Reimagining the American Pacific: From South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond / Edition 1

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In this compelling critique Rob Wilson explores the creation of the “Pacific Rim” in the American imagination and how the concept has been variously adapted and resisted in Hawai‘i, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and Australia. Reimagining the American Pacific ranges from the nineteenth century to the present and draws on theories of postmodernism, transnationality, and post-Marxist geography to contribute to the ongoing discussion of what constitutes “global” and “local.”
Wilson begins by tracing the arrival of American commerce and culture in the Pacific through missionary and imperial forces in the nineteenth century and the parallel development of Asia/Pacific as an idea. Using an impressive range of texts—from works by Herman Melville, James Michener, Maori and Western Samoan novelists, and Bamboo Ridge poets to Baywatch, films and musicals such as South Pacific and Blue Hawaii, and native Hawaiian shark god poetry—Wilson illustrates what it means for a space to be “regionalized.” Claiming that such places become more open to transnational flows of information, labor, finance, media, and global commodities, he explains how they then become isolated, their borders simultaneously crossed and fixed. In the case of Hawai’i, Wilson argues that culturally innovative, risky forms of symbol making and a broader—more global—vision of local plight are needed to counterbalance the racism and increasing imbalance of cultural capital and goods in the emerging postplantation and tourist-centered economy.
Reimagining the American Pacific leaves the reader with a new understanding of the complex interactions of global and local economies and cultures in a region that, since the 1970s, has been a leading trading partner of the United States. It is an engaging and provocative contribution to the fields of Asian and American studies, as well as those of cultural studies and theory, literary criticism, and popular culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“At ease with the interface of the local and global, Rob Wilson flies in and out of Asia and the Pacific. As he rediscovers and redefines the continent, islands and waters, he constantly rereads America. Such a geographic venture is also an exercise in de-disciplining. Circulating freely among literature, culture, economics, politics, history, and media, Wilson’s imagination and judgment are shrewd, sardonic, zestful, zany, and delightful. Reimagining the American Pacific is a thoroughly rewarding book.”—Masao Miyoshi, University of California, San Diego

“Lyrical and disruptive, Wilson's book masterfully dismantles multiple and contradictory imaginings of "the Pacific" and recovers the psychic longings, material histories, and politics that have variously produced the modern "Asia Pacific." This book wrenches American studies out of any lingering continent-bound complacency, gives a much needed broader scope to Asian American studies, and discloses crucial blind-spots in Asian area studies. Highly recommended for scholars in all these areas, as well as cultural studies in general.”—David Palumbo-Liu, author of Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822325239
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Rob Wilson is Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of numerous books including American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre and several volumes of poetry, and coeditor of Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary and of Asia/Pacific as Space of Cultural Production, both published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Reimagining the American Pacific

From South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond

By Rob Wilson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8097-9


Imagining "Asia-Pacific" Today: Forgetting Colonialisms in the Magical Waters of the Pacific

South Seas, turquoise green skies, the archways of a bazaar, the mysterious house—all of this Oriental scenery surrenders to the fairy-tale wish [for some imagined Utopia] with great affinity and absorbs it.... the land of wishes from the [European] medieval South Seas, so to speak, has remained. —Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature

James Clavell, who just died, made the Far East a less mysterious place. —National Public Radio reporter, on the death of Shogun's author, 6 September 1994


Nobody quite knows what "Asia-Pacific" means these days in terms of its specific ingredients or future directions, but one thing is clear: many forces are trying to court and construct it into an identity as metageographical "region." To cite one local example, the Democratic governor of Hawai'i, Benjamin Cayetano, in May 1997 led a delegation of businesspeople, realtors, and Pacific educators on a ten-day trip to Taiwan to promote business and investment opportunities in Hawai'i. As self-appointed base of the Asia-Pacific Regional Operations Center (APROC), Taiwan seemed a very likely place to make such a pitch as a site that is competing with Hong Kong and Singapore to become "the space of [transnational] flows" across the Pacific. Going beyond his upbeat pro-tourism rationale, Cayetano sought to inform Taiwan's people about Hawai'i's Immigrant Investor Program, which has become one of the most popular programs for immigrant investors seeking permanent residency in the United States. "This program gives immigrant investors the opportunity to stay in the U.S. with an investment of one million dollars," Cayetano boasted, adding that it has already been implemented throughout the United States. Cayetano's mission is interested in luring not just Taiwanese investment from the Pacific Rim; he has already led similar trips to the Philippines, Korea, Japan, and China. (Canada and Australia are also making money-for-passport offers and, at the same time, trying to fight off backlashes of "white only" nationalism and the reactive rise of Hansonism.) The call to Asia these days is not so much to the "boat people" but to the "yacht people" of some vast and, at times, threatening—(see below) "Greater China."

As a U.S. literary scholar, I could only recall the gloomier "Asia-Pacific" region portrayed in Maxine Hong Kingston's memoirs of the modern Chinese diaspora, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976) and China Men (1980): generations of uprooted stowaways contracted to years of labor in Cuba, New York, Bali, and Hawai'i; plantation workers, railroad men, day laborers working long hours in restaurants, clothing factories, and laundries, struggling for livelihood while surviving on mythic self-constructions as they confront social exclusion among the taunting "ghosts" of Gold Mountain. Or recall as well Joy Kogawa's portrait of generations of Japanese Canadians in Obasan (1981), three generations unjustly uprooted from the Northern Pacific Coast region and forced to relocate several times in remote areas of Canada as wartime Yellow Peril discourse on the coast (as in California) reached phobic extremes: their property confiscated, citizenship questioned, families broken, long ties to the land, language, and nation denied. Kingston, interviewed in Taiwan in 1995 in her own uncanny words, "a country made up of exiles, misfits, and outsiders" and, "like America, a country where immigrants have taken over the land and dominate the indigenous, primal people"—revealed the traumatic nature of her own family's U.S. immigrant experience and the necessity to distort it by means of mythic imagination: "Now that my father has died, I can tell you that he actually came to the U.S. as a stowaway on a ship from Cuba, and he made the journey not once but three times. He was caught twice by immigration police and deported twice. I had to tell many legal and magical versions of my father's entry in case immigration authorities read my book and arrest and deport him again, and my mother too."

Kingston's memorable portrait of such a traumatized Chinese immigrant is that of her dreamy middle-class aunt, Moon Orchid, who comes from Hong Kong to the United States in the 1970s looking to meet her by-now-diasporic family and connect with her doctor husband, who has illegally taken a second wife in Los Angeles and does not want her to interfere with his prosperous medical practice or new family. To quote Woman Warrior: "Brave Orchid [Kingston's quite worldly mother] looked at this delicate sister. She had long fingers and thin, soft hands. And she had a high-class city accent from living in Hong Kong. Not a trace of village accent remained; she had been away from the [Sun Woi, Canton] village for that long. Brave Orchid would not relent; her dainty sister would have to toughen up. 'Immigrants also work in the canneries, where it's so noisy it doesn't matter if they speak Chinese or what. The easiest way to find a job, though, is to work in Chinatown. You get twenty-five cents an hour and all your meals if you're working in a restaurant.'" Moon Orchid cannot adjust and slowly goes crazy imagining that Mexicans, Filipinos, and Washington, D.C. "ghosts" are coming to take her family and turn them into ashes (156-60), multicultural immigrants and white immigration officials merging into one paranoid vision of North America as a land of symbolic disintegration, harm, language loss, death. For Kingston's aunt, crossing Asia-Pacific had become a space of fractures, disjuncture, traumas, confusion, and disappointments; this is quite another vision of exchanging money and labor for the passport to the "Gold Mountain" the United States is supposed (by diasporic Chinese) to stand for.

What is this "Asia-Pacific" region anyway, who gets to define it, in what language games, and toward what ends? In effect, here I will be worrying into discourse what it now means to regionalize a space: that is to say, to make it more porous to the cross-border flows of information, labor, finance, media images, and global commodities; to shrink the distances of space, culture, and time; and to cross and fuse the older national borders of the dirty, yet somehow vast and magical Pacific. To use Lawson Fusao Inada's title phrase from his parodic mock-tourist poem "Shrinking the Pacific," what does it mean to shrink the Pacific, that is, to compress and fuse (displace, confuse, disorient) these various and diverse Asian/Pacific cultures and peoples into an imagined single or unified zone of "space-time compression"?

Such questions of construction and purpose in Asia and the Pacific region have taken on greater and boom-and-doom urgency since the currency and "asset bubble" crisis of 1997 and 1998 has now caused many U.S.-based economists and their journalist pundit allies to heap recriminations on the so-called Asian way of capitalist expansion and, thus, to question the whole process of state-driven liberalization regimes that had seemingly failed to protect the region and its nation-state players (especially Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand) from high volatility and the global dynamics of boom-and-bust investment. Even advocates of trans-nationalization and the patchwork liberalized economies in the Asia-Pacific region have recognized "the perils of globalization for small open economies" in the wake of the Asian currency (called in the U.S. press, in a metaphor laden with yellow-perilous implications, "the Asian flu") since the plundering and disorienting summer of 1997. To be on the (uneven) road toward transnational globalization still remains a perilous task for the makers of materials, forms, and outlets affiliated to national culture.

To mean anything trenchant, these days "Asia-Pacific" has to be situated and unpacked from within distinct cultural-political trajectories to disclose what this signifier stands for in its present ambivalent implications. Aiming to provide a U.S.-situated national and overtly politicized notion of "imagining" as an act of wary social fantasy, I want to play the dominant APEC-like (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) constructions of Asia-Pacific as region of imagined capitalist coprosperity and market-driven bliss, as measured against the region as it is now being imagined in literary and cultural works by American, and Asian American, novelists (and, in other chapters, poets) that would challenge these neoliberal formations and suggest a different cultural-political way of reading "Asia-Pacific" as a space of identity construction. Doing cultural studies against the grain, as it were, inside APEC.

More specifically, I want to examine and provide a critical genealogy for the term "Asia-Pacific" as a cultural-ideological signifier, especially as this sign/banner has been constructed from a distinct U.S. trajectory, looking into its power-laden connotations as the U.S. Pacific goes on emerging from more overtly "orientalist" images of vast Asian markets and Yellow Peril threats, through the phobic sublimity of Melville's whale and Jack London's social Darwinist slime; down into the neofrontier of global cyberspace, where a tousle-haired Seattle multibillionaire, Bill Gates of Microsoft, would welcome the global village with open smiles and innocent American arms to what he rather naively enthuses is the system of "friction-free capitalism" taking place these days in what he calls (recalling the Gold Rush fury of mines and rails that built up California in 1849) "the Internet Goldrush." As a point of contrast, I later evoke the way that a lesser and ever mobile regional power, Taiwan, is thickening this "Asia-Pacific" cultural-political imaginary into its own loaded signifier of promises, goals, and dreams inside the global/local city of Taipei, where capitalism is not so unregulated and not by any means friction-free.

The commonplace and taken-for-granted assumption of "region" implied by a signifying category like "Asia-Pacific" entails an act of social imagining that has had to be shaped into coherence and consensus in ways that could call attention to the power politics of such unstable representations. To be sure, the everyday imagining of "Asia-Pacific" reeks of the contemporary (transnational/postcolonial) situation we are living through here and there on the Pacific Rim and Basin, so to speak, and can barely conceal the uncanny traumas and social contradictions that haunt its very formation. All but replacing warier cold war visions of the "Pacific Rim" as the preferred global imaginary in the discourse of transnationaliz-ing and denationalizing corporate Americans, that is to say, "Asia-Pacific" has become a discourse of liberal sublimation that has surfaced, in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, to trumpet neoliberal market forces and regimes and thereby to forget cold war traumas and get beyond the stark geopolitics of imperialism and colonialism that had marked the region's long history.

"Asia-Pacific," I want to say, is a utopic discourse of the liberal market, an emerging signifier of transnational aspirations for some higher, supranational unity in which global/local will meet in some kind of win-win situation and the opened market will absorb culture and politics into its borderless affirmative flow. But, instead, the postwar Asia-Pacific region is still haunted by the "race hates" and "race wars" that deformed the prior vision of inter-Asia as a region of mutual coprosperity and coexistence just half a century ago, and we need to guard against the emergence of "provocative racial and martial idioms" in a new, transnational key. Northern and Southern tensions, as well as lurking racialized binaries of residual orientalist frameworks, haunt the region and continue to return in uncanny ways on the U.S. home fronts.

As interlocked global players in the region, at least since the late 1970s if not throughout the cold war era of East/West demonization and in relation to the Japanese entanglement in imperial expansion during the 1890s, the United States and Taiwan have been caught up in the (neo-liberal or "postnational") Asia-Pacific restructuring game. Still, who best shapes and defines this "Asia-Pacific" region these days, and toward what ends? What does this discursive fusion of region into a higher unity imply for the diverse cultures, spaces, and "identity politics" of this region? Does "Asia-Pacific" mean anything more than the utopic dream of a "free market," that is, the post-cold war trope of First World policy planners and market strategists, all doors flung open to the free flow of the commodity form? In short, can this signifier of "Asia-Pacific" be wrested away from the discourse of APEC (for more on this, see below) to serve other functions and to open different cultural and critical possibilities? My own reading of Asia/Pacific will here be doubled, situated yet ambivalent, skeptical and utopic by turns, miming the language of imperial expansion and the capitalist state but turned back on itself. For, as I now see it, "Asia/Pacific" is not just an ideologically recuperated term, but represents those situated aspirations and shared promises of mixture and contradiction worth exploring as these go on clamoring into (uneven) existence.


By imagining Asia-Pacific as region, I am working with the idea that imagining is not just an act of liberal consensus, cosmopolitan expression, or the shapely postcolonial construction of transnational "hybridity" discourse. In the wake of anticolonialist cultural critics of mongrel "contact zones" such as Edward Said (Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism) and Mary Louise Pratt (Imperial Eyes) and creative cultural authors of "minority literature" inside English (such as the abovementioned Kingston and Kogawa, the critically diasporic Japanese Brazilian postmodern novelist Karen Tei Yamashita, and the transpacific revolutionary Korean Pacific novelist from Hawai'i, Gary Pak), the verb "imagining" means articulating a situated and contested social fantasy. Imagining Asia-Pacific thus involves ongoing transformations in the language and space of identity by creating affiliated representations of power, location, and subject, in effect, expressing the will to achieve new suturings of (national) wholeness within "the ideological imaginary" of a given culture. In our era of transnational and postcolonial conjunction, that is, the very act of imagining (place, nation, region, globe) is constrained by discourse and contorted by geopolitical struggles for power, status, recognition, and control. What cannot be imagined, as Wittgenstein once urged, cannot even be discussed, or in my terms, worried ("reimagined") into the language of political negotiation and affiliated spaces of social embodiment.

The "sublime object of ideology," as Slavoj Zizek fetchingly formulates it (in theorizing from a Lacanian-Marxist perspective the imagining of "sublime objects of desire" as diverse as the Titanic, capital, the dead body of Stalin, and the cold war psychodramas of Alfred Hitchcock), is haunted by lack and riddled with traumas of incompletion and pained social struggle, antagonisms of class, gender, and nation in the (ail-too-"phallic") language of imagining: "Ideology is not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality; in its basic dimension it is a [social] fantasy-construction which serves as a support for our 'reality' itself: an illusion which structures our effective, real social relations and thereby masks some insupportable, real, impossible kernel." Imagining is thus an act of semi-joyous signifying that both props up ("structures") and distorts ("masks") the materials of social reality, and works (through the production of some symbolic "excess" to cover up the holes) to conceal and reveal (via sublimation, displacement, and other defenses) those social traumas and antagonisms haunting its very creation. (Uneven and unjust, the memory of immigration and war is just such a traumatic Asian-Pacific kernel being worked through in Asian American fiction as in other genres of cultural criticism.)


Excerpted from Reimagining the American Pacific by Rob Wilson. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Searching for "the local": Hawai'i as Miss Universe?
Introduction: "How Did You Find America?": On Becoming Asia/Pacific 1
1 Imaging "Asia-Pacific" Today: Forgetting Colonialisms in the Magical Waters of the Pacific 25
2 American Trajectories into Hawai'i and the Pacific: Imperial Mappings, Postcolonial Contestations 57
3 Megatrends and Micropolitics in the American Pacific: Tracing Some "Local Motions" from Mark Twain to Bamboo Ridge 89
4 Blue Hawai'i: Bamboo Ridge as "Critical Regionalism" 125
5 Bloody Mary Meets Lois-Ann Yamanaka: Imagining Hawaiian Locality, from South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond 163
6 Shark God on Trial: Invoking Chief Ka-lani-o'pu'u in the Local/Indigenous/American Struggle for Place 191
7 Good-Bye Paradise: Theorizing Place, Poetics, and Cultural Production in the American Pacific 215
8 Becoming Global and Local in the U.S. Transnational Imaginary of the Pacific 245
9 Postmodern X: Honolulu Traces 269
Coda: Part Italian, Part Many Things Else: Creating "Asia/Pacific" along a Honolulu-Taipei Line of Flight 273
Index 285
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