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Submerging Pasts: Lee Kok Liang’s London Does Not Belong To Me

Bernard Wilson

London, the lost city of Atlantis, under an ocean of fog; and I am one of its denizens, groping, and groping towards the pin-point punctures of the lamps opposite. Out from the misty closeness swam the dark ghouls in overcoats and hats — the limbs moving stiffly as if fighting their way against some treacherous currents.

Lee Kok Liang, Sketches, Vignettes and Brush Strokes

It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.

Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps.

Edward Said, Culture & Imperialism

The Malaysian writer, Lee Kok Liang, was a man of diverse accomplishments in literature, law and politics. Born at Alor Star, Kedah in 1927, the son of a fourth-generation Straits-Chinese father and a mother whose culture was a mixture of Siamese, Chinese and Malay influences, his paternal grandfather was Chinese Secretary of the Kedah Sultunate, and his maternal grandfather a Chinese Kapitan to the Malay Sultan of Kedah. Lee’s discrete cultural heritage and schooling in Malaya’s Chinese, Japanese, English and Malay education systems in the 1930s and 1940s, together with his university education in Australia and England, provide the foundation for the poly-ethnic settings and themes of his prose fiction and his angst-ridden narratives of displacement and alienation.[1] A solicitor who often represented oppressed minorities and the underprivileged in Penang society, and a one-time Labour Member of the Tanjung State Assembly, his writing closely mirrors his cross-racial experiences at home and abroad while showing a deep fascination with, and abhorrence of, cultural elitism and human suffering.

Lee’s artistic and professional careers parallel Malaysia’s own traumatic transition from British colony to emergent nation. Along with other noted Malaysian English-language writers, including K.S. Maniam, Lloyd Fernando, and expatriate writers such as Shirley Lim, his writing redresses previous rigid Eurocentric notions of power to create more protean senses of individual, cultural and national identity(ies). As such, his first novel, the semi-autobiographical, unpublished London Does Not Belong To Me,[2] not only affords valuable insights into the fledgling writer honing his skills of description and thematic development, but also provides a vivid portrait of postcolonial angst through its young protagonist. Set in London and Paris in the early 1950s, and partly based on Lee’s experiences while studying Law at Lincoln’s Inn in 1952 and 1953,[3] London Does Not Belong To Me deals with the disillusion and isolation of marginalised people as shown through a disparate collection of expatriates from the far-flung reaches of a crumbling empire, who seek to establish identity, purpose and a sense of belonging in an alien environment. The action of the text takes place through the complex and almost symbiotic relationships of the main characters. Written in the first person, the narrator is a Straits-Chinese Malaysian who, in his search for identity(ies), is compelled to negotiate a spatial existence between the European cityscapes which dominate his physical and intellectual existence and the conflicting memories of a Malayan homeland. Further, he endeavours to come to terms with his own sexuality and the ambivalent sexualities of those (mostly expatriates) with whom he interacts.

What Lee is attempting in part in this novel is an exploration of self in the context of an environment that is both familiar to the author/narrator, given the Eurocentric epistemology of his colonial education, and, at the same time, hostile and alienating. In the novel, London Does Not Belong To Me and his journal Sketches, Vignettes & Brush Strokes,[4] upon which much of the action in the novel is based, the young (25-year-old) Lee charts a psychological map for his personal identity and artistic integrity — against the backdrop of a London and Paris themselves being reinvented after the devastations of World War II.

Collectively, and individually, the novel and diary constitute a powerful, subversive counter-colonial discourse, predating the publication of Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners in 1956 and occupying some of the same chronological and geographical space as V.S. Naipaul’s epistolary collection, Between Father and Son. In terms of Malaysian literature written in English, the novel and diary offer a unique and historical peripheral perspective of the fading imperial axis of power, as perceived by a colonial subject whose nation is moving rapidly towards independence (1957).

Lee’s writing and thematic thrust is, though, broader than a redressing of the coloniser/colonised polemic. His quest is more personal and more universal: at the heart of the novel is the search for individual identity through the ordinary, everyday betrayals and triumphs of isolated, ostracized individuals. Beyond this, the young writer’s goals are to put in place guidelines through which artistic integrity may be achieved and through which the fraught condition of cultural and sexual marginalisation may be verbalised.

Unlike London Does Not Belong To Me, Lee’s previously published collections of short stories, The Mutes in the Sun (1974) and Death is a Ceremony (1992) and his novel, Flowers in the Sky (1981), are almost exclusively set in the territory of his youth and working life: the north-western states of Malaya/Malaysia against the backdrop of the Chinese-Malaysian community. But thematically, there are many similarities. His early stories are particularly concerned with isolation, repression and the mutilation (psychological and physical) of self; with, as Harrex terms it:

…(the) outsider’s fascination with the repulsive, as well as the exciting characteristics of human society (which) complements his psychological dissection of human fallibility and the frailty of love as these are revealed in individual characters.[5]

The external claustrophobic landscapes of much of Lee’s fiction — and this is evident time and again in London Does Not Belong To Me — mirror what Lee perceives to be the vulnerabilities and blighted potential of many of his characters. In terms of structure the novel is very much a first effort, displaying the difficulties of marrying a myriad of characters into a workable plot, and at times these characters are drawn in such a way as to become Huxley-like representations of various ideological viewpoints. The confused identities of the main characters are, however, mirrored in their eclectic conversations, their (often forlorn) attempts at self-parody and mimicry of others, and their self-loathing, brought about in some cases by sexual experimentation or sexual frustration coupled with the constant (invariably justified) fear of rejection.

Reflecting Lee’s own tentative and self-conscious steps towards artistic fulfillment, the framework of London Does Not Belong To Me is, at least on first impression, seemingly of less merit than the series of pastiches it contains but although this episodic structure makes cogent plot summary difficult, it may prove illuminating to readers of this essay, the majority of whom will be unfamiliar with the manuscript, to provide some information on characterization and narrative detail. Amidst a broad range of lesser players peripheral to the main narrative action, the principal characters in the novel are as follows: the narrator, a young Straits-Chinese male studying in London, who remains nameless throughout the narrative, but whose experiences appear to closely parallel those of Lee Kok Liang, as evidenced particularly by the correlation between passages in the novel and sections of Lee’s journal/diary, Sketches, Brushstrokes, Vignettes; Beatrice, an Australian woman, previously acquainted with the narrator from his studies in Sydney; Cordelia, an Australian (possibly part-Irish) woman, introduced into the text as a housemate of Beatrice’s, and whose obsessive pursuit is the focus of much of the novel’s narrative; Steve, a bisexual Australian who is involved at various stages of the novel in shadowy, undefined relationships with Cordelia, Tristam and Ken; Tristam, an insecure English homosexual who befriends, and like Steve attempts to seduce, the narrator; Guy, a Frenchman to whom the narrator is introduced by Tristam in London, and with whom the narrator develops a close bond and later visits in Paris; and Ken, a much-travelled, scheming Australian artist and sculptor who, for reasons not fully explained but perhaps due to his shared nationality, has close ties with Steve and Cordelia.

The plot of London Does Not Belong To Me has its basis in a chain of overlapping hetero-, bi- and homosexual relationships — which occur mainly in London but also in Paris — between immigrants, expatriates and social misfits. The principal intrigue is that of the narrator’s doomed romantic infatuation with his femme fatale, Cordelia, whose duplicity is the centrepiece of myriad variations on the twin themes of betrayal and marginalisation. The surreptitious relationship that ensues between the narrator and Cordelia, his subsequent search for her in London and Paris, and his ultimate problematic enlightenment, provide a tale of miscommunication, cross-cultural misunderstanding, and sexual deception — elements of which are not dissimilar to the hallmarks of Jamesian narrative technique, which pairs clinical observation with the nebulous, psychological suspense of the illusory quest.[6] The narrator’s naive and ill-fated pursuit of the elusive Cordelia is provided with several foils in the text, the most crucial of whom is Beatrice, the one character who seems incapable of betrayal, but whose love for the narrator also bears a secret (there are covert indications in the text that Beatrice, unbeknown to the almost willfully-ignorant narrator, is pregnant with his child). The novel focuses on displacement(s) and disorientation(s) — cultural, geographical, emotional, sexual — and the principal triptych of the narrator’s relationships with Cordelia and Beatrice is interwoven with his (and their) dealings with the Australians, Steve and Ken, the Englishman, Tristam, and the Frenchman, Guy, all of whom provide contrapuntal but interconnected perspectives on sexuality and culture, and further the central conceit of betrayal. The supposedly climactic confrontation, at a Christmas party arranged by Steve, brings together the antagonists and although providing little in terms of an overt textual resolution, does signify a release that is symbolic of the complex relationship between coloniser and colonised.

The young author’s primary concerns rest in the following areas: transcultural and sexual identity, communication, and the aesthetics of writing, all of which are evident in the prologue, which provides valuable evidence of Lee’s powers of clinical observation, coupled with a recognition of his paradoxical existence, through a suffocating — yet in many ways alluring — vision of London in the 1950s:

Two milk bottles stood on the table — one full, the other three quarters full — and spreading out beneath them The Times lay prostrate, its columns dirtied with the spilt contents of chilli sauces and mashed pickled prawns that dripped from the abandoned bottles and vials. At one corner, a small bowl balanced on the edge, its leafy green surface tarnished with gluey remains. This was my dining table, a littered no-man’s land. The opened can, quarter full, its bright purple wrapper torn, gave out a rich smell. What was it she had said, as she scooped out the lychee, balancing the fruit on the tip of her forefinger? ‘Flesh pink’ with a laugh, as she rested her hand against her bare throat.

London was full of rooms. I went from one to the other. Slowly I adjusted myself and lived the life of a troglodyte, learning the tribal customs of feints and apologies. And sitting with my back to the brown wall-paper, on the narrow bed, I looked across the small room, through the pale patch of the window, dreaming of mynah birds shooting like beads along branches of casuarinas, and of pale spidery crabs on warm sands and the dark button-sized shells buried just above the tides. With my mouth opened against the crumpled pillow, after she left, I listened to the hollow breathing that filled my lungs and the two cords of muscles along my spine tensed with regrets, watching heavy-lidded, how my forefinger twitched forlornly. And a few phrases came to my mind. Once she had written Understand — and your heart can be mother to all things — I have found a big red tomato this afternoon – soft and full of silky dreams.

Solitary like a spider, weaving a web, I had written to her. Not of love, because we did not speak of love. But of what I had dreamt, awkwardly framing the words, with the concentration of a child filling in his first notebook, intent to please, and words became my courage and her tribute. Not about the past either; for in this city, men and women submerged their past. I swam along with them, flipping my fins.[7]

The tone of the novel is immediately established through these images of isolation, desperate need, regret and self-recrimination, and the extract is strongly counter-colonial in implication. The narrator’s description of his confined living quarters, and the surrounding city, articulate his sense of alienation, displacement and negativity. His table is ‘a littered no-man’s land’. London is described in primitive and subterranean terms: he ‘live(s) the life of a troglodyte’, moving from room to room, taking on the ‘tribal customs of feints and apologies’. Superficiality, in this world, is the norm; indeed, it is the key to survival. Juxtaposed against this is the world of his memory, a space described (possibly with the false allure of nostalgia) in fecund, vibrant terms: the natural warmth and light of the past contrasting with the superficial suffocating bleakness of the present. He dreams of the mynah birds of his home country but in London can only survive as a cave-dweller, a spider, a submerged sea creature. Lee postulates the necessity of metamorphosis for survival in such an environment, but more than this there is a mutation — almost a regression — of humanity indicated in the final two lines, which portray civilization in retreat towards the primordial swamp, distinctly in contrast with perceptions of the centre of Empire as light, learning and civilization, the ‘distant lodestar of good for all of us’ as Said ironically terms it.[8] The narrator depicts himself through foetal imagery — submerged and suffocating in the amniotic fluid of a maternal London, Lee provides an ironic inversion of the city as nurturer and provider to her colonial subjects. In this setting, individual and national histories are obfuscated and buried; in this Eliotesque wasteland individual identity, individual history are unimportant — indeed they are perceived as debilitating weaknesses. Rather, subterfuge and suppression, ‘submerg(ing) (one’s) past’, constitute the natural state of things.

This then sets the scene for a narrative of displacement and betrayal. The opening action in the novel relies heavily on the interaction between the narrator, and the two principal female characters, Cordelia and Beatrice. Lee’s description of the narrator’s initial encounter with the femme fatale of the novel, Cordelia, reveals several of the methods that he would refine in later writing:

I saw the girl first. Nothing much at first — a large head, massive I thought at that time, and bright golden hair like a huge tight cap, gleaming against the light from the fireplace. I remained standing in the doorway, running my tongue over the jagged upper molar, that smelled even to me. Silence. Concentrated study from me of her outline against the glass of flames.

The introduction to Cordelia is noteworthy in that some of the descriptive devices later used by Lee in the short story collections, The Mutes in the Sun and Death is a Ceremony, are seen to take shape. Perceived purity and innocence are juxtaposed against corruption in this chiaroscuro, providing clear indications of the tragedy about to be played out. Shades of dark and light are implied; the profile of the girl’s head (curiously described as massive, emphasising the narrator’s fascination with imperfection and vulnerability) is silhouetted against the flames whilst the watching narrator, worrying a decayed tooth, is only too aware of his own — in this case, less visible — imperfections. Lee’s choice of name for the narrator’s obsession is also important in the context of the plot: the intrinsic goodness of Lear’s Cordelia is gradually inverted as this Cordelia proves to be temptress and betrayer to the narrator’s needs, in a subtle re-writing of British canonical literature.

Secondly, one may observe the seeds of the voyeuristic style that governs much of Lee’s later prose. As an observer, his descriptions are often clinical and precise — at times almost microscopic — and his tone emphasises the furtiveness and insecurity common to the outsider, a style which finds greater maturity in his description of the alienated characters of his own tropical landscape in his later fiction. His central characters are rarely active protagonists but are, rather, individuals who are swept along by a complex chain of muted desires and deceptions. The narrator of London Does Not Belong To Me is the first of Lee’s crippled observers, emotionally and verbally debilitated by his sense of cultural and physical otherness:

… the easy casual manner in which strangers picked me up frightened me, as if I were a bargain find or a trinket.

In this society, the narrator often depicts himself as a kind of oriental curio — passed, as interest wanes, from one individual to another. Accentuating the image of the timid but clinical observer, the prose style of the initial description of Cordelia is simple and spare, creating a sense of immediacy in its staccato recording of a scene as a series of loosely connected slides.

In references to Malaysia, Lee combines idyllic descriptions with harsh social observations. Flagging thematic preoccupations in his short story collections, the narrator’s first specific reference to his homeland is poetic but brutally frank:

I came from a world where fathers were adulterous and mothers vicious and a river of lies poured itself between them, separating.

The young Lee is already acknowledging the reality of isolation and divisiveness evident in his country of birth despite the often idyllic images he uses to portray Malaya. When the narrator takes Beatrice to a Chinese restaurant in a symbolic gesture of closure to their relationship, he finds it acceptable — indeed appropriate — that Beatrice remember him in a stereotypical occidental view of the Orient: ‘a memory of golds and reds and dragons’. This is the preferable image or ‘truth’ of the East for both the narrator and Beatrice (who, as an Australian like Cordelia, is to the narrator a confused symbolic mixture of coloniser and colonised). Such images, however, contain only ever half-truths, concealing far more than they can reveal:

Should I also tell her about the dirt and the flies and the diseases? But what’s the point anyway? Everyone of us must preserve a certain romantic viewpoint about far distant places to which the mind could return in the midst of our grimy surroundings or when life pressed too harshly upon our individual existence. She would, I had hoped, always associate the glitter and the shadow with me and when I had gone, perhaps on some wintry morning when she looked out from her window at the dull soft-drizzling sky and the dark street, she would think of me walking slowly, my long shadow falling before me, carefully dressed in white, along a dry street that burned like a salt mine. And I on my part would recapture the glitter in her eyes sitting in the dark of a cinema hall, her coat unbuttoned, breathing gently by my side with the tips of her fingers resting coldly on my palm. I was conscious that I was a craftsman, weaving on the loom of memory, sending out a rhythm that would enfold our lives like the caresses of waves on a sandy beach.

These decidedly romantic sentiments reveal the narrator’s perceived sense of duality, in his relationship with Beatrice, his cultural displacement and, I would suggest, his more covert questionings of his own sexual nature. Woven into these lines are the eclectic questionings of the apprentice postcolonial writer: the exploration of cultural representation, the function of memory, the nature of art. The narrator is only too aware that he functions, in part, as willing cliché, embracing the role of exotic other as he narrates his existence.

As I mentioned earlier, the thematic and stylistic basis of Lee’s writing, both in London Does Not Belong To Me and his later collections of short stories, is that of miscommunication and obfuscation. Such miscommunications stem from cultural, political, racial and gender differences and, in common with the writing of K.S. Maniam and Lloyd Fernando, depict language as a socio-political tool – occasionally liberating, but, more often than not, debilitating in that it marks the user as peripheral to a supposed cultural and linguistic elite. The narrator experiences the practical difficulties and misapprehensions of a Straits-Chinese communicating in British English in London (‘Marbles in my mouth: I spewed them out.’) and his resultant sense of linguistic inadequacy in many ways mirrors (and predates) similar sentiments expressed by writers who comprised the Caribbean literary diaspora in London in the 1950s and 1960s — in particular Selvon, Lamming, and, to a lesser extent, Naipaul. Though Lee’s prose is not as overtly political as George Lamming’s, he shares in common with that writer the desire to ‘christen Language afresh'[9] and in Lee’s depiction of the narrator of London Does Not Belong To Me as both betrayer and betrayed there are indeed underlying elements of the linguistic and political thesis that Lamming proposes when advancing Caliban as an archetypal symbol of the colonised in The Pleasures of Exile (1960).[10] The narrator is, in his own description, ‘a human sponge absorbing … words, now and then giving out a squirt in reply’. And through this linguistic osmosis, if you will, he often provides the reader with glimpses of the poetic description and whimsical humour that were to reach full maturity in The Mutes in the Sun and Flowers in the Sky, such as in this excerpt:

‘I’m sorry I must go now. Got to catch the tube.’ I nearly said, ‘Got to tube a catch.’

Language was a loose string of beads to me. I got tired easily trying to express it in a logical way. Even in my native language.

What is also clear here is that the narrator’s (and Lee’s) underlying mistrust of words is not limited to the lingua franca of the coloniser; all language proves inadequate as the narrator attempts to communicate the ‘thoughts which [are] locked in behind a barrier in [his] mind, leaping like shoals of caged fish’.

Language, either oral or written, is described in various passages of the first five chapters alone as: ‘a web’; ‘my [the narrator’s] courage and her [Cordelia’s] tribute’; ‘a bottle of strange wine’; ‘a river of lies’; ‘marbles in [the narrator’s] mouth’; ‘a loose string of beads’; ‘ping pong balls’; ‘the posings of self and non-self’; ‘a castle’; ‘a silly badminton game’; ‘shadows that moved and changed with the sun’; and ‘an ocean full of ice-floes’. The majority of these images are negative, conveying the frustration of a peripheral cultural and linguistic existence. Conversation is depicted as battle; a conversation between Beatrice and the narrator is described as ‘a preliminary bout’; the narrator temporarily sees himself ‘on safe ground … A vantage point’; and Beatrice is seen as ‘not avoid(ing) the quarry’ and ‘behaving like a well-trained pointer’. Conversation as pursuit; conversation as entrapment; conversation as paradox, as in this simile:

. . . I skipped from topic to topic, testing each one, trying like a passenger thrown into the ocean to locate a lifebelt.

Though the narrator dreams in ‘words and colours’, these are bitter dreams. Language in these images signifies isolation and disillusion. The narrator’s pronunciation, even of the name of the woman he believes he loves, only serves to increase his awareness of his otherness and alienation:

Cor-deal-lee-a: that’s how she should be pronounced. I did it the wrong way every time. To Beatrice she was not a strange word in a foreign language.

Significant in the text is that the narrator’s name is never revealed. Moreover Lee goes to some lengths to keep the narrator’s name hidden from the reader, revealing the trauma of the outsider and serving to emphasise the discomfort that the narrator may feel at his Chinese-Malaysian name (indeed, in jest, he at one stage gives himself a deliberately false Anglo name) in such Eurocentric and often hostile surroundings. Such concealment is also symptomatic of the sense of fracturing self that the narrator is experiencing, both in his relationship with his physical surroundings — the geographical and cultural antithesis of his birthplace — and in his relationship with the other characters in the novel, very few of whom have any solid sense of cultural, or sexual, identity (with the possible exception of Beatrice).

Steve (an Australian who perceives himself as both sexually and culturally marginalised), on the other hand, seeks to establish a sense of identity through verbal attacks on the colonial centre, ‘a long-teated bitch [where] everything … is so bloody faded. No push. No guts. Loss of nerve. A great unending diarrhoea. Old England squatting over an effluence of words, words, words’. But, in a way, Steve is — intentionally or otherwise — mocking his own sexual and cultural dissipation. Like Tristam (the only principal English character) his utterances are often glib and contrived, revealing through their mimicry and posturing an overwhelming sense of personal displacement. Regardless of such theatrical harangues, these expatriates are still drawn to London, though their reasons for remaining are obscured by the author and are seemingly secondary to the plot function. Despite nebulous references to employment or studies, they drift aimlessly through the city, lured by its reputation yet despising it, and themselves, for their own alienation. With the possible exception of Beatrice, identity, for these people, is a parasitic process and rests in feeding on the insecurities of others to affirm one’s own sense of self. As such, they are a desolate and emotionally retarded group, though their physical circumstances and cultural marginalisation are at the base of their actions. Need, rather than desire, is their motivation.

Isolation and sexual frustration provide Lee’s characters with a pathos that is reinforced by his use of naturalistic descriptions. Sexual relations are more about a desperate need to reclaim space — to re-establish one’s humanity — than about romance or simple physical desire, such as may be seen by the forlorn, almost despairing, image of connection between lonely individuals in this description of the narrator’s first sexual involvement with Cordelia:

Slowly she relaxed and I touched her again on the thighs and pushed her down on the carpet. A seagull was like this I thought, on the wing preparing to swoop down over the flotsam on the quay.

Rarely are Lee’s descriptions of physical and emotional connection portrayed positively: characters such as Cordelia, Steve, Tristam, and the narrator himself are at best, scavengers — at worst, predators. Loneliness, as the narrator muses when he sees a child reading out loud to herself, ‘. . . (makes) humans out of walls’, and indeed, in London Does Not Belong To Me, the reverse may also be said to be true: the external pressure of a peripheral existence and the consequent isolation this engenders causes the characters to construct emotional and psychological barriers in order to survive in this alien and unwelcoming environment. Relationships are transient and devoid of physical and emotional fulfillment. Contact between individuals is invariably overshadowed by cultural or sexual incompatibility. Paradoxically, to reaffirm one’s existence in such surroundings, and as a reflection of their own self-loathing, Lee’s characters form emotional and physical links which are inherently destructive and negative though not, it must be said, necessarily shallow. His descriptions of such moments seek to encapsulate the desperation and bittersweet futility that mark his later short stories, and act as a catharsis for a young would-be author longing to make sense of self and surroundings. And it is this search for self that fuels the narrator’s futile pursuit of Cordelia — despite his knowledge of certain failure:

There was in me a fear, a secret doubt, that she in her loneliness had used me as perhaps I might have been using her. Did she too have such a thought? Were people like this, using each other in order to achieve a momentary fruition? A release, perhaps, from the rigor mortis of the heart? What better choice than to search among those who had no common past or future – a chance encounter of the sea fish and the river fish at the estuary?

Tristam’s constant and empty justifications of his sexual identity evoke a similar sense of pathos. He is, in essence, parasitic, living vicariously through — and feeding on — others. Despite his unremarkable appearance and borrowed philosophies, Tristam views himself (and homosexuality) as exotic; he considers himself (falsely) a combination of oriental insight and mysticism and continental sophistication, more at ease with the universal wisdom of Gandhi or liberated views of Proust than the mainstream English (for this read heterosexual) male. Validating his own sexuality with references to the duality of Shakespeare, Donne and Proust, Tristam refers to the hermaphroditism of the earthworm, reducing heterosexuality to a ‘chemical reaction’ while elevating homosexuality to a ‘flowering of self’. But despite the purple prose and ostentatious allusions chosen by Tristam (‘. . . when one looks around, one sees a host of others, brilliant rainbow fishes among the dull worms’), his defence of his nature rings hollow; he is surface without substance.

Such descriptions, evoking a (flawed) sense of belonging and identity, do carry an aesthetic appeal for the narrator, but they are effectively offset in the text by his knowledge that Tristam’s sense of difference is little more than a physical desire for ‘otherness’, a lust for the erotica of the exotic. As he and the narrator sit beneath an idyllic Indian pastoral scene on a restaurant wall, Tristam’s initial rejection of his countrymen is based purely on physicality:

Without warning, his voice took on a bitterness. ‘You know, I don’t like the English. They’re so pallid. So shrunken.’

Tristam’s real desire is for that of physical difference. He equates non-Anglo races with innocence and sexual allure, reducing and essentialising nations and races through a series of misguided, self-serving analogies. Under the guise of freethinker and libertarian, he seeks to quell his increasing self-loathing. His fascination with otherness and his supposed championing of all things non-British are still distinctly colonial and occidental in implication, clearly exhibiting the traits that Said expounds two decades later, when analyzing Western attitudes to the Orient in the late nineteenth century onwards:

Orientals were rarely seen or looked at; they were seen through, analyzed not as citizens, or even people . . . the very designation of something as Oriental involved an already pronounced evaluative judgement.[11]

The narrator and other Asian characters in the novel are not individuals but stereotypical representations of exotic allure for Tristam. In his terms, of course, these evaluative judgements have everything to do with things oriental as representations of sexual fantasy, forbidden desire and as a (false) source of self-justification. Tristam and Steve — sexually marginalised themselves — resort to these same dismissive tactics in their relationships with the narrator. In essence they are sexual colonisers, as evidenced by this extract in which the narrator repositions Tristam’s role from parasite to predator, while reinforcing his own role as innocent victim:

On first noticing him, I remained very still in my bed and focused my gaze on the top of his head; my hands became tensed under the sheets. My expression must have been blank; I had the same feeling that I experienced as a child when I lay in bed looking at an eight-legged spider moving across the ceiling.

The narrator perceives Tristam’s and Steve’s sexual advances as threatening but is nevertheless drawn to the alienation they experience, a common thread because of his own physical alienation and experiences of hostility.

Constantly underscoring these coloniser/colonised polemics, and continuing the allusions introduced in the earlier-quoted prologue, are postmodernist preoccupations with fragmented humanity and meaningless repetition, such as in this description of a cafe outside the Albert Hall:

The room was crowded with duffle-coated denizens, pale alert sunless faces, moving slowly among themselves, and from where I sat, sliding past one another, like those tortoises in a well which I remembered seeing as a young boy, flippers scraping over shells, crawling and heaving towards me for the vegetables falling from my outstretched hand . . . I held up my hand, freezing the gesture, low above the counter as though I was afraid that she might notice me too soon. It had to be done quietly without any fuss. Two cups pushed across the counter, silver coins in pincer-like grip exchanging from my hand to hers. After three more persons were served, my turn came. A bored expression on her face, thin lines seaming her neck, the waitress dealt with me with the expertise of a card sharp.

Returning, and ad-libbing excuse-mes through the crustaceans of gabbing humanity, I managed to reach her without spilling a drop.

The prose reduces the crowd to a bland urban mass, blending tropical imagery with its binary opposite — a London cafe. These are people whose individuality has been crushed by meaningless repetition and social mores, rendering them as subservient as any colonial subject. As a group their connections are tenuous at best, providing a portrait of uniformity through individuality extinguished, causing the narrator to associate these pallid, pinched features with images from his homeland. In both instances the allusions are to shelled creatures, an indication of the protective masks of social conduct and appearance. Cultural penetration, for the narrator it seems, remains unattainable.

The final extracts I wish to examine have to do with the narrator’s (and Lee’s) attempts at personal resolution. Lee seeks to validate his postcolonial spatial existence through a form of personal arrival — to become, as the narrator terms it upon his return from Paris to London, ‘a first person instead of a third person’. To do this, one must acknowledge the inherent paradox — perhaps even falsity — of the concepts of home and homecoming, especially from colonial/postcolonial perspectives. Transition and acceptance, the narrator perceives, stem not from seeking liberation but from the acknowledgement that entrapment is the natural state for the individual:

A sudden vision came to me; that of a snake sloughing off his old skin. But human beings, like whale sharks which kept on adding layers of skin until their bodies were armour-plated, retained their experiences and fed on them.

As the time for the author’s return to Malaya fast approaches, the narrator wrestles with the disillusionment of his European experience. Cordelia and London, in terms of what each represents, are already dead to him — the memories of both now incompatible with the memories of his homeland. In many ways Cordelia, although Australian, encapsulates the narrator’s conflicting responses to London: her seemingly mesmeric hold on the narrator becomes representative of the fraught but mutually interdependent relationship between imperial centre and colonised periphery. Thus the narrator can be seen to progress towards a comprehension of the problematic colonial experience and, ultimately, a validation of self:

And I lay quietly for the ache to return, fearfully but with gladness, like a sick person counting the hours when the next attack would come so that his lying in wait would not prove abortive. And therefore I immured myself in my room, putting order into everything I could lay my hands on, as I patiently awaited the return of the terrible feeling that struck me when she left me. In order to meet her again I had to revive that feeling. Without it, everything would be such a waste. I might as well be a puppet, manipulated by her hands, if I did not repossess my feelings.

But the effect of Cordelia’s sudden re-appearance is to shock the narrator into transcultural confusion:

The room suddenly felt warm and beads of sweat frosted my temples. It took me more than three seconds to recognise Cordelia. And for three more seconds, so it seemed, I was whisked away from this bright, glaring room and those hideous Christmas cards, into the still centre of my whirlpool, and strangely, an old tune from The Opium War cranked up in my mind, as though I was back home, lying on the camp-bed listening to the arabesque immobility of its melody, something that was plaintive, something far-off. Ta ya Ta. Ni Nsin, hsin pa. Like a translating machine, my mind rendered it into the English version. ‘Tak oh Tak. Wake, wake up.’ It sounded most ludicrous in my translation; the beauty and the call to the heart were lost. And yet in my own language the song spoke convincingly. Give up, it had said, the opium pipe, your beauty, your love, your strength-absorber, your spirit-demolisher. Tak oh Tak. Garish, oh so very garish. The stillness of my centre was muddied by an automatic translation machine.

Resolution and resurrection lie in finally recognising the opium pipe for what it is. Through his rejection at the hands of Cordelia — and London — the narrator takes the first tentative steps towards, in his own words, ‘disinterring’ the ‘great ghost of [his] past’. Ultimately then, London Does Not Belong to Me may be read in one sense as a triumphant exorcism. Only in confronting the Centre and burying the imperial ghosts of the past can the narrator move into a liberated future. In the brief concluding chapter the narrator receives a parting gift from Tristam as he boards the train on the first leg of his return to Malaya. The gift Tristam brings (a Norman Collins novel entitled London Belongs To Me) provides the ironic inversion of Lee’s title.[12] The sense of disillusionment that pervades this novel can then, from a Malaysian perspective, be seen as liberation and illumination. Lee’s realisation that London does not belong to him is a painful but salutary acknowledgment of the deception of empire, but a necessary stage in the re-invention of his identity in transcultural terms. If, in essence, London Does Not Belong To Me is an articulation of postcolonial grief and the betrayal of memory, it also charts an ultimately enriching journey, representing, as it does, the narrator’s/author’s first tentative and ambivalent steps towards a repositioning of identity in the call and response of transcultural space.


[1] Borrowed, in part from Syd Harrex’s ‘In Memory of Lee Kok Liang (1927-1992)’ in S.E. Asia Writes Back! Skoob Pacifica Anthology No. 1, (eds. C.Y. Loh & I.K. Ong), (London: Skoob, 1993), with the author’s kind permission.

[2] The novel, London Does Not Belong To Me, is scheduled for publication by Maya Press, Kuala Lumpur, 2003.

[3] The period of Lee’s stay in London (including a brief trip to Paris) may be gleaned from his journal-cum-diary, Sketches, Vignettes & Brush Strokes, in which the first entry is dated 2 January 1952, and the final on an unspecified day in February 1954, while Lee is sailing back to Malaya aboard the Carthage.

[4] The manuscript for the novel and journal are held in trust at The Centre for New Literatures in English, Flinders University of South Australia.

[5] Syd Harrex, ‘Mutes and Mutilators in the Fiction of Lee Kok Liang’ in Individual and Community in Commonwealth Literature, (ed. Daniel Massa), (Malta: The University Press, 1979), p.142

[6] Lee mentions James’ The Sacred Fount, significantly the only novel in James’ fiction to contain a first-person narrator and itself dealing with an obsessive observer/novelist, in his journal of the same period.

[7] In editing the text of London Does Not Belong To Me, Dr. Syd Harrex and I have made minor amendments in relation to typing errors and issues of clarity, but have attempted to retain the particular cadences, phrasing and grammatical structures that remain an important stylistic component of Lee’s prose.

[8] Edward Said, Out of Place (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1999), p. 82

[9] George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (London: Allison & Busby, 1960, 1984), p. 118

[10] For a broader discussion of this aspect of Lamming’s writing and an overall analysis of canon revision and reconstruction in Caribbean literature, see Gay Wilentz’s essay ‘English is a Foreign Anguish: Caribbean Writers and the Disruption of the Colonial Canon’ in Decolonizing Tradition, (ed. Karen R. Lawrence), Urbana & Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1992.

[11] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon 1978), p. 207

[12] Published in 1945, the novel tells the story of a disparate group in London at the eve of World War II. Collin’s novels invariably deal with interactions between ordinary Londoners.

To Cite This Article:

Bernard Wilson, ‘Submerging Pasts: Lee Kok Liang’s London Does Not Belong To Me’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at Accessed on [date of access].