Bell Jar: Within and Beyond
Gender Representation by
Post-colonial Singapore and Hong Kong writers


by

Amy T. Y. Lai

Cambridge University, Cambridge UK


Copyright © 2002 by Amy T. Y. Lai, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.


    A bad dream.

    For the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
    --Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar 227

    Feminism's agenda is basic: it asks that women not be forced to "choose" between public justice and private happiness. It asks that women be free to define themselves -- instead of having their identity defined for them, time and again, by their culture and their men.
    --Susan Faludi, Backlash 18

  1. The debate over the gendered subaltern voice has been waged largely over cultural practices, historical accounts, and literary texts from the Subcontinent.[1] This article turns attention to the Pacific Rim, focusing on gender representation in literature produced in post-Independence Singapore and pre-handover Hong Kong (in particular, the ten years before its reversion to Chinese sovereignty). Catherine Lim and Christine Lim are two Singaporean women writers who explore how contemporary Chinese women negotiate between modernity and tradition. Timothy Mo, born in Hong Kong but living and writing in Britain, shares similar concerns, although he situates his characters in the East Asian Diaspora. From Hong Kong come the voices of Sussy Chako and Agnes Lam, who are especially concerned with issues of female sexuality and language. These authors share a certain border position, in that they -- and their works' characters -- are located at the intersections of Chinese and Western gender ideology. I will therefore take a brief detour into the politics of gender in Singapore and Hong Kong before turning to texts themselves.

  2. Despite Taoist esoterism and Confucian notions of duty, both of which can be said to promote respect for women, traditional China tended to value the male at the expense of the female. Notorious products of such an economy of gender include the sale, enslavement, and indenturing of women and girls. Even as these practices have been stopped in Singapore and Hong Kong as well as on the mainland, their residue remains in various forms of patriarchal control. The disappearance of bondmaids, who perhaps made up one of the largest sectors of what can be regarded as the "female subaltern" in nineteenth- to early twentieth-century Singapore, for instance, did not at all signify the end of female subordination. After Singapore became independent, the People's Action Party adopted an interventionist, top-down policy toward gender issues, and encroached directly on women's reproductive decision-making. One such example was the population control programme implemented for the sake of raising the nation's living standard. After the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board was established in 1966, restrictive laws concerning induced abortion and sterilisation were liberalised in 1970 and further amended in 1974, which made abortion and sterilisation freely available on request. [2] Later, following Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's annual National Day Rally speech in August 1983, in which he attributed the national reproductive crisis and possible socio-economic chaos of Singapore to the failure of educated women to produce babies at a sufficiently high rate, as compared with poorly educated women, who were perceived as reproducing too freely, a comprehensive system of incentives and threats was launched to bend the population in the direction of the Prime Minister's will: cash awards of S$10,000 were offered to working-class women to restrict their childbearing to two children, while generous tax breaks, medical insurance privileges and admission for their children to the best schools were promised to entice graduate women to have more babies and thus fulfil their "patriotic duty" (Heng and Devan 2001; Doran 157-58).

  3. Nirmala PuruShotam, writing in the late 90s, further describes the predicament of contemporary Singaporean women, who are tied irrevocably to prescribed rôles in the family, and whose other options, such as career, are never to be pursued to the detriment of their primary functions as wives and mothers. PuruShotam points out that "Middle-class" is used to describe a widely divergent group of Singaporean people who work hard to ensure upward mobility and a better life (129), and a "middle-class" woman engages daily in the "reconstruction of a middle-class way of life, by definition a better life" (136). She enters a "calendar of life that flows from childhood, courtship, marriage, wifehood and motherhood" (160), to which she is enticed by government policies such as the restriction of the ownership of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats to married couples, (138-39) and follows the "omnipresent timetable of daily demands," comprising both her career duties and household chores. The "normal family ideology" becomes both her "betterment" and "imprisonment" (141): despite the apparent balance of career and family, she can only roam as far as is allowed by civil codes that encapsulate community interests defined by the male polity (160). Jenny Lam similarly describes such an imprisoned existence of a typical Singapore woman in the 1990s. Even though women of the upper and middle classes are more aware of changing gender rôles and rights than those of the working class, on all levels a lot of Singaporeans are still conditioned by patriarchal values, and it is not uncommon for men to show reluctance toward sharing family responsibilities (38). Therefore, despite numerous efforts in raising their political consciousness, Singapore women, as in other Southeast Asian countries, have stayed away from politics and remained underrepresented in leadership positions in trade unions and Parliament (Lam 37, 51), in other words, "marginal" in the public realm of political organisation (Doran 159).

  4. It is generally agreed that women in Hong Kong are not particularly disadvantaged when compared with women in some other Asian countries, particularly with the creation of a new political identity of "Hong Kong people" in association with the handover of Hong Kong, which encouraged feminist activists to forge a new gender identity. Nonetheless, that a "house" is not necessarily a "home" is made more obvious by its socio-political situation. As in Singapore, it was a woman's responsibility to take care of domestic matters in most families, whether in the hands of the housewife or the paid domestic helper, [3] and the general perception of "home" as "haven" often ignored the burden of homemaking borne by women and obscured the fact that some "homes", like factories, could have very poor working conditions (Chan 190). In particular, as economic ties between China and Hong Kong strengthened in the approach to 1997, many Hong Kong businessmen travelled frequently to China, and quite a number even set up second families there with Mainland women, which contributed to a reversed form of the concubinage found in the nineteenth century, and became a major cause of family quarrels, and in many cases, divorces. It was difficult for women who were divorced with children to secure accommodation because of their limited financial ability and discrimination by both private housing market landlords and public housing officials; due to social stigma attached to these lone mothers, it was also difficult for them to live with their parents (Ng 192-93). Burdened with childcare, looking for new accommodation, and solving financial problems after divorce, they were prone to become more dependent on men, and some were forced to live with their husbands even under very adverse conditions (Chan 192-93).

  5. These conditions, duplicated to a large extent in large immigrant communities in the West, suggest that many Chinese women have not yet been able to emerge from their traditional subaltern status. Giving voice to the those still unheard and providing new models for the feminine are projects embraced by the fiction and poetry I will now discuss.

  6. Though the majority of Catherine Lim's works consist of fiction, a few of her poems in Love's Lonely Impulses, her only poetry collection, address with full urgency the issue of gender inequality even in modern Singapore. In "Double Standards," the persona, upon learning that a top executive committed suicide after discovering his wife's infidelity, asks:
    Why the double standards of
    Straying Man and Staying Woman
    Roaming Man and Homing Woman
    Questing man and Nesting Woman? (p. 30)
    She traces such an inequality to history and the "mists of time," when man was the breadwinner of the whole household, who had to make sure that he was not "feeding" another man (31). On finding out the "awesome truth/ Of the terrible power of man's sex" (30), the persona mourns over the stubbornness of men and humans in general, the result of which is that the equality of sexes in terms of economic power has hardly been followed by a corresponding equality on the social and psychological levels. "Ex-wife," dedicated to a friend who has just divorced, therefore seizes the prefix "ex-" and its connotations of "Negation, Nullity, No-thing" to capture the precariousness of women whose identity solely consists of gender rôles, and for whom divorce leads to depersonalisation, before warning the woman against becoming "Husked empty of life" and an "Ex-human being" (13).

  7. Lim's fiction, however, is the main site to represent and negotiate gender relations. In "Transit to Heaven", the last story of The Woman's Book of Superlatives, Dora Warren, convinced that men are in fact inferior to women, publishes extensively on how men developed all sorts of myths and theories to confuse and intimidate women into a state of subjugation; she urges women to struggle for their own liberation. However, her theories only lead to confusion and anxiety. After being rejected by the women whom she claims to stand for, she attempts to kill herself, but fails. Here the author goes beyond Gayatri Spivak's first, and even her revised critiques of subaltern studies and feminist theory,[4] as she expresses her scepticism not only of Western feminism, but also of theories in general. In her dream, the heroine realises the futility of abstract theorisation, which does little to relieve women of their suffering, and the significance of reaching out to, "touching" and "meeting" women who are suffering. Though Dora finds herself "crawling to meet" the woman on the Allahabad railway platform, whom she had avoided in fear and disgust when she was on her research trip to the Far East, "crawling past her theories, past her demythologising and paradigms and syndromes, to meet and touch" (140), the story indicates the difficulty of the attempt, as it ends with Dora, on her sick-bed, waking up from her dream, "far, far from well" (141).

  8. Among Lim's short stories, nonetheless, are some which have obviously been inspired by, or even modelled on, works of Western writers. In "Bell Jar" (Deadline for Love), named after Sylvia Plath's novel that bears the same title, Mona -- a Singaporean Chinese woman -- finds herself trapped inside the "huge silent invisible dome of home, office, and the society," one that suffocates her with "hard rules and claims" (137). As a little girl, she was told to act according to what is "proper" for a female, by asking fewer questions and being less clever; once a grown-up, she has to suit herself to the "ironclad correctness, propriety and bureaucratic small-mindedness" of the office (137), and answer the "cacophony of requests, complaints, announcements, pleas, remonstrances" from her daughter, her son, her servant and even her mother-in-law (133). Worse still, her husband's lack of passion means that her womanly ardour is continually repulsed. In all cases, her "natural exuberance" and her "flying spontaneity" are curbed (137). On her ten-day Ottawa conference she meets Burt, a thirty-two-year-old American, with whom she feels a strong sense of affinity and whose poetic nature promises a brand new world for her. For a moment she yearns to run away with him, thus freeing herself from the shackles of marriage, motherhood and her career. Nevertheless, all her life she has been living within the "bell jar," in which she has learnt to feel comfortable, and she therefore refuses to be "enticed" out of it again:
    She understood its power: it made those who breathed its air and moved within its enclosed spaces feel safe, folding their wings upon themselves and never daring to spread them out in the gusts and storms outside. The bell jar had a repossessing power: even in the open magic world that Burt promised, it could reach out to pull her back and she was sure to break down and tell Burt, "It's no use. I keep thinking of my children, my husband, my mother. I wonder if Christine has passed her piano examination. Mark is sure to be brooding and getting poor grades in school. That dog of ours should have been taken to the vet long ago," and Burt was sure to throw up his hands in exasperation at last and say, "Women!" For such is the fearful power of women's bell jars: come back and do your duty. (144-5)
    She is eventually beckoned into her domestic world again, to which she owes endless, repetitive duties, and which offers her security, protection and emotional support in return.

  9. In certain respects, Lim's story offers a bleaker portrayal of women than Plath's Bell Jar does. Set in the United States of the 1950s, Plath's novel tells of Esther Greenwood's mental breakdown, caused by her avoidance of becoming a housewife, which would have made her, according to social standards of the time, a complete woman, and by her desire to become a poet and a professional, rôles which were discouraged by the mid-century society. Ironically, Lim's Mona does manage to shine in both her domestic and professional rôles, instead of having to choose between the two, and becomes what PuruShotam calls the "middle-class woman" so typically found in modern Singapore, but likewise suffers from a crisis. Whereas Plath's protagonist narrates her negative and dehumanising experience of being caught in a vacuum and separated from other lives, and of being confined and observed by men as an object, Lim's protagonist has become reconciled to and takes refuge in such a confined existence. Curiously, the plot of Lim's "Bell Jar" also resembles that of James Joyce's "Eveline" in Dubliners, which deals with a young woman caught between the obligation to look after her drunken and abusive father and the chance to escape to a new life with her dream of a sailor boyfriend, Frank. The environment of duty and the paralysis of Dublin have removed from her the ability to believe in and carry through her dream of love and freedom, and she finally remains trapped in her old life of chores and hardships. While the world of Buenos Aires promised by Frank remains undescribed and somewhat exotic, mysterious and even paradisal, in "Eveline," in Lim's story the alternative world promised by Burt into which Mona could have escaped, is probably no better than the one Mona is already in: as Burt exclaims "Women!", he perhaps betrays his chauvinism toward women and his likely creation of another "bell jar" for Mona.

  10. If Lim's "Bell Jar," heavily intertextuated with Western works, offers more than a vivid psychological portrayal of Singapore "middle-class" women, it may be the idea that any attempt by Chinese women to turn to the West for liberation is likely to be doomed to failure. It is with the help of Chinese elements that Lim probes the issue of gender inequality in contemporary Singapore. In her essays and interviews, she stresses her Chinese identity and her first-hand knowledge of Chinese traditions, claiming that as a curious and observant child she absorbed a lot of Chinese legends and neighbourhood gossip in her home town, of which she, as a grown-up, has made use to write "little tales" or local Chinese stories about "ordinary happenings in the lives of ordinary men and women" (Lim, "The Writer Writing" 38, 40). Abundant examples are readily found in They Do Return, where she portrays gender relations in the guise of ghost stories, and by employing a number of indigenous Chinese elements, such as Fengshui, Chinese astrology, palmistry, physiognomy, 'ancestor worship,' and the exorcism of evil spirits. These motives allow her to explore how gender inequality works itself through, and is perpetuated by superstitious beliefs and practices. In "Of Moles and Buttocks," for instance, the woman's "unfortunate" physical qualities -- her flat and fleshless buttocks and her tear-shaped mole - are made use of by her husband to account for the poverty of the family and to justify his own lechery.

  11. Her novel The Bondmaid (1995), set against a background of early twentieth-century Singapore, becomes the battleground where the struggle for gender equality is waged. Its protagoniast is Han, who was sold as a bondmaid to the House of Wu; the novel recounts her doomed love affair with young master Wu, even after he marries an heiress. The rather sensational plot, which involves other bondmaids beside Han, includes prostitution, child-stealing, abortions, sexual abuse of children, and tragic suicide. Nonetheless, many of these sorely oppressed females manage to survive. One way to survive is "endurance," as in the bondmaid Popo's advice to her sister, Peipei, who is being sexually harassed by a monk. Popo, who had endured similar abuse, 'explains' that his "playfulness" is "nothing" (303):
    "Look at me," said Popo. "Look at me and my good life with my family. If I had made a fuss and something bad had happened, would I be like this today?" And she held up her lucky male baby by way of reinforcing her point. Endurance. If women endured enough, a good life would eventually come to them. (303)
    Another strategy is to fight against men, conquering them either by violence or by enchantments. Chu, another bondmaid, had been tormented by the Wu patriarch for ten years, but she returns to the House of Wu, ostensibly to serve the old man who has now become an imbecile, but instead gets her revenge by putting cockroach, lizard and pigeon droppings in his food; Orchid, a prostitute, captivates a Wu brother with her own blood, thus making him tearful as a child, torn between a "compelling need for her" and at the same time a "resentment of her domination" (p. 291). Though the novel does not make it explicit, it seems that neither endurance nor conquest is preferred. For instance, after wasting half her life taking revenge on the old patriach, Chu's tremendous sense of emptiness after he dies drives her to hang herself. Yet women who become prosperous through endurance are still at men's mercy, and like those who resort to enchantments, they in fact remain subordinated to men.

  12. Unlike the other bondmaids, however, Han does not resort to endurance: she manages to escape the lecherous advances that had trapped the others. Neither does she consent to become one of a brothel customer's wives in order to secure a richer life for herself. Instead, she struggles for an equal relationship between men and women, between herself as a bondmaid and Wu as the young master of the household. Her struggle is most evident in an incident that occurs before the wedding of Wu and Miss Li-Li. Because Han has repeatedly frustrated his rapacious desires, one of Wu's brothers summons her to Wu's room, hoping that the drunken Wu will treat Han as a prostitute. But Han manages to free herself, professes her love for him and requests him to reciprocate: "'Can't you see?'" she sobbed. "'If I let you rape me, you will never love me. . . . I love you so much,' she said. 'I will die if you leave me again'" (249, 250). Wu does reciprocate and hence Han no longer belongs to the "long line of bondmaids, faceless, nameless to the men who called them up to their rooms and did not know or care if they ceased to appear because there were others to replace them" (249), who are treated at best as servants and at worst as slaves or even animals. She finally claims a place in the heart of her lover, who respects her as a full human being:
    For the first time, he became fully aware of her; for the first time, she stood in the centre of this awareness and no longer on the shadowed fringes. . . . His silence was charged with a hundred perturbing thoughts which he could not begin to articulate, but one stood out in the strength of its clarity and certainty: this girl loves me truly. She would die for me. (250)
    Moreover, after their mutual declarations of love, Han does not settle for a monthly secret meeting with Wu and a mere place in his "heart", but yearns for a "regular place" in his "life":
    A little more. What about giving me a regular place in your life where I could sometimes sit with you at table for a meal, get ready the bed for your coming to me, talk to you when I am happy or sad, tell you I am going to have your child? (308)
    As the story develops, Han eventually becomes Wu's second wife through her wit and determination. Though she dies at the end, she finally wins both the "heart" and "life" of Wu, who stays by the lake, waiting for her to come back and meet him.

  13. Catherine Lim makes use of images of rain and thunder to convey Han's success in struggling for an equal relationship with Wu. The three sections of the novel all end with the embrace of Wu and Han in rain which, in Chinese tradition, only comes about with the union of the male (yang) and the female (yin) principles (Eberhard 245). At the end of the first section, Han, still a child and in protest at the adult bondmaid Choyin who has been stopping her from playing with her young master, beats off the halfwitted retainer Spitface's offer of an umbrella, stands straight and proud in the rain and wind, and starts dancing and singing a song that curses her elders at the mansion:
    They saw her rise, saw the strange, wild child rise from the sodden ground, her wet clothes and hair plastered to her body, in a recharging of energy, fling her arms out and spin her body against the beating water in a furious dance.
    Wu breaks free of the adults, rushes into the storm and joins Han in her dance and song:
    The boy's shout was louder than the girl's. They held hands, facing each other, and leaped up and down in pure joy, while the fury of the storm around them continued unabated.
    It is not long before the two become united and inseparable:
    The boy and girl, still facing each other and holding hands, leaped about with no diminution of energy or ardour.

    The girl thought, I'm so happy, as another burst of thunder threw them together and they collapsed in a heap on the ground, still shouting and laughing. (117-8)

  14. At the end of section two, the wet embrace increases in dramatic intensity. It moves closer to the lake, where Wu and Han recollect their shared past, profess their love, and huddle against each other upon the approach of the coming storm:
    The rain poured down in sheets, a flash of lightning illumined her face, and a roar of thunder shook her body. She lifted both arms and began to turn her body slowly in the pelting water, turned it round and round in a slow dance of pure joy. . . . He looked at her, his whole body shuddering to the joy of the gyre and ran down to join her. Slowly they danced in the rain, then moved their bodies to the quickening rhythm of their rising joy, shouting and laughing. (254)
    And at the end of section three, Han, dying in the aftermath of childbirth and under the trauma of having her child stolen by Choyin, wades into the lake. Wu, desperate to profess his love for her, joins her once again by holding her in the lake until she dies. The image of union here both mirrors those in the previous two scenes and expands and intensifies into a "reverberation" of love in the "splendour of the storm":
    The rain began to fall on them. She smiled and he knew she was thinking of the many storms of their joy and love, their wet union in mud and laughter by the pond. . . . He held her for a long time afterwards and heard their love reverberate in the splendour of storm. (379)
    According to Huang-di Nei-jing, a Chinese classic, "Thunder is the sound of fire, and it is the laughter of heaven" (Eberhard 290). Through the thunder and lightning, therefore, their union is further sanctioned by heaven. The deification of Han at the end is also significant. Throughout the novel, the world of divinities is portrayed as a mirror of the human world. In Han's dream, the Sky God has a ferocious bearing and, by a mere gesture of his fingers, is capable of sending forth a stream of energy. The Goddess of Blindness and Forgetfulness to whom Han has been praying all the time, has to come to her to accuse the Sky God of beating her and making her deaf for a hundred years. As gender equality has been achieved through Han's struggle, she, like many figures throughout Chinese history who did good deeds during their life-time, becomes a goddess after she dies, and as a "Goddess with Eyes and Ears," she is likely to answer the prayers of women in suffering.

  15. Though such short stories as "Bell Jar" strike the reader as very "western," and her novel The Bondmaid is heavily Chinese in both content and images, Catherine Lim consciously attempts to negotiate gender relations through an integration of Chinese and Western elements in most of her works. In "Prologue" to The Woman's Book of Superlatives, she makes use of Charlotte Brontë's admonition to women: "You held out your hand for an egg," she says "and fate put into it a scorpion" (4). Lim associates Brontë's image with that of the "bondmaid" by describing how women accept the "gift" and endure the sting without a sob -- in other words, how they passively endure their suffering, both physical and psychological, and resign quietly to their "fate." From this perspective, three groups of "scorpion-receivers" can be identified among her women characters. Apart from bondmaids, they include prostitutes, and females who suffer from poverty and prejudice. Rosita recalls how she was enticed by a neighbour to work as a prostitute at the age of fifteen, and how she has been maltreated by both her employers and customers after she lost her youth and beauty, and suffered an illness that left her fleshless ("Muniandy," The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream). When Mooi Ying discovers that Sunny had wanted to marry her merely for the donation she received after the accident that left her disabled, she committed suicide ("Letters," Deadline for Love). Vanessa is elated as the wealthy and respectable Gerard Chen loves and respects her more on account of her poverty, but foresees an end to their relationship after she discovers that her mother has been working as a low-class prostitute ("Vanessa Theng Boey Li," The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream).

  16. As in The Bondmaid, Lim illustrates how bondmaids and prostitutes are depersonalised both symbolically and physically. On the symbolic level, they are deprived of their identities in the objectifying and commercialising process of transaction, and the latter are even given new names which, in keeping with their lowly station, are often taken from the mundane objects of everyday existence such as "pig," "smell," and "bun" ("The Bondmaid," The Lightning God 46). On the physical level, the violation of the female body takes the milder form of everyday punishment, such as the "pinching, slapping and caning" of bondmaids ("The Bondmaid" 47), or the violent form of sexual assaults, rapes or even murder. In these short stories, nonetheless, Lim makes use of other Chinese traditional elements to suggest possibilities for females to liberate themselves from oppression. In "The Bondmaid," Ah Bor, who is raped by Half-Uncle and dies after the abortion, later returns to haunt him in the form of a ghost. The bondmaid's revenge resonates with Liaozhai Zhiyi [Strange stories from the leisure studio], a famous collection by the Ch'ing Dynasty writer Pu Sungling, which features such characters as ghosts and fox-spirits. As Pu's ghost stories deal with social issues like corruption among government officials and tyranny over the weak, and many ghosts are portrayed as examples of ideal human existence, (Indiana Companion 563) Lim seems not only to justify the bondmaid's revenge, but also expresses her yearning for a society where women are no longer oppressed. Likewise, Lim's stories about beautiful and virtuous females, some of whom are drawn to prostitution due to poverty, also remind us of Chinese classical works like Sun Chi's Beili Zhi [Record of the northern sector], which describes the geisha section of Chang-an in the Tang Dynasty, and gives favourable anecdotal accounts of prostitutes and entertainers who are all talented and well-trained in music and literature (Indiana Companion 650), and Gu Yen-wu's Jinxien Zhi [The golden thread pond] which, far from supporting the traditional Chinese image of women, compliment strong-willed women who fight for their happiness.(Indiana Companion 508).

  17. Though the "Prologue" to The Woman's Book of Superlatives largely adheres to Charlotte Brontës vision that women are doomed to be "scorpion-receivers," it does end with a brief mention of "egg-receivers," of which several types can be identified in Lim's stories. Apart from "middle-class" women who apparently manage to balance family and career, like Mona in "Bell Jar," they include housewives and those who were brought up in poverty but who later become wealthy. Isabelle, a foundling maltreated in orphanage and teased at school, is adopted by a well-to-do family. She later succeeds, not by developing her own career, but by getting married to an extremely wealthy pepper merchant in Indonesia, but continues to feel inferior due to her background ("Gate of Hope," Deadline for Love). Geok, whose family makes up the whole of her life, is forever at the mercy of her husband: initially rejected by him for her increasing body size and her broken English, she is ironically re-accepted by him so he can foster a nice-guy/family man image and accordingly increase his chance of promotion ("A Change of Heart", The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream).

  18. In depicting affluent female characters, who do not have to sell their bodies as bondmaids and prostitutes do, Lim does not seem to suggest any possibility for them to liberate themselves from spiritual, rather than material oppression. Rather, as scorpions are hatched out of eggs, she seems eager to convey the idea that "egg-receivers" are no better than "scorpion-receivers," and both, having to quietly endure their suffering and imprisonment, are contemporary "bondmaids." The connection between "scorpion-receivers" and "egg-receivers" is most strongly drawn, and even universalised, in "The Paper Women" (The Woman's Book of Superlatives). The narrator, who has undergone a sterilisation operation encouraged by the Singapore government as a population control measure, meets a Thai prostitute and a Filipino woman, both of whom give her an "affinity-establishing look," carrying the suggestion that "We are going to meet again" (59). As she meets the two again back in Singapore, she finally discovers their "affinity": she, holding a sterilisation certificate, the Thai prostitute with her "virginity certificate," and the Filipino maid with the certificate of non-pregnancy, all have their "sexuality reduced into pieces of paper signed by men" (60). Curiously, the narrator changes the tense from the past to the present at the end. The statement that concludes the story, "We are the Paper Women" (60), highlights the "common" predicament of women, regardless of their national and cultural origins.

  19. The domination of the Chinese literary scene by male writers until the mid-twentieth century led not only to few literary works being produced by women writers, but also to a meagre amount of female biographies and autobiographies. In his Lienu Chuan [Biographies of women], Liu Xiang, the Han Confucian who believed that a nation's prosperity was highly influenced by women, recounted the lives and deeds of 125 women, ranging from imperial consorts to peasant wives, from legendary times to the Han period, so as to prepare a road of propriety for future women to travel (Hou 177). Similarly, Pan Zhao's Nu Chie [Commandments for women], instead of recording lives of women for their own sake, aimed at directing women's thoughts and actions in their personal behaviour and family relationships through a system of moral principles (Hou 178). Nonetheless, women writers have made themselves heard, and those in the modern and contemporary periods, in particular, have distinguished themselves. [5] Female autobiographies have also become popular in the past two decades, an example being Jung Chang's memoir, Wild Swans, which recounts how three generations of women in her family fared in the political maelstrom of China during the 20th century.

  20. Interestingly enough, in her Gifts from the Gods (1990), Christine Lim launches a battle against male domination by adopting an autobiographical form in recounting the stories of Tai Ku, her adopted daughter Yoke-lin, and Yoke-lin's daughter Yenti. Sold to the brothel-keeper as a sixteen-year-old during the great famine in the Malayan Peninsula, Tai Ku is first bought by a tin-miner, later married to a butcher, and then becomes the matriarch of the household. Yoke-lin, whose mother was killed by her trishaw-driver husband after giving birth to the sixth daughter, hopes to regain her security through a proper marriage. Unfortunately, she is first married to Ah Chong, who does not love or even care for her, and after giving birth to a daughter, his family forces her to go back home with her baby. She subsequently works as a dance hostess in Green Dragon cabaret in Penang, where she becomes involved with a series of unsuitable men. She then heads for Singapore and works in Southern Cabaret, where she meets Ong Kim-San, the owner of a goldsmith shop in Chinatown. In order to win over the reluctant Ong, as well as to help him claim his share of family inheritance, Yoke-lin requests the help of Master Leong, the medium of Ping Shan Temple. The story thus reaches its climax when Yoke-lin undergoes a rigorous ritual of seduction at Ping Shan, conceives a coveted son -- a gift from the gods -- which accordingly enables her to be accepted into the Ong clan.

  21. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf asserts the relation between female writing and identity, claiming that money and a "room of her own" guarantees a woman not only time but also the intellectual liberty to write. In fact, Woolf's own material security had allowed her to take imaginative voyages into the dartings and weavings of the human mind, to give voice to much that had gone unheard in the previous written records. A somewhat similar situation occurs in Gifts from the Gods. Though we were told little about Yenti, she is the one who narrates the stories of Tai Ku and Yoke-lin in the form of journals and in doing so, not only gives voice to the oppressed generations of Singapore women, but also fastens the bond between female identity and writing. Lim's novel also brings in the significance of material security and intellectual liberty through the name Yenti, which means the "tears of a swallow," and was given by Yoke-lin in the hope that Yenti can, with the help of education, "soar above pain and sorrow," and become "independent and free" (32-33).

  22. Such independence also necessitates reconciliation with her past, particularly with the life stories of her mother and grandmother. Though Yenti used to feel ashamed of both Tai Ku and Yoke-lin, she later realises that they are victims of their society, and that her mother had even degraded herself for the sake of Yenti's own upbringing. Thus, even as Yoke-lin used to keep her past from Yenti, and had treated memory as a "veritable store of fact, events, and observations" that "the mind retrieves to toy and mould", and "sieve and sieve into stories which [they] purvey as the substance of [their] history" (96), Yenti is determined, by writing the journal, to tell the true stories of both Tai Ku and Yoke-lin and to give them a "voice" (53). Moreover, she regards her writing of the journal as an attempt to "free" herself from "the ghosts of the past that have been haunting [her]" (53), as an "act of remembrance and severance of ties that bound [her] to what [she] was" (213). As Yenti, at the end of her journal (and the novel), claims in triumph to her reader, and perhaps to the male oppressors of her previous generations: "From now on I shall sculpt a new me!" (213), she is at the same time asserting her own will to freedom and independence as a woman.

  23. It is interesting to note that the portrayal of bondmaids, prostitutes and other poor women parallels the preoccupation of the pioneer feminists, such as Virginia Woolf, with the material disadvantages of women compared with men. By depicting modern Singapore women who, despite their wealth and education, are still disadvantaged by their gender, the two writers also share the concerns of such "first-wave feminists" (Selden et al. 127) as Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millet with "sexual politics," the imprisonment by male-dominant ideologies and the internalisation of these ideologies by women themselves. It is interesting to note that while Singapore writers blend Chinese with Western traditions to represent Chinese women and articulate their predicament, Hong Kong writers, as the rest of the article will show, move beyond the issue of "representation" in their representation of women, by upholding far more "revolutionary" outlooks and by adopting literary strategies that can be deemed as "post-modern."

  24. Timothy Mo, Sussy Chako and Agnes Lam voice the concerns of "second-wave" feminism (see Selden et al. 127) which, apart from women's rights in all areas, focuses women's "experience", sexual "difference" and "sexuality." It is perhaps useful to bring in Virginia Woolf's controversial concept of "androgyny" at this point. Elaine Showalter, seeing Woolf's "androgyny" as "a full balance and command of an emotional range that includes male and female elements," "a myth that helped her to evade confrontation with her own painful femaleness and enabled her to choke and repress her anger and ambition", accordingly accuses her for wishing to "transcend the feminist conflict", to "flee female gender identity" and to "forget experience" (263-64). For Tori Moi, however, Woolf's "androgyny," by rejecting the dichotomy between masculine and feminine as metaphysical, envisages a feminism without running the risk of becoming an inverted form of sexism (12-13). An androgyny takes shape in Mo's Sour Sweet (1982), a novel written in the eighties, but which portrays Chinese women against a background of London Chinatown in the sixties.

  25. Chako and Lam further pick up the more "revolutionary" approaches advocated by the French feminists who, thinking that language is the domain in which conventional, male-constructed stereotypes of sexual difference are structured, seek to resist phallocentrism within the signifying process. Hélène Cixous, a creative writer and philosopher who argues for a positive representation of femininity in what she calls "écriture feminine," urges women to put their bodies in their writing and to express the female unconscious which was hitherto suppressed. Such issues as the female body and female sexuality are explicitly rendered in Sussy Chako's portraits of both "conventional" and "liberal" characters. In addition, Julia Kristeva, another French feminist, makes the distinction between the "semiotic" and the "symbolic," stating that the former, which is flowing and rhythmic, is transformed into the latter after being stabilised and repressed by the language system. However, as language retains some of the semiotic flux, the poet can tap its resonances, invade the rational ordering of language, and disrupt the unified subjectivity of both the "speaker" and the reader. Sussy Chako's fiction and Agnes Lam's poetry are very good examples of how language is invaded and becomes destabilised.

  26. According to R. L. Widmann, there is a strict assignment of male and female gender rôles, thought patterns and as a logical consequence, a separation of male and female languages, in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet (46-50). Such a focus on the gender dichotomy, however, may lead us to ignore the fact that to start with, all female characters in Sour Sweet deviate from images of traditional Chinese women. The character Mui, for example, is naive, as shown by her unawareness of her pregnancy, but she does harbour strong opinions regarding children's education and gives useful suggestions with regard to the running of the family business. And alhough Mrs. Law, the Chinese immigrant and widow, does not play a large rôle in the novel, we are told that when she got married to her husband, he was a mere lighterman, and both of them have "worked their way up" until he became a wealthy ship-owner (43). It is Lily Chen, however, who impresses us with her combination of masculinity and femininity.

  27. In some ways, Lily Chen demonstrates traditional female virtues. She proves herself a good wife by taking care of Chen; a filial daughter-in-law by reminding Chen of his obligations to his old parents and insisting that he sends his remittances back home (at a time when Chen fears that if he does so the Triad would be able to trace the whereabouts of his family); and a caring mother to Man Kee, by feeding him in abundance, so as to ensure that he grows up healthily, and by planning his education -- while Chen, apart from teaching Man Kee gardening, has largely been passive toward his son's education. Yet Lily also possesses what are generally regarded as masculine qualities in both her appearance and character. She has a "long, thin, rather horsy face," which Chen considers as "over-full of expression" and containing "too much character," thus inconsonant with his "passive ideal of female pulchritude" (16); moreover, brought up by her father, a master of Chinese boxing who wishes that she were a boy, she was taught the rigorous and southern form of "siu lum" temple boxing when she was a mere child, which has made her "busty" (16), "taller, but also slightly lighter and wirier" than an average Cantonese woman of her age (15). It is therefore not surprising that when Lily was working in a factory, she relentlessly fought her supervisor's sexual advances. After her marriage to Chen, she becomes active and even ambitious in both domestic and business affairs of the family. She has been frugal on family expenses from the first day of her marriage, in order to save money, and has encouraged Chen, both directly and subtly, to start their own business so as to improve their life. Thoroughly dissatisfied with the raggedness of their new business flat, she renovates it, efficiently transforming it into a presentable shop and a cozy home, and once they set up their family business, she thinks of ways to improve and expand it. Later, she persuades Chen to buy a car, and while Chen fails to manage it, she learns to drive it easily, which enables the entire family to have a picnic at the seaside, thus maintaining a balance between work and play.

  28. Yet the most significant difference of Lily from Mo's other female characters is her desire and ability to control her relationship with her husband. Her ability to control marital distance is signalled by how she experiments with different ways of addressing him. The term "husband" carries her respect for him and her recognition of their marital bond:
    Husband, her habitual usage, a simple descriptive term after all, implied respect as well as a salutary recognition of the status quo and all that it traditionally implied. Lily used the term as recipient of obligations which were bilateral. (40)
    The term "Ah Chen" both signifies Chen as an individual being and points to his responsibility in the marital contract, thus widening the gap between them:
    There was also "Ah Chen," more familiar, used as a summons to ordinary household occasions, notably those through which Lily would be fulfilling a one-sided part of the marital contract. "Ah Chen" was also a distracting term. Being Chen's family name, it also implied a reversion to the state of affairs prior to the marriage and separated Lily Tang from the Chens. To refer to her spouse by this alias was also suddenly to look upon him as an individual, whereas his importance really consisted in his role, his rank - if you like -- of husband. (40)
    As he marvels at Lily's ability to find a margin on the house-keeping, "to sacrifice immediate gratification and defer it for future providential uses," and even "to carry it out secretly without his discovering" (84-5), Chen has to recognise and to open himself to "whole new regions of the female psyche, not only unexplored but their existence hitherto unsuspected":
    If there was more to Lily than he had ever imagined he did not, at this comparatively late stage of things, want to know. Could she, for instance, have manipulated him into directly raising the question of a move? when all along it had been she who wanted it? Had she known all the time and been laughing at him? Chen looked at her talking innocently with Mui (why were they both limping?) and frowned. What deceptions and secrets lay behind the childishly smooth skin of those faces? Chen decided to give Lily enough room to manoeuvre in future -- for both their sakes. (85)
    In other words, he has to reconcile himself to the autonomy, profundity, and even mystery of women who are far from being circumscribed by the stereotypes harboured by him and traditional Chinese society.

  29. This is not to say that Lily does not suffer from some of the traditional stereotypes of the wife and mother. She tries to elicit loyalty and dependence from her family members from time to time, without which she suffers from insecurity and helplessness, thus betraying her inadequacy behind her mask of confidence and self-sufficiency. An example of her patronising her husband, as well as her yearning for, and reliance on his appreciation, is the way she watches him with "merciless" sidelong glances to ensure that he always finishes the last spoonful of the soup she prepares for him (2). On learning of Mui's decision to let Mrs. Law bring up her new-born baby, her reaction is one of anger and betrayal. As the story develops, Lily also becomes increasingly possessive of her son Man Kee. Fearing that her position in his mind is easily supplanted by Mrs. Law, whom he visits every weekend, she devises a strategy to win and strengthen his favour. She does so not by bestowing extra warmth and care upon him; but learning that he is ignored and does not enjoy his time at Mrs. Law's house, she rather sends him there once a week, so that her own love for him is rendered more profound by comparison and he will love her more every time he returns. Consequently, not only do Chen and Mui, both victims of Lily's masculine dominance, form an alliance on the basis of their mutual sympathy for each other (227-8), but even Man Kee expresses his dislike and fear of the "hard" and "sharp" "Mar-Mar" (meaning "mother") (204). After Lily has expressed her disapproval of Man Kee's wish to be a gardener as he grows up, and uproots his mango plant in the garden, she realises the utter isolation in which she is trapped:
    One evening when Husband sat, by accident, in her chair she found herself ranged on her own at the table, with the others huddled close together opposite her. She was startled by the way the arrangement mirrored the rift of feeling in the family. Her shocked glance bounced off Mui. No one else seemed to have noticed, so it couldn't have been deliberate. And yet, when Husband picked up a piece of bamboo shoot and placed it in Son's bowl, she wanted to find a lonely place to hide and never emerge from. (258)

  30. Interestingly though, it is Chen's death at the end of the novel that perhaps unleashes Lily's potential in becoming well-balanced with qualities of both sexes. His disappearance forces her to realise her hitherto reliance upon him and their inseparability as "husband" and "wife":
    Husband had never been the liveliest of companions (by day or night) but she knew she had loved him for that strange, quiet doggedness of his. . . . Lily looked for the word which would encapsulate in essence all the qualities of Husband, his Husband-ness, and she could not find it, search as she might.

    Now that there was no Husband next to her, Lily found it difficult to sleep. Strange, it should have made it more comfortable. She had often kicked him in her sleep. She would throw an arm out and it would find empty space and the emptiness would wake her. ... Often she woke in the morning to find herself on what had been Husband's side of the bed with her arms and knees around the pillow in a fierce embrace. (266)

    Moreover, she now acknowledges the importance of Chen in the family, even deifying him as a saint, a household god, and a paragon of masculine, or yang (as opposed to feminine, or yin) qualities:
    As if to make up to Husband her negligence in bringing his son up properly, the way she was sure he in his heart of hearts would want him brought up (never mind what he seemed to want on the surface), she repeatedly dinned into Son the example of his father. Overnight, Chen had become a secular saint, a household deity to rival god. Never so revered when physically available to his family, Chen was becoming a paragon of all the traditional yang-type virtues and not a few of those more usually thought to be under the influence of yin. He was far-sighted, strong, resolute, kind, magnanimous, and brave; he was also considerate, unselfish, sympathetic, tender, and gentle to his loved ones, and especially his son, Man Kee. (274)
    To a large extent, Chen's absence also restores the intimacy in Lily's relationship with Mui, who offers her support and care when she is helpless and sorrowful, and whom she now treats as her equal:
    Mui could now become a friend, an equal. Lily hesitated to put it that way but it was true; she had looked at Mui as an inferior to be scolded and bossed about for her own good. Now there could be the beginnings of comradeship. (277)

  31. Upon receiving the monthly remittances from the Triad, which she believes to have come from her husband, Lily gradually recovers and is able to cope with both her career and her family, fulfilling her rôles both as the owner of Dah Ling Restaurant and as Man Kee's mother. It is as if she has incorporated and internalised the "masculine" qualities of Chen inside her, to the extent that her heart is no longer heavy with sorrow:
    She looked forward to the day he would return to her, as she knew with a certainty that passed beyond faith he could one day return to her. But in the meantime how light-hearted she could feel! Surely Husband hadn't weighed on her like that? . . . But it was as if a stone had been taken off her and she had sprung to what her height should have been. She thought she had found a balance of things for the first time, yin cancelling yang; discovered it not by going to the centre at once -- which was a prude's way and untypical of her -- but by veering to the extremes and then finding the still point of equilibrium. (278)
    Here, it should be noted yin-yang is intimately related to the philosophical concept of tai-ji, literally meaning "great infinitive" and thus "Absolute" and "the Original One," which attained cardinal importance in Confucianism from the 11th century onwards (Eberhard 283). It was from tai-ji, this ruling principle of the metaphysical world, that developed first the duality/ syzygy/yin-yang, then the five permutations or states of nature, which generate the "ten thousand things" (Eberhard 283). Hence, through this yin-yang balance, which indicates not only the reconciliation of Western and Chinese cultures, but also the harmony between masculinity and femininity in Lily, Timothy Mo succeeds in integrating the Western concept of androgyny with Chinese tai-ji to show how women can subvert patriarchy by becoming fully self-sufficient.

  32. Sussy Chako portrays different woman figures in Daughters of Hui (1996): traditional and liberal, conformists and rebels, and mixtures of two opposed types. As Naomi Price remarks, in their "common battle for sexual self-determination" which accompanies their struggle with their origins, these woman characters not only share the same surname "Hui", but also are "sisters under the skin" ("Cultural Identity Parade"). These "sisters" include Rosemary Hui in "Danny and the Snake," who suppresses her sexual desire for Danny, her American student; the "amoral" and "promiscuous" (90, 98) narrator of "Loving Graham," who divorces her first husband Philip, has numerous extra-marital affairs, undergoes a sterilisation operation thus, in her mother's words, "cutting off her womanhood" (86), and finally divorces her second husband Alan; the two sisters in "Valediction" -- the elder, who commits suicide after she is unable to separate from her unfaithful husband and marry the Shanghaiese doctor whom she loves, and the younger, whose life has been one long series of suicide attempts, drug overdoses, divorces and failed homosexual and heterosexual relationships. As opposed to a Western feminist position such as articulated in Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, which warns women against entering into socially-sanctioned relationships for the sake of security, Chako expresses the difficulty for women to liberate themselves from social and moral shackles and to act on their desires.

  33. Such concerns also surface in Chako's subsequent work. Hong Kong Rose (1997), devotes itself to the dilemma of Rose Kho, who feels obliged to remain in a loveless marriage with her bisexual husband and who dreads exposure of her secret affair with Elliot, due to the pressure from her family, her in-laws, and even the relatively Westernised and open-minded Helen and Uncle Chong. Somehow, she tries to convince herself that she has made a "pretty picture of life -- family, marriage, social standing, a good job" for others (260-1):
    That was the problem with life in Hong Kong. Everything was about what we speculated and guessed, not what we knew. Reality mattered more than truth, and the reality was that there was simply no need to choose between Elliot and Paul. Why should I? My husband offered me a better life than I ever dreamed of, and a kind of intimacy that stemmed from our long time together. Elliot was about adventure, physical pleasure and a kind of love. I had the best of all worlds. What more did I want? (201)
    Later, Rose goes to America to work in an attempt to develop her career and to escape from the rubble of her failed marriage. As the novel ends, she not only fails to bring herself to a divorce, which would have put an end to her ridiculous marriage, but also lets her relationship with Elliot, which has been so fulfilling and inspiring, fade out. Though both at the beginning of the novel and toward its end she is seen sitting in her office, looking toward and conversing with the Statue of Liberty, the ultimate picture we have of her is one of indecision regarding her life and future. As she bids goodbye to the Lady Liberty, we doubt whether she will ever find her freedom (266).

  34. But not all of Chako's characters are defeated in their quests for self-emancipation. The third story found in Daughters of Hui, "The Stone Window," does subversive traditional gender rôles. Composed of two interrelated stories about Philomena Hui and Hui Sai Yee, it is divided into four separate sections. We are told little about Philomena Hui, who appears in Part I, other than that she is a Hong Kong painter now exiled in Greece. Her age is a mystery: to some people, she looks twenty something; to others, she is somewhere between forty and fifty. She seldom speaks, and when she does, she gives curt and brief responses. Her movements resemble those of a cat, a swallow, or a nightingale. She is rumoured to be a "bad" woman who lives on men (109), but regarded as "crazy" and a "girl" (110) by Constantin, the Greek who lives with her. Like the her house with its stone window, through which neither light nor glances can penetrate, she insulates herself against being constructed by the gazes and preexisting categories of people around her.

  35. The background, actions, and personality of Hui Sai Yee, who appears in Part II and III, are much clearer. A thirty-year-old woman, born in China and raised by her Grandma in America, she wavers between taking a stable job in Boston and writing novels to realise her dream of becoming an established writer. After her first script gets rejected by the publisher, she travels in Greece and lives at her own expense. In Part III, she is married to Ralph Carder, and the two have their honeymoon in Hydra, a Greek island. In contrast to Philomena, Sai Yee seems to be transparent. Yet, as with other female characters in Daughters of Hui, Philomena and Sai Yee share a bond that reaches beyond their shared surname to complicate, even obscure, identities.

  36. The relationship between the two women intensifies as the narrative progresses. In Part II, Sai Yee meets Constantin, who tells her the story of Philomena; in Part III, readers are told that her husband Ralph had an earlier encounter with Philomena, and the two women meet at an art exhibit. Their bond becomes more mysterious, and their affinity more pressing, when Sai Yee, who is sitting on the beach of Hydra, feels a quick snapping at her back, and as she turns around, has a glimpse of a shock of black hair which, the novel suggests, resembles that of Philomena. The process in which Sai Yee becomes Philomena's double is further dramatised through Sai Yee's husband, Ralph. Just as Ralph is intrigued by Philomena and her subsequent disappearance, he suffers equally, if not more, from his wife's departure, which prompts him to travel to Hydra in search of her. There he meets an old Greek who claims to know Philomena and her story. After Ralph hears this account, the images of Philomena and of Sai Yee merge in his mind: "No Chinese in Greece, she said, except lonely cooks in Chinese restaurants. Who said? Philomena? Sai Yee?" (125).

  37. What is most remarkable, however, is the image of Philomena Ho's watercolour painting, which is foregrounded and endowed with magical qualities as the story ends. While Ralph buys it in Part I, it reappears again in Part IV, where we are told that Ralph keeps it in his house in Hydra. Curiously, as Ralph looks at the painting, which is of Hong Kong buildings, it acquires a dazzling dynamism, until its colour and forms transform themselves into the stone window of Philomena's house he visited several years ago:
    [Ralph] watched the picture change in hue from scarlet and gray to blue and green. It changed quickly today, like an automatic remote flicking between television channels. Soon, the moving colors would settle into a mixture of oils thick on the canvas. Like a stone window. (125)
    As the story closes, it is not hard to discover another dimension of "Philomena." As the name resembles "Philomela," a figure in Greek mythology who has her tongue cut out and her voice silenced by the king, "silence" has in fact been used by Philomena the painter as a weapon of defiance against the story's male characters. Such a "silence" generates its full impact at the end, as the "tongueless murmuring" of Philomena, which comes from nowhere, along with the flowing colours of her painting, haunts Ralph into a "silent slum." The coupling of the visual and the auditory similarly mesmerize the reader who vicariously participates in Ralph's sufferings.

  38. It is interesting to note that Philomena Hui, a crazy, hostile and elusive figure, is reminiscent of the "madwoman" identified by Gilbert and Gubar. As British women writers had to conform to patriarchal literary standards and were denied the right to create their own images of femaleness, they sought a roundabout way to attain literary authority by creating -- as a dark double of the the passive, docile and selfless angel -- the duplicitous "monster," whose consciousness is opaque to man, who has a story to tell, but may choose not to tell (see Gilbert and Gubar 73). Along these lines, Philomena Hui can perhaps be read as the dark double of Hui Sai Yee. Yet in contrast to Gilbert and Gubar, whose project aims at "recreat[ing] a lost female unity," a woman "whom patriarchal poetics dismembered and whom we have tried to remember" (Gilbert and Gubar 101), Sussy Chako deliberately frustrates any attempt at the reconstruction of female "wholeness." Hui Sai Yee not only becomes associated with her dark double but ultimately disappears from the text. Philomena Hui remains unpenetrable by the "phallic probings of masculine thought" throughout the story, and by asking Constanin to pose for her painting, she even turns the male gaze back to the male characters, and attains, in Germaine Greer's words, the "freedom from being the thing looked at", and becomes "the person looking back" (10). At the end, she leaves only her painting behind, and becomes as mysterious and unfathomable as, if not more than, she had been at the beginning.

  39. Although Agnes Lam's poetry is devoid of "madwoman" figures, it does offer a vision of the "unfathomable" woman. The title of her collection, Woman to Woman, already indicates the significance of women in her poems, written by a woman poet for, and about, women. At first glance, Lam's portrayal of women is not radical. "First draft" (1994), for instance, brings out the idea that the life of a woman, far from unique and independent, is a "first draft printed on paper once used for other drafts" (51); thus it is more or less influenced by, if not repetitious of, the life patterns of other women. In other words, though women may lead different life paths, their lives are contingent on social, historical and cultural factors. In "Nerissa's Cage" (1995), the three-feet tall rattan cage in Nerissa's designer flat becomes a symbol of confinement. Though the cage has been transported through the air, it now stands indoors on the table, and though Nerissa leaves the cage empty and its door open, her daughter locks toy canaries in the cage. Lam's idea is thus loud and clear: as the "the sky itself is closed" and women cannot go far, even Nerissa, being the "most respected fund/ manager in the region," is not exempted from maternal obligations (58).

  40. Though Lam suggests that women's lives are not so different from one another, "Woman to Woman" (1986), after which the book is entitled, perhaps provides some guidance as to how her poems may be interpreted as glimpses into the secret, unique, and unrepeatable lives of women. Though the persona has "met" women, "exchanged smiles and greetings", and even "lunched and dined" with them, her knowledge of them is limited, as she only "got to know" their careers, that they are "people with offices,/ telephone extensions,/ bookshelves, tutorial chairs," and "people with husbands/and a son or daughter" (55). Even at the poetry workshop, where more profound topics are expected to come into discussion, women chat about everyday issues, and woman "poets" are barely associated with anything beyond the domestic setting, and such household chores as disinfecting the toilet bowl, changing bedsheets and soaking worn clothes (p. 57). By reading their poetry, nonetheless, one is allowed a glimpse of their mental and emotional world, depicted in a flow of discrepant images, some of which convey a sense of secretiveness:
    And then I read
    their poetry . . .

    lizards slithering through running sand
    trying to escape falling into caves (56)

    and blend life with death, movement with inertia:
    the mummies are sleepy
    in the early morning (56)
    Other images, vibrant with noises and colours, suggest the profundity of unexplored treasures:
    subterranean rivers
    gushing through buried treasures
    . . .
    conches glisten with coral dust
    proffering the sounds from the deep

    and the whales are expecting (56)

    Still others depict the intensity of women's suffering and associate them with wild beasts:
    a generation of orphans
    not yet menstruating walk the city
    while women in pain with first babies
    labour beneath rubble
    and the crocodiles crying (56)

  41. If the tongueless utterance of Philomena Hui in Daughters of Hui reminds us of Hélène Cixous' advocacy for unleashing the "semiotic" from the "symbolic" language, hence the subversion of logocentrism which, colluding with phallocentrism, oppresses and silences women, then Lam's poem sounds like a direct response to Julia Kristeva's call for women to express the female unconscious that was hitherto suppressed by logocentric ideology layered with Cixous' female semiotic. The images of walking orphans and labouring mothers, in particular, constitute a voice where the woman is "wholly and physically present," and, coupled with such images as the gushing rivers and expecting whales, also a profound one, which seems "not only her own, but springs from the deepest layers of her psyche," an "obscure and mysterious yearning" that aligns it to "the echo of the primeval song she once heard" (Cixous, quoted in Moi 172). All in all, Lam's images indicate a strange, unfathomable and subterranean world, one that is well beyond family, career and material possessions. Therefore, not only can women themselves not fully understand their own sex, but any attempt to contain, confine and compartmentalize women, by scholars or critics, males or females, is doomed to failure.

    ***

  42. If Timothy Mo, Sussy Chako, and Agnes Lam do not offer solutions to current female crises, they do promote dialogue between Western feminism and contemporary Chinese women. Perhaps their locations in Hong Kong and London, long places of busy transcultural as well as economic commerce, allow them to transcend traditional representation. Catherine Lim and Christine Lim -- perhaps reflecting the more isolated insularity of Singapore, where multiculturalism has been more an internal than a global affair -- direct their interests toward the dilemmas of Chinese women trammeled by cultural practices that not only oppressed bondmaids and child brides but that also haunt women living on the cusp of modernity. Regardless of whether the female subaltern's voice is a historically silenced one or one struggling to express herself now, of whether Chinese men or people in the West hear these voices, these texts, taken together, offer a way out of the contemporary "bell jar."


Notes

  1. Derived from the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, "subaltern" originally refers to subordinate social groups, and this is the sense in which it is taken by the contributors to Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society, who attempt to resurrect the protests among such social groups in India in response to the colonial state's control over local resources and life styles. As Kamala Visweswaran points out, the relative "silence" on the subject of women within the parameters of subaltern studies calls for the emergence of the gendered "subaltern" (18, 24). Back

  2. > I here refer to Swee-Hock Saw's Population Control for Zero Growth in Singapore and to Christine Doran's "Global Integration and Local Identities: Engendering the Singaporean Chinese," 157. Back

  3. See Chun-hung Ng, "Bringing Women Back In: Family Change in Hong Kong." Back

  4. Spivak directs her analyses particularly at the subject-position of the female subaltern, whom she describes as doubly marginalised by virtue of relative economic disadvantage and gender subordination. In "French Feminism in an International Frame" (1981) and "Three Women's Texts . . ." (1985), she points out the limitations of Western feminism, with which the dissenting voices of colonised women are readily silenced, and also challenges the easy assumption that the postcolonial historian can recover and re-establish a "voice" for them. In "Can the Subaltern Speak" (1985), which focuses on the prohibition of Indian sati (widow burning) by British imperialists in the nineteenth century, she draws upon Marxist and Postmodernist theories of the decentred and unstable subject to attack Foucault and Deleuze's assumption that the "marginal" can speak for himself/herself in an unmediated fashion, and to illustrate how the voice of the oppressed female can only be spoken for by both the native male and the imperialist, in a distorted fashion. Such claims were contested by critics such as Lata Mani, who argues that colonial discourse in fact did not lead to the erasure of the female voice ( see "Contentious Traditions" 88 - 126 and, in general, "Cultural Theory, Colonial Texts") and Benita Parry, who criticises Spivak for her conceptualisation of subaltern women as a homogeneous and coherent category, for her insensitivity to the ways in which subaltern women inscribe themselves in colonised societies, and her deafness to the native voice where it can in fact be heard (36-44). In her later works, then, Spivak comes to see the possibility for exchanges between "metropolitan" and "decolonised" feminisms (see, for instance, "French Feminism Revisited" [1992]). Moreover, she modifies her view of a fully dispersed and decentred female subject While the influence of deconstructive theories once led to the conclusion that it is better to preserve subaltern experience as the "inaccessible blankness" which serves to reveal the horizon and limits of Western knowledge, she eventually suggests that the subaltern can indeed speak and even act resistantly, even though her voice is only heard through the mediation of the non-subaltern, or when she speaks, the West may choose not to hear (see "Feminism and Deconstruction, Again: Negotiations" [1989]). Back

  5. See Ziyun Li's "Women's Consciousness and Women's Writing." Examples include Ding Ling, a female writer in the May Fourth Period and among the few who realised that free love, a dominant motif at the time, in itself would get women nowhere and so it was important for them to achieve political and economic independence. Xiao Hong and Zhang Ailing were heretics who dealt with forbidden topics like the female consciousness, which was denounced as bourgeois ideology in the Communist era. In the post-Mao period, when most writers wrote about social and political themes constituting literature of the "Wounded Generation," Zhang Xinxin and Zhang Zie wrote about love, and later, about sexual harassment and discrimination. Back


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