SOURCE: “Capturing the China Trade,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4336, May 9, 1986, p. 498.
[In the following review of An Insular Possession, Enright provides an outline of the historical facts in Mo's narrative and assesses Mo's fictional rendition.]
An Insular Possession is a historical novel of so traditional a kind as to seem startlingly original. The history concerns British trade with China and the so-called Opium War of 1839–42, embracing the seizure of Hong Kong by Britain in 1841. China was convinced that Westerners needed her rhubarb to cure the constipation characteristic of all barbarian bowels, but she didn't particularly want cotton in exchange. The West was after China's silver, as well as her tea, and the solution was to turn her into a society of consumers, or addicts, situated at a safe distance from home. Still a sore point with the Chinese, that bizarre war is virtually forgotten by us, partly because in retrospect it is both shameful and absurd, not to say indefensible, although at the time the sale of Indian opium, by force and by guile, was commonly considered absolutely essential to the Empire. When the trade ceased, Britain and its Empire continued to exist: essentials are rarely what they profess to be.
The first pages of the novel sketch the setting: the Pearl River, with its cargo of dead female babies, of barges and bandits, and Canton itself, already “an ancient place with a dubious and blood-stained past”, and a cosmopolitan city, blessed with a mosque and the tomb of one of the Prophet’s uncles, and also the Factories or trading posts of the East India Company, the “Honourable Company”. Thereafter we meet three of the main characters, Harry O’Rourke, the local painter, a Dickensian creation with a red bulbous nose and “plenilunar buttocks”, and the two young Americans, Walter Eastman and Gideon Chase, at present employees of the American house of Meridian and Co, which trades furs, sandalwood and birds’ nests in exchange for silk, porcelain, lacquer and tea, eschewing the “fabulously profitable traffic” in what is quaintly called “drug”.
Eastman is excitable, choleric and witty; Chase is gentle and serious-minded, even to the point of learning the Chinese language surreptitiously from one Master Ow, a disaffected mandarin with a taste for cherry brandy. Chase will later achieve great things as an interpreter to high figures of state and as a professor of Chinese in numerous universities. Or so—it is practically impossible to distinguish between fact and fabrication—an appendix informs us.
Timothy Mo’s primary allegiance is to history, to the past experienced as though it were the present, and hence he needs to make his characters lifelike and engaging. And so they are. To some extent they come from stock, not very deeply plumbed but representative: the boisterous Company clerk, younger son of a good but impecunious family; the cynical yet soft-hearted old hand; the stern pragmatic merchant; the bluff naval officer; the harassed envoy from London; the proper young lady from Boston, more bored than fascinated; the comical native servant. This suits the author’s aims, and one wouldn’t expect to find a Lucky Jim at the court of His Celestial Majesty or a Leopold Bloom on the Select Committee of Supercargoes.
The social life of expatriate Westerners is entertainingly documented. For instance, duck-shoots and boating parties; the smuggling into bachelor quarters of native prostitutes (an activity mentioned but not enacted); outdoor sketching; a visit to The Barber of Seville performed by a touring Italian company; a ball with fireworks to celebrate the American Fourth of July; and amateur dramatics,...
(This entire section contains 2450 words.)
that perennial pastime of exiles: here a production ofThe Rivals, with O’Rourke in the part of Mrs Malaprop and with the customary prima donnas and injured feelings.
The novel is rather low on romantic interest, apart from Eastman’s unsuitable love for his boss’s niece, promptly quashed by her heavily Victorian uncle; yet we shall hardly reproach Mo for passing light-heartedly over the goings-on in a “flower-boat” managed by a fat eunuch under the protection of the Brotherhood of Rovers of Rivers and Lakes. Humorous touches abound. Two Americans, captured by a “Tartar general,” are hard pressed to convince him of their nationality: he contends that if they are not English then they should speak a different language and wear different clothes. The mandarins translate the name of Lord Napier, briefly Superintendent of British Trade on the dissolution of the Honourable Company’s monopoly in China, in such a way as to suggest “Laboriously Vile”. Commissioner Lin, dispatched by the Emperor to put down the trade in opium, has need of the services of the American missionary hospital in Canton but protocol forbids him to visit it in person. He sends a discreet intermediary who describes the symptoms: Dr Parker diagnoses a hernia and furnishes a truss of the approximate dimensions. This story, taken from the contemporary Chinese Repository, is related in Arthur Waley’s The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes.
Eastman is revolted by the “noxious traffic” in opium, paradoxically carried on by the nation that led the way in suppressing the traffic in slaves, and whose commercial representatives piously argue that free trade is “hallowed work” which will bring backward China into intercourse not only with the rest of mankind but also with “our Maker”. When Meridian and Co decide to join in this secure and lucrative trade on the grounds that moral misgivings must yield to the claims of their investors, Eastman and Chase resign, the former to found an anti-opium newspaper, the latter to help him and to act as interpreter to the British Plenipotentiary, Captain Elliott, in his dealings with the Chinese authorities. It was Captain Charles Elliot[t] who secured the cession of Hong Kong, to the grave dissatisfaction of Lord Palmerston, whose sights were set on something better than “a barren Island with hardly a House upon it”. He fares more favourably at Mo’s hands than at Waley’s; in the event, both the Captain and Commissioner Lin, Waley’s hero, were sacked, each of them for displaying excessive moderation vis-à-vis the other.
It isn’t misconception or prejudice that Timothy Mo must contend against, but sheer, large-scale ignorance. I found his pedagogy both serviceable and painless—and never mind the occasional squeak of chalk on blackboard. A high-flying article, obviously by Chase, in Eastman’s Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee is encyclopaedic on the subject of Chinese literary modes. The Chinese tale “is bud, flower, and then compost, but as a growth of nature is never subject to the laws and dictates of mechanism”, for the language lacks tenses and therefore events unfold “directly and without mediation before the reader’s very eyes”. Moreover, though all novels are vulgar and frivolous and not to be compared with works of history or philosophy, Chinese fiction is “more emancipate” and more truly vernacular than American, in that American writers, wearing as it were imposed pigtails of the mind, are still in thrall to the literary models and prejudices of the Old World.
Political events and military movements are largely conveyed through the pages reproduced from the Canton Monitor and later the Lin Tin Bulletin. The Monitor is the organ of the mercantile establishment, crying out for tougher measures against the “jealous Celestials” and mocking “Cousin Jonathan” from across the Atlantic, in a mixture of jingoism, hypocrisy, hard business sense, and a fearfully arch would-be literariness:
The forces of darkness and prejudice must be cut down to make a way for the agents of improvement. It is, we would remind our readers, some of whom, following their experience of shifting for themselves, may find the analogy unusually pertinent, impossible to make an omelette without first breaking eggs. We, it must frankly be owned, cannot wait to see the great Chinese Humpty Dumpty given a forceful shove off his wall of secrecy and deceit and broke all to pieces. Not all the Emperor’s men shall put him together again.
Though a stout champion of free trade, excluding “drug”, the Lin Tin Bulletin—ironically named after the island where the opium hulks are moored—is sympathetic towards the Chinese, and prints sketches of native life, of Verminous Tse, the King of the Beggars, and Sour Li, the pickle vendor: topics scorned by the Canton Monitor. The Bulletin reports looting and raping by sepoys during an action outside Canton, while the Monitor states that “The men in general behaved very well.” Later in the proceedings the Bulletin deplores the debauchery following the British occupation of Hong Kong (that new settlements do not inevitably attract brutal and licentious characters is proved by the first settlers of New England), and we are surprised to find the Monitor, now the Hong Kong Guardian and Gazette, in agreement with its rival for once: “The morality of Hong Kong continues to give rise to concern.” The next issue corrects “morality” to “mortality”.
“Oh printing! What troubles hast thou brought mankind!” runs the Bulletin’s motto. In its first issue, dated January 3, 1838, the paper reports the death of Pushkin and, a trifle prematurely, the coronation of Queen Victoria. And its editor is reproached by Chase for referring to the “Yangtse Kiang River”, since “Kiang” means “river”: an amusing anticipation of the solecism committed by Ezra Pound in his rendering of a line by “Rihaku”, better known as Li Po, “the narrows of the river Kiang”. However, Eastman turns out to be no mean journalist, summing up the casus belli, nine months later, in magisterial tones. By placing the onus for the suppression of the opium trade on the Chinese government, “Britannia has the best of all worlds: she gets the lucre, yet washes her hands of all moral responsibility. We do not think this can continue.”
The period flavour in the speech of the Westerners is managed well, though the prose of the two newspapers can be oppressively orotund. But all this provides an effective contrast with the coolness of the sparing authorial voice:
Secret. Palace memorials circulate; the Emperor annotates in scarlet ink. High-minded censors, busy-bodies, ambitious time-servers sensing the imperial inclination, Confucian saints of a rectitude which is uncompromising to the point of mania, cranks, gentlemen essayists of leisure on their family estates—all have their pronouncements, panaceas ranging from the draconian if undeniably effective (execute all addicts) to the intelligent if unstomachable (buy all the drug and burn it). Very soon the Emperor is as sick of this torrent of paper as he is of the foreigners and their torrent of muck.
And likewise it gives edge to the account of the little things, the “minor pinpricks”, that build up into racial contempt and hostility: the foreigner’s cook takes 10 per cent of the accordingly enhanced price charged by the fruitseller, and the foreigner despises the Chinese for their petty cheating while the Chinese despise the foreigner who is stupid enough to allow himself to be diddled.
Timothy Mo shows us events mostly through Western eyes, the eyes of people we soon come to esteem or at least understand. Perhaps he is paying a discreet and timely tribute to his birth-place, Hong Kong, rudely appropriated but efficiently run, by and large, along principles similar to Charles Gould’s in Nostromo. Law and order grow out of material interests, which in turn are best served by law and order. That Eastman and Chase are Americans, with early American ideals, serves to bring out British excesses, and Mo contrives indirect reminders through such quiet narrative comments as—of a minor gunboat action—“Miraculously, no one is hurt (except Chinese, that is) …”. The fighting is confused and disjointed—as was everything in this anomalous affair, much of it half-hearted and inflamed by considerations of “face” as well as of money—but the skirmishes by land and by sea are graphically recounted. Mo represents the British soldiery as brave men engaged in a wrongful cause, and Commissioner Lin (through Eastman’s judicious editorial eyes) as both high-minded and high-handed, unjust in his means though noble and right in his ends. We can imagine what boring rant against imperialism and the unholy trinity of flag, Bible and merchantman the theme would provoke in some writers.
The Chinese Repository—to which, Waley says, we owe much of our knowledge of the period—was edited by two Americans, Elijah Bridgman (who makes a brief graveside appearance in the novel) and Wells Williams. They might conceivably be the originals of Eastman and Chase, though their magazine was a missionary enterprise, and the Bulletin seems closer to the Canton Press, the organ of the anti-opium party. The kidnapping in 1840 of Vincent Stanton actually happened: Mo makes him a BA (Oxon) and a Reverend, whereas Waley ascribes him to Cambridge, though degreeless and, at this stage, unordained. Harry O’Rourke may well be based on George Chinnery, a painter residing in Macao at the time; Chinnery was described by a contemporary as “fascinatingly ugly”, while O’Rourke claims “the distinction of being the ugliest man in Macao”; both were given to alarming facial distortions. O’Rourke is happily unmarried, and Chinnery was on the run from his wife. In the novel, a Chinese portrait painter by the name of Lumqua, competing with O’Rourke, advertises his services in the Canton Monitor; Waley mentions a Chinese painter, Lamqua, who took lessons in the European style from Chinnery and modelled “Commissioner Lin and his Favourite Consort” for Madame Tussaud’s.
The nature or constitution of this mix of fact and fiction, of imagination and documentation, is irrelevant to the novel as a “good yarn”, but bears directly on what I take to be part of the author’s intention, hinted at in the essay on Chinese literary modes and what it says about the absence of any “sense of recession or distance from the past, or superiority to it”. Too much invention, or too little authenticity, would betray a presumed superiority.
An Insular Possession is surely longer than it really needs to be. Excellent though it is to meet the past in the shape of instant and vivid reporting, too much space is given to the minutely detailed extracts from the press. Here Mo’s conscientiousness has got the better of his discretion. Eastman’s enthusiasm for photography, evinced in his published tips for practitioners, grows tedious, and (however true to Eastman’s habit of fierce indignation) the duel between the rival editors seems gratuitous. Even so, there are no obvious candidates for deletion on the usual grounds of cheapness, ingratiation, pretentiousness or plain bad writing—which is a remarkable achievement in a book of this size.
SOURCE: “On the Edge of History,” in Far Eastern Economic Review, September 18, 1986, pp. 60-61.
[In the following review, Wilson describes the stylistic qualities of Mo’s prose in An Insular Possessionwhile also presenting an account of the novel's plot and setting.]
Timothy Mo’s long-awaited new novel, five years in the making, begins with a lyrical description of the Pearl River and the city of Canton which will demand inclusion in any future treasury of modern English prose. This is Mo at his best, using language as a fluent conveyor of all the eye can see, the ear can hear, the mind can imagine—language lean yet poetic, down-to-earth yet conscious of the sky.
After that we have something more difficult: an attempt to recreate some of the life along, upon and beside that river in the years of the Opium War when dynamic British and decadent Chinese power clashed, resulting in Britain’s acquiring that “insular possession,” Hongkong.
Mo has a Cantonese father, an English mother and a Hongkong birthplace: whom is more suitable to pen a great epic uncovering a rich clash of cultures and suggesting, as only a good novel can, the plurality of motive and diversity of individual character that rescue such episodes of history from the strait-jacket of political myth-making? It is somewhat, perhaps, like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which Mo admires so much.
But it is not that kind of magnum opus at all. An Insular Possession is a long and unhurried book which, far from interpreting events, merely paints a background against which historical events could have taken place, using for heroes two American journalists and a drunken Irish painter on the fringe of affairs. Their idle chatter over breakfast, their struggles with the latest photographic invention (daguerreotype), their adventures in boats, their lively comments on the mores and foibles of the Chinese and Europeans around them, a duel, their pet dog, a cricket match—these are the matters of Mo’s book. Only briefly do we become involved in actual Anglo-Chinese fighting, when one of the Americans is pressed into service as an interpreter.
To this end the author performs the technical triumph of writing in the English of the 1840s. Mo has adopted Dickensian turns of phrase, and words like epicanthic, homunculi, cloaca, enisled and thrasonical, to cite examples from the first few pages. Mo’s research in both matter and form is extraordinarily thorough.
Mo confesses that he finds narrative-writing boring, and in the middle of this book he drops a hint of what he is really up to, distinguishing between the Western novel (which unfolds linearly, with a strong plot carrying it to a firm conclusion) and the Chinese novel (whose path is circular, emphasising incident, character and language). The former is a river, conscious of time progressing, the latter a lake lacking either tense or perspective. One takes the individual as hero, the other the group. The reader is thus warned not to expect anything so crude as a moral or an analytical structure in An Insular Possession.
The book is great fun to browse and dip into. I shall not forget the newspaper “resourcefully ironed crisp against the humidity,” or the comment on early converts: “Their Christian zeal was greatest at meal-times.” But the nearest we get to politics is Commissioner Lin securing through an intermediary an American missionary doctor’s truss for his hernia, or someone’s stricture on opium: “How many a ruler leaves his subject in thrall to … a lump of brown sap? Better to be a man’s slave than an object’s.” Old China hands will smile at the description of Canton as the sphincter of the Chinese empire through which life-sustaining fluids are drained overseas.
This is a good book in which to lose yourself, to gain an insight into what the world of 1840 might have looked like to people “neutral” as between China and Europe. But do not look for history in the formal sense, or for big ideas.
Mo is always tantalising us with newly displayed gifts. After the uproarious comedy of contemporary Chinese life in Hong Kong and Britain, The Monkey King and Sour Sweet, he has now extended his range to China, albeit an old China, and to Western heroes, albeit on the edge of public affairs.
SOURCE: “Truth Opium and Muddy Waters,” in New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, p. 2.
[In the following review, Winks attempts to identify Mo's purpose and achievement in An Insular Possession.]
Timothy Mo has sent his craft up a crowded river. A few years ago C. Mary Turnball, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, charted the many novels set in Hong Kong and found well over a hundred. Most, she thought, were of little account, though the public obviously thought differently of the panoramas offered by James Clavell, whose Tai-Pan, published in 1966, sprawls across much the same riverscape as Mr. Mo’s remarkable effort, An Insular Possession. Mr. Clavell was never content to let his ship slide into quiet waters, however, and in the end he was false to the history he tried to tell. Mr. Mo is more confident, his hand steady on the tiller, his sense of when to allow boredom to descend over a quiet colonial day precisely calibrated.
An Insular Possession is many things. Foremost, it is a fine book. Mr. Mo’s third novel, the result of five years’ work, fascinates much as a great, highly illustrated encyclopedia will fascinate, with odd bits of information competing with long, sustained passages of action, description and pure narrative for the reader’s attention. Mr. Mo is particularly good with water: in rivers, in the sea, from the sky, in waste and in food. “Rain distresses the rivers’s grey surface, making it seethe like an oil painting attacked by a strong reagent,” he writes, “It is quite a light rain—‘hair-fine’ rain, in the local patois … and from the shelter of the balcony seems like a rolling mist.” He enjoys language, plays with it, takes risks, sometimes fails, but page after page rolls on, a controlled flood of metaphor.
Mr. Mo ties Hong Kong to London with the image of his great river, which as it reaches the sea is “yellow-brown, the colour of tea as drunk in London.” The river is much like the British Empire, which “succours and impedes native and foreigner alike; it limits and it enables, it isolates and it joins.” The river is the highway of commerce that makes possible a triangular trade no less vicious than the one that had tied an earlier British Empire together—the trade in slaves, molasses, rum and horses that linked Africa to the West Indies and the whole to the mainland colonies of North America. This triangular trade is based on opium: slave-grown cotton is carried from the New World to England, where wage slaves turn it into cloth. The cloth is carried to India, sold to brown men who produce from the poppy a much prized drug. Though the practice is illegal, there are Chinese who will exchange silver for opium, thus to finance the tea that flows back from the East to comfort and stimulate the English factory hands, “so that drug of a kind is at work at all corners of the triangle.”
It is into this trade that two young Americans obtrude. Gideon Chase, still in his teens, hails from New England; his friend Walter Eastman hails from the South. Eastman is interested in the daguerreotype and senses how photography will change our perception of reality; Chase, who learns Chinese from a Jesuit priest, becomes an interpreter and translator for the British, so that their reality is filtered through his language. Chase and Eastman break with the American traders who are prepared to go along with the British in promoting the opium trade. They found an irreverent newspaper, The Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee, which competes against the stern voice of the British, The Canton Monitor: “The only measures which have ever proved efficacious against the insolence of the Chinese have been those inspired by a manly and determined firmness.” From the opposing newspapers, and through opposing views of what is best for the Chinese and for the future of commerce in the region, the reader learns of the range of Western visions of the East.
But more is going on here than a panoramic exploration of Canton, Macao and Hong Kong between 1833 and 1841. Mr. Mo’s approach is, at first, maddeningly circular. His story appears to move in fits and starts, told largely in the present tense, yet interspersed with oracular observations, as from the outside. It is moved on (and at times retarded) by long passages from the competing newspapers, by letters, chunks apparently ripped from gazetteers—in short, told through all the historian’s customary primary sources, from eyewitnesses to memoirs. He is, one discovers, letting us know that the Chinese novel proceeds differently, for as an essay in Mr. Mo’s Lin Tin Bulletin tells us, a Western novel moves by virtue of its plot, “a veritable engine which advances the tale along its rails to a firm destination,” while “the native novel … moves in a path which is altogether circular,” being made up of separate episodes joined only by the loosest threads.
Mr. Mo supplies an appendix that mixes his fictional characters with the several historical figures that walk upon his stage. Through it we learn that young Gideon Hall lives to become a world-famed scholar who, in 1881, prepares a translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber, sometimes called the first Chinese novel (which, in fact, was first translated in part by an English consul in China and published in Hong Kong in 1892). Thus Mr. Mo links young Chase’s pursuit of an understanding of the Chinese language—which he must learn in order to serve as go between in a world of British plenipotentiaries and naval officers and Cantonese compradors—to the emergence of a body of scholarship about China in which two contending views of the novel, one about time and the other about distance (as Chase observes in another context), are given concrete example.
Mr. Mo also has fun with stereotypes. The first Chinese we encounter is “grinning Ah Cheong,” valet to a second-rate artist and first-rate womanizer who plays a central role in Mr. Mo’s (or Eastman’s) exploration of how painting and photography, in parallel to Western and Chinese ideas about the novel, shape different realities. Ah Cheong speaks as the condescending literature of the past required: “Mastah Eastman just now come chop-chop say you plomise give him sketch-y lesson today, you no lemember bimeby?” This bit of nonsense soon passes, and Mr. Mo returns to his rich vocabulary (the artist, we learn, has “plenilunar buttocks”), the point made.
What most appears to fascinate Timothy Mo is a central question of empire. He knows that many of the British merchants who promoted the opium trade were in all other respects kind men, generous even, Christian to a fault. He is not satirical, he is genuinely puzzled. How is it, he wonders, letting Chase speak for him, that good men do bad deeds? Or that bad men do good deeds? And how, between cultures and between generations, is one to find the language to define such deeds? How could the missionaries go up the China coast on the opium clippers, distributing Bibles with the drug?
Mr. Mo seems to conclude that we cannot know. In passages from Chase’s unpublished autobiography, he has Chase explicitly reject all iron laws, whether of Malthus or of Marx. He reflects on language (“What is a dictionary but a photograph of the river of language at a given moment?”), on how language diverges as well as divulges, isolates as well as unites. In the end, it is clear, Chase and Mr. Mo feel that historical truth is as the river, “the surface of the waters half-transparent, brittle, yet in the end opaque to our discernment while beneath that glassy roof the fish flutter, tantalisingly, half-glimpsed as an idea or memory struggling to the surface of our thought.” History is not melodrama, it simply is.
SOURCE: “Timothy Mo's Asian Studies,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XVII, No. 17, April 26, 1987.
[In the following review, Yardley comments on Mo’s narrative skills and characterizes the author's shortcomings.]
The ways of book publishing being as they are, the immensely gifted young British writer Timothy Mo made his American debut two years ago not with his first novel but his second: Sour Sweet, an irresistible book about a Chinese family living in London and learning—among many other things—how to cope with the alien Western culture. Sour Sweet was enthusiastically reviewed in this country, acquired a small but ardent readership, and aroused much curiosity about Mo’s first novel, provocatively if enigmatically titled The Monkey King.
Now that curiosity can be satisfied. Mo’s first novel and his third, An Insular Possession, have been simultaneously published by two American houses. They turn out to be works of strikingly different character, though both deal with Mo’s persistent theme of East-West cultural dissimilarities. Readers who took pleasure in Sour Sweet will find themselves in familiar territory in The Monkey King, another novel about Chinese domestic life. An Insular Possession, on the other hand, is a sprawling, ambitious historical novel whose central characters are Americans and whose narrative method is calculatedly—indeed, almost ostentatiously—old-fashioned.
An Insular Possession is to be admired not merely for its ambition but also for Mo’s apparent determination not to repeat himself, but to venture into new and risky territory. The Monkey King and Sour Sweet, though different in many particulars, have much in common: not merely does each depict a Chinese family coming to terms with the West, but each is about a marriage that begins with discomfort and suspicion yet slowly warms into mutual respect and even love; further, each is written with a deft blend of affection and wry dispassion that produces a jaunty, distinctive tone. Each book is certainly an original; but were one to read the two consecutively, it would be easy to conclude that Mo is a writer of limited range.
Of the two, Sour Sweet is the more accomplished and confident—as would reasonably be expected of any writer’s second book—but The Monkey King is considerably more than mere apprentice work. It tells the story of how Wallace Nolasco, a Hong Kong Portuguese, marries into the Poon family and learns to cope with its mysterious ways; like Sun Wu Kung, “legendary king of the monkeys,” Wallace manages “to get himself out of the trouble he got into in the end.” His story involves labyrinthine complications, both financial and marital, but it comes right in the end; not merely does Wallace reach an understanding of the family into which he has married, but the family accepts him as its own and the cultural assimilation is thus effected, however peculiarly. Like Sour Sweet, The Monkey King is as funny as it is touching, and Mo’s eye for the telling detail or nuance is discerning and penetrating.
Though these first two novels are essentially domestic, each contains strong undertones of corruption and violence; Mo believes in the possibilities of human reconciliation, but he is also an unsentimental observer of the forces that divide and destroy. These come to the fore in An Insular Possession, which is set in Canton, Macao and Hong Kong during the 1830s and ’40s. Within its large cast of characters, the principal ones are two young Americans, Walter Eastman and Gideon Chase, who have come to China as representatives of traders and who soon become the passionate opponents of the new trade into which their superiors direct them: opium. “The substance and happiness of a few individuals,” they write, “are founded on the stupefaction of the intellects, the wasting of the bodies, and the misery of the unoffending families of a mass of wretched addicts,” and they determine to do something about it: to found a newspaper, The Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee, to fight the opium trade.
Thus begins a tale that quickly assumes vast proportions. An Insular Possession is a genuine Victorian triple-decker, not merely in its length but also in its language. It is written in a deliberately archaic, prolix style that clearly is intended to evoke its period, and its extensive excerpts from The Lin Tin Bulletin and other fictional newspapers of the day—not to mention letters, journals and other documents—skillfully mimic Victorian prose. Indeed it is no exaggeration to call An Insular Possession a stylistic tour de force; not merely has Mo mastered the Victorian mood, but his knowledge of the history of China, Hong Kong and the British Empire is enormously impressive. As period piece and as history, An Insular Possession is a considerable accomplishment.
As fiction, though, it is only intermittently interesting and frequently, if the truth be told, soporific. Mo strains too hard for effect, with the result that the reader is more conscious of the strain than of the effect; the prose and the Victorian detail call attention to themselves so loudly that the characters never are able to emerge as much more than cardboard, and the story never acquires narrative strength. The texture that Mo has woven is quite lovely, but in a novel of such length and bulk, texture is not enough; a novel has to go somewhere, and An Insular Possession never really does.
This is not to say that nothing happens in it. Quite to the contrary, the book is rife with activity. There are military engagements, a duel and swashbuckling of various sorts; British generals and admirals wander in and out, along with venal tradesmen and militant Chinese and gurus of numerous descriptions; a romance is attempted and thwarted, prostitutes ply their trade, teas and dinner parties are presented; in one way after another, the “baffled, inimical cultures” of China and the West are posed against each other. All of this is done with intelligence and wit, but it barely hangs together, because Mo gives us issues and events but he does not give us people.
It is possible, to be sure, that An Insular Possession may acquire a following because of, rather than despite, precisely these shortcomings. Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in other times and cultures, and who do not object to fiction that moves at a decidedly leisurely pace, may well find the novel both agreeable and rewarding. To my taste, though, Mo’s intelligence and elegant style do not compensate for his failure to give his novel a center or for his excessive indulgence in digression and peripheral chatter. An Insular Possession probably was a great pleasure to write, but it is rather less of one to read; it demands the reader’s patience, yet it never fully earns that patience.
Still, Mo must be admired for his daring, for his refusal to be typecast as a writer of droll cross-cultural domestic stories. That he does these stories with great skill and empathy does not mean they are the only stories he should write, and his willingness to test other waters is laudable. In An Insular Possession, though, these waters prove too deep.
SOURCE: “China Syndrome,” in The New Republic, Vol. 196, No. 19, May 11, 1987, pp. 39-41.
[In the following review, Buruma discusses the metaphorical motifs and characteristic features of Mo's style in An Insular Possession.]
What will happen after 1997? This is the first thing people ask when one tells them that one lives in Hong Kong. It is not the sort of question posed about any other place. Who knows what will happen in 1997 in New York, Delhi, or Tokyo? But in no other place is the future tied to a specific date, to a formal agreement that a modern capitalist colony will be handed over to a troubled Communist state. Nor can one think of any other major city whose origin can be so clearly traced to a date. In the case of Hong Kong, the date is August 29, 1842, when the island was ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Nanking. (In fact several thousand British sailors and merchants had already moved there in 1839, having been forced to leave Canton.) An Australian journalist once called Hong Kong a borrowed place on borrowed time; but the time is now fixed. The cold chronological number gives people the illusion of certainty, the illusion that the future can be predicted.
This is the paradox of Hong Kong. Its future is both fixed and fluid, predictable and utterly uncertain. This contradiction between the roaring tide of history and the attempts by men to fix it, to make virtually scientific sense of it, is one of the key themes of Timothy Mo’s very clever novel [An Insular Possession]about the genesis of Hong Kong. The first sentence of the book introduces the main metaphor for the epic story that follows: “The river succors and impedes native and foreigner alike; it limits and it enables, it isolates and it joins.” The image of the river as the tide of history keeps on returning:
At least the river’s bars are a predictable ambush; they become submerged and exposed with the rise and fall of a tide but they do not change position. It is the river itself which is fickle and mischievous. It is never the same for longer than a season and in ten years will cut itself new channels, flood what was land, retreat from its bed to leave bird-haunted mud flats and strange smooth stones, create peninsulas and enisle what was once part of the main.
And on the final page of the novel, the hero of the story, a scholarly American called Gideon Chase, makes the metaphor explicit: “Treaties, Congresses, Conventions mean nothing, except to the participants—the stuff of history is less tangible, but lies in a popular mood whose ebbs and flows are not measurable by the month or year.”
In Asia, specifically Buddhist Asia, this image of the river sweeping away the illusions of man is a cliché, like the image of the man carrying the cross of his own destiny in Christian civilization. Timothy Mo was born in Hong Kong and partly educated there. He writes in English and lives in London. He is thus the heir of two civilizations. And in his work the clichés of one are constantly challenged by those of the other.
On the surface of his story is the historical clash between two civilizations on the south China coast, which culminated in the first Opium War from 1840 to 1842. It was a war not just between Britain and China, but between the modern, pragmatic, mercantile, scientific, brave new world and the old, inward-looking middle kingdom ruled by the son of heaven, for whom barbarian foreigners could be tribute-bearers at best. That the brittle, self-contained Chinese world would collapse was inevitable; indeed, it had the inevitability of tragedy. That the British gave the first push was coincidental, as was the product over which the war was ostensibly fought: opium.
Mo, mainly through the eyes of two fictional American witnesses, the somewhat pompous Gideon Chase and his more facile friend Walter Eastman, sets the scene of the tragedy well. It is still an oddly familiar scene—the boredom of humid summers; the mediocrity of expatriate life; the high spirits of drunken young Englishmen abroad; the seediness of Old Hands visiting Chinese brothels; the comedy of manners at dance parties in Macao; the arrogance of Western merchants, cynically aware that both God and guns are on their side; the hypocrisy of the Americans, who condemn the ruthlessness of Europeans while profiting from it themselves; the bloodymindedness of Chinese officials, as yet ignorant of the forces they are dealing with. And the violent climax of the tragedy is described in the sort of vivid detail one would expect from a part-time boxing writer (which Mo is): the brutal slaughter of Chinese troops by Sepoys, brought over from India; the one-sided sea battles; the ghastly effect of a rocket blowing a Chinese ship sky high.
That rocket is a triumph of Western science:
Before Gideon’s horrified eyes, a human arm, including the hand and fingers, suddenly lands with a heavy thump, failing to bounce. He cannot believe what his eyes have seen. He turns to Pedder, but the first lieutenant is concentrating on the next target. Captain Hall surrenders his place at the rocket-tube to the weapon’s designated operator. Crouch looks as stunned as if the rocket has hit him, which, in a manner of speaking, it has. “There, there … do you see …” is all Gideon can manage.
“Interesting effect, Mr. Crouch. I’m sure you’re in agreement.”
“Prodigious. The destructive power is extraordinary—but the more so the accuracy. I could not believe a rocket might be so precisely delivered.”
Science anesthetizes the senses; one is reminded of bomber crews pushing digital buttons over big cities. And the rocket is compared at one point in the story with another scientific invention of the time, the camera: “To the surviving Chinese, scattering on the bank, the brass lens has all the appearance of the barrel of a new and still deadlier weapon of war (which perhaps it is), the more destructive for its small size and apparently innocuous body.”
As a kind of parallel stream to the main river of Mo’s narrative, there is a continuous rivalry between Walter Eastman, the photographer, and an old Irish painter named O’Rourke. Both depict the same events, one by fixing them in time, the other by interpreting them through his imagination—the world of science against the world of myths and legends:
On one hill: silent, orderly red lines, glinting with brass and blanco, neat field-batteries of howitzers and rockets unlimbering and forming, discipline and science, hierarchy and professionalism. On the other: a shapeless crowd, waving motley weapons, spilling down the slope and into the valley. Ardor and vehemence. Enthusiasm, spontaneity.
Much of Mo’s story is told through newspaper accounts. The irony of it is that he made up the newspaper accounts. Even the potted biography of Gideon Chase, which appears in the appendix, among the biographies of actual historical figures, is a product of Mo’s imagination. He has imagined history by entering into the language of the past. Indeed, the entire book—its length, its epic scenes, its social comedy, its moral sermonizing, its almost baroque intricacy—can be read as a comment on the Victorian novel, as kind of postmodern Thackeray. Perhaps irony is the only weapon left to those who live by the imagination in a world bombarded by facts, journalism, and scientific information.
The problem for this postmodern novel, like the problem of postmodernism itself, is that it rarely, if ever, gets beyond cleverness. The point is made over and over again. Mo does not always know when to leave well enough alone. He is so cerebral, so concerned with style, that he cuts his work off from passion, without which art has no life. This novel so full of blood is also rather anemic. It is as if Mo does not really care about his characters except as figures in the landscape of his ideas, to be picked up and discarded like the flat leather puppets in a Javanese shadow play. And if the author does not care, why should the reader? This is not to say that the puppets, or the characters, need to look real; but they must be real at least in the context of their fictional world. Even that degree of reality is undermined by Mo’s relentless irony, leaving a brilliant exercise in style and little else.
Art about art is the product of over-civilization. It is particularly popular now in British writing and art-house cinema, produced by a small, gifted coterie of which Mo is a member. It is also very much in the classical tradition of Chinese literati, those refined amateur connoisseurs whose allusions to other works of art were like codes that only they could understand. The last appendix of Mo’s book is an “excerpt” from the “unpublished memoirs” of Gideon Chase. In it he makes the following statement:
The effect produced by photography upon painting, it now seems to me, in the latest work of France, has been to isolate the artist from the public, to make our modern painter insular, private, abstracted, to free him from the tiresome representation of the surface of things, but also to exile him to a realm where taste and knowledge are the private possession of the craft. Their work, treating still in its way of the world we all inhabit and in which we have our being, assembles nothing so much as a cryptic code to the outsider, a message and description of the mundane world, but couched in a cipher to which only an elite hold the key.
One could not wish for a better description of Mo’s novel. It is a truly insular possession.
SOURCE: Review of The Monkey King in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 5, 1987, p. 11.
[In the following review, Feldman looks at the literary antecedent of The Monkey King and discusses the intricacies of the novel.]
One of China's most famous and best-loved novels, the 16th-Century Journey to the West, recounts the larger-than-life, picaresque adventures of the legendary Monkey King as he wends his way toward enlightenment via heaven, hell and all manner of earthly places in between. Timothy Mo, the Oxford-educated son of an English mother and Cantonese father who now lives and writes in London, let his imagination journey eastward to 1950s Hong Kong and to Chinese folk tradition for inspiration in his first novel, The Monkey King. So consciously to evoke comparison with one of China’s most popular and enduring works of fiction in other hands could have been courting disaster. But, like its illustrious forebear, this 20th-Century tale is at turns comic and serious, sympathetic and cruel, and certainly never dull. Although it was originally published in Great Britain almost 10 years ago, when Mo was in his mid-20s, The Monkey King has only just arrived in the United States, thanks in large part to the critical acclaim his second and third novels, Sour Sweet and An Insular Possession, have received on both sides of the Atlantic. This belated crossing for an extraordinary literary debut is long overdue and one for which we should be grateful.
The teasing tone of Mo’s novel is set by its very first line: “On the whole Wallace avoided intimate dealings with the Chinese.” Wallace Nolasco, the story’s protagonist, of course proceeds to take his readers on a very intimate, funny, exaggerated and enlightening journey into the heart of the Chinese world. Mo’s central character has the ability to look at both sides of this world, as insider and observer. Although nominally a Portuguese from Macau and therefore like the Monkey King of legend, set apart from the Chinese who surround him, Wallace has had his blood diluted by so many generations of ancestral mixed marriages that to any outsider he would be indistinguishable from the Cantonese. “Like his fellow Portuguese, Wallace made the best of the situation. In fanciful moments, he saw the Chinese and himself as prisoners together in a long chain gang, the descendants of the original convicts.”
The novel begins with Wallace’s arranged marriage to May Ling Poon, the daughter of the second concubine of the miserly and extremely rich head of the house of Poon. Since his own family background is genteel but decidedly impoverished, the marriage from the Nolasco viewpoint is in theory at least not a bad deal; and offloading a daughter who is not an “official” daughter and therefore ineligible for a proper marriage to a Chinese is wonderfully convenient from the Poon vantage point. However, after taking up residence in the crumbling Hong Kong Island abode of his wife’s extended family, Wallace discovers both to the reader’s hilarity and shock that life among the Poons is not exactly the most delightful of experiences.
The novel is propelled by an almost Dickensian dynamic that is set in motion by the immensely self-centered, tyrannical and devious head of the household. The hierarchical family life of Confucian tradition whose ultimate aim was the harmonious ordering of society and continuation of the lineage, under Mr. Poon’s dispensation becomes something akin to internecine warfare. To survive life among the Poons—two unmarriageable harpies of spinster sisters; an idle, emasculated and bullying son heir, Ah Lung; the latter’s much put-upon wife, Ah Fong; their two children, “Hogan” and “Clarence”; Mr. Poon’s wife and her assortment of sour and disobliging servants—Wallace, the outsider, and May Ling, his not entirely willing accomplice, must devise stratagems worthy of the Monkey King himself.
When Wallace decides to make an ally of his wife, this involves, among other acts of civil disobedience, educating her in the collected wisdom of the Western world via his favorite reading matter, “nuggets” from assorted issues of The Reader’s Digest.
It also involves providing her with a role model in the person of a most unforgettable literary creation, one Mable Yip, who “had instantly impressed Wallace as a woman of character and influence, even originality. She was the ugliest woman he had ever met. Her ugliness was a kind of distinction … a fierce, positive rejection of any kind of comeliness … ‘Really Mable look rather fine when you stop to think about it,’ her friends agreed, and those who called themselves the friends of Mabel Yip were many.”
Halfway through the novel after Mr. Poon has implanted his son-in-law in a convenient government job, the scene shifts dramatically to the villages of the New Territories, a world away from Hong Kong Island itself. At times of trouble, be it dynastic change, a modern political purge or a rather more personal scrape, the Chinese traditionally seek refuge in their countryside. When Poon sets his son-in-law up to further some shady business dealings via the government job, Wallace and May Ling are forced to flee to a village under Mr. Poon’s orders. It proves to be an unexpectedly liberating experience for them both. Coming from a household whose mechanism is oiled by general scheming and nastiness, they discover when left to their own devices a basic humanity and fondness for each other that is both touching and quite funny. After disaster strikes the village, the Monkey King and his consort engineer a solution that is both hilarious to read about and yet provides some very real insights into the Chinese order of things. In the end, they are triumphantly recalled to Hong Kong, but the final, rather disturbing image of the book reminds us that for all his ingenuity, the new, harmonious order that Wallace Nolasco established in the house of Poon exacts a certain price.
Like Sour Sweet, The Monkey King holds a mirror up to the life of the family, which is at the very center of the Chinese universe. Although the images reflected by the glass are distorted through irony, farce, exaggeration, black humor and the like, they nevertheless cast some astonishing truths before the eyes of the careful observer while providing an exceedingly enjoyable read. Mo’s language occasionally reveals a slight immaturity through trying just a little too hard; some scenes are not quite so convincing in their exaggeration as others. However, the rhythm of his prose and his gift for comic dialogue generally cannot be faulted. The rich promise of The Monkey King has already been confirmed by Sour Sweet and An Insular Possession. We cannot but look forward to the next installment.
SOURCE: Review of An Insular Possession, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter 1988, p. 181.
[In the following review, Jussawalla discusses Mo's skills and shortcomings as a writer as evidenced in An Insular Possession.]
Timothy Mo’s novel An Insular Possession is a rather slow-moving account of British colonizers in the Far East—so slow-moving that it took me three concerted efforts to finish the book. Each time the major characters sit down to an elaborate meal, it is impossible to summon the courage to go on reading. The interminable meals mark unnecessary breaking points in the narrative, as the reader plods through “cold buffets of York Ham,” fowls, abalone, curry, crystallized fruit, “coffee chop-chop of sweet biscuits and syrup,” “eggs and grits from a chafing dish and curried fowl.” These are the days of the Raj throughout the colonies, however, and the practices of the implementers of the Raj lay predominantly in philosophizing on the veranda between cups of fruit, “nimboo pani,” and sherry. They also wrote home, and Mo’s novel relies on letters for narrative and background. Unfortunately, the letters are filled with trivial historical details about trivial figures such as Sir Jamsetjee Jeejhibhoy, a little-known Indian politician who was a protégé of the British. Walter Eastman, one of the principal characters, calls himself, in a letter, a “philosopher of the verandah.” Even the American characters are infected with British practices, as they are with loathing for their steamy surroundings and the natives.
What Mo does do beautifully is evoke that languid, steamy existence. In his delicate and beautifully written descriptions he shows the power of the English language in the hands of non-native English-speaking ex-colonials. His characters O’Rourke and Eastman are painters, metaphors for the author himself as he paints with delicate strokes these lives lived under muslin nets and the East as seen out of these nets. He does not need to play any “post-Joycean, sub-Joycean” tricks with the language, as a Rushdie might be tempted to do. Still, he lacks the gift of telling a good story. Vicariously spending day after day on the rain-soaked veranda is as oppressive to the reader of the novel as enduring the monsoon was to the English and is unrelieved even by the occasional sordid details of snakebites and skirmishes. The opium trade goes nowhere. One wonders why an ex-colonial felt it necessary to celebrate this sordid existence. The prose is beautiful and languid, but this is Paul Scott without the drama, an enterprise unworthy of a writer with the gift for powerful English prose.
SOURCE: “Confucianism in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet,” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, 1989, pp. 49-64.
[In the following essay, Rothfolk explores the philosophical underpinnings and actions of Mo's characters in Sour Sweet.]
Timothy Mo’s three novels are all concerned with social philosophy, specifically with the clash between traditional Chinese and contemporary Western social values and with suggestions for resolution or synthesis in the emerging global crosspollination of cultures. Born of an English mother and Cantonese father, raised in Hong Kong and working as a journalist in London, Mr. Mo knows the conflicts from experience.
In his first novel, The Monkey King (1978), Mo illustrated the clash of values experienced by many Chinese in Hong Kong during the 1950s: those who felt the traditional Confucian social practices (li, tradition) were repressive relics in comparison to the alluring individualism and freedom of Western life. The hero of the novel, Wallace Nolasco, proudly proclaims a faint Portuguese ancestry, experiments with a Western style of life—which allows Mo to be very funny—but ultimately succeeds in life when he manages to recover and practice a purified Confucianism; one grounded in The Analects and distinct from corrupt Neo-Confucian ideology and cultural dogmatism, which until recently was most likely to be the understanding of Confucianism in the minds of both Chinese and Western readers. David Hall and Roger Ames’ splendid book, Thinking Through Confucius (1987), as well as Mo’s fiction, is causing Confucianism, a so-called “third-wave Confucianism,” to be considered a creative and potentially powerful contemporary philosophic school (pp. 326, 312, 6, 308). In The Monkey King, Timothy Mo is quite optimistic about the outcome of the clash of values in China, a process now occurring in mainland China which was rehearsed, in part, in Hong Kong thirty-five years earlier. In his novel, Mr. Mo suggests that ill understood Western values do not necessarily destroy traditional Chinese (Confucian) social values, but can cause the Chinese to look at tradition (li) with new insight, recognizing what is corrupt and inessential, thereby clarifying and recovering the essential. Confucius called this process “The Rectification of Names” and identified it as “the starting point of sociopolitical order.” (H&A, p. 270) It is an analytic process which seeks to make actual social relations more closely approximate their ideal meanings (see The Analects, 7:1; 13:3).
In his second novel, Sour Sweet (1982), Mr. Mo is still concerned with Confucianism and its central tenet, that family relations (hsiao, filial deference) are paradigmatic for all other social relations and that human values are first experienced and most deeply explored in the context of family life. Mr. Mo’s concern in his first novel was to clarify this as the continuing foundation on which Chinese culture rests as it experiences the onrush of Western, modern culture and to illustrate that Confucian principles cannot only withstand the whirlwind but continue to produce focused, desirable lives. The philosophical action in The Monkey King and in An Insular Possession (1987)—Mo’s fictional account of the British colonization of Hong Kong—is clearly defensive; the dramatic setting of both books is China, at the place where the West made its greatest incursion. The predatory intent of the West is glaring despite the muting expansiveness of style in An Insular Possession, Mo’s historical novel reminiscent of James Clavell’s Japanese novels, but with far greater irony. Operating from an English “Chinatown” in Hong Kong, the Tong agents (a secret society of unwanted and barely tolerated foreign criminals, primarily English merchants, missionaries, and the military) peddle drugs (opium) and ideology (missionary Christianity) to undermine Chinese society. The editor of the fictional newspaper The Canton Monitor explains in 1839: “Once Trade [opium] has forced open the doors of the empire, there shall follow on its coattails the incontrovertible truths of Christianity and Christ crucified. Nor do we speak solely in a spiritual point of view, for there shall be exposed to the benighted and necessitous masses of this empire cornucopia of cheap and practical manufacturers of which they may never even have dreamed. … The useful wares and mighty productive forces of Britain, Europe, and the civilised world … shall transform the mean and burdensome lives they lead in point of comfort and convenience.” (p. 337) The story of Wallace Nolasco illustrates that Western jingoism has fundamentally failed to undermine Confucian social values. Mr. Mo does not have the personal experience to know how the Chinese Communist regime has affected Confucian values; whether it has truly destroyed or merely secularized such values or whether Chairman Mao’s Taoist tendencies, for example, evident in appeals to the masses for social direction, will be balanced by a resurgent form of Confucianism. In any case, we may also ask if continued tacit profession in Confucian values is caused by unenlightened conservatism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism? How vital is Confucianism? Is it adequate to say that it can hold its own against the West in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where it has not merely been entrenched for two thousand years, but also has been formative of Chinese identity; or is it enough to say that like post-Christian values in the West, Confucian values are pervasive though indistinct throughout east Asia?
Sour Sweet more radically questions the viability of Confucian values by removing the cultural support of Chinese tradition. The novel concerns the Chens who “had been living in the UK for four years, which was long enough to have lost their place in the society from which they had emigrated but not long enough to feel comfortable in the new.” (p. 1) If the Chens refuse to make any accommodation with English life, by simply retreating into a Chinatown ghetto, it will suggest that Confucianism is so thoroughly a Chinese cultural expression that it has nothing universal to offer the world and in confronting the West it only, at best, can be a conservative, increasingly artificial and diminishing force. On the other hand, if the Chens totally assimilate the English life, it will suggest that they have found nothing worth saving in Confucianism, portending that in the long term, even in east Asia, Confucianism will increasingly become a cultural affectation and may well disappear altogether.
The Chen family initially comprises, Husband, “stolid, unventuresome,” but traditional head of the family, his wife Lily, her sister Mui, “a nervous young woman,” and the Chen baby Man Kee. They are involved in three interrelated plots. First there is what might be called a “sociology of the family” plot concerned with the process of cultural assimilation. The omniscient narrator comments that “Chen was still an interloper. He regarded himself as such;” (p. 1) two years later Lily tells her son about “the ship that will take us all back home when we are finished here. It will take you to your homeland, Son, which you have never seen.” (p. 155) Not surprisingly, the Chinese family considers its residence in Britain to be a temporary expediency to make money. But Husband recognizes that “one needed a modicum of local custom to survive” and the family is assimilated to different degrees. (p. 84)
The second plot contrasts the Tong or Triad, the Chinese secret society—“we call ourselves Hung family”—with the Chen family. (p. 7) The Triad considers itself the conservator of Chinese culture. Thus at an initiation ceremony, initiates are told: “We represent the old and true way.” (p. 71) The “family” was “founded to overthrow our foreign Ching [Manchu; 1644–1911] conquerors and to restore our own Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368–1644).” (p. 70) Considering the English to be devils and meddlesome official bandits (police), the Hung family ironically plays the same role in Britain of the 1960s as did the “secret society” of British drug peddlers in Hong Kong of the 1830s, as portrayed in An Insular Possession. Red Cudgel, title of the local leader of the Hung family, comments on a rival Triad, 14-K (as in 14-karat gold), saying: “they won’t be satisfied until they are the only society over here.” (p. 33) The statement is equally applicable to the Hung family vis-à-vis Britain or to the nineteenth-century British colonialists in Hong Kong. The Hung “family” is political, mercenary, rational, and aggressive. An artificial society of men, its concern is to nurture money through violence.
The Chen family also seems rational, mercenary, and formal because it is in the grip of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Chen marries Lily only a few days after they met at a dance “thrown for emigrant bachelors like himself in search of wives to take back to Europe.” (p. 4) Chen works a 72-hour work week, until the family opens their own “takeout” restaurant, when they then earn “as much as Chen had … for three times the man-(woman-) hours,” without complaint. (p. 139) The worst flaw of the Chen family is its formality, evident in the lack of communication between husband and wife and the anomaly in which Lily, the younger sister trained in martial arts, dominates Mui, whom she considers: “an inferior to be scolded and bossed about for her own good.” (p. 277) This fidelity to Neo-Confucian orthodoxy—which is total because in the beginning the Chens are unaware of alternatives—finally leads to Chen’s death and the disintegration of the extended family. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of difference between the Hung and Chen families. The Chen family is the product of nature, not design; it is firmly rooted in the feminine, the unconscious and procreative power of life. As a living entity instead of an engineering project, it can, and does, grow and change. Whereas the Triad is doomed to a criminal opposition to English society, the Chen family is changed by its experience in England. The most graphic image of the artificiality of the Triad “family” appears at the initiation when “each new 49 [ordinary member; see Morgan for other Triad ranks and titles] crawled through the stocky, bowed legs of Elder Brother. Now they were truly reborn.” (p. 102) This yang birth is made uglier by Red Cudgel’s appearance: short, scarred by childhood smallpox, a complexion like “half-cooked batter pudding”, a mutilated hand, and “a voice so hoarse, so brutalized that surely the surface mutilation must point to some deeper penetration of the disease.” (p. 19)
Although the second, male, birth brings the initiate into the sick, mutilated world of the Triad, some such second birth, into a culture, is a necessity of human life. The third plot is concerned with an experiential deconstruction of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy to uncover the authentic principles of Confucianism, something along the lines of demythologizing Christianity in the West. More properly, it should be called the rectification of Confucian thought. No less than Lao Tzu, Confucius spoke of the Tao; it is mentioned a hundred times in The Analects. However, unlike the Taoists who conceived the Tao as a transcendental principle, Confucius defined it as a distinctly human path of life. For Confucius the Tao is manifest when “the authoritative person, the person of jen, realizes or creates ritual (li) through personal signification (yi).” (H&A p. 178) Yi signifies personal judgement, existential choice and experience. In a broad sense li denotes the human landscape, the possibilities of human life; heroes, role models. People exist only in culture. Ironically, the Taoists are always forced to render concepts of Nature or Tao through the cultured patterns of art. “Culture is the given world.” In the West, this point was initially made by Descartes and the subsequent epistemological philosophy of the eighteenth century. This point continues to be crucial in today’s post-modernism; that: “There is no knowledge to be gained of a reality which precedes that of culture or transcends its determination. The ‘world’ is always a human world” rendered in language of art. (H&A, p. 67) The Tao that humans know is necessarily an imminent and humanistic force.
The Tao is composed of complementary forces: yin, the female, and tang, the male. Thus achieving the Tao must always be the result of a balance of the two forces; “repeatedly Confucius describes social and political participation in terms of pursuing a harmony among differences.” (p. 165) Since Confucius, unlike Plato, does not recognize transcendentals, there can be no priori forms, principles, or laws to be merely imitated. Consequently, Li is better understood as “deference”; the “response to recognized excellence” within a specific context. Like a gestalt perception or shock of recognition, it is a perception that “cannot be forced” by an act of will. (H&A, p. 181) The response is largely aesthetic (see: Northrop, pp. 328–37). In the plot of the novel this point has two consequences: the pattern or nature of the Chen family is not specified by an a priori form or ritual. The family exists as a balance between yin and yang forces, husband and wife, which are dynamic and developmental. At one point Lily recognizes that it is part of her husband’s “function to oppose” her: “part of the natural order of things, the cycle of constant fruitful opposites.” (p. 45) Secondly, the identity and meaning of each person is achieved through the tension between the individual and family. Lily thinks to herself: “truly, the individual found real fulfillment and happiness only in his family. Impossible on your own.” At this point she is better able to state the Confucian theory than to follow it. Her lack of candor is evident a moment later when she resolves to keep the fact that she can drive a car “secret from Chen.” (p. 152) At the end of the novel, Lily, “though she had found a balance of things for the first time, yin cancelling yang; discovered … by veering to the extremes and then finding the still point of equilibrium.” (p. 278) In contrast, the Triad, having murdered Chen, as well as members of the rival 14-K “family”, continues to proclaim that the “Family Hung is greater than any individual … The individual is of no importance in himself.” (p. 260)
In many ways the novel centres on Lily. She is point of balance between the old and the new, largely personified by Chen and Mui. Her father, Tang, had been a martial arts champion, unbalanced by his dedication to yang, master in “a hard-line sect which laid emphasis on brute power.” (p. 11) He and Red Cudgel, leader of the Triad, are of a type; their “weaknesses were old-fashioned ones.” Expert in their well known disciplines, they “could not adjust” to new, nontraditional or different cultures. (p. 264) When Ma, his title is Red Cudgel, learns that he has unjustly executed master Tang’s son-in-law, Chen, he relinquishes his leadership and sees that Lily is paid a pension out of respect for her father. Master Tang could fell a water buffalo with “a single, crushing hammer-fisted blow,” maim opponents, and it was feared, would one day kill opponents. (p. 12) Confronted with a foreign culture, he sneers. And though beat senseless by a fighter using a yin pirouetting, dancing style of fighting, “he did not think of blaming his limitations on the tradition he had been brought up in.” (p. 13) Both men are military in bearing; they know only victory or defeat, yang or the lack of it.
When she was only five years old, Lily was initiated into Master Tang’s “notably severe system.” (p. 11) Five years later, he gave up instructing Lily, not because of a “tardy recognition of his daughter’s gender but because of a horror that her movements were becoming increasingly similar to those of the despised and feared northern stylists.” (p. 14) Nonetheless, Master Tang imparted to his daughter, not only a sense of balance and repertoire of controlled movements, but also a yang willfulness that makes Lily dedicated and long-suffering, but also insensitive to her sister, husband, and the English culture in which she lives. In short, she has been pushed too far in the direction of Confucian yang. Lily’s formative childhood experience of siu lum boxing well symbolizes both corrupt Neo-Confucian ritual behaviour and authentic Confucian values. In the first instance, Lily’s childhood development is warped by “the classical teaching method of blind repetition and stereotyped drilling” which was “ineffective and time consuming,” as well as illustrative of Neo-Confucian education. (p. 116) It was Lily’s good fortune to escape after five years, which she knows “were no more than the shallowest initiation” into a traditional way of life. (p. 231) Had she continued to be moulded by such rational techniques, she would likely have had an honoured place in the Hung “family” as does Grass Sandal, a girl brought up in the artificial environments provided by amahs and European boarding schools.
In the second instance, martial arts movement, like the slower T'ai chi Chuan, conform to li patterns. They are both comparable to dance. Hall and Ames comment that “In The Analects, music is frequently, sometimes explicity and often implicitly, coupled with ritual action (li) to the extent that most references to ritual action should be read with music understood as an integral aspect.” (p. 278) Li movement is comparable to dance. Mo’s choice of martial art movement instead of dance shifts the interpretive context away from Taoism and toward Confucianism with its recognition that our world is always a humanly perceived world. For in the Taoist sense, the dance of T’ai Chi Chuan occurs between the individual and the infinite (Tao). In contrast, martial arts movement occurs in controlled response to an antagonist. These are not imitative or blindly repeated movements, but the best responses (li) to a particular context. When Lily teaches her son rudiments of the siu lum system, Man Kee is able to “put the different kinds of leg technique together in a way that could never be taught.” (p. 233) Once he knows the li, Man Kee's undisciplined movement can defer to the pattern. If he finds it “natural” and useful, it becomes his (yi): “ritual tradition (li) is dependent upon the exercise of personal moral judgement (yi) as its ultimate origin, as its vehicle for continuance, and as its source of novelty” in response to changing contexts. (H&A, p. 245) Even Red Cudgel discerns the importance of yi. Thus he says: in combat you must do “what suits you best, not what you have been taught. It is you who lives or dies, not your teacher.” (p. 118) Li is not an arbitrary action, but a heuristic. “The educating function of the model (li) is defined not in terms of imitation but evocation.” (H&A, p. 302)
The great problem, which the novel explores, is the continuity of traditional values and culture (li) in the turbulence of the modern world, which above all else refuses to defer to the past. Does Confucianism offer a viable way to live in the modern world? Timothy Mo’s answer seems to be that it does; more, that it offers a valuable or desirable way of life (Tao). However, it is crucial to recognize that Mr. Mo is talking about a demythologized or “third- wave” Confucianism which has been liberated from the arbitrary cultural accretions of Neo-Confucianism. This is precisely the reason why the novel is set in London and why the Chens must be exiled from Chinatown and the Triad: to demythologize Neo-Confucianism in order to identify its essentials, which can then be used to construct a life in the West or the modern world. Of the major characters, Husband Chen, a yang “solid masculine presence,” is least able to accomplish this reorientation. (p. 51) Thus, when he discovers that Lily had saved money from her household budget, he is shocked: “Whole new regions of the female psyche … hitherto unsuspected, opened before him.” Instead of seizing on this as an opportunity to better understand his wife, “Chen did his best to put the whole thing out of his mind as quickly as possible.” (p. 85) When the family gets into trouble because they have ignored paying income tax, Mui begins to have “serious misgivings about Brother-in-law’s ability to fend for them all” in this new land. (p. 163) Chen’s failure of imagination (yi) is complete. Early in the novel, the narrator comments that “prejudices instilled since childhood died hard in Chen” and when he finds that his “prejudices” (a corrupt and elementary form of li) do not explain the pattern of life in Britain, he simply retreats as much as possible from any involvement in British life. (p. 29) He can offer no guidance or explanation (li) to his family for their life in Britain. Though Lily thinks it silly to leave “Son to learn from his mistake by trial and error for himself instead of making him learn by example,” Chen can offer nothing better. (p. 252) Chen is too bewildered by modern life and too circumscribed by orthodoxy to survive, much less flourish as a role model (jen). Finally, Chen allows himself to be murdered by the Triad—the ultimate corrupt form of Neo- Confucianism—because he understands nothing of authentic Confucianism nor of British society. Commenting on ritual and ceremonialism in Confucius’ time, Hall and Ames write: “In these ritual activities, each participant would have his proper place, his wei. If one did not understand the ritual procedures, he would literally not know where to stand (li).” (p. 86) This exactly describes the pathetic situation of Chen who: “felt at home and yet not at home. He had been more comfortable rootless.” (p. 135)
The member of the family most traumatized by culture shock, Mui’s subsequent rapid acculturation illustrates the danger of too much yin, of compliantly renouncing one’s formative culture (li) and instincts (yi) to uncritically embrace a foreign culture in adulthood, which means that the adopted culture will always remain artificial and rational. Lily illustrates a better response: analyzing or deconstructing her native culture when it is challenged by the foreign culture, then clarifying values and deciding on a commitment. This process remains Confucian. The foundation is provided by Lily’s formative culture (li); one example is her training in the martial arts, on which she time and again relies; another example is her dedication to Confucian virtues, for example: “Respect for age had always been a fundamental moral principle with her.” (p. 208) Lily solves problems arising from the clash between Chinese and English customs through her own judgement (yi), which, as an expression of her character, is bound up with, but not entirely reducible to, li. Instead of capitulating to the authority of either culture, Lily believes: “self-help was the way” to succeed. (p. 231) Finally, it is obvious that her tacit goal has little to do with money, power, or status—the things that drive the members of the Hung family—and much to do with what Confucius referred to as becoming authoritatively or paradigmatically human (jen).
Mui is brought from Hong Kong to London to aid Lily when Man Kee is born. Unlike her sister, Mui “had been brought up as a girl” to be “compliant, dutiful … utterly submissive to the slightest wishes of her superiors … which included the entire male sex” and in the context of the novel, also includes British manners and customs. Initially suffering culture shock, Mui is “reluctant to leave the flat” where she watches television all day long in order to gain an elementary understanding of British society. (pp. 10–11) After some months, Mui began to ease “her way into a new life inch by inch.” (p. 18) Fortuitously, she meets a Hong Kong widow, Mrs. Law, who started “a new life in England at the age of fifty-five.” (p. 43) As her name implies, she becomes a role model for Mui.
Because Mui has no counterbalancing yang force, either internalized, like Lily, or present in a relationship with a husband, she is eager to assimilate. Thus she “egged her sister and brother-in-law on to move far faster than either wanted.” (p. 80) When they open a take-out restaurant, Mui deals with the customers because her “English was not incomparably better than Lily’s.” (p. 94) Roles between the sisters seem to reverse: Lily “had to act as Mui’s bodyguard” in China, while in England Mui “now did the equivalent of escorting and fussing.” (p. 126) Naturally Lily resents and opposes Mui’s counsel. Like her conservative and disciplined father, Lily denies what she cannot control. Her reliance on yang in this regard is not as total—she is after all a woman and mother—consequently not as destructive as that of her father or Red Cudgel. Moreover, because of the tragic loss of her husband, as well as several years of life in England, Lily attains a better balanced outlook. But for a time, when she cannot understand, much less control, life in the modern world (England), she ignores its laws (li), for example, driving without a licence or insurance. She fails to recognize repeat customers, because all “those bland, roseate occidental faces … looked the same to her.” When Mui admonishes her sister for referring to customers as foreign devils, bears, and pigs, Lily is “staggered” by Mui’s truculence, but it never enters her head to take Mui’s point seriously, because: “Really, there was no question how superior Chinese people were to the foreign devils.” (p. 137) The point is reiterated when Lily complains that the “foreign devils just try to exploit us all the time.” Mui suggests that the Chens attempt to do the same thing to their customers, prompting Lily to think that “Mui had just gone too far this time. What a traitor she was to her family! As if they were responsible for anyone but their little group.” (p. 147) A Triad official expresses the same sentiment: “We have no responsibility to outsiders. Our only concern is with building our own power.” (p. 181)
The issue here is whether a Confucian conception of society is necessarily this culturally restrictive and naturally hostile to other social philosophies. If it is, it would seem to be either doomed as a relic of past, when distance and lack of communication muted the effects of such simple tribalism, or condemned—like the Triad—for its arrogance, violence, and fascism. Interestingly, Hall and Ames also address this question, asking “whether the classical notion of family is a necessary or contingent factor in Confucius’ project of becoming authoritatively human.” Their answer is that the family is a “contingent institution” in this process and that “no specific formal structure, even family, is necessary.” (pp. 120–21) On the other hand, it cannot be forgotten that “in Confucian social theory a person is irreducibly communal.” (p. 160) Consistent with the Rectification of Names process, the point is to differentiate between loyalty or deference to a potentially totalitarian regime which controls, diminishes, or even precludes the development of the individual along the path to full realization as authoritatively human—certainly this is the basis for the metaphor of mutilation in regard to the Triad—from deference to loved and respected family members or other role models whom we emulate because we feel that to do so would enrich or ennoble our lives: “A person in learning and reflecting upon these ritual actions seeks in them the yi contributed by his precursors, and in so doing, stimulates, develops, and refines his own sensitivities.” (p. 99) Mo’s drastic suggestion in this area—comparable to Hall and Ames suggesting that the family is a contingent institution, which strikes at the heart of Neo-Confucian piety (hsiao)—is that the relationship between spouses is, in the modern world, more important than the relationship between father and son in the development of jen. In The Monkey King, Wallace’s efforts to succeed on his own end in failure. Only when he is isolated with his wife in a country village does he begin to discern the path of Tao. By the end of the novel it is clear that both Wallace and May Ling have been immeasurably enriched by mutual action of yin—yang . In Sour Sweet this process is internalized in Lily. This suggestion, which recognizes that women have a full, equal, and indispensable part to play in the Confucian process leading to jen, is anathema to the hidebound Neo-Confucian who perceives it merely as an attack on the system itself.
It is very significant that Hall and Ames totally ignore the Confucian concept of filial piety (hsiao). General introductions to Confucianism always stress this concept. Thus Joseph Kitagawa writes: “there is no question that Confucius considered filial piety (hsiao) the supreme virtue and the basis of general morality.” (p. 81) Writing on Confucianism, Frederick Mote claims: “Filial submission (hsiao) as “submission” indicates precisely why Hall and Ames ignore the topic as inauthentic to Confucius’ programme. Submission and repression, whether of youth to age or women to men, had no role to play in a process dedicated to total liberation, to realizing every human potential. Deference to recognized excellence, a spontaneous and reverent response, is far different—even antithetical—to submission. The paragon is one whom we love and emulate, not one to whom we submit in fear. It is the corrupt and murderous Triad, dedicated to suppressing personal growth, which preaches that “respect is always founded on fear.” (p. 261) The person exemplifying jen “achieves his status as a model by a particular manner of focusing the events of his tradition and context so as to show and transmit what is excellent about them.” (H&A, p. 192) Emulating these acts is a process of evocation and discovery, not submission. It is clear that Timothy Mo agrees with Hall and Ames on this point. For even Red Cudgel, in explaining how to nurture a great fighter, says: “You mustn’t confuse the instinct of a natural fighter” by overtraining him or compelling him to follow stylized patterns of movement that feel unnatural. “You don’t mould him—you help him find himself.” (pp. 116–17) Similarly, “Confucius makes it clear that the ultimate source of ritual actions is the human being striving to achieve appropriateness in his social and natural context.” (H&A, p. 172) Red Cudgel puts it succinctly: “Your movements must be simple and efficient—what suits you best, not what you have been taught.” (p. 118)
Chen is incapable of responding to a new culture. He personifies Neo-Confucian submission and thoughtless imitation. Having borrowed money from the Triad to care for his aged father in Hong Kong, an act of hsiao praised by the Triad, Chen hopes to escape their control by disappearing. Concerned that remittances to Hong Kong can be traced to him, Chen admonishes his wife to cease sending money: “he showed real anger: ‘No. This is the end of it. Who is head in our family? You think wife tells Husband what to do?’.” (p. 107) Lily feels that such negligence cuts “at the basis of everything she believed in,” consequently she ignores her husband’s command, thus insuring Chen’s death. If only Chen and Lily were able to confide in each other instead of submitting to the formal roles cast by marriage and tradition, they may have escaped the Triad and all its represents. There are several opportunities to grow beyond stunting formalism. For example, when Lily discovers Mui’s pregnancy, she “wondered whether to take him [Chen] totally into her confidence. Discretion won” and both lives are diminished (pp. 188–89). Early in the novel, Lily experiments with different names for Chen, for example referring to him as Man Kee’s father, but she reflects that: “To refer to her spouse by this alias was also suddenly to look upon him as an individual, whereas his importance really consisted in his role, his rank—if you like—of husband.” (p. 40) This formal attitude and the inability to test it, to question and alter the relationship in a process of growth, is the tragic flaw in the novel, propagated by Neo-Confucian tradition, which destroys the Chen family.
The yang–yin movement and growth in the novel principally takes place between Lily and her sister Mui, even more so within Lily’s psyche. Chen is a puppet controlled and finally destroyed by servility to meaningless tradition. Thus he envies his son, for: “Man Kee, happy child, was getting a fresh start. He had no history, no heritage to live up to, no goal to fulfil, no ancient burden to carry.” (p. 111) Preoccupied with the duties of hsiao toward his father and with his pathetic attempt to escape the Hung family Triad, Chen ignores England and the potential for growth and personal discovery, even simple survival. The Triad relies on such servility. For example, Red Cudgel explains that: “Chinese don’t talk to the devils. They meet silence when they ask their foolish questions. This is good.” (p. 36) So, when tax notices appear in his mail box, Chen discards them unopened. We are told that “Mui would not have been so imprudent.” When a tax official finally intrudes to compel compliance with the law, it is Mui who discerns how easy it is to keep books and how hopeless it is to rely on “Brother-in-law’s ability to fend for them all.” (p. 163) Gaining confidence, Mui advises the family to adjust their cultural calendar to conform to English holidays: “why don’t we have a holiday at Christmas when English people do?” (p. 174) This may seem innocuous enough, even laudatory in adjusting to life in England. However, it can also be seen in another light, indicative of Mui’s excess yin; a pliancy that suggests a lack of personal principle or belief, an acceptance of English holidays because the Chinese holidays mean little to her. There is a need for a balance between Chen’s negligible assimilation and Mui’s readiness to forget her cultural tradition.
Mui’s character and values come into question when she is found to be pregnant. Almost immediately after the discovery, Lily muses: “what was the difference between Mui and those shameless English girls?” (p. 86) When Mui gives up her daughter for adoption by Mrs Law, we may agree that because “she has plenty of money and she is kind,” that the child will be well cared for. (p. 203) Nonetheless, there is a ring of truth to Lily’s retort: “Our house not good enough, I suppose?” (p. 202) Mui’s comparative assimilation into English life allows her another perspective in assessing opportunity for her daughter and her nephew. In short, Mui does not want either of them to grow up as Chinatown Chinese: culturally Chinese but second class English citizens largely through their own neglect or ignorance of English culture. No doubt Mui believes she has given her child an advantage. Contrast this to Chen mulling over whether to send Man Kee to a Saturday Chinese school, which he fears will endanger his life because the Triad will be able to find him through his son: “Chen couldn’t find it in him to deny his son his heritage.” (p. 167) Lily’s reaction is concise. She thinks Mui’s “values must have become seriously distorted.” (p. 203) Although we never learn anything about the father of child, Jik Mui, Lily discerns “something about her cheekbones which bespoke Western ancestry.” (p. 275)
Mui removed her daughter from the Chinatown influence of the Chen family. In her mind, she has sacrificed herself to aid her family: both the children and the financially struggling Chens. When Mrs. Law invites Mui to live with her, Mui says: “No. Younger sister and Brother-in-law need me. And the business would not work without three people. Maybe when Man Kee is older …” (p. 206). Mui does her best to mitigate Lily’s influence over Man Kee, prompting Lily’s caution; “She must avoid Mui influencing him with some of the increasingly peculiar ideas she had” (pp. 173–4). When Lily passes along the rudiments of his grandfather’s sui lum boxing to Man Kee, Mui becomes uncharacteristically direct, telling Lily her instruction is “foolish interference” with the necessity for Man Kee to accommodate to English life. In a sense Mui, like other immigrants eager to assimilate, is speaking about all Chinese culture when she says: “Wicked things you teach him. Nobody should know these things.” (p. 234) However, Man Kee is Lily’s son and she decides that he needs to attend a supplementary “Chinese Person School” so that he does not “grow into a foreign devil boy.” When she asks Mui to drop-off Man Kee at the school on her way to Mrs. Law’s house on Saturdays, Mui “point-blank” refuses, saying “Man Kee is very important to me, younger sister.” (p. 236) Of course, Man Kee attends the school; Lily hoping that “his once-weekly exposure to Chinese curriculum, as a measured dose of radiotherapy might burn out cancerous growth.” (p. 247)
At the end of the novel, Mui’s yin road of cultural assimilation seems to have triumphed over Lily’s yang path of reliance on herself and the Confucian culture that created her. Chen has disappeared, murdered by the Triad for its own political reasons. His uninvolvement with the British legal system left him an easy victim for the Triad. The Chen restaurant is defunct. In contrast, Mui has married Mr. Lo, one of Chen’s friends. With a loan from Mrs. Law they plan to open a restaurant of their own, significantly a “fish and chip”, not a Chinese restaurant. Finally, Mui makes her position on Chinese versus English culture clear: “I am taking out citizenship. Naturalization. This is my home now.” She even has the temerity to suggest that Lily “Come to live with my family.” Lily can only shake her head and wonder “what was she talking about? She was in Lily’s family, not the other way around.” (p. 276) The embodiment of yin, Mui cannot offer a family road (Tao) or personal model (yi) distinctive from English life. She may have won a quicker economic victory than Lily by assimilating to British life, but it is difficult to imagine how the Lo grandchildren would differ from the Smyths and Jones.
Can this be a victory? What has been won? An ersatz British identity? In fact we are sent back to the beginning of the book to consider the character Miranda Lai, known in the Triad as Grass Sandal. Her identity is “as artificial as the fine stitching under the skin by her rounded eyes.” (p. 25) She is suave and successful, but “incapable of abstraction. Her utter self-assurance was based on the solid foundation of a strictly limited view of the world.” She inhabits only one context, which, because it is singular, is considered coextensive with reality. There is no yin—yang balance here. Nor is there any Confucian nurture to become authoritatively human (jen) through deference (li) and exploration (yi), in spite of the fact that the Triad, as well as Grass Sandal, see themselves as conservators of Chinese culture.
Himself living in a period of violence and moral degeneracy, when it was felt that it had been a long time “since the Way (tao) prevailed in the world,” Confucius was concerned to find the path to the full realization of human life (Analects 3:24). Accommodation, assimilation, and expediency to gain money, status, and power, however much these are rationalized in Mui’s case, are not the way to live (Tao). Speaking of Grass Sandal, the narrator comments: “for her to have made the imaginative projection into admitting at least the possibility of other points of view, different lives, other ambitions, would have been quite impossible.” (p. 24) In the context of Chinese culture, this is a devastating criticism. F.S.C. Northrop explains: “one loses face when one has committed himself to a specific, determinate course of events” which may turn out very differently than imagined or as projected from one’s familiar context and limited vision. “A person in the Orient who put himself in such a position is covered with shame because he has disregarded what the Orient teaches man to believe is one of the most elementary facts about human experience and the nature of things generally: namely, their indeterminateness and contingency.” (p. 344) It is not difficult to imagine Miranda Lai as Mui’s granddaughter, a young woman in whom prudence, and thus faith in the adequacy of her interpretative model or culture rather than herself, was a prime quality, “developed to the point where it was an all-engrossing cunning.” (p. 24)
In contrast, the “responsibility of the particular person to locate the old road [Tao], cut it back, and make a new beginning, is a major theme of the Analects .” (p. 230–31) Far from submission, this process requires daring, judgement, and imagination. The symbol for this process is Lily’s aptitude in learning to drive. To Chen the old van the family buys is simply another inscrutable part of the modern world. Failing “to find the correct balance between the pedals” of the van, he gives up the effort. Because Mui has delivered take-out food to so many truck drivers—the suspicion is that one of them fathered Ah Jik—she knows the theory of driving and the English names for various controls. But it is Lily who masters the art. Her childhood training instilled the confidence to meet either an adversary or an alien culture. Lily gets into the van thinking “it can’t be that difficult” to drive and when she manages to spill a good deal of petrol, which could easily ignite, Lily continues to coolly master the situation. (p. 150) She lectures Mui: “it’s not hurry which makes speed, elder sister, but coolness.” The narrator comments: “This precept impressed on Lily a hundred times in childhood, sometimes painfully, meant nothing to Mui.” (p. 151) It is Lily who will drive on the strange roads of the new land until she finds her way. Thus at the end of the novel, when Mui announces her marriage and is concerned about leaving Lily to fend for herself, Lily says “the first thing which came into her head: I’ll drive a bus!” (p. 277)
Of course the future belongs to Man Kee. Mui Jik will learn little if anything of her authentic Confucian heritage from Mui who will always be a passenger instead of a driver. At one point in the novel, when Man Kee’s education is considered, his parents ask: “Should he be sent back to Hong Kong? This would ensure he was imbued with correct Chinese qualities, veneration for parents, for instance.” (p. 167) We have seen that submission to this kind of training fails to help Chen; in fact it leads him to his death. Obviously, it is Lily, who at the end of the novel feels that “she had found a balance of things for the first time, yin cancelling yang,” the old, authentic Confucian programme applied to modern conditions—it is Lily who will teach Man Kee to walk the path of Tao in England. (p. 278) Exactly how this can be done requires another novel from Timothy Mo. In a deeper sense, it cannot be specified, only experienced. What he has shown in Sour Sweet is that Neo-Confucian orthodoxy offers nothing positive to either the Chinese or English. The Triad peddles drugs; Chen is murdered. Mui’s life is obviously preferable, but scarcely promising. Her survival is at the cost of retardation with little hope for discovery, realization, or beauty. Mui has lost the path leading to enrichment, jen. F.S.C. Northrop identifies what is crucial to preserve in the Confucian outlook: “only if one realizes, Confucius believes, and the whole Orient with him, that there is a factor in the realm of the aesthetic which is not a mere sign of something beyond itself or merely transitory, but which is ultimate, irreducible, and non-transitory, will a proper appreciation of aesthetics be achieved, and a life which is good because it gives expression to and is in accord with the true nature of things be lived.” (p. 399) Neither Mo nor anyone else—even Confucius—can specify explicit rules to achieve such insight. Nonetheless, it is clear at the end of the novel that hope for the rectification or renewal of an authentic Confucianism leading to such insight and authoritatively human life resides in the survivors of the Chen family, with Lily and Man Kee.
Confucius. The Analects of Confucius, trans. by Arthur Waley, New York: Random House, 1938.
David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames. Thinking Through Confucius, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
Joseph Kitagawa. Religions of the East, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968.
Timothy Mo. An Insular Possession, New York: Random House, 1987.
———. The Monkey King, London: Abacus, 1984.
———. Sour Sweet, London: Abacus, 1983.
W.P. Morgan. Triad Societies in Hong Kong, Hong Kong: Government Press, 1958.
Frederick Mote. Intellectual Foundations of China, New York: Knopf, 1971.
F.S.C. Northrop. The Meeting of East and West, New York: Macmillan, 1946.
SOURCE: “State of Seige,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 4, No. 149, May 3, 1991, p. 36.
[In the following review of The Redundancy of Courage, Fletcher examines details of the novel's plot and assesses Mo's treatment of the theme of courage in the face of oppression.]
Timothy Mo doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A writer of the highest professional standards who limbered up for the long distance of a novelist’s career by writing for Boxing News, he knows his own worth. Aside from his well-documented high advance in Britain for The Redundancy of Courage, he withdrew his novel from the US market when publishers there failed to offer enough noughts.
Likewise, the heavyweight title of his latest work would suggest: you don’t mess with a Timothy Mo novel. And it would be foolish to do so. For our literary pugilist has written an enthralling novel of third-world oppression and power-struggles that manages to capture the universality of invasion, disruption and betrayal in a way that is both thoroughly entertaining and deeply disturbing. This is no genteel wimp of an English novel.
Danu, the remote eastern half of an island to the north of Australia, has recently been granted independence. Its political convulsions are narrated by Adolph Ng, a wily, gay Chinese, morally pragmatic but burdened with the futility of existence. However, the luxury of his disaffection is subsumed in the turmoil of invasion as Danu’s CIA-backed neighbours, the “Malais”, commence their brutal occupation.
Ng and the remains of the left-wing FAKOUM government flee to the hills, and what follows is a riveting account of guerrilla existence: the expedients and subterfuges, the ingenuity and improvisations, the heroism and bloodshed; thrills and spills of the nerve-tingling, edge-of-seat variety. The rebels inhabit a shrunken world of the immediate present—a constant state of siege where all energies and resources are directed towards daily survival. There is a Boys’ Own relish in the descriptions of attack and counter-attack. Ng, ever the cynical observer, reflects ruefully that it’s all “a kid’s dream come true: elder-led delinquency”.
He becomes a genius in the art of violence, the Leonardo of guerrilla warfare, as he discovers a well of malice all his own. There is hilarity amid the hardship, and farce closely follows the most terrifying of extremes. In a daring raid on a Malais airfield, Ng and his fellow rebels forget to bring water to activate home-made detonators for the mines they are carrying. After a moment of panic, and amid hysterical giggling, they drop their pants and urinate into the lethal contraptions.
But Ng, captured at last by the Malais and, with little compunction, spilling the beans on his colleagues, can never reconcile “the awful, abrupt finality of a man pitching forward, so arbitrarily terminated” or “the way a whole history of friendship, a lifetime of amity, could be nullified in a moment”.
At one stage Osvaldo, the rebel leader, says: “Nothing can stop the march of a people seeking freedom. Nothing and no one.” Of course, more fire-power can and does: more sophisticated weaponry, more western influence and skilful propaganda. There is a cruel inevitability to the events in The Redundancy of Courage, and an emotional disengagement as hard as steel in the plight of the dispossessed. It’s as if, far from being a means to an end, conflict and confrontation is a daily fact of life, deprivation and adversity a state of mind.
Perhaps this time, after twice being short-listed, Mo will defeat all-comers at the annual Booker showdown. The Redundancy of Courage is an uncomfortable book that raises ugly truths, but it deserves the highest honours.
SOURCE: “The Ambiguity of Heroism,” in The London Review of Books, Vol. 13, May 9, 1991, p. 24.
[In the following review, Billen focuses on the tone and theme of The Redundancy of Courage.]
The title of Timothy Mo’s fourth novel both captures its sardonic tone and crystallises the question it asks. If death refuses to be out-stared, is bravery in its face an irrelevance? The Redundancy of Courage asks the same question about heroism as Lord Jim, whose location it recalls, and The Red Badge of Courage, whose title it modifies. It refuses to give a straight answer. It redirects the question at the reader.
Mo’s narrator is Ng, a Western-educated Chinese man, who has returned to Danu, his native island in the Timor Sea, and built a hotel. Asking us to simulate the strain of a constipated bowel-movement when pronouncing his name, Ng describes himself as a “citizen of the world and a misfit”, a “coward”, a “fool”, a “Chinese faggot”.
It is a time for courage, not a time for Ng. When the capital is bloodily invaded by soldiers from the neighbouring state, he is preoccupied by the sequestration of his flush-lavatories. Yet when press-ganged into the rebel forces in the mountains, he proves himself, first as their ingenious bomb-smith and then by his physical daring.
Yet his interest in incendiary devices is border-line sadism. He can’t pluck a coconut tree without calling it a castration, or describe a killing without letting us know which limb went where. Milking his hill-top heroics when recounting them to his comrades, he presents them to us as the easy option.
War turns societies inside out, randomly making friends of enemies and brave men of cowards like Ng. Mo asks us to believe that the true hero, like the rebel leader Osvaldo, is immutable because of his unquestioning sense of himself. Osvaldos are not so rare: even Danu will throw up another “dinosaur in an age of pettiness”. Doomed to fail, is their heroism otiose? Mo’s brilliant, mercilessly-told adventure story arcs into a perfect question-mark.
SOURCE: “An Insular Occupation,” in Far East Economic Review, Vol. 151, No. 14, May 30, 1991, p. 59.
[In the following review, Friedland identifies the sources for Mo’s material in The Redundancy of Courage and comments on the author’s treatment of such.]
Adolph Ng, the protagonist of Timothy Mo’s new novel [The Redundancy of Courage], is a fish out of water, doubly so. He is Chinese and gay. He lives in a wretched backwater called Danu, a former Portuguese territory “north of Australia” that has been brutally occupied by the neighbouring “malais.” Through inexorable fate Ng, the proprietor of the only good hotel in town, becomes a reluctant, and then expert, jungle fighter.
Throughout his transformation from urbane innkeeper to erstwhile guerilla, Ng keeps up a wry, self-deprecating patter; he is a kind of Truman Capote in Conradland. “A man of the modern world” who ends up “grubbing in the soil for the booty of inedible tubers and larvae,” a cafe charmer who makes booby traps with triggers so fine that they do in a “malais” infantryman but leave the villager unharmed.
The invention of Adolph Ng signals Mo’s return to form after his hugely ambitious and ultimately unrewarding An Insular Possession. Instead of stressing his technical virtuosity, a strategy that made his earlier novel all but unreadable, Mo tells the story of Adolph Ng plainly and well. The Redundancy of Courage takes its cues from Graham Greene rather than Anthony Burgess.
Clutter is not necessary given the raw material Mo works from. The tragedy of Indonesia’s forcible annexation of East Timor in 1975 and its subsequent efforts to suppress the Fretilin independence movement forms an easily adaptable basis for good fiction. And Mo sticks close to the known facts, using real history to form a fictional crucible where fear, brutality and compromise rule the human condition.
From the moment that Ng sees “parachutes dropping; drifting as if they were thistledown or broken cotton-pods: silent smooth and white,” life in the colonial-afterthought of Danu changes. What had been a conflict where “brother fought brother, son father, cousins their uncles” (mostly over endless cups of espresso) is overtaken by the machinery of modern warfare, by the clinical brutality of an unemotional occupying army.
Once the odd man out in the communal rivalry which grips the Danuese, Ng can no longer be “a ‘blind’ Chinaman with his eyes in the trough along with his snout.” Although he cooperates with his occupiers, Ng does little things to tempt fate, like stealing food from the “malais” pantry for his friend Rosa’s creche. Ng feels an intellectual, if not an emotional, tie to his revolutionary Danuese friends and schoolmates who have taken to the hills as the leaders of the FAKINTIL insurgent army.
Ng does not have to struggle with the role of discomfited quisling for long. He is conscripted by his rifle-wielding fellow-members of “The Literary Society of Danu” during a raid on the hotel. High in the Danu mountains, he is brought to Osvaldo, the noble but calculating leader of FAKINTIL.
At first, it is a “Boy’s Own” kind of life on the run. Osvaldo, the brilliant tactician, leads his merry band to violent success after success. He is a Maoist Robin Hood for the Danuese and the “useless Chinaman” cannot help but rise to the occasion. “It was a craft—mining, booby trapping—that was peculiarly Chinese,” Ng exults as he invents another low-tech lethal weapon. “I mean in its ingenuity, in its low smallmindedness, its attention to detail, its pettifogging neatness … Oh, it was me OK, the Chinese sapper.”
The fun of it does not last for long. Soon, the “malais” are dropping napalm, leaving the FAKINTIL dead like “burnt chickens, legs curled and shrivelled.” The plucky hunters become the hunted. Food runs out, men desert and children are killed. The brilliant tactician becomes erratic, desperate. Osvaldo becomes, in the words of his brother, the “Robespierre of our Revolution,” sacrificing his own force for an unattainable greater glory.
Mo uses actual episodes from non-Indonesian accounts of the Timor war as his set pieces. The FAKINTIL fighters are faced with a “human fence” of Danuese fronting a “malais” advance, shooting their way through on “full auto and fuck fire control” to save their own hides. The end of FAKINTIL (though not in reality of Fretilin, though it made the same near-suicidal move) comes when Osvaldo and his ragged bunch storm the television tower outside the “malais” garrison.
By this climactic battle, Ng has already been captured, a servant now in the house of the “malais” commander Colonel Goreng and his manipulative wife. He has gone back to putting his nose in the trough, trying to forget the past by tending orchids. Absurd as this seems, Ng’s fictional humiliation has its roots in fact as well. Captured Fretilin president Xavier do Amaral worked as a servant for the former Indonesian commander of East Timor for a time.
Occasionally a bit too arch for its own good, The Redundancy of Courage is nonetheless a fine addition to the literature of modern conflict, of those “unknown” Third-World wars where thousands die outside the gaze of television cameras and remain mostly unmourned by editorial writers. In Mo’s Danu, futility and horror walk hand in hand and Adolph Ng, the effete observer, is good company in negotiating the minefield of failed humanity.
SOURCE: Review of The Monkey King, in Guardian Weekly, Vol. 148, No. 20, May 23, 1993, p. 29.
[In the following review, Messud provides a concise description of Mo’s first novel, The Monkey King.]
Here is a welcome re-issue of Timothy Mo’s first, vastly entertaining and accomplished novel, first published in 1978 and the recipient of the Geoffrey Faber Prize. It concerns the adventures of Wallace Nolasco, a native of Macau who considers himself Portuguese—albeit “a courtesy title”—and deems the Chinese an “arrogant and devious” race. Never mind that after generations of inter-marriage he is himself virtually indistinguishable from the people he despises. He marries a Cantonese woman, daughter of her prosperous father’s second concubine; and in so doing, he takes on the whole Poon family. Mo paints a hilarious portrait of Wallace.
SOURCE: “How Not to Write History: Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession,” in Ariel, Vol. 25, No. 3, July 1994, pp. 51-65.
[In the following essay, Ho examines the strategies adopted by Mo in his presentation of history in An Insular Possession.]
An Insular Possession (1986), Timothy Mo’s third novel, represents a deliberate turning away from the more restricted domestic chronicles of his first two novels, The Monkey King (1978) and Sour Sweet (1982). Its subject matter, Sino-British conflict that led to the founding of Hong Kong as a city port by British imperialist forces in the Far East in the nineteenth century, is epical in scope. It resonates of Virgil’s epic on the origins of Rome, but at the same time it sounds a recurrent note of ironic revision. The American nationality of the protagonists places them as outsiders to the Sino-British conflict and suggests history written from the vantage point of the insignificant third party. This, together with their frivolous antics, associates the novel with the mock epic. Most significantly, An Insular Possession is written in the reconstructed idiom of the nineteenth-century novel. This idiom is imprinted right from the beginning, in the opening panorama of the Pearl River as it flows into the delta region centred on the pre-eminent trading port of southern China, Canton:
The river succours and impedes native and foreigner alike: it limits and it enables, it isolates and it joins. It is the highway of commerce and it is a danger and a nuisance. Children fall off native craft; drunken sailors topple from the decks of the Company’s chequered ships. Along with the rest of the city’s effluvia the river sweeps the victims out to sea. Thus for centuries it has fulfilled the functions of road and, as rivers will, cloaca. Its appearance changes, if not its uses. Most often the water is a sullen grey. At its mouth it stains the clear blue sea yellow-brown, the colour of tea as drunk in London. Somewhere, at its source, the water must run pellucid from some untainted spring. Logic dictates this. Practice, as always, is another matter. Where the river rises thousands of miles inland it seems already pregnant—with silt, with life, and with the opposite of life.
This description situates the novel in the compass of nineteenth-century narratives, which includes, among others, Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and Conrad’s Almayer's Folly, both beginning with rivers, and The Mill on the Floss, where the river functions as a kind of discursive nexus. Here, in An Insular Possession, the river is at once the geographical site of imperial conflict, the spatial and temporal figuration of imperialism’s changing fortunes, and the naturalizing trope of its processes.1
The literary models I have alluded to are Western in origin, and that is deliberate, because despite its southern Chinese setting, there is little about the novel, from its cast of characters to its subliminal critique of historiography, that is constructed as authentically Oriental. In this and his other novels, Mo is patently uninterested in the nativist fictions of identity or projects of postcolonial cultural reconstruction and retrieval that characterize the novels of other writers with whom he is sometimes placed in uneasy community.2 This is to be seen as much in the subject-matter and protagonists of his novels, as in his self-fashioning as writer.3
As a writer who was born and first educated in Hong Kong, Mo, in his fictional treatment of its early colonial history, could have laid claims to the privileged view of an insider. But An Insular Possession seems to have been deliberately conceived to frustrate any such claim. The scenes of Sino-British conflict are refracted through the two American protagonists, Gideon Chase and Walter Eastman, whose nationality places them on the periphery of the British opium trade and the imperial politics that sustain it. Their struggle for a place and a dissenting voice in the expatriate community dominated by the British is a central theme of the novel. Thus An Insular Possession is history seen by and through the experience of outsiders struggling for some form of cultural involvement. In this respect, it implicitly positions itself as the fictional alternative to both imperial (British) and nativist (Chinese) versions of history.
The aim of this essay is to examine the strategies of Mo’s project of third-party history in An Insular Possession and its critique of the methods and assumptions of traditional historiography. My own reading of An Insular Possession draws upon the post-structuralist and postmodern theoretical perspectives of Hayden White, Linda Hutcheon, and others. At first glance, this essay appears to assimilate into Euro-American theoretical paradigms of reading a text whose author (a Eurasian born in Hong Kong and educated in England) and subject matter (the origins of Hong Kong as a colonial city) may be seen as marginal to western discourse.4 I would like to argue that the cross-boundary negotiations of identity that are recurrent in Mo’s fiction resist precisely those binary structures of which the oppositions of imperial/periphery and Western theory/non-Western writing are too familiar rehearsals.
Specifically, in An Insular Possession, Mo moves away from the colonialist/nationalist paradigm of historiographic narrative that informs a certain tradition of postcolonial discourse and confronts history and identity as constituted of voices whose possibility has not been previously imagined. That these voices are invested with an American nationality clearly suggests that Mo has taken into account the situation of the United States during the period of the novel as an ex-colony and anti-imperial though as much interested in trade with China as the European imperialists.5 But it is the release of these voices that also marks the novel as late twentieth century, as contemporary. They articulate the novel’s inquiry into the constructed nature of history, and through this, see ideological alignment as the key to identity formation. There are other problematic interfaces of past and present, and I will return to them. For the moment I shall elaborate how, as it writes the history of the period, the narrative also casts doubts on traditional historiography.
In a number of essays, Hayden White has drawn attention to history as fabrication that employs the strategies of creative literature and whose claims to factual truth and objectivity are always open to question. More recently, Linda Hutcheon argues that contemporary historiographic metafiction raises the same issues about the relation between literary and historical discourses earlier theorized by White. An Insular Possession participates implicitly in the critique of those truth-bearing claims of history-writing that prompt White’s and Hutcheon’s inquiries. It could be read as a fictional demonstration of how historical “fact” is created out of the experiential “event” by different narrative strategies.6 And by counterpointing these strategies throughout the text, the novel further constructs the context of the ideological forces at work to shape the history of the period. An Insular Possession is a historical novel that is also metahistorical in that it parodies the lack of self-reflexiveness of much traditional historiography.
History, as it is told in An Insular Possession, is not written in the form of a master narrative but as a jumble of narratives, all jostling each other for supremacy. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the devices—the objective journalistic report, realistic visual representation, firsthand or eyewitness accounts—in which master narratives are often justified are counterpointed in the text, and each revealed, in turn, as inherently flawed. Foremost among these devices is the “factual” report of the type seen in newspapers and journals. Much of the narrative of An Insular Possession is taken up by editions of the two publications, China Monitor and the Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee, arranged successively in the text and often reporting similar events.
The China Monitor, the voice and, very often, the propaganda of belligerent British commercial and imperial interests, is the establishment paper of the Pearl River Delta. Attacking all that stands in the way of British trade and, specifically, the traffic in opium, to the point of openly castigating Captain Charles Elliot for being “soft” on the Chinese, the China Monitor is history seen on a daily basis from the point of view of the colonialist supremacist. Against its version of “facts,” Chase’s and Eastman’s Lin Tin Bulletin resists with sympathetic reports on Elliot’s activities and features on Chinese rituals, customs, and literary culture. It tells of a world outside the expatriate cloister and of a history that takes place elsewhere, to which its editors, Chase and Eastman, claim greater freedom of access and knowledge by virtue of their alibi as exiles from their own race. The narrative of An Insular Possession itself encloses the contest between two competing versions of history narrated by the newspapers. In doing so, Mo underlines the conflicting ideologies that inform them—one asserting its hegemony and the other seeking to insert itself into the public discourse of the time by transgressing established boundaries and by fashioning itself as alternative.
The China Monitor and the Lin Tin Bulletin also raise questions about what the New Historicists have called “the textuality of history” (Montrose 20). Newspapers are frequently regarded by historians as primary documents and indispensable in the verification of “facts.” But the entire relation between such documents and historical truth is called into question by the novel. The two newspapers in An Insular Possession are clearly shown to be embedded in the socio-cultural and ideological situation of those who produce them and to put strikingly different constructions on events. The self-fashioning of Eastman and Chase, through the medium of their newspaper, as idiosyncratic outsiders who are not afraid to make their voices heard further thickens the textual (and ideological) mediation of their reporting. In casting a critical eye on contemporary records of events as post-facto constructions, Mo also challenges implicitly the historiographic practice of asserting the truth of “what happened” on the basis of a study of extant “sources.”
The novel also scrutinizes other devices of recording the past and underlines their questionable relations with truth. One of the prominent characters aside from the two protagonists is the Irish painter O’Rourke, well known for his painting of local scenes and events, who makes his living doing portraits of the wives of the merchants and traders. Very early on in the novel O’Rourke corrects a drawing by Eastman of the Praia Grande at Macao, and adds the following caution: “ … at your stage you might well be better advised to copy from the work of a master, than to draw it from the life!” (11). The painter novice may well progress from being twice removed from reality, but the gap between his imagistic record and “life” is one built into the artistry of painting or drawing itself and is unbridgeable by even the most seasoned master.
Painting shades, highlights, and conceals as much as it reveals. Such aestheticizing strategies are what constitute the painter’s style. The kind of painting that O’Rourke does pulls in one direction towards an aesthetic mimesis, and in the other towards a historical discourse—a discourse that is itself double, as it addresses both its manifest subject (scene, event, or person) and the latent subjectivity of the painter himself. This bifurcated movement enforces a relationship between painting as historiographic record and “life” that is always mediated, ambivalent, and open to distortion and falsification. It is significant that at the end of the novel most of O’Rourke’s paintings are supposed to be destroyed in a fire; what is left behind are only “a sketch for a theatre programme” and, more pointedly, “[t]wo early Daguerreotype photographs by an unknown hand” of two of his paintings. These “do not inspire the conventional veneration which contemporaries appear to have felt” (582). The judgment of O’Rourke’s work underlines the fact that it is the subjectivity, or style, of the painter that is of historical interest and not the paintings themselves as objective records.
It is of course ironical that a remnant of O’Rourke’s work should be preserved by the very medium, the “Daguerreotype photographs,” that has displaced it as historical record. O’Rourke himself correctly perceives that the photograph is the greatest threat and challenge to his continued monopoly of “life representation.” Chase and Eastman, in articles in the Lin Tin Bulletin promoting the novel medium of the photoheliograph, show an awareness of its constructed nature, which makes it akin to the strategies of the painter that it is about to displace:
No two individual operators will ever take the same scene or portrait in quite the same fashion. We do acknowledge this. The minutest deviation in angle (viewpoint and perspective), framing (that is, where to place the border between that which shall be represented and that which shall not), and moment selected to make the exposure … —all or severally each contribute to the final result. It is quite surprising how tiny and apparently insignificant differences will be productive of hugely distinctive results …
At the same time, they contextualize the new medium by seeing it as a site of negotiation between the contending political forces in which they themselves are situated:
The heliographic method is at once Democratic and Imperial. Democratic because after a little simple trial and error, not to be compared with the labour of learning the painterly craft, excellent results may be secured by all. Imperial because it is a most voracious medium, which is capable of annexing the entire solid world and recreating it in two dimensions, instead of three. It is possible, in theory, to expose sufficient plates so as to capture the entire little world one daily inhabits, not to mention his friends, acquaintances, and … mortal foes.
For Chase and Eastman, people and journalists who are operating between the “Democratic” and the “Imperial,” the photo is the natural medium. Eastman grasps the potential of the photograph as manufactured record and how this record can, in turn, become alibi to their own evolving identity, from outsiders to alternative voices querying the British enterprise. In the midst of a devastating British naval bombardment of the Chinese forts on the Pearl River, Eastman, with Chase as a silent witness, arranges a photograph to be taken of a dead Chinese soldier:
Eastman and Wheeldon have a dead Chinese artilleryman between them, his bare powder-blackened arms around their necks, feet trailing on the ground—Eastman, who, Gideon notices, has not even the grace to give a guilty start. They drape the corpse over the breech of the cannon. Walter spots the rammer and his eyes brighten. He puts it into the dead man’s hand, but it falls out. And again. “Damnation.”
Wheeldon tries to break the stick across his knee and fails, but, standing it against the cannon, he uses his sword to hack it in half. He strews the pieces at the dead gunner’s feet. “Capital.” …
Walter kicks at a ruptured sand-bag to bring more debris down. Pulling at some wicker baskets filled with earth, he completes the scene of destruction. Wheeldon brings a tasselled lance from where it has been flung down by escaping soldiers, another pleasant touch. Walter now addresses himself to the management of the camera, he, Wheeldon, and it the only standing whole objects in the devastation.
History is made as the fighting goes on, and is remade by Eastman, eyewitness and photographer. The photograph duly appears in the Lin Tin Bulletin and confirms the Bulletin as friend to the Chinese and the conscientious objector to British military aggression. But the production of the photograph testifies to ideological manipulation that begs the question of the Bulletin’s difference from its imperial competitor, The Canton Monitor. In this respect, the narrative maps onto the critique of historiography that of the ideological appropriation of new technology. These diachronic processes are as germane to the history of the period being narrated as they are to succeeding ages and to the present.
Gideon Chase takes a different route in his own participation in history and history-making. Against prohibitions from both native and expatriate communities, Chase learns and acquires expertise in the Chinese language. If O’Rourke’s and Eastman’s domain is that of the visual, Chase, who serves as Captain Elliot’s interpreter and translator, enters into complex negotiations with the verbal and discursive systems that are contending for domination over him and history. Far more than the others, he is aware of the need of verity, the difficulty of achieving it, and the implications of failure. To his first effort at rendering into English the letter from the Chinese Commissioner, Keshen, to Elliot, he adds: “A true translation” (413). But clearly dissatisfied with this, he includes a postscript in which he re-reads the letter for its subliminal messages:
N.B. This letter is unsatisfactory in the extreme. As well as employing the objectionable term Barbarian Eye for the Plenipotentiary [Elliot] and the offensive term pin for his ultimatum, neither of which characterised the mode of communication as between equals in the Peking River, the author of this most evasive message clearly means to indicate that he proposes a resumption of the Canton trade on the old terms and within the old system. … The reference to the line of battle ships and the welfare of their crews represents a desire to indicate a consciousness of the possible weaknesses of the British expedition. … The parting good wish with which his communication concludes is a barely disguised insult, which represents an attempt to degrade the Plenipotentiary and Superintendent of Trade to the status of a merchant and speculator.
In a reversal of this situation, he warns the commander of the British fleet, General Gough, that a proclamation he has to translate inviting the Chinese villages to surrender
requires a large amount alike of thought as to its content and of careful expression as to its wording that the language should not demean its subject and thus be productive of an effect opposite to that which is intended. The Chinese are most sensitive to such blunders. The difficulty is increased by the circumstance that while it is requisite the notice should be intelligible to the populace at large, it should at the same time prove acceptable in its forms to the mandarins.
Chase’s rendition of the proclamation is again labeled “A true translation.” In both instances quoted above, Chase demonstrates his linguistic and cross-cultural access, one that enables him to intervene in historical decisions and historical processes. The marginal has become (or so it seems) the hybridized negotiator, travelling between conflictual worlds and discourses, who has the responsibility—and hence the authority—for fostering or breaking communication and for directing the course of history. In a much more subtle form than Eastman’s cavalier manufacture of record, Chase’s efforts underline how history is made of texts and by texts.
But Chase’s implicit attempts at shaping history come up inevitably against the power of the dominant discourses. The indirect result of his first intervention in the dealings between Elliot and Keshen is a Chinese proclamation offering a reward for his death and that of his patron. In the second instance, his culturally aware translation of Gough’s proclamation is exploited by the General to lull the citizens of Canton into a false sense of security before a devastating bombardment. “In what sense,” Chase asks accusingly in a letter to Gough, “may the civilian population of the city understand any similar future declarations from the leader of the British Expedition other than as cynical and heartless pleasantries?” (475). In Chase’s implicit lament at his loss of credibility, the novel, as a critique of how history is made, retreats from any privileging of an attempt at hybridized discourse. The Chinese and British reactions enact the closure by violence of a historical process, the dynamics of which, from the point of view of the radical outsider, are textual negotiation. The novel in the end distinguishes between the forms of power that control the making of history.
In its own narratorial method and the substance of its critique, An Insular Possession resists the notion of history as a master narrative produced by a dominant discourse. The narrative, as we have seen, is an interaction of letters, journalistic articles, dialogue, and third-person narration. It exposes the constructed or fictional nature of history—an appropriate theme for a historical novel, or a metahistorical or pseudo-historical novel. But the original nineteenth- century epical novel, which An Insular Possession pastiches, from Vanity Fair to War and Peace, recognizes the distinction between history and fiction and uses history as resource for the storyteller to interpret more or less accurately. However, for An Insular Possession this external resource, this history, is not there. The novel scrutinizes the ways in which history is an ongoing dialogue between different forms of records and ideologies and the potential for shaping history’s progress and production this offers to peripheral characters and points of view. History, any history of the period (in the words of the Lin Tin Bulletin, speaking in another context), “must be an unfinished story, not a rounded tale” (523). An Insular Possession is one of the most recent versions of this “unfinished story,” in its critique of older forms of telling the story, its imagination of a hitherto unrecognized marginal, American perspective, and its shifting ideological underpinnings. At the same time, it continues to point towards a history that is unfolding elsewhere, in the domain of the gunboats that enact periodical closures upon ideological and textual negotiations. “‘The only end, Gid, is death’” (575), remarks a rather trite Eastman, in the final chapter of the novel.
In all its discourse strategies—direct speech, the epistle, journalese, or third-person narration—An Insular Possession imitates and re-creates the idiom of a previous age, familiar to readers of novels such as Vanity Fair. But the idiom is, of course, a contemporary fantasy, made by craft like the characters, events, and the fiction of a third-party history. As a twentieth-century redaction of a nineteenth-century historical novel, An Insular Possession participates in the postmodern exchange of realism and fantasy. The two are folded within one another—rather than counter-pointed—throughout the novel, and this discursive interaction situates the novel intertextually as much with Midnight’s Children as with Vanity Fair. Such interaction is once again emphasized in the final narrative strategy, the use of appendices.
“Appendix I” consists of entries from “A Gazetteer of Place Names and Biographies Relative to the Early China Coast by An Old Hand,” which is supposed to be published in Shanghai in 1935 (577). The second appendix contains passages from a book, The Morning of My Days, authored by “Professor G. H. Chase” (586). In traditional historiographic scholarship, such appendices help to authenticate the account that precedes them, and this is no doubt the function they are imitating in the novel. While the work cited in “Appendix II,” like its author, is more clearly fictional, “Appendix I” brings into focus a number of enigmatic exchanges between fact and fiction, realism and fantasy and, furthermore, draws the reader into its ludic process—and, by extension, that of the novel—by placing her/him in an unconscionable position as arbitrator. First of all, the truth-status of “A Gazetteer” is highly questionable. It has the semblance of the real; and indeed, among the entries taken from it are the names of real places and people, just as the characters, Captain Elliot and the Chinese Commissioners Lin and Keshen, for instance, in the novel proper are real historical persons.
Prominent among the entries under “C” is a short biography of “Chase, Professor Gideon Hall,” enclosed by references to “Caine, Colonel William” and “Chek Chu” (578–79). The two latter names are historically verifiable: Caine was a governor of Hong Kong, and Chek Chu is a fishing village that even now exists, albeit much gentrified, on the south side of Hong Kong island. The truth-status of these two names seeps into that of Chase, mystifying it with the aura of verity. Eastman is not among the list of entries, but his name poses a problem of another kind. In the novel, he is the one to acquire the rudimentary know-how of photography, to use such know-how to augment verbal reports, and, as we have seen, to manufacture news itself. This fictional nineteenth-century photography enthusiast bears the same surname as the actual nineteenth-century American photography enthusiast who was to invent the Kodak camera and to found Eastman Kodak. It is as if Mo is challenging his reader not to wonder naively—just for a moment—whether the two might be related. In this way, Eastman figures as another signpost of the intersections between the real and the make-believe that tantalize and tease.
The reader may be tempted to verify the existence of the gazetteer, the sources of the entries of real historical persons and places, and perhaps even the real-life models of Chase and Eastman. Tempted, yes; but to proceed to do so would be an attempt to determine what is fact and what is fiction, to separate the real from the fantastical, and thus to fall into the novel’s ludic trap, which precisely subverts established boundaries between the two. It would also be an attempt to enact closures upon the debates about the mimetic, which it is the project of the novel to re-imagine and carnivalize. Tantalized, teased, tempted, the reader is invited instead to embrace such processes as the pleasure of his/her reading, and in doing so, to enter into community with the choric voices of the postmodern novel.
Embedded in the doubling of past and present, there are aspects of the novel’s strategy that may be seen to undermine its critique of orthodox discourses. This relates to the hackneyed representation in the novel of Chinese characters and the Chinese community as a whole. They are disheartening stereotypes, made up of inscrutable speakers of pidgin, alternately xenophobic and abject in their interaction with outsiders. In this respect, the novel looks backwards at an Orientalist tradition of caricature, which it animates but does not challenge. Ironically, it is here that the novel is aligned with an outmoded imperialist and Orientalist discourse and its revisionist historiographical agenda disrupted. In making this observation, however, it is not my intention to point to some “authentic” Chinese-ness against which Mo’s representations are measured and found wanting. There are, however, other voices speaking of the early history of Hong Kong, and not necessarily all by locals or so-called “insiders,” that can be entered into a dialogue, or dispute, with Mo’s version of the colony’s founding moment.7 What concerns me here, specifically, is that the representations in An Insular Possession of the Chinese as “ethnic” subjects lack the kind of fictional frame that is so necessary to locating them in a specific space and time. Such location is the achievement of Mo’s earlier novel, Sour Sweet. There, he takes on board one of the activities that stereotypes the Chinese immigrant—that they all work in the catering trade—and constructs from it a narrative of immigrant subjectivity. In Sour Sweet, “Chinese-ness” is explained in terms of a number of cultural practices and kinship and social values; these are, in turn, traced back to a particular identity formation of the protagonist, Lily Chen, in her early childhood in rural China. The novel is largely concerned with the retrenchment of these “ethnic” traits in a condition of diaspora where Lily finds herself and her family as an alien minority in Britain of the 1960s. That such retrenchment perpetuates racialized thinking about self and other and closes down any cross-boundary or transgressive possibilities is the paradox of the novel. It is also the measure of Mo’s ironic distance from his protagonist, and his version of the problematic of re-placing ethnicity in the diaspora.
“Chinese-ness” in Sour Sweet is an identity formation that has a specific temporal-spatial location that precludes it from slipping into generalized abstraction, essentialistic character, or a rehearsal of motley stereotypes. But such is not the case with An Insular Possession, in which, first of all, there are very few Chinese characters of dramatic significance. Of those who appear in the novel, they are either mandarins of the inscrutable Chinese variety or gaggles of peasants engaged in activities that mystify the expatriates in the novel as much as they did Christopher Isherwood more than half a century ago in Journey to a War (1939). No doubt this has to do with the assignment of narrative modalities in the novel: “Chinese-ness” is mediated by expatriate observers and narrators who are, in turn, trapped within the discourses of imperialism of their time. But this particular point seems to have escaped the notice of a novel that seeks to rewrite history from a full awareness of history’s fictionalities.
Apart from the problem of the handling of the Chinese as “ethnic” subjects, it is possible to say that an expatriate character like Eastman replicates nineteenth-century novelistic types of the gentleman-maverick. It is by no means clear that An Insular Possession is self-consciously aware of the different—and conflictual—ideological implications of the dual processes involved in the postmodern project of pastiche. What is therefore also at issue is a larger question that one can ask of this project to which Mo’s rewriting of nineteenth-century idiom in An Insular Possession belongs: to what extent does this involve imitation—with nineteenth-century novels as referential models—and to what extent does this engender mimicry as radical revision?8
Edward Said talks about the great rivers in nineteenth-century narratives that codify and reproduce what he calls “a structure of attitude and reference” (73, passim) which, in turn, form the cultural bedrock of the imperial enterprise and its enduring legacy. See Chapter 1, Parts 1 and 2.
A recent article by Pico Iyer, “The Empire Writes Back,” discusses Mo and novelists such as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ben Okri, and Michael Ondaatje in terms of their cross-cultural mobility, which provides the subject matter and creative energy of their fiction. The Empire Writes Back, edited by Bill Ashcroft et al., is, of course, also the title of an earlier, and quite different, critical-theoretical work, where cultural retrieval and reconstruction are given prominence as major paradigms of postcolonial fiction. Apart from a few writers such as Rushdie, who feature in both publications, each tends to draw together a different community of writers.
In the other three of Mo’s novels, the protagonists are all affiliated with more than one culture. Walter Nolasco in The Monkey King is a Portuguese from Macao who marries into a Chinese family in Hong Kong; the Chens in Sour Sweet are southern Chinese immigrants to Britain. Adolph Ng in The Redundancy of Courage (1991) has an identity invested with the complex history of the communities that have been brought into contact and conflict by imperialism. He is born of Chinese immigrants in the fictional island colony of Danu, educated in Canada, and becomes involved in the Danuese struggle for independence against the Portuguese and then the resistance against the invasion by a neighbouring state.
Some recent critique of this interface includes Mukherjee, Mishra and Hodge, and Loomba.
Edward Said reminds us of the “imperial cast” of much of American writing in the first half of the nineteenth century—“the Puritan ‘errand into the wilderness’ … expansion westward, along with the wholesale colonization and destruction of native American life”—which is paradoxical with its “ferocious anti-colonialism, directed at the Old World” (74–75).
This is Hutcheon’s distinction. See Chapters 7 and 8.
See Scott and Ho.
The use of the term cannot but invoke Homi Bhabha’s complex imbrication of colonial critique and agency, though to explore fully its relevance to Timothy Mo’s work lies outside the purview of this essay.
Ashcroft, Bill, et al., eds. The Empire Writes Back. New York and London: Routledge, 1989.
Ho, Elaine Yee Lin. “Women in Exile: Gender and Community in Hong Kong Fiction.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature (forthcoming, June 1994).
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of PostModernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 1988.
Iyer, Pico. “The Empire Writes Back.” Time 8 February 1993: 48–53.
Loomba, Ania. “Overworlding the ‘Third World’.” Oxford Literary Review 13.1–2 (1991): 164–89.
Mo, Timothy. An Insular Possession. London: Chatto & Windus, 1986.
———. The Monkey King. London: André Deutsch, 1978.
———. The Redundancy of Courage. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.
———. Sour Sweet. London: André Deutsch, 1982.
Mishra, Vijay, and Bob Hodge. “What is post(-)colonialism?” Textual Practice 5.3 (1991): 399–413.
Montrose, Louis A. “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture.” The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York and London: Routledge, 1989.
Mukherjee, Arun P. “The Exclusions of Postcolonial Theory and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable: A Case Study.” ARIEL 22.3 (1991): 27–48.
———. “Whose Post-colonialism and Whose Postmodernism?” World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 1–9.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus. 1993.
Scott, Ian. Hong Kong. World Bibliographical Series. Vol. 115. Santa Barbara, California: Clio Press, 1990.
White, Hayden. “Historical Pluralism.” Critical Inquiry 12.3 (1986): 480–93.
———. “The Narrativization of Real Events.” Critical Inquiry 7.4 (1981): 793–98.
———. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
———. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980): 5–27.
Veeser, H. Aram. The New Historicism. New York and London: Routledge, 1989.
SOURCE: “Spicy and Thick,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4801, April 7, 1995, p. 26.
[In the following review, Clee comments on the thematic motifs in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard.]
Timothy Mo’s literary career has drifted up a creek. He started out with two critically acclaimed novels, The Monkey King (1978) and Sour Sweet (1982); the latter, a fresh and arresting portrait of the Chinese community in London, appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist and was made into a film. An Insular Possession (1986), for which he had changed publisher from Deutsch to Chatto for an advance that was lower than a rival offer, was also a Booker finalist. Next came The Redundancy of Courage, a bloated work for which the author, now represented by a new agent, secured from Chatto a substantial advance. It lost, the publisher reveals, a lot of money. Still, it had its admirers, and it too made the Booker shortlist. A Booker contender three times within ten years: this record, which no other novelist has matched recently, should make valuable an author’s stock.
For Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, Mo sought, reports suggest, the sum of £200,000. The highest bid he received was £125,000, and this from a house which had serious reservations about the novel and wanted to make editorial changes. His previous publisher, Chatto, commented: “If we had felt passionately about the book we would have found the money. But we didn’t.” Mo, who has stated that he is “fed up relying on others”, decided to bring out the novel himself. His own budget is more modest than he had expected that of his publishers to be: he estimates that if he sells 1,000 hardback copies and 9,000 paperbacks, he will make a profit of about £25,000. He has called his imprint Paddleless.
Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is preoccupied with the excremental. The novel opens as Detleg Pfeidwengeler, a German professor, is shat on by a Filipina prostitute, to whom he then gives an enema. An adversary, whom he likes to contemplate while playing these games, later offers him a hot chocolate, which she says is just how he likes it, spicy and thick. “Give him a stool, someone”, she commands. The professor is to meet his end in a lavatory cubicle, attempting to flush a hand-grenade down the pan. A firm in Mo’s setting in the Philippines, the fictional city of Gobernador de Leon, has built up its wealth and that of the city on a rare mineral named “Sodomite”. A “brownout” is a power-cut. The local name for breadfruit, one character explains, is “culo”. So Breadfruit Boulevard is the local equivalent of the Hershey Highway, another suggests. “Is it a cul-de-sac?” he inquires wittily.
Mo has cheerfully described his first chapter as “the filthiest of any book ever published”. He has also said that Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is a comedy. But the comedy is for those who find farts funny. A newspaper office, presented as a place of crackling badinage, has an editor offering the advice: “There are old submariners, there are bold submariners, but there are no old, bold submariners.” This aphorism has the staff “in stitches”. A bar offers a cocktail with the delirious name of Screaming Orgasm. The bartender tells a customer that he’ll give her one, and she replies that he has done it quickly and that it normally takes ages. Those who hear this exchange have “hysterics”. On a visit to a cave, the obese Professor Pfeidwengeler has trouble getting out of the narrow mouth, presenting another member of the party with the opportunity to tickle his feet and jump up and down on his legs. Collapse of all parties; Pfeidwengeler emerges to find his companions “on their knees or on their backs, kicking their legs, some weeping”.
Structure is another problem. The novel contains long passages of arcane business interrupted by moments of vivid violence. In Part One, Mo, having attempted to grab our attention with Professor Pfeidwengeler’s romps, abandons him and introduces us to some of the inhabitants of Gobernador de Leon, among them Victoria Init, the gracefully ruthless wife of a middle-ranking politician; Boyet, a newspaper columnist with a taste for prostitutes; and Crescente, a psychopathic hoodlum. Towards the end of the section, Boyet and his colleagues go on a weekend trip which Crescente brutally interrupts. Part Two introduces more characters, delegates to a conference organized under Mrs Init’s patronage. The event culminates in an act of revenge for Crescente’s crime.
Has any decent work of fiction ever been set at a conference? David Lodge’s Small World, about jet-setting delegates, was one of his weaker novels. A large part of Malcolm Bradbury’s worst novel, Dr Criminale, took place on the international conference circuit. These books, and Mo’s too, are stifled by the insulated atmospheres of their scenarios. The authors seem to take for granted the reader’s interest in their characters’ machinations, and are tempted to adopt a style that is off-puttingly knowing and arch. In Mo’s case, there is an unpleasant vulgarity too: Mrs Init’s expression is that of “a Vestal caught douching”; Boyet does not want to shred an article because he is not the type “who murdered his own offspring and floated the foetuses away”; Boyet believes that his wife, berating him for giving her a venereal disease, is “getting her rocks off on it”. Mo is aware of clichés, and often refers to their use, but does not always resist them: twice, for example, characters are said to be running around “like headless chickens”.
The characters are victims of this vulgarity. Professor Pfeidwengeler is one; another is Gracie Hipkin, who runs an environmental pressure group called Whalewatch and is “big as a beached whale herself”. A virgin, she becomes besotted with Crescente, and is observed masturbating to fantasies about being penetrated by him on a Li-Lo. In a postscript set in the future, Mo kindly invents a drug which enables her to shed half her weight.
SOURCE: “Near-Perfect Right-Wing Art,” in The Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8701, April 15, 1995, p. 36.
[In the following review of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, Taylor discusses the narrative structure and political theme of the novel.]
The publishing history of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard looks like a sad case of Martin Amis in reverse. Timothy Mo, the author of four highly-praised novels, three of them shortlisted for the Booker Prize, approaches selected publishers with the manuscript of his new work and, let us say, a certain sum of money in mind. As one, the publishers decline to match these expectations (the top bid is supposed to have been in the region of £100,000), whereupon Mr Mo takes terrific umbrage and resolves to publish it himself under the auspices of something called the Paddleless Press.
The publishers, again as one, were also supposed to have been roundly appalled by Mo’s opening chapter, to the point where its inclusion began to play a part in the negotiations. You can see why. The novel begins in a Philippine brothel with a German professor gracelessly performing a suction enema on his reluctant partner. It is a revolting episode, lip-smacking and gratuitous—the kind of thing that will have the Jonathan Meadeses of this world slapping their thighs in admiration—narrowly justified, I suppose, by its figurative intent. Leaving aside the excremental connotations, ‘brownout’ is both local slang for a power shutdown and a metaphor for the moral fog in which the majority of Mo’s characters wander about.
Like nearly everything Mo has written, even as far back as his first novel The Monkey King (1978), Brownout casts a cold but not unfriendly eye over the juxtapositions of East and West. Set for the most part in the Philippines, it turns on the construction of a conference-cum-cultural centre in the provincial city of Gobernador de Leon, the brainchild of the wife of a venal local congressman. Mrs Init, notably more astute than her stolid husband, is the magnet to which each of the novel’s characters are drawn: Boyet, the part-time journalist, who starts his career by lampooning one of her public works; ‘Boss’ Crescente, her psychopath hoodlum nephew; and the freeloading academics who arrive for the centre’s inaugural event.
The first half of the book pursues a handful of individual lives deep into the shadow of the modern Philippine state, a dreadful parody of Western cityscapes where tubby gangster stalk the hotel foyers, ten per cent of the city’s female population work as prostitutes, and to pay a bribe is as natural as tipping a waiter. Street-sharp, thirtysomething Boyet embodies most of these contradictions: a family man who prowls the brothels, a satirical columnist who keeps up his job in the legal department of a sinister logging and mining enterprise. A climacteric is reached at a journalist’s beach party where the daughter of his female colleague Jingkee is mown down and put in a coma by an anonymous jet-skier.
Subsequently, as the foreground is occupied by a gaggle of Third World academics convened to discuss ‘Cultural Plurality in a World of Ecological Limits’, Mo’s wider purpose begins to declare itself. The centrepiece, in fact, is what purports to be the transcript of a debate on ‘Asian Values in the 20th Century Context: Assets or Anachronisms?’. Running to 20 pages, this furnishes a kind of burlesque of the various liberal attitudes it is possible to maintain on topics such as ethnicity, imperialism and racial identity, the whole effortlessly blown away by the stentorian logic of coprophilic Professor Pfeidwengeler. Pfeidwengeler’s views might be described as an extremist version of the ideas promulgated by the late Shiva Naipaul in books like Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth and Unfinished Journey. There is no such thing as a ‘wronged’ or exploited nation; there are only superiors and inferiors, achievement and envy. Moving to the particular, the ethical dustbin of the Philippines is a consequence not of U.S. colonialism but the ‘moral slightness’ of its inhabitants. Marcos was not some debased freak but the epitome of what every filipino desires to be. Nature, formidably defended by Pfeidwengeler, wins out over nurture, whereupon the proceedings are interrupted by a guerrilla attack (orchestrated by Jingkee who has identified the jet-skier as Crescente) which cuts short congressman Init’s promising career while missing its principal target.
Apparently written with the express intention of annoying Third World apologists like John Pilger, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is that comparatively rare animal, a near-perfect example of rightwing art: ideologically poisonous, perhaps, but bristling with humour and narrative purpose. Satirical novels of this kind frequently leave their characters staggering dazedly in the slipstream of An Idea. Mo’s people invariably convince, though, whether the circumstances are tragic (Boyet watching the incident at the beach with a mixture of fascination and offhandedness) or comic (Congressman Init being introduced to an old rival, in fact the great-nephew of his grandfather’s assassin, at a presidential reception) and the result is an absorbing amalgam of the personal and the political. The chances of a small publisher whose only address is a postcode in Bloomsbury having a decent distribution system are remote, but if you can find a copy, buy it.
SOURCE: “Here Be Many Dragons,” in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 152, No. 19, May 7, 1995, p. 28.
[In the following review, Tyrrell provides a succinct account of the satirical quality in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard.]
Timothy Mo’s first novel, Sour Sweet, a fine satire about a Hong Kong family, introduced us to the rich Poons, lunching on three fried eggs, their amahs sleeping in the kitchen, spittoons in each room, and their every word part of the Chinese politics of status or “face”. Underneath Mo’s wit and compact narration was a telling critique of a claustrophobic Chinese society. It was a world that Mo, born of Cantonese and English parents, would enlarge in successive novels.
The latest brings us to the Philippines, where one called Victoria Init is building a dazzling conference centre, The Dragons. Mrs Init, the wife of a politician, is a provincial Imelda Marcos, formidable and deceptive. This book is not her story—as a character, she has equal weight with five other personalities. But her Dragons Centre is Mo’s way of bringing together an international cast of intellectuals, journalists and criminals, all of whom are attending its inaugural conference.
In his jauntily alert prose, Mo builds a tale less on plot than characterisation. As the Dragons’ conference approaches, we meet most characters at home or en route to the Philippines, then watch them behave with the peculiar codes their nationalities and circumstances bestow. Mo is too intelligent merely to draw laughs from mix-ups between east and west. Instead, we are struck by the radical selfishness in which everyone, Asian and Caucasian, is caught. Mo reveals the liberal Dr Ruth Neumark to be driven by the same instincts as the racist Professor Pfeidwengeler, or the scheming Mrs Init. The satire is relentlessly cynical.
Mo’s intelligence is broad enough to round out his characters. He gives his racist a tolerant side, makes his dumb hoodlum academical in the matter of guns and cars. His limply alliterative title, Brownout On Breadfruit Boulevard, is the poorest pun. A “brownout” is a drop in the electricity supply—not a “blackout”—in the Philippines.
Mo’s vivid language is a sort of Chinese English, as quirky as Salman Rushdie’s Indian English. At times the syntax—“it sent the adrenalin rushing already”—seems like an Englishing of Cantonese idiom.
This novel certainly has its weaknesses, not least its bumpy storyline. But Mo has such a cool satirist’s grasp of how people think, and is so richly comic, that his book transcends its formal raggedness.
SOURCE: “Doing It His Way,” in The London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 9, May 11, 1995, p. 22.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones complains of the stylistic and technical flaws in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard.]
Was it Randall Jarrell who defined a novel as a long piece of prose fiction with something wrong with it? By that yardstick, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is a novel thousands of times over. Timothy Mo has decided to go solo with this book, and has set up his own press for the purpose. This is not vanity publishing as that phrase is normally understood (Mo has in the past made money for himself and his publishers) but vanity certainly seems to come into it. What was intended as a declaration of independence reads as an inadvertent tribute to the missing—to the many people who, in the case of a conventionally published book, intervene with their skills between the originating ego of the novelist and the bookshop of final destination.
The style of a novel is its atmosphere, not in the sense that the little bistro on the corner has atmosphere, but in the sense that the Earth has an atmosphere. Style is what a reader breathes. Plot is made of words, character is made of words: if those words are badly used or hard to make sense of, then plot and character become technical terms rather than things followed and felt.
Sometimes the faults are grammatical: “Now a choir of what looked like hundreds but, consulting his hand-out, logic said had to be less than 50, the number of available skates, swooped round the circuit trailing helium-filled balloons and giving the national anthem an even jerkier rendition than was its due.” “Consulting” here has no subject, and the numerical details are unhelpful (there can only be 25 skaters).
More often, it is simply that there is no reader over Mo’s shoulder, no immediate imaginary consumer of what he produces. As a result, he writes sentences that are tiring to read: “These days, local debts of honour discharged in the electoral aftermath—and from earliest days it had been ingrained in him that the national political picture was essentially a mosaic of local power bases—the correct palms greased from his pork-barrel in the just proportion—the Congressman spent five days a week in Manila, coming home at the weekend.” Readers of English need a sentence to have a subject, and shouldn’t be deprived of one for so long. The phrase that starts with “local” has potential, but turns out to be an ablative absolute, with “having been” omitted before “discharged”. The search must go on, for another thirty-plus words.
Main verbs are sometimes similarly elusive: “The sights and sounds of this, the Congressman cooing sweet nothings down the receiver, stunned, stymied and amazed, in the way that the spectacle of a vulture squawking ‘Who’s a pretty boy?’ might inspire true humility in the heart of the learned ornithologist.” Since the verbs “stun”, “stymie” and “amaze” are all transitive, the reading eye construes them as past participles adjectival in function, describing the Congressman. In fact they are the main verbs of the sentence, although admittedly the sentence contains no clue about who is being stunned, stymied and amazed. The Congressman is alone at the time, after all.
Timothy Mo has a powerful knack for sabotaging rhythm even when his grammar is reasonably clear: “‘Because,’ said Charina, parrotting with the obligingness of one who has had scientific principles drummed into them by parents very much unwillingly but against appalling odds has fought through to mastery because of the delightful potential for practical application, ‘the water temperature will chill the outside of the glass.’”
Readers of literary prose don’t mind doing a bit of work, but in this book the division of labour between reader and writer is highly unequal. Time spent within the book trying to make sense of basic verbal structures is time taken away from enjoying what it might have to offer. Nothing whatever is gained by Mo’s presenting information in the reverse of the logical order, so as to render a simple sentence baffling: “Carla therefore felt able to give her a knock on the door, ascending in the elevator, the occupants of which were visible from the lobby in a huge glass tube, much like boli travelling on the peristaltic wave.” Logically: Carla notices while waiting for the lift what its occupants look like from the lobby, then ascends in it, then knocks at someone’s door.
Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is full of tautologies and near-malapropisms. There’s “neutral indifference”, there’s “many preceding drinks earlier”, there’s “nemesis looming with a fatal inevitability”. Timothy Mo uses “unusual” to mean “unfamiliar” (“the languages more unusual to him”), and “on the right wavelength to” for “on the same wavelength as”. He writes “none of those two things”.
When Mo uses figurative language, he habitually mixes metaphors: “In those circles where reputations were brokered he had obviously been gazetted promotion” (stock exchange, military). “Her oceanic pity for the suffering masses in the abyss was matched only by the dizzy crest of her personal hauteur.” (Is she the ocean or perhaps only a single wave? Might “crest” refer to armour? Heraldry?) Sometimes the imagery is too mixed for its constituent parts to be identified at all: “There were others like him, but they were thin on the ground and not guaranteed to get to the top of the pile in brazen times.” Or: “not carrying head luggage … made you nimbler around the posts on the everyday course.”
Successful metaphorical language is efficient, in the sense that it compresses meanings. Mo, however, manages to be baffling and diffuse at the same time: “Anyway, as she wasn’t planning to continue the voyage there was no need to salt stock in the barrel.” “Voyage”? Is that sea voyage? Are we to think of food preserved for long journeys in a time before refrigeration? “Stock”? Would that be livestock, or a soup base? Wouldn’t you have all your pickled supplies in place before you set off from port? The image stymies so in its own right that there’s hardly time left over to question its applicability (to a politician who doesn’t accept bribes because she’s soon going to retire).
Plot and character in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard both suffer from a strange restlessness of the point of view, so that we never know for very long whose eyes we’re meant to be looking through. One example will do:
One of the girls, fussed in by Momo, a lot brighter than the others, a student of chemical engineering, one of the co-eds whom Nestor affects to scorn, notices, sums up the situation in a glance and thinks: “Anyway, they have bigger hearts than small girls, even if they’re stupider.” No one will choose her, by the way: too short, too dark. The other 17 girls, each wearing a round red and white number badge ranging, Boyet notices (with what he thinks of as a journalist’s eye), from 3 to 86 … line up in room centre with serious faces.
The passage as a whole is narrated from the point of view of the journalist Boyet, and it is highly distracting to be sidetracked into another consciousness, for so little increment of insight. Where is this girl, apart from anything else? In the room, obviously, or she couldn’t “notice”, but where? Does she know she’s not going to be picked? Is that why she doesn’t line up with “the other 17 girls”? She doesn’t appear again, so we never know. She has a subject of study and a relative IQ, but no name, no place to stand, and no reason to be there in the paragraph.
Once in the book Mo tries to play with point of view, when a woman sees what she takes to be an unwelcome sexual advance from a middle-aged man to a young Filipina. In fact the two have been accidentally reminded of a traumatic incident in the past, and are consoling each other, but this is not the moment of revelation it might be elsewhere because we know the real explanation all along, and none of the characters engages us humanly.
It is by now well known that this novel opens with a scene of coprophilic sex, no better written than what follows. The theme of shit is certainly pervasive in the novel—consider the name of Mo’s personal press, Paddleless, and remind yourself which creek, exactly, people are up without a paddle. Even the title has more to yield in this vein: “brownout” is a word for a power shortage (not quite a blackout), but not in British English, and in context it takes on a digestive overtone. “Breadfruit Boulevard”, or so we are told at one point, is local slang for anal sex.
Certainly the author seems to take pleasure in a faecal subtext, as in this description of the winding up of a conference: “Final motions would be passed: the end-product of whatever the general gut-feeling was on issues dirty, dangerous or otherwise … there was no doubt Ruth Neumark’s speech was the true grand finale, the one big one whose grandeur and finality would only be emphasised by the spatterings, dribblings, and short-lived blasts that were subsequent.” Don’t you love that crazy British toilet humour? It’s good that the author has found some amusement, but here as elsewhere we readers are unreal to him.
SOURCE: “Cash and le Carré,” in New Statesman and Society, May 12, 1995, p. 41.
[In the following review, Tonkin briefly compares Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard with John le Carré’s Our Game.]
Timothy Mo and John le Carré have both written novels that pit conscience against corruption in a lawless post-imperial world, “without faith or anti-faith”. Look at how these two books have been published, though, and you see a curious mirror-effect. Both authors have behaved in ways that flatly contradict their novels’ drift. Mo the sneering fatalist has acted like a hero; while Le Carré the knightly champion of rights has hitched his name to big-power bullying.
Mo’s cloacal romp Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard —set in a Philippines portrayed as one vast sewer—cynically assumes that the rich and violent will dump on the poor for ever, whatever label the big shots happen to wear. “Same scheiss only different flies,” as Mo’s gross but shrewd German Asia-watcher says.
Meanwhile, in another part of the east, le Carré’s Our Game sends his usual cast of dysfunctional toffs into the anarchic post-Soviet Caucasus. They likewise find that, to the grubby “whorehouse alliance” that now binds Russia and the west, “minority rights can seriously threaten world health”. But where Mo smirks and jests at naked power, le Carré moums and rails. Larry Pettifer, a bohemian British double-agent, has gone to seek martyrdom with the Ingush rebels against Yeltsin. He aims to play Lord Byron to these Muslim mountaineers that Moscow calls “black arses”. Le Carré gives his tight-laced pursuer, the retired spy Cranmer, some sensible thoughts about non-intervention in this “string of Bosnias waiting to happen”. However, the novel’s logic and language side with the embattled little guys.
Neither book matches its author’s best. Mo’s crew of simpatico Filipinos vanish halfway through as he segues into a laborious anti-PC satire set at a conference full of “Turd World” liberals. Our Game grips harder and digs deeper into the psychology of a time that prefers bazookas to beliefs. But Le Carré’s disdain for post-Thatcherland—its brutal policemen, dull students, creepy apparatchiks—isn’t always matched by an ear for these voices. (Though I can forgive him a lot for calling a dodgy arms dealer “Aitken”.)
In Brownout, Mo does very little to countermand the view that “everything was so interconnected and the vested interests so powerful that change for the better was impossible.” Yet he has, famously, cut loose from corporate publishing to produce and market this book as a one-man band. With 10,000 copies shifted already, his bold venture has been vindicated. He has trounced “vested interests”. …
SOURCE: “Living In-Between: Interstitial Spaces of Possibility in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet,” in Just Postmodernism, Rodopi, 1997, pp. 107-128.
[In the following essay, McLeod examines Mo’s Sour Sweet in terms of the postmodern and postcolonial theories of Homi K. Bhabha.]
Exploring the relationship between postmodernism and postcolonialism in the context of literary criticism is almost like being party to a particularly messy divorce. These erstwhile theoretical bedfellows have, in the last ten years, drifted further and further apart. Much of what each might offer the other has been lost beneath a growing volume of accusation, hostility and mutual suspicion. Once, it seems, postcolonial theory appeared entirely compatible with a postmodernist sensibility. Both attacked the tyranny of certainty, the relationship between language and power, and those metanarratives of legitimation that had acted as the philosophical props for such things as one’s identity, the pursuit of reason, and colonial rule. As Michael Keith and Malcolm Cross neatly summarise when discussing the politics of identity, ‘the questions which have dominated postmodernist cultural theory for the past decade are precisely those that writers in the anti-imperialist and post-colonial traditions have been addressing for the past century (and longer)’ (Keith and Cross 1993:22). Yet it has become increasingly difficult to reconcile each aesthetic practice. Increasingly, postcolonial critics accuse postmodernists of dispensing with certain vital concepts—especially historical reference—in their proposal that all is now ‘hyperreal’ or ‘simulacra’. As Simon During has pointed out, postcolonialism often functions ‘by accepting and using those practices and concepts (representation, history, evaluation) which postmodernism most strenuously denies’ (During 1985:369). These have been lost in the fun-house of postmodernism, threatened by its promiscuous, cheerful subjectivism. Reference and representation have denounced their previous intimacy, and the postmodernists endlessly celebrate the end of the affair. Furthermore, in a neat reversal of this logic, postmodernists decry those critical practices that still use ‘outdated’ empiricist notions of history and reality. Chances of a reunion between postmodernism and postcolonialism seem slim.
My summary of this supposed annulment necessarily leans towards caricature, and polarises into enemy camps a complex constellation of critical positions on the issue. But the substance and legitimacy of this separation is the preoccupation of this essay. Although there are strong reasons for keeping postmodernism and postcolonialism at some distance from each other, there are also appropriate circumstances when their confluence can be critically enabling. Postcolonial critics who declare a boycott on all things postmodernist are in danger of making precisely the kind of ahistorical generalisation that they would otherwise condemn as axiomatic of colonial discourse. If in the past literary criticism has swung too far in one direction, celebrating the happy matrimony of postmodernism and postcolonialism, it now seems to have swung too far in the other.
Postmodernism is fast becoming a dirty word in postcolonial criticism. Things were not always this way. In the 1980s Linda Hutcheon did much to bring postmodernist aesthetics into line with a postcolonial opposition to the dominant discourses of Western modernity. In a series of provocative, if repetitive, books (Hutcheon 1988, 1990) Hutcheon argued that the dominant modes of postmodernist writing—parody, irony, metafictional self-consciousness—were well suited to the attempts of postcolonial writers like Salman Rushdie to make ‘the different, the off-centre, a vehicle for aesthetic and even political conscience raising—perhaps the first and necessary step to radical change’ (Hutcheon 1988:70). But by the early 1990s she had become more pessimistic in the confluence of postmodernism and postcolonialism, arguing that ‘the postcolonial, like the feminist, is a dismantling but also constructive political enterprise insofar as it implies a theory of agency and social change that the postmodern deconstructive impulse lacks’ (Hutcheon 1991:183). In her recent article (Hutcheon 1994) concerning the ill-fated exhibition ‘Into the Heart of Africa’ that occurred between November 1989 and August 1990 at the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada, she turns her attention to the incompatibility of postmodernist aesthetics and postcolonial concerns, and the disastrous results their confluence can create. The criticism of others has reinforced this notion of incompatibility.1 For example, Judie Newman’s recent study of intertextuality in postcolonial fiction is at great pains to rescue intertextuality from its accustomed refuge within postmodernist aesthetics, as if labelling it ‘postmodern’ threatens its critical efficacy. For her, the resemblances between postmodernism and postcolonialism are ‘illusory’ (Newman 1995:ix). Postmodernism is practised in the main by critics ‘almost entirely male, white and metropolitan. [It] is thus often a means of packaging and commodifying an acceptable form of dissent’ (Newman 1995:ix). According to Newman, postcolonial writers are especially aware of the determining relationship between narrative and lived reality, how the stories that get told come to shape the lives we lead. Their intertextual experiments are an attempt to interrupt dominant imperialist ideologies that have previously defined them, assuming that power for themselves. Thus, ‘postcolonial writers are therefore often at their politically sharpest, when they are also at their most literary’ (Newman 1995:4). But woe betide anyone who dares call this metafictional self-consciousness a postmodernist attribute, as Hutcheon did a decade previous.
A welcome voice in the debate comes from Elleke Boehmer. She concedes that postmodern and postcolonial critical theory cross ‘in their concern with marginality, ambiguity, disintegrating binaries, and all things parodied, piebald, dual, mimicked, borrowed and second hand’ (Boehmer 1995:244). But, as she warns, historical specificity must not be sacrificed too readily. ‘Criticism must address itself to the particularity of different textual situations’ (Boehmer 1995:248). Readers need to bear witness to cultural specificity in their reading practices, an omission made too frequently by postmodernists. However, I want to suggest that this point, ostensibly a warning against engaging too readily with a postmodernist sensibility, can be mobilised to sanction a productive reunion between postmodernism and postcolonialism. Obviously, not all postcolonial textual situations can be understood with recourse to postmodernist aesthetics. But some certainly can, and bearing witness to their situatedness requires a rendezvous between postmodernism and postcolonialism. In particular, there are a significant number of recent novels written in English, within Britain, whose textual situatedness can be explored by bringing together postmodernist and postcolonialist critical practices for a tense reunion. Such fiction has been produced by a group of writers that Steven Connor describes as ‘outsiders who were once previously held spatially and culturally at a distance [and] have returned or have doubled-back to the distant imperial centres to which they had previously been connected, as it were, only by their separation’ (Connor 1996:85). Connor cites Timothy Mo, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro as typical (Connor 1996:86). Such writers, I think, clearly engage with postmodern concerns yet are preoccupied with political issues and theoretical concepts akin to postcolonial critical practices.2 A brief reading of Timothy Mo’s second novel Sour Sweet (1982) will demonstrate, I hope, the productivity of working with the discourses of postmodernism and postcolonialism when reading this fiction, not least because the textual situation under study sanctions this approach.
One of the problems of working with both postmodernism and postcolonialism stems from the awkward task of defining these multifarious and wide-ranging concepts, more umbrella terms than accurate signifiers. As Hans Bertens warns: ‘postmodernism is an exasperating term, and so are postmodern, postmodernist, postmodernity, and whatever else one might come across in the way of derivation’ (Bertens 1995:3). Ann McClintock is similarly exasperated by the term ‘post-colonial’, especially as it is too often used as a singular category that ‘may license too readily a panoptic tendency to view the globe within generic abstractions voided of political nuance’ (McClintock 1993:293). As Stephen Slemon rightly argues, the term describes ‘a remarkably heterogeneous set of subject positions, professional fields, and critical enterprises’ (Slemon 1994:16). We are reminded once again of the importance of situatedness when tackling texts in this area. In what follows, then, I am using a specific theorising of postcolonialism and postmodernism derived from the work of Homi Bhabha. This is not to say that Bhabha’s understanding of these terms is more accurate or theoretically sound than the work of others, or that his work is not free from problems. But it is to say that his approach aligns itself with the textual situation of novels such as Sour Sweet, and can enable a productive reading of this fascinating novel.
Bhabha locates his model of postcolonialism squarely within the terms of the postmodern critique of the grand narratives of the West. He finds a contiguity between the lack of faith in Western modernity as rehearsed by Lyotard and a similar re-appraisal voiced by writers who have emerged from once oppressed cultural groups—indeed, the suggestion is that the former cannot be separated from the latter. This is an important manoeuvre, and I want to spend a moment exploring it. It is necessary to grasp a revealing correspondence between Bhabha’s location of postcolonialism and his theorising of colonial discourse that needs examining. Much of Bhabha’s work examines the apparently binary power relations between colonial self and other in colonial discourse. Yet he refuses such binary logic by locating an ambivalence that disrupts its authority. Bhabha returns constantly to ‘the image of the post-Enlightenment man tethered to, not confronted by, his dark reflection, the shadow of the colonised man, that splits his presence, distorts his outline, breaches his boundaries, repeats his action at a distance, disturbs and divides the very time of his being’ (Bhabha 1994:44). Bhabha’s attention to the tethering of coloniser to colonised is especially interesting. In his essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man’, he focuses upon the colonial subject educated in the language and culture of the colonising West. This ‘mimic man’ unsettles the binary opposition of colonial self and colonised other. He occupies an ambivalent position between difference and resemblance. In one respect his identity is fixed as fundamentally different from the colonising subject. But his knowledge of the colonisers’ language and culture disavows that difference. Bhabha describes the mimic man as partial presence, a ‘subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite’ (Bhabha 1994:86). As Robert Young summarises, when confronted with the colonised subject ‘the coloniser sees a grotesquely displaced image of himself … the surveilling eye is suddenly confronted with a returning gaze of otherness and finds that its mastery, its sameness, is undone’ (Young 1990:147). The ambivalent disruption of colonial discourse occurs interstitially—between coloniser and colonised, derision and desire, difference and resemblance. Resulting from Bhabha’s work on identity is ‘a strategy of ambivalence in the structure of identification that occurs precisely in the elliptical in-between, where the shadow of the other falls upon the self’ (Bhabha 1994:60).
Although Bhabha refutes the binary logic of colonial discourse, there remains in place the circuit of power relations that keeps the coloniser and colonised tethered. My point is that Bhabha configures the postcolonial in very similar terms, as a kind of tethering to the dominant power. The postcolonial texts that feature in his criticism (specifically work by Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie) are always located in an ambivalent circuit that binds them to the disruption of the master narratives of Western epistemology. Within this circuit an ambivalent, interstitial space is discovered that is assumed to be productive. Bhabha certainly shares Lyotard’s affirmative sense of the end of grand narratives. Sensing perhaps the potential vacuity of postmodernist aesthetics, he aims to ‘rename the postmodern from the position of the postcolonial’ (Bhabha 1994:175). The end of grand narratives licenses the production of new histories by those previously silenced (Bhabha 1994:4–5). Bhabha argues that the West ‘must confront its postcolonial history, told by its influx of postwar migrants and refugees, as an indigenous or native narrative internal to its narrative identity’ (Bhabha 1994:6). But these new dissident histories remain ultimately tethered to the West because their purpose seems primarily the redefinition of Western knowledge. This begs the question whether these newly authorised voices are ever completely free from the hegemony of the traditional colonial centres. They seem to function like the mimic man, splitting the authority of the West by rewriting its history as an ambivalent shadow of its former self. And just as the tethering of coloniser and colonised subjects produced a mode of subversion that emerged from a space in-between, so too does the unequal encounter between two cultures facilitate an interstitial space of possibility that Bhabha names the postcolonial:
The postcolonial perspective—as it is being developed by cultural historians and literary theorists—departs from the traditions of the sociology of underdevelopment or ‘dependency’ theory. As a mode of analysis, it attempts to revise those nationalist or ‘nativist’ pedagogies that set up the relation of Third World and First World in a binary structure of opposition. The postcolonial perspective resists the attempt at holistic forms of social explanation. It forces the recognition of the more complex cultural and political boundaries that exist on the cusp of these often opposed political spheres.
A space of possibility is opened interstitially and claimed as the location of the postcolonial. In this model, the postcolonial does not exist outside of the circuit marked by the polarities of coloniser and colonised. It emerges at an ambivalent border-space in-between a structure of opposition.
This is a particular kind of postcolonial perspective, one that bears witness to the tethering of the colonised to the colonising cultures while recognising within this relationship the room for subversion. Bhabha must be criticised for assuming the particular postcolonial perspective he builds as universal in his book The Location of Culture. He threatens to homogenise a vast and varied terrain of cultural practices. The assumption that all postcolonial literature is always writing back to the centre continues the privileging of the West common to colonial discourse, and is remarkably ahistorical in its lack of attention to the situatedness of postcolonial texts. But Bhabha’s model can be returned to history if we notice how it speaks to a certain body of texts. His version of the ‘postcolonial perspective’ is indicative of a specific terrain that circumscribes the work of writers such as Timothy Mo, to whom I now turn in order to demonstrate the productivity of working Bhabha’s model. In Sour Sweet, I suggest, we can discover Bhabha’s interstitial spaces of possibility struggling to become concrete.
Mo is often described as ‘Anglo-Chinese’ (Facknitz 1991:648). He was born in Hong Kong to an English mother and Cantonese father. At the age of ten he moved to England, in 1960, where he later attended Oxford University and read history. The fact of Mo’s birth in Hong Kong convinces many that his work is primarily preoccupied with postcolonial concerns, especially as he left a colonised location to be educated at, and later work in, the old centre of the British Empire. For Mark A.R. Facknitz, Mo is ‘a quintessential writer of two Empires, the Celestial and the British, the one defeated, the second now gone beyond decadence to dust’ (Facknitz 1991:649). As a migrant writer with his own tethering to the old imperial centre, Mo occupies that peculiar position place both within and without, belonging and not-belonging. His novel, Sour Sweet, at one level explores the productivity of this position in terms similar to Bhabha’s. It enables us to assess the productivity of Bhabha’s interstitial space of possibility by depicting a migrant Chinese family attempting to live at that peculiar border-space both between and beyond, here specifically the compulsion of British racism and Chinese obligation. Yet Mo’s conclusions about the productivity of this space differ somewhat from Bhabha’s; indeed, if Bhabha’s work assists in reading the textual situatedness of Sour Sweet, then Mo’s novel certainly enables a critical evaluation of Bhabha’s model.
Set in the early years of the 1960s, Sour Sweet depicts the fortunes of two groups of Chinese who have migrated to London. One group is the family of the Chens, consisting of Chen, his wife Lily, their son Man Kee, and Lily’s sister Mui. The other is the Triads, a Chinese secret society whose affairs include the trafficking of drugs in London. Chen is employed as a waiter in a restaurant in Chinatown. When his father runs into debt in Hong Kong, Chen borrows money from the Triads. Later he is approached by one of them, Roman Fok, and told he must assist in their illicit trade in narcotics. In an attempt to escape from this task, Chen buys a house he believes is remote from the Triads’ influence in London. Here he opens a Chinese take-away with Lily and Mui. Lily remains oblivious to his involvement with the Triads. Eventually Chen is located and ordered to be killed. A bewildered Lily is left alone at the take-away, mystified by Chen’s disappearance.
As migrant Chinese, the Chens face two forces of compulsion. The first concerns the attitudes of the British to the influx of migrants in the 1960s. The novel opens with the narrator describing Chen’s sense of himself as an ‘interloper’ (Mo 1982:1) in the eyes of the British. He ‘could sense [this] in between his shoulder-blades as he walked past emptying public houses on his day off; in the shrinking of his scalp as he heard bottles rolling in the gutter; in a descending silence at a dark bus-stop and its subsequent lifting; in an unspoken complicity between himself and others like him, not necessarily his own’ (1). The second comes from the Triads, who control both the legitimate and illicit businesses in Chinatown. The violent world of the Triads is, of course, a caricature of Chinese culture. But the Triads function as an agency of control derived from the Chens’ inherited culture, one that they attempt to live beyond. In short, Sour Sweet depicts a family attempting to clear a space where they might live at a remove from both British and Chinese coercive attitudes.
As the novel opens, there is already a sense of their existence between two cultures. The Chens have lived in Britain for four years, ‘which was long enough to have lost their place in the society from which they had emigrated but not long to feel comfortable in the new’ (1). This interstitial position is later suggested by some richly described physical locations. Two are worthy of comment. The first is a passageway that Chen uses as a short cut between the restaurant where he works in Chinatown, and Leicester Square:
Chen’s restaurant was in Soho, just off Gerrard street and its complex of travel agencies, supermarkets, fortune tellers, quack acupuncturists and Chinese cinema clubs, in a quiet lane whose only establishments were restaurants. At the end of the row was a passage with a double bend, so that what seemed to strangers like a blind alley was in reality a concealed entrance, constructed on the same principle as a lobster trap. A sharp right turn after passing an iron bollard took the knowledgeable or intrepid into a gloomy canyon formed by the blind backs of two forty-feet high Georgian terraces. Rubbish filled the alley. At night the rats scrabbled in the piles of rotting vegetable leaves and soggy cardboard boxes. There was a muffled silence in the enclosure. At the other end another series of baffles led, quite suddenly, into the brightness and sound of Leicester Square. This was Chen’s habitual short-cut to the Underground station.
This quotation is interesting for several reasons. The detail accumulated in the description seems recorded for those who are unfamiliar with Chinatown and also, quite obviously, English-speakers. The passageway is a short-cut for Chen but appears a dead end for ‘strangers’. To whom does this space belong? Native Londoners, it seems, are unfamiliar with this particular route. Those that hazard beyond the sharp right turn are either ‘knowledgeable’—like Chen or the narrator—or ‘intrepid’, the latter term conveying a sense of an explorer wandering into an unknown and faintly threatening space. The use of the phrase ‘quite suddenly’ in describing the emergence into Leicester Square suggests an element of surprise for the stranger, a surprise not shared by the Chen to whom the emergence into the square would be quite familiar. Spatially, the passage is in-between Chinatown and conventional London. It is not the sole property of either place. This passageway suggests the space the Chens search for in the novel, one that is between the English and the Chinese. It is a space both enabling and dangerous, one that provides a helpful passage, but is for the intrepid only.
In similar terms, the acquisition of the Chens’ take-away can be understood as an attempt to secure a space that is interstitial, and both enabling and dangerous. Chen wants to open a business as far away from the reach of the Triads as possible. The house he eventually buys exists at a place that is also at a remove from the British. The narrator’s description of the house and its surroundings suggests that a new space is being opened by the Chens that had not existed previously in quite the same form. Consider the narration of the Chens’ journey to their new home, as they walk through an unfamiliar and deserted part of London:
It became apparent that the main road formed an unofficial kind of boundary. The side they were now on was older, more dilapidated than the north side, a change which took place with startling swiftness. They had been walking for three minutes and already the houses were visibly decayed. They passed a derelict terrace, the doors and windows covered with corrugated tin sheets; through rusted holes in the crinkled metal they could see grass growing in the roofless rooms. There was still a sofa in one of the ruined houses and its springs had burst out of the rotten cloth like a robot’s innards. This was more like it, Chen thought with satisfaction; they would start here. It was ideal.
The location of their house is on this site, beyond a boundary. It rests upon the remains of a previous community. The site bears the traces of an earlier habitat, but it now lies vacant. If this derelict space signifies the decline of a community that was once the home of the British, for the Chens it is a place of new possibility. Its existence beyond the boundary of the main road is perhaps symbolic; it suggests that Chen has discovered a boundary that marks the limits of the influence exerted by both the Triads and the English. It is interesting that the Chens also consider a property within the boundary of the main road, one that is being repaired by some workmen. The workmen unsettle Chen as they remind him of the ‘peppery’ (83) English he avoids when walking past pubs at night. He recalls that sense of hostility towards his difference that is mentioned in the novel’s opening. But beyond the boundary of the main road there seems no interest in rebuilding or maintaining the houses that lie derelict. The British do not seem to cross the boundary regularly. The ‘demolition site’ (85) offers the Chens the possibility of establishing a space within Britain that is not the sole property of the English and Chinese. The only other occupant Chen meets on the site is Mr Constantinides, the proprietor of a garage, who is presumably a Greek migrant. The house Chen eventually chooses in this location is similarly suggestive:
Their shop, their home, could not pretend to have been anything other than an ordinary house up till then. Originally it had been the eastern wing of a terrace of three houses. The centre and western wing had been hit by a bomb in the war and subsequently demolished but a freak effect of the blast had left Chen’s house unscathed. Two big braces, such as they had seen on the big demolition site, supported the western wall. The previous occupant, and Chen had no idea who he or she had been, had left over five years ago. No one had wanted the property. Being so near a garage hadn’t helped either.
Like the site as a whole, the house is vacant and unwanted. The fact that its west wing has been demolished while its eastern wing remains is particularly apposite. It tempts us to consider the demolition site as the beginnings of another ‘east wing’, a place that will support those newly arrived from the East. These forgotten ruins existing just beyond a boundary promise a site of possibility for the Chens, a place they can fashion for themselves beyond outside interference.
It is, however, a fragile space that requires constant protection. The Chens continue to be encroached upon by those forces across the boundary that Chen in particular wishes to escape. Once the Chens have settled in their home, decorated it and opened the take-away, they are still threatened by forces of coercion. In particular, Lily and Mui in different ways work hard to defend their space from threats beyond the border. At one point, Man Kee suffers an attack at his school. This prompts Lily to teach her son some basic boxing techniques she learned from her father as a child. She is unwilling to approach the school authorities to complain, as ‘that way you drew attention to yourself, made trouble for the powers that be, and then they got at you indirectly’ (231). Mui is critical of the tradition of fighting that Lily teaches her son, condemning it as a ‘fierce and mindless’ (233) response to Man Kee’s attack. Lily is motivated by a continuing fear of encroachment, and her resilience and determination make it difficult to condemn her response to the aggression of others. Mui also protects their space. She devises the means to keep the business financially independent. She provides the link between the take-away and Mr. Constantinides’ garage, carrying food to the many truck drivers who buy from the take-away by placing an order at the garage. Her connections with the truck drivers enable the Chens to buy a cheap supply of Coca-Cola which they sell at a large profit. It is also her ‘brainwave’ (141) to sell chips that proves highly successful. Like Lily, Mui also uses some of the things she learnt as a child to cope with the contingencies of the present. For example, when Mui buys a van from Mr Constantinides, she defends her decision to a sceptical Lily by recounting a lesson she learnt from her father:
‘Which of Mr. Constantinides’ cars was best? I will tell you: the little one with the window so dirty you couldn’t even look inside. It had a stout heart. Do you remember the story Father used to tell us about the blind sage and how he could tell which of the Duke of Chou’s race-horses was the fastest?’
Lily smiled pityingly at Mui.
But Mui was right. The motor ran sweetly when an obliging mechanic tuned it for them. When Lily kicked the tyres (secretly hoping to bring down the van down in a heap of folding, groaning metal) the tyres were hard and springy.
Importantly, the sisters do not defend their space with recourse to a blind faith in the validity of inherited learning. The tension between Lily and Mui throughout the novel forces each to appropriate critically the knowledge they learned in childhood in China, conscious of its potential shortcomings. Mui objects to Lily teaching Man Kee to fight; Lily scoffs at Mui’s reasons for choosing the van. This critical revisiting of the past, I suggest, is one component of their attempt to open a space beyond conventional holistic boundaries. As Bhabha argues, to move to a space beyond the limits of received culture is not an act of complete repudiation: ‘the “beyond” is neither a new horizon, nor a leaving behind of the past … there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction, in the “beyond”: an exploratory, restless movement caught so well in the French rendition of the words au-delà—here and there, on all sides, fort/da, hither and thither, back and forth’ (Bhabha 1994:1). Lily's and Mui's defence of their space is an example of that continual movement back and forth between the past and the present for the purposes of survival. They cannot access the past nostalgically, without an awareness of its potential limitations. This is one purpose of their several disagreements throughout the novel. They appropriate the past critically to confront present contingencies. As such, they protect their fragile space through productive negotiation. This strategy begs comparison with Bhabha’s notion of the ‘past-present’. This involves the ‘renew[al] of the past, refiguring it as a contingent “in-between” space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The “past-present” becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia, of living’ (Bhabha 1994:7). The sisters select from their past in an attempt to forge a new life in the present in-between Chinese and English cultures: necessity constantly thwarts an uncritical nostalgic return.
But the Chens never break free completely from the influence of the British and the Triads. Lily is unsettled by the visits of the tax-man and the social worker, and these visits remind both the reader and the Chens that the Chens’ space is still not fully their own to do with as they please. Lily’s relations with the English, especially her customers, remain antagonistic. The influence of the Triads also reaches across the boundary. They locate Chen’s whereabouts through the remittances Lily sends to Hong Kong, as these reveal his postal district in London. The murder of Chen exposes the fragility of the Chens’ space. Coercive forces still have the power to move back and forth across the symbolic boundary of the main road, confronting the Chens with a series of continuing challenges. The Chens’ space is not particularly stable nor as remote from coercion as Chen and Lily might wish, and this is a cause of concern in the text. The boundary that separates their home from the influence of the British and the Triads is permeable, not absolute. The Chens ultimately remain tethered to the forces they wish to live beyond. In contrast to Bhabha’s optimistic theorising, in the novel tethering is never fully transformed into a secure foundation of possibility.
Sour Sweet suggests in concrete terms the productivity of a postcolonial space of possibility where coercive forces no longer function. But there remains a fracture between the promise of this space and its establishment. The novel closes with the departure of Mui from the Chens’ take-away, when Mui leaves to get married. She invites Lily to join her, but Lily declines. The vocabulary used by the narrator in describing the sisters’ separation is interesting in the current context:
this was the end of the old life, the life of the loving, closely knit family Mui and Lily knew they had been. … There had been parturition, the single cell had contracted, swelled, and through the wall had escaped matter from its very nucleus. Now there were two cells, sharing the same territory, happily co-existing but quite autonomous.
And, later, Lily discovered there was nothing much to regret about this, not too much to be wistful about; or only in so far as it gave her something in common with Mui.
There is a powerful dissonance in this passage that raises questions about the space the Chens make for themselves in the novel. Mui’s leaving marks an end to a way of life that emphasised resilience and resourcefulness. The ‘loving, closely knit’ family may have been a place of tension, as evidenced by the friction between Lily and Mui. But there is a sense that something is also lost in its dissolution. The narrator informs us in the first paragraph that the new units of the family will happily co-exist. But in the next, doubts are raised immediately about Lily’s happiness. The fact that she takes time to learn that there was nothing ‘much’ to regret about Mui’s departure suggests a melancholy on Lily’s part. Lily’s disquiet implies that something is being lost as her family splits. A dissonance is created through the conjuring of two moods, one happy, the other more muted and pensive. This dissonance is supplemented by the metaphor of parturition the narrator uses to describe what has happened to the Chens. On the one hand, parturition suggests fertility, growth and development. It implies that the Chens have survived happily, and have coped positively with the challenge of their migrancy. But parturition is also an organic process of change and refinement, devoid of stability or fixity. Such stability might be vital to a strategy of survival. The mobility of the family unit perhaps disqualifies the possibility of a loving, closely knit family. This constant mobility and emphasis upon change is a source of trauma as well as a strategy for survival. For Bhabha mobility is inherently positive. Sour Sweet questions that assumption. The splitting of the family perhaps disqualifies resources that could prove useful to Lily and Mui, in particular a protective sense of community that can compensate for the disorientation of living in a new place.
This novel, then, can be read against Bhabha’s location of the postcolonial perspective. If we approach his work through Sour Sweet, I believe we discover a pessimism that constitutes a critique of the productivity of a space at the cultural boundaries of the English and the Chinese. For Bhabha, boundaries are exciting and valuable as they ‘initiate new signs of identity, and innovate sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself’ (Bhabha 1994:1–2). Sour Sweet can be read as approaching this space with caution, perhaps pointing up the difficulties involved in preserving a space between and beyond cultures, one that is not already the property of any one cultural group. We are left to ponder the extent to which the Chens have negotiated successfully strategies sufficient for survival as well as their success in fulfilling the promise that the demolition site suggested. I believe Sour Sweet qualifies an enthusiasm for Bhabha’s space at the cusp of the postmodern and the postcolonial by exposing its fragility and exploring the trauma of protecting it from coercive forces that still have agency. In Sour Sweet, such a space seems fragile. The constant negotiations and splittings of the family enable strategies of survival that involve a critical appropriation of past knowledge, but also produce a dissonant, muted tone of melancholy as the novel closes.
In conclusion, I am suggesting that the failed relationships of the Chen family act to subdue an enthusiasm for Bhabha’s confidence in the productive confluence of postmodernism and postcolonialism. But this does not disqualify the appropriateness of forging their reunion between them in order to bear witness to the textual situation of Mo’s novel. Bhabha’s work enables a productive reading of Sour Sweet, even if its exuberance and optimism for interstitial sites of possibility are held up to question as a consequence. These sites are at once physical, as in the passageway or the location of the take-away, and aesthetic, as expressed by Lily and Mui’s negotiation between past pedagogy and present contingency. They figure the possibility of survival while recognising the fragility and loss this involves, troubling the confidence that Bhabha places in the boundary as an interstitial space of possibility. In this instance, then, the confluence of postmodernism and postcolonialism assists us in considering Mo’s representation of a specific historical situation. Hopefully, a heightened attention to situatedness might return some of the historical specificity all too often missing in the discourses of both postmodernism and postcolonialism, but also stop those working with the latter dismissing out of hand the potential productivity of appropriating the former when necessary. Such separation can create its own silences.
See in particular the arguments raised by Helen Tiffin and Stephen Slemon in Past The Last Post: Theorising Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism (Adam and Tiffin 1991).
In making this claim I am not asserting an unproblematic identity for each novelist as postmodern, postcolonial, or both. For a detailed discussion of their relationship with each, see the introduction to my study of J.G. Farrell, Timothy Mo, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie (McLeod 1995:1–24).
Adam, Ian and Helen Tiffin, eds. Past the Last Post: Theorising Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London: Routledge, 1995.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors. Oxford: Opus, 1995.
Connor, Steven. The English Novel in History 1950–1995. London: Routledge, 1996.
During, Simon. ‘Postmodernism or Postcolonialism?’. Landfall 39 (1985): 368–380.
Facknitz, Mark A. R. ‘Timothy Mo’. Contemporary Novelists (fifth edition). Ed. Leslie Henderson. London: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. 648–9.
Hutcheon, Linda. ‘The Post Always Rings Twice: the Postmodern and the Postcolonial’. Textual Practice 8.2 (1994).
———. ‘Circling the Downspout of Empire’. Past the Last Post: Theorising Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism. Eds. Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. 167–90.
———. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1990.
———. A Poetics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1988.
Keith, Michael and Malcolm Cross, eds. Racism, the City and the State. London: Routledge, 1993.
McClintock, Anne. ‘The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term “Postcolonialism”’. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. 291–304.
McLeod, John. Rewriting History: Postmodern and Postcolonial Negotiations in the Fiction of J.G. Farrell, Timothy Mo, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie. University of Leeds: Unpublished PhD Dissertation, 1995.
Mo, Timothy. Sour Sweet. London: Abacus, 1982.
Newman, Judie. The Ballistic Bard: Postcolonial Fictions. London: Edward Arnold, 1995.
Slemon, Stephen. ‘The Scramble for Postcolonialism’. De-Scribing Empire: Postcolonialism and Textuality. Eds. Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson. London: Routledge, 1994. 15–32.
Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London: Routledge, 1990.
Additional coverage of Mo’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 117; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 194; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1.