Tash AW’s Snow Soong as the Anti-Stereotype?
JANET TAY looks at the diasporic (non-) identities of Chinese women in Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory
FROM THE EMPRESS DOWAGER to Suzie Wong, East Asian women are no strangers to being stereotyped by Western media as either the ‘dragon lady’ or more commonly, the bashful Oriental courtesan who is exotic and subservient, often to a white, dominant man. In the 1960 film based on the book by Richard Mason, The World of Suzie Wong, Suzie (Nancy Kwan), the archetypal ‘hooker with the heart of gold’ tries to don Western attire, a dress as she imagined Englishwomen would wear only to be angrily reprimanded by Robert Lomax, the character played by William Holden, and called a ‘cheap European street walker.’ In the chapter on ‘Representing Ourselves, Films and Videos by Asian American/Canadian Women’ by Marina Heung in Feminism, Multiculturalism and the Media: Global Diversities, reference is made to Marchetti who comments that ‘the Western gaze insists on maintaining categories based on distinct racial differences. According to her white lover, Suzie Wong must conform to his expectations of what a “real” Chinese woman looks like, so her putting on “Western” dress immediately earns her his abuse and rejection. Following the same logic, it is only when Suzie puts on a “traditional” Chinese costume that she wins her lover’s respect and approval (Marchetti, 1991, pp. 45-48)’ (93). Similarly, Anna May Wong, the first woman to portray the image of the Mysterious East on the American screen, played Hui Fei, a Chinese courtesan in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), and thus contributed to the image of ‘the oriental mystique.’ She does not speak much and is the epitome of ‘Chinese inscrutability’ (Pan, 202).
Edward W. Said uses the example of an Egyptian courtesan Flaubert called Kuchuk Hanem in his travel accounts of the East, on whom the latter based a model of the Oriental woman, who ‘never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her’ (6). According to Said, the fact that Flaubert was foreign, wealthy and male would have been dominating factors which allowed him to not only ‘possess [her] physically but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was ‘typically Oriental’ (6). Flaubert’s nineteenth-century portrayal of the stereotyped Oriental, Said states, has since been perpetuated through ‘standardization and cultural stereotyping’ of ‘the mysterious Orient’ (26). As Lynn Pan puts it, ‘[t]he China Doll and the Dragon Lady never really existed as such, except in the imaginations of Western men and women; but once invented, they took on a life of their own. And when a Western man looked at a Chinese woman, all too often it was the image rather than the reality that he saw’ (201).
What was and is still more worrying is Jessica Hagedorn’s notion of a ‘colonisation of the imagination’ when the general public ‘accept[s] stereotypes of Asian women as truth and then project them onto us without our consent’ (Pan, 201) and greatly affects how Asian women view and experience themselves. This form of ‘internalised colonisation,’ Hagedorn states, especially with reference to depiction of Asian women in films, can cause them to accept that ‘[they] are either decorative, invisible, or one-dimensional’ (201).
The representation of women in postcolonial literature, who are more often than not in ‘third world’ countries, often remains stagnant to the ‘demonology’—using the term coined by Edward Said—of exoticism and subservience that is the Western perception of the Eastern Oriental. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, in her essay, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,’ argues that the ‘average third world woman’ is usually depicted as leading ‘an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and being ‘third-world’ (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimised, etc.)’ whereas Western women are self-represented as ‘educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decision’ (261). Trinh T. Minh-Ha in Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, explains that ‘... the Third World representative the modern sophisticated public ideally seeks is the unspoiled African, Asian, or Native American, who remains more preoccupied with his/her image of the real native—the truly different—than with the issues of hegemony, racism, feminism, and social change’ (267). She uses the example of what would be considered the ‘real’ type of Japanism; that in order to be truly ‘authentic’ to the Western eye, ‘Japanism ought to be in Japan’. The inaccessibility of this ‘made-in-Japan’ product makes it all the more trustworthy, she says, and creates ‘the desire to acquire and protect it ...’ (267).
Chinese Immigrant Women in Malaya
In Catherine Lim’s fiction, Chinese immigrant women are portrayed as either ‘single-mindedly in tune with the prevailing cultural environment and focus on achieving material comfort and socially-defined success, even to the extent of suppressing their own humanity and real emotional needs’ or alternatively ‘find romantic escape in rebellion and rejection of their current social norms, but usually to their own ultimate damnation and destruction’ (Koh, 364). The latter is frowned upon, certainly because traditional Chinese culture does not encourage and is even hostile to individualism (363). Society above self is almost a mantra, and the individual is constantly expected to obey authority figures, including parents. In order to ensure harmony, there is ‘a system of reciprocity of duties or responsibilities’ and to ‘ensure harmony’ one must repress one’s desires and wishes for ‘self-fulfilment, self-identify and self-actualization.’ There is no room to be, as Malaysian writer Lee Kok Liang states, ‘true to yourself’ (364).
Inevitably, money played a big part in ‘separating the wives and daughters of the rich from all the others.’ As Pan explains, ‘[o]ften one or more generations removed from their family’s immigrant roots, these well-to-do leisured women lived lives of great ease and luxury, were usually surrounded by servants, and were denied little in the way of material satisfaction’ (191). The character Snow Soong in Tash Aw’s novel would fit the description of these women from wealthy families in colonial Malaya. Her grandfather, as described by Aw in the novel, had come from a long line of scholars in the Imperial Chinese Court, and came to Malaya in the 1880s as ‘a traveller, a historian and observer of foreign cultures’ (67). He married a wife who was the daughter of one of the richest of the new merchant class of the Straits Chinese, a ‘nonya,’ which entrenched his status as a well-respected, wealthy man in Malaya.
Despite the dividing factor of wealth, Chinese women in diaspora were nevertheless still subject to age-old rule of having their husbands chosen for them. Pan states:
[T]hey were not offered many chances of personal fulfilment. Their place was in the home, and their contribution to the world was in their reproductive capacity. Each would have had her husband chosen for her by her elders, was usually in her teens when she went to him, and it was generally only a matter of time before she stood by while he took a concubine. (191)Snow is no exception to the rule as despite her education, which would have been considered extensive for a woman in colonial Malaya and a rarity as such, she was nevertheless considered only by the worth of the husband to whom she would be married:
As with all beautiful young women of a certain background, Snow had already had a good deal of experience of suitors and tentative matchmaking. All of these possibilities had been created and choreographed by her parents. They took her to Penang, KL and Singapore, where she was displayed like a diamond in a glass box. (70)Despite seemingly having little choice in determining their fates in marriage, Pan argues that the fact that the immigrant woman is exposed to other cultures, style and manners in her adopted country, the ‘moneyed overseas Chinese woman [was] a different creature from her sisters in China. Standards were bound to be less absolute overseas, and, for all the restrictions of the feminine status, she could stand outside convention more easily than could her contemporary in the home country’ (Pan, 191). Indeed this seems true to form in The Harmony Silk Factory—Snow does not fit the stereotypical Oriental as depicted in some Western literature and certainly enjoys more freedom and has access to a wider array of choices than a mui tsai (literally ‘little sister,’ a Cantonese euphemism for bond maidservant) who were girls born to poor families, ‘prostitutes or unmarried mothers and sold off to rich families to be brought up as unpaid domestic servants or as future concubines for the household’s male masters’ (191).
Snow Soong as the Anti-Stereotype
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts—a collection of semi-autobiographical stories depicting her experience as a Chinese-American in America—the protagonist, a Chinese girl in the story entitled ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’ describes her disgust at the idea of ‘fragility’ and meekness in the quintessential Chinese girl:
I hated her weak neck, the way it did not support her head but let it droop; I wished I was able to see what my own neck looked like from the back and sides. I hoped it did not look like hers; I wanted a stout neck. I grew my hair long to hide it in case it was a flower-stem neck. I walked around to the front of her to hate her face some more. (158)Hong Kingston also describes Chinese girls as quiet and who barely spoke, compared to their American counterparts: ‘The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl’ (150). The quiet Chinese American girl or woman in diaspora in Hong Kingston’s experience seems to entrench the idea of the Chinese woman as quiet and submissive, to be seen but not heard. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, in her poem ‘Between Women’ describes what is presumably the modern Chinese-American woman, the ‘[t]aller, tougher curved Amazon’.
Which then is Snow Soong in Aw’s novel? The ‘taller, tougher curved Amazon’ or the meek Oriental courtesan? As the novel has three narratives, it is difficult to ascertain Snow’s actual appearance. The first narrator, Snow’s son, Jasper, can only regurgitate his mother’s features from what he has been told:
When she was born the midwives were astonished by the quality of her skin, the clarity and delicate translucence of it. They said that she reminded them of the finest Chinese porcelain [...] A visiting Chinese statesman once famously compared her appearance to a wine cup made for the Emperor Chenghua: flawless, unblemished and capable of both capturing and radiating the very essence of light. As if to accentuate the qualities of her skin, her hair was a deep and fathomless black, always brushed carefully, and usually for her time, allowed to grow long and lustrous. (66)With skin like the ‘finest Chinese porcelain’ of the wine cup of an emperor and ‘long and lustrous,’ ‘deep and fathomless black’ hair, Snow appears dangerously close to the stereotypical conception of Asian beauty. Her height, however, rescues her from this fate; as Johnny Lim meets her for the first time and is surprised by the fact that she is not a ‘tiny, exquisite jewel’ but ‘instead he found himself looking up at a woman who seemed to tower endlessly above him’ (74). It is also rather amusing that Snow’s height or general appearance causes somewhat of a role reversal as regard the Chinese man and woman interaction—quite far apart from the shy and demure Chinese woman who, under the veil of Orientalism, would not have stared ‘intently into [Johnny’s] eyes,’ causing him to ‘quickly lower[ed] his gaze’ (74).
The narrative of Peter Wormwood is arguably more accurate and believable—an Englishman who one might assume would have, from the three narrators, the highest propensity to impose a stereotypical description of Snow Soong, does not do so:
I know she is a woman, but her body has the straight lines of an adolescent boy, flat-chested and slim. She is taller than any woman I have seen in the Orient; her face is almost level with my collarbone. (263)His comparison of Snow Soong with the other women is even more illustrative of his perception of how the average woman in the Orient looked. Moreover, Wormwood’s views of Snow’s physical traits—describing her as almost androgynous—as well as what he perceives as her boldness, lack of demureness and even being devoid of the child-like quality that formed part of the misguided Oriental description, would certainly cast her away from the definitive stereotypical Oriental woman indeed:
She spoke in a very direct manner, open and forthright, unlike the charmingly veiled way in which the other young women in the rooms poke. It was impossible to tell how old she was. Her face was distinctly pubescent, yet there was something in her features that made her seem harder than a mere teenager—a quality of manliness, I thought. The way she carried herself, too, lent her an air of maturity. (279)Despite his earlier descriptions of Snow however, Peter Wormwood does occasionally succumb to, or one might even argue, insist on fitting Snow Soong into a mould that he cannot shake off in his mind of the Oriental beauty. Although Snow is often depicted in the novel as wearing loose-fitting trousers and a blouse, the traditional samfoo, he describes her, in that same outfit, as looking very ‘refined, just like an imperial Manchu consort’ (292).
Although there remain certain inconsistencies of her description by different narrators, the fact that she does not conform to the Western perception of the stereotypical Asian beauty is still discernible. In addition to non-conventional physical traits, Snow also appears to be indifferent to her own looks, debunking the gender-biased myth that women are usually more concerned about their appearances than men, and further entrenching Snow Soong’s characterization as an anti-stereotype by her lack of adherence to the aggrandized notion of femininity prescribed for an Asian woman:
The wind continued to sweep through my hair. I made no attempt to smooth it away from my face as I had done earlier, but instead enjoyed the sensation of knowing that here, in the open seas, no one would comment on my appearance. (182)Snow is depicted in the novel as an educated, well-read and articulate woman; she reads widely, speaks good English and is well-versed in Western literature and music. She is not afraid to voice her thoughts, although she still conforms to what is considered proper etiquette and decorum for a young lady—she is almost Victorian at times, like an Asian Elizabeth Bennet who speaks her mind whilst maintaining a certain degree of propriety. One might contrast her with Lemon who is almost the total opposite of Snow:
Her name was Lemon and she was not yet married. She led me by the hand down the dim corridor leading to my bedroom; she padded quickly across the bareboards, the pale soles of her bare feet flashing against the dark teak floor. Giggling she locked the door. She could not wait to speak about the experience of being married. [...] “Surely it must be more exciting now, what with a man in your room!” (131)She throws her head back in laughter, constantly giggles, and is the epitome of the child-like Oriental woman envisaged by the West. Even Snow herself admits that she feels “tall and ungainly” next to the delicate Lemon. The latter’s feminine wiles and behaviour is further illustrated when she is asked to play the piano, which is naturally a skill learnt by women in well-to-do families so that they could perform for guests at their parents’ or husband’s will. Lemon plays a piece that is not recognised by Snow, pouts ‘like a girl ten yours younger’ and said, ‘Oh, Uncle TK, you know what it is, don’t you?’(133)
Despite Snow’s seemingly independent behaviour, she seems to still be tied to the idea of a woman’s fate to submit to forced marriage and its ensuing consequences. Snow’s diary starts with the words ‘[a]ccept your fate. Accept your fate. Mother’s words invade my dream’ (123)—words that echo throughout her life, but instead of ‘accepting her fate’ as her mother drones, Snow Soong’s diary is peppered with her intentions to tell her husband, Johnny Lim, that she intends to leave him. There is a confusion here as to Snow’s true inclinations—does she accept her fate? The answer appears to be ‘no’ as she clearly demonstrates her boldness in her interactions with Mamoru Kunichika, to whom she is greatly attracted and even swims in the river with him, with flirtatious overtures (208). There is a further ‘love’ scene where she “reached out to [Mamoru] and gathered him in [her] arms” (219), exhibiting not only maternal instincts but also strength, as well as an even more apparent gesture of defiance against staying in a troubled marriage in resignation.
Yet there are troubling contradictions—it is unclear whether Snow was forced to marry Johnny—Lemon asks whether the rumours of Snow marrying Johnny against the will of parents is true; her parents are described as being agreeable to the marriage as Johnny was a wealthy textile merchant, wealth is a deciding factor in the eligibility of the groom as is apparent from Jasper’s narrative:
[...] To top it all, Snow and the boy looked such a pretty pair and would surely attract all the right comments when the time came for them to venture into the public eye ... Thankfully, before such an understanding was reached between the parents, TK and Patti discovered that the boy’s parents were not quite as wealthy as they seemed. The Superintendent’s lavishness at the races had taken its toll on the family’s finances, and it was thought that much of his wife’s fabulous jewellery were borrowed from sympathetic relatives. It was clear that the dowry which TK and Patti expected in return for the hand of their daughter could never be fulfilled.’ (71)Whether Snow was indeed forced into the marriage, or as Lemon speculates, had married Johnny against her parents’ wishes, she later shows her resolve in leaving the marriage but at the time constantly hesitates in making her wishes known. The fact that Snow’s narrative is in the form of a personal diary is telling—the voice of an Asian woman in the 1940s would not have been allowed to be forthright and honest as it would be otherwise. Despite Snow’s boldness and unstereotypical ways, there are nevertheless still traces of her upbringing in a time of gender bias, ironically mainly exhibited by her mother who insists on objectifying and trivialising women:
‘This is our daughter, Professor,’ Mother said. ‘Nothing to look at, I told you, didn’t I?’ (124)We may well ask the same question as Johnny Lim who says, ‘How would you know what her self is?’ (308) referring to Peter Wormwood commenting that Snow is not herself. Not only does Snow make her decisions on contradictory terms, it appears to be difficult to pin down her definite sense of identity as an immigrant Chinese woman in Malaya. She is different from her counterparts in the ancestral homeland in China, and yet she displays no affinity to her adopted homeland either. What can be noticed is simply her collage of habits which almost mirror her as a Victorian woman, but at the same time she retains the values of her upbringing, to accept her fate in a loveless marriage. Her efforts to seduce Mamoru Kunichika do not fully materialise, and even more so when he tries to later rape her and appears to be unsuccessful.
‘[...] you would not be interested in a thing like her!’ (125)
‘You are his wife,’ she said simply and laughed, as if there was no more to say ... (139)
In the kitchen Mei Li was sitting on a low wooden stool, dipping little pink balls of sweet dough into a bowl of flour.
‘Don’t sit with your legs like that,’ mother hissed at her. ‘Only whores behave like that.’ She looked to see if I was listening. ‘Only whores behave like that,’ she said again. (136)
Snow Soong as anti-stereotype is at best half convincing—even as she is a far cry from her oppressed counterparts who have no access to education nor possess any of the myriad of privileges and choices that she does, her identity is ill-defined or even non-existent. The only thing that remains constant is her dependence upon a colonial source of one kind or another, be it one that is gender-based or from the imperialist coloniser of her adopted homeland. She is, in effect, doubly colonised—with remnants of her cultural obligations when she is groomed for her looks and ability to present herself, only to later die during childbirth, clashing with a legacy of literature and music not of her own culture. As much as it might have been intended for Snow Soong to be depicted as the antithesis of the stereotypical Oriental, in the end, she is left with a mishmash of a cultural personality; an identity that is neither emancipated nor certain in its definition.
AW, Tash, The Harmony Silk Factory, London: HarperCollins, 2005
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HONG KINGSTON, Maxine, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, London: Picador, 1981
KOH, Tai Ann, ‘Tradition and Modernity in the Fiction of Lee Kok Liang and Catherine Lim: Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese Perspectives,’ in Leo Suryadinata (ed.), Ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia: A Dialogue between Tradition and Modernity, Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2002
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MINH-HA, Trinh T., ‘Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism,’ in Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989
MOHANTY, Chandra Talpade, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,’ Boundary 2, 12(3) (Spring-Autumn), 1984
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JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009). She is also a contributing editor at Quill magazine.