Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Mai 2006

2.2. Models of Victimization in Contemporary Cultures
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Fatima Festic (Los Angeles) 

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Victims of Boutique Multiculturalism: Malaysian Chinese and Peranakan Women Writers and the Dangers of Self-Exoticisation

Tamara S. Wagner (School of Humanities & Social Sciences, NTU, Singapore)



The paper takes up Stanley Fish’s concept of "boutique multiculturalism" to reinvestigate the problematic imposition of ethnic categories, or their ideological re-categorisa­tions, on minority communities. Literary self-representation, often insistently autobiographical in nature, by Chinese women writers in Malaysia and, more generally, by Peranakan (locally-born) "Straits Chinese," the descendents of intermarriages over the last centuries in Southeast Asia, at once demands and importantly assists in a much needed reassessment of the ideological groundworks that underpin and exploit different concepts of multiculturalism or multiracialism. How do national and international discourses on identity politics make and constrict minorities? How do they direct and confine "the minority writer" even as they seek to propel him or her into the international marketplace? Why exactly is writing in and about multiethnic nation-states like Singapore with its official "CMIO" (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) policy doubly conflicted by issues of representativity, and what can this tell us about the most disturbing output of, yet also about possible solutions to, a growing demand for vaguely defined "exotic" literature that simultaneously promotes and victimises its authors? Most strikingly, what happens when dwindling minority groups - like the Peranakans and Eurasians of Southeast Asia - fall into the fissures of ethnic policies and, with a particularly disconcerting irony, are elided by the very discourses on multiracialism that seek to prevent the recurrence of racial discrimination? Especially the race riots of the 1960s in Malaysia still operate as a multiply exploited trauma in cultural policies that indicates a disturbing flexibility of narratives of national, ethnic, and personal victimisation - a (self-) victimisation to which recent novels by diasporic Chinese Malaysians like Asian American Shirley Lim’s Joss & Gold (2001), Asian Australian Teo Hsu Ming’s Love and Vertigo (2000), and the three most recent novels (1994, 2002, and 2005) by Chinese Malaysian Josephine Chia, now residing in Britain, testify in significantly revealing ways.

In order to illuminate the internal and intertextual conflicts of what are primarily narratives of multiple victimisation (by foreign and local men, by colonial powers and nationalist governments, by traditional mother-in-laws and "Western" feminist paradigms), this paper will focus specifically on autobiographical fiction by minority women writers from Malaysia and Singapore who publish internationally. Even as they draw on different rhetorics of victimisation and call their appropriation into question, their narratives tremble on a self-exoticisation that exacerbates a sense of alienation, at once continuing their victimisation and undercutting their project of "re-presenting" it.


Victims of Boutique Multiculturalism: Malaysian Chinese and Peranakan Women Writers and the Dangers of Self-Exoticisation

When the mysteriously indeterminate Eurasian main character of Fiona Cheong’s 2002 novel Shadow Theatre engages with the problems of writing a novel within a novel composed of a conglomeration of conflicting narratives, her publisher dismisses her manuscript as having "too many voices" (21). The elusive Eurasian whose story cannot be published is figured as an apt embodiment of Singapore’s unarticulated, partially lost or submerged, ethnic communities, as of attempts to translate its multiple minority histories into a marketable heritage product or, alternatively, into an enticingly exotic, yet still neatly streamlined, postcolonial narrative for global export. Increasingly, novels about both Singapore’s and Malaysia’s histories seek to renegotiate the boundaries that have so far marked out their representations in fiction. Concentrating on Eurasians and Peranakan ("locally born") Straits Chinese, whose origins date back to intermarriages between Chinese merchants and Malay women over the centuries, recent novels have brought into the foreground their different cultural legacies. Thus, while Love and Vertigo (2000), the first novel by Malaysian-born Asian Australian writer Teo Hsu-Ming, registers a neat split between a primarily ethnic Chinese diaspora in Australia on the one hand and Malaysia and Singapore as a symptomatically conflated point of origin on the other, Teo’s latest novel, Behind the Moon, published in 2005, not only puts much more emphasis on a triangulation of migrations: immigrants from China, Singapore, Vietnam, and England meeting in Australia, topped with temporary migration to California and the traditions of Chinese diaspora in both Singapore and Vietnam. Within this projection of dispersion, the novel also juxtaposes a young Asian Australian’s Singaporean origins with that of a refugee from Vietnam whose father, an American soldier, was part Creole, part Cajun, and whose mother part Viet, part Chinese. In short, she is the result of legacies of ethnic politics, of attempts at assimilation, "cleansing," and various forms of multiracialism or multiculturalism that range from the commodified "boutique" to racialised orientalisation. Yet there is an important resistance to this very orientalisation and self-orientalisation in its literary representations. Ethnic communities cannot simple be streamlined. The self-irony with which the multiplicity of "voices" is evoked in Shadow Theatre and the sheer excess of hybridities in Behind the Moon deliberately make problematic the marketability - and hence the consumption - of literary representations of diaspora as orientalised commodities.

In a similar, yet much more problematic, vein, Breaking the Tongue (2004), a recent historical novel by Malaysian-born Vyvyane Loh, who primarily grew up in Singapore, partly during the war, before moving to the United States for her studies, focuses on the fate of the Straits Chinese during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II. She starts out by focusing on the difficulties of ethnically mixed, English-speaking, communities caught up in an ideological reordering of ethnicities. Their unique role in Singapore’s past indeed bespeaks the need to rearticulate experience that has so far been edited out of diasporic literature about Southeast Asia. The real question is not the number of voices, but the ways in which they are policed, translated into ideologically defined minority cultures. It is therefore all the more important - and all the more perplexing - to note that in Loh’s novel Peranakan identity is what the hero’s father only aspires to: "Humphrey likes to refer to his family as if he is from old money. [...] These are details he has freely ‘borrowed,’ along with cars and chauffeurs, from the Tams [their Peranakan neighbours]." (177) He simply pretends to belong to a better established, even more Anglicised, family than he really does. Instead, the novel is extremely unsympathetic towards both traditional Peranakans and the more recent Straits Chinese that had learnt to emulate them.

The fictional "re-presentation" of minority histories has indeed begun to deal critically with the intriguing double-bind of their cultural translation both within the often all too nicely aligned ethnic categorisations of Singaporean (and specifically Singaporean Chinese) mainstream culture and within a similarly stereotyping - and self-exoticising - fictionalisation of Southeast Asia’s diverse as well as dispersed ethnic groups abroad. Yet as newly emerging novelists reflect on an ongoing repositioning within the major available ethnic slots or similarly delimiting minority spaces, they fascinatingly make problematic any easy streamlining of ethnic categorisations. By examining in some detail how diasporic women writers from Southeast Asia attempt to resist narratives of self-orientalisation, I take up recent conceptualisations of what Stanley Fish has perhaps most pointedly termed "boutique multiculturalism." In this, I seek to analyse the problematic imposition of ethnic categories, or their ideological re-categorisations, on the literary representation of what is in many cases a multiply diasporic experience. Its fictionalisation, often insistently autobiographical in nature, by Chinese women writers in Malaysia and specifically Peranakan Straits Chinese in both Singapore and Malaysia at once demands and importantly assists in a much needed reassessment of the ideological groundwork that underpins and exploits different concepts of multiculturalism at large. How do national and international discourses on identity politics make and constrict minorities? How do they direct and confine "the minority writer" even as they seek to propel him or her into the international marketplace? Why exactly is writing in and about multiethnic nation-states like Singapore with its official "CMIO" (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) policy doubly conflicted by issues of representativity, and what does this tell us about the most disturbing output of, yet also about possible solutions to, a growing demand for vaguely defined "exotic" literature that simultaneously promotes and victimises its authors?

Most significantly, what happens when dwindling minority groups - like the Peranakans and Eurasians of Southeast Asia - fall into the fissures of ethnic policies and, with a particularly disconcerting irony, are elided by the very discourses on multiculturalism or multiracialism that seek to prevent the recurrence of racial discrimination? Especially the race riots of 1960s Malaysia and, increasingly again, the war atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation operate as a multiply exploited trauma in local cultural policies, thereby indicating a disturbing flexibility of narratives of national, ethnic, and personal victimisation. It is, in fact, a curious, disconcertingly self-conscious, co-option of self-victimisation to which recent novels by diasporic writers such as Fiona Cheong, Teo Hsu-Ming, Vyvyane Loh, or also Malaysian-born Josephine Chia, who now resides in Britain after having lived in, and written about, both Malaysia and Singapore, all testify in significantly different ways. In order to illuminate the internal and intertextual conflicts of what are primarily narratives of multiple victimisation (by foreign and local men, by colonial powers and nationalist governments, by an internalised emulative orientalism as by projections of alterity), I shall focus specifically on autobiographical fiction by minority women writers from Malaysia and Singapore who publish internationally. Even as they draw different rhetorics of victimisation and their appropriation into question, their narratives all tremble on (and sometimes lapse into) a self-exoticisation that exacerbates a sense of alienation, at once continuing their victimisation and undercutting their project of "re-presenting" it.



In his recent study of the "postcolonial exotic," Graham Huggan provocatively criticises "the global commodification of cultural difference" (vii): a "general mechanics of exoticist representation/consumption within an increasingly globalised culture industry" that he terms "the alterity industry" (x). Such fashionable promotion of alterity has, in fact, increasingly come under critical investigation. Especially the exploitation of otherness as a marketing strategy that capitalises on self-orientalisation, and in the process exploits the very minority communities or presumably "alternative" identities that are meant to be repackaged for global consumption, has attracted a growing plethora of criticism. Often deliberately provocative, it is crucial to a much larger questioning of the study of postcolonial and diasporic literature. Thus, in Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Ania Loomba addresses the central problem whether terms like "postcolonial" or "ethnic" have become "shorthand for something (fashionably) marginal" (xii). In Beyond Postcolonial Theory, E. San Juan similarly situates postcolonialism within the framework of the structural crisis of international capitalism to disclose the ways in which practices of consumerism forge and continuously reshape the multicultural imaginary more generally. Starting out by denouncing a "[p]ostcolonial ventriloquism [that] has even ventured to deprive subalterns of speech" (8), San Juan goes further to expose both what he terms "the platitudes of fundamentalist postcolonialism" (54) and "paltry essentialisms and indulgence in the Euro-American immigrant syndrome" that he finds indiscriminately extended to other "immigrant" and specifically Asian American writing (179).

Whether a "strategic essentialism" of the postcolonial or what Nikos Papastergiadis has recently termed hybridity’s usage as a "multi-purpose globalising identity kit" (169), their usefulness in conceptualisations of difference, sameness, interchanges, and ways of writing about them has come under new stress precisely due to their exploitation by the marketing of self-orientalised representations. As hybridity has become an increasingly displaced, every-day, package of marketed diversity, the proliferation of the "multi-" indicates a further dispersion of the ironically increasing sameness of marketable "otherness." In the English-language literature of Southeast Asia, and especially when it is produced for circulation (and ultimately consumption) at the international marketplace, this packaging of multiple diversity, of a buffet of alterity, is particularly poignant. However, while this may easily lead to a typecasting in the worst sense of the alterity industry, it also brings out some of the most creatively self-ironic reworkings of such essentialism.

The thriving English-language fiction of Singapore and, to a slightly lesser extent, of Malaysia, both former British colonies that employ English as more than just a working language, has thus recently been advertised in the introduction to an anthology as the output of prolific "multi-societies": "As most readers will know, both Singapore and Malaysia are multi societies - multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, etc." (Mukherjee et al xi) Singapore’s uniqueness in the ways in which ethnic structuring works along superimposed linguistic lines indeed singles out its literature as a specifically intriguing endorsement of both colonial and globally more and more pervasive postcolonial English-language traditions. The fiction of diasporic Singaporeans as well as of ethnic Chinese Malaysians living in diasporas elsewhere at once depends and builds on this twofold policing of multiplicity - a linguistic multiplicity that finds outlets in more easily externalised (and marketed) diversity. While postcolonial Malaysia decided at an early stage to foster Malay as the national and, at least at first, working language, Singapore devised a unique policy of bilingualism.(1) It deploys a rhetoric of race that ties ethnicity to the official demarcation of the father’s physically determinable (or at least classifiable, according to his own father’s race and so on) racial group and allocates a "second first language" (besides English) accordingly.(2) As Nirmala PuruShotam has compellingly argued, colonial classification that assigned races specific functions in the colony, post-war nationalism in Singapore freely harnessed the same strategy. Still emphatically a multiracialism, Singapore’s stratification of multiplicity hence is "caught by, imprisoned in, a discourse inherited in a colonial history that continues to be re-produced by powerful contemporary re-constructions: re-formulated, re-vised, and definitely continuing a crucially neo-Orientalist social reality" (PuruShotam 226).

The same neo-orientalism redirects movement across ethnicities to the most economically viable and politically innocuous ways of sampling diversity: that of consumption. Linguistic diversity may be neatly contained, with the writing of the nation peculiarly linked to a global language, but "fusion food" can make up for desires for a multiculturalism beyond mere multiracialism while still keeping official administrative categories separate. In "Tourism and the State: Ethnic Options and Constructions of Otherness," Robert Wood pointedly speaks of a "taste of domesticating ethnicity, suggesting that ethnic labels have been appropriated for policies aimed at local citizens and tourists alike (12). The jump from language to different lingual pleasures through the consumption of food is an easy one to make that increasingly self-reflexive novels (both locally published and diasporic) eagerly seize on. The dual or triple experience of diaspora of the ethnic Chinese immigrant from Southeast Asia puts yet another spin on a necessary rupture of hybridity that, however, tends to crumble, fragmenting ad absurdum and, in self-reflexive representations that question this very conceptualisation of hybridity or multiculturalism as readily available identity kits, ad nauseum. Once this prevalence of nausea is registered, a new consumption of "exotic" repulsion helps to question cultural - and specifically boutique multicultural - clichés. If food offers itself as representative of cultures and their possibilities of becoming enmeshed, conflated, mixed up, turned into something else, nausea counteracts both easy alignments between identity and eating and yet also acceptance of cultural interchange. It can act out a rejection of multiculturalism or of its exploitation as a consumable good.



Diasporic fiction, while indisputably propelled by the most fashionable discourses of postcolonial studies, is indeed particularly vulnerable to - and yet, through the same logic, profits particularly from - the growing marketability of multiplicity. Among the White Moon Faces (1996), the autobiography of Malaysian-born Asian American writer and academic, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, serves as a particularly revealing example precisely because it encompasses a twofold commodification of "too many voices": it was published with the subtitle An Asian American Memoir of Homelands in New York and as Memoirs of a Nyonya Feminist in Singapore. In other words, its different dissemination repackaged her identity as an Asian American in the U.S. and as a member of the Baba-Nyonya, or Peranakan, community in Singapore. Joss & Gold, Lim’s first full-scale novel, was similarly brought out simultaneously by Times Books International in Asia and the Feminist Press at the City University of New York in 2001 . After having been a long time in the making, this in many ways belated novel reworked the repercussions of the Malaysian race riots in 1969. Even more symptomatically, it stretched no further than the eighties. The failure of what can usefully be called, with a twist of San Juan’s terminology, the minority Malaysian’s "emigrant syndrome" to become unstuck from trauma may significantly articulate an indisputably cataclysmic event that Teo’s Love and Vertigo, the first novel of a much younger writer, published in 2000 in Australia, similarly evoked as an inherited memory.

Yet while the riots climax in the heroine’s one-night stand with a member of the Peace Corps that then brings forth their red-haired daughter as the contested legacy of a turbulent past in Lim’s Joss & Gold, Teo’s novel establishes a deliberately excessive multiplying of birth-scenes that are interlinked as much by a shared experience of violence as by family ties. The parallelism reaches from World War II via the race riots to similar incidents in Indonesia in the late 1990s: ill-fated Pandora Lim is born on "an airless, muggy Singapore afternoon in February 1942" (21), with Japanese soldiers bursting in among a gathering of women. This childbirth-cum-historical-event is repeated when her son is born in Malaysia in May 1969 during the jihad, or holy war, of Malay Muslims against Malaysian Chinese and Indians, which further functions as a link in the family’s further dispersion from Singapore to Malaysia, back to Singapore, ultimately to Australia, until Pandora commits suicide while on a visit to relatives in Singapore.(3) So far from being a containable historical event, May 1969 has a multiple function in forging the diasporic text:

[It was] never be forgotten, easily evoked by the evening news footage of Indonesian rioters burning and looting Chinese businesses after the Asian "Tiger" economies toppled like dominoes in 1997. In 1998, a rumour spread among the Chinese communities in Malaysia and overseas that another jihad along the same lines as the Indonesian riots had been planned. Desperate phone calls were placed to family members from Chinese communities in Australia, the UK, the USA and Canada. Within hours of those phone calls, all flights out of Malaysia were fully booked and Chinese people left in droves to cross the causeway from Johor Bharu to Singapore. May 13 has the power to conjure up blind panic and irrational fear among Malaysian Chinese three decades later. (Teo, Love and Vertigo 131)

The recent publication of both Joss & Gold and Love and Vertigo, however, most importantly testifies to the growing popularity of historical narratives by women writers from Southeast Asian countries that - as opposed to Vietnam or the Philippines, for example - have so far registered only as a notable absence in the imaginary geographies of global conceptual spaces or book-markets. It is as part of this general growth of popular minority histories that new re-presentations of Southeast Asia’s Eurasians, Peranakans, and also enclaves of Indian and Chinese communities have entered locally published as well as diasporic popular fiction. Thus , t he last decade has seen increasing investment in the revival (or at least commemoration) specifically of Peranakan culture both in Singapore and, more slowly, at the international marketplace. As a commercial venture, it unfortunately tends to manifest itself not only in a new proliferation of minority fiction from Singapore and Malaysia, but also in local exhibitions and specifically culinary events, targeted primarily, though by no means exclusively, at tourists. Even if the much more insistent fascination with Nyonyas (Peranakan women) rather than with Babas (Peranakan men) may further substantiate local investments in minority cultures, because they are "politically correct" multicultural revisionisms as well as tourist attractions, the high visibility of the traditional Nyonya is without doubt primarily due to her usefulness in engendering a consumable spectacle: Nyonya cuisine and Nyonya attire feature not only in fiction, which, however, indisputably draws on, and then reinforces, interest in their photogenic properties. The increasing appearance not only of the "Nyonya restaurant," strategically placed in Singapore’s tourist areas, but also of "Nyonya dumplings," "Nyonya curries," and "Nyonya desserts" (and their exoticised delineation in fiction) is evidence less of a new focus on minority histories than of a self-exoticising spectacle that is peculiarly gender-blinkered. It reduces a unique culture to its cuisine and only foregrounds the stories of its women by typecasting them as embodiments of consumable products.



This is not to say that there is no local tradition of writing about Nyonyas, or even Nyonya food habits, but there has been a significant shift in the ways in which it is marketed as part of a new form of self-orientalisation. In order to highlight the internationally most marketable minority aspects, the cultural significance of Peranakan traditions in the region, in fact, has to be distorted. It has to be refined for global consumption, as it were. As early as 1974, Lee Chin Koon published Mrs Lee’s Cookbook: Nonya [sic] Recipes and Other Favourite Recipes. Mother of Lee Kuan Yew, "father" of post-Independence Singapore, now Minister Mentor, Mrs Lee’s cookbook clearly testifies to the centrality of Peranakan culture to Singapore (leading) society - a centrality that recent reworkings need to elide to a misleading extent to justify their emphasis on a revival of what they advertise as submerged voices.(4) The growing proliferation of an increasing number of books on Singapore’s Peranakans - whether cookbooks, including The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook: Nonya Cuisine, published in 2003, architectural and fashion histories, or popular fiction - however, indisputably evince a new marketability. So why is there a certain morbidity about the cookbook as eulogy that features in Josephine Chia’s Frog under a Coconut Shell (2002)? A collection of recipes set to print to honour the heroine’s mother, it is ironically "a book of Singaporean recipes for Western kitchens" (42) that can only be published after a press is set up with the purpose to print it. It thereby disturbingly mirrors - indeed inadvertently parodies - the intertextuality of Fiona Cheong’s self-reflexive promotion of the consumable value of Singapore’s unpublished stories (and their consumption). In fact, as Chia goes so far as to declare the Peranakans "the true Singaporeans" throughout her writing (a cookbook included), her very emphasis on Nyonya cuisine reduces Straits Chinese identity to the edible, to an easily marketable consumer good:

Peranakans , our people are called. Or Straits Chinese. To differentiate us from the overseas Chinese who stick to their own kind, clinging to their own beliefs and customs. Peranakans incorporate Malay customs, language, cuisine and mode of dressing into our culture though we retain Chinese names, religion and New Year. I believe we are the true Singaporeans, a people who have absorbed and integrated with the locals, not just remaining an immigrant race. (Chia, Frog 12)

Chia regularly uses a Peranakan heroine’s cultural and linguistic struggle against a homogenising Chinese community as a metonymical family tragedy, disconcertingly blaming cross-cultural marriages between Peranakans and new immigrants for marital discord. The "dilution" that Peranakans - and of course usefully emblematic Nyonya dishes - epitomise is shown to be considered a threat to neat ethnic categorisations. As the first person narrator of Frog under a Coconut Shell puts it repeatedly, "the Chinese were calling us pariahs of the race because we diluted their purity. The Malays did not want to own us either because we ate pork and worshipped Chinese Gods. As far as the British were concerned, we were plain Chinese." (109) Chia’s earlier novel, My Mother-in-Law’s Son (1994), makes even more of this problem of unacknowledged minority identity, as the heroine’s husband (the son of recent immigrants from China) becomes involved in a pro-Communist Chinese society in 1950s Singapore. Yet politics is curiously beside the point. What is really at issue is a domestic clash of eating and speaking habits that are significantly blended in the text itself:

If Mother-in-law had her way, she would make me stop speaking to her grandchildren in English or my Peranakan creole. Being a Straits Chinese, (or Peranakan, as we called ourselves), descended from Chinese who had intermarried with Malays, my language, like my cuisine, was a blend of the two. [...] Mother-in-law did not approve of her son marrying one whom she considered a pariah, someone who had adulterated the bloodline of the Chinese. (Chia, Mother-in-Law 23-24)

Food metaphors, with their inherent linkages between culture and consumption, as between disparity and mixing, necessarily invite themselves as expressions of cultural diversity. But the same logic makes them the most inviting target of what Stanley Fish has termed "boutique multiculturalism" in his critique of the multicultural as a consumer good. Although Fish posits a peculiarly vague conceptualisation of what he calls "strong" or "very strong" multiculturalism as a possible counterpoise, what is most important to note here is that he focuses on food, festivals, feasting as the most easily consumable output of neatly stratified cultural diversity, "the multiculturalism of ethnic restaurants, weekend festivals, and high profile flirtations with the other" (Fish 378). The edible is lumped together with the flirtatious in a parody of sexualised food metaphors that are indisputably peppered through cultural fictions of "exotic" or "ethnic" consumption.



In the final two sections of this article, I shall therefore explore in particular the articulation of resistance to such invitations to vicarious consumption in fiction through a self-conscious emphasis on repulsion. What I term "the repulsion novel" as a subgenre of recent Asian diasporic fiction takes up "exotic" food metaphors to write against tendencies of orientalist stereotyping and of self-orientalisation. Instead of highlighting communal meals or identifying characters through the food they consume, it spells out conflicts over meals, or express rejection of ideologies through depictions of repulsion. In fact, so far from losing in symbolic potential, repulsive representations of problematically defined "ethnic" food are enriched by additional complexity. Not simply "exotic," it is part of a texture of food metaphors that can mean different things according to their contexts. By capitalising on a shattering of expectations, diasporic Asian women writers - from Amy Tan, one of the indisputably most popular Asian American novelists, to newly emerging Asian Australian writers like Teo Hsu-Ming - have thereby created a subgenre that could be termed the repulsion novel. Intriguingly gender-specific, it uses the cooking and consumption of food to articulate generational mother-daughter conflicts. Most importantly, repulsion novels evoke buffets of multicultural identity politics so as to reject this very spectacle.

Their detailing of repulsion resists demands of "exotic" fiction, yet its enormous marketability complicates such resistance. "Exotic" depictions of the ethnic minority home are of course most easily established through descriptions of meals, their ingredients, preparation, and consumption. Yet, disgust has always had an important role in juxtapositions of different food and its ethnic allocation, however clichéd. From Maxine Hong Kingston’s influential The Woman Warrior in the mid-seventies onwards, Chinese American’s "ethnic" food has indeed regularly been represented with a measure of disgust. In Kingston’s novel, week-old left-overs, "the blood pudding awobble in the middle of the table," induce a revulsion that is projected onto others: "Sometimes brown masses sat on every dish. I have seen revulsion on the faces of visitors who’ve caught us at meals." (92)

But it is the visitors who feel revulsion. Amy Tan’s 1989 The Joy Luck Club likewise constructs its most embarrassingly repulsive scene around a white male lover’s blunders at a family dinner. The America-born daughter sees her non-Asian boyfriend dissected over dinner: "I couldn’t save Rich in the kitchen. And I couldn’t save him later at the dinner table." (177) Tan’s subsequent novels largely perpetuate the cliché, although there is a growing emphasis on irony. The Hundred Secret Senses sends half-Chinese protagonists to China as photojournalists for a culinary magazine; The Bonesetter’s Daughter details the disasters of a family dinner that includes Chinese and non-Chinese Americans only to bring out divisiveness (Wagner, "Realigning" 166-172). In the latter, a "jiggling mound of jellyfish" that recalls the left-overs awobble in Kingston’s novel is only the beginning of a list of dishes, "each one stranger than the last, to judge by the expressions on the non-Chinese faces" (83-84). Again, the repulsion, if not the anxiety, is exclusively that of the "non-Chinese."

Tan’s latest novel, Saving Fish from Drowning (2005), successfully exposes the diasporic Chinese’s liability to commit "boutique multiculturalism" in Asia. As a multiethnic group of tourists travels from China to Burma on a tour marketed as an "alternative" experience, food metaphors run somewhat haphazardly through the novel. Most strikingly perhaps, after a "Shigella bacillus culinary adventure" (71), bacteria travel through intestines just like the tourists on whose innards they feed move through Asia: they had "begun their descent into foreign guts, and would wend their ways into intestinal tracts and into bowels. The bus would take a similarly tortuous, winding route along the Burma Road, where soon the forces of fate and Shigella would meet up with them." (71) Contained in food "invisibly sprinkled with cockroach legs coated with little microbes that feed off human intestinal lining" (69), the bacteria have been imbibed at a roadside eatery with "an authentic local look about it" (68), yet which "even the locals eschewed with authentic disdain" (69) The tourist’s search for authenticity through consumption propels ironic investigation of boutique multiculturalism. What is particularly important to note is Tan’s focus on a country she has never visited (Burma) to move away from a China-America dichotomy.

It is with the same impetus to search for diasporic triangulations beyond the easy dualities of the here and there that Teo’s Behind the Moon, published in the same year as Tan’s so far most recent novel, has by far its strongest emphasis on the multiple re-viewing of Vietnam. While Teo’s first novel, Love and Vertigo, closely replicates the very generational mother-daughter conflicts made famous by Amy Tan’s fiction, Behind the Moon triangulates various diasporas to deflect easy alignments between ethnicity and the representation of "other" spaces. The narration of the specific double diaspora experienced by Chinese immigrants from, and traditional diasporic communities in, Southeast Asia, in fact, sheds a revealing light on attempts to engage with the most typecast consumption of the exotic "oriental." The multiplication of points-of-origin facilitates their critical audit of self-orientalisation. Unfortunately, however, the very excess of invoked multiplicity can backfire: engendering only a new kind of self-exoticising flair.



"Too mixed up" is symptomatically a colonial servant’s dismissive description of Singapore’s ethnic mix in Vyvyane Loh’s historical novel Breaking the Tongue, and I shall therefore conclude with this revealingly ironic example. The novel opens up at the imminent collapse of colonial structures, yet the rejection of a "mix-up" is meant to foreshadow post-Independence restructuring across racial alignments: "Too mixed up - Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, altogether in one big rojak! Only the Malays will want to obey the sultans." (26) Despite the text’s condemnation of the speaker’s rejection of any useful mix beyond the edible, its own negotiation of a sheer plethora of Chinese, Indian, Malay, English, and Japanese dishes disconcertingly sets a display of war atrocities among a sumptuous buffet of boutique multiculturalism. As in the case of rojak, a local dish made up of neatly blended, disparate ingredients, chopped up almost beyond recognition, the international reader is left to guess what most of them might be. This inadvertently reinforces a display of exotic goods: a display that turns the novel itself into an object of orientalist consumption, in the process riding over the very critique that drives it. Thus, in one of the most self-reflexive representations of a self-victimising self-orientalisation that destabilises identity through a multiple projection of alterity, the hero’s Peranakan mother lays herself out for consumption by white men to satisfy her desire to be thought exotic, desirable by an "other" whom she has been conditioned to emulate. Yet her desire for this projected consumption of alterity engenders a self-violation: "[she] somehow has a view of herself from the ceiling, as if she’s watching another woman. One who looks like an Eastern slave in her golden nudity, a fantasy slave-girl. It nauseates her and she bites herself, leaving tooth marks in her arm." (123) If this successfully propels the sampling of the exotic through vicarious culinary and sexual encounters into a physical rejection (nausea), it does not preclude the synaesthetic consumption of "exotic" women her son, Claude Lim, encounters during one of his rare ventures into Chinatown (truly an exotic space for the colonial Straits Chinese):

All he can see are the Indian girls with their thick braids and the scattering of petals in their hair, so pungent with coconut oil that he can’t separate them from the taste of fried roti canai that he sometimes eats for breakfast, the flat, flaky bread warm in his mouth. [...] The fruit stalls laden with mango, guava, carambola, pomelo, lychee, rambutan, durian. [...] The taxi-girls with their slender cigarettes, and the gloves which they peel off so deliciously. (Loh 152)

This edible rendition of the taxi-girl is topped by the mother’s recurring projection of her desires onto an imagined "woman of his [her white lover’s] own kind, pale as wedding cake frosting, blonde, thick-boned" (135). What is more, her vicarious feasting on the cake’s icing is juxtaposed with the representation of negotiating politicians and generals biting "into a delicate spring roll" or "popping another Tod Mun into his mouth" (136). The heavy food symbolism of the ominously titled Breaking the Tongue self-reflexively plays with clichéd collapses of different forms of linguistic practices - of movements of the tongue during mastication, sexual encounters, the switching from one language to another, the literal and the metaphorical breaking of tongues - and yet the novel’s need to be attractive to a largely uninitiated implied reader, or target group, ruptures this texture. As a result, "exotic" cuisine is rolled by as a consumable backdrop, the sights and smells of italicised dishes evoked at the most unlikely moments. Even as the Japanese bomb Singapore, the streets are said to be "alive with the smell of hawkers making their flat crepe-like roti and aromatic coffee" (236). Fleeing home, the Lim’s Thai cook presents Claude with "real Thai food" instead of the "English-version Thai food" as a parting gift (210). Sampling the exotic, Claude thinks "this is super!" (210) - until he realises that he is left behind, dismissed as diluted, like the dishes devised specially for the Anglicised Lims by their kitchen staff: "English-version Indian food, English-version Chinese food, English-version Malay food. All the same: very little spice, salty - look [sic] like food left out in the rain. [...] I thought you liked it like that." (210)

This takes us back into the colonial kitchen of the opening chapters: as the Lims’ servants make comparisons between the food they cook and the languages they speak, they realise that the places for which they really feel a sense of belonging are located in China, India, or Thailand, while "only his [Claude’s] type will feel this is their country to the end" - a realisation they symptomatically "digest [...] in silence" (26). Ultimately, Claude’s tongue is not so much broken by the Japanese soldiers that interrogate him, but by newly warring language policies, a new rojak culture as Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat has put it in a working paper to distinguish the everyday emergence of hybridity from the cultural activities the Singaporean government stages for its promotion, which ironically "deepen division through either using existing differences or creating new ones" (4). The ethnic rojak described in the colonial kitchen is still there, ready for global consumption, whether artificially bolstered or readily emergent, yet the Straits Chinese is digested, if not in silence, then as a disconcertingly silenced commodity.

© Tamara S. Wagner (School of Humanities & Social Sciences, NTU, Singapore)


(1) While even early postcolonial Singapore attempted to promote a multilingual "multiracialism," Malaysia preferred a nationalist Malay Malaysia, which ultimately resulted in Singapore’s exclusion from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. Malaysia’s working language has meanwhile become English.

(2) Thus, Malay schoolchildren take Malay and, regardless of their background, all Chinese Mandarin, all Indians Tamil, as their "mother-tongues." Pakir emphasises that English was originally chosen as "the working language" as it was deemed "neutral" in the sense that it did not belong to any of the three major ethnic groups (260). It was furthermore thought to be important in the international marketplace, but not considered "a worthy vehicle to carry the cultural and social content of the main ethnic groups in the country" (263).

(3) I have analysed the novel in more detail elsewhere (Wagner, "Tan Syndrome" passim; Occidentalism ch.4).

(4) Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill, a monologue set in a Peranakan mansion in Singapore, first performed as the Singaporean entry in the Commonwealth Arts Festival and the Edinburgh Arts Festival Fringe in 1986, has recently come to be interpreted as the Singaporean cultural landmark. As Jacqueline Lo has pointed out, as a Peranakan woman, Emily provides "a convenient platform from which to push the national multicultural ideology" (111). The play’s performability of course further helps to underline the usefulness of the Nyonya as spectacle, and ultimately, performable export. By contrast, when the first novel about a Nyonya’s life, Chin Kee Onn’s nostalgic Twilight of the Nyonyas, was published in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1984, it truly stood apart as an eccentric venture into self-consciously evoked margins: "a novel, the first ever written, about a Nyonya family, part of a unique and fascinating community in the social fabric of what was then Malaya" with the Nyonyas cast as "a vanishing breed in Malaysia" (book flap). Yet Kon’s play had at first similarly been an attempt to address topical issues from the point-of-view of a specific, in Singapore instantaneously recognisable, stereotype that is nonetheless a marginal observer. That the Nyonya’s monologues have since been read as iconic precisely because of the ways in which Peranakan culture can be seen to cut across different ethnic traditions in Singapore thus clearly evinces a new marketability.


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2.2. Models of Victimization in Contemporary Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Tamara S. Wagner (School of Humanities & Social Sciences, NTU, Singapore). Victims of Boutique Multiculturalism: Malaysian Chinese and Peranakan Women Writers and the Dangers of Self-Exoticisation. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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