Exotic Asia and images of the Philippines in the Singapore published novel, White Tiger

Do you also get curious whenever your country is mentioned in a foreign film or book? Of course, we’re interested in how ‘the others’ see us.

When I saw White Tiger on the shelves of Bookay Ukay, I thought it’s the famous 2008 award-winning Indian novel by Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger). It wasn’t. Published in 1992 in Singapore, it’s another novel of the same title, setting is Asia (Hong Kong in 1989), but the author is not Asian.

My pre-judgment is that, the novel is going to be an orientalist read. When you say something is orientalist, stereotypical images of East-West are perpetuated in a work of art, and usually, in this binary opposition, the East looks mystified, irrational, a reproduction and struggling copycat of the superior, developed West. Orientalism boxes all notions of “Asian” into one homogenous pre-determined identity. To say that one culture is weird or mystical may be orientalist because this image is viewed from the eyes of somebody who has set his own culture as the standard to which everything else is measured.

Is it racism? We could say that it’s a form of racism in literature.

So let’s see.

Hong Kong crime reporter, Nick Pinder, is the Times‘ star reporter who establishes a relationship with a serial killer who “executes” individuals with social and political crimes to humanity. This is instant fame for the hard-core journalist because he seems to be the official mouthpiece of the infamous killer dubbed the “White Tiger.” This of course put him in the cops’ bad books since he wouldn’t divulge the plans and hideout of the murderer, in the name of press freedom and vow to confidentiality of sources (in spite of being an obstruction to justice). Pinder sacrifices his career and romance just to interview and take photos of the criminal, who communicates with him through phone and recorded tapes. The ending has a rather interesting twist–reminiscent of Leonardo di Caprio’s Shutter Island (especially since the ending is in a lighthouse)the reporter is kind of schizo. He’s the killer himself.

The narrative goes around the streets of Hong Kong, day and night, so readers may sometimes feel like touring HK in ’89, when progress is not as booming as nowadays–when HK is not yet wealthier than Singapore. But the places in HK sounds like the roads and parks and buildings in SG like Robinson and MacDonnel Road, perhaps because both have been under the British rule and cultural influences. It’s interesting to read, too, the characters’ fear of the seemingly threatening 1997–when the United Kingdom hands over Hong Kong to China. One noticeable theme in the novel is departure, as refugees and expats leave HK one by one to escape the threat and dread of a communist regime, which by that time (late 80s) saw bloody revolutions and protest actions in China, especially in the infamous Tiannanmen Square.

The novel talks about a Hong Kong that doesn’t quite sound like the Hong Kong that we see in our friends’ Facebook photos full of Mickey Mouse and skyscrapers, but a Hong Kong with rats and dingy secret eateries and gangsta crimes and serial killings, but also with lots of expats that remind me of today’s Singapore, where there are so many Aussies, Brits, and other Europeans in top  positions or nice jobs and businesses. On a curious note in the novel, foreigners who work in Asia are simply in for a different, exotic adventure. But if an Asian travels to another country (in the novel and in reality) s/he is either a refugee or a maid. Which brings me to “Philippine citations.”

First time the Philippines was mentioned in White Tiger, is when one of the protagonists, Cradoc Bradshaw, was being described or introduced. The narrator says he owns a jeep that he bought from  Subic, Philippines, where he got the US junk cheap and overhauled it to be his manly ride in the streets of HK. That’s funny. At first I imagined this jeep:

Second and third time Philippine places were mentioned, errors were glaring. One is the “Batan [sic] death march” and the other is when some characters had a wonderful vacation in “Borocay.” It’s Boracay! Oh, and of course, whenever Filipinas are mentioned, they are maids. But what can we do, Filipina maids are around the world–real and literary. Even the abused, raped maid in the story was Filipina. Finally, the last appearance from the Philippines is a Filipino–this time, a politician (mayor of Manila) affiliated with HK’s influential heads who were portrayed as mere decorations.

Now, now. I’m interested to read a novel set in the Philippines, written by another white male in the 90s.

Honestly though, the novel is entertaining, I finished it last weekend for a few days because of the suspense and mystery of who’s the killer. Also, it’s the crazy world of journalism and expat life so I could relate.

Was it orientalist? I would like to think so, until Nick Pinder totally lost it and turned the story 360 degrees, showing how the Westerner who grew up in Asia was defeated mentally by the spirit of the time and the women walking away in sweet freedom.

[box] side note: I got curious about the author, Joseph “joe” yogerst, because I never heard of him. I think I saw his LinkedIn profile and goodness did I drool over his jobs in Conde Nast travel mag, Nat Geo, and other international publications. That explains the mastery in travelogue-ish descriptions.[/box]


book shots taken by my brother. thanks, dupi! (photo effects tweaked in photo manager)

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