, the first from a brief essay by David Palumbo-Liu. Writing in response to Shirley Lim and Amy Ling's edited collection Reading the Literatures of Asia America, Palumbo-Liu welcomes the focus on American ethnic literatures that such essay collections and anthologies have encouraged since the 1990s, in parallel with an increased attention to the postmodern and the postcolonial. However, a premature conflation of ethnicity with the postmodern and the postcolonial, Palumbo-Liu notes, is likely to do both theory and text a disservice. The most interesting readings of ethnic literatures will be generated by recognizing "static or interference" between theoretical frameworks such as postcolonialism and postmodernism rather than in "uncritical applications of theory to text" (161). In particular, such readings should enable us to historicize postmodernism and postcolonialism themselves, rather than inscribing a trajectory in which "history is tracked toward a rendezvous with postmodern aesthetics" and is then dematerialized in the present (163).

Palumbo-Liu's brief comments may be glossed by reference to a concept which has been gaining currency in political science in the last decade, perhaps most influentially in the work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor: the social imaginary. For Taylor, a social imaginary exists as a space in between social practice and formal theories of knowledge: "the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations" (23). I'd like to argue that while as academics we would like to think that we work at the level of formal theory, we often work following transnational social imaginaries. Thus while individual academics themselves may frequently show great self-awareness and indeed elaborate self-reflexivity in critical practice, reading practices involving texts in postcolonial and diasporic frames often "make sense" to a reader because they are unconsciously reliant on transnational social imaginaries which tend to read out the static and interference that the local provides. Restoring such static and interference thus has the power to question and ultimately deepen critical practice.

In this light, my essay will consider three novels, Fiona Cheong's Shadow Theatre (2002), Vyvyane Loh's Breaking the Tongue (2004), and Shirley Lim's Joss and Gold (2001), which are commonly read outside Singapore as Asian American or postcolonial texts. The texts share common features which make them amenable to a discussion focusing on situated reading practices. Each text is concerned with memory work and the retrieval of histories which blur the distinction between public and private; each text dramatizes not just history itself but the process through which history is written, the narrativisation of the everyday. In each novel Singapore is a narrated allegorical space central to the text's process of making meaning. In Cheong's novel, Singapore is a realm representative of a Lacanian imaginary order, a place of fluid narration and signification before the intervention of the nom du père. In Loh's, it is an arena in which the colonized subject may struggle to reclaim an essential Chineseness. In Lim's narrative, Singapore is a globalized metropolis which embodies both the possibilities and contradictions of Asian modernities in a new millennium. Reading these novels through the interference generated by Singaporean presents and pasts allows us to take a new perspective on the novels themselves, and also ultimately to think through the latent content of national and transnational social imaginaries, to contemplate a situated practice of reading transnational texts.

Fiona Cheong's Shadow Theatre is a fragmentary, self-referential narrative set in an upper middle-class landed property estate in Singapore in 1994, although characters' memories frequently take us back many years before the narrative present. Framed by the compiler's note discussed above and by a glossary, the text represents itself as a series of fragmentary accounts by witnesses of events in the estate during August 1994 which centre around the return from America of Shakilah Nair, daughter of one of the residents. Shakilah returns to Singapore after over a decade's absence, pregnant, but refusing to explain her pregnancy. Her story is woven with that of other characters, stories of same-sex love, rape, incest, and the mysterious disappearance of the sister of one of the estate's residents. The voices we hear are all of women within familial networks in which men are either dead or absent. The narration of the first character, for instance, is introduced as that of "Susannah Wang, daughter of Kenneth and Alice Wang, father deceased" (3). Often reporting the actions and thoughts of others at second or even third hand, these miniature narratives produce a collage of voices which never quite adds up to a coherent picture. Cheong's novel also gestures towards magical realism, since the world of the women is also haunted by the presence of ghosts who hover on the borders of the visible.

At first sight, Cheong's novel might seem a welcome feminist intervention which successfully problematizes the paternalist "state fatherhood" of contemporary Singapore (Heng and Devan 343-44). The novel is women-centred, and the female characters in the text escape the demands upon women in contemporary Singapore to carry the burden of the preservation of "traditional values" on the one hand and, through success in the public domain, to provide a benchmark of Singapore's modernity on the other. Furthermore, the novel features fully developed characters of different ethnic groups, moving beyond the racially confined worlds or racial stereotyping of much Singaporean fiction. Challenging the fixedness of racial categories, indeed, is central to Shadow Theatre: Valerie Nair who, from her name, might be identified as Indian, is actually Chinese, having married an Indian man. The state management of ethnicity in Singapore ascribes a "race" to each individual, following the racial designation of his or her father: this categorization is marked on most official identity documents and dictates important elements in the construction of self such as the second language studied at school. Moments of racial indeterminacy in Cheong's text challenge this framework. Finally, unlike many contemporary Singaporean texts, Cheong's narrative includes passages focalized through the perspective of foreign domestic workers - "maids" - who are not Singaporean, thus providing possibilities of empathy and a recognition of the way in which racial and gendered differentials in power inform the everyday.

Despite these possibilities, however, Cheong's novel ultimately produces Singapore as a space in opposition to North America, and thus fails to engage with the representational "static" generated by contemporary Singapore. Despite its postmodern form, the novel is grounded by unexamined notions of authenticity and an unproblematized ability to speak for Asia, for Singapore. This authenticity is first established by paratextual elements: the historical "compiler's note" mentioned above, for instance, and a glossary of "Singlish, the English vernacular of Singaporeans" ([235]). The glossary itself is presented in the formal style of a dictionary - the entry for "chiku," for instance, is "n. 1. Manilkara zapota, commonly known as the sapodilla, a tree cultivated throughout the tropical regions of the world. 2. the fruit of this plant" (236) - and the effect of this formality is surely to authenticate the text to a reader with little knowledge of Singapore. As the reader enters the text itself, other markers of authenticity are displayed. The text uses Malay words, and attempts to represent the speech patterns of Singapore English. The metafictional elements of the novel also serve to present it as a representative Singaporean or Asian text in opposition to a representative North American one. Thus Shakilah herself is writing a novel which has "too many voices" in her American publisher's eyes: she refuses to "cut the book down to three voices at the most," despite having "run into the same problem with most American publishers" (21). Having heard Shakilah's complaints, one of Cheong's characters wonders why "more than three voices" are "so difficult to follow" (21), and then asks "Don't Americans know how to pay attention to several people talking at one time? They should just come sit at a dinner table over here" (21-22).

Such textual claims of authenticity can, of course, be challenged. The representation of speech in a literary text is always mediated, but having claimed, through the glossary, a transparent ability to represent "Singlish," Cheong leaves herself open for critique. While Malay and Hokkien vocabulary items are used correctly in terms of denotation, the dialogue in Shadow Theatre is clearly a symbolic representation, rather than an attempt at the accurate transcription of colloquial Singapore English: one could, for instance, object to an overuse of the final particle "lah" and a mistranscription of Malay-influenced word ordering.[1] More important, perhaps, is the question of why Cheong needs, in Arif Dirlik's terms, to serve the function of "creative writer as ‘native informant'" ("Literature/Identity . . ." 222). For Cheong's use of English is symptomatic of a more fundamental claim of representation in the text. Singapore is, in Cheong's portrayal, everything that America is not. It is a feminine space, a site of hauntings, of magic (and magical realism), and of polyvocal narratives - in a sense it is simultaneously premodern and postmodern. Perhaps, Rose Sim speculates in the novel, "the Srivijaya and Majapahit women" from ancient Southeast Asian empires have opened "a window between" the spirit world and the world of contemporary Singapore (197). In an earlier scene, Rose condemns the "foreigner" Jason Hill for imagining that the world of ghosts is "just a figment of our imagination" (65). Singapore in this text is an aesthetic object of intricate design, a "complicated and interwoven" piece of batik (24).

The creation of Singapore as utopic space of postmodern play may well represent an important intervention for the North American reading community that Shadow Theatre addresses. Like many Asian American writers before her, Cheong negotiates through the form as well as content of her novel with a desire for ethnography from readers that threatens "the autonomy of creative work" ("Dirlik, Literature/Identity . . ." 210). Cheong's production of a hybrid Southeast Asia may thus, to some extent, resist a discourse that would interpellate her as Chinese, and thus always speaking for a cultural "Chineseness." Yet, if this is the case, the text's resistance is achieved at the cost of an erasure of the historicity of a Singaporean cultural context. When historicized within the context of contemporary Singapore, indeed, the novel has much less to say that is significant. The central difficulty with Cheong's representation of Singapore as America's Other is that it is unable to imagine or engage with the most striking element of the city-state to even a newly-arrived visitor: its evident modernity. The novel, indeed, rails against "modern Singaporeans with advanced technological tastes and impatient minds" who have invaded the central characters' neighbourhood (6). Little work is performed on the estate; the central characters make occasional excursions to the National Library and, more frequently, visit each other. Even Cheong's domestic workers, implausibly, spend much of their time playing scrabble, and it is thus perhaps understandable that one of the American reviews quoted on the rear cover of the paperback edition imagines that the novel is "seen through the eyes of the women of a small village."

Yet in contemporary Singapore, discourses of modernity have not yet ended, despite the buffeting they have received since 1997 in a series of economic setbacks: the Asian economic crisis on 1997-1998, the stock market collapse of early 2000, and the 2003 SARS epidemic. Singapore's cultural and social landscape are saturated with signs of other modernities held up as objects of desire: Japanese popular music and fashion, Korean soap operas dubbed into Mandarin, Dutch banks, American seminars on entrepreneurship and self-help books. The framework of the Singapore modern contains many of the sites of struggle within the city-state: the growth of civil society, the increasing visibility of queer culture, changes in gender roles, debates on the use of language. Historicizing the present in Singapore thus involves more than a fetishization of the pre-colonial as always already postmodern: rather, it should invoke an exploration of the way that tradition is reinvented and circulated as a sign in disputes over the nature of modernity itself. In this process of historicization postmodernist techniques and forms may well have an important place, and indeed many writers and artists in Singapore have made cogent use of them to defamiliarize the present.[2] Yet in Cheong's text Singapore and America are temporally separate: a postmodern Singapore is produced as the object of desire for a modern American reading public. In a sense, we have here an inversion of Johannes Fabian's notion of "allochronic discourse." Like Fabian's anthropology, Cheong's novel places its subjects in "another Time" from that of the implied author and the implied reader (143), eliding the fact that the novel actually mediates between these two spaces. For all of Shadow Theatre's complexity and self-referentiality, Singapore in Cheong's novel is simply an "Other" space.

Vyvyane Loh's Breaking the Tongue is a first novel of considerable promise. Unlike Cheong's, it is presented to the reader primarily as a Chinese American, rather than as an Asian American, text, with Loh's own name given in Chinese characters on the dust jacket and title pages, and the titles of the individual sections given in both English and in Chinese script.[3] Loh's text also resolutely refuses to produce Singapore as an exotic space, and the novel is, indeed, carefully historicized. Loh's protagonist, the teenage English-speaking Straits-born Chinese Claude Lim, experiences the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, and in the process has his faith in British imperialism and his own identity as a colonial mimic man irrevocably shattered. Through his association with a young female leftist activist Han Ling-li, who is eventually brutally tortured by the Japanese, he rediscovers his essential Chineseness and reclaims his Chinese identity. The novel features a double narrative, in which a chronological account of Claude's adolescence and family conflicts moves inexorably towards interpolated scenes of his own interrogation by the Japanese in the narrative present. In the final section of the novel, Claude is released by his captors into a Japanese-occupied Singapore. He re-establishes a connection with Ling-li through a vision in which she describes her torture to him, and in which they converse not in English, but in Chinese. The triumphalism of Claude's acquisition of a purified Chinese identity is, however, undercut by a final vision, in which Claude tears out his tongue from his mouth, yet knows that "no miraculous new tongue will sprout in the old one's place;" at best, he will only possess "a muteness . . ., a stunted form of speech," although he will be happy that his children "will not be contaminated by that old tongue" (405).

In an Asian American context, such a retrieval of memory through grafting of oneself to new histories has a certain power. Loh's novel may well open up possibilities for the historicization of the present within an American context by suggesting the complexity of the category "Chinese American," and by resisting an easy celebration of the hybridity of colonial subjects. The text certainly resists representing a Chinese past as "a legacy from a different time and place" (Dirlik, "Past . . ." 213) - in contrast to much Asian American writing's acceptance of this representation - but rather shows culture as historically situated and indeed made malleable through individual agency. The problem with Loh's text is not that, like Cheong's, it is dehistoricized, but rather that it is historicized within a history that does not know itself. The novel's historiographical framework is doxological, that of the first generation of Singaporean nationalism. Indeed, it reiterates discourses which have informed Singapore governmentality since independence, which have been increasingly contested by Singaporean fiction, theatre and poetry within the last decade.

The contours of the discourses in which Breaking the Tongue participates can perhaps first be mapped by considering the intertexts and historical material which inform the novel. Loh's account of the fall of Singapore relies heavily on Peter Elphick's Singapore: the Pregnable Fortress and Odd Man Out, historical accounts which emphasize the British as actors. The novelist also looked at a National Archives of Singapore pictorial publication about the Japanese occupation, but apparently did not consult the numerous oral history accounts which are available. There is no reference to historical material about the Chinese community in Singapore, and also no engagement with more complex revisionist explorations of Singapore's past: James Warren's "history-from-below" in Rickshaw Coolie, for instance, or Brenda Yeoh's Foucauldian Contesting Space. Instead, there are two other types of intertext. First, Loh quotes frequently from colonial writings set in Southeast Asia, in particular Joseph Conrad's exoticising "Youth" and George Orwell's impotently elegiac Burmese Days. Second, readers of Breaking the Tongue are presented with references to a cultural China extending beyond Singapore's borders. Claude's Grandmother Siok, rather implausibly fully literate in both Chinese and English, quotes him aphorisms from Sunzi's Art of War, while Ling-li makes frequent reference to the patriotism of the Song dynasty general Yue Fei and the inscription of the words 中中中中 (save the country with ultimate loyalty).

Any historical novel will naturally be selective in the sources which it employs. Yet Loh's choice of historical and other intertexts means that her text cannot gesture beyond the discursive field it occupies. In Singapore nationalist discourse in the immediate post-independence period, to an even greater extent than in most post-colonial nationalisms, borrowed many of the elements of the self-fashioning from the colonial state. Singapore's development as a nation was seen as the continuation of a process begun under colonialism: free trade, modernization of the built environment, and a tendency of individual subjects towards rationality, away from the snares of superstition. Yet the nationalist reconstruction of self also inverted the colonial order of things, like a glove turned inside out. Colonialism and the irrational discrimination it perpetuated was seen as pre-modern, decadent and feudal, while nationalism, embodied in the democratic will of the people, wrested the baton of modernity and progress from the colonial power. And this new national modernity was embodied in the figure of the citizen of the new nation, autonomous, and able to act rationally within a new polity.

Emergent nationalist discourse in Singapore thus concentrates upon the male body (Holden, "A Man ..." 410-416). Colonialism is figured as a disease of the body, a parasitic infection that may be eliminated through the technologies of modern medicine. The body of the colonized is decadent, slack, flabby. Such discourses concentrate in particular on the body of the Anglicized Chinese, a member of a comprador class, "devitalised, almost emasculated, as a result of deculturalisation" (Lee, "Address... " 2), consumed not by the nationalist struggle but rather engaged in "bouts of swallowing beer and whiskey" (Lee, "Speech . . ." 2). This colonized body is contrasted with the bodies of leftist Chinese-educated Singaporeans engaged single-mindedly in anti-colonial struggle. In Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's autobiography, the future political leader drives down Bukit Timah Road in central Singapore, and passes first the Chinese High School, the premier Chinese-language secondary school in Singapore, and then the University of Malaya, the bastion of the Anglophone elite. Lee favourably contrasts the discipline of the Chinese middle school students with the "idiocy, ignorance and naivety of . . . English-educated students" (The Singapore Story 247) in the University. Yet the paradox is that Lee himself is one of the English-educated, from a hybrid cultural milieu steeped in Peranakan (Straits Chinese) influence, a "golf-playing, beer swilling bourgeois" in the eyes of the "modest, humble and well-behaved" leftist leader and erstwhile ally, Lim Chin Siong (233). Lee painfully learns Mandarin, and uses his Chinese name Lee Kuan Yew, rather than his English one, Harry Lee, yet it is also the English-educated who will triumph after Singapore's independence. The radical Chinese culture of Lim and others is gradually erased, replaced with a reconstructed Chinese Singaporean identity based upon a re-imagined Confucianism, Mandarin and high Chinese culture as opposed to the Fujianese and Cantonese "dialect" cultures of the majority of Chinese Singaporean immigrants, and political quietism.

Loh's novel follows, rather than challenges, these paradigms. The novel is prefaced by a quotation from Lee in which he speaks of his own cultural "deprivation" and maintenance of an "eastern value system." The text itself fetishises Claude's body as the degree zero of self - indeed the description of Claude's torture by the Japanese refers repeatedly to "Claude the Body" rather than to Claude himself (23). The desultory efforts of Claude and his English-educated schoolmates in fire-fighting during Japanese bombing are, as in Lee's memoirs, contrasted with the "practicality" and discipline of the fire fighting team from the Chinese-medium Hwa Ming School. This comparison, as in Lee's memoirs, is also heavily gendered. Ling-li's body - small, thin, marked by privation and sacrifice - , becomes emblematic of a fetishized notion of Chinese identity. Her family name, Han (), is a racialised marker for Chineseness which contrasts with the word Hua (), which has wider cultural, and less racially essentialist connotations. This meaning is confirmed for the reader through a scene in which a departing servant speaks to Claude's family of "the pride of being, after all, Chinese, the Han People" (190). In contrast to Ling-li's modestly contained body, the body of Claude's mother, Cynthia, is represented as corrupted by colonialism. Cynthia is decadent; she dresses up in luxurious cheongsams, and has affairs with both British and later Japanese colonialists, humiliating her Anglicized and emasculated husband, Humphrey.

The reiteration of a racial governmentality in which Chineseness is moulded into a particular form continues at the end of the novel. Claude's rediscovery of Chinese during his vision of Ling-li's torture results in an irruption of Chinese characters into an English text. While initially some attempt is made to paraphrase or gloss, the culminating scenes of Ling-li's rape at the hands of the Japanese soldiers, including explicit scenes of genital mutilation, are given entirely in written Chinese. Yet the essential Chineseness which is expressed at this degree zero of the self is an abstracted Chineseness which does not accord with the historical context. The final scene of the novel, which discusses Ling-li in terms of the "female roles of Chinese opera" (405), refers to jingju, or Beijing opera, not the dialect operas (frequently generically known by the Malay word wayang) central to Singapore's social history.

Loh's recovery of an essential Chinese self may well, like Cheong's production of Singapore as an "Other" space, have a particular strategic significance within the North American reading community for which she writes. Additionally, the novel may usefully contribute to notions of Chinese diaspora, and in particular to the vision of a "cultural China" in which the People's Republic of China is the centre. Within the context of Singapore, however, the return to jingju and the figure of Yue Fei dutifully repeats the racial governmentality of late twentieth-century Singapore, which endows each of its citizens with a racialized identity and speaks to them though race. In the so-called CMIO (Chinese Malay Indian Other) model, each Singaporean citizen follows his or her father's race at birth. Race, printed on each citizen's identity cards, determines the "mother tongue" language taken at school, the ethnic self-help organisation to which salary deductions are credited, and even allocation of public housing. Originally conceived as a mechanism to contain ethnic conflict and prevent deculturalisation, the CMIO model is now increasingly seen as restricting the development of a Singaporean culture, confining "people to their own separate racial communities and cultures," and preventing the transgression of "racial (and by extension cultural and linguistic) borders" (Kuo, "Contemplating . . ." 56), and preventing the recognition of a hybrid and migrant past and present. In the context of Singapore, Loh's novel thus reiterates, rather than challenges: rather than providing a genealogy of the present, it accepts hegemonic constructions of the present, and history's place within the present, at face value. If the novel can historicize an individual's negotiation with cultural belonging, it is clearly unable to historicize the category of culture itself.

Our third text, Shirley Lim's Joss and Gold, is set in an historical period mid way between those of Cheong's and Lim's texts. The first of three sections of the novel takes place in Malaysia before the Kuala Lumpur riots in 1969 that led to the New Economic Policy and a radical revisioning of Malaysia as a multicultural polity. The novel's protagonist, Li An, a lecturer in English at the University of Malaya, wrestles with the place of Malaysian, Chinese, American and British cultural communities in her attempt to gain autonomy as a modern woman. She marries the dully diligent biologist Henry Yeh, but falls in love with the American Peace Corps volunteer Chester Brookfield. The novel then moves in its second section to New York State in 1980, and explores the consequences of Chester's decision to leave a pregnant Li An in Malaysia and return to America. The final section is set in Singapore in 1981: Chester returns to Southeast Asia to make contact with his daughter by Li An, Suyin, yet he finds in the city-state a transformed, strengthened Li An who is less than willing to play Butterfly to his Pinkerton.

As an academic who has spent much of her life negotiating - and indeed moving - between Southeast and East Asia and the United States, Lim is careful to shape the manner in which her texts address their audiences. Thus Joss and Gold was published simultaneously by two different publishing houses, the Feminist Press in the USA, and Times Books International in Singapore. This is a strategy Lim has used before: her autobiography, Among the White Moon Faces, was also published in Singapore and the USA in two different editions, and with different subtitles (An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands in the US and Memoirs of a Nyonya Feminist in Singapore). The choice of Feminist Press and Times as publishers means that the dual audience of the texts can never be forgotten: unlike Cheong's book, the implied reader is not necessarily American. While the covers and typographical layout of the two editions differ, neither exoticises: there are no cursively written Chinese characters, no compiler's note nor glossary. Instead, Lim incorporates an awareness of two audiences into her text through subtle glossing; words in Malay, for instance, are first introduced with their English translations - "I'm white, orang puteh" (49) - in a manner which informs a reader who does not know the cultural contexts of the novel, yet also does not overly disturb a reader who does.[4]

Lim's is a text which questions. Li An's central dilemma in the first section of the novel is knowing which community she belongs to, yet the notion of community itself is questioned, neither presented as an idealized space nor constructed through binary opposition. Li An has moved from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, the national capital, to study, and has an idealistic investment in a "Malaysian Malaysia," "a totally new nation. No more Malay, Chinese, Indian, but all one people" (45). The notion of a Malaysian identity is also, for Li An, a means for thinking through her identity as a modern woman opposed to fetishised notions of Chinese "tradition." When her husband rebukes her for arguing her point of view too vehemently and upsetting men, he notes that she is too "Westernized," and that respecting the "Chinese way" involves using "your intelligence for agreement, not for arguing" (71). Li An replies caustically that she is not Chinese, but rather Malaysian, using a modern Asian national identity to counter a manufactured tradition.

The opposition between Malaysian and Chinese culture, however, is only one of a complex series of cultural triangulations in the first part of the novel. Chester, the recently arrived Peace Corps volunteer, has a much closer engagement with Malay culture than do middle class Chinese Malaysians such as Henry or Henry's father: he lives with Malay roommates, eats at roadside stalls, and is sensitive - at least initially - to issues to do with the consumption of alcohol and halal and haram food. Chester also forces Li An to think about the colonial nature of her interest in English Literature, noting, when examining a mimeographed collection of literary texts from which she teaches, that "there's nothing here but English poetry and excerpts from British novels. What can your students learn from this?" (41). Yet Chester's solution that "Malay is the only real culture in this country" and Chinese Malaysians are only "here for the money" paradoxically reiterates colonial discourse (44). Li An's friend Gina is from a traditional Chinese background, and she alternates between a condemnation of everything Chinese and an unconditional admiration of Chinese culture (24-25): she embarks on an affair with an Indian man, Paroo, and, despairing for the future given the rejection of the possibility of marriage by both his and her families, commits suicide. Competing visions of what Malaysia might be, combined with a lack of inter-community dialogue and understanding, are shown to lead directly to the communally-based violence of 1969, in which Henry's father is killed.

A further layer to the characters' debates about culture in the first part of the novel is the presence of America. In contrast to Cheong's and to Loh's novels, the West here is not othered; it is not something to be rejected in the search for a postmodern or an essential cultural space. Rather, America is a tool which enables discussion and imagination of Asian modernities. America is an object of fascination for Chester's high school students, and Li An's invocation of Malaysia as "a totally new nation. No more Malay, Chinese, Indian, but all one people" makes Chester reply that she is thinking "like an American" (45). America is not, however, unproblematically idealized: references to Martin Luther King indicate a "dream" of racial equality as much unachieved in America as in Malaysia (52), and Chester's uncritical acceptance of U.S. Embassy assertions that it "isn't good for Americans to get in the middle of foreign national politics" (104) provide him with a rationale to leave Li An and return to the United States.

Lim's shift of setting to Westchester County, New York, in the second part of Joss and Gold enables a different perspective. In the intervening decade, Chester has embarked on an academic career in anthropology, yet the discipline has provided him not with questions, but rather with comfort in difference. His function, he muses, is "to study difference, not to overcome it," and his fieldwork has been in rural Bali, where he can "finally relax with the natives, knowing guiltlessly that he [is] not one of them" (179). Chester's house is full of Southeast Asian artifacts which, rather like postcolonial literary texts circulated outside the South, provoke wonder among his visitors. "Each piece in his collection" is, he feels, "an important statement of cultural adaptability and achievement," yet, in the context of his house, there is nothing to distinguish them from "ludicrous, cheap decorator pieces from the nearest Pier One imports" (145-146).

Yet if the American section of Lim's novel seems an uncomplicated exposition of the academic and cultural uses of Orientalism in the United States, Chester's trip to Singapore in 1981 introduces further complications for Lim's various audiences. Chester is forced to confront an assertive Asian modernity from which the "exotic tropic" has disappeared (191), and he struggles to place himself within the city-state. Peace Corps volunteers have been replaced by expatriate "junior executives" (191), while the conspicuous consumption of his now prosperous friends Samad and Abdullah compared to his relative poverty as a visiting academic hints at a profound "reversal in their positions" (192). Chester's visit to Singapore, while packaged as a research trip, is in fact motivated by a need to meet his daughter, and the episode thus breaks the careful separation between the academic and the personal which anthropology has enabled him to cultivate. His first encounter with Li An is in her office, and he is confused and disoriented by the "polished patina of success" which she effortlessly wears (235); she talks with him briefly, and then dismisses him. Indeed, Lim deliberately inserts a reference to Puccini's Madame Butterfly into their reunion scene (235-6) in order to emphasise how changes of power in the global scale are represented metonymically in the personal.

On one level, then, Lim concludes her novel by illustrating a new, confident Asian modernity that can say no, can talk back to the West. Yet she is also careful to historicize this modernity, to explore its contradictions. As an outsider, Chester can recognize that the cultural landscape of Singapore, and the various identities its citizens and sojourners inhabit, are less expressive of Asian difference than of a modern project of social engineering (233) in which "race" has been manipulated and put to use through technologies of ethnicity which prescribe mother tongues and cultural pasts. Li An's and Chester's daughter, Suyin, occupies an awkward, questioning space in multiracialism, subject to discrimination of school, never, despite her Chinese name and Chinese father on her birth certificate, able to fully claim Chineseness. And Suyin's situation, like Li An's and Chester's, has a larger metonymic significance. Paroo, after mourning Gina's death, has married an Indian wife within his own community, yet he calls his daughter Surani, hinting at the Malay word serani, or Eurasian. The desire for a cultural modernity beyond that shaped by state-defined multiracialism is still often expressed in terms of desires for America, or for a global modernity in which America has a key place. These desires, however, are never fully endorsed in the narrative, and indeed characters such as Abdullah continue to equate Americans with colonialists (288), but their presence emphasizes that the Asian modernity of late twentieth century Singapore is, like the modernity of America itself, riven with contradiction in a simultaneous desire for and rejection of the "West." Through Chester, Li An, and Suyin, Singapore and America thus occupy the same, modern, temporal frame in Joss and Gold, and a dialogue between Singapore and America offers the possibility of defamiliarising the everyday for Singaporean and American reading publics, and indeed for all who read the novel in a transnational frame.

The manner in which Joss and Gold explores the space provided by Singapore in the last section of her novel offers an instructive comparison with Shadow Theatre. Like Cheong, Lim also creates a community of women, bound together by a complex network of bonds. Suyin is cared for by her mother Li An, her paternal grandmother Grandma Yeh, and also by Li An's college friend Ellen, now a school principal in Singapore. Yet unlike Cheong's community, Lim's cannot evade the social and the political. The affective ties that unite the women are expressed through various relationships: mother and daughter, mother and daughter-in-law, grandmother and granddaughter, platonic friendship and, through the subtlest of hints about Ellen's sexuality, same-sex desire.[5] These relationships, invested with affect, are also inescapably moulded by a larger, inescapable patriarchal social order with which their participants must negotiate. On the level of the personal, the women must negotiate with two men, Chester and Henry, who claim the position of Suyin's father. As with much of Lim's novel, the personal reflects a larger, carefully historicized social space. Singapore's modernity, too, must negotiate with a state fatherhood in which Malaysia, "Chineseness," and the "West" are historical and contemporary actors.

The success of Lim's novel in addressing various audiences, and in placing both Singapore and the United States in the same temporal field, might seem to be an argument for a writing rather than a reading practice. Lim's careful occupation of a liminal space between Southeast Asia and the United States and her historicization of the present in both Asia and North America are certainly features of her work to be admired and hopefully emulated. Yet ethics and the writing of fiction are frequently uneasy partners, since literariness itself implies the possibility of multiple, divergent readings of the same text, of a continual slippage in meaning. Cheong's and Loh's novels, despite my critique above, clearly speak to various audiences in important ways. Critiques which dismiss the texts as lacking mimetic accuracy from a perspective of "local knowledge" in a sense simply replicate the fallacy of Cheong's text, with the critic elbowing the writer aside and proudly presenting herself as the real native informant. Yet historically-situated readings of the kind I have performed may also be partial, and difficult to generalize. How might one extend the reading practices illustrated above to a general practice of reading transnational texts?

Arif Dirlik's writings have formed a subterranean element to this essay which now merits excavation.[6] In critical essays over the last decade, Dirlik has examined the manner in which ethnic or transnational literary texts are embedded within larger discursive frameworks such as multiculturalism and globalisation, and how these frameworks inform the manner in which they are read. Dirlik has noted a paradox in "contemporary cultural criticism and politics" ("The Past . . . " 203) that while much criticism stresses that tradition and cultural authenticity are constructed and therefore mythical, cultural claims of cultural authenticity show no signs of dying away. Indeed, claims of authenticity are incited by a multiculturalism that gives only to take back. In the reception of a Chinese American writer, Dirlik notes, ethnicity is conceived giving authority to "speak for something called Chinese" but also produces everything the writer utters as a product of "Chineseness": thus "an oppressive and hegemonic culturalism becomes barely distinguishable from a liberal and benign multiculturalism" (219).

As Dirlik emphasizes, it is a banal truism that cultural identity is fluid and mutuable, made up from materials that are partly invented ("The Past . . . " 205). What is important, rather, is to consider the context in which such fluidity and invention emerges. Dirlik suggests three criteria through which to evaluate constructions of culture: their relationship to power, the extent to which they reify, rather than question the past, and the relationship they posit between "the past as legacy and the past as a project" (205). What these criteria share is a vision of culture as historically situated and subject to power; multiculturalism which simply recognizes difference might be replaced by "a multihistoricism that questions the totality of existing relations and the future of the history that legitimizes them" (220). It is crucial, thus, to historicize culture itself, not to see it as an "object of consumption" but an "ongoing activity" ("Literature/Culture . . ." 229) directed towards possible futures as much as the past.

To Dirlik's injunctions, we might also add a need to historicize the very categories through which criticism does its work. Categories through which we read, study, and teach literary texts are subject to change: postcolonial studies replaced Commonwealth Literature or New Literatures in English in the late 1980s, and now seems itself to be in the process of being supplanted by transnational cultural studies, or diasporic literatures. Asian American studies is perhaps more stable, yet it too has engaged with increasing complexity with the phenomenon of transnational literary production. The future is likely to see new frameworks of analysis emerge. All of these frameworks, however, are united by a comparative impulse which extends beyond the local, and this is surely a necessary gesture. Critical reading of literary texts in Singapore cannot thus turn to a national canon of Singaporean Literature, and equally cannot return to the moment in the 1970s when it seemed possible to construct a canon of Singaporean and Malaysian Literature in English to rival the regional canons of the Caribbean or West Africa. In Singapore, local texts are inescapably global.

Yet, conversely, we need to remember, following Dirlik, that all global texts are also local, thinking here of locality in terms not only of production, but also of audience and indeed of representation. This awareness might extend to contemporary theoretical and conceptual frameworks themselves: within literary studies the postcolonial, the diasporic, and the transnational as presently conceived are in themselves local, in that they emerge at a particular historical juncture within an academy in which institutions of the North are dominant, and have proceeded to acquire various local meanings elsewhere. The transnational social imaginary in which these concepts are embedded perhaps too easily sees all literary texts as engaging in destabilising play, in picking apart categories such as race and nation, replacing colonial or "Western" subjectivities with new forms of self-fashioning. In this light, aggressive Asian or African "nationalist recuperation" (33-34), in Sau-Ling Wong's words, of texts representing Asia and Africa and yet written in North America - for instance rejection of Chinese American writers as "inauthentic" in the People's Republic of China - may at times be critically uninformed, but it is often motivated by a legitimate concern that the possibilities that local perspectives have to offer are too readily dismissed by transnational or transcultural reading strategies which are frequently unaware of the limits of their own location and context.

How might a practice of reading navigate this minefield? Surely by remembering Palumbo-Liu's injunction to historicize the present, above all through Dirlik's commitment to historicize culture. For the scholar who receives the text as "cargo," deterritorialized, not merely an awareness of how categories of analysis and reading publics are historically constituted - not merely, then, an elaborate self-reflexivity - but also a conviction that such an awareness can only come through a historical re-embedding, through a knowledge of other, various histories that inform the text. For the scholar who has "local knowledge," a commitment not to merely dismiss transnational texts as inauthentic on the one hand, nor to produce readings which dutifully confirm contemporary critical categories on the other, but rather a commitment to use historically informed readings of transnational texts to simultaneously examine both the contradictions of the "local" everyday and of contemporary "global" categories of academic analysis. For both, a commitment to explore in detail the messy, unfinished cultural ground which literary texts occupy. "Nothing . . . lived through," Lim reminds us, is "ever finally over" (305).



Colloquial Singapore English features a variety of final particles, such as lah, hor, and meh which, like their equivalents in Chinese languages, add emphasis and shades of meaning. Cheong overuses only one of them, lah, which is often stereotypically used as a marker of "Singlish" in media representation of it. Phrases such as "itu woman, she kept complaining" (5) are not representative of what someone in Singapore would actually say, since in Malay adjectives follow the noun: thus "perumpuan itu" (that woman) or possibly "woman itu" (although this is unlikely). However, the issue of accurate representation is to some degree subjective, and may divert us from a larger discussion of the symbolic function that apparent authenticity plays in the text. Some studies of the accuracy of representation of Singapore English in fiction have been unsophisticated, in that they do not allow the possibility that the writer is using a synthetic interlanguage to represent speech in languages other than English as, for example, Ming Cher attempts in his novel Spider Boys (1995). For accounts of the representation of Singapore English see Tan and Gupta: Talib places frequent references to this question in a more general framework of language use in postcolonial literatures.


The foremost example of this is the allegorical theatre of Singaporean playwright, Kuo Pao Kun. In plays such as Kuo's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (1995) the historical figure Zheng He, admiral in command of Ming Dynasty expeditions to Southeast Asia, is used to question the social fabric of contemporary Singapore, the play's protagonist becoming convinced that he and Zheng He are "related, closely related - so closely related that I had to be a descendant of the eunuch admiral" (Two Plays 38).


The one exception is section six, "Breaking the Tongue," where the Chinese characters given are not a direct translation but rather the patriotic inscription on the Song general Yue Fei's back.


This strategy is not, of course, always successful. Some Malaysian commentators, for instance, have questioned the continued use of "broken" English by Samad, Chester's erstwhile friend in Kuala Lumpur in the third part of the novel, since he is by this time a successful businessman in Singapore.


Ellen's sexuality is hinted at, but never explicitly discussed, in Lim's novel. Chester notes that it is "clear that she would never marry" and that while in Kula Lumpur "she preferred Li An to him" (281-282). However, Ellen explicitly rejects a description of her relationship with Li An as love, asking rhetorically "How can women love each other?" (212). While the text keeps Ellen's sexuality indeterminate, my experience of teaching the novel suggests that a significant minority of readers - including myself on first reading--identify Ellen as lesbian.


I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer of my article for Postcolonial Text who suggested Dirlik's two articles as a way of increasing the critical scope of this essay.

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