A battered borrowed copy of Lawerence Chua's Gold by the Inch resides on my shelves, a perch from where it has glared at me for nearly a decade. Every couple of years, I'd tackle it again, hoping to peel back the layers enough to finally understand the subtext's subtext. I even read a scholarly article on it, finding points of agreement but dismissing the thesis in the end. The article did focus other elements for me, on themes of exclusion and identity within a commerce-driven global marketplace.
Yes, Chua’s novel is a critique of colonial consumerism in Southeast Asia, but it is also a rich tapestry strewn with lush imagery and an inescapable sense of loss. Moving about in time, perspective and tense, it is best described as the travel tale of a young, queer Asian-American of Thai descent. Excluded at home and abroad, his search for an authentic Thai/Malaysian identity is met with distrust and amusement, hampered by his own Western privilege.
Arriving in Thailand after the death of his estranged father, the narrator drifts from his brother’s high-rise apartment in Bangkok to the hospitality of relatives and strangers in outlying villages, eventually reaching his grandmother’s grave in Penang Malaysia. Trailed by the ghosts of estrangement and remnants of pre-colonial life, Chua evokes the homeless felt by those in diaspora.
Despite his craving for a native identity, Chua’s nameless protagonist tears through the bars and brothels of Bangkok with Western appetites. Reeling from an affair in which his own body was commodified for its otherness, he engages the affections of a prostitute, imagining them as equals in the exchange.
In the end, the dense, often opaque prose of Gold by the Inch is the oddest mix of explicit hedonism, global commentary and passionate sorrow. It is a book that stays with you, even when you've barely scratched its surface.