Between Shopkeeper and Tycoon: Diversity in Southeast Asian Chinese American Literature

Author and translator Tiffany Tsao (Photo by Leah Diprose)

Tiffany Tsao’s The Majesties goes deeper into that cultural milieu. The novel, which mines psychological tension from the wealthy Sulinado siblings’ refusal to acknowledge the narrowness of their experience, is haunted by a specific historical event: anti-Chinese pogroms that swept Jakarta in 1998, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Describing the traumatic incidents she sees on the news, Gwendolyn tells the reader that “our businesses and homes” were torched, “our men were beaten, our women raped.” Yet, in the next paragraph, she all but confesses that her account is flawed, since the victims were “small-time shopkeepers,” whom she characterises as literally a different breed from “the filthy rich like us.”

In one scene in The Majesties, narrator Gwendolyn recounts how, as international students at Berkeley, she and her sister Estella are both reluctant and ultimately unable to explain the difference in Indonesian and American racial stereotypes about Chinese to a Chinese American classmate, Ray. On his part, Ray decides that being “snooty,” “shady,” and “hella rich” make Chinese Indonesians “pretty badass” and “positively gangsta”—the same erroneous conclusion that animated the embrace of the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians.

Indeed, The Majesties can easily be read as a politically sharp and aesthetically sophisticated rebuttal to Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book, on which the Hollywood spectacle was based, and which a museum exhibit in Kwan’s birthplace of Singapore recently summarised as drawing “criticism for misrepresenting Singapore’s diversity and socioeconomic inequality.” In Crazy Rich Asians, the unreliable narrator and the text, which valorise the lifestyles of ultra-wealthy Singaporean Chinese families, are perhaps at their most honest when they repeatedly acknowledge the prejudice against “Mainland Chinese” held by “Overseas Chinese.” However, without the narrative interventions that The Majesties employs, Crazy Rich Asians can only ventriloquise Ray’s superficial understanding of Southeast Asian Chinese positionality, which ignores entanglements of race, class, and power.

Scene from John M. Chu’s film adaption of Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Given the popular link between Chinese ethnicity and capital and commerce, the associations between Chineseness, national belonging, class status, and power and privilege are just as fraught elsewhere, as illustrated by the Cambodian American response to Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father. Ung’s account of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge regime was accused of cultural inauthenticity, which some critics suggested panders to the preference of Western readers.

Part of that charge against the book turns on Ung’s narrative motif of a red chiffon dress that “Ma made for me for the New Year celebration,” which refers to a distinctly Chinese custom. Ung’s text also calls significant attention to the supposed physical and cultural difference between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Khmer individuals and communities—an emphasis that prompted reviewer Sopheap Keo to describe herself as “betrayed and belittled” by a work where “Loung’s conceit about her Chinese descent is extremely high and both self-serving and ignorant.”

Summarising the controversy, literary scholar Bunkong Tuon asks, “If testimonial literature as a discourse requires that the writer occupy the same subject position as the people for whom she claims to speak, then does Ung, who is of Chinese-Khmer descent and connected to an urban elite whom many Khmers hold responsible for the corruption of Cambodia, have the right to represent its people?”

He concludes in his essay “Inaccuracy and Testimonial Literature” that First They Killed My Father has a “rightful place in the body of Cambodian American texts marking this painful period in Cambodian history,” on the basis of its “emotional truth,” but concedes in the footnotes that “only time will tell whether Cambodian Americans will finally accept her as a spokesperson.”

Scene from Angelina Jolie’s film adaption of Loung Ung’s “First They Killed My Father.”

Between shopkeeper and tycoon, Southeast Asian Chinese experiences are not uniform. The category of Southeast Asian Chinese American is also heterogeneous, encompassing a variety of personal histories and push-pull factors for migration.

Tsao, who now lives in Australia, was born in San Diego and grew up in Singapore and Indonesia. Fiona Cheong, like the Penang-born Shirley Lim and many other Asian American writers, relocated to attend university, then stayed. The immigration process is difficult on multiple levels: Edge Case, a novel by Taiping-born expatriate YZ Chin, documents the psychic toll that navigating visa bureaucracy takes on an interracial Malaysian couple in the tech industry, while sociologist Aihwa Ong, an Asian American born in Penang, writes frankly of how the gap between her arrival as a student in 1970 and her naturalisation in 1987 was shaped by her assessment that “the bombing of Cambodia, symptomatic of a wider disregard for my part of the world, made American citizenship a difficult moral issue for me.”

Yet, as this quote from Ong suggests, a significant body of Southeast Asian Chinese American work was produced—not by U.S.-born authors or professional émigrés— but by refugees from the Indochina wars writing under material conditions that Mariam B. Lam attributes to Southeast Asian American literature more broadly: it “grew historically out of Cold War refugee and immigration demographic shifts that affected the canonical expansion of Asian American literature.”


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