Compiled and edited by Petrus Liu and Lisa Rofel
In recent years, China has become the largest South-South cooperation provider and a major investor in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe. While China’s national “going out” policy (中国走出去) and its activities in the global South have been the subject of much critical commentary in the social sciences, scholars have not paid sufficient attention to the role of gender and sexuality in this process. Moreover, as these transformations are not just economic but also cultural, it is imperative to participate, as well as intervene, in the construction of narratives about China’s presence in Latin America and more generally in the Global South.
This collection of essays is the second installment of a cultural criticism series that began as a conversation between a group of scholars, activists, and NGO workers who participated in an international workshop, “China in the Global South: The Central Role of Gender and Sexuality,” which was convened by Lisa Rofel (UC Santa Cruz) and Huang Yingying (Renmin University of China) and held in Beijing from September 15 to 17, 2017. The first collection of essays considered a recent Chinese blockbuster, Wolf Warrior II, as an example of cultural productions that reflect and foster particular understandings of gender and sexuality as China reconfigures its relationship with the Global South. This time, we ask the participants to share their thoughts on a Latin American film that addresses the phenomenon from the other side.
Un Cuento Chino (Chinese Take-Away) is a 2011 Argentinian film directed by Sebastián Borensztein and the highest-grossing non-US film in Argentina of the year. It tells the story of an odd encounter and unexpected bond between an Argentinian loner and a young Chinese immigrant. The film explores a host of social issues, including Argentinian racism toward the Chinese, which are shaped by a long history of Chinese immigration to Argentina, as well as the more recent major investments of Chinese companies in Argentina for the purpose of extracting natural resources. Through different readings of Un Cuento Chino, the contributors to this collection offer an intellectual analysis of how China reimagines its position in the Global South, and how it does so through a specifically gendered and sexual set of representations and images.
Whose Racism and Whose Sexuality?
Un Cuento Chino is a powerful film that speaks to an Argentinian audience about their racism toward the Chinese, but it does so by reproducing and embodying a different order of racism of its own. To understand how this works, first we need to think about the film’s rhetorical structure of substitution and displacement. Un Cuento Chino focuses on the parallel romantic relationships and traumas of the two principal characters. The protagonist, Roberto, is a grumpy middle-aged Argentinian man who is unable to fully develop a romantic relationship because of a traumatic past: His mother died at his birth and his father died from false knowledge about his own supposed death in the Falklands War; additionally Roberto suffers from the trauma of having killed so many people in a senseless war. The film’s second protagonist is Jun, a Chinese man who comes to Argentina in search of family after his fiancée dies in a mysterious and grotesque accident (a cow falling from the sky). Each man’s present is shaped and animated by a violent event in his past, but the relationships are inverted: Roberto’s loss of family leads to his failed romantic relationships in the present, whereas Jun’s loss of his romantic partner leads to a search for family in the present.
Through a chanced meeting, Roberto becomes a reluctant host to Jun and helps him find his uncle, but in the process Jun also inspires him and helps him overcome his own past trauma. The film begins with the death of Jun’s fiancée and ends with a scene suggesting that Roberto is finally able to begin a romantic relationship with a woman. The two men are thus clearly each other’s foil with inverted experiences and journeys: the loss of a lover prompts Jun to come to Argentina to be reunited with family, while Roberto evolves from a loner stuck in the memory of his lost parents to a man who is finally capable of loving another human being. In this sense, while both men are heterosexual in orientation, it is their homosocial bond—the experience of living together with, sharing domestic chores with, and caring for a male companion—that accounts for Roberto’s transformation. Freud famously argues that “the finding of the love object is in fact a refinding of it” (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, p. 222). By this statement, Freud means that the development of a loving relationship in adult life is actually the reactivation of a forgotten and repressed bond with the maternal object. In Un Cuento Chino, we see a similar process at work, except that the movie shows that the reacquisition of the ability to love is neither rooted in a heterosexual origin nor necessarily Oedipal. It is homosociality, rather than a lost maternal bond, that provides a form of “queer tutelage” for the capacity to love.
But while the film offers much insight into the inner psychic workings of Roberto, Un Cuento Chino is not an emotional film about a unique character with a unique experience. Despite his eccentricities, Roberto exemplifies what we call the “everyday man” or the common man, and the film retains a largely allegorical structure that allows it to serve as a social commentary on racial tensions in contemporary Argentina. Its primary aim is to capture, through the perspective and transformation of Roberto, some common racist assumptions about and attitudes toward the Chinese. In the beginning of the film, Jun is literally thrown out of a moving car. The rest of the story shows a string of episodes in which one Argentinian after another gives Jun the cold shoulder. But while the film endeavors to represent and critique racial antipathy, its vocabulary of “China,” the Chinese, and the Chinaman remains shockingly Orientalist and ignorant. To begin with, Jun is a stereotypical Chinese migrant worker who has no skills other than manual labor and virtually no interesting qualities, but the film also romanticizes him as a pseudo-artist. The film does not address the rich diversity of social issues and classes in today’s China. The film producers appear to have nothing but the crudest knowledge of China, and they present a pastiche of images and ideas from disconnected eras. Jun’s fiancée in the beginning scene of the film, for example, wears a qipao and a hairdo that makes her look like she is from a 1930s poster from Shanghai while she is supposed to be a woman of limited means on a casual outing in a rural part of China. But the most egregious example of the film’s lack of actual interest in or knowledge of contemporary China lies in the mysterious passport. The film emphasizes Jun’s Chineseness in every way possible—in its title, in the Orientalist image of the opening scene, in the mistreatment he suffers as a Chinaman in Argentina. But, when Jun goes to the police station and whips out his passport, the document shown in the scene (22:47) is actually a Taiwanese passport, in traditional Chinese characters, issued by the “Republic of China.” A closer look shows that the passport is actually the actor’s own, with his real name (Huang Shenghuang) in Chinese, but the English has been modified to match that of the character’s, as Quian Jun. From a budgetary point of view, it should not be hard to get a prop correct. This is not a simple matter of intellectual laziness or sheer ignorance. As the question of Taiwanese identity—whether Taiwan is part of “China” or not—is in fact one of the most controversial and important topics in the region today, the film’s use of a Taiwanese passport for “Chinaman” shows an utter disrespect for and lack of concern for its declared thematic topic, what is China and what misunderstandings might we harbor about it. It is clear that Roberto and Jun are both meant to be read allegorically, as social types representing Argentina and China and their problems. But for a movie that purports to educate the public about their racism and insists that characters be understood in terms of their nationalities, the indiscriminate use of Taiwanese and Chinese elements perpetuates another order of racism and violence.
*Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature, and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Boston University.
Un Cuento Chino: a commentary
Un Cuento Chino, by Argentine filmmaker Sebastián Borensztein, is directed at an Argentine audience. The film, labelled as a comedy, challenges Argentinians to rethink their racism towards immigrants, specifically Chinese immigrants. Borensztein uses two framings to offer that challenge. One is the classic homosocial dynamic, so well analyzed by Eve Sedgewick. In Between Men, English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Sedgewick brought forth the homosociality embedded in modern Western literature, which put the lie to the binary categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality by demonstrating the love that men have for one another even when they are portrayed as straight – a love that has to be partially occluded by the presence of a woman. In Un Cuento Chino, we find this relationship between an older white Argentine (Roberto) and a young Chinese immigrant (Jun) who grow close to each other through Mari, a woman friend of Roberto’s, who helps him develop empathy for the young Chinese man. Roberto and the Chinese young man, whose name Roberto does not know until late in the film, meet by chance, when the Chinese émigré is thrown out of a taxi after having been robbed of all his belongings. But their relationship is not a simple one of immediate male bonding. Roberto is a neurotic and a misanthrope. He has no friendships, lives alone, and thinks of others as “imbeciles.” He does not want any change to his routines – symbolic presumably of the Argentinians whom Borensztein addresses. But he is a misanthrope with integrity, as Mari understands, so he takes the young man into his home, but is determined to get rid of him in very short order. Indeed, Roberto tries to rid himself of the young man repeatedly, first in the police station, then in the Chinese embassy, and then in Buenos Aires’s Chinatown. But Mari inadvertently intervenes in numerous ways to help Roberto do the right thing. One example: she praises Roberto for helping the young man, not knowing Roberto has dumped him in Chinatown. Induced into remorse, Roberto goes back to find the young man to bring him back home once again. The young man then has the opportunity to save Roberto from police abuse, thus making their relationship one of mutual aid. The young Chinese also eventually leads Roberto to do the right thing with Mari. This homosociality is thus built on a mirror of Argentine racism that eventually but not immediately gives way to true empathy.
But if homosociality is the means through which Borensztein addresses Argentine racism towards Chinese immigrants, then we have to extend Sedgewick’s analysis to examine the intersection of homosociality with racism. Racism is not just the subject of the film but also the paradoxical means through which the film addresses racism. Borensztein deliberately refuses to have the young Chinese man’s (Chinese) speech translated into subtitles – either in Spanish or in English. The Chinese man is portrayed as unintelligible to Roberto, thus presumably capturing the reality of Argentinians’ everyday experiences with the Chinese in their midst. Borensztein thus imagines the Argentine audience as white and Spanish-speaking, thereby inadvertently erasing the long history of Chinese immigration to Argentina and making these immigrants into eternal others even as he portrays them sympathetically. (Ironically, the Chinese actors in the film are long-time Argentine citizens who are bilingual.)
Roberto and Jun – we eventually learn his name through a Chinese take-out delivery man who is asked to translate – manage to form their male bond beyond language. This bonding is accomplished by learning that they share the experience of absurdly horrific tragedies, Roberto’s due to being a soldier in the Malvinas War and Jun’s due to a cow dropping from the sky onto the boat he was in with his fiancée who died in the accident. In other words, Borensztein uses the fabulous as a means to create this bonding beyond language. Hence, the multiple translations of the title of this film. Un Cuento Chino is an Argentine phrase meaning the equivalent of a “tall tale,” a story not to be believed. Thus, racism is built into the title, presumably used deliberately in order to challenge it. The English translations of the film title (Chinese Take-out, Chinese Take Away, A Chinese Tale) do not fully capture these multiple valences. But the Chinese title, 一丝偶然 (A thread of coincidence) does partially capture the Spanish title’s meaning, minus the implication of far-fetched.
The presumed opaqueness of Jun to a viewing audience recalls Gayatri Spivak’s complex answer to her question “can the subaltern speak?” Spivak demonstrated that those who write about third world subalterns, whether French feminist theorists or South Asian historians, erase the subjectivity of these subalterns in the very act of attempting to represent them, by making them stand in for the self-same other of the Western feminist, on the one hand, and the third world elite on the other. Her analysis encourages us to work against that kind of incorporation while rejecting the liberal sense of mutual empathy in this film.
Indeed, much context is left out of the film, including the long histories of Chinese immigration to Argentina (mostly from Taiwan), and the complex reasons for their doing so, as well as the more recent major investments of the Chinese state in Argentina and other Latin American countries, mainly for the purpose of extracting natural resources – a situation that Latin American scholars call “the Beijing Consensus.”
The film also calls to mind Jane Campion’s now classic film The Piano. As with Un Cuento Chino, The Piano deliberately portrays how native peoples look through the eyes of white colonial settlers – in that case in New Zealand. The natives, who remain opaque, nonetheless in the end are shown to hold the true wisdom, unlike the hapless settlers. There was a great deal of controversy about Campion’s approach: did Campion heed Spivak’s warnings of incorporating the other into the self by refusing to represent the natives or did she reproduce the racism of the settlers in her portrayal of them as unintelligible?
Similarly, is Borensztein using exoticism of the Chinese in order to challenge his imagined white, monolingual Argentine audience? Or is he challenging the very exoticism he would like to undermine in order to foster acceptance? The answer might lie in the very first scene set in Argentina, when the screen is upside down and we watch it rotate to be right side up. Still, at the very least, it is hard for those of us viewers who speak Chinese to be interpellated into the exoticism, instead moving us to ponder how difficult it is to represent and challenge white racism through art from a white perspective.
*Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and director of The Center for Emerging Worlds.
Who is the savior and who is the saved?
A middle-aged Argentine man lives alone; he runs a small hardware store to make a living. Life is unremarkable. The only hobby he has is cutting newspaper articles to collect ludicrous anecdotes from all over the world. One day, he accidentally “picks up” a Chinese young man from Fujian Province on a street in Buenos Aires. This young man lost his fiancée in a catastrophe that literally fell from the sky. All his family members have passed away except his uncle, whom he came all the way to Argentina to seek refuge with. Immediately after he got off the plane, he was robbed by the taxi driver and became penniless. His uncle had long since left the old address and moved to no one knows where. Although the Argentine man feels the young man will be trouble, and it is not his responsibility to help him, his compassion prevents him from pushing this helpless young man away. So he takes him in for few days, but only temporarily. Thereupon, these two lonely men encounter each other. Their encounter is inexplicable but destined.
In a typical film story, if the two protagonists are different sexes, the storyline usually goes like this: after several misunderstandings, the two eventually become lovers and build a romantic cross-country relationship. However, in this story, both the Argentine man and the Chinese man are heterosexual. One is hesitant with and dare not accept the pursuits from a passionate girlfriend. The other one has just lost his beloved fiancée and is frustrated by all the difficulties of finding relatives in a foreign country. He has no interest in romance at this moment. So, what can the audience expect?
Let’s first take a look at how this Argentine man helps this desolate Chinese young man. Even though from a kind nature he provides free accommodation and takes the Chinese young man to the local embassy and Chinatown to seek clues, he is not “taking pleasure in helping people” from the heart. Instead, he sets a seven-day deadline. Whether or not the young fellow finds his relative, he has to leave. This is because this Argentine man has a closed his heart owing to previous life experiences. Even when a girlfriend falls in love with him at first sight, and pursues him all the way, he just keeps his heart shut and refuses to respond. Not to mention keeping his heart shut to a Chinese young man of dubious background, whose language barrier makes the communication extremely difficult. Usually, they communicate through body language as he speaks only Spanish and the Chinese young man speaks only Chinese. Sometimes, they seek help from a Chinatown shop owner or Chinese delivery guy to perform as their translator. By contrast, his girlfriend is much kinder to this Chinese young man. She proposes to take him on a Buenos Aires day trip and also pays for the two protagonists to have Chinese take-out. It is obvious that the girlfriend did this not just to please the Argentine man, or to solve his trouble, but from goodwill. This heroine does not make many appearances in the film, but she always helps to resolve the embarrassment and move the plot at critical moments.
At first, the two male protagonists pin their hopes for help on state institutions. When they have trouble, they think of the government. However, these national institutions disappoint them. Let’s talk about Argentina first. The local police detain the Chinese young man, with other suspects, as an illegal immigrant when they hear about his lost passport and has lack of a place to stay. The Argentine man argues that the Chinese young man needs help, instead of being treated as a criminal. The condescension and arrogance of the police is beyond his endurance. He beats up the officer in charge. Inside the Chinese Embassy, they are also refused. Although the Embassy agrees to help with finding the young man’s uncle, they refuse to provide food and accommodation. Also, the bureaucratic staff do not seem to be enthusiastic, but perfunctory with this ordinary citizen seeking help. They even make a silly mistake and find the wrong uncle, making the protagonist rejoice too soon.
It seems that the only hope for redemption is civil self-help. The Argentine who had provided shelter for the Chinese young man appears to be the savior. The kind-hearted Chinese young man reciprocates by decorating his house, cleaning his courtyard, and even attacking the policeman who takes revenge on the Argentine man. He also uses his own uncanny experience of losing his fiancée to tell the Argentine man to seize the present happiness. As the story continues, this twist indicates that the Chinese young man is the savior. With his encouragement, the Argentine man finally opens his heart and embraces his girlfriend. The Chinese young man also finds the correct uncle with the help of the Chinese Embassy. What a happy ending.
In this film, the state institution that represents power and authority could have played the role of the savior. Instead, they are derelict and absent. The Argentine man was the savior but eventually become the saved one. The Chinese young man transforms into the savior from the saved. What lies between their hearts as a bridge are those women who love them and also are loved by them. After all is said and done, women are the saviors of those saviors.
The scar of the Argentine man comes from the early death of his parents, and the trauma from his failure in the Battle of Malvinas. The one who cures this trauma is a young man who comes from a completely irrelevant country. The film was made in 2011. For the Argentines, the China represented in the film was still a distant exotic country on the other side of the globe. It was even extremely difficult to find a Chinese speaker as a translator. One barely saw Chinese except in Chinatown. The reports on China also only appeared in the anecdote sections of tabloids.
That said, I am really looking forward to a romance between the Chinese and the Argentines. In a film depicting intimate relationships, will China and Chinese young people still be portrayed as savior and saved? What kind of story would that be? Will the Chinese be a man? Or a woman? Is the story a homosexual love or a heterosexual one? Is it a realist story? Or a story that happened in ancient times or in the future? What kind of imaginations, expectations, anxieties, and reflections on China will be reflected in a story by Argentine producers?
*Executive Committee member, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN)
A Chinese tale—or rather an Argentinean tale with a Chinese twist?
Influenced by Chinese productions such as Family on the move (Wenzhouyijiaren), I imagined A Chinese tale to play into masculine hero tales about a single, male migrant encountering and overcoming difficulties in a foreign country. Indeed, after an absurd scene of a cow dropping down from the sky in China and killing the fiancée of the Chinese protagonist, Jun, the film continues in Argentina with a well-known story. Jun is robbed immediately after arrival, and since he does not speak Spanish and cannot find his ‘uncle’ he is stranded on the streets. Unlike other unluckily migrants, Jun is picked up by Roberto who takes pity on Jun and helps him. Yet, this is where similarities between A Chinese tale and masculine hero tales end.
What follows is a detailed portrait of Roberto and his complicated relationship with Mari, with his customers, the police, as well as with Jun. Roberto is a grumpy man with odd hobbies and a strict daily routine. He generally avoids social contact and strongly believes that life does not have any deeper meaning. Mari is an optimistic woman who is interested in Roberto and would like to be his girlfriend. She becomes the mediator between Roberto and Jun and brings them closer together. Throughout three-quarters of the film, Jun takes on the role of the dutiful migrant who fulfills every task set before him. Due to the language barrier, Jun is relatively silent and unable to communicate with his host and Mari. His silence does not mean that he is oblivious to his surroundings or uncomprehending of his host’s emotions. On the contrary, Jun proves that he understands his host’s complicated emotions, and is ultimately able to convince Roberto, in an unconventional way, that that life is meaningful. In turning these cross-cultural encounters into a story about finding the meaning of life, the film highlights that Chinese migration within the Global South is more than ‘economic opportunism’, cultural clashes and lack of mutual understanding.
The film provides a refreshing perspective on Argentinean-Chinese encounters because it focuses on emotions. This focus allows the film to complicate existing gendered narratives on Chinese migrants and the Chinese state in the Global South. What we see in the film is not the strong, masculine migrant dedicated to increasing the family’s fortunes, but a sensitive, lonely migrant dedicated to making life meaningful to himself as well as others. Very interestingly, the Chinese state, represented through the embassy, is not the all-powerful and all-knowing, masculine protector of Chinese citizens as it is in Wolf Warrior II. The embassy is represented as an institution of self-interested and lazy officials who are oblivious to Jun’s desperation. The Chinese state might like to portray itself as the protector of Chinese citizen. In reality the state is, as the film but also as my own field research in Lesotho demonstrates, often of no use to Chinese migrants who feel left alone. In the absence of state help, Chinese migrants like Jun rely on the help of locals such as Mari and Roberto. The voluntary help of Mari and Roberto underline that Chinese migrants are not always perceived as unwelcomed intruders destroying local economies.
From my perspective as a China anthropologist, the film is imbalanced in its portrayal of the settings. The film provides a nuanced perspective on everyday life in Argentina, but the scenes playing in China show little effort in de-exotizing China. In doing so, the film reproduces feminized portrayals of China as the exotic and backward other. The filmmakers employ signifiers of a ‘Chinese’ landscape that could have been taken from any shanshuihua ( classical landscape paintings): two lovers wearing traditional Chinese clothes in a wooden boat, rowing on a lake surrounded by karst hills typical of the Guilin area. These signifiers allow the western audience to immediately ‘recognize’ China. Yet, if Jun is, as I suppose he might be, from Fuqing in Fujian Province, then his hometown looks nothing like the scene in the film. Having studied Fuqing in detail, I know that almost every inch of land was used for agricultural ventures such as rice plantation and fisheries (never heard of cattle herding, let alone stealing), industrial parks or real estate developments in the 1980s and 1990s. Young men, influenced by Hong Kong pop culture and stories of Fuqing’s many overseas Chinese, preferred to wear jeans and dark sun glasses. Young lovers were more likely to go to a café or karaoke bar at the urban county seat than to take a rowing boat on the, by then heavily polluted, Longjiang River. In other words, Fuqing had none of the signifiers of ‘traditional’ China as the film suggests. By paying attention to local differences and including different images of ‘China’, the film’s message of a different story could have been made even more explicit.
*Post-doctoral Fellow, Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Cologne, Germany.
On Love of the Stranger
Sealing Cheng and Mario Pecheny*
Having one’s fiancée killed by a cow falling from the sky may be as remote a possibility as a Chinese space rocket shooting up the sky from the Argentine desert of Patagonia. But no longer.
In Argentinian Spanish, a “Chinese Tale” means a “weird plot”, something outlandish and unbelievable. In fact, in common parlance, “Chinese” has come to refer to anyone who looks Asian, be they Koreans or Japanese etc., to highlight their exotic origins and therefore essential difference. One idiosyncrasy of Argentineans is their propensity to treat “different” people in an ambiguous and ambivalent way: patronising, caring, but also stigmatizing as “impossible to get to know.” News coverage about China in Argentina is limited and often reproduces the stereotype, such as “the guy who had 17 girlfriends, the guy who jumped off a window after his girlfriend dragged him around a mall for over x hours…”, as one internet observer commented on a thread titled “Do Argentinians Hate Chinese?”.
But this film is about love, specifically the kind of love that allows us to go beyond the inward-looking, narcissistic love of oneself, to the love of the stranger that has the potential to transform. Roberto is the Argentinian Oedipus – trapped in his love for his dead mother, and then indirectly killing his father, a refugee from war, by participating in the Falklands War. Roberto rejects the advances of the beautiful Mari, and shields himself in his pernickety routine of running his hardware store. He personifies the conservative Argentina that refuses external engagement and change, possessed with pride and righteousness, worshipping the past (his dead mother) and nursing old wounds (his dead father). His only engagement beyond his immediate vicinity is through his daily ritual of poring through newspapers in search of ludicrous tragic tales around the world, and keeping a sketchbook of these newspaper cuttings.
Roberto’s devotion to his mother – his lost love – is manifest in his fastidious maintenance of a glass menagerie that stands in as a shrine – adding a new piece to the collection on each of his mother’s birthday.
If this was narcissistic and therefore “bad” (heterosexual) love, Roberto’s opportunity to find “good” (heterosexual) love comes with an intensely abrupt and intimate encounter with a complete stranger – the Chinese young man named Jun. Roberto picks up the desperate Jun on the road – he has just arrived in Buenos Aires, left penniless by robbers, and not speaking a word of Spanish.
The way Jun catapults Roberto out of his comfort zone is crystallized in his annihilation of Roberto’s object of obsession by accidentally smashing his mother’s shrine. By reluctantly allowing this stranger to stay in his house, and embroiled in Jun’s search for his uncle, Roberto inadvertantly opened himself to the brave new world of intimacy and love.
Jun symbolises three things alien in Roberto’s world: first, he is a symbol of the Chinese who are “impossible to understand,” and yet it is impossible to be rid of them; second, Jun symbolizes the transformative power of love, the kind of love that motivates oneself to new beginnings – even when the love of one’s life is lost; finally, Jun embodies friendship, being a friend who helps one to recognize what is important and what it is not, and possibly restarting one’s life for the better.
As Roberto soon found out in their first and last conversation through the interpretation of the Chinese delivery boy, Jun lost his fiancée to a cow that fell from the sky, a tragic piece of news that Roberto cited as evidence of the absurdity of life. There is as much shock as intimacy as the two men looked into each other’s eyes at that moment of realization: Roberto comes to see Jun as a fellow human being who survives the absurdity that he dreads; Jun comes to see Roberto as someone who knows about his painful past. They are no longer strangers to each other.
Jun’s parting gift to Roberto is an affectionate portrait of the cow, conveying his optimism about life and his willingness to move on from the tragedy. The cow also reminds Roberto of Mari, who wants to be with Roberto but whom he keeps at a distance after a short affair with her. Just as Jun diligently cleaned up debris of the past from Roberto’s backyard and apartment, he also inspired Roberto to purge the demons of his past to embrace the hope and love that life brings. Roberto rushes to join Mari – and her cow – in her village farm to which she had returned.
This film can be taken as a commentary on both the absurd reality of increasing Chinese presence in Argentina – epitomized by the Chinese space station in Patagonia with a 16-storey tower jutting out of the desert, installed just a couple of years after the release of the film – and the potential of embracing these unexpected arrivals with courage and grace. Argentinians, the film suggests, would do well to stop holding onto relics of the past and complaining about life’s absurdities as if they were fate, and instead open their arms to these new challenges. The end, however, offers no idyllic imagination of intimate ethnic integration. Jun bids farewell and takes a flight to reunite with his uncle while Roberto dashes off to the countryside. Sometimes friendship between heterosexual men does not allow strong intimacy – being two “ontological” strangers, between whom there was no sexual tension, and paradoxically this strangeness (and the fact that both were so fragile, so vulnerable) allows the creation of a particular intimacy. The transient intimacy was crucial to each of the two men’s discovery of new possibilities in life. The lesson for the Chinese and Argentinians may lie in the fact that Jun and Roberto find what they want through, but not with, each other, and therein lies the potential of love of the stranger.
*Sealing Cheng is Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong; Mario Pecheny is Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Un Cuento Chino: a commentary
María Amelia Viteri*
How does the accidental encounter between Roberto, an Argentinian man from Buenos Aires and Jun, a migrant from China, connect us? By posing this question, I’m interested in exploring the scenario that director Borensztein creates, paying special attention at the same time to the place given to intimate relationships.
In the Andean region, one way of explaining that one does not understand what the other person is saying is precisely the expression “You are talking in Chinese.” Intentionally, Borensztein includes Jun’s dialogues in Chinese without any translation. This unintelligibility goes far beyond language: it goes hand-in-hand with how the difference is interpreted, labeled, and marked. In today’s globalized world, one way of marking difference is by looking at those people who have crossed geo-political frontiers and are confronting scrutiny by the inhabitants of the country they have chosen to go to or were sent to.
The surreal love story from the newspaper clipping that Roberto collects about a cow falling from the sky over the “beloved girlfriend” takes us to other contemporary surreal realities, like the children ripped from their mothers and fathers at the United States’ southern border, locked in cages and later on in improvised camps.
The character of Roberto, even with his self-absorption that turns into hostility, catches the attention of Mari who, with much romanticism, travels from her place in the rural zone of Buenos Aires with the hope of gaining his love. The divisions between the countryside and the city appear as antagonistic in both the stories of Jun and Roberto, highlighting the city as a place of arrival, although its configuration alienates residents and migrants alike.
The mobility of Chinese communities to Latin America has been segmented, as other diasporas, by particular historical contexts. In the surreal reality of the cow’s freefall over a peaceful lake where two lovers are taking a boat ride, we can interpret how the exacerbated differences of people in mobility give free rein to public policies that accentuate “white-conservative-nationalist” nationalisms to the detriment of any other form of identity.
Jun seeks to escape from his tragedy in the lake by migrating to Argentina, and his tale is only seen as sensational by the Buenos Aires newspaper and its readers like Roberto. The tragedies of people in mobility across the continent and the planet are often portrayed in such a way that does not generate empathy among readers who then could care less about the authoritarian or violent regimes that precede this mobility, as in the case of Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and/or other conditions of little or non-existent social mobility in the places of origin.
The questions from Chinese Take-Out are oriented towards naming categories. For example, what does it imply to be a country of transit and exporter of people at the social, political and economic level? This goes hand in hand, for example, with the recent category “refuge nation” understood now to be Mexico. The insertion periods of the Chinese communities, mainly coming from Taiwan to Argentina in the 80s, 90s and 2000s let us look at the narratives and migration policies of Argentina, in which up to 2004, its constitution talked about encouraging the “European immigration”.
Chinese Take-Out exposes with some humor and a static approach to gender (two women in two continents held literally and figuratively locked in traditional love expectations), a country that thinks of itself as more European than Latin American, and that historically has constructed its idea of a nation on the back of its indigenous communities. How is Asian difference thought of in relation to gender and other ethnicities, if we take as a starting point how Afro-descendants are thought of in Buenos Aires, Argentina? Revising its historicity, this has been thought about through assimilation and homogenization, from which the traits of national difference vis-a-vis pigmentation and ethnicity are converted into paths for xenophobia, highlighting in its way, the most conventional expectations of love and with it, of heteronormativity.
*Associate Professor, Universidad San Francisco de Quito; Associate Researcher, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland.
Chinese Take-Away: A China and Latin America tale from below
Laura Trajber Waisbich*
The wave of ‘China in the Global South’ conversations is finally reaching Latin America, possibly with a 5-year lag from what have been the very heated ‘China and (or in) Africa’ debates. Current conversations in/on Latin America tend to focus on Chinese investments: China and Ecuador and the oil industry, Chinese investments in the current wave of Brazilian privatizations, Chinese entrepreneurs in Central America, the Belt and Road Initiative in Latin America, and so on. As studies start to dig into what China in Latin America looks like and, when possible, into some of the consequences of those exchanges – economical, socio-political, cultural -, Un Cuento Chino is a fiction comedy tale that remind us that, beyond the current wave of powerful China going global, there might be other stories to be told about China and Latin America.
Through the movie one might learn less about Chinese government and big business going abroad than about people-to-people interactions happening among those societies for more than 50 years. The take on Chinese migration in Argentina depicted in this 2011 film is not one of a big and powerful China strategically going global, but one of Chinese migrants and their personal journeys. Such a take, I tend to believe, also goes beyond the Argentinian case and could be illustrative of a set of social interactions between China and Latin America, or between Chinese migrants in other Latin American nations, throughout the 20th century and early decades of the current one.
In numbers, according to the official Argentinian 2010 census, the country hosts 120.000 people who are either Chinese citizens or of Chinese descent. Most of them, came to the country from the 1980s on, yet the very first records on Chinese migrants are from the 19th century. Buenos Aires, the capital, has been the main destination and both politics and economic drivers are seen as explanatory factors for this South-South migration flow between the two countries. In the neighbouring country, Brazil, an important wave of Chinese migrants also came in the 19th century, embedded in ambiguous governmental efforts to promote free work-force immigration to work on Brazilian plantations and replace slave labour, while openly restricting “non-White” (Black and Asian) migrants in favour of White European immigration, in a much controversial move known as the “Whitening policy”. In the 20th century, geopolitical shifts in China and Asia (the Second World War, the Communist Revolution, Suharto’s persecution of Chinese descents in Indonesia, among others) explain most of the migration waves to places like Brazil. In a city like Sao Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital, the official survey accounts for around 250.000 Chinese migrants and their descendants. Brazil is the first destination in Latin America for Chinese migration, followed by Argentina, according to the International Organization for Migration. More recent waves, both in Argentina and Brazil but also elsewhere in Latin America (such as Peru, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica to name a few), are less connected to the early plantations than to the contemporary forms of urban business mobility. Chinese migrants and their descents are still very visible as shop and restaurant owners in many Latin American cities, as depicted in the film, and increasingly so as investors and highly-mobile business people.
What are, then, the imaginaries portraited in this Chinese-Argentinian tale? How are Chinese and Latin American gender and sexuality issues represented? Chinese migration in Un Cuento Chino is, somehow, about fragile people escaping their own individual or collective miseries. Exotic, numerous, millenaries. The Chinese Other is at the same time way too different to understand and be understood and way too interesting to be ignored. Chinese migrants, newly arrived or generations old, are a group of people who never cease to be seen as foreigners (or at best as hybrids) even in countries constituted by migration, as Argentina (or Brazil). Chinese millenary culture, Chinese philosophy, Chinese food. Interestingly, the English title for this movie is Chinese Take-Away and not Chinese Tale, as one could translate from the original title in Spanish. Without being overly judgmental, one can also wonder what this particular translation, from Spanish to English, reveals of the English-speaking countries reading of the story (or the History) and the economic lenses China and Chinese food occupies Western imaginaries.
The main Chinese character, the accidental heart-broken migrant. Shy, artistic, sensitive. Nonetheless, most of the remaining Chinese characters, except for the young delivery boy, are men exerting their masculine-authorities (a grandfather that speaks for the entire family, unhelpful diplomats). Gender and sexuality stereotypes for the Argentinian characters are a bit more complex. Roberto, a (typically) self-destructive Bonarense (someone from Buenos Aires), resistant to all sorts of affection and human interactions. The initiative has to come then from the Argentinian female character, Mari, who never hides her feelings for him and is the one pro-actively making the moves. A not so typical Latin American stereotype, one might say.
Argentinians and their individual and collective imaginaries in this comic-tragic-poetic movie about encounters, destiny and individual agency are somehow subjected to a sort of ‘One-China Policy’. China is that interesting far-away land where everyone speaks one language: Chinese. In popular imaginaries there is only one Chinese language, not several, including Mandarin or Cantonese. The noun Chinos (Chinese people in Spanish) was and maybe still is used as a general adjective for Asians in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America. As Turkish has been for a series of Middle-Eastern peoples and objects.
Un Cuento Chino is an interesting cultural turn in our obsessively high-politics gaze on China and the South. It offers a people-to-people take on South-South relations from below. Yes, the film makes fun of the exotic and eccentric imaginaries Argentinians hold about Chinese in China and Chinese migrants at home and yet, it also allow us to imagine a sort of (naïve?) win-win and mutual-gains people-to-people relationships: where the Argentinian hospitality can save a Chinese young man from his miserable fate and Chinese symbolic thinking and sensibilities can actually free Argentinians from their own self-inflicted blues.
*Research associate, South-South Cooperation Research and Policy Centre (ASUL) and the Brazilian Centre for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap); PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Cambridge.
Not Solidarity but Entanglement: Some Thoughts on Un cuento chino
One cannot take too seriously a film called Un cuento chino. Argentinian director Sebastián Borensztein’s film with this title departs from an unbelievable story set in China of a tragedy caused by a cow that falls from the sky and kills the girlfriend of a beloved couple at the moment when the boyfriend is about to propose to her with a wedding ring. This Chinese cuento (story), the director reminds us twice, in the beginning and towards the end of the film, is based on “hechos reales,” (or facts), looks indeed improbable.
The film is about how Roberto, an Argentinian local, opens his door to Jun, a Chinese immigrant who does not speak a word of Spanish, and helps Jun look for his uncle. The themes touched upon in the film, namely refugee, immigrant, and the global south, would easily elicit terminologies such as hospitality, sympathy, and certainly solidarity, as well as their accompanying grand narratives. Un cuento chino, however, seems to decisively evade these grandiosities. After all, “un cuento chino” in Spanish idiom (also) means a cock and bull story, fanciful.
In an age of “refugee crisis” and its spectacularization in media and the arts, and especially as one writes from Fortress Europe ever increasingly fortifying its border to let immigrants die at bay, watching a light-hearted film about immigrants is immensely refreshing.
The film is of course not without problems. In fact, it is full of them, easy to critique: for example, the stereotyping of Chinese (immigrant) as docile and resilient, but at the same time “reluctant to integrate,” and literally “inscrutable” (the film does not provide subtitles for Jun). “You Chinese people don’t (want to) integrate,” I hear this too frequently. The film portrays precisely that: the Chinese community seems to be over there, in the barrio chino that Roberto needs to drive to, even in la Plata, in Mendoza, in, well, China, just not “here” in the barrio where Roberto and his friends live. It is borderline racist, therefore offensive.
Despite and also because of these problems, the film manages to convey an almost mythical message, not that of solidarity but of entanglement. Let’s start with the characters. None of them is a role model, neither model immigrant nor model citizen. They are common people caught in a rapidly globalizing world where they meet almost by pure chance (thus the film’s title in Chinese: 一丝偶然 a thin kind of coincidence).
There is no predisposed solidarity by virtue of the two protagonists being both from the “global south.” Roberto helps Jun out of a basic instinct, not of a political conviction (for example, proletariat of the world unite!). He simply offers Jun a hand who is in need of help. Similarly, Jun helps Roberto to get out of trouble with a murderous policeman. Their “solidarity,” if by which we mean their encounter, happens out of a common sense that neither the violent Argentinian police nor the corrupt Chinese embassy seem able to grasp.
Yet, a story of people helping each other does not quite qualify as a tale, even a “cuento chino.” It needs to convey a message. The cow and its image that has brought tragedy to Jun but reconciliation to Roberto give the film a rare mythical aura, uncommon in a light comedy. The message seems to be this, simple but easy to forget: we need each other. Roberto helps Jun who was lost on the street in a foreign land and language to find his family. Jun helps Roberto who was lost in his memory and cynicism to find his courage to face Mari, the only female protagonist of the film. All these happen by chance, what is predetermined is not a fate of encounter, but the entangled nature of human existence.
This reflection could have ended here on the grandiosity of “human existence.” However, if one rereads what has been written above, and intentionally adds a gendered qualifier to many of the words that appear in the previous paragraphs, one notices that by “protagonist,” “people,” “immigrant,” or “citizen” I actually mean “male protagonists,” “male people,” “male immigrant,” and “male citizen.” These valuable themes explored in the film become tainted with undeniable straight homosocial specificity. In another word, would I, or we, easily reach the “mythical” level of analysis, if the protagonists, people, immigrants, and citizens in the film were all women or all lesbians? I, for one, am not sure.
*Postdoctoral Research Fellow, DFG Research Training Group “minor cosmopolitanisms”, Potsdam University, Germany.