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Inflammatory Gaijin Piece


Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong is the archetypical postwar Asian-mystique story. Most critiques of the work and especially the film adaptation focus on its problematic depiction of the titular Wong. Often overlooked, however, is the book’s use of an exoticized female characters to set up a specifically expat wish-fulfillment fantasy, rather than a generic male one. Consider:

  • The first-person hero, Robert Lomax, was barely scraping by back in England, but after moving to Malaysia he quickly saved enough money to kick-start a hip new career: painter. Now he’s respected as an artist by both the locals and the art world back home. The problem was England all along! That’s the kind of validation that a 9-to-5 gig at the Far East branch of Fotherington Industrial Concerns Inc. simply can’t provide.
  • Lomax lives in the “real” Hong Kong. He stayed in the white-person part of town just long enough to confirm its residents’ lack of appreciation for the island, then moved into a cheap hotel on the waterfront with an unapologetically Cantonese name (the Nam Kok). The staff and regulars there warmly accepted him on the spot, and he easily settled into a routine of chatting with local color and snacking on exotic treats bought fresh in the market.
  • Lomax has both wisdom and perspective. He’s always right and always cool — James Bond without the assassins. Suzie accuses him of crazy nonsense: he explains with tolerant good humor why she is wrong. Jealous expats lash out at him: He defends himself with quiet dignity, feeling more sympathy than anger. A man tries to buy his wife for the night: Lomax expresses his anger in devastating witticisms. On the rare occasions when Lomax does make a mistake, it’s only because a woman has worked unusually hard to deceive him.

On its own, none of this is surprising. Rare is the author who would write a first-person narrative based loosely on their personal adventures in which the protagonist is an asshole without any friends. But consider the other foreigners Lomax runs into, neatly classifiable into three types:

  • Sailors – Although they, too, visit the dark underbelly that Lomax calls home, they don’t belong there the way that he does. Their transient nature only underlines Lomax’s firmly ensconced status.
  • Fellow Male Expats – These are either oblivious government bureaucrats with no private lives or timid half-tourists who envy Lomax’s insider status. A couple try to usurp him through crude application of wealth or power, but inevitably fail. Unlike Lomax, they just aren’t street.
  • White Women – They’re catty! They’re neurotic! They’re totally harshing the Hong Kong buzz! The one exception is Lomax’s nurse friend Kay, who ends up one of the most intriguing characters in the book simply because she isn’t explicitly drawn as a one-dimensional shrew. (This is because the story requires that she do Lomax a favor later. After this, she quietly vanishes.)

Lomax is alone among foreigners in that he likes Hong Kong and it likes him back. His casual superiority over the sailors also symbolizes his status as a new man, a postwar man, no longer a slave to the I-will-always-love-you-but-I-must-return-to-my-true-home Sayonara narrative.

Suzie Wong wasn’t the first English-language fantasy about a white man being accepted and loved by an exotic foreign land — Imperial British writing on India, for example, is a can of worms I am carefully leaving closed here — but it was influential in modernizing the idea, bringing it closer to reality. To be hip like Tarzan, you had to be marooned in Africa and spend your formative years working out in the jungle, but to be hip like Lomax, you just had to head east and loaf in a seedy bar with good-natured hookers. That’s progress.

June 5, 2008

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

29 Responses

  1. Paul Says:

    Soon to be the most commented post on the site?

  2. Chrononautic Log 改 » Blog Archive » “To be hip like Tarzan… Says:

    […] Néojaponisme puts its finger on why I always feel like I’ve wasted my expatriate opportunities. […]

  3. Aceface Says:

    OK,Why does the name “Karl Taro Greenfeld”keep coming up to my head after reading this post?

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Because when you think about a “work of fiction about Asia,” Speed Tribes pops into your head.

  5. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I always assumed I just got here a few years too late to see all the bodicon OLs injecting Okinawan crack cocaine into their eyeballs. Man, that bubble!

  6. Eric Likness Says:

    It’s always funny to me in books and in Real Life when expats look down on other expats. The reverse expat phenom for Japanese in America is also true.

  7. Aceface Says:

    “Imperial British writing on India, for example, is a can of worms I am carefully leaving closed here ”

    But why? Kipling’s “KIM”is a great book.
    Even Edward Said was praising that in “Culture and Imperialism”.

    Any of you guys ever heard about this?

  8. Aceface Says:

    And here’s another “inflammatory gaijin piece”.

    Presumably somehow the Hollywood producers gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse to make him do this.

  9. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    “Kim” is fantastic, I agree, though definitely at the Tarzan end of the spectrum. I just don’t know enough about the Empire’s colonial literature to talk about it sensibly. Would love to hear from anyone who does, in comments or otherwise.

    The Mr Moto series has been on my “to read” list for a while now, but I’ve never found any copies secondhand and it’s not high enough on the list to buy new.

    As for “Teahouse”… yeah. Well, to be fair, Brando would definitely have been taking it very seriously.

    (Paul: Not quite, clearly. Ha!)

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    Speak of the devil, I am about to read Kim.

  11. Paul Says:

    Matt: How glad I am to be wrong. My admiration of this blog only increases. I enjoyed the piece btw and hope I didn’t my comment come across as snide.

  12. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Not at all, Paul! My “ha” also was not meant as in “Ha! Wrong again, sucker!” but rather as a rueful “Ha! There go my hopes of being headhunted by Gawker.”

    Eric: I think it’s like the proverb about academia: the infighting’s vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.

  13. Matt Says:

    Forget _Speed Tribes_. It’s all about _Tokyo After Dark_, “where the girls are easy and inexpensive, the boys handsome and willing, and the sex is the wildest in the world….”

  14. Aceface Says:

    But I’ve read someting like that on by Mr.Speed Tribe too,Matt.

  15. M-Bone Says:

    It just crossed my mind that if you combine every chapter of Speed Tribes into one story – the Tokyo University Kendo club member who disembowels himself after being tazered by an otaku pornstar who joined a bosozoku because he was dissapointed by the size of his Australian boyfriend`s penis – it dosen`t seem any more or less real than what is actually in the book.

  16. W. David MARX Says:

    The only difference between KTG and the writer of Tokyo After Dark is that the latter was not able to parlay his journalistic excellence into a gig as Editor of Time Asia.

  17. Aceface Says:

    You know,I was watching “Shatterd Glass”this Thursday on NHK BS.
    It’s an American film about fast rise and fall of young journalist at the The New Republic magazine(played by Anakin Skywalker actor) during the mid-1990s when his serial journalistic fraud was exposed.

    And while I was watching it,I’ve got an e-mail from a friend working for a Japanese media that there has been an article theft happening in his office and he is now buzzing to check this guys past articles for there could be more of them.Friend of mine told me that the guy’s days in his office is numbered.So was the fate of the young journalist in the movie.

    And I thought.The New Republic kid’s piece is entirely made up.
    The Guy at my friend’s office wrote a piece based on local daily without him doing own research,which is a proffesional suicide,but then it means the content is basically based on fact,thanks to the labor of others.
    Then,I thought about NYT’s Martin Fackler’s piece on wearable vending machine in Japan,which was basically a half lie.

    That means,Fackler’s position is somewhere between Anakin Skywalker and My friend’s guy,but so far there seems to be no punishment upon him of what so ever at the gray lady.
    Why? Because Fackler’s boss and his colleagues don’t give a damn about what he does in the outpost while he(and the Times)would be kicked into hellfire,had the piece was written in the states.

    Now,this is what our KTG wrote in piece,

    “I had convinced myself that what I needed was a quick trip back to Japan, where I had been relatively drug-free during the five years I had lived there in the late ’80s and early ’90s. What was required, I was sure, was a return to the site of former glories, to where I had written numerous magazine articles and come up with the material for my first and only book.My life in Los Angeles, with its failing marriage and dimly plotted writing projects, was without luster. Tokyo, on the other hand, was where my life could regain lost sparkle. I would become the person I imagined I used to be: vital, charming, intuitive, a thorough journalist and artful writer. ”

    Pathetic,is all I can say.

  18. M-Bone Says:

    Somebody should write a history of American and English `cultural` reporting about Japan in the postwar period so we can get a broad look at the genealogy of this BS.

    KTG may be bad, but this guy takes the cake –

    He was Forbes` Asia bureau chief – truly scary. The next time I write an article, I`m going to forget the evidence and just write about ninjas.

    In any case, as bad as KTG and Fackler and Fulford have been, nothing tops the occasional assertions by some others that Japan is on the verge of lurching back into a 1930s style militarism (Japan is now celebrating its 55th anniversary of being 3 months away from reverting to militarism).

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    Japan is on the verge of lurching back into a 1930s style militarism

    This is pretty much dead since the departure of Abe. I would say, however, that the desperation to reclaim the honor of WWII is growing stronger. Not to say the country’s mainstream agrees, but I think there is a palpable move on the Right to say, “Hey, Imperial Japan wasn’t really that bad!” That won’t lead to goose-stepping in the streets, but isn’t exactly the best development.

  20. Aceface Says:

    Fulford is now a Japanese citizen,not a gaijin no more.

    He was writing various articles on Japan like Japan would be hit by major enocomic malaise and become next Argentine,or all the source of the “lost decade”is because of Yakuza.
    He even published a book based on conversation with Karel van Wolfren.

    Kinda funny that Japundits crowd only reacted when he started writing on 911 conspiracy theory,while didn’t say anything when Fulford was tweeding Japanese conspircies.

    And that reminds me of a cover story by the expat English magazine,Tokyo Journal(which is now METROPOLIS and tranformed to a free paper)on the controversial cartoonist,Kobayashi Yoshinori.
    Back then,he was a liberal,but still he had tons of flaws and inaccurate infos.Still Tokyo Journal lionized him as sort of a dissident voice in a stragiht jacketed society that is Japan.
    But now,he is the most popular target for those who wants to write a piece on “the rise of the Japanese nationlism”.

    Expat community has always have that kind of double standard and probably continue to be so,as long as they don’t really have clear focus and information on what they are accusing about.

  21. M-Bone Says:

    `This is pretty much dead since the departure of Abe.`

    But we are only one manga publication, Yasukuni visit, or Nanking denail away from it being dusted off and represented as the Japanese mainstream. A few articles of this type made the rounds for the 70th anniversary of Nanking (which was after Abe was given the boot). A Canadian paper compared Japan`s historical memory to that of Turkey and suggested that it is being used to revive the military and press for atomic weapons.

    `I would say, however, that the desperation to reclaim the honor of WWII is growing stronger. Not to say the country’s mainstream agrees, but I think there is a palpable move on the Right to say, “Hey, Imperial Japan wasn’t really that bad!”`

    This has waxed and waned since the mid-1990s (in its current form) and there were a few major bursts of writing and commentary in this direction in past decades (1970-1975 for example). If anything, the very limp Japanese right publication effort about Nanking in 2007 (nothing like when they were stirred up by Iris Chang for the 60th anniversary of the massacre) suggests that they may be on a temporary downswing. The right has scored some big hits (Kokumin no Rekishi, Sensoron, Kenkanryu – would not include Kokumin no Hinkaku in the list – it seems merely to be suggesting that Japanese traditions are `great` not that militarism and the empire were be bee`s knees as the other books do) but they have not had one in a while. In addition, the percentage of Japanese favoring continued apology toward Asia has held steady at around 85% between 1984 and 2007 – it seems that the flurry of rightwing activity in publishing and other areas since 1995 has had little impact.

  22. Aceface Says:

    “This is pretty much dead since the departure of Abe. ”

    I live longer and been here longer,Marxy.
    I say this is a diehard cliche on Japan probably never goes away.
    And foreign reports on Abe was pretty inflammatory from beginning to end.

    “That won’t lead to goose-stepping in the streets, but isn’t exactly the best development.”

    Well,goose-stepping is one thing Japan didn’t import from German military culture.And frankly,I don’t understand why argument on Japan always constructed by minority opinion.

    Secondly,”imperial Japan,not all too bad” is something I would say occasionary.Depends on the context and whom or what you compare,the argument might have point.

  23. W. David MARX Says:

    Yeah, sorry to confuse the attitudes of the “50 year-plus ruling party” with majority opinion.

  24. Aceface Says:

    That,”50 year-plis ruling party” is the one doing all the apologies on past wrongs and maintaining Japan more pacifist than any other period of history.
    It is they,and neither Norimitsu Onishi nor Steven Clemmons,who kicked Shinzo Abe from power and changed the course.

    They may have flaws but also have self-cleaning mechanism.Me think.
    I sometimes regret for not rewarding them with my votes even for once.

  25. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    What is this, Fawlty Towers? I am baffled by the turn this comment thread has taken.

  26. Aceface Says:

    I’ll put it back on track,Matt.

    Anybody seen this?
    “The House of Bamboo”(1955) Directed by Samuel Fuller.

    Shirley Yamaguchi,is a Hollywood stage name of Otaka Yoshiko,who lived pretty much a Suzie Wongesque life in Manchuria in the 30’s.

  27. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    That film looks incredible. The high-tech headquarters of “Japan’s security police” just blew me away.

    Seems that in the last couple of years there’s been a lot of interest in Otaka, what with the Ueto Aya telemovie and the revival of the musical and all.

  28. Funazushi Says:

    I was surprised to read that she was married to Isamu Noguchi and that there may be a Kore-eda movie pending. Thanks for the post.

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