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Fiction, fictions

L’anglicité dans la fiction de l’Asie du sud-est : les exemples de Paul Theroux et de Yasmine Gooneratne

Englishness in South-East Asian Fiction: the Cases of Paul Theroux and Yasmine Gooneratne
Rüdiger Ahrens
p. 302-318


De nos jours, la notion d’anglicité est devenue cruciale tant pour le Royaume-Uni que pour les nombreux pays du monde, dans lesquels vivent des citoyens libres et indépendants, qui participent à sa définition. La relation à la culture anglophone, en particulier en Asie, est le produit de l’histoire, et les relations politiques qu’entretiennent les pays indépendants avec l’ancienne métropole se déclinent de façon extrêmement variée, tant dans leur relation à la langue anglaise en tant que moyen de communication que dans la notion d’ethnicité. Le roman de Paul Theroux, Kowloon Tong (1998), en est un bon exemple. Il explore les conséquences du retrait brutal et affligeant d’une compagnie de textile anglais lors de la cession de Hong Kong à la Chine en 1997. Alliant les genres du roman historique, détective et sentimental, il met en scène l’opposition entre les valeurs traditionnelles britanniques qui se retirent et celles de la nouvelle classe dominante chinoise. Yasmine Gooneratne, écrivain du Sri Lanka, insiste, elle aussi, sur les conflits culturels, soit en s’inspirant du thème de son propre déplacement de Colombo à Sydney, en opposant au tourisme de masse les formes enchanteresses du folklore d’autrefois, ou encore en proposant une rencontre entre un riche héritage colonial et l’indépendance toute récente du Sri Lanka des années cinquante et soixante. Ainsi se creuse chez les écrivains contemporains une distance grandissante vis-à-vis de ce que furent au cours des siècles passés les valeurs incontestées de l’anglicité.

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English at the Crossroads in South-east Asia

  • 1  Cf. Braj B. Kachru, “Standards, Codification, and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in (...)

1According to Braj B. Kachru (1985) the spread of English around the world can be visualized as three concentric circles, representing different ways in which the language has been acquired and is currently used:1

2- The inner circle refers to the traditional bases of English, where it is the native, primary language: it includes the United Kingdom, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand with all in all a total of about 400 million speakers. It comprises apart from the original country in the British Isles the settler colonies, which have been occupied by the English over the last five hundred years.

3- The outer or extended circle involves the earlier phases of the spread of English in non-native settings, where the language has become part of a country’s chief institutions, and plays an important ‘second language’ role in a multilingual setting. Singapore, India, Malawi, and over 50 other territories in the Pacific and African areas with over 300 million speakers of English fall into this category.

4- The third circle, which he calls the expanding circle, involves those nations which recognize the importance of English as an international language, though they do not have a history of colonization by members of the inner circle, nor have they given English any special status in their language policy. It includes China, Russia, Japan, Israel, Greece, Germany, France, Poland, and many other European countries, where English is taught as a foreign language — with a trend to increasing numbers up to at least 1000 million speakers.

5As with other linguistic models, the distinctions here are not watertight. The value of the model is that it draws our attention to the different historical and social issues raised by the notion of world English and its indication of trends in the growth of the language. In this sense it is also applicable to South-east Asia and the South Pacific. The territories in that area have a strong indigenous population with a linguistic history of their own so that English fulfils a different communicative function as an administrative and sociological tool of distinction. The English-speaking communities are not clearly delineated, but display an interesting mixture of English and American varieties of English. British influence began through the voyages of English sailors at the end of the 18th century, notably the journeys of Captain Cook in the 1770s. The London Missionary Society sent its workers to the islands of the South Pacific 50 years later. In South-east Asia, the development of a British colonial empire grew from the work of Stamford Raffles, an administrator in the British East India Company, who established centres in Penang and Java and who, in 1819, founded Singapore where he lent his name to a famous hotel. Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British in 1842 by the Treaty of Nanking, at the end of the Opium War, and Kowloon was added to it in 1860. The New Territories, which formed the largest part of the Crown Colony, were leased from China in 1898 for 99 years, at the end of, in 1997, the Colony was handed back to the People’s Republic of China.

6The main American presence emerged after the Spanish-American War of 1898, from which the USA received the Islands of Guam and Puerto Rico and sovereignty over the Philippines. Hawaii was annexed at that time also, after a period of increasing American influence. In the 1940s, the US invasion of Japanese-held islands in the Pacific was followed after World War II by several areas made into United Nations Trust Territories. The influence of American English remains strong, although Australia is making every effort to step into Britain’s shoes. These efforts, however, are countered by America with its geo-political power and its large population, which makes a significant contribution to the world total for users of English as a second language.

7A special case in question is the Indian subcontinent in South Asia, which, in terms of English speakers, ranks third in the world, after the USA and the United Kingdom. This is due to the position which language has come to hold in India itself, where it has been estimated that some 4 per cent of the people — some 30 million out of 1.4 billion — now make regular use of English. More speakers can be identified elsewhere in the region, which comprises six countries: India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, that together represent about a fifth of the world’s population. The variety which has emerged throughout the sub-continent, is known as South Asian English. It is less than 200 years old and developed during the period of British sovereignty, from 1765 until independence in 1947, when it gradually became the medium of administration and education throughout the sub-continent. In India, English is now recognized as an ‘associate’ official language, with Hindi being the official language. In Pakistan, it is also an associated official language. It has no official status in the other countries of South Asia, but throughout the region it is universally used as the medium of international communication. Still today the Indian sub-continent is divided over the language issue.

8This short introductory description makes clear that the territorial and linguistic situation in South-east Asia is not easy to identify because the borders are rather confused and no firm delineations can be derived from ethnic or political entities in this region.

The Post-colonial Situation

  • 2  Kwok-Kan Tam & Timothy Weiss (eds.), English and Globalization. Perspectives from Hong Kong and Ma (...)

9The influence of English on the formation of cultural identity in Asia, as Kwok-kan Tam observes in the introduction to his book English and Globalization. Perspectives from Hong Kong and Mainland China2, can be considered from two perspectives: postcolonialism and globalization. We have seen that Braj Kachru’s research focuses on the postcolonial transformations of English in South and South-east Asia in relation to the emergence of new language identities. The concept of “world Englishes” proposed by Kachru signifies the pluralistic development of postcolonial English. This was caused by the liberation movement in Asia after World War II, when India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and eventually Hong Kong gained their independence. He makes the following point in his seminal essay “The Power and Politics of English”:

  • 3  Braj B. Kachru, “The Power and Politics of English”, in World Englishes, 5 (1986), 121-140, 132.

English is already a major language of trade, commerce, banking and international advertising. In the Outer Circle (in which English is used as a second language), English additionally performs several localized roles either because the indigenous languages are not equipped for these roles — as they have not been used in such contexts before — or because the use of English is considered prestigious or “powerful.” This attitude has bestowed more power upon the language.3

The picture he paints of post-colonial developments in South and South-east Asia in particular is one in which English has become not just a global language, but also a global power. English became a tool of national identity and political awakening, a window on the world, a “link” language. The Expanding Circle, in which English is used as a foreign language, sees it as a vehicle for entering the twenty-first century. By linking up the three circles, English plays an important role in serving as the contact language among different civilizations and as the transmitter of Western culture in the creation of new cultural identities, especially in Asia.

10The forging of new cultural identities in Asia has a close relation with the rise of new literatures. The study of these new literatures, in some sense, must involve the study of English and its cultural heritage. Conversely, new cultural identities created as a result of contact with English mark many of the modern orientations of Asian literature. This is clearly the case in East Asia, where modern literary movements are indebted to the influence of English writers. Hence, in Asia, the emergence of new cultural identities is inseparable from the influence of the West, for embedded in the new literatures of Asia are new ways of perception and imagination, as well as new sensibilities, which come along with English.

11The world is perceived in images, as well as constructed in language. Therefore English plays the central role as a mediator in the flow of images. When language and images reflect reality, they also possess the power to manipulate the description, and hence, creation, of reality. Language and images do not just describe, they also structure the representation of reality. It is in this way that new realities, as well as new subjectivities, are forged through the perception of English. With this union of language and culture in mind we will demonstrate in the remainder of this article the different perception of Asian realities through different examples, the most dominant one from Hong Kong, Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong (1998), in which he describes the handover of the Crown Colony to the Chinese in a modern context. More examples could be drawn from the Sri Lankan novelist Yasmine Gooneratne, e.g. A Change of Skies (1991), a tale of migration from her home culture to the new world of Australia, where a number of obstacles have to be overcome in the process of appropriation and accommodation in new social conditions. These two texts, although very different in their cultural surroundings, can be seen as good examples of the rise of local identities and can also be taught and used without reference to their Western cultural origins and heritage.

The Two Faces of the Last Crown Colony: Paul Theroux, Kowloon Tong (1998)

The Author and his Work

  • 4  Cf. Rüdiger Ahrens, “The Presence of Englishness in South-east Asian Fiction: Paul Theroux, Kowloo (...)

12An excellent example of the kind is Paul Theroux’s novel Kowloon Tong, which waspublished in the year of the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China.4 The author, born in Massachusetts in 1941, is a well-known writer of novels and travelogues. His best-known novels include Mosquito Coast (1982) and Chicago Loop (1991), followed recently by a very successful novel about life in India, The Elephanta Suite (2007), which gives a fresh insight into everyday life in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. It is a vivid description of the breathtaking, tumultuous life in modern India, an intercultural encounter of America with the fabulous life, full of ambition, hardship and serenity in this city of millions of inhabitants on the west coast of the Indian sub-continent, the traditional Indian gateway to the West. Theroux’s characters venture far beyond its well-worn paths to discover woe or truth or peace. A holidaying middle-aged couple veers heedlessly from idyll to chaos and a buttoned-up Boston lawyer finds relief in Mumbai’s reeking slums. A young woman befriends an elephant in Bangalore. We also meet Indian characters as distinctive as they are indicative of their country’s subtle ironies: an executive who yearns to become a holy beggar, an earnest young striver whose personality is transformed by acquiring an American accent, a miracle-working guru, and more. The Elephanta Suite urges us towards a fresh, compelling and often inspiring notion of India and its effect on those who try to lose — or find — themselves there.

13Theroux is best known for his humorous and insightful travelogues like The OldPatagonian Express (1979), a journey by train to the southernmost tip of Argentina, Riding the Iron Rooster (1988) or, more recently, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008), where he returns to his seemingly favourite country China, which he had already described on his great railway journey from Europe to Japan in his classic TheGreat Railway Bazaar (1975). Half a lifetime after his first successful travel narrative Theroux recounts his grand tour by train through Asia. In the three decades since, the world he recorded has undergone phenomenal change. The Soviet Union has collapsed and China has risen; India booms while Burma smothers under dictatorship; Vietnam flourishes in the aftermath of the havoc America unleashed on it the last time Theroux passed through. And no one is better able to capture the texture, sights, smells and sounds of this changing landscape than Paul Theroux. Theroux’s odyssey takes him from Eastern Europe, still hung over from communism, through tense but thriving Turkey into the Caucasus, where Georgia limps back toward feudalism while its neighbour Azerbaijan revels in oil-fuelled capitalism. Theroux is a first-hand witness of it all, travelling as the locals do—by stifling train, rattletrap bus, illicit taxi, and mud-caked foot—encountering adventures only he could have: from the literary (sparring with the incisive Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk) to the dissolute (surviving a week-long bender on the Trans-Siberian Railway). And wherever he goes, from the European Union to the Pacific Rim and back, his omnivorous curiosity and unerring eye for detail never fail to inspire, enlighten, inform and entertain.

14For the England-lover, his travel book The Kingdom by the Sea, A Journey around the Coast of Great Britain (1983), where he calls upon all the little harbour towns along the coast-line of Britain and Northern Ireland, starting from the mouth from the Thames and back again, is a most inspiring read about the English character and its related history. All these books have to be seen as an image of the British character, its ethnic roots and its contemporary challenges.

The Narrative Use of Stereotypes

15In all its facets, Englishness successfully works as a bridge in Kowloon Tong. It is a literary as well as an ethnic device which positions the characters inside and outside the novel. So the Chinese and the British characters are described by way of stereotypes to focus on the conflict of these nations coming to life in the strife about the future of the Crown Colony at the end of the 20th century. Englishness also functions as a stereotypical label in the process of understanding and teaching.

  • 5  Elleke Boehmer (ed.), Empire Writing. An Anthology of Colonial Literature. 1870-1918, Oxford: OUP, (...)
  • 6  M. Hoffarth-Zelloe, “Die Rolle von Stereotypen”, in R. Ahrens, W.-D. Bald, W. Hüllen (eds.), Handb (...)
  • 7 Gottfried Keller, “Grundlegung der kulturkundlichen Didaktik durch ein sozialpsychologisches Modell (...)

16Many examples can be found in colonial writing as Elleke Boehmer’s anthology and other texts can prove.5 The appearance of stereotypes can also be found in classics of colonialism by such authors as Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad or E. M. Forster. Stereotypes or prejudices, clichés or preconceptions are a distinct feature of the critical discourse.6 They came out of the hermeneutical tradition of philosophy and cognitive theory (Wilhelm Dilthey, Roman Ingarden, Hans-Georg Gadamer) and entered into the critical approaches of reception aesthetics (Wolfgang Iser) and reader-response theory (Stanley Fish, Roland Barthes). We also encounter them in social psychology, linguistics and foreign language teaching. Their functions in these areas were detected in the last century by social scientists such as Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion, 1922), Gordon Allport (The Nature of Prejudice, 1954) and Gottfried Keller in Germany in his seminal study of 1968.7 Keller distinguished two kinds of stereotypes: the auto-stereotype, or self image, and the hetero-stereotype, or foreign image. His study is based on the fact that our view and knowledge of the world around us is moulded by preconceptions which influence our social actions. Their applicability also to cultural and literary studies is based on the fact that they appear in colonial and post-colonial writing as an instrument to characterize the other, the foreign or the alien because they result from human inability to organize and process large amounts of new information in an adequate way.

  • 8  Rudyard Kipling, “Lispeth”, in Plain Tales from the Hills,London: Penguin, 1990, 37.

17Stereotypes are seen as group- or object-oriented ideas transmitted as cognitive structures which each group of users defines anew. Due to their inherent simplification of individual features they are widely found in colonial literature as for example Kipling’s early short stories Plain Tales from the Hills (1888) demonstrate. His view of “the Indian scene” was mediated by English standards and fictions, although he displays a critical ironical tone towards his English compatriots. When, in his parabolic short story “Thrown Away” (1888), he characterizes English education as the “sheltered life” system, he assumes the role of the foreigner looking back on his homeland. The subversive function of such comments which confront Englishness with Indian myths and beliefs can also be identified in Lispeth (1888),the story of a young Indian girl who having been abused by a young Englishman calls all Englishmen “liars”8. These tales throw a subtle ironical light on home institutions such as public schools and the Foreign Service. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898) and Lord Jim (1900) depict more explicitly the sacrifices required from white settlers or missionaries who perish on foreign shores because of their inability to adjust to different mentalities or to understand the attitudes and beliefs of foreign peoples. The classic example is E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), because there the English intruders fail to assert themselves on a human level. Forster makes the English woman Adela Quested resort to a lie in the central episode which subverts the credibility of the English in their attempt to exert military power over India.

18With these early antagonistic examples in the background we would like to highlight some stereotypical devices in contemporary Asian fiction with a special emphasis on Hong Kong. The British handover of the former Crown Colony to China in 1997 served as a symbolic historic moment to many a novelist who in some way or other fictionalized the confrontation of Chinese and English mentalities. This holds true for Paul Theroux’s highly symbolic novel Kowloon Tong, but also in a less sophisticated vein in the form of the detective novels of Henry Luk, China Bride (1998), Ralph Arnote, Hong Kong, China (1996), Christopher West, Death of a Red Mandarin (1997) and Raymond Bensons, Zero Minus Ten (1997).

The Chinese Stereotype

19Stereotypical narrative devices in Theroux’s Kowloon Tongnot only refer to the Chinese, but also to all the other nationalities in the novel. All of Theroux’s characters are to a certain extent stereotypes. The majority of them remain such throughout the entire novel with the sole exception of Mei-ping, the main Chinese female character, who falls in love with the English protagonist Bunt Mullard and thus receives the status of an individual and a hybrid between two cultures with human feelings for which she is eventually tragically punished by death. Basically the novel deals with the sale of an English company called “Imperial Stitching” as a symbolic handover of English property in Hong Kong to the Chinese government. The English Mullard family, who had built and owned the manufacture, is finally compelled to hand it over to the Chinese representative Mr. Hung. By this symbolic function the novel can be categorized as historiographic metafiction such as those Linda Hutcheon described in her persuasive study A Poetics of Postmodernism:

  • 9  Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory Fiction, New York, London: Routledge, (...)

By this I mean those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Midnight’s Children, Ragtime, Legs, G., Famous Last Words.9

  • 10  Maria Noëlle, “The Dragon and the Emporium”, Canadian Literature, Winter 1999, < (...)
  • 11  Keith B. Rickburg, “For Hong Kong, Literature Imitates Life”, Washington Post, March 31, 1997, A 1 (...)

20Though it may at first glance appear that Kowloon Tong forcefully feeds the reader with middle-class, expatriate-but-loyal British views of China, Hong Kong and the rest of the world (Americans, Europeans or small Pacific islands), it very soon becomes clear that Theroux is not doing the British or any other culture in the book a favour by furnishing them with ethnic representatives who do not fit a black-and-white picture. On the contrary, Theroux received some rather vicious criticism for his negatively stereotyped characters and circumstances.10 The stereotypes make, or at least seem to make, the characters, Chinese and British, alike and predictable. But this is directly opposed to the underlying themes of the permanent instability of the lives of the Hong Kong Chinese and the unpredictability of the future and the effect Theroux was aiming for.11 He did not write a novel about the city of the people of Hong Kong, but about the abstract fears, expectations and emotions of the people in Hong Kong. Reality is provided through the geographic landmarks given in the text. The possible future reality of Hong Kong is depicted through the lives of stereotyped figures, whose purpose and function in the novel is to emphasize these expectations and emotions as well as the superficial characteristics of the groups affected by the handover.

21The Chinese stereotype is the most developed one also in terms of hetero-stereotypes, which are based for the most part, on the forty-three-year-old Bunt and his elderly mother Betty Mullard, who, after Mullard Senior’s death, both try to keep the factory “Imperial Stitching” alive. At the beginning, positive connotations and prejudices prevail:

  • 12  Paul Theroux, Kowloon Tong, Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, 10. All quotations with page (...)

The Chinese were frugal first of all, but not mean; they were self-denying and Spartan, strangely cheese-paring and given to binges — also capable of going mental and throwing an entire fortune away at Happy Valley or Sha Tin. In the casinos of Macao they were melancholy and self-destructive. [...] They did not care, they did not complain, they were totally predictable.12

22The picture quickly changes, however, as Bunt’s observations and thoughts become increasingly bigoted. He refers to the Chinese — in the manner he learned from his mother — as “Chinky – Chonks” (7). This emphasizes his view of the Chinese as meddling but subservient and harmless. But they are also described as ruthless and brutal (37), though not as much as the Japanese, for they like to tie women up and beat them before having sex with them. Trinkets fit well in Bunt’s vision of all Chinese products because he believes that everything the Chinese make is just a cheap imitation, like Mr. Hung’s plastic watch (92).

23Many more examples of the kind could be quoted from the novel. In the end, Bunt is confused by Mr. Hung’s threats which do not fit his initial stereotype. He is shocked to find Mr. Hung a formidable adversary who has already erased Bunt’s business partner, his janitor and his lover’s best friend, taken over most of the businesses in Hong Kong, infiltrated the British hobnobbing clubs and forced his mother and himself to leave the country immediately. Theroux included Hung partly as a symbol of Deng Xiao-ping and the secretive violence for which he stood.

24The Hong Kong Chinese stereotype includes a few elements that the Mainland Chinese stereotype does not have. They are according to Bunt considered to be different because they were thankful but stuck to their principles, made sacrifices, were consistent and often converted to Christianity (109). They were successful not because they were more skilled than the British, but because they kept their shops open until midnight. From the auto-stereotypical point of view, given by the two Chinese female workers Mei-ping and Ah Fu (96), the Mainland Chinese are tough, well-trained and clever, whereas they themselves are rubbish.

The British Stereotype

25Opposed to these ethnic labels is the British stereotype, so that an antagonistic structure rules the whole narrative. This narrative technique could serve the students as an adequate entry into the whole novel, but also into the social conflict of the Hong Kong handover. In Bunt’s eyes, the British constitute the upper class by virtue of their superiority in all areas of life. At the outset of the action, Bunt and his mother Betty are certain that they are immune from the political consequences of the handover because they possess a British passport (6). For these reasons they see themselves as rulers (122). As such they do not need to speak the language of the colonized (31). At the very beginning they show themselves as loyal to the Queen and nostalgic about England. In the very first sentence Hong Kong is equated with London: “Some days Hong Kong seemed no different from the London suburb she had lived in before the war. Today, for example, the cold early morning with fragments of fog at the windows, she was back in Balham” — so runs the initial interior monologue of Betty Mullard. They consider milk in their tea (20) and rare steaks (51) to be symbols of Englishness. Amid all the differences, they do however have some similarities with the Chinese: both nationalities are frugal and save everything (18), loathe improvisation and surprises (8 and 129 f.), keep their emotions hidden (9 and 14) and are given to bingeing and partying (87f.).

  • 13  Ania Loomba, Colonialism / Postcolonialism, New York, London: Routledge, 1998, 152-159.

26On the other hand, Bunt is a hybridized version of a Hong Kong Englishman: he is British to the bone, but utterly naïve and excluded from British society and at the same time he has never tried to assimilate himself into Hong Kong Chinese society. Neither Bunt nor his mother represent the truly modern British citizen. These stereotypes embedded in their characters allow Theroux to provide a possible reason and justification for the handover. The relationship between the British and the Chinese as represented by Bunt and Mr. Hung is that of colonizer and colonized or master and servant. Kowloon Tong illustrates Hegel’s idea of dialectical change because Mr. Hung eventually takes over the position of the ruler and master and Bunt that of the obedient servant and is therefore humiliated in this new and inconvenient role. This relationship is also reflected in the love affair of Bunt and Mei-ping. Bunt being a symbol of the British Empire is characterized by reason and power, i.e. male features. Mei-ping stands for the colony as she is weak and emotional. Ania Loomba in her book Colonialism / Postcolonialism says that, all along the colonial period and after, female bodies symbolize the conquered land. European conquerors are regarded as the deflowerers of feminized land and the desire of the native women for the European man stands for the submission of the colonized people. According to her there are intricate overlaps between colonial and sexual domination.13 This assumption holds true in the short stories of Rudyard Kipling as well as in Paul Theroux’s novel. At the beginning of their relationship Bunt is the master just like the British Empire. He enjoys her subdued posture in these moments of extreme bliss in his office room:

Bunt went to her and eased her backwards and kissed her. Then he plucked off her blouse—made downstairs, he recognized the label, the cloth, the cut. Soon Mei-ping was kneeling before him while he sat with his mouth open, his head throbbing, his eyes hot. He was panicky but he was caught, and he was afraid, because he was entirely under the spell of this simple young woman (45).

27In Bunt’s opinion, Mei-ping willingly submits to his sexual desires, which give him power and a feeling of certainty and homeliness. In terms of the analogy this means that the people of Hong Kong are happy to be British subjects. A great deal of tension is generated by Bunt’s losing Mei-ping which is a projection of the handover and which also means a reversal of the poles of master and servant. Little by little, Mei-ping masculinizes and ceases to be feminine. This moment in the book coincides with the handover. Bunt notices that Mei-ping has cut her hair and looks like a little boy. When Bunt notices the difference he gives her an English name: May (225). Thus the roles are reversed and she takes over the position of the master while he becomes the servant. Finally their love story fails because she is murdered with the help of Bunt’s jealous mother. In analogy to history the Empire dwindles and the colony gains strength, but the situation is only more tensional now.

American and Other National Stereotypes

28The American stereotype is completely based on Hoyt Maybry, whose name even sounds like the typical names of towns or people in American sitcoms. Hoyt, a businessman and partner in Monty Brittain’s law firm, is introduced to Bunt in the Cricket Club where Bunt immediately decides that he must be another typical “Yank” from the way he is dressed: expensive suit combined with Cowboy boots, a big silver belt buckle and a loud tie and shirt (75ff.). Hoyt proudly conveys that he returned his American passport and that he adopted citizenship of Guinea-Bissau, at which Bunt sarcastically comments: “One of the fuzzy-wuzzy countries. That makes you a nig-nog” (79). Americans are herewith stamped as nosy know-it-alls, who force their advice and opinions on others without having been asked or addressed in the first place. Hoyt reveals himself as an adroit businessman who advises his partner to “do quick and dirty figures and build in a big fudge factory” (77). Bunt feels that Americans need to be thrown out of the country — China, though he means China or Hong Kong or anywhere else, since in his eyes, those of the typical British — but Hong-Kong-raised colonizer, all Americans are bad, arrogant, opinionated and self-glorifying. Hoyt is at the same time like a beacon shining its light into Bunt’s dark world, bringing awakening to and understanding of the new age Bunt has failed to recognize up until now and does not really want to see. A more positive stereotype of the American can be found in Henry Luk’s China Bride. Here a young American student with the name of Beth is taken to Hong Kong by her Chinese bridegroom Michael to get married. She is the young, somewhat naïve, but freedom-liking American who goes through the ordeal of being kidnapped before being eventually united with her friend’s family. Loosely connected with the handover, the story introduces the reader into the brutal activities of the dominating triads in Hong Kong.

29Aside from the three main groups defined above, there are several other national stereotypes woven into Theroux’ novel. These play smaller roles and are based on single or very few instances in the text. They serve to heighten the overall concept of racism and thoughtless stereotyping in the novel, especially on Bunt’s part. One such stereotype is that of Manila as a city of nothing but bangers and jitneys. Bunt’s image of Manila is based on the prostitute Luz, who laughs at his old Rover and sneeringly asks why he doesn’t buy himself a Mercedes.

30Another important element in Bunt’s logic is that nationality is the same as or derived from one’s citizenship, which is equal to the race and character of the people found in the country in question. Bunt and Betty both fall prey to this faulty reasoning, which is understandable only from their British perspective. So Monty Brittain, British by birth, Jewish and endowed with a telling name, is told explicitly by Betty that she trusts him as their solicitor because he is “a Jew-boy” (2) and therefore is likely to have a talent in handling money. When Monty admits that he is no longer British by citizenship, Bunt automatically assumes that he must be an Israeli, since he knows him to be Jewish. Monty is obviously insulted by Bunt’s prejudiced thinking, but calmly corrects him. Monty’s explanation of how he came to be an Austrian does not save him from Bunt’s next attempt to qualify what he has just heard: Bunt, having never left Hong Kong and with very little interest in the rest of the world, it seems, assumes that Austrian is synonymous with “German”, which makes Monty a Kraut (79). The idea that Monty could be anything other than a die-hard Briton like himself is tough enough for Bunt to comprehend, and the fact that Monty’s last name is “Brittain” and that his wife speaks with a very thick British accent make it all the more difficult for Bunt to accept.

The Narrative Functions of Stereotypes

31It becomes clear from such analytical strategies that stereotypes are an important teaching tool not only in text-books for the EFL-classroom in general, but also for the literary texts being read and discussed in more advanced classes. Theroux’s novel is full of these stereotypes, which might be seen as a simplification of the social reality in a post-colonial situation, but which certainly is an omnipresent rhetorical structure in all kinds of oral and written texts.

The Narratological Functions

32Paul Theroux’s novel deals with the preconceptions of the residents of Hong Kong in the months preceding the handover. In order to emphasize these preconceptions as well as his imaginative foretaste of how business may be conducted in Chinese Hong Kong, his characters are flat and heavily stereotyped. This animates the reader to reconsider his views of the characters in the novel as well as his views of the Chinese and Hong Kong itself. The characters are so negatively stereotyped and the plot of the story so bleak and depressing that the reader cannot help but notice the fact that everything aside from the geography is fictional, with only smaller elements of reality displayed in the scare tactics of the mainland Chinese police or the fear and uncertainty that marked the lives of many Hong Kong Chinese and British in the months prior to the handover.

33Theroux’s own stereotypes of the British and the mainland Chinese along with those he elicited from the Hong Kong Chinese during his conversations with them, are woven into the narrative structure of the novel. In order to fully understand Kowloon Tong, the reader must know that Bunt and Betty do not represent typical British citizens, but those forgotten by time, and that Mr. Hung does not represent a typical Chinese official. The author Theroux does not take sides with any of his characters, but portrays them in an equally cynical light: Bunt and his mother view the Chinese with disdain and insolence, which stresses the superiority of England. The reader however perceives Bunt’s arrogance as a flaw in his character and therefore does not identify with Bunt, but critically observes his further actions and blunders. Only in this light can the reader see that Kowloon Tong deals with the collisions of two cultural and political extremes and the possible results if one or both sides fail to look beyond their preconceptions and prejudices of the other.

The Structure of Tension

34Out of the collision of two cultural and political extremes frozen in the form of stereotypes arises the narratological tension of the novel. This tension which contributes to its status as a defective novel lies behind the narrative technique and drives the plot from the beginning to the end. Along with the main story which is formed by the historical events of the handover, several different stories develop — that of the Mullard family, that of Bunt’s love for Mei-ping and finally that of crimes on the Chinese side, i.e. the disappearance of Ah Fu, Mr. Chuck, the servant Wang and finally Mei-ping. At the heart of these conflicting stories, which seem to subvert the main story, stereotypical preconceptions create the flaws which by themselves generate the eventual loss of Hong Kong and are in a metonymical relationship with the main historical event: the British family losing their factory in Hong Kong, the failure of the love story and the mysterious disappearance of several characters are all metonymies of the Chinese take-over.

  • 14  Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Pos (...)

35The tension is not only a narrative device inherent in the novel. It also foregrounds the conflict with the imperial power and thus gains a political dimension, widened to a historical dimension out of which arises a new post-colonial world. Theroux, however, does not enter into this futuristic world, but leaves Betty and Bunt, mother and son, alone on their flight into an uncertain existence. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin underlined in their ground-breaking book The Empire Writes Back that this kind of narrative tension is part of the decolonizing colonist discourse which distinctively marks a post-colonial quality. Losing home and not being at home yet anywhere like the Mullards, what Heidegger called the Unheimlichkeit (“not-at-homeness”) “motivates the reconstruction of the social and imaginative world in post-colonial writing.”14

Further Perspectives of Englishness: the Novels of Yasmine Gooneratne

  • 15  R. Ahrens, “Imperial Reflections in Yasmine Gooneratne’s Fiction”, in Gladly wolde she lerneand gl (...)

36A different type of post-colonial discourse can be derived from the fiction of the Sri Lankan writer Yasmine Gooneratne who moved with her family from Colombo to Sydney some twenty-five years ago. She was appointed full professor of English literature at Macquarie University and there became the foundation director of the Post-colonial Literatures and Language Research Centre in 1972. She was created an officer in the general division of the Order of Australia and was very recently distinguished by the Raja Rao Prize for postcolonial fiction (2001). In her post-modern novels A Change of Skies (1991), The Pleasures of Conquest (1996) and The Sweet & Simple Kind (2006), she generalizes on the migration aspect between cultures in a diachronic and synchronic sense and avoids the blatant confrontation of Englishness with other cultural ideologies.15

37In the first novel, two stories are intertwined, that of a modern couple on their move from Colombo to Sydney, a kind of autobiographical tale, and that of Edward, the grandfather, who had left behind a diary relating his journey a century before. So basically we are confronted with the opposition of two worlds and two epochs, firstly the Eurocentric view of the late Victorian Age and secondly the modern postcolonial world of the late 20th century which leaves behind all Englishness and looks out for new orientations in a different world. English literature and culture remains alive only in the syllabus of the English department of the university where Edward’s grandson Barry, a literary historian, finds a teaching position. But the modern world follows different strands and different ideals.

38The same attitude holds true in her second novel The Pleasures of Conquest, which neglects to an even larger extent Eurocentrism and English heritage. The symbolic presence of the past is presented here in form of a huge colonial map on the floor of the old Imperial Hotel in the utopian island of Amnesia. English culture is foregrounded only in the search for historical figures and in the disguise of a young American lady who starts a writing project in order to make use of the skills and talents of indigenous writers of the island. The plot of the novel turns out to be a satirical attack on modern conquerors who come as tourists and media moguls. The utopian visions of the novel resort to old oral traditions of cultural life which begin to pervade the insular community despite all temptations of technological communication systems.

39In her third novel to date, The Sweet &Simple Kind, the novelist creates a richly imagined world of love, political chicanery and family turmoil in the newly independent Sri Lanka of the 1950s and 1960s. As a highly political family attempts to balance language with religion, and privilege with equity, two smart, sassy young women, Latha and Tsunami, pursue their personal freedoms. The novel enchants us with its combination of authenticity, humour and passion, and haunts us with reminders of what we were and what we might have been.

  • 16  H. K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture,London, New York: Routledge, 1994, 25.

40Thus, these different types of awareness foregrounded in narrative contexts on the topic of Englishness, can — as we have seen in Theroux and other writers — be interpreted as a cultural process from the war-like political strife to more humanistic forms of intercultural existence. This process is not yet completed in Kowloon Tong, but others seem to show the way from colonial to post-colonial writing. In his influential book The Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha calls for a “negotiation rather than a negation” of cultures and mentalities, a workable concept also applicable to contemporary South-east Asian fiction.16

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1  Cf. Braj B. Kachru, “Standards, Codification, and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle”, in Randolph Quirk and Henry Widdowson (eds.), English in the World: Teaching and Learning of Language and Literature, Cambridge: CUP, 1985, 11-30; D. Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge: CUP, 1995, 104 -109; K. Hansen et al., Die Differenzierung des Englischen in nationale Varianten. Eine Einführung, Berlin: E. Schmidt, 1996, 210 -237.

2  Kwok-Kan Tam & Timothy Weiss (eds.), English and Globalization. Perspectives from Hong Kong and Mainland China, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2004, 17.

3  Braj B. Kachru, “The Power and Politics of English”, in World Englishes, 5 (1986), 121-140, 132.

4  Cf. Rüdiger Ahrens, “The Presence of Englishness in South-east Asian Fiction: Paul Theroux, Kowloon Tong (1998)”, in R. Ahrens, D. Parker,  K. Stierstorfer  & K.K. Tam (eds.), Anglophone Cultures in South-east Asia, Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Press, 2003, 161-173.

5  Elleke Boehmer (ed.), Empire Writing. An Anthology of Colonial Literature. 1870-1918, Oxford: OUP, 1998. See also R. C. Young, Postcolonialism. An Historical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

6  M. Hoffarth-Zelloe, “Die Rolle von Stereotypen”, in R. Ahrens, W.-D. Bald, W. Hüllen (eds.), Handbuch Englisch als Fremdsprache (HEF), Berlin: E. Schmidt, 1995, 337-341.

7 Gottfried Keller, “Grundlegung der kulturkundlichen Didaktik durch ein sozialpsychologisches Modell der Völkerverständigung”, Die Neueren Sprachen 17, 1968, 617-626.

8  Rudyard Kipling, “Lispeth”, in Plain Tales from the Hills,London: Penguin, 1990, 37.

9  Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory Fiction, New York, London: Routledge, 1988, 5. See Susana Onega, Telling Histories: Narrativizing History, Historicizing literature, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

10  Maria Noëlle, “The Dragon and the Emporium”, Canadian Literature, Winter 1999, <>.

11  Keith B. Rickburg, “For Hong Kong, Literature Imitates Life”, Washington Post, March 31, 1997, A 17 (<>, 3): “If you continue to repeat all these stereotypes, it’s as if you’re looking at Hong Kong, but you don’t really see Hong Kong, the real Hong Kong.”

12  Paul Theroux, Kowloon Tong, Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, 10. All quotations with page numbers in brackets are taken from this edition.

13  Ania Loomba, Colonialism / Postcolonialism, New York, London: Routledge, 1998, 152-159.

14  Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures, London and New York: Routledge, 1989, 82.

15  R. Ahrens, “Imperial Reflections in Yasmine Gooneratne’s Fiction”, in Gladly wolde she lerneand gladly teche, Felicitation Volume for Prof. Y. Gooneratne, London: Argus, 1999, 1-10.

16  H. K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture,London, New York: Routledge, 1994, 25.

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Rüdiger Ahrens, « L’anglicité dans la fiction de l’Asie du sud-est : les exemples de Paul Theroux et de Yasmine Gooneratne »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, 302-318.

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Rüdiger Ahrens, « L’anglicité dans la fiction de l’Asie du sud-est : les exemples de Paul Theroux et de Yasmine Gooneratne »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, mis en ligne le 27 janvier 2010, consulté le 10 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Rüdiger Ahrens

Professor, (Würzburg, Germany)
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Rüdiger Ahrens, OBE, holds a chair of English Studies and has been Head of the English Department at the University of Würzburg, Germany, since 1980. Since 2004, he has continued teaching as an emeritus. As a Visiting Professor, he has worked at the following universities: Cambridge (UK), Beijing, Tokyo, Nanchang, Jaipur (India) and Vancouver. He was awarded an honorary professorship by the Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics (P.R. China) in 1994 and an honorary doctorate by the University of Caen (France) in 1996. From 1990 to 1994, he served as the Vice-President of the German Association of University Professors. He was also a Fulbright grantee in the USA (1978), a grantee of the Volkswagen Foundation (1979 -1980), and in 1990 he won an endorsement of the German Research Council to visit several universities in Australia and the following year in Japan. In 1995, he was granted a government stipend by the Canadian Council to carry out research in Vancouver and Toronto. In the same year, he was elected a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Vienna. Among his books are Die Essays von Francis Bacon (1974); Englische literaturtheoretische Essays (2 vols., 1975); with E. Wolff, Englische und amerikanische Literaturtheorie (2 vols., 1978-79); with H.W. Drescher and K.H. Stoll, Lexikon der englischen Literatur (1979); Amerikanische Bildungswirklichkeit heute (1980); William Shakespeare: Didaktisches Handbuch (3 vols., 1982); with H. Antor, Text – Culture – Reception. Cross-cultural Aspects of English Studies (1992); with W.D. Bald and W. Hüllen, Handbuch Englisch als Fremdsprache (1995); with L. Volkmann, Why Literature Matters. Theories and Functions of Literature (1996); Europäische Sprachenpolitik - European Language Policy (2003); WilliamShakespeare: Zeit - Werk - Wirkung. Aufsätze (2004); with M. Herrera-Sobek et al. (eds.), Intercultural Transgressions in Colonial and Postcolonial Literatures (2004); with U. Weier (ed.), Englisch in der Erwachsenenbildung des 21. Jahrhunderts (2005); with M. Eisenmann and M. Merkl (eds.), Moderne Dramendidaktik für den Englischunterricht (2007). He has some 320 scholarly articles to his credit. On the occasion of his 60th birthday, a Festschrift was published by H. Antor and K. L. Cope (eds.), Intercultural Encounters - Studies in English Literatures (1999). He is the (co-)editor of Anglistik, the International Journal of the German Association of University Professors of English (since 1990), as well as of SYMBOLISM, An International Annual of Critical Aesthetics (New York: AMS Press, 1998- ) and of La Revue LISA/LISA e-journal (Littératures, Histoire des Idées, Images, Sociétés du Monde Anglophone,Université de Caen, France, since 2002). He also supervises three scholarly series: with H. Antor, K. Stierstorfer, Anglistische Forschungen - English Studies (Heidelberg: Winter University Press); with Kevin L. Cope, Anglo-American Studies (Bern, Frankfurt, New York: Peter Lang) and with Edgar Schneider, Grundlagen der Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Berlin: ESV). Since 1998, he has served as Dean of Faculty and as Academic Senator at his university. In 1999, the German Government bestowed on him the German Order of Merit (1st Class). In 2004, he was elected an honorary member of the German Association of University Professors of English. Also in 2004, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen and, in 2005, the 2005 International Peace Prize by the American Biographical Institute (ABI) in Washington, D.C.. In 2007, he was distinguished by the Max Geilinger-Prize (Zurich) for his intercultural scholarly achievements.

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