“Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature” by Brian C Bernards


A specialist book, Writing the South Seas is, steeped with lexicon which could take getting used to unless you work in the field. The title, however, is vivid: the term “South Seas” or (Nanyang in Mandarin) is familiar to everyone of Chinese ancestry from Southeast Asia. It refers to the lands south of China which are connected by an expanse of water aptly known as the South China Sea. Between the 1850s and the 1940s, the waves of this sea carried twenty million people from southern China to the varied countries of the Nanyang. Some of my ancestors were among them.

These Chinese men, and some women, arrived in British Malaya (now Malaysia), Singapore, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) and northern Borneo (now East Malaysia). Settlers went, too, to the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. These countries are all very different. And yet, because they lie in close geographical proximity, they have strong historical connections.


In this fascinating book, Brian Bernards explores selected strands of their historical development. He examines the patterns of migration which brought the Chinese to these lands, follows their absorption and localization and shows how the sea which brought them connects not only their colonial stories but also their post-colonial interactions, in ways sometimes subtle. Socio-political and historical commentaries run through the book, but Bernards sets these commentaries within a literary framework. In the process he calls up a diverse selection of little-known literary works from across Southeast Asia and China. Through selected examples, Bernards demonstrates that the South Seas or Nanyang has captured the creative imagination of many regional authors, to the extent that it provides a metaphor and deserves its own place in the region’s literary canon.

The idea that the Nanyang could serve as a metaphor or trope, as Bernards calls it, is interesting in itself. 90% of the Chinese who left China in the late 19th century emigrated to Southeast Asia, not the United States or anywhere else. To the Chinese, the “South Seas” became the sort of “New World” represented by America—“a pioneering frontier of opportunity and potential upward mobility.”

The Nanyang metaphor is helpful because of similarities in the patterns of Chinese migration and cultural absorption in the region—a process Bernard calls “creolization”, with its implied hybridization and inter-mixing. Creolization has undoubtedly happened, but it has not always been straightforward. New Chinese migrants in the Nanyang enjoyed economic success, and this has inevitably engendered tensions with the ethnic majority peoples of these lands.


Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature, Brian Bernards (NUS Press, 2016)
Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature, Brian Bernards (NUS Press, 2016)

For anyone interested in Southeast Asian literature, the trove of authors Bernards cites is already reason to read this book. Anglophone readers are unlikely to have heard of most of them: their works were written by and large in Chinese and have not been translated into English. These include Lao She and Yu Dafu (from China); Ng Kim Chew and Li Yongping (from Malaysia, but who moved to Taiwan and garnered literary acclaim there); Chia Joo Ming and Christine Suchen Lim (from Singapore); and Fang Siruo and Botan (from Thailand).

As an example of the political commentary running through the book, Bernards prefaces his discussion of the work of Malaysian author Pan Yutong by saying:


His fiction draws attention to how Borneo remains a marginalized national frontier and contested political frontline among Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.


Bernards continues with a discussion of current Malaysian politics, specifically as it impacts northern Borneo or East Malaysia, and summarizes one of Pan Yutong’s short stories:


Pan’s ‘The Country Shop’ (‘Ye Dian’, 1998) is essentially an allegory of how West Malaysia’s development and globalization occurs at the expense of the environment and economy of Sabah, plunging the people of the state into deeper poverty and subservience.


It is impossible in a review to do justice to the scope of the work Bernards does. I will limit myself to the socio-political conclusions which I as a non-specialist reader was able to draw. First, among the millions of Chinese immigrants in these successive waves of immigration were merchants and intellectuals; they were not all coolies, as I had previously thought. Further, the earliest Chinese travellers regarded the peoples of the Nanyang as “southern barbarians” to be civilized. These attitudes, reflected in the Sinophone literature of the time, would surely have affected interactions between the immigrants and the ethnic majorities they met, with lingering consequences even today.

Cultural exchanges have been two-way interactions: Sinophone Malaysians have ended up in Taiwan, becoming successful authors writing about Malaysia. The complexity of the Nanyang is such that settlers and ethnic majority peoples have also become colonizers, including in my homeland Malaysia. The discussion above of Pan Yutong’s writing, taken from the chapter about the eco-politics of Borneo’s rainforest, is used to illustrate Bernards’s point that West Malaysians—who come from the peninsula most people know as Malaysia—have dominated East Malaysia, harvesting the timber from its rainforests.

Finally, despite the cultural diversity inherent throughout the Nanyang, two forms of “multiculturalism” dominate. The first is one in which immigrants are literally subsumed, an example being Thailand, where Chinese immigrants have adopted the names and language of the ethnic majority to become indistinguishable from them. The second is what Bernards calls “hierarchical multiculturalism” such as adopted in Malaysia, in which immigrants who do not adopt Malay customs and religion are discriminated against by law.

Given the region’s customs and colonial history, these forms of “multiculturalism” are understandable, but it must surely be possible to find better forms of accommodation today. That must wait for another book. Meanwhile, I would recommend Writing the South Seas for anyone with an interest in Southeast Asia and/or Southeast Asian literature and how it came to be the region it is today.

Selina Siak Chin Yoke is the author of The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds and When the Future Comes Too Soon (AmazonCrossing, 2016 & 2017), the first two books in the "Malayan Series".