Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese Women Writers and the Amy Tan-Syndrome

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

Hsu-Ming Teo's first novel, Love and Vertigo, was published in 2000 at what can be described as a heyday of postcolonial historical novels by women writers that emphatically focus on the fate of oppressed women in the recent past. The retelling of Chinese patriarchal society from the point of view of the suffering woman has particularly become a popular plot-device ever since the international success of The Joy Luck Club (1989), the first novel of Chinese-American writer Amy Tan, in which she poises the fates of four mothers in pre-war and war-time China against the lives of their four American daughters. The 1990s and the beginning of the new century have seen an astonishing upsurge of similar juxtapositions and frame-stories, exploring the effects of generation conflicts and culture clashes as well as the amalgam of occidentalism and orientalism that invades the relationships among first- and second-generation immigrants.

What Amy Tan has most famously done for Asian-Americans, Teo's novel has done for Asian immigrants to Australia. Both authors feed on a popular demand for "exotic" stories and "women's stories" that concentrate on a mother-daughter-relationship determined by cultural differences as well as generation gaps. At the same time, their plots also tie in with the growing popularity of historical fiction. In The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), Amy Tan’s second novel, written in the wake of the success of The Joy Luck Club, which was turned into a tear-jerking movie that accounts for its continued popularity, the sensationally detailed experiences of the narrator’s mother, Winnie, echo the China-plots of Tan’s other novels and are summarised neatly by Auntie Helen’s advice to Winnie, which intriguingly pinpoints the marketing of postcolonial historical fiction: “They’ll understand. Maybe they’ll be happy to know something about their mother’s background. Hard life in China, that’s very popular now.” (80)

Malaysian and Singaporean fiction by women writers has traditionally been about the clashes of modernisation and tradition at home, about the domestic aspects of patriarchal cultures, and the repercussions of colonialism, war, and globalisation on women, as opposed to the more adventurous novels written in the tradition of Anthony Burgess's The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy (1956-59) and J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip (1978) and the unfinished Hill Station (1981) such as most recently C.M. Woon's The Advocate's Devil (2002).

Catherine Lim's first novel, The Serpent’s Tooth (1982), focuses exclusively on the domestic problems of the modern young generation and their more traditional elders and has consequently been called “almost ethnographic” and its interest in the characters as weak as they fall neatly into the two partitions of Chinese culture and Westernised new society (Lim, 138). In her subsequent novels she interestingly turns to a historical background, setting the story in colonial Singapore and Malaya. The main protagonists of both The Bondmaid (1995) and The Teardrop Story Woman (1998) are female underdogs, suppressed women from a low social background -- in Han's case even slavery -- whose passion entangles them in compromising affairs, which has given Lim a reputation as a feminist writer. Both novels are significantly framed by a perfunctory contemporary plot, reminiscent of the cursory frame-story of Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife. Lim's most recent novel, Following the Wrong God Home (2001), however, abandons her focus on the repercussions of colonialism for a similar interest in the recent past, reassessing Singapore’s political history during the 1980s. While the mapping of clashing orientalism and occidentalism continues to be a popular plot-device and theme in Singaporean and Malaysian fiction such as for instance in Hwee Hwee Tan's novels, historical novels with their juxtaposition of contemporary frame-story and the history of an underdog (frequently female) enjoy a particular popularity, largely fuelled by what could be termed the Amy Tan-syndrome. The symptoms can be divided into four sets of juxtapositions:

  1. a contemporary and a historical plot.
  2. the stories of mother and daughter (in Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), the Chinese mother is replaced by an elder half-sister).
  3. traditional Chinese and modern "Westernised" protagonists, equipped with their "typical" prejudices.
  4. war-time or post-war poverty and post-colonial/postmodern hybridity (frequently of second-generation immigrants).

In many of Amy Tan's novels, the comic descriptions of contemporary culture and generation clashes sit uneasily with the harrowing evocations of the repercussions of World War II in China -- a juxtaposition that we have come to expect from her fiction, and which similarly structures recent novels about Singapore or Malaysia. In Teo's Love and Vertigo, the first person narrator, Grace Tay, juxtaposes the story of her own childhood and youth as an immigrant in Australia with her mother's life in post-war Singapore. The historical plot opens up with the birth of her mother, Pandora Lim, in a scene that contains all the hallmarks of the Amy Tan-syndrome: “On an airless, muggy Singapore afternoon in February 1942, women gathered in an open concrete courtyard at the back of a ramshackle, flaking colonial terrace.” (21) The historical background is quickly evoked with emphasis on the oppressive atmosphere, the sordid surroundings, and of course with suffering women in the foreground. This childbirth-cum-historical-event is paralleled by a similar juxtaposition of geopolitical upheavals and domestic concerns when Pandora's son is born in Malaysia in May 1969 during the jihad of Malay Muslims, incited by the youth of the United Malay National Organisation, against Malaysian Chinese and Indians. The novel is interestingly peppered with references to historical events as well as to food and the detailed processes of eating -- a common lapse in postcolonial fiction. May 1969, Grace recalls in retrospect, could never be forgotten,

easily evoked by the evening news footage of Indonesian rioters burning and looting Chinese businesses after the Asian ‘Tiger’ economies toppled like dominoes in 1997. In 1998, a rumour spread among the Chinese communities in Malaysia and overseas that another jihad along the same lines as the Indonesian riots had been planned. Desperate phone calls were placed to family members from Chinese communities in Australia, the UK, the USA and Canada. Within hours of those phone calls, all flights out of Malaysia were fully booked and Chinese people left in droves to cross the causeway from Johor Bharu to Singapore. May 13 has the power to conjure up blind panic and irrational fear among Malaysian Chinese three decades later. (131)

The significance that all these historical details have in the plot is that the events of May 13 impel the Tays to emigrate. The juxtaposition of the Australian-plot, detailing the family's attempts to assimilate, and the Singapore/Malaysia-plot nevertheless remains unsatisfactorily dovetailed. Even while the harrowing descriptions of Pandora's and also her husband's childhood and youth may serve to account for their troubled, if not to say neurotic, personalities, the lack of transition from the tormented Pandora and lovesick Jonah of the past to the contemporary bullying parents is more than simply alienating or disconcerting. Despite the frequent oscillations between the time-frames, the novel tends to fall into two parts with little connection between them -- in the process of course accentuating the unbridgeable gap of the generations.

This division, however, is only partly the result of the change of characters or rather of their point of view as Pandora's is lost in that of her daughter and more of a clash of styles. The Australian-plot is predominantly comical, at times self-ironic, preoccupied with mundane details, in which Grace's wetting of her underpants is the greatest tragedy that occurs until Pandora is reinstated as the main protagonist as she commits suicide in Singapore. The breaking of visiting Madam Tay and Pandora's love-affair with the occidentalist attraction of a Pentecostal church ensure a good laugh, but they sit oddly with the harrowing history of Pandora's childhood and youth -- the story of an unwanted girl, rejected by her mother, given up by her adopted parents, and returned to her real family, who alternately exploit and ignore her. This disjunction is also one of the main failings of Amy Tan's early fiction, but while the plots of the past and the present are successfully welded together in her latest novels, The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), novels inspired by the Amy Tan-syndrome do not always go beyond the mere juxtaposition of past and present women's stories.


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

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Love and Vertigo. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2000.

Tan, Amy. The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991.

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Last Modified 7 November 2002