Occidentalism in Singaporean Fiction

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

In Hwee Hwee Tan's second novel, Mammon Inc (2001), Chiah Deng Gan, a recent graduate of the Oxbridge College Dagobah Hall, receives a job offer from Mammon CorpS. In order to get this seductively prestigious job, however, she needs to pass three tests: get into a Gen Vex (the modish generation vexed) party, help her sister to be "English" enough to be accepted by Oxford students, and turn her best friend into a Singaporean. As she researches "Singaporean-ness", she begins to hate a part of herself:

I hated the piped music that leaked out of the stores -- bland, middle-of-the-road slush that sounded like it was vetted by the Mormons. But don’t get me wrong -- I have nothing against Western culture. Americans do American things very well, but the problem is when Singaporeans try to do American things -- it just looks tacky, fake, like a cheap imitation, because it’s not true to our land, our history, our selves. (245)

The typical Singaporean is detailed with embarrassment precisely because of this occidentalism. The representation of both occidental and oriental stereotypes in Tan's novels, however, operates simultaneously on various levels. Lured by the attractions of Christianity on the one hand, just as she is by the devilish international corporation on the other, Deng Gan exhibits fears and longings that make her doubly an "occidentalist". Her fascination with the medieval Christian mystics turns the orientalist reverence for "Eastern" religions -- a hallmark of European orientalism since the Romantic age -- inside out: “I felt so Zenned out.” (208) This inversion is anticipated in Tan's earlier novel, Foreign Bodies (1997), which emphatically sets out to rewrite the expected story -- a story of foreign corruption:

The press got it all wrong, of course, surprise, surprise. You wouldn’t believe the articles they printed about us. For them, it was all so simple: Andy was the foreigner, the evil outside influence, the ang mo, Eugene was the Singaporean kid led astray by corrupt Western expatriates; and me, I was the local, naïve, sauku mountain tortoise of a girl who should have listened to her mother and not fallen for a criminal like Andy. (16)

Despite -- or more significantly, because of -- this simple inversion, Tan's fiction does by no means escape what Arthur Yap has termed the tendency of Singaporean fiction to use “surrogate or proxy descriptions” that occur “with high-order probability” (49). The first novel of Singapore writer Catherine Lim, The Serpent’s Tooth (1982), for instance, has been called “almost ethnographic” and its interest in the characters weak as they fall neatly into the two partitions of Chinese culture and Westernised new society (Lim, 138). A simple inversion of the traditional oriental and occidental stereotypes constitutes not a very creative solution, as I have shown in detail elsewhere (Wagner, passim). Hwee Hwee Tan's main characters, however, exhibit an occidentalism that pinpoints the vexed issue of occidentalism itself.

The study of occidentalism -- as the emerging critical counterpart to orientalism -- forms a fairly recent phenomenon, but one that has proven immensely popular in the last few years. In the introduction to Occidentalism: Images of the West, James G. Carrier neatly formulates the chief concerns of analyses of occidentalism. The main issues “revolve around the question of whose experiences and perceptions of Western society are elevated to the level of public acceptance, and whose are denied -- and why and how” (ix). The study of occidentalism focuses expectedly on the use of the “stylized images of the West” (1) in the “East”, but also on their production in the “West” itself. Xiaomei Chen, for instance, sees occidentalism as a useful and creative counter-discourse in post-Mao China: “In the years since its introduction, Edward Said’s celebrated study, Orientalism, has acquired a near paradigmatic status in the Western academic world as a model of the relationships between Western and non-Western cultures” (3), but this orientalism has also been “accompanied by instances of what might be termed Occidentalism, a discursive practice that, by constructing its Western Other, has allowed the Orient to participate actively and with indigenous creativity in the process of self-appropriation.” (4-5) Like orientalism, however, occidentalism is only partly an appropriating discursive practice and partly also an expression of desire that relegates objects of longing elsewhere. "Zenned out” (208) by her experience of medieval Christianity in a fictional Oxbridge College named with an allusion to Star Wars, Deng Gan embodies a new phase of occidentalim -- one that transcends the traditional division into Westernised modernisation and traditional "Asian values", but only by creating and fostering additional stereotypes.


Carrier, James G. ed. Occidentalism: Images of the West. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Chen, Xiaomei. Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. Writing South East Asia in English: Against the Grain. London: Skoob Books, Publishing, 1994.

Tan, Hwee Hwee, Foreign Bodies. London: Michael Joseph, 1997.

Tan, Hwee Hwee, Mammon Inc. London: Michael Joseph, 2001.

Wagner, Tamara S. "A barrage of ethnic comparisons": Occidental Stereotypes in Amy Tan's Novels," Critique (forthcoming).

Yap, Arthur, “Three Novels on Singapore’s Past: Description as a Narrative Feature,” Kirpal Singh, ed. The Writer’s Sense of the Past: Essays on Southeast Asian and Australasian Literature. Singapore: Singapore UP, 1987.

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Last Modified: 16 November 2002