Through the Lens of Chineseness: Diasporic Identity in The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993) and Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997)
Chineseness possesses no clear definition and is curiously varied from person to person. Yet, to explore the construct of ‘Chineseness’ is a way to better understand the experience of diasporic Chinese and their relationship to mainland China. Even with the inclusion of hyphenate identity, Chinese-identified groups are commonly forced to view themselves as either mainland Chinese or other (Taiwanese, Hong Kongese, American etc.). Culture plays a crucial part in shaping the ideals of those in the Chinese diaspora and yet there is no singular identity for Chinese-identified folks and in turn, no singular set of beliefs or values. According to Peter Feng, the process of destabilizing Chinese identity creates a space for subjectivity, so identity is constantly in flux. I seek to build an understanding of how this subjectivity manifests itself as Chineseness and how Chinese culture and values adapt and evolve once removed out of mainland China.
I aim to deconstruct and then reinterpret the concept of double-consciousness to establish a framework of Chinese diasporic identity. In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois introduced the construct of double-consciousness in his book, The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois explained the concept as “one ever feels his twoness; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” He was able to encapsulate this inner struggle of a “double life’ for those in the African diaspora navigating life in the United States of America. Although his reflections on the experience of African-Americans are designed for this particular group, DuBois created a fascinating approach to identity construction and provided the building blocks for other groups of diasporic people.
This paper will utilize Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) to address key questions of Chineseness for the Chinese diaspora. Their films manifest complex musings on Chinese identity from their personal connections to Chinese culture. Born in Taiwan, Lee creates films that generally depict children of Kuomintang (KMT) mainland Chinese who struggle with navigating between tradition and modernity. Wong Kar-wai’s family fled Shanghai for Hong Kong after the rise of the Communist Party. Wong’s films typically depict Chinese in Hong Kong who exhibit transient nature and lean toward non-attachment. Ang Lee and Wong Kar-wai embody the subjectivity of the diasporic Chinese experience and their films aid in redefining what Chineseness means.
The Wedding Banquet and Happy Together are key texts that elucidate the ways in which the values of Chinese culture come into conflict with the lives of their characters. Commonly known as the first gay film in contemporary Chinese cinema, The Wedding Banquet tackles the issue of upholding modern beliefs while maintaining traditional values. On the other hand, Happy Together is a ‘road movie’ set in Argentina where two Hong Kongese characters travel afar and slowly lose grasp over why they relocated in the first place. The further these characters disperse, the increasingly challenging task of navigating identity becomes.