Chinese Diasporas and Cinema


Chew Yi Wei, Sharleen

PhD defended at: 

National University of Singapore, 30th January 2015



Diasporas are processual phenomena. We can no longer hold to classical notions of diaspora. As such, this implicates the way methods and theories of diasporas are approached. This thesis will focus on a few important factors that are inherent in the politics of diasporas, namely the home, homeland and the hostland; the nation and the nation state, and lastly, race, in relation to what it means to be Chinese in the many Chinese diasporas. Being Chinese is a multifaceted experience shaped by social forces, history and globalization. The above mentioned factors and how they interact with the (uneven) formulation of Chinese identities will be given in depth discussion by the close analysis of four films by Chinese directors who come from distinct nation states and Chinese diasporas: The Home Song Stories by Tony Ayres from Australia; The Blue Mansion by Glen Goei from Singapore; My Blueberry Nights by Wong Kar Wai from Hong Kong; and Lust, Caution by Ang Lee from Taiwan, and the United States. Given their different identities and the transnational co-productions that make up a significant part of their filmmaking practices, these directors and their respective films will provide original and thought-provoking case studies on what it means to be Chinese in their individual Chinese diasporas.

As a tool of representation, Chinese cinema must keep up with the evolution of Chinese disaporas. I explore the modalities of the different Chinese diasporas through Chinese cinema. I argue that cinema problematizes the notion of a single Chinese identity qua the varieties of Chinese diasporas in both Asia and the West. Due to “geography […] gaining a compensatory presence, providing concepts of location, movement, simultaneity, juxtaposition, and interactions of sameness and difference” (Friedman 263), I will consider issues of territory and how they interact with histories, loyalties and allegiances, race, languages, and cultures. Apropos to this is the wave of recent scholars who promulgate the discourse of transnationalism. Although this discourse is relevant when thinking about diasporas, it does not address adequately the issues that diasporas engender. While the transnational is a useful tool for analyzing Chinese cinema, I contend that it alone is not enough to render a thorough understanding of what Chinese diasporas and Chinese cinema can be. Using diasporas a critical framework would firstly provide a different perspective in the way Chineseness is approached in the various Chinese diasporas. Secondly, it would allow for an innovative lens in analyzing selected Chinese films. Thirdly, this framework distinguishes between the diasporic and the transnational, bringing out the tensions between them in the different Chinese diasporas. Diasporas, as a critical approach, supplements existing scholarship on the transnational, and will offer Chinese cinema studies another, more comprehensive tool along with existing frameworks of the transnational and the national. Lastly, by using diasporas as the main critical framework, this dissertation seeks to provide a firmer understanding of what diasporas can be through varied cinematic representations of Chineseness.

Keywords: Chineseness, Chinese Cinema, Diasporas, Home, Nation, Nation State, Homeland, Transnational