Friday, July 26, 2013

Emma Jinhua Teng's "Eurasian"

Emma Jinhua Teng is a MacVicar Faculty Fellow and the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at MIT and the author of Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943, and reported the following:
On page 99 we meet the curious character of Patsy O’Wang/Chin Sum, a Chinese-Irish cook in a farcical play from 1895. We learn that:
As the playwright directed, "The key to this capital farce is the remarkable transformation of which Chin Sum is capable. Born of Irish father and Chinese mother and brought up in barracks in Hong Kong he has a remarkable dual nature." The transformation is effected when Chin Sum imbibes whiskey, "the drink of his father," and undergoes a metamorphosis into a "true Irishman." Strong tea, "the drink of his mother," restores Patsy's "Chinese character," which is that of a sober and industrious Chinese cook. The ideas of hybrid reversion and latent racial traits (blood will tell) are thus enacted in this farce through the bifurcated character of Patsy/Chin Sum, who reverts to parental type based on the drink he consumes.
As amusing as Patsy O’Wang may be, this selection from page 99 is not entirely representative, for this “capital farce” has only a cameo role in my book, which tells the story not of the all-too-visible fictional Eurasian characters that inhabited nineteenth-century Anglo-American literature, but rather the real-life (and largely unknown) stories of Chinese-white mixed families that made their homes in the US, China and Hong Kong during the years between 1842 and 1943. A central question of the book is how Eurasian families negotiated their social identities in an era when mixed race was generally stigmatized and monoracial classifications the norm. To this end, I examine both the range of ideas concerning racial hybridity that shaped Eurasian social experiences, and the claims set forth by individual Eurasians themselves concerning their own identities.

Yet, in other respects page 99 does reveal something of the whole. This page puts us right in Part II, "Debating Hybridity," which is the core (though perhaps not the emotional heart) of the book. The chapters of this section are dedicated to a comparison of ideas about mixed race that emerged in the US and China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with one chapter set in the US, a second in China, and a third examining the transnational flow of ideas between the two. Page 99 falls in the middle of a discussion of competing theories on "human hybridity," which I loosely group into two sets of beliefs: one focused on the purportedly detrimental effects of racial amalgamation; and the other on its possible eugenic effects (hybrid vigor). Thus page 99 relates to a central aim of my book, which is to complicate the intellectual genealogy of mixed race by demonstrating that there were diverse opinions and vibrant debates on the subject, dating back well before the landmark Loving v. Virginia case of 1967. A more nuanced understanding of historical discourses on mixedness enables us to ask: how much have we really distanced ourselves from the biological and racialist discourses of the past? After all, even as the media now embraces "mixed race icons" as emblems of a post-racial future, the very notion of "mixed" presumes the existence of "pure" races to begin with.

That the intellectual genealogy of mixed race is far from monolithic is especially evident if we move beyond Anglo-American discourses to examine those from other cultures – in this case Chinese. Readers eager to learn more about the Chinese side of things should turn to page 199.
Learn more about Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943 at the University of California Press.

--Marshal Zeringue