Photos by Siyuan Hu and Adriaan Terblanche on Unsplash

Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction

30. Sep 2022

by Astrid Møller-Olsen, research fellow at Lund, Stavanger and Oxford University

What happens when the city you live in changes so rapidly that space melts into time and your memories can find no recognisable place to take hold? This kind of morphing urban reality was and is experienced by many in east Asian mega cities, where what cultural critic Dai Jinhua calls the “destructiveness of construction work” (“Imagined Nostalgia.” Boundary 2 24 (3), 1997: 146) is a defining factor. For cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei, the 1990s saw a new level of urban transformation that fundamentally affected quotidian ways of life and urban identities, a tendency that continued well into the 21st century. In my new monograph Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction, I argue that fiction writing has the ability to capture both the sense of ongoing transformation and the complex and often ambiguous identity politics that follow. More than any other type of writing, narrative fiction can accommodate the paradox that it is the very disappearance of any material links to the past, which fosters a renewed interest in the private and public histories under erasure. Through the original framework of literary sensory studies, I use whole-body engagements with the cityscape as a perspective that bridges the divide between the elusive memories of the past and the material deconstruction of the present. I look at unconventional sensory modes such as temperature, pain, sense of self, and sense of time, as well as the cross-sensory and metaphorical nature of familiar sensations such as smell or sight.

One line of analysis -that surfaced in my engagement with the two Shanghai novels I’ve studied- traces the fine line between nostalgic discourse and critical engagement with place. In his novel Fresh Flowers And (鲜花和) from 1997, Chen Cun 陈村 chronicles the loss of the uniquely Shanghai way of life and mourns the loss of the lilong (里弄) communities that first became subject to mass-demolition in the 1990s as part of an effort to regain the city’s image as a global modern metropolis. This restructuring of the central city followed the designation of the eastern Pudong district as a Special Economic Zone in 1990, which, together with Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour (南巡), belatedly included Shanghai in the new CCP politics of “entering the sea” (下海) of international commerce. Chen’s protagonist presents his quotidian and private perspective on the globalization of Shanghai through a narrative focused on his own home. He creates a centred urban identity in the Confucian style, with the home as the core surrounded by concentric layers of decreasing familiarity with the city itself as the ultimate layer of skin that borders his sense of self. Creating a highly gendered cityscape, the single dad protagonist implicitly plays with and exposes binary gender stereotypes by his clumsy touting of a traditional family structure that he signally fails to live up to himself.

Another Shanghai writer, Ding Liying (丁丽英), in her novel The Woman in the Clock (时钟里的女人) from 2000, describes a similarly intimate and physical relationship to the city. Her work chronicles a day in the life of protagonist Lü Yan – from she wakes up at 06:04 in the morning till she falls asleep again at 00:05. Like Chen, she is concerned with the intimate sphere of everyday life, albeit from the perspective of an individualist who resists the social pressure to form a family. In her urban expose, Shanghai is a hodgepodge of cultural, geographical, and class-based identities divided by sensory borders of in the form of audibly different dialects or the various scents of regional cuisines.

Ding’s diary narrative describes Lü Yan’s sense of time as a negotiation between several overlapping temporalities defined by 1) physical demands (the need to urinate in the morning determines when she gets out of bed), 2) public time keeping (in one footnote, the Beijing time of 9:00 is contrasted with the “psychological time” of 8:60), 3) private emotions (her alienation from other people leads her to feel like the day stretches endlessly before her and she has plenty of time), and 4) social expectations (nearing 30 years of age, the protagonist is pressured by family and peers to marry).

In Sensing the Sinophone, I compare fictionalized urban experiences from Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei from the 1990s and into the 2000s. I engage with themes of scented nostalgia, flavours in fiction, walking as method, literary cartography, the melody of language, gendered cityscapes, metafictional dreams and rhythmic senses of time in order to study how contemporary cities change the way we think about time, space and memory. Through the book, it becomes clear that fiction writing can also change the way we think about the senses and the city.

Book reception for Sensing the Sinophone 7 October

There will be a book reception Friday 7 October 16.30-18.00 at Storrs Antikvariat Frederikssundsvej 61, 2400 København NV where it will be possible to view and buy the book and meet the author. Read more about the event and the book here

From the reviews:
“With a lineup of works drawn from contemporary Chinese and Sinophone communities, Astrid Møller-Olsen pays special attention to the articulations of senses in the texts under discussion, from audio-visual contact to melodious association, tactile sensation, aromatic emanation, and kinetic exercise, culminating in mnemonic imagination and gendered fabulation. The result is a work on urban synesthesia, a kaleidoscopic projection of sensorium in a narrative form. Her analyses of works by writers such as Chu Tien-hsin and Wu Ming-yi are particularly compelling. Sensing the Sinophone has introduced a new direction for literary studies and is sure to be an invaluable source for anyone interested in narratology, urban studies, environmental studies, affect studies, and above all comparative literature in both Sinophone and global contexts.” —David Der-wei Wang, Harvard University


Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature and a PhD in Chinese Studies. Her research on fictional dictionaries, digital chronotopes in science fiction, oneiric soundscapes, ecocritical temporalities, and urban spacetime has appeared in PRISM, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, SFRA Review, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, and International Journal of Heritage Studies. She hosts the podcast Sinophone Unrealities and the literary blog Her current project is a cross-genre study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism.