Song of the Exile
The politics of "home"

by Chua Siew Keng

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 90-93
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

"Home for the exile in a secular and contingent world is always provisional." — Trinh T. Minh-ha (1994)

First, let me locate the moment of my first viewing of Ann Hui's 1990 film. SONG OF THE EXILE. It was 1991 and I was visiting in Singapore — in my mother's house — as an "exile" living overseas who had temporarily returned to the homeland, to the mother('s) land. So the questions which the film raises of home and exile have a special poignancy for me, a certain resonance in my reading of the film. Today as I review SONG OF THE EXILE to write this paper, I have returned to living and working in Singapore. This paper attempts to locate "home" and "exile" within the film's discourse while also locating the film itself within the discourse of "home" and "exile."

To be an exile entails dislocation from a certain space and relocation in an/other space. That first space, then, can be (de)constructed as Home and the second as the Other space. The exile lives in an/other space whose alterity poignantly stands out, as she compares the other space to the first, originary space. That is, the exiled journeys either physically or mentally every so often to that first space while living in the alternate, other space. In addition, being an exile is about crossing borders or about living and being located in the interstices between cultural and other boundaries. Exile draws on a marginal space not uncommon to women's experience.

SONG OF THE EXILE makes an explicit parallel between the space of women's experience and the space of cultural marginality. The film speaks of the pain women encounter as "exiles" in spaces relegated to them in domestic homes, especially when the conjugal home of a patrilocal marriage becomes a space of exile for the daughter-in-law. In Chinese marriage in particular, the married woman often does not adopt the name of the family she marries into, a custom still practiced today in both overseas Chinese societies and in mainland China. Traditionally, this practice indicates that the new family considers her an outsider, though the practice today is also retained by women who consciously wish to signal an identity independent from that of their husband.

The exiled subject, then, not only feels a sense of exclusion and marginality in this space-other-than-home, but she also perceives and constructs the otherness of this space where s/he is presently located. She is an Other in a physical space which she also mentally constructs as an Other. In other words, the exile constructs the exiled space as other than home, a space where she feels excluded and estranged, and these feelings are enhanced by this act of her construction.

At the same time, the journey hack to the first space, the originary place, cannot fully recover "home." "Home" is indelibly altered by the exile's or the wife's living in an alternate/alternative space. Such are the kinds of concerns that SONG OF THE EXILE deals with in the light of the diasporic scattering in the imminence of Hong Kong's "return" to the "homeland" in July 1997.

This film interweaves national concerns, issues of crossing cultural borders, and the marginality which marks women's spaces. In the film, events are seen through the consciousness of the central character Hueying, the daughter of a Cantonese father and a Japanese mother, as Hueying returns to Hong Kong after years of living in England. Indeed, the film begins in the space of the British colonial motherland before locating subsequent events in Hong Kong, Guandong, Macau, Japan, and back to Hong Kong.

In a flashback, the teenage Hueying leaves the parental home in Hong Kong to live in a boarding school. The father remains in China's shadow and the mother in Japan's. The film, through its plot and characterization, explores the relation of these two hegemonic cultural centers to Hong Kong, especially as the narrative interrogates the consciousness of the child, Hueying, as a product of her parents' crossing the two cultures' borders. Most acutely, the Japanese mother, Aiko, has the identity of a colonized subject in Macau, where she moved as a young bride and raised the infant Hueying.

In its flashbacks, the film particularly presents events from the position of the mother, Aiko, in those years. In this way, SONG OF THE EXILE resonates with the sentiments of the 3rd Century BC Chinese poet, Tsai Yen's poem, "18 Verses Sung to a Tartar Reed Whistle,"[1][open notes in new window] since Tsai Yen's situation in many ways mirrors Aiko's situation; the Chinese poet bore two sons to a Tartar chieftain — Aiko, two daughters to a Chinese man. In her poem, Tsai Yen laments being a double exile. Throughout history, Chinese women who assume the fate of a daughter-in-law have had the experience of being an exile in their conjugal home — a space in which they are "foreigners" in a web of patrilocal and patriarchal relations. In the case of both Aiko and Tsai Yen, being foreign wives makes them doubly exiled.

SONG OF THE EXILE foregrounds the narrator's Japanese mother's sense of such exile within a traditional Chinese marriage. When she is living with her husband's family soon after World War 2, Aiko understands her situation as doubly "foreign" — as both a daughter-in-law in a traditional Chinese family in her conjugal home and as a Japanese. Although Aiko has long spoken of her suffering to her child-daughter, it is a pain which Hueying as a little child notes but cannot understand till years later. The film's narrative traces the daughter Heuying's odyssey in understanding both this sense of her mother's exile and that of her own, different kind of exile on her return to her home/land after graduating from film school in England.

Everywhere she shuttles to, Aiko finds herself marginalized, just as she was exiled from home (Japan) in the culturally Chinese Macau and Hong Kong. Yet she also feels alienated when she returns "home" to Japan in the 1970s. Thus, in returning "home" again she becomes doubly exiled since her trip to visit her family does not turn out as she had envisaged. At first she is pleased to be in her native Japan with friends and family, but later she finds that the (Japanese) food is too cold, her younger brother still considers her a traitor and an enemy, and her former lover has grown old and unsavory. (Throughout the film there are cultural markers of difference between Chinese and Japanese cultures — such as food, clothing, toiletries, domestic/ feminine markers)

"But every place she went
they pushed her to the other side
and that other side pushed her to the other side
of the other side
of the other side
Kept in the shadows of other."
— Gloria Anzaldua (quoted in Trinh, 14)

"Walking on masterless and ownerless land is living always anew with the exile's condition; which is here not quite an imposition nor a choice, but a necessity. You'll learn that in this house it's hard to be a stranger. You'll also learn that it's not easy to stop being one. If you miss your country, every day you'll find more reasons to miss it. But if you manage to forget it and begin to love your new place, you'll be sent home, and then, uprooted once more, you'll begin a new exile."
— Maurice Blanchot (quoted in Trinh, 26)

At the same time that Aiko and Hueying visit Japan, Hueying's Chinese grandparents must deal with their own suffering within their homeland, the China to which they have returned for idealistic reasons. Despite his efforts to help in the revolution, the grandfather himself has been tortured by the Red Guards. Hueying goes to visit him after her trip to Japan and finds the grandfather lying sick and dying. Yet he still advises his granddaughter that he has hope for China since the younger generation, including Hueying, can and should help to build that country's future.

As SONG OF THE EXILE narrates the domestic tyrannies, conflicts, loves and shared sufferings of a cross-cultural Chinese family, we see that all the family members bear some sense of exile. The film privileges the mother-daughter relation. Both women live as cultural exiles possessing cross-cultural/ cross-ethnic identities. The film's narrative is constructed in such a way that their identities are never fixed but always in a state of flux. We see their process of constructing personal identity as continual. The questions, then, "Whose home?" and "Whose country?" take on the mantle of "Where is home?" and "Which space is the 'exiled' space?" As Stuart Hall summarizes this process of exile consciousness,

"The notion of an identity that knows where it came from, where home is, but also lives in the symbolic...knows you really can't go home again" (Hall, 11).


An immensely compassionate film, SONG OF THE EXILE looks at how an exiled person's cultural identity becomes constructed differently from that acquired in the homeland of birth or extraction. The film takes an ethnographic look at how identification also entails or is shaped by a process of acculturation. Within the film, the narrator, Hueying, takes the role of both subject and ethnographer.

Hueying returns to Hong Kong after graduating with a MA in television and film studies in England to attend the wedding of her younger sister, Huewei. The film, set in the early 70s, deals primarily with Hueying's relationship with her Japanese mother, Aiko, with whom she had been estranged since she was a little girl. Hueying's father had met Aiko in Manchuria when he was a Chinese soldier in the Second World War. Aiko, on account of an unrequited love, had followed her brother to Manchuria just before the war when Japan had invaded China. When Hue's father asked Aiko to marry him, she forsook her homeland to live first with her parents-in-law in Macau and then followed her husband to Hong Kong, leaving Hueying behind with the child's beloved grandparents since the little girl had refused to go with her. The child-daughter becomes the site of contestation of generational conflict and also the site of contestation of cultures — paternal Chinese versus maternal Japanese culture.

The film explores the politics of difference among the film's three major female characters — representing three generations — who all have contesting feminine boundaries and bonds. The film depicts Hue's grandmother as a traditional chauvinist Chinese mother-in-law who polices patriarchal loyalties in the conjugal home. While living in the in-laws' Chinese household, Hueying's mother, the Japanese outsider, suffers in silence while playing the role of the traditional daughter-in-law until her resentment brews against her own daughter, Hueying. In her own consciousness, Aiko clearly identifies the causes of her victimization, but she cannot articulate them as such until she leaves the conjugal home. In contrast, Hueying, the granddaughter and daughter respectively, is blinded by the paternal grandparents' very real, indulgent love toward her. For this reason, Hueying estranges herself from her mother until awakened by her own experience of alienation in a foreign culture.

Hueying's problem is to negotiate (her way) home. She must face the problem of whether "home" is the China of her grandfather or Hong Kong, the acculturated land of her mother. Certainly her trip to Japan, to her mother's former girlhood home, has taught her that her mother's old home could never be her new one. At the film's end, her own re-acculturation in Hong Kong after her English sojourn has made her once more "at home" in Hong Kong.

Neither the paternal nor maternal land represents home for Hueying. Finally and ironically for her, since Hong Kong lies at the interstices of these two spaces, it is the space of exile yet a space where the exile can feel at home. The film constantly conveys a sense of Hong Kong as the land of the exile. In the end both mother and daughter can find cultural shelter within this terrain, a place where both China and Japan's cultural shadows fall, yet also a place where the exile can live in the lit spaces between these shadows.

The film, through Hueying's consciousness, charts the diasporic history of alienation, exile, acculturation, return to the originary homeland, and final acceptance of the "other" space — if not quite "home," still a space where she now feels more "at home." Through visiting Japan with her mother, the daughter reaches a new understanding of the alienation which Aiko had experienced so acutely in earlier years, as she had to adjust to a different culture and society whose members would not forgive her for what her national (Japanese) homeland had inflicted upon a colonized part of China.

The mother's frustrations are laid upon the daughter. But it is the mother's resentment of her own daughter's patriarchal loyalties — to her paternal grandparents and her father — that shocks the daughter into a sense of compassion for the mother's alienation and suffering. On the other hand, it is the daughter's compassion that in turn (re)moves her mother from bitterness into a state of conciliation, forgiveness and eventual affection for her daughter. From a feminist perspective, then, SONG OF THE EXILE articulates the allegory of "home" as the recovered space of the originary, loving bond between mothers and daughters. The film's narrative constructs Aiko as a "strong" mother whose limits of hate (or love) and resentment (or forgiveness) can be tested. And the lesson the daughter, Hueying, learns through understanding her mother's plight is compassion. In fact, compassion is the quality which the heroines of other Ann Hui's films (such as THE BOAT PEOPLE and STARRY IS THE NIGHT) also attain in the course of their personal journeys.

Hueying has to renegotiate her relation with her mother through a clearer understanding of her own complicity (albeit that of a child and innocent youth) with the paternal grandparents' patriarchal chauvinism, a complicity made more complex by her own father's humanitarianism and her grandparents' indulgent affection for her. In other words, Hueying has to renegotiate her way home, where "home" is neither a physical nor a cultural space, but more a psycho-political one which delimits the mother-daughter bond on the microcosmic level and the daughter's grasp of one's mother-culture on the social level. The film, issuing so strongly from the filmmaker's own autobiographical experience, forces the viewer to rethink notions of what it is to "be at home" in a culture and to redefine notions of cultural loyalty, betrayal and respect in ways that do not privilege the experience of men.

SONG OF THE EXILE is especially poignant in contemporary times. The condition of being an exile has become more pervasive in the face of globalization, as many more people travel to a space other than the originary home to live, work or study. Many will also return "home" and find in this home-space the terrain of exile. At the same lime, each exiled subject perceives her condition to be different since there are many different conditions of exile. For myself, in (re)viewing this film, I have come to realize that the exiled space is fraught with the difficulties of alienation and difference yet bears the promise of creative challenges.

And though the exiled cannot fully recover "home," s/he cannot leave home (alone) either. "Home" is not just a set of discursive formations and practices but also a nexus of affective ones. What comes through strongly in the film, because of both its autobiographical and cultural resonances, is that the exile feels a sense of sadness in losing the originary home, but also a sense of loss (therefore, melancholy, too) in returning to the originary "home." Thus the discourse/nexus of "home" constructs the subject's "exile." "Home" only signifies when played against "exile" and vice versa.


1. Rexroth, Kenneth and Chung Ling (1972), The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China, pp. 3-5. The following verses from Tsai Yen's poem (3rd Century BC) articulate both the poet's anguish at her exile and her return to her homeland:

Verse 11

My Tartar husband loved me. I bore him two sons.
I reared and nurtured them unashamed
Sorry only that they grew up in a desert outpost.

Verse 13

I never believed that in my broken life
The day would come when
Suddenly I could return home.
I embrace and caress my Tartar sons.
Tears wet our clothes.

Verse 17, seventeenth stanza

My heart aches, my tears fall.
Mountain passes rise before us,
the way is hard.

Before I missed my homeland
So much my heart was disordered.

Now I think again and again, over and over,
Of the sons I have lost.
The yellow sagebrush of the border,
The bare branches and dry leaves,
Desert battlefields, white bones...
Once I have entered Chang An.
I try to strangle my sobs
But my tears stream down my face.


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