One of the bloodiest and roughest events which marked the history of Malaysia would be the May 13 racial riots which provided vehement revolution (Feng) that changed the country from the ideal of a multicultural egalitarian future –an ideal already tested by the hostilities over power-sharing to the Malay-dominant race-preferential practice in place today.
Apparently, the challenge for a scholar and writer like Shirley Geok-lin Lim is how to piece these thoughts and experiences together to form a narrative without sounding too historical or overly abundant with sensationalization. With her novel Joss and Gold, she inserts the transnational encounters and the different reactions and responses alongside it. The novel, in this light, represents an important recurring theme of Asian Literature –the continuous quest for identity.
The story is set in Kuala Lumpur in 1968.When the novel opens, Malaysia—only 11 years independent—comprises an uneasy mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians (among many others) and is struggling to find its identity –similar to the protagonist, Li An, a Malaysian-born Chinese who happens to be a fan of British poems and begins her first job as an English tutor in the city.
Though Li An marries Henry, a graduate student from a wealthy Chinese family, she eventually befriends and then falls for Chester Brookfield, an American Peace Corps volunteer who teaches woodworking at the Petalling Jaya Vocational. When a separatist riot results in a curfew, Li An spends the night with Chester, and though he quickly forgets it and returns to the United States, the unexpected pregnancy slowly changes Li An.
The novel shows in an overall context how the Malaysia could overcome such racial and political animosities by stripping down rigid cultural divisions through a series of negotiations and transactions between varying groups and cultures. Parallel to this, the progressive political and societal insights are in line with the internal conflicts and personal views of the individual characters themselves who are seeing their country slowly changing its shape and underlying notions and ideologies.
The country’s current state of race relationships can be traced back to the riots, which is reflected in the views and actions of many characters in the novel. Some would be deemed fervid to the traditional view –purist and exclusive. This is exhibited by Li An’s two Malay friends, Abdullah and Samad, who strongly stand by nationalism. Their sense of cultural “purity” could be traced from one instance where Abdullah talks to Chester about the interracial relationship of their friend, Gina who is a Chinese, and Paroo, an Indian, and the possible dire consequences they would be facing after that:
Very difficult this interlay racial affair. Better that like stay with like. Indian and Chinese cannot mix. Too many differences – food, custom, language. To be husband and wife, must share same religion, same race, same history. (58)
The statement only shows the crucial position of the races and their exclusivist outlooks but it also underscores Abdullah and Samad’s consolidating view of nationalism –that Malaysia should only be composed of purely Malay people and culture at the core.
Chester, on the other hand, insists on the demonstration of colonial mentality of the Malaysians despite the political independence. In fact, his accentuated “Americanness” reflects on his struggle to adapt to the country and make friends. He often compares Malaysian history with American, the colonial British hangover with American democracy to the detriment of the host country. Inevitably, he only goes home before the end of his service.
Chester’s character contributes to the story with his pseudo attempt to become part of the so-called real culture by criticizing Li An of her attachment to the English culture even after the departure of the British to their native shores.
In contrast to Abdullah, Samad and Chester’s approach, Li An’s creole, hybrid imagination is reflected in her love for English literature and eventually, her liking for Chester (who is an American). Her dialogic imagination and view of nation is most apparent when she responds to Chester’s rash statement on the Chinese not being “truly Malaysian” and could be in “Hong Kong or even in New York’s Chinatown” (44). To this, she retaliated with:
You can’t make any judgments based on who or what is original…everything in Malaysia is champor-champor, mixed, rojak. A little Malay, a little Chinese, a little Indian. Malaysian means rojak, and if mixed right, it will be delicious. (46-47)
This mixed view of Malaysia, and that Malaysia is not only exclusive to a certain group of people can also be seen in her reaffirmation to her husband Henry, “But I am not Chinese, I am Malaysian” (23), or in her diary entry wherein she narrates the country’s current condition in the wake of national elections, “All this talk about Chinese rights makes me sick too. Malay rights, Chinese rights. No one talks about Malaysian rights. I am Malaysian. I don’t exist” (90).
From this context, Li An tries to suggest the rejection of all unilateralism and ethnocentrism, and the gradual advancement of the country through multilateralism and “hodge podge” of cultures which would make up the ideal unified imagined community in Malaysia.
The Li An-Chester relationship, which is at the center of the novel, can be interpreted both literally and figuratively, as this is where the thematics of nation intersect and intertwine and take on an allegorical form. On the night of May 13, 1969, Li An gives in to the temptation of making love with Chester despite her commitment as wife to her husband Henry. If we take Li An as an allegory of woman as a nation, and Chester as the “White Man,” on whose duty, or burden is to educate and enlighten the “inferior races”, then Chester’s violation of Li An’s body becomes an act of aggression.
Shirley Lim’s stark differentiation invested on the personalities of the characters in the novel show the wide range of views on multiethnic Malaysia and how they think it should be interpreted and accepted.
Lim should likewise be commended for the way she interrogates the explosive incidents in the nation’s history before or after the independence with a forthright and frank manner. They dramatize the contesting views of the nation to show how Malaysia would gain from an inclusivist approach and how unilateralism and exclusivism would bring altering consequences for this newly emergent nation.
Thus, the implicit question posed by the author would be: What should a colonized nation do with what the colonizers have left behind? With the now emerging multicultural and multi-ethnic Malaysia, does it pose a need to veer away from the modern ethos by sticking to the purist conventions or shall it now further redefine its identity by embracing the new layers added to it?
Lim’s novel is very telling of the dynamics which comes to play in Asia’s literary works. Her belonging as a post-colonial writer straddles many cultures and histories with this story. As seen in her novel, she keeps her consciousness suspended in a deterritorialized zone –ceaselessly connecting, renewing, refreshing viewpoints on identity alongside the multiethnic Malaysia, and even Asia in a larger context.
Feng, Pin-Chia. “National History and Transnational Narration.” Feng, Pin-Chia. Diasporic Representations: Reading Chinese American Women’s Fiction. New York: Transaction Publishers, 2001. 112-115.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. Joss and Gold. Canada: Login Brothers Canada, 2002.