Christine Su-Chen Lim: Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora

Lim, Christine Suchen (2005), Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora, Long River Press
ISBN 1-59265-043-0

The phrase ‘Hua Song’ means ‘in praise of the Chinese community’, the book claims. This well describes the intent and basic thrust of Christine Suchen Lim’s book (or Su-chen Christine Lim), which is wonderful and disappointing at the same time. The book is a large C-format paperback, with 264 thick, multicolor pages containing countless photographs and illustrations. In fact, these are the main reason to buy Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora. The texts are short burst of information, of brief biographies of particularly remarkable individuals of the Chinese community throughout the past centuries. Among the little text that is provided in the first place, more than half consists of long quotes from historical accounts that, in turn, quote witnesses, letters, speeches and poems. Lim provides the order and the basic historical narrative, but her voice blends into the background so that the voices of Chinese immigrants and of eyewitnesses to the development of the Chinese diaspora function like subtitles to the photographs. We as readers are invited to acquire a feeling for these events, for these people, for their hardships and the resilient spirit that made them overcome these hardships.

The brevity of the text and the intent stated in the title, which is to praise the Chinese community also means that the book is intensely affirmative. It asks for your feeling, not so much for your brain. Any questions you might have, any questioning of the dull “if you want something badly enough, you’ll achieve it”-toss, the resilient spirit fairy tales, any question about how many people were left by the wayside, died of poverty and of similar, decidedly harsh causes, run into a nicely decorated wall here. Questions like these miss the point of this celebratory book yet the sheer expanse of the book’s historical narrative invites these questions all the time, which can make for a frustrating reading experience. As with some novels or movies, it is best to completely suspend disbelief or further questions in order to enjoy what is actually offered here, the warmth of Lim’s vision, the gritty, grainy, blown-up images of Chinese immigrants in the American Wild West, in the streets of Saigon, Vietnam, shops in Milan, Italy and Paris, France, a vision, that ends with a few high profile contemporary members of the Chinese diaspora, such as the French-born Yo-Yo Ma.

So, this is not a work of fiction, but neither is it a proper work of non-fiction. Its refusal to answer any questions makes it into an meditation, generously loaded with information, on the genesis and development of the Chinese diaspora, focusing on some Asian countries, the United States and Australia, with a few nods to other countries in between. It creates a sense of how that process worked rather than a historiographically sound account of it. A section in the back lists all the sources to the quotes littering the book but at no point are we availed a peek into Lim’s use of sources, into the availability of reliable sources on what clearly used to be a divisive topic at the time, which Lim emphasizes by repeatedly reminding us of the enormous amounts of racist discrimination and hate heaped upon the Chinese immigrants. The focus of the book is on these issues, on the relationships between the Chinese communities and the non-Chinese, the focus is external, not ever internal, there is almost no internal differentiation to speak of, which, again, is due to the basic thrust of the book.

Inasmuch as external relations are concerned, the book does does not make the mistake of creating the image of a Chinese diaspora, eternally linked to a Chinese homeland and intrinsically different from their neighbors. On the contrary. Lim’s narrative is clearly straining to depict the Chinese diasporic communities as trying to fit in, as identifying with their new home countries rather than their country of origin. This is in clear contrast to such cultural stories as HBO’s Deadwood, a TV show about a gold-miner’s town in the Dakota Territories, with Chinese characters clearly marked as ‘other’, beyond even language, let alone culture. The only links established there appear to be between criminal frontiersmen and the local tong. Lim concentrates rather on Chinese immigrants as gold-diggers, as toilers in river-beds, beside or behind their white neighbors. Lim concentrates upon successful communication, upon mixing of cultures and languages, rather than upon the difference between these Chinese communities and the ‘native’ cultures.

However, she doesn’t keep silent about the xenophobic or nationalist movements that have repeatedly pushed Chinese communities out into the periphery of countries where they thought to belong, to be successfully established. Lim’s story, with its photographs of ethnically Chinese men and women, is clearly written against a backdrop of racism, of essentialising nationalist narratives. Lim may be focusing upon mixing and acceptance, but the very project of the book blends this endeavor with a reminder of cultural origins. Becoming part of a society does not mean blending into the established culture and color. As Paul Gilroy has shown in The Black Atlantic, ethnic groups who are integrated into a society change the society by doing so, and despite his speaking out, in this book but especially in a later book called Against Race, against pan-African nationalism among African Americans, for example, his work is a reminder that integration changes identities and not just those of the ones who are integrated. It is a reminder to those who, from a basic feeling of entitlement, wish to scream accusations of racism back at the victims of institutionalized racism, of the structuring of their national narratives and how they create historical facts and about groups within those narratives that are unifying rather than submissive.

Gilroy’s trope for this is the eponymous Black Atlantic, since he shows, among other things, that blacks were not just the passive objects of transatlantic shipping, they actively participated in it, as well as in important political processes. Lim does something eminently similar in her book, although in a much less concise and much less well argued fashion. She presents the reader with little more than a suggestion, leaving it to him to fill in blanks. She also leaves him with a vivid image of people on the edge of important historic developments. The pictures and the voices quoted throughout the book are worth the price of the book alone. It isn’t Lim the writer who shines here. Lim as a writer is as frustrating as she’s illuminating. But Lim, the editor, can regard this book as a great success. I will most certainly return again and again to this book, just to indulge in the visual riches it offers.

Unless, that is, it doesn’t completely fall apart first. I don’t, as a rule, comment upon binding of books, but I will spare a few words for it here. I am a careful reader of books yet this one, before I even finished reading it, came apart in my hands. After having read roughly half of it, the cover was the first to part company with the book it was meant to envelop and shelter from dirt. Various other pages have since indicated their intention to do something comparable. This is unacceptable and although I want to recommend this book very much, I cannot do so since this kind of shoddy quality should not be rewarded. If you find the book done in hardcover or by a different publisher, by all means, go for it, it’s certainly worth your while, but do evade the paperback version I read (see biblio info above), published by Long River Press.