Introduction, Culture of Balance and Balance of Cultures: A Gendered Approach to Cross-Cultural Adaptation Process in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet

Sinan AKILLI, M.A., Hacettepe University, Turkey.

[Note: In-text citations refer to the bibliography, which opens in a separate window.]

Timothy Mo was born in 1950 in Hong Kong as the son of an English mother and a Cantonese father. Until the age of ten he was raised and educated in Hong Kong, but he left for Britain in 1960. In Britain he attended Oxford University, where he studied history. After graduation, he worked as reviewer and part-time journalist for some political and sports journals in Britain. It is likely that his career in journalism has been influential in the writing of his early novels like The Monkey King (1978) and Sour Sweet (1982), in which his mastery of sheer realism is felt in every line.

Both his occupation and his cultural background create such realistic writing. The sense of duality that is invoked by the title of Sour Sweet, for instance, which reflects one of the themes in the novel, is also a reproduction of his own life experiences. Apart from the bicultural parentage that he has, which makes both the Chinese and the English cultures accessible for him, his experiences as an immigrant writer living in London has also been influential in shaping his writing career. Mo himself stated in a recent interview for The Guardian that "what [he] write[s] about is the clash of cultures" (Mo 2000: 1). Mo also states that although he has an English mother and he has been living in Britain since his early childhood, he "feel[s] so much more at home in an Asian street [where] people smile, everybody's about [his] size" (Mo 2000: 1). Hence, his biracial parentage and the socio-cultural environment of the country in which he lives, that is Britain, clashes with his ethnic affiliation and this clash and duality becomes a major theme in his works. Timothy Mo says "if I am with English people, I feel a little white man, while with my Chinese family I feel an Asian. But as a novelist the parts have combined" (Mo 2000: 1). Accordingly, two of his novels, namely The Monkey King and Sour Sweet, deal with the themes of reconciliation of dualistic cultural backgrounds and cultural adaptation in the socio-cultural contexts of Hong Kong and Britain.

In his other novels Mo is preoccupied with different aspects of Chinese history and culture. An Insular Possession (1987), for instance, is a re-writing in post-modern style of "the founding of British Hong Kong" (Ramraj 1991: 476). Victor J. Ramraj introduces the novel in terms of both its content and style and explains that

It has a historical theme -- the founding of British Hong Kong -- and focuses not so much on individuals as on historical forces and developments. Nevertheless, in its depiction of the encounter of the British and Chinese on the early nineteenth-century South China coast and in its attempt to integrate Western and Chinese conceptions of the novel form, the work evinces Mo's abiding interest in the interaction of cultures. (1991: 476)

Then, An Insular Possession may also be considered as a shift from the traditional narrative form and realistic style that govern his first two novels. It should be emphasised, however, that various forms of cultural interaction constitute the main theme of his writing, no matter in which context and in which style. In keeping with this, in The Redundancy of Courage (1991), Mo is preoccupied with Chinese culture and identity again, but this time in a context that is neither Chinese nor British. Commenting on the major themes of Timothy Mo's novels, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim explains that

The Redundancy of Courage (1991) treats the Chinese diasporic subject in a different political world...The narrator-protagonist, Adolph Ng, is a citizen of Danu, a state which is a thinly disguised version of Portuguese Timor. Adolph is self-consciously reflexive of his multiple identities...he possesses a recognizable core of psychological features, among them worldly intelligence, sensitivity to his problematical identity as Chinese diasporic and citizen of a non-Chinese state, loyalty and affection to friends, and a strong will to survive. (98)

Mo's preoccupation with the uprooted bicultural individual continues into his most recent novel Renegade or Halo 2 (1999). In his review of the novel Martyn Bedford points out that the novel is "a multicultural, multilayered display of imaginative effervescence -- literally and metaphorically a mixed-race confection" (40). Bedford goes on to explain that the novel is about a Rey Archimedes Blondel Castro, who is

born to a Filipina bar-girl by way of a US serviceman... [H]is size and blackness set him apart from his childhood fellows. Taken in, educated and then rejected by the Jesuits, he signs up as a law student, only to flee into exile after being framed for murder. . . From here on, Rey's story is a quixotic, globe-trotting sequence of adventures. The narrative departing from chapter six is the Philippines-to-Philippines shuttle, calling at Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Middle East, Bombay, Plaistow, Cuba and Florida." (40)

Mo's Renegade or Halo 2 can be taken as a reflection of the influence of Mo's own bicultural identity on his works and as another evidence of his innate ability to deal with the same themes and issues in quite different contexts.

Other parts of this study

United Kingdom Overview Mo's Sour Sweet

Last modified 15 May 2003