Colonial Irony

Colonial Irony

The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America, Paul Chiasson, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2006

One of the great mysteries of life in Twenty-first Century Sydney is Doyle’s Restaurant at Watson’s Bay, just inside the southern part of the Heads that lead from the Harbour area into the Pacific Ocean. How does it happen that a fish-and-chip shop is located in an area of such extremely high land values? There is no sense in which this might be regarded as a native construct. Fish and chips are by no means part of the indigenous Australian culture. It would seem that one of the many generations of migrants to these shores had generated Doyle’s. Perhaps the French (D’Oyle) the Italians (Dolio) or the Germans (Deller) with subsequent anglicisations of names as is inevitably the Aussie way. Unfortunately, a trawl through the many books written about the history of Sydney’s development reveals no such explanation.

Puzzling about this in the summer of 2003 on a visit to Glebooks, I happened upon 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies. Suddenly the penny dropped. As Menzies details, the Chinese Ming Emperor’s fleets had come to Sydney in the middle of the Fifteenth Century. Clearly, they had landed at Watson’s Bay and settled. With them of course they brought all their cultural practices to establish a new community overseas. As is clearly the case from the contemporary UK, this included Chinese fish-and-chip takeaways. Doyle’s is an Aussification of ‘Daole’ – Chinese for ‘arrived,’ the words they uttered on reaching Watson’s Bay. The mystery is solved.

Surprised? Find this explanation a little fanciful and far-fetched ? This is essentially the argument-line, though transposed to Canada, of The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America. It suggests these ideas are merely the logical outcome of the work of Gavin Menzies. In an entertaining and often amusing parody, The Island of Seven Cities deliberately out-Menzieses Menzies. The (presumably) fictional author, Paul Chiasson, starts by explaining that he was dying of AIDS before beginning this project and then places one improbable conjecture after another in telling his tale. Not only did the Chinese settle on Cape Dauphin, Cape Breton Island (in today’s Canada) but this was the origin of the myth of Eldorado, and these particular Chinese were Christians.

Lest we are in any doubt that the author’s tongue is very firmly in his cheek, the story provides several clues indicating that it is only the foolish reader who will be conned if disbelief is suspended. The style of the telling is deliberately na´ve, an exploration of the personal. ‘I was no longer prepared to ignore information that didn’t fit in comfortably – indeed, that seemed to be the only sort of information I was collecting.’ (p.169)

Yet it is the references to Menzies and 1421 which reveal the true intent of The Island of Seven Cities. The topic of 1421 is introduced by saying ‘I would normally consider such titles to be in the New Age domain of legends of Lost Atlantis or the Holy Grail … But Menzies was talking about China … And the Author had been a naval commander, so would know the oceans.’ (p.190.) Menzies’s specialist naval knowledge has of course been much challenged notoriously his claim that the fleet sailed across the Indian Ocean from Calicut (in West India) to East Africa at the end of the North-east Monsoon (1421 p.88) at a time when there is a South-west Monsoon along that coast that closes it to sailing vessels, and reverses the flow of the ocean's surface current.

Later on, as The Island of Seven Cities is discussing the reasons why the Chinese should want to have settled on Cape Breton Island, the author is drawn to explanations related to that island’s supply of coal:

‘Coal was important in China and the Chinese would have recognized it immediately wherever they went. Cape Breton offered easy coal, the easiest in the Americas, an inexhaustible source of energy, an irresistible magnet to settlement. Today, we take it for granted that nations will go to any length in their search for energy – energy and information. The Chinese of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are unlikely to have been an exception.’ (p.229)

Yet it is a conversation with Menzies that points The Island of Seven Cities towards its eventual denouement of claiming the Chinese colony of Cape Dauphin as the site of the later mythologized Eldorado.

‘I was also surprised when he [Menzies] brought up the subject of gold while we were talking about Chinese motivations for coming this far.

“Don’t forget that you may be looking at more than an agricultural economy,” he said. “Gold was a great motivator, especially then. You may find evidence of smelting on Cape Dauphin.”’ (p.293)

The subtleties of this kind of approach to poking fun at Menzies are set aside for a less controlled (though still sometimes amusing) silliness when The Island of Seven Cities approaches questions of culture: cultural practices and material culture. The indigenous people of Cape Breton Island are the Mi’kmaq. In highlighting the similarities between continental Chinese culture and tribal Mi’kmaq practices The Island of Seven Cities deliberately repeats the unanthropological approach to anthropology that readers of 1421 will immediately recognize:

‘As I read about the cultural practices of the Mi’kmaq and the Chinese, I came to see the close similarities between their two worlds, similarities that seemed to go far beyond coincidence. According to early observers, the Mi’kmaq took every opportunity to recite their ancestry and glorify their families. Age was respected, and the person who had the greatest number of children was held in highest esteem. Ancestor worship was a central aspect of Mi’kmaq spiritual life: they believed that the dead had influence over the living and that ancestors needed to be respected and cared for after death. In the preparation for the death of a family member, in the funeral rites and the grave building, and in the length and process of grieving, both the Mi’kmaq and the Chinese shared attitudes and similar ritualized practices…’ (p.215)

The joke though wears a little thin when The Island of Seven Cities considers material culture. The Mi’kmaq favour crosses which indicates the Christian background of the Chinese settlers. ‘Christianity established itself in China before it made much of an inroad in Europe. By the fifteenth century China had Christian bishops, large churches and an open channel to Rome.’ (p.201) Mi’kmaq women apparently wore pointed hats, not unlike those worn by some non-Chinese inhabitants of areas now located within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. ‘I had already observed that the distinctive hats once worn by Mi’kmaq women bore obvious similarities to styles worn by various Chinese minority groups.’ (p.279)

These minor defects aside though The Island of Seven Cities has done a magnificent job of pricking the pomposity and pretentiousness of Menzies and 1421. The author, when his or her true identity is revealed, and the publishers, St Martin Press, are to be congratulated for their courage, as well as their sense of the absurd.

David S G Goodman
Professor of Contemporary China Studies
University of Technology, Sydney

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