One of the lasting tropes from 20th-century pulp fiction is of the city where “East meets West,” places like Shanghai and Hong Kong. There’s a romanticism to that idea of a wealthy, cosmopolitan, dangerous city where the rules aren’t quite what you’d expect—but obviously all of it is rooted in extremely racist colonial and orientalist treatments of Asians as uncivilized Others and their land as a place to impose Western culture by force.
My question is: is there a way to use some of these tropes, to capture the romance and mystery of those old settings, without replaying and reinforcing the hateful dynamics they were originally founded on? Or is the whole concept best just tossed out as a whitewash of colonialism?
Hey N, thanks for writing in!
You’re absolutely right that most of these classic “East Meets West” stories are at best full of orientalist exotification, and while I’m by no means an expert, I suspect rehabilitating them would be an extremely tall order.
The core problem is that these stories rely on a non-white culture to provide novelty, and doing that is always going to be problematic, even if you lean away from the idea of Asian culture being inherently dangerous and unlawful. It’s certainly possible to write a story about a city where two cultures meet, but using the less powerful culture for novelty is probably never going to work.
I think the closest we could get is to flip the script and have someone from the less powerful culture venture into the lands of a more powerful culture. This character could certainly see things that would appear exotic to them, since the more powerful culture is wealthier and can use that wealth to build cool stuff. At the same time, there’s an inherent element of danger, since not only does your protagonist not know the rules of this exotic land, but they’re probably under heavier scrutiny on account of being a foreigner.
Of course, flipping the script like this doesn’t erase the difficulties of portraying another culture respectfully, which we have an entire blog series on. If you want to do this, my recommendation is to use a parallel, just to be on the safe side. Maybe your protagonist is a human visiting an elven city for the first time? The great crystal nodes are like nothing they’ve ever seen, but they have difficulty navigating the elves’ arcane laws about magic.
You’d still need to make sure the elves aren’t an obvious stand in for some real-world group, but that’s usually easier than trying to portray a culture you aren’t part of.
Hope that helps, and good luck with your writing!