Writing the South Seas

Introduction
by Philip Holden

Research work on Singapore Literature is increasingly exploring connections across languages and national borders, rather than within a single English-language literary tradition. A new generation of scholars such as E.K. Tan, Weihsin Gui, Joanne Leow, Cheryl Naruse, Angelia Poon, and Nazry Bahrawi has made a series of important interventions in the last years, introducing new topics of critical cosmopolitanism and border-crossing. Literature from Singapore, Malaysia, and the surrounding region has often been seen as peripheral to larger literary and indeed civilizational concerns. Singapore writing in English, for instance, has traditionally been viewed as a minor Anglophone postcolonial literature, while writing from Singapore and Malaysia in Chinese has either been absorbed into the literature of greater China, or pictured as part of an exotic periphery. Much contemporary scholarship work on world literatures, however, has emphasized how questions of translation and border-crossing are central to the very notion of what literature is, or might be: viewed through this lens, the literatures of Singapore and the region surrounding gain new prominence.

Brian Bernards’ recent study Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature, is very much part of this intellectual movement. An assistant professor at the University of Southern California, Bernards works in three languages – English, Chinese, and Thai—and his book thus gives a revisionary perspective on the literatures of the region, and indeed the way in which we imagine Southeast Asia itself. Philip Holden from the National University of Singapore recently conducted an email interview with Bernards on the occasion of the publication of a Southeast Asian edition of his book by NUS Press.

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PH. As someone who has been studying auto/biography, I’m always interested in the life stories of scholars. What drew you to study Chinese and Thai? And what fostered your interest in the literatures of Southeast Asia?

BB. When I was 9 years old, a family from Shanghai (a father, mother, and their 2-year-old daughter) moved in with my family at our home in Minneapolis. The father was studying engineering at the University of Minnesota, and the mother, who later went on to study accounting, became our live-in babysitter. On occasion, our two families had meals together, and the boiled dumplings (shui jiao) our sitter cooked became quickly my new favorite dish. Our good friends from Shanghai lived with us for about two years, when the father graduated and found a plush job in Milwaukee. Starting high school about three years later in 1992, I opted to take Mandarin because of my prior exposure to Chinese culture (and cuisine!). I first traveled to mainland China in 1998, where I studied for a year at Sichuan University in Chengdu. My language professor recommended Chengdu because she had done research there, she knew I wanted to tread beyond the typical path of studying in Beijing, Shanghai, or Taipei, and, most importantly, she knew I would like the spicy ma-la food there. Living and attending school in Chengdu certainly opened my eyes, and my taste buds, to new experiences, flavors, and possibilities.

While living in Chengdu, I became good friends with an Australian classmate. Like many Australians, he was a seasoned traveler in Asia, and like most Americans, I was not. His school year ended in the northern hemisphere’s winter, so he planned to return to Melbourne via Thailand precisely when I had a one-month Lunar New Year/Spring Festival break. He invited me to accompany him on an overland trek (by bus, train, and songthaew) to Yunnan, Laos, and Thailand. This gave me the opportunity to also visit a Thai friend, a fellow camp counselor from a Minnesota summer camp I had worked at the previous year who was working as a tour activity planner at a resort in Phuket. The trip was amazing: we went to Kunming and Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna) in Yunnan, Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane in Laos, and Nong Khai, Bangkok, and Phuket in Thailand. The wide variation of landscapes, cultures, and cuisines in the region intrigued me. I was mesmerized by all the Buddhist temples and their intricate interior murals, although my narrow knowledge of Buddhism at that time came from the predominantly male-centric perspectives of Western literature, namely Herman Hesse, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder (I admit I was a latter-day beatnik). The year in China and the trip to Southeast Asia had such a profound influence on me that, when I returned to the US, I transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle and switched my major from journalism to Chinese and Southeast Asian studies. I also began serious study of Thai and continued with Mandarin.

PH. Given your exposure to different disciplines, what are your thoughts on inter-disciplinary studies?

BB. I have always enjoyed literature (especially fiction and poetry), music, and film. As a student and traveler, I felt I could better connect with a place, a culture, a society, and its history through the very personal stories and creative imagination conveyed in fiction and memoirs by authors who were from or who were very familiar with that society. While Southeast Asian studies in the US is largely a social science-oriented field, I was fortunate to take history and anthropology classes as an undergraduate from professors who, rather than assigning dry textbook readings, assigned novels by authors such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer, José Rizal, Duong Thu Huong, Ma Ma Lay, and Kukrit Pramoj, to be read in conjunction with course lectures. I was very inspired by this approach to history and cultural studies, not only because it put the human impact of historical events and social transformations in relatable narratives rather than abstract figures, but also because the micro-histories we encountered in such literary narratives often challenged or even contradicted the standard interpretations and “big picture” perspectives taken for granted in the official histories. I am grateful to my teachers for cultivating the approach that would stick with me as I moved forward into graduate studies.

PH. What was the process of writing Writing the South Seas like?

BB. Writing the South Seas began as a way of combining my interests and background knowledge in modern Chinese literature, Southeast Asian studies, and postcolonial literary theory in an attempt to make a novel contribution, and hopefully a type of critical intervention, in each field. I felt the varying approaches from these different fields could be mutually illuminating in ways that the disciplines had yet to sufficiently consider. Mainly, I sought to bring a Southeast Asia-centered perspective to the study of literatures in Chinese on and from the region. Luckily, I conceived the project at the time that Sinophone studies was emerging and bringing about a sea-change in the modern Chinese literary field. Sinophone studies not only emphasizes cultural networks across national and ethnic boundaries, but also seeks to situate such networks locally in their multilingual milieu. In this sense, my interests in Anglophone literature and Thai-language literature from Southeast Asia, which might have otherwise been seen as irrelevant or marginal to modern Chinese literary studies, could provide an insightful comparative perspective that showcased the cross-lingual interactions and relationships of these Sinophone literary networks. I owe a significant intellectual debt to the pioneering work of Shih Shu-mei in this regard.

The focus on the idea and trope of the Nanyang or “South Seas” stemmed from my initial readings in Sinophone Malaysian literature from Taiwan, namely the authors Chang Kuei-hsing and Ng Kim Chew. I wanted to understand what the term meant to them, why it was so ubiquitous in their fiction, and what it was able to convey that Southeast Asia could not. This research inevitably led me back to the sources of modern Chinese literary exoticism from the early twentieth century and the nationalist revolution in China that the Sinophone authors were self-reflexively and simultaneously appropriating and critiquing.

The transition to the postcolonial Singaporean and Thai literatures and their historical contexts was an against-the-grain move on my part as critic: I did not just want to trace the Nanyang trope backwards in time to China as a teleological literary inheritance or legacy, but also horizontally in space to see its transformation across geospatial and linguistic boundaries as well. This liberated the study from being trapped in a dialectic of China-as-center and South-Seas-as-periphery: it anchored the book’s focus on the South Seas as a network and a New World center of cultural origins and exchanges, rather than as a marginal destination of Chinese diaspora and exile “outside” the civilizational center.

It is true that the term Nanyang itself carries more weight for some authors discussed in the book than it does for others, yet the various ideas and issues it conveys – a kind of maritime focus on overseas movement, migration, and exchange, as well as its relationship to imperialism, settler colonialism, and cultural integration and creolization – are central to and consistent across all the texts I analyze. It was fascinating to see how authors writing at different time periods and in different national and (post)colonial contexts used the term to underscore these issues. To highlight these areas of intersection and divergence, I felt that I could take a broader sidelong glance by drawing upon postcolonial theories first put forward by intellectuals and authors from the Pacific Islands. It seemed conceptually limiting to only think about and build upon what Chinese and Southeast Asian writers, as well as scholars of these contexts, thought and theorized about issues that certainly resonate elsewhere. Caribbean and Pacific Island writers and critics have long engaged issues of creolization, dialect, multilingualism, and diaspora, as well as the national cultures and literatures of marginalized “small countries” and the interplay between an ancestral continent and an archipelagic New World homeland. There was no good reason their ideas should be considered outside or irrelevant to the issues at stake here.

The most difficult aspect of writing the book involved cutting down the number of texts and authors, as well as the range of literary genres and forms, that I wanted to discuss. In an earlier draft, I not only addressed some works of poetry and creative nonfiction, but also, for reasons of comparison and contrast, I wrote about a Sinophone Malaysian author who did not study and live in Taiwan and a Pacific War-era Malayan writer who traveled, published, and ultimately settled and retired in mainland China rather than Taiwan. Yet I knew that for a book with such a broad historical, cultural, and linguistic scope to provide sufficient critical depth and analysis, I would have to anchor it in close readings and substantive interpretation of texts, and that to do this I would have to eliminate some of the quantity and variety of texts and authors. That involved some painful decisions.

Another challenge was to write a conclusion that didn’t simply recapitulate the arguments in the introduction, but synthesized them more concisely and straightforwardly while speculating about where the scholarly conversation might proceed in the future. This was the final touch to what was both a gruelingly incremental but ultimately rewarding and enjoyable writing process.

PH. Most discussions of the literatures in Singapore and Malaysia have followed the contours of nation-states, and seen a series of common traditions that has now diverged over time. You, in contrast, bring in literature written in and of Borneo and Thailand, and also explore the crucial mediating role played by Taiwan for Southeast Asian Sinophone writers. What is gained, do you think, by this movement across national borders?

BB. Very simply, the Nanyang, like the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands, is not a concept contained by national borders, but one that both precedes and crosses them. Many of the authors who write about the Nanyang do so from the perspective and experience of multiple countries, regions, and locales, and therefore some attention to the national histories and cultural contexts in which they publish and are read, and which also receive ample treatment in their works, is necessary for addressing what the Nanyang signifies for them. Why are the publication outlets and literary readerships in Taiwan so keen on Sinophone literature by authors from Malaysia? What is it about narratives of coolies in colonial Malaya, or of Islamic conversion in West Malaysia, or of deforestation, plantation conversion, and elephant hunting in the Borneo rainforest that resonate with readers in Taiwan? Why is the Teochew dialect such a major feature of Sinophone literature from Thailand, and why is it that these works are more likely to be published in Hong Kong and be of interest to scholars in Xiamen than those in Taiwan? To do justice to the Nanyang’s role as a literary trope, it makes sense to at least compare, observe, and speculate about these questions across national borders so we can understand their literary politics and aesthetics in greater depth and fullness.

Perhaps for Southeast Asian studies, the greater implication of this type of study is that it raises the possibility of thinking about Southeast Asian literature not simply as an aggregate or sum of national literatures (most often in national or official languages) of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries, but as a network of relationships and as points of historical and political convergence where the nation-state certainly matters, but it matters precisely because the literature is not wholly contained by it, and the modes of writing about the nation (and the political stakes for doing so) often change when the national boundary is traversed.

From the perspectives of postcolonial theory and modern Chinese literary studies, one might argue conversely that, rather than transcending the nation (as much of the discussion about literature from “world,” “global,” or “planetary” frameworks purports to do), Writing the South Seas actually puts the nation and the significance of national literature and culture back into the conversation. In the last couple decades, there has been a movement towards a denationalized “global” framework for Chinese literature (or literature in Chinese): Much of this stems from Chinese literary scholars’ discontent over the marginality of Chinese literature from the esteemed ranks of “world literature” and their critique of the concept’s Eurocentric view of the “world.” While understandable, the danger here is that this denationalizing gesture takes for granted (or fails to problematize) the ethnocultural or linguistic “Chineseness” of the text. This harkens back to the older models of “Overseas Chinese” literature put forward throughout the twentieth century, a model represented by the various “tributary streams” of the great Chinese tradition, and one that ultimately reinforces the cultural capital (and cedes powers of authenticating literary value) to the Chinese center. I appreciate the Sinophone method as a disruption to this mode of center-periphery, homeland-diaspora mode of thinking. So despite their border-crossing focus, my chapters are still essentially divided by national categorizations of literary production, not ethnic or linguistic ones. Taking inspiration from Caribbean theorists like Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, and Edouard Glissant, my aim is not to debunk national literatures, but to expand their horizons beyond official formulations so we don’t simply conflate them with mono-ethnic and mono-linguistic boundaries and origins.

PH. Your book concentrates most productively on Sinophone writers, and I especially enjoyed the discussions of Yu Dafu and Ng Kim Chew. However, you also discuss the Anglophone writer Suchen Christine Lim, and Botan, who writes in Thai. What are the possibilities of comparative academic work across the different languages and literatures of Southeast Asia? And what challenges might such projects pose to current modes of scholarship?

BB. Languages and literary traditions are not isolated from each other, and yet one might assume this from observing the ways in which Southeast Asian literatures are (perhaps for good reason) construed. In this sense, a multilingual analysis of Southeast Asian literatures not only yields insightful comparative perspectives about how different language traditions have developed alongside each other or diverged in their respective cultural and political contexts, but can also reveal areas of interaction, influence, and exchange that a monolingual study might overlook. For my study, which is, as you indicated, primarily focused on Sinophone literature, it seemed worthwhile, given that I am a native English speaker and fluent in Thai, to at least consider Anglophone and Thai-language literature, if not for inclusion in the book then at least for my own background knowledge. The result was that I found the Nanyang to be an important concept transliterated into the official multilingual Singaporean literary milieu, while it was translated into Thai against the backdrop of narratives of cultural assimilation and integration. Most notably with the Thai chapter, we see reciprocal processes of linguistic cross-pollination at work, with Teochew inflecting the written Thai and Thai inflecting the written Chinese in very analogous ways in Chinese integration narratives. Recognizing this allows us to break down the walls between two literary traditions to observe that, rather than chasm and separation, it is the moments of linguistic inflection and transgression that bring the two traditions together!

The challenge is of course one of balance and depth, especially when, by comparison, so much ink in the book is devoted to Sinophone writers and their contexts of literary publication. Obviously, there are far more Anglophone and Thai-language texts (or relevant aspects of their literary histories) that I could have considered, just as there were more Sinophone authors, texts, and historical periods that probably deserved inclusion. Yet I felt authorized and liberated to take a more conceptually divergent approach to the national origins and languages of the texts because, especially when it comes to Sinophone literature from Singapore and Malaysia, scholars like Alison Groppe and E.K. Tan had broken initial ground with their enlightening, recently-published monographs on the subject.

Of course, if I had considered literature in Malay, Indonesian, Baba Malay, Tagalog, Tamil, Vietnamese, Burmese, French, Dutch, Arabic (and so on), there would not only be a larger and fuller picture of how the South Seas has been imagined and written across language boundaries, but perhaps some of my arguments would need to be refined and reconsidered. However, the challenge that is the limitation of our individual knowledge should point to, rather than stunt, the scholarly conversation and its possibilities. This is why I am so excited about the recent work that you, Cheryl Naruse, Weihsin Gui, E.K. Tan, Sheela Menon, Fiona Lee, and others have done in the Modern Language Association (MLA) to make “Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian Diasporic Literature” a permanent forum at its annual convention. What started out as a focus on Anglophone postcolonial literature from Singapore and Malaysia has expanded into a multilingual and transnational forum on literatures from and on the region.

PH. Your book fits neatly into a current resurgence of interest in literary translation in the region as a way of crossing linguistic and community boundaries. Which Sinophone works from Southeast Asia exist in good translations, and which remain untranslated but would be on a “hit list” for translation into English and other Southeast Asian languages?

BB. While high-quality translations are crucial for bringing this literature to the attention of scholars of comparative world literature and international award-conferring committees, the main issue at the moment, in my opinion, is quantity. The recent upsurge in translations of Sinophone literature from Singapore into English by Epigram Books and Math Paper Press is a highly encouraging sign. I really like Sylvia Li-chun Lin’s translation of You Jin’s short story collection Teaching Cats to Jump Hoops, not simply because it introduces the genre of Sinophone young adult fiction (and teenage concerns) to an Anglophone readership, but also, if we think about the practical function of literature, because it illuminates the issue of Mandarin language pedagogy in Singapore. For similar reasons, I also appreciate Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Xi Ni Er’s collection The Earnest Mask, as the flash fiction genre has an important history in Singapore’s Sinophone literary supplements.

Valerie Jaffee’s translation of My South Seas Sleeping Beauty by Zhang Guixing (also spelled Chang Kuei-hsing), Carlos Rojas’s recent translation of Slow Boat to China and Other Stories by Ng Kim Chew, and Goldblatt and Lin’s translation of Li Yongping’s Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles all do an extraordinary job of rendering in English the baroque style, language play, classical lyricism, and complex turns-of-phrase that characterize the high modernism of Sinophone Malaysian literature from Taiwan. All three texts are part of Columbia University Press’s Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series, so readers should bear in mind that there is more of a Sinological emphasis in the ways the three works are introduced, framed, and translated.

I have just begun working on a translation of Chang Kuei-hsing’s Monkey Cup (Hou bei), which I still think of as his magnum opus on Borneo, though The Elephant Herd (Qun xiang) is probably his most tightly-knit and accessible novel (I believe a translation of this novel is also in the works). In terms of Sinophone Malaysian fiction, it would be nice to see some of the non-emigrant, Malaysia-based authors get some love via English translation as well. I particularly like Xiao Hei, as his work from the 1980s combines some reportage realism with an experimental modernist style to address social and political conflicts in West Malaysia during that period. Li Tianbao and Li Zishu, both of whom Alison Groppe writes about so eloquently in her book Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China certainly deserve translation. There should also be more translations to showcase the indispensable contributions of Malaysian women writers like Ho Sok Fong (He Shufang), Shang Wanyun, and the aforementioned Li Zishu.

Any translations of Sinophone Thai works, such as Stormy Yaowarat Road (Fengyu Yaohuali), the collaboratively-written sequential novel I discuss in my book, would be most welcome. I recall reading a foreword for a volume about Sinophone Thai literature that was taken from a speech by Montri Umavijani, a renowned Thai-language poet and scholar, to open a conference: he lamented that most of the Thai public had only superficial knowledge of Sino-Thai experiences, mainly through reading Botan’s Letters from Thailand, which was part of the national secondary school canon. Montri expressed hope that more Sinophone Thai literature would be translated into Thai so that Thai readers could access a more diverse picture of the history of Sino-Thais and, perhaps more importantly, know that there was such a thing as Thai literature written in Chinese. This suggests that there is much work to do to translate Sinophone literature into Southeast Asian languages besides English.

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PH. The cover of your book will have a particular resonance for many Malaysians and Singaporeans. Could you explain this?

BB. I really have you to thank for this, Prof Holden, as you were the first person to recommend Suchen Christine Lim’s novel Fistful of Colours to me when I began researching Anglophone authors in Singapore. As you know, at the end of the novel, the protagonist returns to Kuala Jelai, her home village in Malaysia, from Singapore, and she becomes moved viewing the large wall murals while waiting for her train at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. When I read this passage, I wanted to see the murals myself, though at the time I had no idea they would later provide the source material for the cover of my book.

That was before the station closed. When it was operational, the station, along with the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway tracks, was an important living legacy of the intimate relationship, common colonial history, and shared culture between the two countries. Now that it is closed, it can only serve as a “heritage site” – a relic or a reminder of that past. For a lot of Malaysians and Singaporeans who grew up when the two societies were more integrated, Tanjong Pagar is bound to be a source of nostalgia, especially because it conjures a more rustic landscape and older colonial architecture that contrasts with the image of Singapore as a city of glistening skyscrapers and squeaky-clean air-conditioned malls. I think this nostalgic sentiment regarding the railway station is quite obvious in “Parting,” director Boo Junfeng’s contribution to the omnibus film, 7 Letters: he uses the space of Tanjong Pagar to tell the story of an interethnic romance against the backdrop of racial riots in the 1960s.

Of the six triptych murals in the station, the one with the commercial maritime focus showing the harbour was the most relevant to my book in its entirety, so I commissioned an image of that mural for the cover. The different types of ocean vessels in the image, from a sampan to a junk to a passenger steamship, really captured the varying modes of maritime crossings and convergences that the Nanyang has historically signified. And it’s beautifully done.

PH. At the end of Writing the South Seas, you argue that the concept of Nanyang is larger than simply a descriptive term in Chinese, but might represent an “archipelagic principle” that gives us an alternative way of seeing the region from the more common designation “Southeast Asia.” Could you say a little more about this?

BB. Trained in both Southeast Asian studies and China studies, I was inspired by the self-reflexivity of Southeast Asianists who perpetually remind us of the arbitrary “gerrymandering,” so to speak, that invented the geopolitical boundaries of their very new field. By contrast, Sinologists, because they could cite the ancient and presumably pre-national origins of “Chinese civilization,” have only recently begun to challenge the geopolitical interests that are anachronistically projected backward when the boundaries of their discipline are taken as a predetermined given. When Southeast Asia scholars reflect upon their discipline, they often cite alternative vocabularies for imagining the region that, while certainly not “innocent,” are not shot through with the perspectives of Western imperialism, the Cold War, and the modern nation-state. Don Emmerson and Ben Anderson, for example, have cited terms like Nanyang, Nanyō, Suvarnadvipa, Suvarnabhumi, Zabaj, and Nusantara, and in so doing have tried to convey the potential for a shift in regional perspective that further exploration of such terms might yield. The shift in worldview conveyed by such terms could broaden the areas and subjects considered part or constitutive of Southeast Asian studies.

It was in this respect that I felt my etymological analysis of the Nanyang could go substantially beyond iterating a mere descriptive “Chinese term for Southeast Asia” to hopefully forward the ambitions of Southeast Asian studies, while at the same time it would reconsider the resonances of the term’s projection of “Chinese civilization” beyond China’s borders. While the term’s connotation as a Sinocentric formulation of an exotic maritime realm south of a continentally-defined civilization is still an important legacy in thinking about how Chinese travelers, migrants, and settlers may have conjured up the region upon arrival in Southeast Asia, the fact that the term only remained relevant for settlers and their descendants in Southeast Asia is telling (as it is no longer widely used in China today). These days, it really is more of a Southeast Asian term than a Chinese term, even though it is Sinophone, and this postcolonial legacy was what intrigued me the most. You only need to look at the Southeast Asian institutions that bear the Nanyang name – a university, a newspaper, even a Thai shoe company – to notice this legacy.

While distinct from Southeast Asia’s territorial emphasis, the Nanyang’s “archipelagic principle” (its emphasis on the centrality of the seas) is not something that, in the postcolonial context, is an “alternative term” entirely independent from the idea of Southeast Asia. The two are not mutually exclusive, and, despite being a recent construct, Southeast Asia is a historical and contemporary reality that any imagining of the South Seas must reckon with. The “archipelagic principle” does not exclude Southeast Asia, but points to the Nanyang’s historical interpenetration and convergence with that concept, especially in terms of geopolitical nation-building, international conflicts, interethnic exchanges, and environmental and climatological adaptations. The intersection, or triangulation, of a Chinese civilizational imagination, Southeast Asian settler-indigenous colonial and postcolonial dynamics, and Western imperial “mapmaking” only scratches the surface of the idea of the Nanyang as an archipelagic network. Through postcolonial literary narratives about the Nanyang, movements of Chinese settlers and their descendants to and within the region are shown not to be bilateral, mono-directional, or mono-ethnic, but circuitous and multiple, creating different linkages throughout the region that cannot simply be represented in terms of a single ancestral origin and diasporic destination.

PH. What future projects do you have in mind?

BB. I am currently writing a book about “inter-Asian” cinema. In many ways, it picks up on themes in Writing the South Seas (multilingualism, multiculturalism, creolization, and the idea of national culture), and it spans a lot of the same contexts in that book (Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, China), but it is more of a new millennial project, focused primarily on inter-Asian filmmaking following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. I am trying to put recent criticism on Asian regionalism into dialogue with increased interest in notions of an “Asian cinema” that have come out of international film festivals, film studies and university courses invested in such an idea, and the creation of institutions around this concept, such as the Asian Film Archive in Singapore. Rather than positing Asian cinema in terms of an assumed stylistic common ground or comparable treatment of similar themes (which is usually the focus of studies aiming to promote Asian cinema as an alternative to the universalizing modes of Western, or Hollywood, cinemas), I look at post-AFC films that feature the highly uneven relations between East, Southeast, and South Asian peoples, cultures, environments, and economies. I ask: How do directors from different Asian cinemas mobilize personnel, multilingual talent, and shooting locations from/in other parts of the region? Does their work circulate among Asian audiences beyond national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries? Are inter-Asian connections more important than appropriating and competing with Hollywood? How do filmmakers imagine inter-Asian relations through different motifs, such as pop cultural consumption, tourism, or gendered flows of migrant labor? I was fortunate to have the opportunity this past summer to travel to Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand to visit some shooting locations and meet personnel involved in the filmmaking, including directors. The project is still in its early stages, so I imagine that unexpected findings and conceptual alterations lie ahead.

 

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Photo credit: NG Yun Sian

Philip Holden is Professor of English at the National University of Singapore. He researches in two major areas of literary studies. His work in auto/biography studies includes the book Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity and the Nation-State, and a number of scholarly articles in major scholarly journals such as biography, Life Writing, a/b: Auto/biography Studies, and Postcolonial Studies. He has also published widely on Singapore and Southeast Asian literatures, is the co-author of The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English, and one of the editors of Writing Singapore, the most comprehensive historical anthology of Singapore literature in English, as well as author of articles in, among others, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Interventions, Textual Practice, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and Ariel. His short story collection Heaven Has Eyes was recently published by Epigram Books.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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