Chineseness in Caribbean Cinema

• October 2014

I am writing a book on the Chinese Atlantic, a chapter of which concerns documentary films, including many that might be seen as constitutive of Chinese Caribbean cinema (works by Richard Fung, Natalie Wei, Rigoberto Lopez, Janette Kong, Jil Servant). In the course of that work, I have been thinking about what Chinese Caribbean cinema might be. Why articulate Chinese Caribbean cinema at this moment, and what work might such discursive ascriptions do?

Anne-Marie Lee-Loy recently pursued in sx salon what might seem like a similar question regarding Chinese Caribbean literature in English.1 But I would like to mark my departure from her line of inquiry, as useful as it might be. Lee-Loy initially seems to seek some sort of evidentiary claims in literary figurations of, and perhaps by, Chinese Caribbean people; but such an act, she rightly argues, is something of a red herring. Instead, she proposes to articulate a minor literature, following the elaboration of this term in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, through the enunciation of Chinese Caribbean literature. Notwithstanding this qualification, I am somewhat less interested in hitching an investigation of Chineseness to what Lee-Loy terms a “cultural identity”—even one understood not so much as a subject but as, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, “collective arrangements of utterance.”2

My desire to move in a somewhat different direction emerges both from my understanding of the transnational and of the particular medium of interest to me. In relation to the former point, my own work considers conceptual frameworks and flows of Chineseness that sometimes move through but also below and beyond Caribbean nationalisms. I follow Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih’s caution that Deleuze and Guattari’s writing on minor literature situates minor particularity vis-à-vis the dominant. Lionnet and Shih critique this formulation as “the minor’s literary and political significance rests on its critical function within and against the major in a binary and vertical relationship.” Lionnet and Shih instead advocate a “cultural transversalism [that] includes minor cultural articulations in productive relationship with the major (in all its possible shapes, forms, and kinds) as well as minor to minor networks that circumvent the major altogether.”3 This is a productive move, even if the lexicon of major and minor remains; these terms for Lionnet and Shih indicate shifting positionalities. Nevertheless, I am not completely convinced that it serves as the best model for Chineseness, since that term often signifies major and minor simultaneously, particularly in the Caribbean.4

Certainly postcolonial spaces highlight the mechanisms by which various agents and media continually refashion language in unexpected ways. Indeed, Frantz Fanon’s work on dress suggests semiotic systems in general are less stable in such contexts.5 But the invocation of Fanon is perhaps also productive because his later comments in A Dying Colonialism concerning the radio resonate with other dominant media that might be refigured through appropriation.6 Fanon’s thoughts on radio remind us specifically that the radio also produces a phenomenological engagement (he articulates the psychic fragmentation produced when folks tune in and out of different channels). Film is, of course, a medium of language and image, but it is also one that elicits visceral reactions. Following Linda Williams’s work on body genres, we might speculate not only on the ways gender configures through certain cinematic constructions of embodiment but also on the ways Chineseness might.7 To phrase this problem differently, I would ask again, What is Chinese Caribbean cinema and why think about it at this historical moment? Following, I briefly address these inquiries through three anglophone Chinese Caribbean films that serve to outline issues with which I am attempting to grapple in my larger project across different documentaries that might be grouped as Chinese Atlantic cinema.

One answer to my query of what and why now might emerge in relation to the particular visualization of Chinese in the Caribbean recently promoted by Hollywood in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Gore Verbinski, 2007). One of the costliest films, if not the most expensive film, ever made to date, it grossed an estimated $US 960 million. To put that number in a regional perspective, we could place that figure between the 2012 gross national product of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (which have served as locations for filming of the series) and that of Grenada. The use of the Caribbean picturesque has continued to direct the touristic eye to the tropics even as it has resulted in local appropriations of that framing, such as the sale of Jack Sparrow hats available in markets from Kingstown, St. Vincent, to Clifton, Union Island, and beyond. Perhaps such a film is not a bad place to begin, since it literally inverts the camera’s normative gaze. At least for a moment, the spectator is made to see differently. In the film’s diegetic and extradiegetic circulations, we see that piracy both subtends and interrupts economic zones.

The visual images of Chineseness primarily correlate, according to the diegetic logic, to Singapore (as imagined through the production design). Coolie hats, Asian martial arts (as a supplement to the series’ usual swordfights between its swashbuckling buccaneers), dragon tattoos, and queues are some of the signs that mark the Chineseness of an imagined Southeast Asia. And that zone of illicit traffic would seem to mark the outer sphere of the British Empire’s control. For the sake of space, let me just summarize the five points of interest to me about this film. First, the somewhat magical appearance of the characters, in locales ranging from Singapore to the Caribbean, visualizes an antipodal imaginary. This vision is of a vast network of seaways that can be crossed for the extradiegetic spectator in the blink of an eye. Save for the chinoiserie, the spaces in the film can be easily collapsed, suggesting an equivalence of maritime zones. Second, even as the nine pirate brethren hold a certain equivalency, the film nevertheless differentiates its two East Asian members: Sao Feng, supposed lord of the South China Sea, and Mistress Ching, who apparently controlled the Pacific. The filmmakers based the latter character on the pirate Zheng Shi, so the cinematic fantasy evokes historical movements of Chinese people. Chinese characters in the film simultaneously compete and cooperate. They gesture towards different assemblages of Chineseness that continually evolve. Third, despite the oceanic areas under their control, all the pirates form a renegade alliance opposing British imperial rule of sea. Put otherwise, they offer an alternative mode of governmentality to that of the British Empire. This oppositional coalition circumvents British admiralty law; in this regard the pirates actually uphold (in however silly a fashion) a kind of minor-major relationality but one that gestures to a far more complicated transnational nexus wherein multiple parties would constitute the dominant. This term, then, needs to be differentiated to account for competing systems of power that differently enable and occlude minor articulation. To give an example, Chinese pirates in the late nineteenth century might run afoul of the jurisdictions of the Qing dynasty or a number of different imperial powers. Fourth, the many shots of seafaring indicate the pleasures and perils of placing one’s body on a floating craft. In other words, the sea itself produces a corporeal experience that the film attempts to inculcate in its audience. And finally, to return to where I began this discussion of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the blockbuster film is itself a mode of production that enables the social reproduction of terms such as Caribbeanness and Chineseness in the service of generating massive financial returns. The film indexes an obscene (that is off screen) financescape in which Chinese flows within the Caribbean have more to do with economic circulation than human migration.

My next example also picks up flows of goods and currency in addition to human movement. Cheuk Kwan’s fifteen-part documentary Chinese Restaurants (2005) plays with the body genre of the cooking show. While the film’s span across fifteen locations around the globe may seem to exceed the utility of a rubric like Chinese Caribbean, I would suggest it is precisely the linking of ethnic foodways and globalization that makes the documentary relevant for this discussion. Perhaps the most ubiquitous sign of the Chinese diaspora is the Chinese restaurant. Cinematic visions often pair the phenomenon of Chinese cooking, frequently in the home, with people assumed to have some organic link with these practices. For example, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) remains one of the great epicurean features of Chinese screen cultures demonstrating the centrality of food preparation and consumption to both profession and personhood. Such ostensible Chinese connections follow logically from the etymological associations of the term diaspora itself. Denoting the scattering of seeds, diaspora literally conjures the roots that produce foodstuff. This sort of rooting has long spread through the routing facilitated by transnational commerce. This historical traffic, fusing diverse cultural traditions at different sites, in turn speaks to the kind of rhizomatic linkages of which Deleuze and Guattari speak.

Kwan’s fifth vignette concerns one of Trinidad’s major cities, San Fernando, and one of its hallmarks: Soong’s Great Wall Restaurant. The narration informs the spectator of Great Wall’s founding patriarch Maurice Soong, who migrated to Trinidad in 1948 (placing his arrival right before the communist victory in China). The film marvels at the roast duck prepared by “Chinese chefs imported from Maurice’s native village in China and barbequed in rotisserie imported from Miami.” Yet its narrative is punctuated, perhaps even overrun, by shots of the coastline, of steel pan, of carnival. Financed as what appears to be a vanity project for public distribution, the film engages a very different financescape than that accessed through Hollywood. Indeed, its genesis in a particular Chinese Canadian’s entrepreneurial skills would seem to mirror the small business owners that the film so lovingly and hungrily tracks.

The featured player, of course, is Chinese food, often understood as regional specialties adapted for a local market (in the larger documentary, these markets range from Brazil to Mauritius to Turkey). The film uses food to articulate sameness and difference across multiple locations. Insofar as homogeneity is produced, it is not so much through the narratives (for local conditions and kinship relations seem to structure each restaurateur’s experience) but through the narrator’s joyful practice of eating. The acts of food preparation and consumption are the film’s universalizing gestures that connect Chinese Caribbean cuisine to its overseas cousins.

A final brief example (this film only runs ten minutes) is a promotional video for the Dai Ailian Foundation by Janine Fung Film Media, a company based in Toronto since 1994 but affiliated with both the Toronto Arts Council and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company. Dai Ailian (1916–2006) is a pivotal figure in Chinese dance, having helped to bring the first ballets by a Chinese company to the stage and having played a very significant role in folk dance. A native of Trinidad, Dai left for England to continue her dance training, and in the late 1930s, she moved to China, after being inspired by journalist and sinophile Edgar Snow. If the previous two films feature ambivalent relationships to politics, here the film explicitly celebrates Dai’s work for the Chinese government during a career that spanned some of the most tumultuous moments in recent Chinese history. At one point in the film, she (at eighty-eight years of age) demonstrates steps from a folk dance. Like the other works I have discussed here, this Chinese Caribbean film also highlights an embodied experience, a kind of carnal cinema, which uses the visual and aural resources of the medium to create haptic communication for the spectator. But unlike the other examples, Dai indicates a state of dispossession. It is the “people’s dance,” she tells the viewers, when her interlocutor remarks on the beauty of the movement. To announce “the people’s dance” is, of course, a political move in itself. It dispossesses the dancer of her own agency at the same time it points toward some of the biopolitical management in which the Chinese government engages in relation to its minority (shaoshu minzu) populations—a dispossession of a different order.

Of course, the film and the foundation it celebrates emerged in the wake of an unprecedented flow of Chinese capital onto the island of Trinidad. The foundation itself offers scholarship opportunities for dancers to study in China. The construction of the two major performing arts centers on the island (in San Fernando and in Port of Spain) was financed by Chinese capital. And current talks encourage investment from China in a solar photovoltaic manufacturing park. Cultural and fiscal investments here are tightly bound together. And Chineseness emerges as at once an ethnic constituency and a figure of finance, as I have endeavored to show elsewhere in relation to different materials.8 But what is interesting in relation to the Dai piece is that it also invokes and smoothes over the political ruptures that her career might otherwise index. The government’s categorization of China’s ethnic minorities, the rights granted to those peoples, and the territorial annexations and cultural suppressions they have experienced remain occluded narratives.

As a constellation of films, I would suggest that the trio discussed here gives us a way to think through but also, most important, beyond the notions of minor literature and minor transnationalism. Considering these terms, I am thinking about how aesthetics and economics work through figures of Chineseness, creating new ways of apprehending globalization. In my larger work, I turn to seascapes as a way to examine new epistemologies that might help us connect various iterations of Chineseness in insular spaces by telescoping between past and present. But my brief comments here illuminate how three films enable us to see the vicissitudes of Chineseness, drawing attention to different assemblages of Chineseness across an antipodal imaginary. These works evoke competing forms of governmentality experienced through discourse but also phenomenology. The kinds of movements they show us—seafaring, foodways, or dance—highlight different but also interrelated aspects of Chineseness and how that term accrues meaning as it circulates in and through the Caribbean.

 

Sean Metzger is an associate professor in the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. He is the author of Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race (2014). His coedited volumes include Embodying Asian/American Sexualities (2009); Futures of Chinese Cinema: Technologies and Temporalities in Chinese Screen Cultures (2009); and special issues of Cultural Dynamics (2009) and Third Text (2014).
 


1 See Anne-Marie Lee-Loy. “Identifying a Chinese Caribbean Literature: Pitfalls and Possibilities,” sx salon 15 (February 2014).

2 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “What Is a Minor Literature?,” Mississippi Review 11, no. 3 (1983), 18. Dana Polan translates this phrase as “collective assemblages of enunciation”; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 18.

3 Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, “Introduction: Thinking Through the Minor Transnationally,” in Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, eds., Minor Transnationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 2, 8.

4 To pursue Lee-Loy’s citation of Deleuze and Guattari, in this context, it might be useful to return to their own curious statements about cinema in relation to “What Is a Minor Literature?”

5 My first book draws on Fanon’s writings to address clothing as a productive surface in relation to a Sino/American interface. See Sean Metzger, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

6 See Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, trans. Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove, 1965).

7 Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1991): 2–13.

8 Sean Metzger, “Incorporating: Chineseness in Chen’s Trinidad,” Global South 6, no. 1 (2012): 98–113.


 

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