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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Chinese Transnationalisms: Society, Literature, Film
  • Timothy Yu
Maria N. Ng and Philip Holden, editors. Reading Chinese Transnationalisms: Society, Literature, Film. Hong Kong University Press. x, 238. US $24.95

As the editors of this collection note in their introduction, transnationalism is 'very much the concept of the moment' in ethnic and cultural studies. Focusing on migration, diasporic populations, and the movement of persons and capital across national boundaries, transnational studies may, according to editors Maria N. Ng and Philip Holden, be supplanting more nation-bound paradigms such as ethnic studies and post-colonialism. Thanks in part to the work of anthropologist Aihwa Ong, whose work is cited extensively here, Chinese transnationalism has become exemplary of this new paradigm, as a result of its long history of cross-border exchange, its worldwide reach, and its deep involvement in the forces of contemporary global capitalism.

A transnational framework allows this collection to explore the question of 'Chineseness' in comparative fashion, ranging across contexts from Hong Kong and Singapore to the Philippines and Canada. The collection also adopts an interdisciplinary approach. Its diverse offerings include a survey of Hokkien-Philippines migration by historian Edgar Wickberg, a reading of Chinese-Canadian restaurant menus by literary scholar Lily Cho, and an analysis of the films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai by comparatist Rey Chow. Such a multifaceted view, Ng and Holden argue, offers 'a way of talking about ethnicized communities without the essentializing terminology of race.' While Ng and Holden suggest 'the subject position of a Chinese Canadian has to be revised,' we may fairly ask whether categories such as 'Chinese Canadian' or 'Asian [End Page 430] American' will continue to have a role in transnational studies. The majority of the essays focus on members of Chinese-majority societies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or mainland China, deemphasizing the experiences of those who might have migrated to North America in previous generations. This perspective may be linked to the editors' own locations: Holden is an academic in Singapore, while Ng, upon her arrival in Canada from Hong Kong, 'saw the so-called Chinese culture evident in Canada as inauthentic' and 'held it against overseas Chinese people for their lack of cultural knowledge.'

Cho's engrossing essay on the small-town Chinese-Canadian restaurant is one of the few in the collection to address the tension between national and transnational paradigms head on. Finding in the menus of Alberta's Chinese restaurants a 'slow' temporality that both fixes and subverts ideas of what is 'Chinese' and 'Canadian,' Cho pointedly invites us to make connections between the 'old' diasporas of Chinese railway workers and the 'new' Chinese diasporas, identified with a metropolitan elite. In other essays, such connections are less obvious, with Chinese origins emphasized over local contexts. Laifong Leung argues that diasporic writing in languages other than Chinese ought to be studied as 'Chinese literature,' but calls the situation of Chinese North American writers 'less favorable' than that of writers still resident in Asia, who retain 'cultural ties with the ancestral land.' Wickberg, in his illuminating study of China-Philippines transnationalism, may be correct to assert that a label such as 'Chinese Filipino' is a nationalist one that 'privileges the Filipino.' But labels such as 'Philippine Chinese' arguably privilege China, as does the editors' description of pioneering lawyer Kew Dock Yip as a 'Vancouver-born Chinese' – contradicting Yip's own famous pronouncement, 'I am not Chinese, I am Canadian.'

It should be no surprise that the collection is most successful in its discussion of film, which is increasingly produced and consumed transnationally. Ang Lee, the Taiwan-born director who drew the cast for his blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from across the Chinese diaspora, is the subject of essays by Jennifer W. Jay and January Lim. Rey Chow's 'Sentimental Returns,' a reprint of a 2002 New Literary History article, offers a nuanced account of how film produces a Chineseness that is 'dis-placed,' 'dispersed,' 'anonymous,' and 'globally interchangeable.' Chow's sense of this strangely universalized Chineseness is echoed in essays by Mark Betz, who calls Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang simply 'The First Modernist,' and by Kristjana Gunnars, who finds...


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