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.

Skrupellose Asiaten

Spiegel online über die Übernahme der Dresdner Bank

Zum anderen haben die Chinesen nie auch nur andeutungsweise veröffentlicht, was genau sie denn mit der Dresdner Bank vorhaben, warum sie sie kaufen wollen. Eine solche Geheimnistuerei darf nicht belohnt werden. Und wie skrupellos Asiaten mit Zusagen umgehen, hat der Fall Siemens/BenQ unlängst bewiesen – auch wenn hier mit Taiwan Nationalchinesen verantwortlich waren.


Le Monde écrit

Cette dixième visite, en plein déroulement des Jeux olympiques de Pékin, coïncidant avec une nouvelle vague de répression massive au Tibet, est de loin la plus controversée. Les Chinois, qui accusent l’hôte de la France de vouloir saboter les Jeux, ont sommé Nicolas Sarkozy d’éviter ce “sécessionniste”. Malgré les critiques, le chef de l’Etat, qui préside l’Union européenne, a maintenu son voyage à Pékin pour l’ouverture des JO et fait savoir – après beaucoup d’atermoiements – qu’il ne recevrait pas le dalaï-lama à Paris, remettant à plus tard une éventuelle rencontre. Il s’est réjoui, dimanche, de l’accord intervenu la veille entre EDF et le groupe électricien chinois Guangdong Nuclear Power Group pour la construction de deux réacteurs EPR.

Dirty Work

Kristof, whom I do like, hasn’t thought this through. Let’s see if you can spot the mistake.

Normally, the Chinese government downplays security risks, but human rights groups argue persuasively that China is using concerns about Uighurs as an excuse to crack down on peaceful Uighur dissidents. After 9/11, China declared its own war on terror in Xinjiang, but Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented that this often has targeted Uighurs who are completely nonviolent.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has largely backed this Chinese version of the war on terror. Indeed, a Department of Justice report this month suggests that American troops softened up Uighur prisoners in Guantánamo Bay on behalf of visiting Chinese interrogators. The American troops starved the Uighurs and prevented them from sleeping, just before inviting in the Chinese interrogators.

That was disgraceful; we shouldn’t do China’s dirty work. It was one more example of the Bush administration allowing the war on terror to corrode our moral clarity.

We should encourage China to tolerate peaceful protesters even as it prosecutes terrorists. But instead of clarifying that distinction, in recent years we have helped China blur it. The risk of terrorism during the Olympics is real, but that shouldn’t force us to do violence to our principles.

Die vier Seiten der Medaille

Vernünftige Worte von Kulla zum Thema China, Tibet und die Olympiade.

So, wie es bisher aussieht, werde ich mich aus der Angelegenheit aber lieber raushalten, da ich ziemlich Gegenstandpunkt-mäßig keine Veranlassung sehe, mich hier in die Staatenkonkurrenz einzumischen. Weder mag ich mich vor den Karren von Leuten spannen lassen, die den Dalai Lama für zurechnungsfähig halten und China im Sound der französischen Regierung dazu auffordern, “die Gewalt gegen die Bevölkerung einzustellen” – Staatszweck, anyone? Noch halte ich die Selbstverständlichkeit dieses Staatszwecks für eine ausreichende Rechtfertigung jeglicher von den chinesischen Sicherheitsorganen praktizierter Schweinereien.

Dazu kommt, daß ich ehrlich unsicher bin, was genau eigentlich vorgefallen ist. Das spricht, entsprechend gewendet, auch wieder für beide Seiten, aus meiner Sicht eben für keine.

Mein einziger kläglicher Beitrag war das hier. Da sieht man mal wieder.

Die Gelbe Gefahr


Damian Hockney von der Londoner Stadtpolizei wird in der konservativen Zeitung “Daily Mirror” zitiert: “Solche Leute haben auf unseren Straßen nichts zu suchen. Wenn die Sicherheit eines solchen Umzugs nicht von britischen Kräften garantiert werden kann, sollte er besser gar nicht stattfinden. Wer hat diese Leute geprüft?” Sein Kollege Jenny Jones: “Ich würde gerne wissen, welchen Status sie haben und wie weit sie gehen würden. Sie sahen fies aus. Es war merkwürdig.”

Wie weit sie gehen würden? Hm. Unschuldige Leute auf Verdacht erschießen vielleicht? Ach nee, das wart ihr ja selbst.

How to consort with Communists

Excellent if sketchy post on PostGlobal on the striking difference in the way American government treats China and Cuba.

Economic liberalization will bring political liberation — as we’re constantly being told that it would be the case for China. Therefore, the U.S. has been trading with the Asian communist state as if there’s no tomorrow, achieving a record trade deficit of US$256 billion in 2007. However, we’re also told, this formula doesn’t apply to Cuba, another communist state.

If denying trade with Cuba is the way to press for positive changes on the island state, then denying trade with China should also be the way to press for positive changes in the mainland state. If trading with China is the way to open up the communist giant, then trading with Cuba should be the way to open up the small communist state.

Well, the China Exception somehow creeps in again, doesn’t it?

Intellectual honesty and policy consistency demands the lifting of the embargo against Cuba. After all, the embargo has failed to bring the downfall of Castro for decades. It’s time to try something different. If free trade with Cuba could bring progress to the people there, it may strengthen the case in China where free trade has, so far, failed to bring any magic.

Redeeming McCarthy or Look out! Communists!

Fine, if short, essay in the NY Times on a ridiculous new publication (it’s a good season for this, apparently, seeing as Jonah Goldhagen has published his book, too), “Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies” by M. Stanton Evans. Here’s an excerpt but read the whole essay, it’s worth it.

Part of Evans’s appeal is his boast to have unmasked the biases and distortions of previous McCarthy critics, this author included. He begins by describing a massive Russian spy operation in the United States, drawing his evidence from K.G.B. files as well as portions of the Venona project, a top-secret operation that traced Soviet intelligence traffic during World War II. Evans leaves the impression that he has uncovered fresh material, suspiciously overlooked until now. In fact, numerous scholars have used these documents to craft a thorough portrait of Communist espionage in Washington, though most believe that the worst of it was over by the late 1940s, when the F.B.I. began a crackdown on spying and a federal security program was put in place. If anything, they say, this evidence serves to reinforce the standard portrait of McCarthy as a bit player in the battle against Communist subversion, a latecomer who turned a vital crusade into a political mud bath.

Evans disagrees, claiming that the Communist problem was very much alive in 1950, when the senator first made his charges of treason in high places. […] Most important, Evans buys into the heart of the McCarthy conspiracy — the belief that leftist elements in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations created a foreign policy to advance the spread of world Communism.

How else could one explain the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe or the fall of Chiang Kai-shek to the army of Mao Zedong? “[…] McCarthy blamed the fall of China on “a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Evans not only endorses this conspiracy but actually expands it to include “the Eastern, internationalist faction” of the Republican Party, “with ties to Wall Street, large corporations, big Eastern media outlets and Ivy League establishment.” To Evans, the conspiracy passed from president to president — from Roosevelt and Truman to Eisenhower and even Nixon, a former McCarthyite, who “would fall off the teeter-totter, landing with Henry Kissinger in Red China, thereafter pushing on into the mists of détente with Moscow.”