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Troubling American Women - Narratives of Gender and Nation in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am

Troubling American Women - Narratives of Gender and Nation in Hong Kong
by Stacilee Ford
HKU Press

Troubling American Women is a well-chosen title for this interesting and enjoyable book on the American women who have come to Hong Kong since the early 1800s: it plays with the stereotype of these women as trouble-makers - because of their outspoken views, provocative and sometimes insensitive questions, and 'star-spangled sense of entitlement', as the author puts it.

Using primary texts, including memoirs, films, newspaper columns and novels, by several American women, Stacilee Ford analyses her subjects' attitudes to gender and nationality, as well as a variety of interlinked themes such as colonialism, being foreign, and a woman's role in work.

She situates each of her case studies - from a 19-year-old missionary to a host of a television talk show on sex - in their specific historical period, and presents them in chronological order, allowing the reader to get a strong sense of how perceptions have changed.

Ford identifies a common thread - what she terms the didactic style or 'pedagogical impulse': the practice of taking a teaching tone with the 'foreign other'. This often stems from what Ford calls American exceptionalism - 'the idea that there was/is something unique, special, or even divinely sanctioned about the origin and history of the US'. Ford, an American who has lived in Hong Kong for almost 20 years, does a good job of supporting her argument through evidence in her selected narratives.

She also identifies occasions when her subjects reject stereotyped understandings of nation and reconfigure their identities according to new affiliations: taking the teaching tone not with the foreign other, but with folks 'back home' or Americans new to Hong Kong who need a little mentoring.

Ford divides her book into four chapters covering the 19th century, the second world war, the post-war and cold war interval, and the decades before the handover and just after it. Chapter 1 includes the narratives of young Harriett Low, member of a merchant family in Macau, Henrietta Shuck, a Protestant missionary in Hong Kong, and a number of American prostitutes working across Asia in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the second chapter, Ford includes journalists Emily Hahn and Gwen Dew, and educator Eleanor Thom, while in Chapter 3, she focuses on the American Women's Association and the autobiographical novel The Spring Wind by Gladis DePree, as well as the Cathay Studio films starring Grace Chang.

In the final chapter, Ford includes work by writer and missionary Ruth Epp and South China Morning Post columnist, actor and radio show host Teresa Norton, as well as the 1999 film The Mistress by director and talk show host Crystal Kwok.

While the 19th-century women show a tendency to be defensive of their American identity, a century later, with US influence in Asia growing and the trauma of war unfolding, the subjects define their identities in the wake of receding British power and threat of Japanese rule. By the post-war period narratives reveal the increasing Americanisation of Hong Kong in terms of consumer goods and popular culture.

Although at heart a scholarly book, Ford's tone and choice of primary texts makes the material accessible to non-academic readers. It deserves to be read by a wider audience than its niche subject matter will probably attract.

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