Adam Aitken

Creative writer and teacher

Hybrid Aliens in Christopher Koch

3: Hybrid Aliens and the Asian Thriller: Christopher Koch’s Billy Kwan

Inscrutability, impassivity, smoothness, all recur as adjectives used to describe the difficulties of grasping what the East was thinking and feeling. The East was commonly represented as an unfathomable culture of subterfuges, masks, and intricate disguises.

David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1950 – 1939 (1999: 173)

This chapter focuses on ambivalent representations of Chinese-Australian male and Eurasian women in Christopher Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously (1978). Written at a time when multiculturalism and Australian policy towards Asian countries were still central policy issues of both Liberal and Labour parties, this novel dramatises the conflicting attitudes of Australians towards political and social change in neighbouring Indonesia. Koch’s novel features Australian journalist-travellers who are embroiled in a quagmire of Indonesian political conflict at a time when Cold War attitudes dominate and Australians express an increasing fear of Sukarno’s anti-Western Indonesia, and the Communist inspired movements in Vietnam and Cambodia. Most significantly, Koch has chosen a Chinese-Australian, Billy Kwan, as the novel’s major character study.

I attempt to supplement critical analysis of the multicultural and postcolonial aspects of Koch’s novel, which is extensive. Little has been written specifically about the hybridity of Billy Kwan, however. Nor has there been much written about the rhetorical strategies and techniques Koch uses to position and contrast Asian subjectivities with the roles of Anglo-Celtic characters whose attitudes toward the Asians in their midst reveal a strikingly pervasive ambivalence and puzzlement. Hybrid identities are unstable and almost indefinable, and may destabilise essentialised beliefs that hold nation, race and identity to be homologous. While Koch (and D’Alpuget also) tends to essentialise race, his characters also experience Asia as a place where their sense of identity does not sit comfortably within familiar racial/national boundaries. In fact, the familiar definition of what it means to be Australian is challenged.

Unfortunately, it seems that Koch wants to present an Asia that excludes or repels Anglo-Australian sympathy. In their antagonistic relationship to Asia, Anglo-Australians are therefore accorded an iconic heroic status. Koch finds it more difficult or convenient to append negative characteristics to his Asian-Australian Kwan. Yet Koch’s novel, read as a postcolonial text, does problematise the notion that whiteness or Western values are superior. In fact, the heroic aspects of whiteness are seen to be incompatible or impotent in the face of Asian (particularly Javanese) anti-colonialism. For the plot, Koch readily adapts Hindu-Javanese derived notions life as a shadow-play, where good and evil do battle and neither side wins. This suggests a readiness to expand or even hybridise the cultural field of the Australian novel into Asian-inspired territory.  In this sense, The Year of Living Dangerously is a dialogic novel.

Koch takes Asian settings that are extremely sensual, seductive and repelling – much is made of the heat and disease, poverty, despotic governments, and the violence. In line with a Western literary tradition that describes Asia in terms of a moral quagmire (see Christie 1980 & 1986, discussed below), involvement in Asia threatens the Western grasp of reason and sanity. But if Asia represents an incommensurable space of imaginary identity from which Western subjectivity differentiates itself, then it is the hybrid Eurasian who functions as a figure of desire and loathing that bridges this gap.

Koch’s bridge-person in The Year of Living Dangerously is a cameraman, Billy Kwan, a second-generation Chinese-Australian migrant. Sent on a journalistic assignment to Indonesia, he makes forays into the street-world of Jakarta and compiles dossiers on the other journalists, on Sukarno and his supporters. Like a double agent, Kwan’s loyalties are suspect while he moves in the grey area between East and West. He is an ambiguous cultural translator or third space negotiator, and the incomplete or split colonial subject. Koch seems to have designed Kwan to mirror Sukarno, a parodic post-colonial of a similarly small physique – size being an index of a generic Asian colonised condition. Kwan represents a double oddity: being a dwarf and half-Chinese, as the narrator states in the book’s very first paragraph, Kwan’s hybridity is already a sign of pathological difference.

Kwan’s split identity is always less than the whole represented by Hamilton, who expresses an ongoing ambivalence about the Asian-Australian who remains a stranger and a threat to the apparent solidarity of the Anglo journalists. Kwan displays the usual physical markers of stereotypical Asianness – almond eyes, stunted body, and black hair, but he is neither authentically Chinese nor Australian as defined by the “Aussie” journalists themselves. Kwan’s characterisation is invariably parodic and seemingly incoherent in relation to the Anglo-Australian characters (who are also cardboard cut-outs of the ocker type).  Kwan clearly illustrates the definition of the hybrid given by Nikos Papastergiadis: ‘The hybrid has no prior or ultimate identity, this makes it seem potentially treacherous and constantly unstable’(1999: 34).

How then does Kwan’s hybridity enable and/or disable cultural alliances with Indonesians and the Anglo-journalists? How powerfully does Kwan undermine stereotypes and binary oppositions between Us/Them, East/West, Asian/Australian? Kwan straddles cultural and political factions and forces, and is the privileged conduit between Sukarno, the PKI (the Indonesian Communist Party), and the journalists.  If Kwan’s ideological biases are not sufficiently sinister, he is the prime subject for incessant racialised commentary and surveillance. Cookie, the narrator, says of Kwan, ‘He looks Chinese.’ Wally, a twenty-stone larrikin symbol of the average Aussie, replies: ‘That’s his trouble. He’s not sure whether he is or not’ (4). The mention of ambiguity is important, for Kwan is not allowed to know himself whole as a Western subject might, for he is both inside and outside Western certainties. He is strikingly cognizant of his own hybridity, insofar as it marks his dysfunctional identification with other Chinese-Indonesians, ‘they find it hard to know what I am, exactly’; and later, speaking to Hamilton ‘I don’t speak Chinese…not a bloody word.’ Later, ‘I’m unable to be Australian because of my Chineseness’ (83). The text’s forensic obsession with Kwan’s race echoes the language of morphology police use to refer to the ethnic features of suspects. Kwan’s features are constantly measured against cultural signs of his Western upbringing.

At other moments, Kwan disavows the Asian part of his ethnicity and advocates assimilation. He makes the point that identity cannot go back to stigmatised ethnic formulations. When Hamilton insists on the value of Chinese culture Kwan downplays his ancestry: ‘Ah look, old man, you are being a bit superficial aren’t you. Only my father speaks Chinese, and he came to Australia as a boy. I don’t speak it at all. How do I manage to belong to a culture I never grew up in?’ (84). Here Kwan approves of his assimilation, and the message could be summarised as: “I might look Chinese but actually I am an assimilated Asian-Australian.” The novel’s narrator Cookie re-enforces this attempt to overcome his aversion for seeing likeness between Asians and Europeans and notices in Kwan and Hamilton ‘some elusive physical likeness between this utterly unlike pair’. Unable to dismiss this as a fantasy Cookie notices they have the same ‘pale pea-green eyes’ (10). Kwan also calls Hamilton a hybrid, because he was born in England but grew up in Singapore (10).

One could argue that Kwan’s migrant history is made mythical and indeterminately Asian so that Hamilton can seem the more iconic and authentically Australian. Hamilton’s identity is modelled on Koch’s model of the Australian whose sense of national identity is dominated by the ambivalent appreciation of the centrality of British upper class culture: ‘We who lived [in Tasmania] between the thirties and the 50s were living in the half-light of a dying British Empire; but we only slowly came to realise it. The culture based in London was the imaginary pole star of the world’ (Koch 1987: 29).

Critic Helen Tiffin sees this Kwan-Hamilton pairing as a master trope for an Australian postcolonial (and multicultural) ‘psyche’: while Hamilton experiences in Asia an anti-British sense of identity (Tiffin 1982: 332), Kwan represents the product of Commonwealth histories of migration. Together, they serve as a paradigm for a multicultural Australian identity. Tiffin reads the novel as a text that promotes hybridity as the inevitable result of the loss of white hegemony in South East Asia. Certainly Koch intended his novel to be a critique of the dying colonial world associated with the tail-end of the British colonial presence in Asia: ‘Kwan, the divided Chinese-Australian, and Guy Hamilton, the English-Australian, are two aspects of the one…both of them products of a dying colonial world’ (Tiffin 1982: 332 – 3). Kwan’s postcoloniality serves Koch’s pro-Anglo-Irish argument that cosmopolitan liberals like Kwan represent a ‘dying colonial world’ typified by a stereotyped Colonel Blimp so despised by down-to-earth Australian journalists: postcolonial products of British elitist education policies in places like Singapore or Hong Kong are anathema to Koch’s picture of the “Real Australian”, and Kwan possesses this wrong kind of residual British colonialism:

But who did Billy wish to be? Perhaps with his archaic slang and Public School accent, his ‘old ma-an’ drawled in mockery (of himself or of us?) he played an upper-middle-class Australian or Englishman of the pre-war era. Yet sometimes he played a special role of an Asian: he was to go through Confucian Chinese and Japanese Zen phrases. It was as though, since his race was double and his status ambiguous, he had decided to multiply the ambiguity indefinitely. (68)

I argue however that a theoretical attempt to twin Kwan and Hamilton appropriates Kwan’s hybridity into an over-idealistic reading of the novel as a precursor or standard for descriptions of Australia’s multiculturalism, in which real cultural differences are watered down. After all, there is nothing much culturally Chinese about Kwan. He represents the loss of many defining features of Chineseness – the ability to speak Chinese, ancestral and diasporic links to China, and most importantly, a self-defining impulse. Kwan may be your “Claytons Chinese”, but I would also argue that Hamilton and Kwan never shared parity, and Kwan is always compared unfavourably to Hamilton who is the privileged Australian standard for Australianness. The novel deliberately exploits the ambiguity of Kwan’s hybridity so that, at certain places in the narrative, Kwan functions as a split or double consciousness and the emblem of a syncretic condition of damaged bi-culturality, which are disconcerting to the Aussie journalists. At other times, the novel insists that Kwan’s difference is not threatening. In other words, Kwan is the ambiguous and weak carrier of multicultural pluralism who can never be “one of us”.

Hamilton notices Kwan’s accent is more English and therefore alien in some way. Kwan’s upbringing in Australia suggests that despite his desire to be Western, his identity is always racially marked by his Chinese migrant background. He is a child of a gift shop owner in Sydney’s Chinatown. He becomes a university history teacher but cannot get a permanent position, and this may or may not be due to the racism of the university – Koch leaves it to readers to decide. Kwan’s misgivings about his own suffering are muted, as if he were too willing to avoid the subject or to dismiss it as somehow trivial, or that the issue is no longer very relevant: ‘It’s difficult to break out of the restaurant and fruit shop business if you are an Australian Chinese. Or it was when I was young’ (18 –19). While this comment reveals Australian anti-Chinese prejudices, it also reinforces a stereotype of the Australian Chinese career path.

When Kwan applies for a position as a secondary school teacher, they tell him that his appearance is against him. While this appears to critique racism, Kwan’s own interpretation of this setback uses racist language: Kwan describes this event as ‘a step forward in the education of a young Chinaman’. While the text relates Kwan’s history as an obvious attack on his pride, Kwan resorts to victim terminology. Kwan’s experience of racism is an unhealed wound: ‘The delicacy in his flat voice as he pronounced the word ‘Chinaman’ was extreme: it was as though he pulled back a flap of skin to show Hamilton a wound’ (19). While racism is a hurtful experience for many Asian migrants in Australia, the text retreats to an inane forgetfulness of racism when Kwan speaks cheerfully of his ‘love of History’ and he is described as having a ‘frog-like smile’ (19).

Kwan’s complicity with Sukarnoism and all forms of totalitarianism and anti-Western xenophobia is implausible. Awkward and contradictory as it is, Koch also attempts to reconcile Kwan’s politics with the need to ally him with the anti-Sukarno white journalists. In Jakarta, where whiteness is equated with Western Imperialism, Kwan’s fractional Chineseness allows the Western journalists to access the other side of politics; but Kwan is again associated with Koch’s ideological bete noir: Maoist communism, secrecy, and anti-Westernism of Sukarno’s nationalist agenda. Kwan’s own complicity with race-based Sukarnoism is contrasted to the superficial racial tolerance of the journalists. They would never exclude Kwan on account of his Chineseness, but they nevertheless categorise him in racist language: ‘no one wanted to dismiss a dwarfish half-caste Chinese in our age of conformist tolerance, the way he would force his way in, with his brash frog-like smile, and then tell stories in the Wayang later of how far he had tested that tolerance with his eccentricities’ (67). Kwan, insincerely “true-blue”, ‘exhibited a worrying radicalism; while his way of tormenting unctuous radicals was to strike the attitudes of a racist!’ (67). For the Australian journalists, Kwan’s mimicry or anti-white racism was a joke; but the joke becomes serious when they discover that Kwan really is a PKI sympathiser. In other words, Kwan’s Asian sympathies come at the expense of his relations with the Australians, and his hybridity cannot escape the journalists’ charge of racism.

If Kwan is a complex subject comprised of contradictions, Koch’s depiction of Sukarno’s Indonesia is a reductive representation in which liberalism and enlightened humanity appear to have vanished. Nowhere in the novel is there a portrayal of a reasonable Indonesian, a “good” PKI operative or a pro-European. The novel suggests that Kwan’s access to Sukarno supporters is somehow only possible if one is Asian.  Asians let other Asians into their circle, so the logic goes, because they are Asians. Australians, being more tolerant and colour blind than Asians, let everyone in, despite their race, which is made a joke. Kwan’s assimilated nature (his education and skills, his closeness to Westerners) is therefore exemplary of Australian openness, while his Asianness is the dark side of his hybridity.

Consequent to the discovery of his spying activities, Billy is exiled from the Wayang Bar. He then goes to his rather melodramatic death at the hand of Sukarno’s goons. This exile from the guild of journalists is an event Cookie laments as a mistake, ‘the only community to which he had ever really belonged’ (252), and I can only read this as a comment laden with irony. As the text increasingly excludes Kwan from parity with his Western peers, his death allows a sentimental resurrection that pulls Kwan back as a spirit or memory bleached of complications (252). What the text wishes to memorialise in a belated way are only those parts of Kwan that are useful to his service to the Australian cult of mateship: like Man Friday, Kwan ‘could have continued in Hamilton’s service, faithful as Hamilton’s other self; the auditor of his conscience’ (252). Without the guarantee of white patronage, Kwan is ultimately a subaltern, meaningless and incomplete, and self destructive; Kwan represents conscience and idealism, but no power.

While it appeals to an Australian sense of egalitarianism to establish similarities between ethnically diverse characters, it is only by distinguishing the differences between Kwan and Hamilton that a more nuanced picture of their divergent hybridities emerges, and in my view a more plausible picture of postcolonial British-Australian attitudes to Southeast Asians.  As I have argued, Kwan’s sense of alienation is greater than Hamilton’s, due to uncertainty that exists when trying to fit Asian-Australians into an Anglo-Celtic Australia. Kwan becomes a metonymic representation of the insecure Australian sojourner living on the edge of Asia, wanting to be part of the action, but only vaguely informed about events in Asia. Kwan’s failure to be accepted as a “mate” earns him the charge of disloyalty and lack of patriotism. On the other hand, Kwan does not belong to the other side either: while Kwan’s experience of social marginalisation as a Chinese in Australia gives him some sensitivity to the plight of the poor in Jakarta’s slums, he remains paternalistic and dominant rather than equal to them.

Kwan’s mode of hybridity is clearly a kind of co-opted Asianness that suits Koch’s ideological suspicions of the Left. The moral lesson of the Year of Living Dangerously is that a good Australian is no communist. Kwan’s preparedness to commit himself with sympathy and action to people in Asia leads him to suffer a greater burden than those other characters who enjoy a more stable identity (Koh Tai Ann 1993: 31). The fate of Kwan suggests that in the metaphorical logic of the fable, racial and physical abnormality and ugliness is an index of bad karma.

If Hamilton represents the last vestiges of a colonial discourse attempting to revalidate its place in Asia, then Kwan represents what Bhabha identifies as

the uncanny forces of race, sexuality, violence, cultural and even climactic differences which emerge in the colonial discourse as the mixed and split texts of hybridity…the ambivalent ‘turn’ of the discriminated subject into the terrifying, exorbitant object of paranoid classification – a disturbing questioning of the images and presences of authority’. (Bhabha 1994: 113)

The surging angry crowd is symbolic quagmire that engulfs Hamilton and Kwan as they escape in a commandeered car. Western involvement in this Indonesia, therefore, cannot be detached or operate at a safe distance. No reasoned action is possible in this space of political hysteria.   Here again, in contrast to the unruly Indonesians, Kwan is co-opted by Hamilton as his ally in the defence of Western enlightenment. Their access to the privileges of a colonial expatriate community does not confer immunity from the threat of heterogeneous sites of power. While Kwan infiltrates the enemy, he becomes the enemy. Hamilton on the other hand typifies reason and tolerance in the midst of Indonesian insanity and chaos. Kwan’s murder, at the hands of Sukarno’s goons, confirms Kwan’s tragic stature.

Asia and the West’s moral decay: pourissement

In the novels of D’Alpuget and Koch, the themes, characters, and plots are strikingly similar to those of earlier French and British novels set in Indo-China, for example, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955).  At stake are the loss of Western faith in rationality and innocence, and the death of white power in Indo-China itself. In the colonial Indo-China literature of Jean Hougron, Clive Christie notes that:

By breaking the rules of sexual relationships between conquering and conquered in colonial society, the white man not only invited contempt in a personal sense, but also destroyed the fragile structure of prestige that alone sustained France’s colonial position. (Christie 1986: 8 – 9)

The Asian quagmire was a key trope in British and French stories of pourissement in which the excessive emotional attachment of white men to colonised subjects and the crossing of racial lines would lead inexorably to the dissolution of Western logic, control and prestige. The further Europeans stepped into the quagmire, the greater effort needed to morally and politically justify their involvement (Christie 1980). Kwan is perhaps the first Chinese-Australian character to exemplify the Australian experience of pourissement. Kwan’s empathy for Asians is made to seem a factor that accelerates such moral deterioration. His Asianness puts him at the flawed outer limit of the civilisation civilisatrice.

If hybrid identities do reveal themselves as effects of deep colonial suspicion of the non-Anglo other in these texts, they are very much shadowy projections of the Anglo-Celtic Australian settler’s long standing fear of castration at the hands of oversexed Asian woman, the anti-colonial leader stereotyped as a despot, the inscrutable female revolutionary and potential assassin. Such a discourse constructs what Bhabha identifies as

the paranoid threat from the hybrid [which] is finally uncontainable because it breaks down the symmetry and duality of self/other, inside/outside. In the productivity of power, the boundaries of authority – its reality effects – are always besieged by ‘the other scene’ of fixations and phantoms’. (Bhabha 1994: 116)

Koh Tai Ann rightly doubts ‘whether the Australian imagination can do without Asia as the exotic other, and whether Australians can become Eurasian’ (1993: 31).  Subsequent chapters will investigate further examples of the suffering border-crosser whose cultural awkwardness is marked in a variety of ways. Hybrid characters suffer more greatly than other identities in these novels, and in the case of Kwan and Minou, hybridity is the sign of an alienated and split identity that carries the stigma of inauthenticity and non-belonging; these are made to seem the prime causes of their troublesome identity.

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