Han Chinese racism and Malaysian contexts: cosmopolitan racial formations in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists
ABSTRACT This essay explores what it means to theorize Han racism in Malaysian contexts, where ethnic Chinese constitute a minority. Given the history of Malay political dominance and recent intensification of Malay-Muslim ethno-nationalism as part of a backlash against the historic change of government in 2018, theorizing Han racism might seem like a move to downplay these factors and minimize the various forms of racialized violence directed at Chinese identified bodies. To the contrary, I show that doing so involves tracking the transnational process of racial production, which requires understanding how racist and capitalist modes of hierarchy operate in tandem, and how racial discourses are used by the state to manage domestic political exigencies and global economic forces to facilitate ongoing capitalist accumulation. I then turn to consider the arena of world Anglophone literature, which has emerged as a transnational site for narrating Chinese Malaysian experiences, by considering an exemplary text, a 2012 novel by Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists. In examining the material and ideological conditions of the global literary marketplace in shaping the novel, I consider how the cosmopolitan nature of global Anglophone literary production can obscure the racial underpinnings of its cultural productions as in the case of Tan’s novel.
KEYWORDS: Chineseness; cosmopolitanism; Han Chinese racism; Malaysian literature in English; world literature; global Anglophone novel
Fiona Lee is Lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, Australia. She researches and teaches in the fields of global Anglophone literatures, postcolonial theory, and Asian cultural studies. She has published essays on Malaysian literature and cinema, and is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled, English and the Postcolonial Racial Imaginary, which considers the material force of English in shaping postcolonial formations of race and nation through the study of global Malaysian novels.