This post continues a conversation I began with this post on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things on the body, the nation, and postcolonial meta-narratives. In an attempt to parse the tensions I feel the in the book–and many others of its era–I continue my thoughts below.
Many have argued that The God of Small Things is a postcolonial novel about migration; conversely, others have claimed it as a novel primarily concerned with diaspora in the post-colonial age. However, these two understandings miss the novel’s deep discomfort with postcolonialism as 1) intellectual practices/ fields and 2) genres and, by extension, metanarrative. This idea that postcolonialism, as a field and as a set of practices, might have/ has already begun to replicate some of the very same structures it works against is deeply troubling. Those who control the representations of and critical theory behind postcolonialism often invoke subtle structures (unrecognizable to those who use them and therefore, unknowable to those same individuals) that bar entrance to postcolonial bodies simply through the use of the word “postcolonial”. The Donahue scene in The God of Small Things reflects this deep anxiety; indeed, looking at the Donahue scene—and the entire novel itself—we sense a barely concealed turbulence beneath the muted tone of the novel, all centered around postcolonialism as a structure. In order to do this novel—and the plethora of novels that have been born since the nineties—we must somehow move past postcolonialism. How, then, do we think “postcolonialism” outside of postcolonialism?
The 1990’s offer a unique entry point into understanding postcolonialism and decolonization. In “Out of the Cultural Ghetto: Theory, Politics, and the Study of Chinese Literature,” Zhang Longxi calls the nineties a transformative moment, though one “not without the anxiety and agony that typically mark the contingencies and ambivalence of the turning point.” The nineties marked a shift in the direction of the world’s consciousness further and further East to the tiny region of Hong Kong. The so-called “Pearl of the Orient,” long-time colony of Great Britain under the Treaty of Nanking, was at the crux of massive change: after more than a hundred years as a colony of Great Britain, communist Mainland China was poised to repossess the small region in 1997.
Leading up to and immediately after the handover, debates circulated. Many foresaw Hong Kong entering into the same postcolonial consciousness that decolonization had brought to spaces like Africa, India, and the Caribbean in the sixties. This wasn’t an entirely unfounded conclusion. Common conceptions of Hong Kong place it firmly within the realm of the Other when thought beside the West. Hong Kong has been reduced to being Chinese because of its Chinese population, never mind that its culture points towards hybridity. The assumption was that once Hong Kong became Chinese economically and politically, gaining independence from the historically imperialist Britain, it would enter into the temporal state that marked the end of colonization. This temporal state would then trigger the postcolonial consciousness the island would need to come to terms with its one hundred plus years of colonization. The postcolonialism that served the largest decolonized geographic areas would be the revolution that Hong Kong needed.
Except, no such thing happened. East Asia as a whole defies the same label of “postcolonial” that we attribute to Africa, India and the Caribbean. For one, East Asian nations retained primary use of their mother tongue even throughout the period of their colonization; second, the rapid economic development of these nations makes it hard to classify them as part of the Global South; third, with the exception of Taiwan and Hong Kong, East Asian nations experienced relatively brief periods of colonization (compared to Africa, India and the Caribbean).
At one point, needing a safe house, Old Cake takes the girl back with him to his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s apartment. When they arrive, the viewers meet Old Cake’s small daughter who, it seems, is forced to be highly independent. Old Cake’s kid is torn between her two parents who are fighting. The child asks the girl “Is it better to have or not have parents?” The girl, who is revealed to be an orphan, states, “It’s nice that you have half” but Old Cake’s child is vehement in her denial. “No! Then they only tear you in half!” Hong Kong, what with its impending return to China faced the same issue of “tearing in half”—what to do about the presence of a hundred years of colonialism? What to do about the presence of thousands of years of culture? How to reconcile decolonization with recolonization?
This film—and so many others, such as Fruit Chan’s Prostitute and 1997 trilogies, and Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs trilogy—help to increasingly make clear the idea that, in the words of Howard Choy, “colonization is a continuous multi-hegemonic operation that takes place neither once nor twice, but thrice or more.” Hong Kong demonstrated that during “decolonization,” colonial power has only ever changed hands; has only ever changed forms. As Choy states, “to the autochthons of the small Hong Kong, this postcolonial (re)turn is actually more a re-colonization than a decolonization of the capitalist Cantonese city by the mainland Mandarin master” (1).
In An Indian Historiography of India, Ranajit Guha declared the need for Indians to write their own history in order to push against the norm of writing India solely as a product of British colonialism, as if thousands of years of history prior to colonization did not exist. This call has become a core characteristic of postcolonialism. However, if “self-writing” is meant to be empowering, if it is meant to be a reclamation of things stolen, then Hong Kong’s decolonization was, in fact, not a moment of its own self-writing but rather a moment of China’s self-writing. If this was the case with Hong Kong, could it be true of other places?
Hong Kong’s position outside of postcolonialism opened up a space for deconstruction of the “core” of postcolonialism. Hong Kong, as a liminal space, one outside the dialogue of postcolonialism, offered scholars a chance to consider their discipline outside the paradigm of postcolonialism. Hong Kong asked us this:
How do we talk about postcolonialism without thinking about decolonization? How do we talk about postcolonialism outside of the structure of postcolonialism? Is anti-systemic postcolonialism possible?