and is silent (to have been able is a miracle): pain restrains her mouth,
and her tongue cannot find sufficiently outraged words,
lacked them. – Ovid
The silencing of the female voice is a popular trope in classical literature and art. Behold this image, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by the Flemish artist, Crispijn de Passe the Elder, depicting the story of Philomela and Tereus. In this sketch, we see Tereus holding a pincer (his hand is raised), pulling Philomela’s tongue out, her tongue which he had cut off, to silence her as soon as he had raped her in the woods. Not only did Tereus violate his sister-in-law by raping and then mutilating her, he had also left her for dead. So afraid of what she might do — speak up — so he did what he knew how to do — censor her. Violating and censoring a woman is what the Patriarchy does and does well, unfortunately. But as we also know, a woman scorned is a woman with a loud voice. Philomela couldn’t speak, but she could still spin a yarn. She weaved her story into a piece of tapestry which she gave to her sister, Procne, the wife of Tereus. Procne was shocked into silence after learning what her husband had done to her sister. Procne was beside herself with rage. She had no words to express herself but she raged and in anger, she committed the most unspeakable crime — she murdered Itys, her son with Tereus, and served Itys to Tereus on a platter.
The story ends with both sisters transformed into birds: Philomela into a songbird, the nightingale and Procne into a graceful swallow, while Tereus metamorphoses into a cawing hoopoe, a bird that has the most awful voice. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is replete with many stories of transformation and in Philomela’s story, we see how rage can transform a woman into activism speaking up against oppression. Karen Rowe, a feminist scholar of folktales and fairy tales say that storytelling, in particular that of the fairy tale, is ‘semiotically a female art.’
While women spin tales, men appropriate them. It is no surprise that the collectors and collators of fairytales are primarily men — The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Ovid. The women of the past were uneducated, especially those from the lower classes. Women from the aristocracy could some read and write, but these endeavours were mostly left to the privilege of the men. So, women spin yarns. And when women learned to read and write, they wrote yarns. The pen is mightier than the sword, as we know. The woman’s plume mightier than the man’s nib, as I like to say. So, I wrote down the story of slave girls found in 1930s British Malaya, the story of what the colonial administration termed ‘The Mui Tsai Problem’. I felt that these girls, whose voices were at best muffled, at worst silenced, needed to be heard. And by the might of the pen invested in me, I gave these little girls words to tell their story, through the voice of Ah Lian, who spoke through Ah Mei.
THE HOUSE OF LITTLE SISTERS will be in print in February 2022. This is my debut YA (Young Adult) novel and it is a work of historical fiction, weaving folktale, folk religion and lore, with magic-realism and poetry, so that I can share the plight of little girls (aka mui tsai in Cantonese) with the world. Their voices shall no longer be silent.
‘An engrossing read … a testimony of Eva Wong Nava’s attention to period details and exquisite storytelling skills’ ~ Felix Cheong, award-winning author of Sprawl: A Graphic Novel.
‘This is anexciting piece of historical fiction anchored by relatable characters, and is the best way to experience the past.’ ~ Audrey Chin, author of The Ash House.
Rowe, E Karen. “To Spin a Yarn: The Female Voice in Folklore and Fairy Tale” in Fairy tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm, ed. Ruth B. Bottingheimer. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1986, pp 53-73.
Behold this nine-panelled polyptych with the Virgin and Child taking the top panel, presiding over the congregation and the community of saints below. The standing figure in the middle (a statue) is Santo Bartolemeo or Saint Bartholomew the Apostle. He is also known as the patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and is therefore beloved by the Armenians.
We didn’t travel to Armenia to get a sighting of St Bartolomeo. We took a little drive from the city of Bergamo to the hillside village of Olera to visit a church perched on a verdant hilltop, surrounded by quaint village houses. The church is dedicated to St Bartolomeo. So, it is apt that this polyptych takes pride of place at the centre of the church.
The polyptych was painted in 1489 by Giovan (aka Giovanni) Battista Cima from Conegliano, Veneto. This is the reason why this altarpiece is also attributed to Cima da Conegliano — Cima from Conegliano.
I am not a practising Catholic, although I’ve had a convent education spanning 10 years, and have lived amongst the staunchest of Lutherans, Protestants, and Catholics for more than three decades of my life. I’d admit that Catholicism will always remain close to my heart. I love Catholic saints for the stories they tell. There are just some very sagely trivia that I love to study about these saints. I don’t have a photographic memory, so I don’t always remember all that I’ve read. But I know that Bartholomew was one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Legend has it that Bartolomeo (his Italian name) was skinned alive and beheaded. His emblems are a knife (the one that he was skinned with) and his flayed skin. For this, he is beloved (in some perverse way) by tanners and those who work with leather, or skins of all sorts, I guess.
The bottom far right panel is that of San Rocco. He is the patron saint of dogs (woofy funny), bodily afflictions and diseases, such as the plague and rashes, amongst others. San Rocco’s emblems are a staff and he is always depicted with a wound on his thigh or knee.
Born of nobility in Montpellier, France, in 1295, San Rocco gave his riches to the poor, attended to the sickly and dying, and legend has it that he miraculously cured some people. It is also believed that San Rocco was born from a miracle, his mother having been barren for many years, with a birthmark that looked like a cross on his chest. As an adult, he was arrested on accounts of espionage and imprisoned. He languished in jail for five years without him ever once mentioning his noble connections. Apparently, he was cared for by an angelic presence until he died in 1327 of natural causes. By then, he had already done many things.
San Rocco is now the all important saint invoked in the Catholic world. His help is needed to get rid of the pestilant COVID-19 virus that is circumventing the globe today.
Above San Rocco is Santa Caterina or Saint Catherine. She is the patron saint of literature. Known also as Catherine of Siena, Santa Caterina was an activist, mystic, author and was conferred Doctor of the Church for her contribution to theological studies. She was the second woman in the Catholic world to be given this recognition. Hence, this makes her the only female saint on the polyptych.
Her attributes are a crown of thorns, a rose, a book, a crucifix, amongst others. She is invoked for her power to cure the sick, for miscarriages, and bodily afflictions in general, amongst other divine powers that she possesses. [It is good to note that saints are living divine beings as Orthodox Christians and Coptics believe them to be.]
Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa was born in Rome in the year 1347. She had a twin sister, Giovanna, who unfortunately died in the arms of the wet nurse. Caterina’s mother, Lapa Piagenti, was the daughter of a poet, and she was what doctors today call a geriatric primigravida when she had the twin girls at the age of forty. Not only that, Lapa had given birth at least 22 times before Caterina and Giovanna were born. Half of her children had died by that time. Twenty-two times!! — that in itself is a miracle and Lapa Piagenti should’ve been canonised for the sacrifices she had made with her body. By the time Caterina was 2 years old, her mother had givnen birth yet again. Caterina finally had another sister named after her late twin. This would be Lapa’s 25th child.
Caterina’s father had a cloth dying business which he managed and ran with his sons. (If I were Lapa, I’d have made sure he died in a bath of red dye for impregnating me this many times. But hey, I am no saint.) All in all, Caterina was born into a middle-income family. Her parents played a big part in Caterina’s life, as most parents do. With so many children to feed and protect, the Benincasas ran a tight ship. When Bonaventura, one of Caterina’s sisters died at childbirth, she was asked to marry her widower. Caterina flatly refused because she knew how Bonaventura had suffered as his wife: Bonaventura had to go on a hunger strike to force her husband to be better. It is not known if he was a wife-beater or a bully. But for Bonaventura to take such a drastic action, he must’ve been most undesireable. A jerkass in today’s lingo. Following in her late sister’s foot steps, Caterina fasted as well when she was told to marry her brother-in-law. I shall just say it as it is — she went on a hunger strike; to fast would be putting it mildly. She never married Bonaventura’s widower. In fact, the only marriage Caterina ever had was with God.
It is a well known fact that women use their bodies to challenge the status quo. The suffragettes went on hunger strikes in the early 1900s to protest against not being imprisoned as political prisoners for they saw themselves as fighting a political cause — the right for women to vote. The authorities forced-fed the women as a means to keep them alive. This force-feeding became the most poignant docuementation of the suffragette’s fight for gender equality and a basic human right. You can read more about it here.
Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa had a love for God so strong that she became politically active in fighting for clergical reforms. She travelled widely preaching and advocating her beliefs. She used her body to challenge the authorities, to show her love for the common people and for the Catholic Church. She cared for the sickly and dying. She walked miles to get to places and people that needed her. She wrote reams and reams of letters to the Pope asking for this and that reform. And, she starved herself: fasting was her means to get closer to God. This was ironically frowned upon by the clerical authorities. Not the getting close to God part, but the starving of oneself to get near Holiness part. The authorities, it has been said, felt that fasting was unhealthy.
It was indeed unhealthy because in 1380, Caterina suffered a massive stroke after months of refraining food and water. She faded away because there is only so much an anorexic body can take, and let’s not forget a dehydrated one too. I think it is a miracle that she managed to last so many months before finally succumbing to the angel of death. She passed away at the age of thirty-three, commending her soul and spirit to God. By that time, she had written The Dialogue of Divine Providence, her most important and remembered work. There were also over 380 letters to the Pope (as well as many to women) and prayers that she’d penned that are still whispered today. Santa Caterina di Siena was indeed a woman of letters. She is my patron saint.
A Community of Writers
I was recently invited to join a community of authors who have come together to find ways to promote our books and work. We’re a hodgepodge of authors ranging from children’s to YA to adult fiction and nonfiction.
And behold, we are also a nine-panelled polyptych:
These, my dear reader, are pen and paper, computer and wifi (for research), a vase of imagination, a feather of creativity, a walking stick of kudos, and a mettle of bravado.
My colleagues and I will vouch that our sacrifices are many: time stolen from family, sleep deprivation from working in full-time day jobs and part-time grave yard shifts writing, anguish when the page is blank and fear that our ideas have run out, cardiac palpitations as the deadlines loom and we still have half a book to write, to name but a few. And let’s also not forget, the long TBR list that forms the basic ingredient to good writing. And for some of us, research — years of research for this is what historical fiction and nonfiction requires. Add to this, the brainwave and physical effort to promote our work because publishing budgets for underrepresented, debut, and back-listed authors are small (unless, of course, your debut novel was acquired through a nine-way auction).
I think every writer is a saint. The Church of Writing has canonised many and these have become household names, sanctified and revered, much like the various saints (santi (m) and sante (f) in Italian) whose names Catholics invoke.
And like the many saints, these canonised authors are mostly Caucasian/White. Such is the way with publishing. But that is starting to change. And I am so excited to be part of this change. More on my forthcoming picturebooks with Walker Books and Scholastic UK soon.
This aside, the question always comes back to why writers do what they do? And since we’re talking about saints today, let’s flip this and ask, “Why are people canonised?” Well, I can put my hand on my heart and say that I don’t write for fame and fortune (if only), or to enter the canons of literature (that’d be lovely, though). No one who has ever picked up a pen to write or typed away on their computers would say that their motivation is to be canonised. We write because our lives depend on it. We have stories to tell that we would like you to read. And, I feel, most of all, we write because we really do enjoy writing, hard as it is, under the various circumstances and situations that afflict us, and the stiff competition that we face in the publishing world as underrepresented and marginalised writers of colour. (And you know how I dislike this term). Too many adjectives for this nine-member strong community, I feel. But hey, I didn’t invent those descriptors.
What can you do to help? I pray thee, my dear reader — go buy our books. If not, our efforts would have all been wasted, and that would be a shame.
For those who are interested in understanding and rethinking diversity in publishing, click here.
Fauvism is an art movement that was started in the 20th century by a group of artists who felt that vibrant and complementary colours, and painterly skills such as strong brush strokes were more important than realistic representations of the world. A famous fauvist was Henri Matisse. His partner in crime was André Derain. Both artists left a legacy of work, many of which decorate the walls of museums and collectors’ homes today.
The year was 1905. It was the salon d’automne once more. Paris was flooded with art lovers, art enthusiasts and art critics. Louis Vauxcelles was in Paris that year on the look out for refreshing new styles to write about. His eye rested on the canvasses of Matisse and Derain. These painters are like wild beasts, thought Vauxcelles, and he called them les fauves.
Were the artists savage beasts painting portraits by wildly throwing bright colours on the canvas? Or were they simply artists who understood that colours work well in pairs, especially when they contrast one another, yet complement each other? Colour theory was already in existence when Matisse and Derain spent a summer in Collioure, where they experimented with a new way of painting people and landscape. They took the science of colour theory up many notches.
Their pieces were not only abstract, they were bold, and they hit one’s eyes with an array of complementary colours that looked like they were freshly squeezed out of their tubes. A dab of green here, one over there, but this time red, an emphatic yellow stroke around here, another one of violet to contour the face. And, we have a man. The art world had never seen anything quite like this before the 1905 salon d’automne. It drove the people wild.
People of Colour
As a joke, I often call les fauves people of colour, because they were. These were painters who understood colour theory: how colours complement and contrast one another. They saw how red and green (a mix of yellow and blue) marry well. And if they mixed red and blue, the result was a shade of violet and this complemented yellow. They knew their primary colours — Red, Yellow, Blue, and their secondary colours — Orange, Green, Violet. And if they mixed the three primary colours, they saw Black. White was formed also by mixing the three primaries, and by adding more and more colours, lightening the mixture until a white paste was formed. It was basic, they thought — elementary. Colours are what we see around us, they said. Why not use them to our advantage by making riveting pieces of art? So, the two artists spent the summer in the South of France, where the light is always exquisitely ample and the landscape marvellously sprinkled with different shades of colours, squeezing tubes of paint onto canvasses, dabbing them with primary colours and brushing secondary colours next to the primary ones.
Mixing colours — this, I promise you, is a fun game for kids on a rainy day. If you’re gonna make a mess, make sure it’s a colourful one.
I am a person of colour. Alas, I am no artist. Only a person who is not white, therefore, always known as a POC. This acronym sits very uncomfortably in my stomach, where I would love to regurgitate it and flush it down the loo forever. In the colour wheel of racism, there is white, black and brown. As someone of Chinese lineage, I am yellow. But it is not P-C to call an East Asian yellow anymore. So, in the US, I am a person of colour, and in the UK, I am known as a minority ethnic person (BAME).
How does all this make sense, you ask?
Well, it doesn’t. Not to me anyway. I can understand and respect it if someone of African lineage wants to be known as Black. Not all Black people are Americans, so not all Black people are African-Americans. Like not all brown people are from India. Many are from Pakistan or Bangladesh or even countries like Malta and Madagascar. They could even be from Zimbabwe (once named Rhodesia), Kenya, Malaysia, and/or Singapore. As for East Asians, we are so many — Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, and those of us who are from dual-parentage families. Not all are Asian-Americans, Canadian-Chinese or even British-Chinese, nor do all East Asians come from China or Japan or Korea. Many are from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. Let’s not forget Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and French Polynesia. And I can tell you that the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia are more brown than yellow. But I digress, as always.
Where was I? Ah — les fauves. Fauvism faded away after 1910. The movement developed around the same time as German Expressionism, proving that ideas are not original and that great minds think alike. Fauvism opened the doors to Cubism, and made many things in art possible, like Pointillism and Structuralism.
So, how now brown cow?
I say we get rid of the acronyms POC and BAME. Let’s begin afresh and just call people people. Humankind, rather than the Human Race. We can pull humankind apart and start by being kind to another human being. And yes, human being, a person simply being. After we’ve processed this term, let’s then race to tear down the colour bar that keeps us apart, segregating people into different shades of colour for the purpose of maintaining the status quo and hegemony of those of us White and those of them Coloured.
Have you noticed that a White person is never a person of colour? And that it is ok to say someone is black or brown, but never yellow? Red, too, is long gone a colour to call someone who is indigenous to the land. And, it is faux pas to categorise someone who is native to their countries/nations as ‘Indian’, a term used by white colonisers to label people who were not from India, but thought to be so. Language evolves with time, and I feel it’s time to rid the English language of phrases like people of colour and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. I am feverish with desire to put a stop to being labeled a minority ethnic and a person of colour. Minority ethnic? My ancestors come from the most populated nation in the world — China. If all of them spoke English as their mother tongue, they would outnumber the mother tongue English speakers on our globe. So, next to South Asians, I am hardly a minority. And, yellow I am definitely not. I’d like to think I am a little bronzed with a hint of gold myself. But then, we’re back to colouring ourselves again. So, no! Stop already!
Here’s a piece of flash fiction inspired by a condition known as Yellow Fever. A condition that I heard a white woman speak about during my sojourn in Southeast Asia.
As long as we, non-white people, continue to use the label POC or BAME to identify ourselves, we are continuing the colonial legacy of these labels, giving them the power and significance that they shouldn’t have and hold. As much as I understand that race is and will continue to be one’s identity, much like mother/father or being trans, cis or bi are identity markers, I feel that ridding the English language of POC and BAME, we start to break the conditions that fetter us, and remove the status quo that keeps some of us marginalised and underrepresented. In this way, we also start to get rid of racial stereotypes or stereotypes of any sorts, and then, one day, see the removal of any unconscious racial biases or prejudices that plague us. This would free humans to just be. And, we start to become human beings, not coloured and (post)-colonised beings. Don’t you want this as much as I do?
And whilst we’re at it, let’s also remove the acronym WOC — Writers of Colour. I am a writer, like every person who writes for a living — simply a writer. I am not defined by colour as a writer. But I can certainly write many colourful stories that paint the world red and orange, yellow and green, blue, indigo and violet too.
The villa can be traced back to 320-350 A.D, so we’re talking 4th Century, A.D. The villa where each room had exquisite floors with figures and motifs made up of mosaics probably belonged to a member of Rome’s senatorial class. He’s someone of high class and exquisite taste. I say ‘he’ because Roman senators were always male. Archeologists have said that from the handiwork, the construction of these floors were made by artists from the African continent, particularly North Africa. The evidence comes from the mosaics’ varying styles and narratives spanning from mythology and to Homeric poems.
This one is my favourite. It’s a close up showing two bikini-clad women playing a game involving a ball. Beach volley, perhaps?
I love how modern the scene is, considering that this was made well over 1,500 years ago. I’m imagining that it is a hot day in Sicily, a summer’s day. The locals are out enjoying the sea air and playing games at the beach. Bikini-clad bodies are everywhere during the summer months of July and August on Italian beaches. These are the two months that Italians go to the sea.
That women still play ball in bikinis or are expected to do so is, of course, sexist. I can’t believe that the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for not wanting to play in bikinis. In the 21st century too. Come on, people! I hate it that sexism still exists.
I love mosaics. I love how little bits of ceramic, glass or stone can be used to make a bigger picture. But I hate jigsaw. Love vs Hate — two very basic human feelings. There is no better a place and time when this binary human emotion is displayed than in the sporting arena.
George Orwell said it best, “[…] sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will….”
You’ve just got to look at what happened after England lost the European Cup recently. Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were booed, bullied and blamed for England’s defeat.
If you’ll allow me another quote: “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.”
Here’s George Orwell’s full essay. Read it and weep because it is so insightful, intelligent and eloquent.
Orwell is a pacifist, it would seem. The battefield he mentioned in his essay was still in his mind for the essay was first published in December 1945. The Second World War had ended only two months earlier. Today’s battlefield is the internet. The battles taking place in this battlefield is a war of words. Some may even say, a war of the thumbs and fingers. Keyboard warriors bashing other keyboard warriors, other keyboard warriors defending other ones, with many venting their frustrations online for the world to read. The screen has become a shield of sorts.
The world is now glued to their TV screens watching the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Team GB did very well in swimming. Adam Peaty won a gold for GB and “became the first British swimmer to retain an Olympic title”, the BBC says. What Peaty retained was the gold medal for the men’s 100m breaststroke.
In other parts of the world, on a small island in the tropics, where skyscrapers sweep the skies and migrant workers sweep the roads and pavements, a swimmer named Joseph Schooling was booed, bullied and blamed for not ‘defending’ his gold medal in Tokyo. Schooling is Singapore’s golden butterfly. He became Singapore’s first Olympian champion after he took home a gold medal in Rio for the the men’s 100m butterfly in 2016.
Here’s a stroke by stroke analysis of Joseph Schooling’s performance that only Singapore can do so well. Analyse, analyse, analyse and learn, learn, learn.
Being a champion is not easy. Being the first to win a gold for one’s country is not easy. There are now expectations and hopes placed on the champion to retain his title. Expectations add pressure to say the least. And Joseph Schooling went to Tokyo with this pressure on his shoulders.
What many people in Singapore weren’t expecting were the many hurtful and frankly, pathetic comments made online about Joseph Schooling’s performance in Tokyo. Comments, for example, alluding to the state of Singapore having paid to train Schooling. This prompted Schooling’s supporters: friends, fans and family to go public about the truth. There’s integrity in putting people in their places when they’ve been unreasonable or plainly unintelligent.
Jospeh Schooling paid for his own training. Not one cent of Singapore taxpayer’s money went into sending Jospeh Schooling to America to be educated and trained in swimming. His scholarship at another American educational institution was paid for by taxpayer’s, yes. But it was NOT taxpayers of Singapore that funded this, since the university where Schooling received his schooling and scholarship was situated in Texas.
I feel compelled to write this post because it aggrieves me that once again, Singapore has made the local headlines (see this post for another reason) for some citizens’ pig-headed and pig-hearted comments. Instead of choosing to be empathetic, some small-minded, myopic and rather annoying Singaporeans have chosen to be pathetic. And, on social media too. Of all things to mimic, some Singaporeans would choose to mimic equally small-minded, myopic and unintelligent racist Britons.
So, instead of griping, grinching and grinding your teeth over Schooling’s performnce in Tokyo, read this instead. It’s a picture book by veteran picture book author Dave Seow. RACE TO RIO is a creative nonfiction picturebook tracing Joseph Schooling’s steps to being Singapore’s Gold Medalist in the 100m men’s butterfly.
Then, take a look at this touching photograph and weep. A champion will always be a champion no matter what some losers say.
I once bought a dress from a well-known British designer that was a cross between two cultures. The dress was made to look like a cheongsum or traditional Chinese dress, like the one you see in the poster, but it had a thick sash attached at the waist fashioned after an obi from the traditional Japanese dress. I wore it to a wedding in Italy and I was the only Asian woman and guest there. The dress attracted some attention because it was unusual and because I was unusual. I had bought it because it attracted my attention as it was unusual and I like being unusual. I still have that dress. I can’t wear it anymore as my waistline has expanded over the years since that wedding. This beautiful dress hangs wrapped up in plastic, a cross-cultural artefact, in my wardrobe. It has travelled around the world with me in our various moves. I’ve kept it because it’s unusual and still holds my attention, reminding me of what it’s like to live between two cultures.
Living cross-culturally is something I’m very familiar with. My entire life is a cross-cultural experience. You’ve heard me say many times that I’m Peranakan-Chinese — a bi-cultural mix of Chinese and Malay, more Chinese than Malay, or someone from the Chinese diaspora with Malay blood. You’ve also heard me tell you many times that I am bringing up a cross-cultural family — my daughters who are culturally hyphenated embrace their diversity fully. And so you must also know that I straddle two cultures and worlds and I’m comfortable in both, but can fall between the cracks sometimes.
Yesterday, I had my teeth cleaned and polished at a new dental practice. My new dentist is Iranian, but he is also a Briton. He told me that his daughter identifies 80% Iranian, 15% Briton, and 5% Swedish (only because she was born in Sweden). Mr Mohamad had lived in Sweden for 15 years and London for the past 25.
“It’s complicated,” Mr. Mohamad said.
“Yes, super,” I replied because I know about complicated living.
He started with the teeth exploration.
“I’m almost more British than Iranian now, but in my heart, I’m always Iranian,” he continued, “you know, cross-cultural living.
I managed a hmm.
“Oh, you’ve got a crack here,” he went on, indicating the tooth by tapping it with his dental explorer.
I nodded in reply this time as he continued to explore my teeth and gums. I know what it’s like to live cros-culturally. And the crack in my lower left first pre-molar has been there for some time. I know about cracks only too well.
I wanted to tell him about a new film I’d just watched. A heart-warming film that crosses cultures. But being the dentist, he talked as I, the patient, listened with mouth a little agape. And Denmark, where the film’s story was set, is not Sweden, although the Danes and Swedes may share some cultural things in common. I decided to let my thoughts about said film go without voicing them.
Kinamand and the Ideal Chinese Woman
Kinamand, written by Kim Fupz Aakeson and directed by Henrik Ruben Genz (2005) is said to be “a soft-spoken lyrical and beautiful film about love which comes out of nowhere and transcends cultures.”
It’s a cross-cultural love story between a Chinese woman named Ling and a Danish man named Keld. Ling’s brother, Feng, who owns a “Grill” or Chinese takeaway, arranges for Keld to marry Ling so that she can stay in Denmark forever. We hear Feng tell Keld that in China it is hard for a woman to be alone. Keld agrees to the marriage of convenience because he needs the money to pay his wife whom he had recently divorced upon her request. This is a bitter-sweet story with too many stereotypes and tropes that got me thinking about the perception of Chinese people in Europe (and generally in the west), the portrayal of Chinese women in films and literature (in the west and east), and about the language of love (how universal it is). Layered into the story is also one about immigration, identity and belonging.
Ling is played by Chinese-American actress Vivian Wu, Keld by Danish actor Bjarne Henriksen, with Feng played by Lin Kun Wu, who is also a Danish actor.
I came upon Kinamand on Netflix serendipitously while researching docu-dramas. Since then, I’ve been trying to find out more about the film but with little luck. But I did find other information linked to the film. For example, Aakeson is a well-known Danish screenwriter and believe it or not, also a children’s book author, published by Pushkin Press in the UK, and has written over 80 books for children and young adults. His tone, according to Pushkin, is “quirky, honest, humorous”. Funny that I couldn’t find any images of the book covers, namely picture book covers, for any of Kim Fupz Aakeson’s picture books on Pushkin’s website. Perhaps, Pushkin has just simply listed him and his forthcoming books or books in translation acquired by the house. Maybe his are not picturebooks. But joy at Amazon, where I found Aakeson’s Vitello series, illustrations and all. Cute! Vitello means veal in Italian, by the way. But Aakeson’s Vitello is a little boy, judging from the cover art.
The woman in the poster, clad in a cheongsam or qipao, reminded me of Ling in Kinamand: sensuous, coquettish, and stereotypically “oriental” — Ling is only ever seen in a cheongsam throughout the film. (The film seems to be set in the 1970s.) This woman in the poster holds our gaze smiling provocatively back at us, like Ling in several scenes in the movie, though she only had eyes for Keld.
There were so many enticing moments in the film that drew me in: It is a lyrical story, full of ellipses and intimate moments where the Danish is subtitled but the Chinese not. For non-Chinese speaking audiences, it is like being in Keld’s shoes where Ling’s words form a soundscape of white noise, and non-Chinese speaking audiences are left to infer and interpret the story. Feng makes mistakes in Danish, indicating his foreignness — Dane but not quite. But he keeps at it — trying to belong. He says sex instead of six, which sound similar in Danish, as far as my non-Danish ears can tell. The context for this is that Keld orders his Chinese dinners by numbers — a cringingly farang thing to do. But I was drawn by Keld’s attempt to embrace this newfound culinary adventure.
Yet, there were many cringing moments in the film that repelled me: Feng, the real Chinaman (Kinamand means Chinaman in Danish), is cryptic, telling half-truths, and so, not fully honest — the stereotypical depiction of a Chinaman. He is the owner of a Chinese takeaway across from the council estate (or Denmark’s equivalent of one) where Keld has a flat — another stereotypical depiction of a Chinaman. Keld’s repetitive use of the word “business” when speaking to Ling when he has no language to explain certain actions he’s obliged to take or who certain people are that he speaks only in Danish to — yet one more stereotypical depiction because Chinese people only understand business relations, no? Feng’s extended family live with him and he is trying to get his sister conveniently married in Denmark by cheating the immigration system, because Ling can’t go back to China, and we find out later it is because she needs medical attention and Denmark’s health care is far superior than China’s— yet another stereotypical depiction, this time of east vs west: inferior vs superior. Keld obtains the moniker, Kinamand, because he agrees to marry Ling, playing on this racist pun: Danish man and China man, exacerbating the difference. Then, there is Ling, obliged to perform her wifely duties sans sex because “pro forma”, the Danish word used to reference the couple’s marriage of convenience. Ling moves into Keld’s empty flat, cooks for him and brings him a packed lunch at work one day. (All this is presumably self-imposed because what else can a woman and new wife do?) She leaves the tiffin quietly on a chair so as not to disturb Keld, who was listening to a taped Chinese lesson. A Chinese woman is taught from young never to disturb the man at work. Ling does everything a wife should except give in to Keld physically. She’s been told by her brother (we are left to infer this) that she must not have sex with Keld and Keld has been instructed by Feng that there is to be no “hanky panky” because “pro forma”. There is the push and pull of forbidden love and desire playing out throughout the movie.
Having said this, there were heart-warming moments in the film that forced me to question my reading of the story: Keld falls in love with Ling, who is a woman brimming with intelligence. He tries to learn Chinese and teaches her Danish, which she mimics the sounds of — she is trying too. The moments of silence are intensified by the tension between the couple, who understands that this is only “pro forma”. And Feng can only tell half-truths because the situation requires that he does. He is conflicted too, having to negotiate the path between filial duty and friendship, and saving face for himself, his sister and his family. And, I would say, for that matter, Keld too has to do the same. He has a family too, an ex-wife he is fond of and a son whom he loves, and he seems duty-bound to protect them as well.
Meanwhile, Keld falls more and more in love with Ling, lured by her mysteriousness (due to the lack of verbal communication), and Ling falls deeper and deeper in love with Keld (out of spousal duty, I reckon, as she was socialised to doing). Theirs is an arranged marriage, which in Chinese tradition is very common, something that Ling would be used to.
Watching the movie, I was reminded not to clench my jaw as I always do when I am tensed.
Images of Women in Traditional Chinese Paintings
This is the title of an essay by Mary H. Fong that explores the perception and depiction of women in Chinese history and historical paintings. “In traditional China, artistic creativity was gender-specific, exclusively masculine, and the female image that emerged is not what it purports to represent but rather a signification of male power.” [Fong, pp 22] And all this had to do with…Confucius. The principle of yin and yang, its relationship tied to Heaven are the “three bonds” that ensured a woman’s (yin) relationship with a man (yang) is a celestial decree, something foreordained by Heaven, and hence a relationship that cannot be changed. This was, according to Fong, a thought incorporated into the Confucius analects by a Confucian scholar named Dong Zhongshu (c. 179 to 104 B.C). This belief became the root for the Confucius patriarchy system that emerged profusely during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D). Since Dong Zhongshu had this “brilliant” thought, women in China and those of the diaspora have had to live by this tenet: “Obey your father before marriage, your husband after marriage, and your son after the death of the husband.” For the English, this would be considered Victorian.
So, we watch as Ling obeys her brother by marrying Keld. Then, we see her obeying Keld, her husband. Keld has a son, but Ling does not find out about Michael, or she would be obliged to obey him too.
Much more literature followed after Dong’s treatise regarding how women are to behave (Biogaphies of Exemplary Women or Lienü Zhuan) and how filial sons have to be (Biographies of Filial sons or Xiaozi Zhuan). These two instruction booklets were put together by a man named Liu Xiang (77-76 B.C.) and they became the main resource and source for the pictorial depiction of the female form in Chinese figure painting. The docile, obedient and gentle female form or the “Exemplary Woman” reached its zenith during the Han Dynasty, thus giving way to “women as types, not specific individuals” [Fong, pp 23] These types were mainly the daugther, the wife/mother and then the widow.
Moving forward into the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.), the “Exemplary Woman” gave way to the Chinese Beauty (shinü). The Tang Dynasty was known as the Golden Age of artistic and literary expression in Chinese history. Court paintings of palace beauties elegantly weaving or sewing, playing the lute, brewing tea were numerously produced. In many of these paintings, we see how the female form is “richly endowed with blossoming loveliness and feminine charm” yet the faces of these “Chinese Beauties” must be balanced with “a look of severe correctness” that should reflect “an antique purity of the soul”. [Fong, pp 23] This was due to the thoughts and words of Guo Ruoxu, a Chinese painting historian from the 11th century, who Fong quoted in her essay. And as they say, the rest is history. Since Chinese antiquity, the Chinese woman is one who will edify the viewer (the male gaze) and “make visible the qualities of the ideal woman” — she must be submissive, demure, quiet, avert her gaze, alluring, agreeable and accepting of her (lower) position. [Fong, ibid] Add to this, poems penned by court poets during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) gave way to “moth eyebrows”, “bright eyes” that “illumine her clear bone”, “cinnabar lips” that “screen white teeth” and a delicate face “like sceptre jade”. [Fong, ibid] And, in some court painting, I’ve noticed that these women are always depicted alone, moon gazing or looking wistfully into the distance. The deserted woman is another trope that all Chinese painters use to depict the idealised woman. She is looking into a mirror or into the distance, this gazing is a metaphor for the grief that she feels or her longing for her absent lover.
Ling in Kinamand typifies the idealised Chinese woman. She sleeps alone in Keld’s flat because no “hanky panky” due to “pro forma”. She moves gently about the space, is caught by Keld practising taichi, focused, dignified, and mysterious. In the flat, Keld sees Ling in shadows and through a half-closed door, amplifying her allure and mystery. She becomes that object of desire in Keld’s empty life.
Ling is quiet in her motions and good-natured in her ways. She is juxtaposed against Rie (played by Charlotte Fich), Keld’s ex-wife, who is demanding, assertive and forceful. As soon as she discovers Keld’s marriage to Ling, not knowing that it is a bogus one, Rie returns to claim Keld back after rejecting him and forcing him into divorcing her. She threatens to inform the police, when she discovers that it is a “pro forma” union, if Keld does not hand over the money he’d agreed to give her for the divorce. Ling on the other hand, is seen to work her magic gently, though not unassertively, without being ‘loud’ about it. In one particular scene, we see Ling saddened by Keld accepting a money envelope (the agreed bride price/”business”), for his willingness to marry her — the deserted woman trope. In another, we see Rie handing the envelope back to Keld — the White-superior woman vs the Asian-inferior woman trope. Here’s another trope: Two women, both after the same man, who is actually quite boring and passive, which was why Rie left him in the first place. And included in the film is the ‘sick woman’ trope. And, underlying all this is the ‘white saviour’ trope.
Much has been said and continues to be said about stereotypes and tropes in regard to the portrayal of Chinese or East Asian women in art, film and literature. Fong’s insightful analysis of Chinese period paintings or traditional Chinese paintings gave me much food for thought about how the Chinese themselves had depicted their own women in paintings and literature, and how a certain school of philosophy — Confucianism — had codified women’s behaviour and societal expectations of a woman. As someone who identifies Chinese, female and of the diaspora, I would be criticised profusely for what I am about to say: So, can we blame other people, namely white people, for ‘othering’ Chinese women? Or should we look at the root of the problem — Chinese patriarchy and patriarchy in general that has since time immemorial sought to dehumanise women yet ironically idealising her as a type and trope?
I’m not saying just because the Chinese themselves have a stereotyped ideal of the woman that it’s alright for another culture to adopt the same stereotyped ideal of her. As writers and artists, it is important that we understand why these stereotypes exist and continue to exist. The patriarchy is the patriarchy. And if we can, in our own might as women writers, help direct the gaze away from the idealised female, we can stop idealising ourselves and enabling others, who are non-Chinese, to ‘other’ and idealise the Chinese female.
The film, with all its tropes and stereotypes, surprised me in the end. I didn’t dislike Keld. In fact, he was very endearing in his duncey and typical what-don’t-you-get-man male way — duh, man! Ling had her flaws too, which made her human and less idealistic — she has a temper! Rie, isn’t all that much of a cold fish, after all — she has a heart! Feng, unfortunately, I liked the least because he was not rounded enough a character for me. I think Aakeson had purposefully written Feng to be a clown-like, jester character that adds some comic relief to the tension in the movie. This, I would say, reflects more on Aakeson’s character than Feng’s.
What surprised me most about the movie was the insight I gained about my own perception of the Chinese woman — me. I compared myself to Ling while watching the movie. I felt embarrassed that I do not tick the ideal Chinese female boxes. And what’s worst is that I can’t fully explain why. Maybe it has to do with always being told that I am not a good girl, too intelligent for my own good, and too loud in my gestures, and I want badly not to be associated with being a bad girl.
Then, my mind went back to my mother’s advice from a long time ago when she told me that I should keep my opinions to myself — I’ve never been able to not speak up about injustice and the patriarchy, and the way so many Chinese men treat the female body. Truth be said, I am not ashamed for being vociferous about this. Male infidelity and misogyny is still very rife in so many parts of the Asian world. As for Chinese traditions, I wish that they weren’t all to do with putting women in their places and keeping them there. The biggest tradition of all is marriage and children — it is still a woman’s duty in China and most of East, South and Southeast Asia to keep house and give birth, and I simply detest all this and frankly, am quite ashamed of them. Am I ashamed of being Chinese or Asian or Peranakan? Deep down, never, but sometimes, I do wonder how I am perceived by others who don’t know me. I am definitely not the ideal even if I still do compare myself to the ideal. But I tell my daughters to NEVER compare themselves using a male yardstick.
Things to Note:
I am not a Chinese painting expert by any means. For better understanding of Chinese paintings and the depiction of women in Chinese art, see James Cahill who had studied women in Ming and Qing Dynasty paintings.
For more of Chinese art, see Alexander Soper.
The concept of beauty changes or what consitutes beauty change with time. But the pursuit of female beauty and the idealisation of the female form continues to persist.
Fong, Mary H. “Images of Women in Traditional Chinese Painting.” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 17, no. , 1996, pp 22-27 [accessed 29 July 2921, JSTOR]