Noir Fiction in Malaysia and Singapore as a Critical Aesthetic of Global Asia

Global Asia is, to use Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s term, a constellation of geopolitical, economic, and cultural forces creating a set of mediated and mutable linkages for analyzing how images of Asia circulate around the globe historically and how ideas of Asia percolate through different governmental and knowledge regimes. The genre of noir fiction, which has grown in popularity over the past decade in global anglophone writing, offers a literary aesthetic appropriated from Western film and literature for the purpose of refracting the affective narratives of capitalism and growth often promulgated by Asian governments. Appropriative rather than imitative, noir fiction challenges hegemonic, celebratory discourses of “Asia rising” and illustrates how the localization and adaptation of a Euro-American aesthetic can confront the rigidity of existing disciplinary frameworks.

Admittedly, noir fiction is hardly a blueprint for revolutionary or insurgent politics; its popularity might stem from a global culture industry hungry for exotic narratives of Asia’s dark side. But in the face of recent discourses about a resurgent, globalizing Asia such as the “China Dream” and “Brand India,” literary narratives of Asia’s grimmer aspects might serve as a corrective counterpoint. Noir’s affect is, as Lauren Berlant might say, a kind of cruel optimism, which traces “a waning of the ‘good life’ genres” tied to assumptions of politico-economic stability and self-empowerment. Berlant understands genre not only as a set of literary conventions but also as a purposefully designed textual event that shapes our thoughts and feelings about the world. Genre is both affective and political, for in shaping our senses through textual conventions it also contours our experiences of and the potential we see in the sensible world.

In this light, noir fiction from Malaysia and Singapore has a critical and political aesthetic involving what Jacques Ranciere calls the “distribution of the sensible,” whereby new or previously neglected modes of perceiving the world reconfigure the existing and sensible social order of ideas and things. Aesthetics is therefore not a rejection of order and structure but an incoherence or instability emerging within a structure currently in place and resulting in a reconfigured regime of sense and sensibility. Read in this way, noir fiction evinces what Tina Chen calls “structural incoherence.” Because geopolitical glosses of Asia Rising often cohere around notions of racial-cultural superiority afforded social legitimation by authoritarian governmental structures, noir as genre fiction follows a representational design (structure) that traces breakdowns or impasses in the social formation it represents (incoherence). Imagining a grim world where hopes are relentlessly dashed and dark passions unleashed, noir presents a counterpoint to exuberant narratives of “Asia Rising” while gesturing towards a more just and equitable society that is discernible but not yet achievable.

Two recent English-language anthologies of noir fiction offering such contrapuntal perspectives are KL Noir: Red and Singapore Noir. The former is one of four volumes presented by Buku Fixi, an independent Malaysian publisher; the latter is part of an international noir series published by New York-based Akashic Books. These are books with both national provenance and global circulation. My analysis of noir fiction is informed by Paul Schrader’s influential discussion of the distinctive qualities of post-World War II American film noir: oblique and vertical angles and lines slicing through urban spaces, the use of chiaroscuro to position characters in shadow, and a romantic narrative dimmed by a prevailing cynical and pessimistic mood. An old Indian man concerned about recent kidnappings of Malaysian children gets racially insulted by two little Chinese girls in a Kuala Lumpur megamall. A retrenched Singaporean taxi driver shoots a loan shark who is harassing his landlady, seeing in his victim’s face the smirking visages of everyone who has mistreated him. A young lawyer falls to his death from the landmark Marina Bay Sands casino-cum-resort after getting entangled in a money-laundering scheme hatched by a Communist Party official from China and his femme-fatale pop-star girlfriend. Unlike historical novels tracking a protagonist’s coming of age in tandem with a nation’s maturation, noir short stories end not with a bang but with a shudder. The sensationalism of noir fiction tugs at the loose threads of the Asian city’s social fabric. Each story is set in an identifiably urban space particular to Malaysia or Singapore, but that space is molded by the forces of Asia Rising. Noir is the romance of a world abandoned by charm.

The pessimism of literary noir might paradoxically illuminate the flaws and limitations of Asian states’ conventional narrative paradigms and existing social structures. Noir fiction throws a dark and damp blanket on the romantic, resurgent, or ascendant narratives of growth and development promoted by many Asian governments. In contrast to national imperatives such as the 1Malaysia Campaign and Singapore’s Renaissance City Plan, which optimistically stress collective unity and uplift through economic development and social engineering, noir short stories sensationally depict the cruelty associated with unbridled growth and social obsession with success. Such narratives make perceptible the experiences of those less fortunate who often do not benefit from the nation’s heady economic growth, and who in turn are more likely to encounter the less savory aspects of accelerated change that exacerbates existing social tensions.

The double decentering of scholarship that marks Tina Chen and Eric Hayot’s understanding of Global Asias suggests that the divides between previously oppositional disciplinary fields and conceptual categories can now be bridged. Global Asia scholarship, as a constellation rather than a field, should consider how mutual adaptations and appropriations of linguistic and aesthetic forms by cultural producers from both Asia and the West have shaped and continue to reshape the idea and significance of Asia in the past, present, and future. Noir has distinctly un-Asian roots, and it can too easily be dismissed as pulp fiction compared to more belletristic fare. But noir’s growing popularity among Asian writers and readers suggests that it fills a crucial niche in contemporary Asia’s understanding of itself and its global positioning in a grim and shadowy world.

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Weihsin Gui

Weihsin Gui is associate professor of English at the University of California-Riverside. He is the author of National Consciousness and Literary Cosmopolitics: Postcolonial Literature in a Global Moment and the editor of Common Lines and City Spaces, an essay anthology on the Singaporean poet Arthur Yap. He has also coedited a special issue of Interventions on Singaporean literature and culture and published essays in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Interventions, LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, The Global South, Postcolonial Text, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.