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  • Chinese Suicide: Political Desire and Queer Exogamy in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone
  • Yoonmee Chang (bio)

Last summer, as I was having dinner in Washington, DC’s Chinatown, two tourists hesitantly stepped into the restaurant. A waiter summoned them to a table, but they were disoriented and cautious, mumbling briefly together before asking: “Is this Chinatown?” I laughed, not because they were standing in the shadow of a sixty-foot gate, all gilt and dragons and pagoda-like peaks, the unmistakable sign that they were smack in the middle of Chinatown. Rather, I laughed because the tourists’ skepticism bespoke an observant irony: not much about this Chinatown is very Chinese. Beyond the gate, one block north and barely two blocks to its east and west, is the entirety of DC’s Chinatown, its thin arrangement of restaurants, a few souvenir shops, and not many Chinese people on the streets. The most eye-catching sights are hardly Chinese at all: the blazing marquee of the Verizon Center and the gleaming storefronts of mega-retail stores and chain restaurants that were built in the 1980s ostensibly to renew the neighborhood. The bilingual signs of these shops are ornamental contrivances, shallow significations of an ethnic aura: Starbucks and Subway translated into phonetic but semantically nonsensical Chinese. But all was not lost for the disappointed tourists, because the waiter reassured them, settling them at a table as he chatted them up with a history of the better days, when there were more Chinese people, more dragon dances, flapping fish in sidewalk buckets, and venerated elders officiating over the urban village in high [End Page 90] Confucian style. Now I was the one who was disappointed in hearing the waiter reiterate a familiar, denuded Orientalist script. I expected him to tell a different story, of the communities and histories razed by gentrification and corporatized renewal, or perhaps of the labor market discrimination and racialized class immobility that led him to scavenge tips in a dying Chinatown. I had a fantasy of Chinatown too. If Chinatown failed to live up to the tourists’ fantasy of racial-cultural difference, it failed my racial-political sensibility. I had expected that the waiter, as someone who might have experienced the racist laws, public policies, and social attitudes that named him as Chinese, would evince more interest in protesting and critiquing his racializations. I was mapping a political position onto this Chinese person’s racial position. Like the tourists and in my own way, I wanted Chinatown to be more Chinese.

Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone tells a story about a Chinatown that is not very Chinese. Ng’s novel rethinks Chinatown as an idea and a place that, paradoxically, cannot be fully captured through the lens of race, specifically through the racial categories of Chinese-ness described above: as a tourist’s dream of racial-cultural exotica and as an idealized embodiment of racial-political solidarity. Bone’s Chinatown resists the recognizable essentialisms of racial-cultural difference, but it also confronts the less willingly recognized essentialisms of racial-political desire. The latter refers to what Viet Nguyen calls the “disavowed essentialism of racial identity”—a racial-political essentialism that casts racialized subjects as politicized subjects who protest and critique their racializations (145). Asian American Studies is structured and animated by racial-political essentialism. Its methodologies assume that Asian American voices are politically oppositional, readily contesting the material and discursive disciplines of race. Notable progenitors of this practice are the editors of Aiiieeeee! (one of the first anthologies of Asian American literature, published in 1973), for whom being racialized as Asian American is to have a “sensibility” that is necessarily, even inherently, politicized (Chan, et al. xxvi). The Aiiieeeee! editors are routinely excoriated for their overwrought prescriptions, but Asian Americanist practice continues to carry the editors’ spirit. Sau-Ling Wong offers a cogent and tempered distillation of the literary field’s goal: to build a coalition of texts and social formations that “acknowledge and resist” the discriminations commonly shared by Asian-raced groups, a coalition that does not essentially but “voluntarily adopt[s]” politicization (6). Yet the texts that volunteer themselves, or that we allow to volunteer, hew to oppositional...


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