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A Vietnamese man stands in front of an open window burning a letter, with the flames obscuring half of his face in The Sympathizer
Hoa Xuande as The Captain in Max’s upcoming adaptation of The Sympathizer
Image: Max

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A disguise hides even more than identity in Asian American spy stories

Drawing a line through The Sympathizer, M. Butterfly, and espionage history

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In the opening pages of Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee’s celebrated debut novel from 1995, Korean American protagonist Henry Park is handed a note by his wife as she leaves him. “You are surreptitious,” it begins, pinning him with descriptives, “[a] follower, traitor, spy.”

As it turns out, Park is a spy of sorts. At the behest of a shady organization that only employs people of color, he befriends people of influence and destabilizes their leadership by gathering compromising information. He has kept this life hidden from his white wife, leading to suspicion, conflict, and eventual separation. The novel vacillates between Park’s lives and identities, focusing on how his life of disguise leaves him unseen in both his personal and professional lives, and even by himself.

Polygon is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.

In Lee’s novel and in other Asian American literature, spies appear as a narrative prism that illuminates the experience of the Asian diaspora. Placed between worlds, nations, and communities, these spies question to whom Asian Americans owe their loyalty and begin to deconstruct the binary of belonging and foreignness.

Before taking root in literary imagination, spies have had concrete roots in Asian American history. The 2021 book Asian American Spies by Brian Masaru Hayashi details the declassified lives of three Asian American spies in World War II.

Working for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, these spies leveraged their language, appearance, and cultural experience to provide intelligence services to the U.S. throughout the war. Hayashi structures the book around the work of three main spies: the Japanese American Joe Koide, the Korean American Kunsung Rie, and the Chinese American Lincoln Kan. Their work ranged from producing propaganda to destabilizing foreign war efforts to reporting on war crimes or slowing down the progress of foreign troops.

Central to the book is the presence of a mole within the OSS in the early 1940s, and how the Asian American spies were held in suspicion. A double agent was leaking secrets, and because the office’s recruitment centered around personal connections, essentially an “old boy network” according to Hayashi, suspicion lay upon those on the fringes, like the Asian Americans brought in for their expertise in Asian territories. But over the course of the book, Hayashi eventually reveals the identity of a mole within the OSS to be one of the old boys, a highly educated and connected white American.

the cover for Native Speaker featuring an ink print of a photo of a Korean American man, and a smaller photograph of a boy in a cowboy outfit Image: Riverhead Books

The questioning of these spies’ Asian American loyalty, even as they risked their lives behind enemy lines, points to something elusive within the conflicted relationship between the U.S. and the Asian diaspora living within it. The long history of immigration acts points to the perceived threat of Asians in America, both to family structures and to a constructed nationalist loyalty. But for the Asian American authors placing spies in their novels, the contested loyalty rarely leads to trying to prove loyalty but to actually leaning into the suspicion. Asian Americans, pushed away from the definition of being American from the inception of the country, all have an experience of living in disguise and perhaps even working against the American project.

The acclaimed novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is presented as the confession of a double agent after being captured and undergoing torture. The unnamed protagonist lives in a constellation of identities that all try to lay claim to his loyalty. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” the protagonist writes. “Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”

Rather than portraying a tension between being American or foreign, Nguyen’s protagonist is caught between many powers and identities, all claiming his attention and loyalty. Set in the 1970s, the protagonist works as a mole for North Vietnamese powers and spies on the refugee South Vietnamese communities in California. He is biracial, half Vietnamese and half French, and was raised in Vietnam but went to college in the U.S. He witnesses both the decline of the South Vietnamese community and the flattening that happens to him in the U.S. with other Asian Americans. He consults on American films about the war but ends up grating against the director’s desire to produce a triumphal portrayal of the war and America.

For Lee’s protagonist in Native Speaker, the contested loyalties are less historical but focus on Park’s target, John Kwang, a Korean American politician on the rise in New York. As Park works to find dirt on Kwang, he grows affectionate toward him as another Korean American. He sees his struggle and identifies with it and even idolizes Kwang’s authoritative and powerful persona.

Park feels conflicted about destabilizing Kwang’s political campaign for mayor for an unknown power, but as Kwang’s campaign unravels and reveals a gang’s support network and Kwang’s own personal failings and abuse of women, Park betrays him and reveals his connections to underground crime as his last job before quitting.

As racist protests erupt against Kwang, Park rejects the constructed dilemma between supporting an abusive Korean American or working for the shady powers that be. After leaving the campaign, he quits his job as a spy.

Rene (Clive Owen) hugs Song (Jin Ha) in a still from the Broadway revival of M. Butterfly
M. Butterfly (2017 Broadway revival)
Photo: In Fine Company

Far from uncommon, the thread of spies betraying their profession and shedding their disguise runs through Asian American literature. In American playwright David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, the opera singer turned spy Song Liling develops an intimate relationship with a French diplomat who thinks Song is a woman. The play is based on true events and the relationship between Shi Pei Pu and Bernard Boursicot.

In the play, the diplomat is serving a sentence for treason and laments the 20-year relationship that he had with Song. After Song reveals his identity to the diplomat and removes his disguise, the diplomat rejects him and claims that he only loved Butterfly, the female persona that Song inhabited, and not Song himself. Song has genuine love for the diplomat, but he himself is only loved when in disguise.

Each of the spies in both novels and Hwang’s play rejects the profession of hiding as they see it impacting their ability to be loved and understood, to be seen. After years of living multiple lives, Nguyen’s protagonist unburdens himself through his confession and disappears into a crowded boat of refugees in the closing scenes.

In Native Speaker, Park’s long life in disguise has slowly caused him to lose touch with both his wife and himself, but in his act of defiance to both betray the supposedly Asian American civic ideal in Kwang and quit his job, he regains authenticity to himself and blends into New York in the end of the novel.

By exploring the arcs of their protagonists as spies, these Asian American writers explain the experience of the Asian diaspora as one of always living in disguise. But rather than leaning into the need to prove loyalty or work for anyone, these spies reject the job altogether.