Decentering the Middle Kingdom
page 2

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 122-134
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006


1. In this essay, I follow Tripmaster Monkey's lead and omit the hyphen from "Chinese American" and "Asian American." (For further discussion of the implications of this decision, see the sidebar to my article, "In Search of Asian American Cinema.") The Woman Warrior was published in 1975. Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey was published fourteen years later, in 1989. In the later book, Kingston's protagonist takes great pains to oppose the hyphenated "Chinese-American":

"When I hear you call yourselves 'Chinese,' I take you to mean American-understood, but too lazy to say it. You do mean 'Chinese' as short for 'Chinese-American,' don't you? We mustn't call ourselves 'Chinese' among those who are ready to send us back to where they think we came from. But 'Chinese-American' takes too 1ong. Nobody says or hears past the first part. And 'Chinese-American' is inaccurate — as if we could have two countries. We need to take the hyphen out — 'Chinese American.' 'American,' the noun, and 'Chinese,' the adjective. From now on: 'Chinese Americans.' However. Not okay yet. 'Chinese hyphen American' sounds exactly the same as 'Chinese no hyphen American.' No revolution takes place in the mouth or in the ear" (327).

2. This article is part of a book-length manuscript on Asian American filmmakers which will be published by Duke University Press. Portions of this article were presented at the 1994 Ohio University Film Conference in Athens and the 1995 Society for Cinema Studies Conference in New York, where it received valuable critique from those in attendance. Finally, I am indebted to Julia Lesage and Gina Marchetti for shepherding this essay to publication.

3. The land of a parent's birth-riot of both parents' birth. In Richard Fung's case, his mother was three generations out of China while his father was horn there. Felicia Lowe visits her father's family, and Lisa Hsia visits her mother's cousins.

4. In other words, the metaphoric filter that I am describing is not a membrane or a mesh but rather a photographer's filter, more akin to a polarized cap on the camera's lens. The goal of this filter is not to remove an element from solution but to mask aspects of the object being photographed for analysis. This filter does not directly affect the constitution of the object, but merely its appearance.

5. Literary examples of generationa1 conflict among Chinese Americans include C.Y. Lee's The Flower Drum Song (1957), Louis Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961), and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (1989). Cinematic examples include Ang Lee's THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993) and Chinese Canadian Mina Shum's DOUBLE HAPPINESS (1995), not to mention the film adaptations of the three novels cited above.

6. There have always been competing conceptions of Chinese American identity: Ling-chi Wang discusses the inadequacy of the two dominant paradigms, "assimilation (to the U.S.)" and "loyalty (to China)," in "The Structure of Dual Domination." The "loyalty" paradigm represents China's definition of diasporic Chinese as "overseas Chinese." (See Aihwa Ong's "Chinese Modernities" for a discussion of the discursive role "overseas Chinese" play in the economic development of the People's Republic of China.) Yet diasporic Chinese have often emphasized the fluidity of their national identities (see Ong's "On the Edge of Empires"). For a study of how Chinese Americans have defined their identity in transnational terms, see Arif Dirlik's "Asians on the Rim" and Joe Chung Fong's "Trans-nationalized Newspapers."

Discourses concerning "overseas Chinese" are most often deployed in the context of transnational capital. "Overseas Chinese" are economic resources, either as markets for Chinese goods or investors in China's economy. As such, the notion of "overseas Chinese" is applicable to certain diasporic narratives and not others; e.g., concern with China's human-rights record motivates the flexible citizenships that Ong describes ("On the Edge of Empires"). These "astronauts'" concern for political and economic freedom sets them apart from Chinese nationals who return to China with expertise gleaned from study at foreign universities. Transnational identities are therefore a subset of the subjectivities produced by the diasporic migration of Chinese. This essay contributes only indirectly to an understanding of transnational subjectivities. Rather, I emphasize how discourses about China have shaped Chinese American subjectivities.

7. Renee Tajima, in noting the historical significance of CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER, calls Lowe's film "an anecdote to the Sinophile frenzy that followed normalization" (23); perhaps Tajima meant "antidote" as well.

8. An additiona1 consequence of the Communist Revolution is to underline that Chinese Americans who trace their ancestry back to pre-1949 China cannot go home again, for the People's Republic of China is a different nation (Thomas Wolfe's famous observation at a further remove).

9. Fung's Queer videos include ORIENTATIONS (1985), a documentary about Asian Canadian gays and lesbians, FIGHTING CHANCE (1990), about the impact of AIDS on that community, CHINESE CHARACTERS (1986), about Asian Canadians who watch gay male pornography, and DIRTY LAUNDRY (1996), an exploration of friendships and sexual attachments among the Chinese Canadian "bachelor community" that built the transcontinental railroad.

10. I speculate that there are purely practica1 reasons for these different cinematic registers and modes. Judging from the growth of the boys' and Hsia's facility with the Chinese language, it seems fairly clear that the 8mm footage dates from early in Hsia's stay. The 16mm footage includes a visit from Hsia's parents and the distribution of gifts from the States, and so I think it is 1ikely that a film crew on one or more occasions accompanied Hsia and/or her mother from the States to China, late in Hsia's visit. The 16mm footage also documents Hsia's departure from China, which might suggest that the gift-giving was part of a follow-up visit after Hsia's studies in Beijing had ended. Finally, the animated footage surely depicts events at which cameras were not present, events of a different pro-filmic order than footage of Hsia with her family, which, despite the vérité presentation, was "staged" or at 1east "planned."

11. Of course, animated footage is radically different from the indexicality of vérité and even direct address. The deliberate artifice of animation highlights the paradox of the insider/outsider axis. The animated footage shows us private spaces where cameras did not have access. Yet it stylizes those spaces in such a way that they cannot make claims to represent truth objectively.

12. These movies invite us to understand them as direct authoria1 expressions, and voice overs abet this process. However, I have endeavored to keep film/videomaker and movie distinct. Thus, when I refer to the film/videomaker (as in, "Fung tells us…") I am describing a voice over or other inscription of the film/videomaker's subjectivity. But when I refer to the movie itself (as in, "MADE IN CHINA narrates…") I am describing a textual operation in the movie, without attributing any authoria1 intentionality to the movie's rhetoric.

For more on the autobiographical mode and nonfiction cinema, see Jim Lane's "Notes on Theory and the Autobiographical Documentary Film in America." Albert Stone's Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts remains the touchstone for any investigation into U.S. autobiography, and Laura Marcus' Auto/biographical Discourses usefully discusses the use of autobiographical modes in discourses that are not strictly speaking autobiographical.

13. Note the sentimentality of this account, which de-emphasizes the role played by material factors such as economic discrimination and restricted opportunities for employment in determining settlement patterns.

14. The mid-1990s has witnessed the emergence of a pop-culture narrative about the evolution of documentary conventions. This can be seen in the plethora of articles in the mainstream press about the Oscars and the nomination process for documentaries. I'm thinking of numerous articles and editorials by popular film critics about the shut-out of critically acclaimed documentaries like THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988), ROGER AND ME (1989), and preeminently HOOP DREAMS (1994).

15. Roland Barthes claims that al1 photographs are "posed" in that the act of capturing a moment in time makes a "pose" of motion, whereas cinema does not record poses but time's passing. See Camera Lucida, section 33, pp. 78-80.

16. In the terms suggested by Lowe's analysis of space in "Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity," the image track attempts to construct China as a discrete space, but the voice over re-inscribes white tourists and thus reminds of the permeability of the Chinese border.

17. This argument holds true for home movies, which function differently from family portraits. For example, an old family portrait of Hsia's father's family functions in much the same way as the photo albums in Lowe's CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER. The differing traditions of still photography (portraiture) and home movies account (in part) for this distinction in function.

18. Indeed, "When I'm Sixty-Four" harkens back to an early period of the English music hall and is therefore doubly nostalgic.

19. Students of documentary filmmaking immediately recognize that the footage of the adult Hsia on her bicycle is staged for the camera and later matched to the animation, further highlighting the temporal disjunction of the narrative.

20. See my essay, "Being Chinese American, Becoming Asian American: CHAN IS MISSING," for an extended discussion on the relation of process to hyphenate identities and on how film texts can destabilize states of "being" to promote the process of "becoming."

21. See Altman, "Moving Lips."


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