isop: ANNA MAY & I

anna may & i

by suiyi tang

two weeks before my departure from the lion city, i met a couple of friends for drinks at an anna may wong-themed bar near chinatown. drowned in dim red lighting and decked with pre-war hollywood kitsch, the attic-like joint mixed seedy with specific. anna may wong’s dignified face peered at us from beneath several framed black and white photographs. cast in chiaroscuro by the dance lights and drowned out by the blasts of mid-2000s justin timberlake, she seemed frozen, as if out of time and place. over exorbitantly priced drinks, i mused at the disjointed diasporic legacy that had landed anna may and i, chinese americans from the “old west,” onto this humid island, and this postmodernist dreamscape of a bar. where one stood a renowned actress made immortal by her path-breaking craft, the other sat slightly flushed, a guest whose anonymous intoxication was disrupted only by her bleached blonde locks. it was as if we were estranged sisters, of different constitutions but the same alienation, that this meeting could only be marked with a toss of ironic laughter.

when asked how i come to know magic, i cite the first time that i set foot in singapore. nothing describes the feeling of a seeming melancholic resolution—of having recovered a missing limb whose origin and contents you never knew existed. with its multi-ethnic conglomeration of asian diasporic settlers, singapore feels, to the first-time visitor, a salve that soothes the welts of displacement imprinted by the american continent. the singapore of my  rose-tinted lens felt blessed by a unique synchronicity of factors historical, local, and economic. i was left dizzy with the amalgamation of familiarity and longing. surrounded by friendly faces yellow and brown speaking the colonial tongue into which i had been broken, i thought, this is what home must feel like.

it is no longer clear to me whether this bout of exuberance set me on a path of embrace or desire. singapore, for all its diasporic relief and tropical hospitality, resists the claim of ownership. a thin veil, which i had yet begun to see, distills the singaporean from the foreign. as is common within postcolonial politics of belonging, “home” is a tenuous principle carved from the totality of lives, so that it remains stubbornly resistant to particularization, and thus intrusion; theft; appropriation. i had yet to realize that singapore could never be home, only, as the deracinated subject knows all too well, a shelter from whose station she can afford temporary reprieve.

i have heard singapore described as sterile and futuristic, yet the island i have come to know is anything but. at the height of monsoon season, everything touches and threatens to spill. the city is clouded by a permanent grey, and a sheen of humidity clings to every surface, bringing sky to street in claustrophobic union. unlike japan, whose chilly roads sparkle in the absence of both trash and can, singapore’s muggy breath leaves a residue on everything it rolls over. when the bus passes me by, i am unable to tell when the hot breath of exhaust begins and ends.

futuristic is a funny descriptor, its pointed signification as smooth and inscrutable as the word itself. to the untrained (née western) eye, the “futuristic” singapore of dubious allure is a megacity hewn by the quadrangles of careful urbanization and sleek skyscrapers. to the untrained eye, asia is a jungle, of concrete and napalm, as crowded as it is massive. the question of futurism in such an unmapped place is a cartographic one: the city’s principles of organization as an allegory for competence and “development,” that favored euphemism of pale-skinned vacationers. the singapore so easily inaugurated into their imagination of the future is one whose chalky public flats hide seamlessly behind curvaceous monsters with glassy eyes, capped by rooftop-gardens.

but this is at best an assuming gaze, read as if from the laminated pages of a coffee-table souvenir book. from the street, the reflective surfaces of the leaning towers take on a surreal quality. it seems impossible that anything can retain such clarity in the sticky fog of exhaust. look down, and imperfections reveal themselves as potholes and open drains. overfilled garbage basins and the heavy musk of rain wafts from verdant patches of drooping trees. things photograph well, but up close, their three-dimensionality threatens to overwhelm.

in 1936, after losing the leading role in the good earth, anna may wong embarked on a sojourn to china. intensely scrutinized by american presses, wong’s journey “home” was an event that simultaneously marked her oriental status, but subjected her assumed authenticity to the narrative ruptures of her own diasporic voice. to the san francisco chronicle, she remarked: “perhaps, upon my arrival [to the land of my fathers], i shall feel like an outsider. perhaps instead, i shall find my past life assuming a dream-like quality of unreality.” it is unclear what alternatives could render wong’s american upbringing a somnambulant trace, but whatever realities to which the actress awakened in china were not defined by the simple binary of alienation and belonging.

cinematic circulation within the west and its colonial world established anna may wong as an exotic symbol of cosmopolitan femininity. subsequently, hers was an inscrutable diasporic body that exceeded the boundaries of the united states, but which found home neither in the postcolonial metropolitan of shanghai, nor the interwar glitter of western europe, nor the harsh realities of an openly racist united states. In all places, her fluidity exceeded the crowd’s limited technologies of seeing. rendered precarious under exclusionary american citizenship laws, she was minimally but ineluctably attached to the country of her birth. attempts to minimize her to the status of other failed, at home and in europe, where she stunned with her mastery of european languages, cultural sophistication, and continental mannerisms.

yet she was not quite a citizen of the world, trapped as she was within the west’s orientalist lens and the nationalist chinese government’s repudiation of what it perceived as wong’s offensively american femininity. In all ways, anna may wong exceeded the signifying burdens levied unto her. neither chinese, american, nor “oriental,” her cosmopolitanism was simultaneously enabled and ruptured by the mobility of her racialized body. questions of her belonging and return, origin and assimilation are complicated by the unkind gaze of empire, further scrambled by the circuitry of colonialism.

ironically, for wong herself, it was experiences in europe, prior to her trip to china, that exposed the specter of her chineseness. “The first picture in which I appeared [in berlin] made a hit…[w]eaving my way through [a] pack of admiring fans, I seemed suddenly to be standing at one side watching myself with complete detachment,” wong told the los angeles times in 1934. “it was my chinese soul coming back to claim me. up to that time i had been more of an american flapper than chinese.” that wong’s reconciliation with her chineseness came outside of both china and america suggests the possibility of an identitarian resolution brought into relief by contrast. as shirley lim reminds us, interwar europe’s anxieties of progress and mechanization found expression through artistic turns to the “primitive,” and it was on the back of this impulse that numerous american artists of color, from josephine baker to james baldwin to anna may wong, established a newfound cosmopolitanism, turning away from the punishing hand of american racism to claim cultural capital founded on europe’s appreciative exoticization.

but the denationalization of anna may wong found limits as well as freedom within the old empire. while her establishment as a worldly woman was marked by entrance into international stardom, wong’s cosmopolitanism came at the behest of her circulation as a tokenized ornament within the cinematic gaze of colonial empires. that is to say, the same european contrast which brought wong to the site of her chineseness sought also to inscribe her within the singularity of its orientalizing narrative, eschewing the paradoxes of origin for a particularization rooted in reductivism. wong became an international film star traded within europe and the colonized world, but hers was a stardom paraded as oriental phenomenon. despite her commercial success and storied life among the european intellectual elite, wong could never be a body free in movement nor representation. Through no fault of her own, her precedence exposed the contradictions of internationalism but failed to hold definite space for multiplicity--either in the facts of her diasporic identity, or the existence of asian femininity beyond her own.

eighty years after anna may wong’s tenuous actualization, i sought an unbinding of asian/american consciousness on different terms. unlike wong, my pursuit of racialized modernity found home in a postcolonial, diasporic asian landscape. away from the forces of contrast that allowed wong a semblance of self-definition, i turned instead to singapore, willing its diasporic pluralism into a space for the asian-american imaginary. on the little red dot, i hoped to find variations of asianness that transcended national boundaries and opened possibilities for becoming a racialized, modern subject shaped, but unconstrained, by the fist of the west. my own cosmopolitanism, diverging from anna may wong’s, would come at the behest of my entrance into a postcolonial world whose particularities i dismissed in favor of an imagined receptacle for racialized reconciliation.

within the blank slate of the tropical island, i could envision an asian modernity assembled from the synthesis of colonial and native influence, and myself, a modern asian subject estranged from the gripping gaze of the colonial master. in truth, it was a fanciful imagining that quickly became cluttered with the facts of its own paradox. i am no longer sure toward what racial nationalism i was moving, but the facts of my misgivings quickly overtook me: singapore was a postcolonial nation-state encumbered by its own set of complex national identities, marked first and foremost by an ethnic hierarchy which positioned a han chinese elite above south asians and native malays. It was, too, a capitalist metropolis whose creation depended on a variety of exploitative measures and whose developmental trajectory was so wholly subsumed by the rhetoric of “progress” that i finally saw the facts of modernity for what it was: a rubric of global economy whose consumptive impulses and precarious distribution of power and materiality represented the afterlife of empire.

where once i had romanticized my actualization as a modern asian subject in postcolonial distance from the west, it became clear that the modernity of my imagining was an impulsive entrance into whiteness of a different timber, not away from it. like anna may wong, the markers of my chinese/americanness, though tenuous, could not be wholly dismissed. unlike her my chinese/americanness afforded me interlocking positions of privilege within a singaporean racial hierarchy topped by a chinese ruling class. far from the essentialist logic of common racism, whiteness is not isolated to white people. instead, it is a structural occupation of cultural, material, and social hegemony - in short, the trappings of an oppressor class. my asian-american imaginary, as it turned out, rested on a projection of freedom wherein chinese bodies filled neocolonialist institutions in altered, but consistent, patterns of displacement, exploitation, and exclusion.

this recognition returned me to the specter of my chineseness, but unlike anna may wong, mine was not cultural resolution, but an indictment of my positional privilege as an american who could easily slip into singapore’s dominant light-skinned population and impose settler-colonialist imaginings of liberation in a skewed economy of discourse. in an age where the asian/american cultural consciousness seeks anxiously to define itself within and against domestic and transnational racial hierarchies, a uniquely east asian diasporic pining for solipsism--the representative phenomena of an all-east-asian cast; the comforting confines of the east asian ethno-burb; the easy reclamation of “yellow peril”--may confuse east-asian dominance with dangerous historic precedents for a beatific safety. perhaps because the imagined “we” that might occupy a “room of one’s own” is unstable to begin with, the postcolonial “asian” utopia of my imagination was impossible from its very beginning. but this is not to say that the postcolonial conditions have lost their capacity to challenge the seams of empire, corpse and spiritual afterlife alike. rather, it is cause to rethink the relationship between “asian” and “asian/american,” and ensuing strategies of resistance, wrought as they are over interconnected localities. It is, too, a reiteration of sau-ling wong’s prescient reminder that “asian america, a quasi-geographical term that became current in the 1970s and continues to be important, with no territorial sovereignty/integrity to underwrite it, appears to...suggest a yearning for the kind of containing boundaries and contained site enjoyed by the dominant society, a nation-state” (128) (“denationalization reconsidered: asian-american cultural criticism at a theoretical crossroads).

our task, then, is not only to resist aspiration toward a racial nationalism (founded on the patriarchal form of the nation-state, sanctioned by the genocidal impulse of settler-colonialism), but to interrogate the at-times oppositional entities of ethnicity within the confines of race, all the while retaining a vigilant understanding of the disembodied nature of diaspora. In this sense, resistance to the manifestations of the empire must be configured across place and time, while the coherence and mainstream singularity on part of any “asian” political project should be viewed with skepticism. if “asianness” is itself an arbitrary geopolitical designation within a european colonial modernity, perhaps we ought to understand “asian diaspora” as situational coalitions that seek to redistribute power and protection to those among a shifting cast of “us” who, historically and contemporaneously, have been made most vulnerable.

during the downpour that marked my last day on the island, clear, plastic rain-jackets crowded the street. a jacket is not quite the word for the bag-like cloaks, whose thin construction made them a fragile, albeit effective defense against the rain. hooded passersby appear as whorls, their features made blurry by dew. on these days, singapore appears, to my unassuming eye, as a watercolor of pastels and grays. intimate, if only through the unapproachable smear of paint-swirled water. there are unrequited nostalgia and a comfort beyond articulation in the noiseless touch between water and plastic. i am unsure what exactly it is that i am conjuring, and in conjuring, longing. but i can feel the heat of flesh against plastic, the slight trickle of sweat forming at my brows, and the tickle of rain against bare ankles. it is my childhood, in the tropical winter of southern china, but it could be anywhere in southeast asia. a kind of incongruity that coheres warm rain, sputtering exhaust, and damp black hair. it looks, through the translucent sheen of lens no longer rose-colored, like home, or somewhere close enough.

suiyi tang