'Mastah Eastman just now come chop-chop say you plomise give him sketch-y lesson, you no lemember bime-by?' It is shocking to find such dialogue - so squarely within the racist convention of the comic 'Chinaman' - seven pages into Timothy Mo's novel about the first Opium War. Is this shameful convention, with its 'all rightees' and 'yes Missees', being endorsed as mimetically accurate by a writer at home in both English and Chinese cultures? If he does endorse it, he does so only to the extent of using it to show how small the point of contact between two cultures can be. Mo's hero compares language to a delta; and just as the Western traders in the 1830s had access to China only through one part of the treacherous Pearl River delta and through the precarious stockade of 'Factories' at Canton, so linguistic contact also was straitened and treacherous. The pidgin that defined for popular consumption an image of the Chinese (along with opium dens and tong gangs) has its origin, Mo shows us, in purely commercial exchanges, where it functions as an adequate bridge between cultures so long as it carries only commercial traffic: ' "Half-um?" he says witheringly. "Half-um? Me tink-ee mak-ee half-um silver dollar can buy all-um duck market hab got Canton-side." ' (This time it is the American Eastman talking.) For any other form of cultural exchange it is worse than useless - 'ridiculous nonsense', as Mo reassuringly calls it later in the novel. The word 'pidgin', he might have added, is simply a Chinese corruption of the word 'business'. Pidgin English is business English, purely instrumental in origin.
LRB 5 June 1986 | PDF Download