Social Criticism of the Past

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

Set in the past, Christopher New's fiction belongs to the genre of the historical novel and specifically the postcolonial historical novel, an increasingly popular subgenre that specialises in marketing the "exotic" past - emphasising the double exoticism of the past by dealing with remote places as well as times and at the same time securely locating the described exotic (and its decline or corruption) in the past. Using the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the takeover of Hong Kong as the backdrop of his protagonists' dalliances of the erotic as well as the political kind, New criticises the worst outgrowths of both capitalism and communism, of colonialism, and also of the postcolonial condition of once glorified outposts of the empire. The representation of all the failed and failing systems is, in fact, so meticulously balanced and, in short, fair that it is small wonder that the protagonists of A Change of Flag, the final part of his China Coast Trilogy, are steeped in disillusionment. A preaching cadre reminds Lily of the insipid missionary Miss Pulham of her Shanghai childhood:

Miss Pulham, whole life was spent in good works while her mind atrophied in a childish superstition! And she, Lily, had escaped, a trembling adolescent, from the bonds of that mystical mumbo-jumbo only to shackle herself in the fetters of another just as bad. She had believed all those years just as religiously as simple deluded Miss Pulham, just as blindly and naively; believed in another faith, another promised land, another saviour, another church – but all equally illusions, all equally false. They preached different messages, but there was no real difference, the two faiths reflected each other precisely. Communism was just another universal church with another scripture and another pope, another ritual of creed and confession, another liturgy – the political meetings – and another inquisition for the heretics. She felt a sense of liberation, but simultaneously of self-disgust. At last in her sixties she’d outgrown religion, both the sacred and the profane. But why had it taken so long? (152)

Although preoccupied with a particularly postmodern disillusionment - or transcendence, which forms a recurring theme in the novel - A Change of Flag is also a self-consciously historical novel. Set in the 1960s and 1980s, both The Chinese Box and A Change of Flag are postcolonial historical novels about the recent past and at the same time social realist narratives, in which they contrast with New's more openly "historical" novel Shanghai. They critique issues and systems that are, though perhaps partly still current or felt in their repercussions, predominantly a thing of the past. The criticism of "contemporary" society is thus safely stored away in a historical narrative. A central example of such a criticism of the past - and the consequent relocating of criticism in the past - is the sub-plot of Patrick Denton's illegal homosexuality. Blackmailed, he becomes inadvertently involved in the power struggles of rival triads, and eventually commits suicide rather than face his public disgrace. A similar use of a homosexual's suicide to criticise a repressive society, which is moreover also located in the recent past, occurs in Catherine Lim's Following the Wrong God Home (2001), which focuses on Singapore's most militantly conservative era in the 1980s. In Christopher New's novel, however, Patrick's suicide eerily recalls Helen Johnston's, underlining the novel's emphasis on the impossibility of real change even amidst the most turbulant social upheavals.


New, Christopher, A Change of Flag [1990]. Hong Kong: Asia 2000, 2000.

Mian Sitemap United Kingdom Christopher New

Last Modified: 8 October 2002