wechat sharing

Book Review: A Floating Chinaman

The irony-tinged life of a forgotten writer raises bigger questions

Who speaks for China? The question motivates American academic Hua Hsu’s look at an obscure Chinese-American writer in the first half of the twentieth century.

 

In 1931, graduate student H.T. Tsiang began walking the streets of New York, endlessly shopping his epic novel China Red. He would spend the rest of the decade failing to sell his books, accumulating polite rejections and lukewarm commendations. Tsiang was an artistic and commercial failure, but in this study he is of interest because of the way he demanded that his story of China be heard. The way was open to shape the image of China in the American popular imagination, and Tsiang didn’t like what he saw.

 

So what were the stories of China that he resisted?

 

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers demonstrated one story: countless workers threatening to take American jobs. Pearl Buck, with her bestselling novel The Good Earth - winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 - told another. She was raised in China and for her it was the home of noble peasants struggling to be left alone and live a hardworking, honest life.

 

Meanwhile Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine among others, also grew up in China. But unlike Buck, Luce rarely left his Western enclave or interacted with locals. This didn’t stop him from presenting himself as a voice of expertise, eventually to baleful effect when he strongly urged the US to support Chiang Kai-shek to the bitter end. To him, China was engaged in a power struggle that the whole world should support. And then there was Carl Crow, author of 400 Million Customers, who presented China as the ultimate untapped market. China for him was a place for the ambitious to make their name.

 

Book Review of A Floating Chinaman

 

Tsiang is intriguing, because he reminds us that there is no one story, least of all for a place - and idea - as elusive as China. In fact, the author reminds us, his was one of many stories we never hear: “His blast radius was tiny and sporadic...He longed to be part of a conversation about China and Chinese people... Barred entry, he aspired instead to...mock, critique, and haunt this conversation to which he was not invited.”

 

Tsiang never did break through, though he did make enough noise for the Hoover-era FBI to open a file on him, described to rather moving effect. He spent two years in Ellis Island awaiting a deportation hearing, and ended up a working actor, with parts in Gunsmoke and the original Ocean’s Eleven movie - in which he was credited as “houseboy” and spent “one entire scene shuffling about on his knees.”

 

In this clever and rigorous study, it is an intended irony that our framing device for this debate over narrative and truth is Tsiang, a man who failed to make his voice heard. The point is that we should always think about where our stories come from and that there are those we don’t hear.

 

by Peter Desmond

 

 

--
Follow us on WeChat:
read more city weekend shanghai

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

city weekend shanghai book review great wall 50 objects

By: Kathijahng -

Book Review: The Great Wall in 50 Objects
Museums have a way of forcing our hand, dragging us from broken vase to knife to costume and inevitably back to more shards, with short, dull descriptions that exhaust us if they manage to draw our...
Read More
phoenix claws and jade trees

By: Cityweekend -

Book Review: Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees
Back in our college days, we used to enjoy wandering the streets of America’s Chinatowns, examining woks and bamboo steamers.   We opened freezers and inspected piles of vacuum-sealed fish. At the...
Read More
city weekend shanghai book review great wall 50 objects

By: Kathijahng -

Book Review: The Great Wall in 50 Objects
Museums have a way of forcing our hand, dragging us from broken vase to knife to costume and inevitably back to more shards, with short, dull descriptions that exhaust us if they manage to draw our...
Read More
massage 3

By: Tomcarter -

Book Review: Massage and the Writer
Isham Cook just might be the most audacious Westerner writing about China today, perhaps even in history. The only other author to come close in matching his licentious exploits was Sir Edmund...
Read More

Comments

Download App Now
Select your device platform and get download started
Add & Promote an Event
Tell everybody what's going on. FREE.

You've reached the limit of allowed deals. For more information

Contact us

You've reached the limit of allowed housing listing. For more information

Contact us