What is ethical writing under capitalism?
By Lim Wei Khai
By the summer of 2021, most people in "Asia's world city" had come to accept the reality of borders. There were, however, a few exceptions there was much gnashing of teeth at the sight of Nicole Kidman floating on the shimmering heat of Kowloon in the summer without first going through a seven-day purgatory in one of Hong Kong's Designated Quarantine Hotels. Those who did found a way to stave off the boredom with popular live-streamed readings of the very work Kidman was adapting, vis-ΰ-vis Janice Y.K. Lee's The Expatriates, for Amazon Prime Video. At the same time, Amazon had commissioned Naoise Dolan's Exciting Times, a book also "about expats" even as the text hails itself as closer kin to Irish author Sally Rooney with its laconic, un-exclaimed title and Irish provenance than as a member of the incestuous world of money and privilege that Lee's novel begins from.
That Amazon has chosen to adapt for the screen two texts about expatriates says rather less about (as described in a Hong Kong Free Press article) "tone-deaf" Westerners callous to the plight of Hong Kong's "flagging pro-democracy movement" than about the global citizen's newfound worry over the limits of travel practically and ideologically, globalisation looks increasingly like something that has been done to us (we were globalised) rather than as something we chose, and its reversal is similarly out of our control. By our borders' fruits shall we know them in the past year, every door, even the ones to our own homes, was closed firmly to us. There is good reason to have sounded the death knell for globalisation in 2016 instead, when the United Kingdom waved goodbye to its continental neighbours and the new head of the United States gave the finger to its nearest and dearest, but as foreign residents everywhere fretted over border closures, lengthy quarantine requirements and realised threats of deportation, what was at stake in 2021 was also burning at it.
Having left Singapore for her ostensibly wealthier cousin on the Pearl River Delta in the thick of this flux, I saw something of myself in Dolan, who committed to the same evacuation I did albeit some years earlier, having also taken an English BA and imagining with cautious optimism the world that was all before us. The similarities would end there, since Dolan arrived in Hong Kong to teach English under the loaded auspices of a "Native English Teacher" hiring policy, amongst other obvious differences. The word "expatriate" has for many years come under deserved pressure, but we shall take the word to mean here what it is understood to mean in the popular conception of Dolan's novel: white foreigners, or gweilos. "Expat" appears twice in the novel, never self-referentially. It appears once in the collocation "expat forums" where Ava observes the job advertisements that reveal the gulf between her salary and a domestic help's. It appears for the second and final time in the mouth of Edith, a Hong Kong born, Cambridge-educated lawyer with "all the cathedral drops of English intonation", whom Ava develops romantic affection for. Edith's grandmother is Singaporean and was the "Hakka version of a British expat" as she never spoke anything but Hakka. In both instances, we have the equalising gesture of a remove expats are people we read about; they are odd people that reveal the limits of assimilation when it collides with the un-eccentric human desire to live inside their comfort zones. From that distance, race and nationality are one and the same. All migrations are equal, then, but some are more equal than others. But Ava never goes quite so far. Badinage will suffice for the 21st century political activist. Ava is not unlike one of Rooney's many clever talking heads, baiting the reader into identifying the creation with the creator Ava is, like Dolan was, one of the many young TEFL teachers who went to Hong Kong in search of a new life in a time of freer borders.
Ava was, in other words, excited by Hong Kong "called forth" by it, if we pay heed to the word's Latin etymology and we know this is exegesis Ava will sanction, since she makes frequent and serious trips into the dictionary herself. On writing vocabulary lists for her young students, Ava observes one week that
The word "mind" does a lot of heavy-lifting for Ava responsibility for her relationships is often thrust upon her, and she minds a great deal the transparently anti-Irish sentiment bandied about by the public-school-and-Oxbridge lot that surrounds her through her always-posh, sometimes-boyfriend Julian. She is also ready with her undergraduate-in-the-college-bar intelligence Rosa Luxemburg is name-checked as shorthand for the above, as is "socialist praxis", words baked in and leavened with the correct amount of self-awareness. "Rooney often wears her theoretical heart in between her book sleeves," wrote Toh Hsien Min in his review of her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Dolan is no different, and like Rooney her characters have a "spirit of political futility", as another reviewer (London Review of Books' Christian Lorentzen) wrote. All that is called forth from Ava is studied inaction.
When a parent, to one of her charges, praises Ava, she:
We can hear Dolan giving credit to the live-in nannies who do so much of the child-raising work in Hong Kong, and indeed in the rich regional metropoles that mark the poststructuralist geographical order what Ananya Roy called in her 2009 paper ('The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory') "the emergence of core-periphery structures within the global South", anchored by the "cores" of Singapore and Hong Kong. And yet these nannies are buried in the novel under a series of oblique references, spoken about and never speaking. If Wordsworth's border figures recur in poetic frame to correct the insensitive first impressions of the holidaying peripatetic, Dolan's border figures are simply looked at and then cast away, with life sometimes mimicking art in cruel, literal fashion, and our pleasing vision sits uninterrupted. As much as Dolan rejects the callousness of the British ruling classes in the novel, she cannot help using their vocabulary as a someone gleefully in the know indeed, there are more in-jokes about the coding of Wadham (champagne socialist, "red chinos" as signifier of class, etc.) and the "Balliol man" than there are mentions of helpers apart from when they serve as useful ways for us to read each character's navigation of identity politics. That is all there is to it.
Indeed, what Dolan's novel does best is it simply puts paid to the lie that our global communities were ever truly global in the first place. Discussions of politics and class in the novel are the same discussions that take place in old Blighty rehearsed talking points about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn feature, which allow us to date the writing of the novel close to perfectly despite its only achieving popularity at scale in 2021. We are even treated to a reflection on Irish-British disagreements especially through that brand of English standoffishness embodied by Julian, who rather damningly (and in-the-knowingly) was written by Dolan as a graduate of history at Oxford before pursuing a career in high finance. Whither Hong Kong? We glimpse some light commentary on the 2014 Umbrella Movement through Julian's left-wing academic father, and we get snippets of local elite discontent like when Edith, Ava's Cambridge-educated always-rich sometimes-girlfriend (with Dolan, we are always dealing with the multihyphenate logic of late-capitalist identity), quips that the local Chinese were not allowed to live on the Peak many colonial moons ago. The rest we receive as filtered looks at the fashionable (read: expensive and expatriate-heavy) neighbourhoods of Sheung Wan, Central, Sai Ying Pun. Everything uncomfortable about Hong Kong, including the material conditions that enabled Dolan's novel to be produced and made popular in western Anglophone circles, is relegated to a series of fleeting thoughts.
One New York Times reviewer, Xuan Juliana Wang, complained that for this reason, "Dolan's novel could have taken place in any other major Asian metropolis." This reviewer goes on to write that the "textures of a real city that is sharply divided along generational, ideological and class lines" are absent, almost deliberately so. As someone who has grown up in another major Asian metropolis, itself undergoing no small amount of soul-searching, it is hard to imagine a life in which one can go about their daily business unmolested by the undulating linguistic textures of the city in which one lives especially not those of the "other major Asian metropolis[es]". Then again, I have never lived in Singapore as an expatriate. Perhaps I am simply not global enough.
Ava struggles nobly with her place in the city ("I'm a pointless white person," she complains, and in that complaint she anticipates our giving her a pat on the back). This is in a way still a remarkable achievement since many ranks of expatriates today fail or choose not to grapple with the changing global order. As Edith observes, these white men for they are almost always men are still so invincible she wonders tongue-in-cheek if her own boss is "scared he'll grope us or scared we'll tell HR". Yet this novel, rather than dwell on the forms of anti-progressive violence that dominate Hong Kong, smooths them out with drollness and sweeps us into a millennial quest for self-preservation. There is a self-effacing, it-is-what-it-is sort of moral resignation in the novel, and in it we are tempted to invest the late-capitalist flourish: there is no ethical consumption
So what should we do with Exciting Times, if we can neither live in it nor live with it? The book's title shivers in the shadow of Dickens (Hard Times) and the broadsheet (the Financial Times), especially when it has been so inattentive to its surroundings and, worse still, to itself. A bestseller available in Sainsbury's throughout Britain but much more difficult to find in Hong Kong, though Kinokuniya stocks it in Asia's other world city. A story whose host returns as guest. I am thinking of that other bastion of globalisation: Singapore noodles. I am thinking: just consume.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022