World on fire

My new Néojaponisme article "Inflammatory Gaijin Piece" is up. It's about The World of Suzie Wong (no, the book) and really not as inflammatory as all that.

[map of Taiwan]

I didn't go into this in the article, but the most alien to me of all the books cultural baggage was its attitude towards "Eurasians". Having grown up in a time and place where the word "Eurasian" was mostly used to describe supermodels, Mason's unprovoked sympathy for these people astonished me. I mean, take this line:

"You said they were very nice," Miss Ruggeroni said in the dreamy yearning voice of a Eurasian who belongs nowhere.

Talk about a nuanced delivery.

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Well, wouldn't the whole project of White Expat, Local Woman result in a bunch of Eurasian children?

(And how are male halfs treated? Do they exist in this image?)


Local men are purely functional (clerks, cops, etc) in the book. Should have mentioned that too.

I understand where the "Eurasians" would have come from--it's Mason/Lomax's pity for them that I don't get. He talks about them the way you would talk about impoverished orphans, or wounded puppies, and the idea that they don't belong anywhere seems particularly tragic to him. I can only assume this reflects the mood of the times, but it caught me off-guard.


Mood of the time? More likely Mason/Lomax is an idiot. All sorts of things caught me off-guard with this book, and the memory of reading it still brings up a bad taste in my mouth 15 years later.


What I meant (but didn't express), was that if the process of creating Eurasians made something monstrous and hideous (as opposed to romantically adrift and liminal), then wouldn't Mason and his Lomax be doing something horrible in (potentially) creating them? So, the whole romance of the thing can't be destroyed completely without some sympathy for them.

(Personally, I'm thinking: don't they belong more in Hong Kong than he does? I mean, growing up there and all. Presumably, at least.)

Or, of course, for him, it could be amazing sex without any consequences. Men.

language hat:

I'm not sure why you're so hard on Mason. There is a huge, world-engulfing ocean of novels by guys writing about idealized versions of themselves living exciting lives and being loved and respected by everyone except, you know, those boring unpleasant people who get their comeuppance; why is this one any worse than the rest? Casual racism (especially of the well-meaning "I understand and sympathize with these woggy chaps!" type) was inescapable back in them days. And as for the Eurasians, that doesn't seem mysterious to me; they were rejected by both sides, what's not to pity?


But see, LH, that's exactly what I found surprising, because it's an attitude I hadn't encountered before. I wouldn't be shocked by a period narrator who was casually anti-Chinese, because I'm sadly familiar with that kind of thing, but "sympathy for Eurasians" was a new one on me. (And like Mumeishu says, his thing about them not belonging seems particularly odd for a guy who transplanted himself from England to Asia.)

(Are there any good novels you'd recommend on the Eurasian Experience in mid-20th C. Asia?)

Also, I didn't mean to be unusually hard on Mason/Lomax for the self-love, since as you say it's hardly a rare theme for a book. I only singled the book out for NJ because his character is an idealized English-speaking expat in Asia, and I think that particular fantasy hasn't changed much since then. No doubt if I'd been writing for a site about football or stockbroking I'd've chosen a different magical-hero novel.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) It's funny, MMS, there's a subplot in the book: Wong has a (yes) "Eurasian" baby from a previous relationship, which Lomax pities and mostly stays well away from. Then it dies, suddenly and for no good reason. It's never explicitly stated that this is a necessary (or sufficient) condition for Lomax and Wong to get together happily, free of previous baggage, but the _convenience_ of that plot twist does indeed leave a nasty taste in the mouth. It felt like an author-assisted version of that thing gorilla males do when they enter a new relationship—kill any children from previous relationships that their new mate has.

language hat:

I know I've read plenty of "poor Eurasians/mixed-breeds, shunned by both sides" stuff in my excessively packed reading career, but I don't have particular items in mind. I'm pretty sure Somerset Maugham is full of this stuff, though. It was a popular theme entre les guerres.


If you want to read some shameless expat fantasy packaged as a spy-thriller, you could read Shibumi by Travanian. It has all the elements there, although most of the action in China and Japan takes place as flashbacks. Nicholai's personal 'courtesan' though definitely fits the genre.

There's also the Ninja series by Eric Van Lustbader. The main character (named Nicholas, in an interesting coincidence, unless Lustbader did it as a homage to Travanian) is actually himself a half-asian, but it still follows the formula for the genre: a 'better' Japanese than many native Japanese, and at the same time a 'better' westerner than many westerners, also a master of martial arts, master of lovemaking, etc., etc.

Sigh... I read these books back in my middle-school and high school days. Now I'm almost ashamed to admit reading them.


It shames me to admit it, but I have read Shibumi. Ninja seems like it might be good for a long flight somewhere...

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