Saturday, 8 December 2018

My review of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (film & book) – contains spoilers!

This review contains spoilers from ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (CRA), ‘Jurassic Park’, and ‘Lord of the Rings’ (LOTR)! Yes, you read it right!

I had been rather eager to watch CRA the film on its UK release in September 2018. Having read the book, and having learned of the courage of author Kevin Kwan in insisting that the character of Rachel Chu was to be played by an Asian actress, I was all for the film until I read of certain scenes.

I opted to wait until chats with friends meant that I had to watch it. While I loved the book for being a joyful, mangy peacock who loves himself, warts and all, the film was a cringe-inducing, integrity-lacking horror made by people who crave external validation only for people who live for external validation.

When I think of good Hollywood book-to-film adaptations, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘LOTR’ spring to mind. In ‘Jurassic Park’ the book, John gets eaten alive by chicken-sized dinosaurs, but survives in the film to spawn sequels. The velociraptors in ‘Jurassic Park’ the book do not have charisma, while everyone who watched the film will remember them. The LOTR films expanded the importance of Galadriel and Arwen at the expense of Saruman. Film Arwen and Galadriel are actually seen in Parts Two and Three, while Book Arwen and Book Galadriel are absent, and Book Saruman was involved in the Scouring of the Shire, which was left out of the films.

Despite these huge changes, these film adaptations kept the hearts and souls of the books intact because the fundamentals of Book Jurassic Park and Book Middle Earth were preserved. Film Galadriel and Film Arwen didn’t physically accompany and help the all-male Fellowship of the Ring, no matter how tempting it must have been for the creators of the films to have this. Saruman remained a memorable antagonistic wizard. John from ‘Jurassic Park’ remained the character who pushed for and funded the research and creation of dinosaur theme parks. The Film Velociraptors in ‘Jurassic Park’ did not change the storyline and setting, and did not change who the human characters were in relation to the dinosaurs (ie potential dinner).

This is not the case with CRA, which is very puzzling to me.

The heart of the book is Singapore, Nick, Michael, Astrid, Charlie, and Rachel’s mum, Kerry, but Film Charlie was absent, and Film Kerry, Astrid, Nick, and Michael were underused. In particular, Book Nick is much more proactive, and really fights for his relationship with Book Rachel in a strong, assertive, yet unshowy way. Placing his actions on an equal footing with Book Rachel’s made the book stand out as a romantic comedy.

The most substantial change to the film was scrapping the story of Book Michael and Book Charlie. Book Michael, who is Book Rachel’s counterpart, is the real reason why Book Astrid is ‘The Goddess’. A self-made success and recent immigrant, Michael comes from a family which is not wealthy like Astrid’s (just read how the poor man describes himself while he is trying not to fall apart), and he does not share Astrid's family's culture. Unable to cope, his erratic behaviour eventually drives his wife away. When the film removed the nuances of his story, it not only made Book Charlie disappear, but changed the characters of Book Rachel and Book Michael completely. It failed to show that Eleanor had good reasons to oppose Rachel (given the state of Michael and Astrid’s marriage, how would Nick and Rachel cope?), and it failed to show how Rachel deftly sidestepped the problems Michael faced. It failed to show how Book Cassian was caught up in his parents’ problems. It failed to show that wealth inequality and cultural differences in families plus personality differences are a potently toxic mix, and what Rachel’s strengths were. At this point, the film failed as an adaptation. It is ravishingly gorgeous, pretty to look at, but airheaded and clichéd. It didn’t just lose the plot, it never got it.

By ignoring bits in the book and adding bits that weren’t in the book, the film changed the story AND changed the book’s world to fit the new story (!!!). I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was so gobsmacked, I THINK I was supposed to cry, but winced instead. This was what ultimately destroyed the beating heart and soul of the book.

Unlike Jurassic Park and Middle Earth, which are entirely fictional, Singapore is real. What was shown in the film is a victory for MISrepresentation of the book, and of Singapore, and smacks of a lack of integrity and lack of respect for both.

Yes, there is an argument to be made for more Asians in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. Yes, Hollywood and America, it is a must to speak up for yourself and/or others. But no, don’t change a book-based world to make it ‘fit better on film’, especially if that world is a real place like Singapore. If you do not identify with or understand someone else's place, culture, and people, that’s just the way life is. The Sun is a star, the Moon a satellite. If you are bothered because you think you've gotten a hyphenated identity and it's screwed your life up, that’s life. You could address your own feelings, and create your own projects, and leave the someone elses to tell their stories. Or even better, you could meet the someone elses, and work together with them to laugh about and create and tell stories; that's the reality of having a hyphenated identity.

Had Henry Golding been Film Nick while the heart and soul of the book remained, I would have recommended the film wholeheartedly. But as the film lacks the heart, soul, truth, storyline, and setting of the book, I don’t recommend it. The book is everything the film isn’t; read it.

CRA the film is just the beginning. More integrity and courage in Asian-American filmmaking, please! On that note, I wonder how ‘China Rich Girlfriend’ will fare...

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Chinese Labourers and Chinese Labour Corps of the First World War

Remembrance Day and the centenary of the end of the First World War (1914-1918) fall on 11 November this year.

To mark this, I have decided to give the first- and second-hand accounts of the Chinese Labour Corps and Chinese Labourers who served in this war a mention.

The changing nature of warfare in WWI resulted in a shortage of European manpower. To keep the war going, Britain and her Allies, France and Russia, had to hire labourers from all over the world to work on the frontlines of Europe. China, initially neutral but eventually an Ally of the Allies, allowed the recruitment of non-combatants to serve as labourers in exchange for the chance to recover Shandong, the birthplace of Confucius, from Germany.

Around 140,000 Chinese Labourers were recruited mostly from Shandong, and of this number, around 100,000 worked in the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) of Britain. The Chinese formed the largest British and French Labour Corps, and their work was instrumental in keeping the British and French war effort going. Once in Europe (the journey took a secret, tortuous route around Canada, and lasted for three months), they did the grunt work. They dug trenches, repaired tanks, built railway lines, and recovered and buried the dead.

Accounts of the Chinese Labourers (including the CLC) exist in Chinese and English, with translations into French and Dutch. I have translated parts from Chinese and English into English and Chinese, and matched these to their French and Dutch translations. Any errors that arise are mine.

First-hand accounts by Jiang Jinghai, Sun Gan, Gu Xingqing, and Yan Yangchu (in Chinese)

蒋镜海 Jiang Jinghai of Shandong kept a diary during his service. An entry, 《十二月歌》 ‘Song of the Twelfth Month’, goes like this: “九月里菊花黄寒风又凉,可叹俺华工人缺少军装,合同上言明是一概都有,为甚么天冷了不换……”  ‘The chrysanthemum turns yellow and chilly winds begin to blow during the ninth month of a year/and I sigh, because we Chinese labourers lack the correct army uniforms/our contracts explicitly state that we will be equipped with everything we need/the weather has turned cold; why do our uniforms stay the same...?’ He is survived by his grandson, Jiang Deshan蒋德山.

孙干 Sun Gan of Shandong (1882 – 1962) authored 《欧战华工笔记》’Notes from a Member of the Chinese Labour Corps in the War in Europe’ and《世界大战战场见闻记》’An Account of What Was Seen and Heard on the Battlefields of the Great World War’ in 1919 whilst he was preparing to return to China. These were edited and published in two volumes as 《一战华工欧战纪实》‘A Truthful Account of the War in Europe by a Chinese Labourer’ on 19 June 2014 by 天津社会科学院出版社The Tianjin Institute of Social Sciences Press. This is how Sun Gan described the health examination he had to undergo before leaving for Europe:  如眼也、口也、皮肤也、肺也、肛门也、阳物也,一一详看,并问及有无宿病。'’Eyes, mouth, skin, lungs, rectum, genitals – these were all examined meticulously, one-by-one, and at the same time as this was being done, we were asked whether we had chronic illnesses.’ He is survived by his grandson, Sun Guanglong 孙光隆.

顾杏卿 Gu Xingqing of Jiangsu Province was an interpreter. Recovering from an illness, he saw French and British advertisements for railway and road maintenance men and eagerly seized at what he initially saw as ‘出国漫游的极好机会’ ‘an excellent opportunity to go abroad on a long ramble’. He was the author of《欧战工作回忆录》 ‘Memoirs of Working in the War in Europe’, which has been translated into Dutch as ‘Mijn Herinneringen als Tolk voor de Chinese Arbeiders in WO’.
 
晏阳初Yan Yangchu (aka Y C James ‘Jimmy’ Yen) (b. 1893) was from Sichuan. Three days after graduating from Yale University, he made his way to the French Front and found himself writing hundreds of letters home. Of the 5000 men with him, 90% were illiterate. He soon called all 5000 together, and told them, ‘从今天起,我不替你们写信了。我要教你们识字写信。’ ‘From today, I won’t write your letters for you anymore. I will teach you to read and to write your own letters.’ Four months later, 35 of them wrote home. 

First-hand accounts by Jim Maultsaid and Edwin Wheeler (in English)

Jim Maultsaid, an Irish-American with ancestral ties to County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, was an officer with the CLC. His war diaries were compiled into ‘The Illustrated Great War Diaries by Jim Maultsaid’ by his granddaughter, Barbara McClune, and published by Pen & Sword Military in 2017. Here is how he described the CLC: ‘When reading the stories you must not forget that these boys were in a strange land thousands of miles from home.’ ‘大家看这些故事时千万不可以忘记的是这: 这些少年留在的, 是一个离开他们家有几千里的异国。

Edwin Wheeler 韦勒 was a doctor in the CLC. His wartime diaries were made public in China by his granddaughter, Jane McCall. Wheeler recorded that many of the CLC members had no idea of what they were meant to be doing, and suffered huge mental trauma after being made to go behind the front lines to recover the dead. One CLC member he worked with even committed suicide because of this.

Second-hand accounts

Frank Wing Yow Soo and Karen Soo are British Chinese descendants of Su Yuen Yi from Guangdong, who served in the CLC. They tell Su Yuen Yi’s story here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/untold_stories/chinese/frank_wing_yow_soo.shtml and here:  http://www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk/news/cheltenham-news/britains-forgotten-army-cheltenham-womans-761250

刘风祥Liu Fengxiang and 郭德祥Guo Dexiang from Shandong, Sheng Fan Chuan, Sun Chen Sheng, and Kuo Chi’ing Shan of the CLC are remembered in this online history project about the Chinese in Liverpool (research by Anthony Hogan and Yvonne and Charles Foley): http://liverpoolremembrance.weebly.com/chinese-community.html

Pad Kumlertsakul has authored a blog post for the National Archives of Britain which gives some  information (including information about German air raids that targeted the CLC) and details on accessing secondary sources from Britain in English about the CLC here: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/chinese-labour-corps-western-front-2/

叶星球 Ye Xingqiu is a Chinese/French artist, author, and editor who compiled the Chinese-language《法国一战老华工纪实》’Les Travailleurs Chinois Pendant la Premiere Guerre Mondiale en France’ (published in 2009 by Pacifica-Paris) (’A Truthful Account of the France-based Chinese Labourers of the First World War’) after interviewing the mostly mixed-race descendants of some of the France-based Chinese labourers. His book has kept the memory of the CLC alive in China.

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (1892 – 1973) 赛珍珠 was a white American novelist and missionary who grew up in Qing Dynasty China.  Her most famous book, ‘The Good Earth’, unfortunately became infamous for spawning a film starring a white actress who won an Oscar playing a Chinese peasant. She interviewed 晏阳初Y C James Yen frequently, and compiled her interviews with him into a book entitled ‘Tell the People’ (published by the International Mass Education Movement, 1959).

Philip Vanhaelemeersch冯浩烈 is a Belgian scholar of the Chinese language who translated顾杏卿Gu Xingqing’s 《欧战工作回忆录》 ‘Memoirs of Working in the War in Europe’ into Dutch as ‘Mijn Herinneringen als Tolk voor de Chinese Arbeiders in WO’ (published by Lannoo in 2010). Vanhaelemeersch helped behind the scenes with a 2017 memorial to the Chinese Labourers in Poperinge, Belgium.

Conclusion

Although the War ended for Britain and her European Allies in 1918, the CLC and Chinese Labourers were compelled to remain in Europe until 1920. They had to clear mines away, bury the dead, and make once-inhospitable places habitable again. Most returned home to China, only to have a mural which was meant to commemorate their service painted over instead. 

It was not just the service of the Chinese that was deliberately overlooked. After the War ended, the service of men from other parts of the world who helped the Allies through their national Labour Corps was ignored and underreported.

This must be corrected. Although these people were not combatants/soldiers and mostly not white, they faced the same risks and perils, including targeted air raids, as white European soldiers on the front line. The sacrifice and service of everyone in that war is equal, and should be equally acknowledged and remembered.

Part of the reason I posted this is so that you can see what these brave men have told us, briefly, in their own words, what it was really like to be caught up in this war.

In remembering the words of the Chinese Labourers and their non-Chinese military colleagues, may we commemorate and acknowledge their service and sacrifice, and all work hard for peace.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Steve Lau of Ensuring We Remember (http://ensuringweremember.org.uk/) for giving me the idea to write this article, and to thank Ensuring We Remember for keeping the memory of the CLC alive in Britain. Through their tireless campaigns, debates, discussion, and cooperation with other organisations, the erection of a marble Huabiao Memorial to the CLC in London has now begun: http://www.abp-london.co.uk/media/press-releases/uk-national-memorial-to-the-chinese-labour-corps-confirmed-to-be-built-at-royal-albert-dock/
 
I also wish to thank all the glorious dead of the First World War, both combatants and non-combatants, for their sacrifice and service. May they be remembered.

For Further Reading


1.       (In Chinese) The diary of Jiang Jinghai was reported here: http://dongying.dzwww.com/dyxw/201407/t20140728_10727561.htm
2.       (In Chinese) The diaries of Sun Gan and Gu Xingqing were reported here: http://www.xzbu.com/1/view-6485769.htm
3.       (In Chinese) Memories of Y C James Yen were reported here: http://www.cb.com.cn/life/2017_0914/1199419.html
4.       (In English) The diaries of Jim Maultsaid covering the CLC (edited by Barbara McClune) can be found here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dawn-Victory-Thank-You-China/dp/1526712709
5.       (In Chinese) The diaries of Edwin Wheeler and Sun Gan were reported in the following article, which also reported that Chinese labourers who had died as a result of the War were to be buried in a mass grave with a memorial built to them, and that the French, not wishing to be antagonistic, eventually had each man buried in individual graves. The British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) oversaw the burials and took great care to ensure that the men were buried in accordance with Chinese rites and customs, and that their graveyards contained authentic Chinese motifs: http://www.chinaqw.com/hqhr/2017/04-28/139400.shtml.
6.       (In English) Remembering Su Yuen Yi in Britain (1): http://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/untold_stories/chinese/frank_wing_yow_soo.shtml
7.       (In English) Remembering Su Yuen Yi in Britain (2):
8.       (In English) Tribute not just to the CLC, but to British Chinese fighter pilot Ronald Soo and the Chinese seamen of the Second World War (research by Anthony Hogan and Yvonne and Charles Foley):
9.       (In English) The semi-official article on the CLC based on records from the National Archives of Britain can be found here: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/chinese-labour-corps-western-front-2/
10.   (In Chinese) Ye Xingqiu and his quest to interview the descendants of the France-based Chinese labourers are reported here: http://www.zsnews.cn/News/2011/03/31/1679356.shtml
11.   (In Chinese, and marketed in French)《法国一战老华工纪实》’Les Travailleurs Chinois Pendant la Premiere Guerre Mondiale en France’ ’A Truthful Account of the France-based Chinese Labourers of the First World War’ by Ye Xingqiu is here: http://www.pacifica-paris.com/component/content/article/83-editions/87-travailleurschinois
12.   (In English) ‘Tell the People’ by Pearl S Buck can be read here: https://archive.org/stream/TellThePeople-English-PearlS.Buck/tell-the-people-pearl-buck_djvu.txt
13.   (In Dutch, and marketed in Dutch) The translation of Gu Xingqing’s diary《欧战工作回忆录》(‘Memoirs of Working in the War in Europe’) by Philip Vanhaelemeersch as ‘Mijn Herinneringen als Tolk voor de Chinese Arbeiders in WO’ is here: https://www.lannoo.be/nl/gu-xingqing
14.   (In English) The story of the 2017 memorial to the Chinese labourers in Poperinge, Belgium, is here: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-11/16/c_136757432.htm