Technology and (Chinese) ethnicity

Darrell William DAVIS

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It is striking how Chinatown pervades imagining of the future. Asia-Pacific figurations, notably expatriate Chinese enclaves, are pronounced in popular images of urban settings, especially when dystopic. Children of Men (2006) renders a future London choked with snarling rickshaws, immigrants, traffic jams, and insurgents. This is a world of overcrowding, decay, and abrupt violence. Illegal immigrants are called " fugees" (refugees), though faces onscreen are so often Asian, that we might hear " Fuji," the mountain sacred to the Japanese. A wellspring of Asian-inflected futurism is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), adapted from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and endlessly pilfered. " Since Blade Runner's release, its techno-noir has been replayed in countless films, computer games, novels and other cultural objects," writes Lev Manovich.1 Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott, J. G. Ballard, William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, The Matrix films, Otomo Katsuhiro (Akira), Iwai Shunji (Swallowtail; All About Lily Chou Chou), and Oshii Mamoru (Ghost in the Shell) are examples that conjure many myths of Chinatown. Tropes of inscrutability, superstition, enigmatic codes, and dissipation underwrite layers of condensed, collaged mediation. Imaginary Chinatown spaces are appropriated to model claustrophobic hyper-realities. This involves colonial thinking, with authorities trying to " manage" rising immigration from outside (yellow peril), as well as projections of " escape," dreams of settlement into future, final frontiers. How do these tropes carry fantasies of global migration, multiculturalism, high-density habitats and hives of displacement, alienation? Analysis of relevant texts would examine signage, Chinese ideograms, and perhaps their appropriation by such Western theorists as Sergei Eisenstein, Bertolt Brecht, and Roland Barthes.2 The niceties of guanxi, feng shui, histories of opium and vice trade, varieties of overseas tongs, triads, martial arts and benevolence associations, with their competing dialects, politics, cuisines, and patron saints - all constitute vivid microcosms of ethnic display and articulation. We could trace such elements within popular stories, comics, and films, circulating within Asia as well as the West. But rarely are these primary, a subject, rather than stock backgrounds through which jaded white heroes gather clues and chase villains. In the science fiction novel Snow Crash (1992), Neil Stephenson cheekily presents Hiro Protagonist, a half-Korean super-hacker with a gift for Japanese swordsmanship. This character, with teenage sidekick YT (" whitey" ), roams a world of ethnically organized " burbclaves," franchised gated communities, but spends most of his time manipulating information in the virtual Metaverse, an extrapolation of our Internet. Snow Crash is ingenious, vertiginous and wacky as Hollywood science fiction a la Brazil (1985), Max Headroom (1987), and The Fifth Element (1997). Still, why is this techno-Chinatown imagery so extraordinarily persistent? Verisimilitude, perhaps: highly condensed layering, the abrasive striations of economic and cultural congestion in many contemporary cities. This sedimenting process will continue and intensify, despite the rise of terror-related paranoia, xenophobia, and segregation. Asian diasporas' experience of settlement in often hostile surroundings lends compelling, persistent models of multicultural survival and secular co-existence. As signs of Asian mobility, migration, and habitation, fictional worlds still evoke the seedy, confined lanes of " Chinatown," signifying varieties of unbridled technological hypermodernity. Using two animated films, my essay offers reflections on these models and signs, and theorizes contemporary ethnicities related to Chinatown. It proceeds by means of information technology, links with folklore, and finally a figure of premodern automata in Asia, the " karakuri." All these help visualize ethnic relations in tandem with historical and technological movements. This is why my title is doubly marked: bracketing Chinese, acknowledging techno-ethnicities' contingency (alternatives, such as Jewish, Hispanic, or African American). Yet it also signals the strong pull of technologized East Asia. As noted in this volume's introduction, we find here forces that are alternately charismatic and repellent. Hollywood and pulp science fiction are not the only places where we find Chinatown. In Japanese anime, there are well-known cyberpunk stories such as Ghost in the Shell employing spirit imagery as premonition of future states. Oshii Mamoru's animated films Ghost in the Shell (1995) and sequel Innocence (2004) raise issues pertinent to my theme of technology and Chinese ethnicity. The first is the reversible interface of subject and mediatized surroundings; the second concerns re-mediation, or the relations between old and new media along the winding march of progress. In Oshii's animations, a post-photographic world is dress rehearsal for ethnic transmutations. Ethnicity, like gender, body, and space itself, is exchangeable, fundamentally refigured in new media forms. But these forms may be archaic. Chinatown feels familiar in these animated environments, yet it pushes toward defamiliarized, alien, life-like zones of informational identity. Prompted by Oshii's animation, we can rethink ethnicity as remediated or produced through technology, rather than reproduced from profilmic origins.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCinema at the City's Edge: Film and Urban Networks in East Asia
EditorsYomi Braester, James Tweedie
Place of PublicationHong Kong
PublisherHong Kong University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9789622099838
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010


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