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中山大学中文系(珠海)教授、博导。1975年生于山东。中山大学中文系(广州)文学士、硕士(1994-2001年)。新加坡国立大学博士(NUS,2001年7月-2005年5月)。历任广州中山大学中文系副教授(2005年6月-2011年12月)、纽约巴德学院BARD COLLEGE访问学者(2007年8月-2008年5月)、中大国际关系学院教授(2011年12月-2016年4月)、台湾东华大学客座教授(2013年2-7月)、新加坡南洋理工大学客座研究员(2015年2-7月)。

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To See and to Be Seen: Mutual Reflections between Chinese Women and Singapore  

2010-02-12 13:48:56|  分类: 论述展示 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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To See and to Be Seen: Mutual Reflections between Chinese Women and Singapore

--reflections of Singapore in “New Immigrant Literature”

By Chongke ZHU

 

It is known to all that Singapore is a city state of immigrants. Accordingly, Singapore’s Modern Chinese Literature has been also immersed in more or less the same color. Essentially, “immigrant-ness”, nostalgia and mobility have been internalized into it. Although some scholars attempt to find an alternative to the possibly inner logic of Malaya Chinese Literature (“mother” of Singapore Chinese Literature) so as to understand the oppressed modernity, the meaningful acts can not but substitute the essence of Modern Malaya Chinese Literature.

 

 Since the foundation of the Republic of Singapore, the government has been trying to build up the political & national identity continuously. This seems to partly prevent the sustained expression of “immigrant-ness” in Singapore Chinese Literature. But due to historical proximity and the overlooking of the need for cultural identity, immigrant mentality has still been a ghost hovering over Singapore Chinese Literature.

 

With the development of Singapore economy, more and more foreign talents (especially from mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan) enter Singapore; gradually a trend of “New Immigrant Literature” has emerged in the circles of Singapore Chinese Literature. Here the criterion of “New Immigrant Literature” is not decided just by the writers’ Singaporean identity; instead, to a larger extent, it’s determined by the specific plane on which literature takes place. So we see that all those literary events that happened in Singapore time & space would belong to “New Immigrant Literature”, even though the authors might be “pure” Chinese from China.

 

Currently, the “literariness” of “New Immigrant Literature” is in its conception. Most of the texts are just direct expressions of the authors’ experiences: such as SHUANG YUE’s We Chinese: Diary of Overseas Chinese Women (Wo Men Zhong Guo Ren: Yue Yang Nü Gong Shou Ji; Singapore: Lingzi Media, 2002), JIN WEN’s Snakes (Ren She Shou Ji, Singapore: Lingzi Media, 2002), XIAO JIE (editor)’s Chinese Women’s Singapore (Zhong Guo Nü Ren De Xin Jia Po; Singapore: Lingzi, 2002) etc. Or some of them are published for commercial intentions: such as JIU DAN’s Crows : the Singapore Dream of a Group of China Women (Wu Ya), KA FU’s A Degraded Man like Me (Wo Zhe Lan Nan Ren; Singapore: Lingzi, 2003) etc. Although these works explore and expand new themes for Singapore’s “New Immigrant Literature” from different perspectives, but the narrative strategies are relatively simple. Fortunately there are a few texts trying to change the situation, such as TANG ZHENG MING’s Rose Garden (Mei Gui Yuan; Singapore: Lingzi, 2003).

 

The critical questions are: how do we face and deal with this rising trend? Should we just criticize their moral collapse in anger or interpret them from their own standpoints? Should we pay absolutely no attention to them or strive to develop and direct this new trend?

 

It is suggested that if we put these texts into a context of literary and cultural interactions between China and Singapore, the new approach will lead to new perspectives. For this purpose I choose JIU DAN’s Crows: the Singapore Dream of a Group of China Women and TANG ZHENG MING’s Rose Garden as comparative cases to analyze the construction of the Singapore image. The whole discussion will be developed from 3 aspects: 1, moral ethics (heavy body: Singapore experience); 2, the influence of realities (desire in the fields: flirt/reject Singapore); 3, paradoxes in narrative strategies.

 

It should be pointed out that between to see and to be seen there lays a possible discursive power practice based on different races, classes and culture. It translates into: who looks? Who are (or act as) the subjects/objects?

 

                                   Heavy Body: Singapore Experience

Singapore has always been described as the Land of Peach Blossoms to the common Chinese, either because of its good public security or the special population structure (more than 70 per cent are Chinese), which makes it so close to mainland China. But it’s not all like this. Sometime the superficial aura is just a magnificent coat over true realities.

 

With respect to Chinese women (so called “Dragon Girls”) who make themselves love Singapore and try to stay here, their hard living conditions and humiliating positions can be found to be concealed under the magnificent depiction.

 

1. Crows: when selling flesh turns into means of living. We should say that Crows has discovered the true living conditions of the subaltern, it shows the author’s courage and also intentions of attempting to repent. Meantime, it also reflects Singapore’s desirable face and evil aspects. Furthermore, it also reminds us of the need to contemplate the incoherent aspects of our humanity.

 

Under the great pressure of living in highly competitive Singapore and having nothing other than their bodies, “Dragon Girls” have to bear too much burden on their innocent bodies, sometimes the bodies have to become a method and tool of living. If we make an analysis on the process of degenerating from respectable women to “Dragon Girls”, it’s evident that this is more complex and difficult than imagined. They not only have ideals of living better, but also show a strong tendency to enhance themselves, albeit indulging in petty vanity. In the novel, Fen’s statement can be regarded as their petty but indomitable manifesto, “And a Dragon Girl means a prostitute. But I’m telling myself, when I’m rich, I can always give myself another name and go somewhere else. Who cares they call me! When some women do strike it rich or become Singaporean wives, others will forget they were once Dragon Girls. In time, even they themselves cease to regard themselves as China People.” (p.75)

 

Since they are common foreigners or just language learners instead of foreign talents, they have nothing more than bodies and have to live by themselves, their moral line of defense collapses gradually although they tried to prevent the same. We can see this through Helen’s “corruption”. At first she disliked the name of “Dragon Girls”, although she dared not to face the glare of Singapore women. She also dreamed of a romantic love story, but her body began to take on too many burdens when she realized one day she was playing the very role of Li Siyan’s “Dragon Girl”. When love gets more and more unreachable, living pressure increases and part-time job is forbidden since she is on a student pass, relying on rich men or selling bodies turns to be a “reasonable” or even the only choice.

 

Also, we should pay more attention to the great functions of these subalterns, who just reflect some deep-rooted bad habits of Singaporeans; although the number of men they came in contact with was small and their moral qualities doubtful, but we still can read out Siyan’s lust, old playboy-Liu Dao’s obsession with feminine charms and Mr. Zhou’s hypocritical characteristics. Also we can re-think Singapore’s educational system: how could these Chinese women turn out to be prostitutes in Singapore while they are respectable in China?

 

We can easily find that it is in some seemingly strange plots (dates, murder and romantic affairs between “Dragon Girls” and Singapore men) that we see Singapore’s narrow-mindedness and evilness. We can also deduce its transforming function: in escaping from political high pressure and turning to sexual gratification. Generally speaking, Crows can diffuse a thrilling force, which is like a “poison ivy” (in Charles Baudelaire’s sense).

 

2 Rose Garden: the absent body. Body deSCRIPTion is relatively subtle and less than that in Crows. This doesn’t mean that deSCRIPTion is limited to that of sex; the absence here means that the body deSCRIPTion in Rose Garden is of metaphysics and to some extent deviates from the real life.

 

Maybe in order to get rid of the gloomy atmosphere, filth and darkness of Crows, the author of Rose Garden intends to create a virtual yet tragic petty-bourgeois world: as a Chinese teacher, the female protagonist named Qin Xiaofan has been leading an independent, honored and interesting life, although at the same time she has to be confronted with the melodramatic realities. But paradoxically, just because of author’s intentional manipulation, the whole novel seems to be floating in the air and lacks an exciting force, though we can discern the author’s elegance, wisdom and appeals here and there.

 

As an expression of positive moral ethics, Rose Garden is greatly confined to some place. As we know, the evil and controversial themes always offer much fictional space to the authors, while the good, normal and undisputable themes usually obstruct writers from imagining freely.

 

Two techniques are used in Rose Garden so as to deal with the common trivial: judgment and atomization. The former is used to deal with tedious and tasteless life deSCRIPTions, while the latter is a strategy of controlling evils fleeing bodies. Here we just analyze the use of atomization and deal with judgment later.

 

It has to be pointed out that these two skills are both like a double-spaded sword. On the one hand, if atomization can be used properly, it will open up more meaningful spaces, but on the other hand, it also can possibly obscure the original theme and meanings to be unveiled.

 

Since Rose Garden strives to avoid a special and disputably atypical world, the use of atomization plays an important role. But being afraid of getting trapped into the self-installed restricted area, body deSCRIPTion is absent in Rose Garden: it mainly centers on the upper part, but overlooks the material lower stratum, while the latter incorporates abundant possibilities of exploring other topics of writing and deepening its own theme.

 

The direct deSCRIPTion of body is so weak in Rose Garden that we can see few paragraphs on touching, hug, kiss, not to say intimate body touch or intercourse. Since this love affair originates from Qin Xaiofan’s unrequited love towards Ke Zipei, we can understand why body deSCRIPTion turns out to be absent. So Rose Garden is just a utopian world, in which life is just a purified world or illusion, even the roses are thorn-less.

 

A similar case is observed with reference to the Singapore image: it is clear but obscure. So many local material signs have constructed a concrete Singapore, but at the same time it’s also ambiguous, you can’t decide its characteristics through the writing. Maybe it is closely related with the author’s rising subjective position. We’ll probe into it in following discussions.

 

Desire in the Fields: flirt/reject Singapore

 As I have stated, among to see and to be seen there maybe lurk power/discourse relations between different subjects. More interestingly, there may be visuality mechanisms between unequal subjects/objects.

1 Crows: literary pander in the fields of economy and power. It’s not enough or misleading to regard Crows as only a voice of resisting patriarchal society and striving for the weak and oppressed. This evidently understates the subjective desire of writing in Crows.

 

Just as Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) says, only by referring to the field of power in which the field of literature is subsidiary that the actions of artists and writers can be explained better.

 

If we look at what Bourdieu said, we can see that Crows is just a subtle practice of pander to the field of power. If it’s located in the power network, it shows a secret sub-conscious looking-up. The manipulated perfect and unitary Singapore image in official’s depiction also induces people’s reveries on its other aspects. JIU DAN’s Crows focused on those Chinese girls studying (selling their bodies?) in Singapore and took the advantage of attracting concern from both China and Singapore.

 

JIU DAN ’s “Prostitute Philosophy”(“Women are all alike in that intrinsically they’re prostitutes”) surely has its own depth, we can deduce that all those who give in of their own accord before interests, power and other things belong to the  category of spiritual prostitutes. But the paradox is that JIU DAN tries to eliminate the difference and levels between large evils and small ones so as to testify that all are dirty and sinned. These controversial words and judgment also convey a tendency of trying to please the public with claptrap or arousing more attention. In her another book named Singapore Lover (Wu Han version), these intensions are more evident, which also shows JIU DAN’s decline, both in moral and writing levels.

 

We have to point out that even the logic of repentance in Crows is much ridiculous. JIU DAN says that, “Firstly I admitted that I was dirty from the soul to the body. Actually if you dared to do so and expressed it out, then you are clean. ” We can see the great weakness of this logic: I do something wrong and I admit that I’m wrong, and then I’m right. This kind of repentance has done little good to getting rid of true sins; on the contrary, it possibly protects them paradoxically.

 

In Crows, the reasons why Chinese Women students choose to sell their bodies are not persuasive, those “Dragon Girls” are sometime vain, which shouldn’t be an excuse for being prostitutes. For we must know that those who create and steer life are ourselves, we can lead a hard but honored life by ourselves. In Crows, the poet from Beijing named An Xiaoqi is just a good example: he lives on himself by doing a part-time job in food courts.

 

In Crows the tendency of narcissism is also serious, the author arranged Liu Dao and An Xiaoqi to praise prostitute Helen to be pure and elegant one by one although she had sold herself so many times, which is just a great comfort to the writer.

 

In short, we can say Crows is a positive “slave” when facing the restrictions or inducement of the market and consumption.

 

If we examine the position of literature in the field of power, it’s found out that among seeing/seen JIU DAN selected to cater to Singaporean men’s self-assumption of “being  Redeemers” of Chinese women. Although it reflects the weakness and hypocritical characteristics of Singapore, Crows also strengthens this kind of Singaporean legends and builds up its islanded minds. The self-humiliating practice in Crows embodies the marginalization of literature in the field of power, which panders to the reading expectations of Singapore men.

 

2 Rose Garden: Cultural differences in equal seeing. If we compare the literary practice of Rose Garden with that of Crows in the context of fields of power and economy, great differences are obvious.

 

Located in the field of economy, the publication of Rose Garden itself turns out to be an event full of courage and moral justice: TANG ZHENGMING herself paid more than S$10,000 to publish the book and she surely knew about the poor condition of Chinese books in Singapore’s market.

 

If we put this novel in the field of power, we can also detect rising of China’s subjective position. Certainly we can deduce that it’s due to narrator/author’s subjective interventions.

 

To some sense, we can read the taste and poses or shadow of Chien Chung-shu’s Fortress Besieged (Wei Cheng): erudite and informed but with freezing irony and burning satire. With such aggressive objectives, Rose Garden intends to probe some philosophical theories, analyze the ridicules of the realities, although sometime we can also see that this ideal is beyond the narrator.  The theme of this novel—Rose Garden is also a metaphysical metaphor: People will not cherish that grasped in hands, but strive for the faraway happiness. When it comes to modern education, Rose Garden also criticizes its general shortcoming of lack of creativity. (P.62)

 

If we put the culture onto the platform of interactions between Singapore and China, the author’s gesture of looking down on Singapore can be perceived. Although the author is trying to criticize Li Youjun’s Sino-centrism and arrogance when he is facing Singapore, at the same time she also attacks Singapore by innuendo. “Since the natural surroundings of Singapore are congenitally deficient, poems, ci, qu, essays can’t be sighed out with deep feelings” (P.31).

 

Singaporean Ke Zipei is also used to satire Singapore’s overlooking and discarding traditional culture, he said, Mencius is hard to find in Singapore” (P.36). Even the author herself comes out to jeer at Singapore’s tiny-ness and boredom (P.98).

 

Certainly Singapore is not just some “silent other”. The guy who loves Qin Xiaofan secretly named Chen Weiwen also criticizes China’s stubborn bias on overemphasizing economy, “I have been to China several times, always feel that China’s economy is developing so rapidly, but the flavor of culture gets thinner.   (P.112)

 

It is very interesting that when we discuss the love affair, we can find more and stronger cultural differences. Qin Xiaofan and Ke Zipei have different comprehensive type of interpreting love, and mode of thinking. As for Qin Xiaofan, she still sticks to Chinese reserved manner and is too shy to express her love; but Ke Zipei prefers to stay in the crowds and is reluctant to take on the duty of marriage. Maybe it’s not an accidental coincidence: both Liu Dao (the old playboy in Crows) and Ke Zipei own the same symbol of social diseases—to stay in female crowds will make them feel warm and better, which maybe implies some Singapore men are bored of loneliness, tediousness and Kiasu.

 

Weak Narrative

Conforming to the realities of Singapore Literary Circles, “New Immigrant Literature” also embodies the weakness in narrative creativity due to its short history and writing quality.

 

When some texts construct the image of Singapore, they display the dislocation of imagining Singapore. In Crows, the plot of an Indian taxi driver stealing Helen’s red suitcase is full of many discrepancies: how can he make apologies to Helen with crude Chinese before he commits this crime? There are two ways to solve the false problems: remember the license plate No. or call another taxi to catch it. Maybe the author forgets the following fact: it is happening in Singapore—a country with such strict laws. Also the taxies have been fitted with GPS. JIU DAN also made a ridiculous mistake, a woman claiming to learning English in Singapore spells the word “Lady’s finger” into “ladi’s fingle”.

 

Similarly in Rose Garden, there are some small defects. Such as the exact amount of fine can’t be known so quickly and the bill wouldn’t be placed on the wind screen of cars (P.50).

 

1 The lack of narrative strategies. Generally speaking, the narrative strategies of “New Immigrant Literature” are too simple and weak. As we know, the moving forces of Crows mostly originate from its theme or topic, instead of genres.

 

When we examine Crows from the yardstick of “literariness”, we can see Crows is just one common tale. The whole plot is very clumsy except the tragic ending—when both Helen and Liu Dao’s conscience was moved and they could lead a possibly happy life, while finally Liu Dao was drowned. Except this shocking outcome, the whole plot is very pale, which only depicts some Chinese “Dragon Girls” and several Singapore men’s daily life, very common and even boring.

 

Although JIU DAN denies that Crows belongs to the genre of body deSCRIPTion novels, actually she greatly relied on body deSCRIPTion to arouse possible concern, reading and disputation.

 

2 The lack for narrative passion. The narrative problem of Rose Garden is the lack for narrative passion. As stated before, one of the main and very important methods she uses is judgment. On the one hand, judgment can activate the tedious and tasteless daily life details and make them filled with interest and wisdom, but on the other hand, judgment can also reduce the novel’s implicit characteristics and the force of the plots. After all, the best words of novels are used to narrate instead of discussing and the novelists are asked to give up the desire to explain and judge.

 

The use of judgment makes Rose Garden more readable, the wisdom, imaginary force of words and the versatile directions of meanings reflect the author’s capability of mastering words, but as for the narrative aspect, it seems pale and weak to some extent. Maybe due to self-imposed restrictions on writing topic/theme, the whole novel lacks of the force of shocking readers although it reads so smoothly.

 

Conclusion: carnival as expected characteristics

This paper probed into the complex expressions of seeing/seen and discussed the entangling of body politics, power network, and cultural differences from different aspects, positions and fields. The network of China-Singapore interactions supplies us not only new approaches and a platform to interpret novels, but also more or even carnival possibilities of same theme writing. This is an excellent resource for writing and fiction; both the topics and narrative strategies can be put into a wider scope and developed. Maybe this has been beyond literature studies and belongs to the category of Cultural studies. Hope “New Immigrant Literature” can supply us better and more works after paying much attention to wider theme exploration and narrative creation. After all, carnival, as an unfinished trait, is an ideal condition for both literary writing and criticism.

 

Reference:

1. JIU DAN; translated by Alan Chong, Crows: the Singapore Dream of a Group of China Women (Singapore: Lingzi Media, 2001).

2. TANG ZHENGMING, Rose Garden (Mei Gui Yuan) (Singapore: Lingzi Media, 2003).

3. JIU DAN, Singapore Lover (Xin Jia Po Qing Ren) (Wuhan: The Yangtze River arts & literature publishing house, 2002).

4. Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), Les Règles de L’art (Paris: Le Seuil, 1992).

5. M. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975); translated by Helene Iswolsk, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

 

Mr. Chongke Zhu is a PhD candidate of Chinese studies, faculty of arts and social science, NUS.

 

It was published in The Arts, National University of Singapre, 2004, Apr-May No.13

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