an immigration narrative or three

I saw Elysium on the weekend. It’s not very subtle. It’s so not very subtle that I’m not even going to talk about its blatant immigration narrative, its poverty porn of brown people and brown spaces and deserts, its third world despair as represented by Matt Damon (MATT DAMON).

(My short review: Gosh, there were some interesting ideas presented! Completely wasted, totally pointless, Jodie Foster chewing on the scenery and despite it being the only believable white future I’ve ever seen it was boring and kind of offensive.)

Also I’m sick with the death cold I picked up on the flight home from Singapore, which I still haven’t shaken, so today you’re getting links on immigration and immigration narratives. You love it, I know you do.

My favourite post about Elysium is I renounce my Elysium Citizenship by J Lamb. It is a super excellent post about privilege, representation, and boring boring narratives that seek to interrogate but merely reinforce.

Blomkamp offers this antiseptic, conformist Whiteness as the celestial haven all the darker nations covet; lush green grass tickles the bare toes of towheaded human gazelles who play and laugh and smile because their lives demand no other purpose. Watch as a statuesque beauty drops her theatrical red robe to lie upon what appears to be a personal tanning bed; you learn it’s actually a miracle machine that can cure cancer in seconds. Horror paralyzes. This manicured playground for Teutonic supermodels and corporate overlords gives life everlasting to a Whiteness so privileged it never need die. Earth’s cautionary tales spend the entire film gripped by a feral desperation to emigrate to this orbital nirvana; the entire movie posits a world where no person of color wants anything less than Elysian citizenship. Ask yourself how this morality play ends.
Many good liberal folk applauded this film, and considered Elysium a warning against American xenophobia and isolationism. We have so much, why can’t we share? But the Elysium immigration metaphor characterizes the darker nations as eternally broken, and always wanting.

Anyway, but that’s the USA! Australia has a totally different immigration narrative from that.

I exist because of immigration. Don’t many of us? I exist because of illegal immigration. I exist because my grandmother escaped the Chinese mainland, swam to Hong Kong as a child, and made her way on a boat to Malaysia. I don’t know anything more about that, because here’s one of the things about asylum seeking: when your circumstances are such that a seven year old child has to swim away from the only home she’s ever known, you tend to lose your grasp on your past and your family history. My family history starts in Malaysia, where my family worked and stressed and lived, and continues here to me (I wrote a thesis on illegal flows of migration in and around China in 2005, which is hilariously not the same). I can’t imagine a world where I would deny someone the chance to run away and start again, whatever the situation they’re having to leave; let alone when they’re a refugee from persecution.

Which is why this article at the Hoopla BLOWS MY MIND: Immigrants Against Immigration.

Candidate for the Eastern Melbourne seat of Chisholm, Liberal candidate and former Vietnamese refugee, John Nguyen (below) shares my mother’s sentiments. He came by boat, yet pledges to stop the boats.
Nguyen says his family came to Australia the “right way”, because they sought asylum in Malaysia which is the first country they arrived in.
They were later processed and brought to Australia. But now, Nguyen wants the integrity of our borders upheld.
This baffled me. I wanted to know more.
So I visited ethnic hubs across western Sydney approaching shopkeepers, mums and couples dining at cafes and simply asked: “Do you think we should end immigration and stop the boats?”

BLOWS MY MIND.

And for your reference: Asylum Seekers: Where Australia Stands.

Okay good. PS I would break up with my own parents if they felt we should limit asylum seekers, given how few we accept as it is.

The Exotic Place as Other (and notes on cinder, by marissa meyer)

Futures and dystopias are frequently set in completely fabricated cities and worlds and planets, often but not always rising from the ashes of some war or climate catastrophe on Earth. There is extensive world-building and backgrounds established, and aside from the shared past of ‘Earth’ there is at times little else shared; Earth, and the issues of now translated into the text.

Frequently, though, those new dystopic futures are in New Something. New Beijing, New Singapore, New Istanbul. When they’re written in English and set in New Asian Something, I will bet you all the tea in my house that it is shorthand for an exotic distant (future) other; that the name of that place bears no actual relation to the plot or the world building other than something superficial like chopsticks, or the heat, and could have been set in New New York or New Londontown.

When you give the name of a place, you conjure connotations of that place, images and memories and ideas. When you name a place and there is nothing similar between the place you describe and the place you have named, what connotations exactly are you trying to conjure? In many cases, that image is other, and the exotic.

Exotic as Shorthand and the Place as Other

Exotic is a problematic term all on its own, particularly so when it’s applied to some culture you don’t know; in English-language Science Fiction, that’s almost always a place that isn’t a Western place. Tori Truslow wrote a great post in 2012. It’s got totally racist connotations, especially when we’re talking about beauty, particularly women; it separates us, and it others us. It’s frustrating when it’s applied to your food and your culture (as I wrote about five years ago). These are all different topics, but you see the connection: the exotic as other.

And the exotic in a text assumes an audience; but more importantly, it makes assumptions on who is not considered the audience.

In Australia, the term ‘exotic’ is used to refer to introduced species of plants and animals; primarily, English species. Roses are exotic; as are rabbits. I delight in this usage; particularly in my industry where this is the correct terminology.

The words ‘New Place’ are not required to create this artificial and lazy sense of place as other. Firefly, the Joss Whedon space western, is set 500 years in the future when the USA and China have combined to form one governing body and there’s nary an Asian city or country name in sight. There are swearwords in ear-twitching Mandarin, though, and comments about cooking bao and some kitschy East Asian set dressing. There’s no actual evidence of the alleged Chinese upper class, and despite claiming to be a fusion universe the show features no actual Asians (and indeed, described as Pan-Asian rather than the logical outcome of Pan-Chinese). It creates this great sense of place, of other, of how our dystopic future might turn out without resorting to green skies and triple moons…if you’re not sitting there, foaming at the mouth while someone appropriates your culture for its trappings and none of what it could actually contribute (say, actual Asians. And 100 kuai says terraforming was invented by an Asian scientist. Because have you met the Asian monolith?).

Dystopic future Los Angeles as represented in Blade Runner (you know what’s great about Blade Runner? Edward James Olmos) is like the perfect summing up of my point. It’s so perfect, I found some lecturer’s class notes on the internet that agree. This 2019 LA has lots of East Asian elements and non-English languages, and a whole lot of brown people, which reflected a (1980s but still relevant today!) fear of East Asian growth (Japan then, but China now) and an increase in white flight, which in Blade Runner are used as short hand for dystopia.

My disdain for The Wind-Up Girl remains strong, for many reasons, and in my original review I noted that (sorry, I’m totally quoting myself here):

there is really no point to setting the novel in Thailand. Thailand in this novel is othered just like many of the characters, and at most point it feels like any old made up exotic back drop. There’s very little about the setting that is really clearly a future Thailand, except from some mythology stuff. It could have been any old country, so why make it Thailand? Except I guess to make use of its sex trade issues WHY OH WHY. Some reviewers (okay, one commenter on one review) mentioned that it could be because Thailand is the only country that was never colonised by some white dude, which, okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still totally The Other.

And as Jaymee points out in her review, there is not only no justification for this geographical choice, there is also no explanation for inexplicable changes in neighbouring geography, such as the xenophobic fundamentalism of Malaysia (called Malaya in the book) which is inconsistent with a nuanced understanding of Malaysia’s history and racial politics. This oversight highlights the other issue with the exotic as the other: a necessary understanding not only of that one city, but of all its other interactions in the world.

Hilariously, I discovered this review of The Wind-Up Girl (which includes a review for River of Gods, which is a book I really want to read to see how terribly it uses India as a dystopic future setting) which completely disagrees with me, on the grounds that a good future dystopia based on an existing city should be totally different due to science and technology and in fact let me quote from this review, because this bit I agree with:

The right way is to recognize the historical fact that no country reaches the tech frontier without undergoing serious social changes. The faint echoes of samurai and cowboys in the Panasonics and Googles of today are just that – faint echoes. Writers who realize this will try to preserve some element of the spirit of the old in the form of the (imagined) new, rather than trying to cut-and-paste.

True! I will buy this theory, or some of it. However I disagree that The Wind-Up Girl has done so, primarily because I ask this: who are you to make the decision that it is sufficiently echoey? The biggest problem with this theory is that we are writing in the today. As an author not from these cities (as every author I am talking about in this blog post is), can they ever truly be trusted to make these sorts of judgements on a city? Instead, they pick and choose and turn up a city that is never quite right, precisely because it could just as easily have been set anywhere and it has brought nothing to the story other than the exotic as dystopic and different, particularly as the stories are written today, in our actual current world politics. (Thanks once again for making Thailand a stereotype of poverty and sexual slavery, Paolo! It’s not like every Western produced text that features Thailand makes the same statement!)

The Accidental Exotic is My Backyard

There is a flip side to this: the unintended Exotic. Elizabeth Knox suggests that non-USA/English in English writers may do this by accident or even consciously, where one’s normal is in fact the “audience”‘s exotic and different. This again makes assumptions about audiences, and asks what we can expect a reader to know and to understand. Famously Avatar: The Last Airbender was considered by some viewers to be entirely fantasy, including some elements taken directly from Japanese, Chinese and Korean myths and traditions. How much of this is because readers (and viewers) are used to the completely familiar, and the exotic as other?

New Beijing, Imagined (No, Seriously, Imagined) in Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (spoilers included)

Despite its capital of New Beijing, the Eastern Commonwealth is not a China. It can’t be, not with far-flung provinces such as Mumbai, an Emperor named Kaito, and kimonos as formal wear. The emperor eats with chopsticks at one point, and Cinder’s sisters are named Pearl and Peony, and family names before personal names. In the market is a sweet bun baker named Chang Sacha, which I guess could potentially be a pan-Chinese name. There is a moon calendar celebration.

Some reviews mentioned how Chinese it all sounded but it is so not Chinese sounding that I cannot even. It is not even very pan-Asian, which I wouldn’t forgive but would at least be something.

Pearl and Peony are Western stereotypes well before they’re actual Chinese names, especially in a text that’s Linh and Chang and Kaito. Their mother, Adri, makes no sense in this context as a name. Indeed their names even translated, with no naming schema, confuse rather than clarify. There is an Emperor, and with that Japanese name and the Changs and the Linhs (Vietnamese, by the way, if you’re wondering, and also usually a personal name) we’re moving solidly into pan-Asian territory.

The likelihood of China entering an alliance with Japan is as always slim to none for varied historical reasons; I would believe a China-Korea alliance before a China-Japan alliance, though the Singapore I’ll grant, especially if it were a one commonwealth two systems deal.

It’s a lot for me to say that it can’t be New Beijing because the names are broken, but it’s basically all we’re given. This New Beijing could be any North American city that I’ve seen on a tv screen (but surely even then the USA, with its history, is unlikely to accept a hereditary ruler so perhaps not even then). The chances of it being even pan Asian, let alone Chinese, are unlikely. There is nothing in Cinder that gives a sense of place, let alone a sense of a sprawling Chinese city. There is no ridiculous architecture, no noisy press, no constant flux. There is a cluster of apartments rising high into the sky, kids playing in corridors and in my head I imagined Chungking Mansion, the Hong Kong monstrosity, but that was more me than the text.

Awkwardly for me this New Beijing is in a far-flung renumbered distant future, so a defence of this book could be that Earth politics has changed so much that Emperor Kaito (Japanese) could indeed peacefully rule the Eastern Commonwealth of (unnamed) China and Singapore and Mumbai at least, living in New Beijing, and it’s all good.

But uh we live here, in the real politics of the world, and to imply that there is a Japanese ruler of a combined China and Singapore and India is there are no words, imagine me lying on the floor making choking noises as I bury my head in my arm and laugh and laugh and laugh.

The Book Smugglers in a review note that the story is set in New Beijing but really fails to capitalise on that and in addition the story goes out of its way to make Cinder first assumed European, and then Lunar (and we assume, caucasian) – what even is the point? they ask. The point is to use the city as shorthand for characterisation and move on, and this is why representation and research and every thing else is so important. We are not making a needlessly big deal! We are making an actual facts big deal.

Our dystopic future is very scientifically unlikely to be white, because of genetics, and science, and look white people are a minority already, you know? And climate change and the sun and recessive genes, and a lot of our scientific breakthroughs are coming out of Asia and Africa. Do you know how advanced Chinese alternative energy research is? And the fact that authors continue to write our dystopic future as white, or as white hero in a pretend brown world, simply proves the point that we’re used as a backdrop and there’s no actual real reflection of our dystopic future (or our current) in these texts.

(It’s funny how easy it is to misread a thing. Another review claimed that for the ‘sensitive readers’, there was nothing to worry about, unless you were offended by cyborgs. Oh sure, nothing, except the explicit medical trauma where Cinders is offered up for medical experimentation by her step mother, and then we are treated to pages and pages of her tied to a lab table, panicking, having her blood drawn by med robots, her protesting and saying she was not a volunteer, having a disembodied voice telling her too bad. Sure. Nothing to worry about for anyone.)

Imagined World Politics and Their Implications in 2013

New Beijing is in the Eastern Commonwealth, which is ruled by the hereditary ruler Emperor Kaito. An emperor of any Chinese-something alliance is unlikely, given China’s history with hereditary rulers and though the Emperor was such for nearly 2000 years, it will take much to move him back again. The Emperor lives in a palace in New Beijing, so we can assume that New Beijing is the capital of the Eastern Commonwealth. This book was published in 2012, so we can assume that New Beijing implies something about the original power of China moving into this commonwealth, particularly in light of page 28, at which point I gasped out loud: “Subjects had been carted in from provinces as far-reaching as Mumbai and Singapore.”

The provinces of Mumbai and Singapore. The author’s website implies that the ‘Eastern Commonwealth’ is basically Asia, and that there are other similar conglomerates (Africa, Europe and Australia, ruled by a Governor-General).

Speaking of Africa, one of the key components of Cinder is the deadly plague which found its first outbreak in a small village in the African Union. This is revealed to be a disease brought to Earth by refugee Lunars, who have fled to the African Union’s unpopulated areas. It’s problematic that ‘unpopulated Africa’ is the location selected for runaway Lunars (and not, say, unpopulated Europe or unpopulated North America), due to its implications of a continuing ’empty’ or backwards Africa.* It’s problematic that this feeds into the concept of dirty brown people.

In the previous section I talk about why implying the Japanese-China alliance or commonwealth or whatever is a completely ridiculous notion given our real world politics. This conglomeration of the Eastern Commonwealth which I cannot even take seriously because it then refers to the province of Singapore (as opposed to the country of Singapore, which surely is the point of a commonwealth) just continues to give rise to the idea of pan-Asianism, a particularly vexing problem when we are talking about the representation of Asian people in Western texts; that is, we are interchangeable.

My Face

I could really do without authors choosing to set stories in my exotic different cities and then choosing to make the city some random Western smush, with no real need to be set in that city and no real understanding of how my city works.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not all up on my rant horse because she’s ruining my city or my feelings or whatever. But this is definitely a personal issue as well as an intellectual one. It assumes that a non-western audience is not your audience; it assumes unfamiliarity with the setting, because it’s a short-hand; it assumes that my city is short-hand for cool and exotic. And it is lazy and unnecessary and occasionally it makes me very angry.

*a footnote! I’m trying to avoid footnotes but this one is important and definitely a foot: I hate ‘#firstworldproblems’. you know what African countries have? commutes to work that are so short you can’t listen to a whole song, the movie you pirated being only available in poor quality so looking bad on your tv screen, and really expensive socks (all items I have taken from the hashtag right at this moment).

The Sea and Summer

I’ve never been an advocate of the idea that you must be familiar with certain writers and works in order to call yourself a science fiction fan, but sometimes I find a gap in my reading that’s frankly embarrassing.

So it was with George Turner, the Australian, Melburnian author of acclaimed SF and literary novels. Until The Sea and Summer was quoted in Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne, I had never heard of him.

Born in 1916, he was already an accomplished critic and novelist (winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 1962) before he started writing SF in the late ’70s. Wikipedia describes his science fiction writing as being remarkable for “detailed extrapolation and … invariably earnest approach to moral and social issues”. Joe Haldeman called The Sea and Summer “didactic”, and apparently meant it as a compliment.

My curiosity was piqued, and The Sea and Summer — published in America as The Drowned Cities — has recently come back into print. I bought the ebook and settled in.

Francis Conway is Swill – one of the millions in the year 2041 who must subsist on the inadequate charities of the state. Life, already difficult, is rapidly becoming impossible for Francis and others like him, as government corruption, official blindness and nature have conspired to turn Swill homes into watery tombs. And now the young boy must find a way to escape the approaching tide of disaster.

What the publisher’s blurb doesn’t tell you is that this is a novel about two brothers, Teddy and Francis. As the novel opens, they’re “little Sweet” — in a society with 90% unemployment, their father has a job, which means they’re lower middle class. Then their father is laid off and cuts his own throat, and so the Conway family becomes rapidly downwardly mobile. They are not actually Swill, but fringe-dwellers, living just a few blocks from the vast skyscrapers that hold the Swill population.

Teddy is “gifted”, so he’s swiftly spirited away by the State, to train in police intelligence. Francis, left behind, is a skilled mathematician in an age where mental arithmetic has been forgotten, and so he becomes involved with a white collar criminal who needs to hide her records from the government.

As a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, I read a lot of didactic science fiction about climate change. I didn’t really enjoy these books (for one thing, my parents were/are climate change skeptics, and regarded environmentalism as a left-wing plot, and as a wee child I absorbed these ideas), but in those heady, pre-internet days, reading SF filled the gap between episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

(The best of those earnest middle grade novels was The Lake at the End of the World by Caroline MacDonald, which surely deserves an entry here if I ever find my copy.)

The Sea and Summer reminded me very strongly of those books. It’s grim, largely humourless, and contains long passages of conversation explaining human nature. I had hoped that Turner’s literary background would be reflected in the quality of his writing, and it was, but it was an assemblage of the traits that put me off “literary fiction” as a genre: a narrative that speaks for the characters instead of letting them demonstrate their qualities through dialogue, and, when they do speak, they all sound basically the same.

Part of this might be down to the framing device: The Sea and Summer is a novel written in the very far future, after humanity has survived the Greenhouse Years and is preparing to face another Ice Age. I wondered if we’re meant to think the author of the novel-within-the-novel is just not very good, but all the far-future characters are written in the same way.

(The far-future setting has no narrative of its own, save for one character — an Indigenous Australian actor who plays caucasians in whiteface — who is seeking to write a play featuring the novel’s characters. There are lots of earnest discussions about human nature, many featuring a Christian character who, as the stereytype goes, cannot speak without moralising. He’s thoroughly judgmental and unpleasant, but apparently we’re meant to find it appalling that he’s studying church history, because what a waste of intellect?)

It’s always hard to judge near-future science fiction without sniggering at the things it gets wrong. (Remember the Eugenics Wars of the late 1990s? Well, who doesn’t?) But I tried very hard, as I was reading, to separate any feelings of superiority I might have at spotting the “wrong” history from my response to the story itself.

This was difficult, though, because the novel deals with issues that are happening right now — financial collapse, harsh austerity measures, chaotic weather — and the responses of the characters, and society in general, bear no relationship to reality. If millions of people are crammed into 70-story buildings and all but left to rot, is it really going to take decades for social unrest to develop? Is it going to be years before people start thinking of re-learning the homesteading arts and becoming self-sufficient?

(As I write, within 24 hours of the government announcing its inhumane policy of sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, protests were being organised by the inner-urban left wing. The Swill v Sweet policies affect the urban poor of the western suburbs — if we tried treating that demographic the way we treat refugees, there would be riots.)

The novel discusses — at great length — the extent to which this status quo is deliberately maintained by the government, but again, it’s not convincing. Coupled with the explanation that the lower classes need to be coaxed into revolution by intellectuals, and the portrayal of the Swill as anarchic and dangerous, I was increasingly uncomfortable with the subtext. There are lots of scenes where characters realise to their amazement that Swill are, in fact, people, but there is such emphasis on the special qualities of Billy Kovacs, the Tower Boss who is an object of fascination throughout the book, that it starts to feel tokenistic. Our best look at an “average” Swill is a scene with a 14 year old prostitute, who is animalistic, violent and frankly a bit stupid.

The novel’s treatment of race, such as it is, is similarly troubling. We have the intellectual, elite Aboriginal in the framing scenes, which is a nice change from the usual absence of Indigenous Australians from any future setting. (I’m troubled by the whiteface aspect, but I can’t quite articulate how. And it’s just a one-off line that I may be blowing out of proportion.) On the other hand, in the novel-within-a-novel, we also have a reference to Asians — okay, a series of racist slurs — moving into central Australia and promptly destroying the environment with artificial weather programs.

Later, Teddy recoils from the realisation that his future mentor is ethnic. I mean, he’s Greek. Now, racist bigotry against Mediterranean immigrants was big in the ’50s and ’60s, but it was dying out in the ’80s — save for a few last gasps in the form of bad comedy — and is pretty much laughable now. Nick is a great character, by far the most likeable in the novel, but I’m still confused by the attitude towards his Greekness.

I don’t mean to be ticking off social justice talking points, but I really can’t not discuss the women of The Sea and Summer. It won’t take long, because there aren’t many. There’s the scholar in the framing device; Alison Conway, mother of the heroes and lover of Billy Kovacs; Nola Parkes, a public servant or businesswoman; and Vi, Billy’s wife, who is immensely fat (“gross” is one word that’s used) but also his political confidant. Oh, and there’s Carol, the love interest for one of the Conway brothers — but don’t worry, she has a couple of scenes, then vanishes from the stage as soon as they become a couple.

I found this interview illuminating:

Do you think there is a difference between the way you set your female characters and your male characters, or not? For instance in The Sea and Summer, the two mothers: were they two characters that were already set?

No they weren’t. The middle-class mother (Alison Conway) was an afterthought.

[The rest of the interview goes into some detail about Turner’s processes for creating female characters, and how that differs from his writing of men.]

It’s a bit silly to complain that a 78-year-old man, speaking in 1994, holds attitudes that aren’t compatible with mine, when I am a 31-year-old woman in 2013. On the other hand, one needs to balance that against the ageist idea that old people are automatically less enlightened, etc. I respect Turner’s attempts to create women with strength, but I disagree that the outcome is successful.

(Not to ding the interviewer as well, but “the two mothers” he refers to are Alison — and Nola Parkes, whose maternal status is completely irrelevant to the role she actually plays in the novel.)

I have to say that I wouldn’t have guessed Alison was a later addition, but I found her character incredibly frustrating. She’s terribly passive, sometimes passive-aggressive, held up by Billy as a figure of ideal womanhood to be protected, kept ignorant and generally put on a pedestal. This was quite annoying, because there were occasional glimpses of a really strong, brave character, but the narrative kept undermining her.

Although I have to say, the narrative didn’t do a great job of supporting her sons, either. Much is made of Francis being unlikeable and generally unpleasant, but until the very end, and an incident that frankly didn’t match up with his earlier behaviour, he didn’t seem like an especially weak or nasty person. Desperate, yes, and somewhat conniving, but his behaviour made sense in the context of his life, and seemed quite understandable coming from a young boy and teenager. Until the very last moment, his punishment doesn’t seem to fit his crime.

I think perhaps the age of the protagonists misled me into approaching this as a young adult novel, ie, it wouldn’t take it for granted that its audience hated and feared teenagers. The lack of sympathy for Francis — and apparent support of Teddy, who is essentially a member of a secret police force — was confusing.

With all these complaints, why did I keep reading?

Well, stubborness, and a strong sense that I wanted to talk about this book.

And it’s an Australian novel that’s set in Melbourne, my adopted city. I really loved the glimpses of the future city (even as I wonder, if rising oceans necessitate the building of sea walls, is the central business district really going to be that dry and well-maintained?), the vast towers dominating Newport and Richmond.

There’s also a glimpse of the past city, as Teddy walks through the long-abandoned Jolimont Railyard, a landmark that no longer exists in 2013 — wiped out by urban renewal, not decay.

The Sea and Summer was described as a novel of Melbourne that advanced its science fiction presence beyond Neville Shute’s On the Shore, updating the apocalyptic city for a new threat. I wonder if perhaps Melbourne is due to be destroyed again, fictionally speaking, and what the 21st century approach will look like.

Australia’s Jaegar Program (ps, racism and history)

How awesome is it that Australia is one of the active Jaegars in Pacific Rim? Totally awesome. I’m an Australian who loves me some giant mecha, and imagine the opportunities! We are a land of opportunity and resources, we have so much of the raw produce required, we have so much experience building for example high quality cars, and a whole lot of space. We also, given the Kaiju approach the population areas via the sea, require an effective defence program. We are, after all, girt by sea.

Liz talked about some stuff, but I’d like to talk about the logistics of pilots and Jaegars in Australia.

Australia’s Jaegar Program

Historically, at least historically in the last 150 years, as a nation, we are a bit obsessed with defending from those who come across the sea, and are incredibly xenophobic and closed-minded. And I say that as an Australian from across the sea, who is here today because of an illegal boat trip. I wish we weren’t but there’s the White Australia Policy, and the Yellow Peril panic of the 90s, and the Tampa and all the things going on right as we speak. It’s Christmas Island and Indonesia and the fact that our refugee intake is so low compared to many other countries

Despite an ongoing and illogical reliance on the ANZUS Treaty, leading Liz to suggest that it’s unexpected that Australia isn’t just relying on the US Jaegars (valid point), I don’t think it’s actually a surprise that Australia still has Jaegars around, holding on to them until the end. And I don’t think it’s a surprise that there was more than one, I think Australia would have had more than that at one point. There would have been complaints about the cost (and a scandal involving outsourcing bits, and discussion of extending allowances under the 457 Visa), but Jaegars, oh we would have them.

Slayer and Striker Eureka

I mentioned this briefly in a tumblr post, but Eureka is both a great and hilarious word to use within the Jaegar name. Eureka has many connotations in Australia, but mostly it means rebellion and fighting against the man. At another level it also represents democracy and mutliculturalism and the desire for profit. The Eureka Stockade was a rebellion on the Victorian gold fields, where workers from many country rebelled against being unduly taxed by the government (through licenses), in 1854. This event led directly to the reformation of unfair laws in Australia. It also led to the Southern Cross flag being used as a symbol of protest and sometimes me wanting to punch people, but that’s only to be expected.

In this context, Striker is a puzzling choice. The Eureka Stockade is sometimes referred to as a Strike. To call it the Eureka Strike (or Eureka Striker) would almost certainly have been a problem, but does that apply to the Striker Eureka? It is hard to say, and though an odd choice, it is not completely out of the realms of possibility. Slayer is the greatest bogan naming choice I’ve ever heard, politically I doubt it would happen but I love it. I love it a lot, and again it is not out of the realms of possibility.

More likely however are things involving things like kangaroos, bushranger names (omg the Ned Kelly!), and maybe we’d end up with one named the Captain Cook or something.

The Politics of Pilots 

We are a nation of immigrants, colonialists, criminals; people running away from things; people running too things; of Indigenous Australians and those who have come in the last 250 years. Despite the words, this was never Terra Nullius, and I live here on the lands of the Kulin Nation and I pay my respects to their elders. I am descended from an illegal immigrant; I live a life of superstition and being Chinese in all the ways that hurt and all the ways that don’t hurt. My father was in the air force and I grew up a military brat, moving from city to city, my father in the bowels of a herc. I am Australian.

Here are the ways you become a pilot in Australia: you have the money to pay for private lessons; you join the Air Force and give away a certain number of years of your life. One assumes the training and skills required for a Jaegar Ranger are more arduous, but still exactly like this: you give your life to the military, or you have a lot of money.

It does not completely surprise me that the Australian rangers are stern looking white men with a dog. No matter who the Australians were, I’m glad they had a dog, that’s fantastic, though I hope they’ve considered the Quarantine issues they’re going to face bringing Max back into Australia. That’s very important, because our quarantine laws are very strict and I’m sorry for Max. Though if we’re going for stereotypes he should have been a blue heeler at least.

The face of Australia is white. Despite everything, our television is white, or representation is white. I still get excited when I see a non-white Australian face on tv, though it’s never quite perfect. When a non-white family moved onto Ramsey Street, they were brand new immigrants. Never mind our generations living here, since the goldfields. Never mind our Indigenous people. Just our white people, the face of Australia. Always in our prestigious roles.

So the white father and his white son, sun kissed and well built, that makes sense. Politically, economically, historically. Frustratingly. In the movie and in our rock star Jaegar pilots.

A friend pointed out how this image of Australia is consistent with the image of Australia often found especially in Europe and the USA. He mentioned that this is largely how White South Africans are viewed in Australia: parochial, a bit backward, hilariously racist.

But imagine how amazing it would have been if our pilots were islanders or indigenous. The Australians in Pacific Rim were not portrayed by Australians, but what if they had been played by Jay Laga’aia and Lani Tupu; or by Deborah Mailman and Aaron Pedersen as a brother-sister team (the noise I just made).

In other news, no Australian calls their Australian son Chuck. Chaz, maybe. Charlie, sure. Chuck, rarely if ever. It’s what you call your dog. At least when he yelled ‘kick its arse’ he said arse and not ass, I suppose.

Pacific Rim and the Chinese Jaegar Program (and what that means in 2013)

If you know nothing about China at all, one thing you might know is that China loves design, and function, and building Really Really Big Things Really Quickly. And then building a second one. And then a third one that’s even bigger, with extra columns and squiggly bits. And then keeping them forever until they’re held together with duct tape.

The other thing you probably know about China is that there are a lot of people.

So it shouldn’t have surprised you when, in Pacific Rim, the Chinese Crimson Typhoon, piloted by the adorable Wei triplets (played by Charles, Lance and Mark Luu), turned out to be one of the four remaining Jaegar.

[Please note that this post contains spoilers for Pacific Rim (and also vague spoilers for Iron Man 3)]

The Logistics of the Chinese Jaegar Program and China’s Role in the World of Jaegars and Kaiju

This construction work is not limited to building large things quickly. It extends to a massive scale, manufacturing product after product and having a massive impact on global movement of commodities and industrial components. Production and manufacturing in China covers a whole lot of areas relevant to Jaegars, including industrial production, electrical production, and electronics. Although in recent months there has been a slight dip in employment figures in this area, this is considered to be due to an increase in automation, which further supports the Jaegar production cause, at least in theories. Reverse engineering is also a significant element, the copying of what already exists until one cannot tell the difference. Fake Apple stores are perhaps the most well known in the West, Apple stores that are so convincing in appearance and behaviour and electronics that even the staff have no idea they are working in a fake. And in 2004, when NEC discovered there were NEC counterfeits coming out of China, investigations revealed the entire company had been copied – 50 factories across China and Taiwan, complete branding, corporate HQ, royalties, products in major stores, warranties and final products “of generally good quality”.

Deloitte tells me that in 2010, China contributed 20% of the global manufacturing total. Between 1980 and 2009, China went from 0.8% to 13.5%. A quote from Deloitte that sounds like a negative but I actually think contributes to my point: “Many Chinese products have low added value, a challenging position amid rising costs and a shrinking export market. In the current state of the global supply chain, China’s manufacturing industry mainly plays the role of “manufacturing, processing and assembly…” The report points out that China has poor logistics, marketing and sales channels. It’s not explicit, but the implication is for export, and that China still relies heavily on Japan, Europe and the USA for these and for upstream goods. Which goes perfectly, actually, with China being an essential part of Jaegar production and ultimately developing its own Jaegar program.

Chinese minerals are less plentiful than its human and natural resources, but it has been seeking to rectify it. China is one of Australia’s strongest trading partners in recent history, with hundreds of major projects and dual owned operations especially in the mining industry. Australia exports significant quantities of iron ore, coal, gold and crude petroleum to China every year, amongst everything else. This every else includes a whole lot of professionals – every Australian I met while I was living in Beijing was either an English teacher, a politician, or an engineer. The top imports from China to Australia are, tellingly for the logistics of building Jaegars, telecom equipment and computers.

China has a great desperate need to participate in the Jaegar program. I go into it a little in regards to Hong Kong a little later, but China has a huge inferiority complex in regards to its national borders. China was a whole lot of separate countries until it was unified in 221 BC by Emperor Qin, who was originally the king of Qin. He is known as the First Emperor, he built a lot of the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors are his guardians in death and he nationalised the road system. He is not really relevant overly to this post but I want to emphasise that he put a whole lot of effort and reform into combining China into one country, and nobody is letting go now. There is shame in failure is basically our cultural creed. It’s why Tibet is a huge deal, it’s why Xinjiang is a huge deal, and it’s why Hong Kong is a Really Fucking Big Deal. It’s the undercurrent to a lot of things, the concession and the Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion being a case of Those White Jerks, This Is Your Fault. It’s the undercurrent of China is the centre and the pinnacle of the world, the rest of you are all ghosts. It’s the core of the military programs and state control and every thing else, and it’s why when the Kaiju come China will grab onto what it can do and won’t ever let go.

China’s massive military and constructive complexes are often incredibly problematic, but combined with the Chinese historical love of building the biggest things ever (the Great Wall; the many fake mountains just for the hell of it, well actually for the feng shui of it but still), its giant population, its huge population in its massive coastline, its history of needing to maintain national integrity, and the fact that it’s already bringing in a lot of resources, means that China will be going for it so fucking hard.

The Illogical 暴風赤紅

It’s not that Crimson Typhoon isn’t the English translation I would have given of the Chinese Jaegar’s name (it isn’t, but it’s close enough that I’ll handwave). It’s not that it uses character combos with which I’m unfamiliar (Chinese names get esoteric, that’s totally legit). It’s a little bit that the name sounds like it was invented in English and translated into Chinese characters, rather than the other way around.

Mostly, it’s that the name is written in giant traditional characters, when it’s a Chinese craft. It’s a Chinese craft, presumably funded/governed/controlled by the Chinese government. The Chinese government has spent a lot of time and money on making sure that simplified characters are the characters that get used for everything. The likelihood of the Chinese Jaegar, something of pride and awesomeness and achievement, having its name in traditional characters, is completely laughable.

The movie itself is set in Hong Kong, where traditional characters are frequently found; and often very contemporarily used, sometimes because of habit and sometimes in an active eff you to the mainland government. However it is still a Chinese craft, and HK is part of China now, despite two systems one country, and with the potentially for active eff you at the government and the fact that Jaegar was almost certainly built on the mainland, there is no chance that thing is named 暴風赤紅 over 暴风赤红.

If you’re interested, 暴風 is really strong wind (force 11), and 赤紅 is kind of like crimson, I guess.

I wrote some more about names at Tumblr, and there’s a bit more in my next post (tomorrow, on Australia and the Jaegar Program).

The Colonialist Narrative: the Hannibal Chau Problem

Liz already mentioned in her overview post that Ron Perlman’s character, Hannibal Chau, was originally meant to be not a white dude, yet somehow, played here by Ron Perlman (a white dude). Whilst that on its own is sketchy, it is super sketchy in context. What we have here is a white man, taking on a Chinese name, running a crime syndicate based out of Hong Kong, specialising in the highly illegal bits of a rare animal, for hilarious medical purposes, because that’s what Chinese people love, you know? This is the most blatantly inappropriate colonialist narrative since Tom Cruise was in the Last Samurai, though I’m pretty sure the Wolverine movie is going to also hit this. Hong Kong, the symbol of China’s super embarrassing failure and capitulation to Western Imperialist forces (see: about 1000 words ago), brought back into China’s arms in 1997 with the end of the loan, is being slowly sucked back into being a part of China. This is for better or for worse and I am not at this juncture discussing the good and bad of it. It is a huge ongoing issue for China, and for Chinese people. China’s concessions to the West were in significant part due to the Opium War, which was a symptom of the forced trickle of opium into China that was a deliberate ploy by Western forces to open China up against its will. Hong Kong was a part of this. So now we have a white dude, taking on a Chinese name, supplying illegal products for what looks like Traditional Chinese Medicine to Chinese people through the port of Hong Kong, surrounded by nameless Chinese thugs. Good work, everybody! Super good work.

The Reflection of China in Current Movies

The increased ‘good guy’ role of China in particularly USA blockbuster movies is indicative of China’s changing role in the geopolitical situation. This is reflected often by small but not necessarily insignificant moments in movies such as Pacific Rim. I do not think it is insignificant, in a ‘right now we are in 2013’ sort of way, that one of the four remaining Jaegars is Chinese, that the movie is set in Hong Kong, that there are three super hot ethnically Chinese Jaegar Rangers wandering around in the background, that they are spoken of with admiration.

In years past China has played the role of unquestioning, unthinking bad guy in movies, aided by the USAmerican tendency towards ‘communist’ as shorthand for ‘evil, unthinking pod person’ (because socialism is a bad thing? Americans.).

This has changed recently, starting with the slow shift towards China as ally in movies, and moving towards dual cuts – Iron Man 3, for example, contained a full 4 minutes extra of Fan Bing Bing’s face and plotline in the Chinese cut. The Mandarin, the advertised baddie in Iron Man 3, had me flailing in rage months before the movie came out, and there is some speculation that the changes to the role and plot in that movie were intentional in courting mainland Chinese demographics. The Christian Bale ‘what these Chinese ladies need is a White Saviour’ movie the Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) was a movie that set about intentionally creating a favourable image of Chinese people for a Western audience, sometimes to the detriment of the Japanese characters. It is also a contentious piece of history between China and Japan, with Japan denying it was all that bad and China maintaining it was super bad. The choice to make this movie could be seen as declaring a side. Red Dawn was to originally feature Chinese villains, who in post-production were digitally replaced by North Korean soldiers (which some sources described as ‘unprecedented‘).

Not to get all ‘everything has happened before’ up in here, but changing movies in the changing geopolitical situation is not only necessary, it’s precedented:

The cinematic depiction of the Chinese has been correlated with US policy towards China, as well as the Western attitude towards the Asians. In the 1920s and the 1930s, the fears of Chinese expansion (immigration) in the United States, reinforced through the circulation of racist thoughts by some US newspapers, pulp magazines, and books, found their way to Hollywood through dozens of movies portraying Chinese as dirty, criminals and tyrants…As China turned into an ally in the 1940s, a more positive image of the Chinese was established. This shift was brief with the rise of Communist China…Hollywood went right back into attack mode.

(Hollywood’s Representations of the Sino-Tibetan Conflict: Politics, Culture and Globalization, Jenny George Daccache, Brandon Valeriano, 2012, Palgrave Macmillan)

These moves are a form of soft politics, a game at which China is incredibly adept. Soft politics forms an explicit part of China’s overall “Going Global” or “Going Out” (走出去战略) concept, and it’s not a surprise that movies is one area where they feel they can easily sway things.

In the real world, China is also a rapidly rising power. Aside from the need to capture the Chinese movie going public, is it really reasonable to posit a future where China isn’t making a significant contribution to whatever amazing world saving efforts the USA is making? In 2013, China owns just over $1.1 trillion (about 10%) of the USA’s world debt, they’re going to have to collect on that some day and it’s important to keep them on side. And when they’re providing more money, they’re gonna want their fingerprints all over everything, just to prove they’re the best again, that China will never again be bested by Western powers.

My Face

You know what I don’t have a problem with? USAmerican movies having to rethink how Chinese people are represented, beyond just stereotypes. And it’s wishful thinking, but maybe this will extend to actual consideration about how other groups are represented, too. And it’s more complicated than that, of course it is, but at least I have that, and maybe one day I won’t need to search so hard to find a representation of myself or my culture that rings at least a little bit true. (And also maybe we could see a bit more of the Luu triplets, I’m not gonna stop going on about that)

 

 

There’s so much more to say, but at 2000 words this is going to have to do.

Pacific Rim; welcome to the blog!

Last month, at Continuum, Stephanie and I spent a lot of time talking about social justice on panels and so forth.  (Sometimes we just yelled about issues informally, too!)  But whenever people asked us for resources, we found most of the sites that exist are American.  Which is lovely, but the Australian perspective is effectively non-existent.

So we’ve started this blog to give ourselves a forum to talk about media, social justice, fandom, the Australian experience, the non-American experience and more.

I’m going to begin with Pacific Rim.

[This post contains spoilers.]

I didn’t go into Pacific Rim wanting it to be bad.

I’d like to emphasise that because I’ve been quite openly cynical about the way it has been adopted on Tumblr as a great movie for social justice, diversity and all those good things.  (I am often cynical about Tumblr when it comes to social justice.)  I expressed amusement when the initial pro reviews were lukewarm, and was promptly taken to task by fanboys for saying their shiny robot movie might be a bit rubbish.

But then it was actually released, and I saw reviews from fans who had seen it, who were still praising its diversity, feminism and all around good qualities.

I was still cynical, but I went in expecting a movie like The Avengers — witty dialogue, great action scenes, just enough characterisation to hang a fandom on — but more diverse.

(I also wanted something that would take my mind off the rhinovirus that has made its home in my upper respiratory system.  I would like a movie about giant robots punching the common cold in the face, please.)

Instead, I got … well.

Guillermo del Toro has said that he set out to recreate the kaiju and mecha films he loved as a child, and to introduce them to a new generation of kids.  That’s excellent!  I really applaud that!  Especially the way he took a genre that’s quintessentially Japanese and made it all about white dudes.

Oh, wait.

“But Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi have major roles!” you say.

Yes, and in fact, I didn’t even realise the protagonist was a white dude until, like, a week ago.  But Elba’s character, Stacker Pentecost, is a conglomeration of familiar stereotypes — Wise Mentor!  Crusty General!  Fatherly Paternal Father Figure! — and only briefly transcends them.

Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is a more complex character.  She has a tragic past, and her ambition to be a Jaeger pilot is at odds with her respect for Pentecost, her adoptive father, and his need to protect her.  (More about that in a sec.)

Much has been made of the film’s refusal to sexualise Mako (although Del Toro also said that he filmed the fight between Mako and the hero as if it was a sex scene, so make of that what you will), and I really admire the way she was portrayed.  In a different movie, she would be a great character.  As it is … well, normally I love media where brilliant, brave women have some secret trauma that still affects them.  But Mako’s trauma turns her into an object instead of a three-dimensional character.  The movie is full of men making choices for her, whether it’s Pentecost being protective and paternalistic, or Raleigh Becket, the whitedude hero, being … oh, look, protective and paternalistic!  I wanted to pick Mako up and drop her down in a franchise that would appreciate her and treat her better.  (You might say I started to feel protective and paternalistic.)

(I probably would have felt better about this if Mako hadn’t been the only prominent woman in the entire movie.  There’s a Russian Jaegernaut, but she has, like, two lines of dialogue and then dies.)

There was a particularly pointless and horrifying sequence where Whitedude McManpain gets into a punch-up with the Douchebag Australian (more on him later) after he calls Mako a bitch.  Mako stands in the background, clutching her hands and looking scared.  It was quite stupid and laughably regressive.

That scene alone would merely be pointless, but it’s followed by Whitedude following Mako and literally backing her up against a wall to get her to open up to him.  He’s a lot bigger than she is, and it the body language was ugly and intimidating.  Mako just flees, and I realised that this was a script that had no respect for its characters.

Not that it’s easy to make any judgement at all about the script, because two-thirds of the dialogue was inaudible.  That was partially because of the terrible sound-mixing and VERY LOUD SOUNDTRACK, but it was also because there were lots of actors doing accents that weren’t their own.  Idris Elba had three or four going, and I have to say, his Australian accent was great.  Much better than the actual “Australian” characters.

How to make a cinema full of Australians laugh:  cast Americans and English people as Australians.  (The audience also erupted when Mako peered at shirtless!Whitedude through her door’s peephole, ‘cos all Japanese are perverts, amiright?  DON’T YOU GET IT?  IT’S FUNNY.)  But, yes, New Yorker Max Martini as the older Australian was not great, but okay.  Brit Robert Kazinsky as his douchebag son, “Chuck” — seriously, the least Australian name ever — was terrible.  I kept expecting kangaroos to appear in the background every time he spoke, and Paul Hogan to appear, throwing “shrimp” on the barbie and drinking Fosters.

(Tip: no one in Australia drinks Fosters.  It’s an elaborate prank we played on Americans in the ’80s, and now we can’t get away from it.)

Now, I’m pretty eyerolly at the way Del Toro’s portrayal of Australians involved blond-haired, sunburnt white men who talk like Steve Irwin.  How’s that “diversity” going, hey?  Where is my Jaeger team consisting of Shari Sebbens and Renee Lim?

But if I can’t have a Jaeger team who actually reflect the reality of Australia’s demographics, I’d settle for people who talk like us.  Hollywood is overflowing with hopeful Australian actors who’d jump at a supporting role in a big movie.  Go find the next Hemsworths, or whatever, and leave your colonialist constructions at home.

Hey, that brings us to colonialism!

Ron Perlman plays Hannibal Chau, a white dude who runs a black market in kaiju organs out of Hong Kong.  The part was originally for a person of colour, but apparently Del Toro decided it would be hilarious to have a white man with a Chinese name.  SO FUNNY, RIGHT?  WHY AREN’T YOU LAUGHING?

So we have Hong Kong, a former British colony, with a black market run by a white man.  And not just any black market, but one that runs out of the back room of a traditional Chinese medicine shop — which is also run by a white man, while Asians stand in the background and look menacing (and silent).

Perlman’s workers are also mostly white, and Anglophone.  There’s an extra in a conical hat (at night!) in the background of one scene, but otherwise, the only Asians in his vicinity are the gangsters who enforce his rule.  So that’s nice!

Even outside of Chau’s milieu, the Hong Kong setting felt decidedly othered.  (I had to run this past Steph, since the closest I’ve been to China is a couple of stopovers in Hong Kong airport, but she confirmed it.)  There are narrow streets and lanterns and scary thuggish dudes!  The kaiju shelter is full of people in suits who turn against the white scientist dude and leave him to the mercy of the kaiju!

(In fairness, he totally led the kaiju to them.  Don’t mindmeld with unfamiliar entities.  This is a public service announcement from the Vulcan High Command.)

On the subject of casual racism, there’s the name of the American Jaeger: Gipsy Danger.  “Gipsy”, also spelled “Gypsy”, is a racist slur referring to the Romani.  (It has been adopted, particularly in America, as a woman’s name, because people are awful.)

I don’t think I was meant to be thinking about the implications of a white American and a Japanese woman trashing a Chinese city in a mecha with a racist name, but by the time that scene came up, I was pretty disengaged from, you know, the narrative.

(This scene does have a pretty cool bit where Racist Danger picks up a MASSIVE SHIP and uses it as a weapon.  It’s one of the few moments where you really appreciate the scale of the Jaegers, because most of the visuals are quite derivative of the Iron Man franchise — although that owes a lot to the mecha genre anyway.  Tony Stark punches ocean-dwelling dinosaurs in the face.  Actually, I’d watch that.)

There are a lot of white faces among the supporting characters, too.  I mean, a surprising amount of white faces given that the Jaeger base is in Hong Kong.  And a profound lack of South Americans, which I find strange since South America is, you know, along the Pacific Rim.  Del Toro has made much of this movie being internationalist and devoid of nationalist biases, but it’s basically “a few countries that aren’t America, and also all but one of the non-Anglophones and people of colour are dead at the end”.

I will say that none of the deaths of people of colour are used to teach Whitedude McManpain an important lesson about heroism, so well done on that front.  But we still end up with a hell of a lot of dead people of colour, and sidelined people of colour, and white people where people of colour could be.

There are also a hell of a lot of men.  I mentioned that Mako is the only significant female character, but there are almost no female extras.  Even in the Hong Kong scenes, there are very few women.  We have two zany scientists having a love/hate bromance, but they’re both men. Science isn’t for ladies, right?

(One of the scientists is played by Burn Gorman.  I think he might have been quite good, but it’s hard to tell because I couldn’t hear much of his dialogue.)

All in all, Pacific Rim is a mess.  I found it quite dull, but I would be a lot more forgiving if it hadn’t failed on so many levels.  Clearly I went in with expectations that were too high.  (Friends who hadn’t been led to expect a really cool movie that treated its female characters and people of colour with respect were more forgiving.)  But I don’t like to think my expectations for a big, dumb movie that wasn’t racist or sexist were unreasonable.

Stephanie has even more to say about this than I do, so stay tuned for her three posts dissecting Pacific Rim.  I think she’s going to get all geopolitical about it, and she has already pointed out that the Mandarin for the Chinese Jaeger’s name doesn’t quite work, so this will be good.

[ETA: I got some actors’ nationalities confused.  Well done, Liz!]