Outsiders on the ‘SEAN’: Depictions of Southeast Asia in Western Fiction
Southeast Asia has been inspiring Western writers for hundreds of years. As the region has evolved socially and politically over the years, so have the themes and concerns of its fictions. From John Dryden to Alex Garland, from Joseph Conrad to Joan Didion, TOM SYKES attempts a summing-up of the canon despite its diversity
IN THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD, Europeans had a false conception of Southeast Asia as a land of permissiveness, exoticism and extravagance. The Portuguese adventurer Fernao Mendes Pinto found the people of Malacca, Patani, Sumatra, Aceh and Siam (now Thailand) not to be like this. Instead, he decided they were more tolerant, charitable and respectful than his fellow Westerners whom he castigated for their greed and violence. Even so, after resisting pirates in the South China Sea, he became one himself. These experiences are fictionalised in Peregrinacao, published in 1614 after his death.
John Dryden’s 1699 play Amboyna concerns the real-life slaughter of English traders by Dutch soldiers on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Writing at the beginning of the colonial era, Dryden portrayed the indigenes less charitably than Pinto, as one-dimensional, animal-like beings. The play was poorly received.
Heinrich Anselm von Ziegler’s 1689 Baroque adventure Banise the Asiatic is set in southern Myanmar and use travelogues written by Pinto as source material. In a rousing, happy ending, the hero, Banise, successfully defends the Pegu Empire from conquest by the evil tyrant Chaumigrem. In real life quite the opposite happened.
Dryden’s and Ziegler’s oversights are partly explained by the inaccessibility of Southeast Asian literature to Westerners hoping to understand and write validly about its culture. According to historians Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush, “no piece of South or East Asian fiction was available in a Western language until the eighteenth century.”
By the late 1800s, novels were addressing Western colonialism’s ‘civilising mission’ rhetoric, albeit in contradictory ways. William Carlton Dawe’s Hong Kong-based potboilers The Mandarin (1899) and The Yellow Man (1900) may have been attacked by contemporary critics for being ‘unpatriotic’, but there’s an ethnocentric streak to his characterisation. His non-white men are amoral and vicious, his women exotic but unattainable. Dawe warns against interracial relationships (“the love of the white for the yellow”) while salaciously describing it. Jack Curzon, or, Mysterious Manila (1898), by the American author Clavering Gunter, is also full of derring-do but set in the Philippines. Published in the same year that the United States wrested control of the islands from the Spanish, the novel has an undertone of American supremacism to it, not to say an unflattering take on the indigenes. As a contemporary reviewer put it, “an important part is also played by a semi-civilised Tagal native, who possesses in common with all his kind, so the writer assures us, a sense of smell equal to that of a bloodhound.”
The colonial adventure genre reaches its apotheosis in Joseph Conrad’s series of novels set in the Malay archipelago. The first, Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895), is about a Dutch trader in Borneo whose marriage to a half-caste girl is as disastrous as his harebrained schemes to make money. Lord Jim (1900) begins with a young British sailor abandoning a ship full of Muslim pilgrims from the Malay states. Jim redeems himself as a raja-style ruler of a fictional island in the South Seas, winning the hearts and minds of the inhabitants by defeating the tribal king Tunku Allang. This may seem like a thinly disguised celebration of colonialism, but Conrad’s outlook is more complex than that. Both Almayer and Jim are flawed antiheroes with questionable pasts and symbolise misgivings about the legitimacy of the imperial project.
The 20th century was perhaps the most eventful in the history of Southeast Asia. A world war, a cold war, decolonisation and revolution all appear in Western novels of the era, many of which cast a sympathetic eye over their subject matter. George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934) tells of a British police officer in Myanmar with an affection for the indigenous culture and a distaste for the colonial administration he works for. Just as Orwell learned the language during his time in Myanmar, so Anthony Burgess became fluent in Malay while working as a teacher during the Malayan Emergency. He conducted painstaking research into its history and culture for The Malayan Trilogy (1956-9), intending to become “the true fictional expert on Malaya.” Graham Greene’s early Vietnam novel The Quiet American (1955) seeks to understand the Vietminh while critiquing American CIA intervention in the country. Greene was appalled when a slushy Hollywood adaptation of the novel tried to graft a pro-American, anti-Communist message onto it. In a comparable vein, Joan Didion’s cleverly experimental Democracy (1984) exposes the profoundly anti-democratic policies of the US in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Of all the Western novels about the Pacific during World War II, James Clavell’s King Rat (1962) is perhaps the darkest. Based on the author’s incarceration in Singapore’s Changi Prison, the novel shocks with its representation of the squalid conditions, the barbarism of the Japanese guards and the Darwinian rivalry between the POWs themselves.
In recent years, Southeast Asia has come to occupy a different space in the Western psyche, as a tourist destination affording pleasures and experiences unavailable at home. The biggest-selling novel to engage with this is of course Alex Garland’s The Beach (1996). Richard is a seasoned backpacker in search of an authentic, off-the-beaten-track experience in Thailand. His discovery of an idyllic beach commune comes at the price of his own descent into madness and murder. Described as “Generation X’s first great novel,” The Beach is ultimately a meditation on how our perception of reality is mediated by so many fictions, from videogames to movies to commercial tourism itself. Also set in Thailand, Michel Houellebecq’s controversial Platform (2001) addresses the behaviour of Western sex tourists in Pattaya and other such resorts.
Southeast Asian society has changed radically over the years. Western fiction has tried to keep up with those changes, sometimes getting its depictions right, sometimes wrong. We can’t predict what the novels of the future will be like but we can be sure that the region will continue to feed the Western imagination.
Reproduced from MPH’s 105th Anniversary issue of Quill magazine