Pigs and Desire in Lillian Ng´s "Swallowing Clouds"





literature, pigs, sex, desire, food

How to Cite

Ribas-Segura, C. (2010). Pigs and Desire in Lillian Ng´s "Swallowing Clouds". M/C Journal, 13(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.292
Vol. 13 No. 5 (2010): pig
Published 2010-10-17


Lillian Ng was born in Singapore and lived in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom before migrating to Australia with her daughter and Ah Mah Yin Jie (“Ah Mahs are a special group of people who took a vow to remain unmarried … [so they] could stick together as a group and make a living together” (Yu 118)). Ng studied classical Chinese at home, then went to an English school and later on studied Medicine. Her first book, Silver Sister (1994), was short-listed for the inaugural Angus & Robertson/Bookworld Prize in 1993 and won the Human Rights Award in 1995. Ng defines herself as a “Chinese living in Australia” (Yu 115).

Food, flesh and meat are recurrent topics in Lillian Ng´s second novel Swallowing Clouds, published in 1997. These topics are related to desire and can be used as a synecdoche (a metaphor that describes part/whole relations) of the human body: food is needed to survive and pleasure can be obtained from other people´s bodies. This paper focuses on one type of meat and animal, pork and the pig, and on the relation between the two main characters, Syn and Zhu Zhiyee.

Syn, the main character in the novel, is a Shanghainese student studying English in Sydney who becomes stranded after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. As she stops receiving money from her mother and fears repression if she goes back to China, she begins to work in a Chinese butcher shop, owned by Zhu Zhiyee, which brings her English lessons to a standstill. Syn and Zhu Zhiyee soon begin a two-year love affair, despite the fact that Zhu Zhiyee is married to KarLeng and has three daughters.

The novel is structured as a prologue and four days, each of which has a different setting and temporal location. The prologue introduces the story of an adulterous woman who was punished to be drowned in a pig´s basket in the HuanPu River in the summer of 1918. As learnt later on, Syn is the reincarnation of this woman, whose purpose in life is to take revenge on men by taking their money. The four days, from the 4th to the 7th of June 1994, mark the duration of a trip to Beijing and Shanghai that Syn takes as member of an Australian expedition in order to visit her mother with the security of an Australian passport. During these four days, the reader learns about different Chinese landmarks, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Ming Tomb and the Summer Palace, as well as some cultural events, such as a Chinese opera and eating typical foods like Peking duck. However, the bulk of the plot of the book deals with the sexual relationship, erotic games and fantasies of Syn and Zhu Zhiyee in the period between 1989 and 1992, as well as Syn´s final revenge in January 1993.


The fact that Zhu Zhiyee is a butcher allows Lillian Ng to include references to pigs and pork throughout the novel. Some of them refer to the everyday work of a butcher shop, as the following examples illustrate:

“Come in and help me with the carcass,” he [Zhu Zhiyee] pointed to a small suckling pig hung on a peg. Syn hesitated, not knowing how to handle the situation. “Take the whole pig with the peg,” he commanded (11).

Under dazzling fluorescent tubes and bright spotlights, trays of red meat, pork chops and lamb cutlets sparkled like jewels … The trays edged with red cellophane frills and green underlay breathed vitality and colour into the slabs of pork ribs and fillets (15).

Buckets of pig´s blood with a skim of froth took their place on the floor; gelled ones, like sliced cubes of large agate, sat in tin trays labelled in Chinese. More discreetly hidden were the gonads and penises of goats, bulls and pigs. (16)

These examples are representative of Syn and Zhu Zhiyee´s relationship. The first quotation deals with their interaction: most of the time Zhu Zhiyee orders Syn how to act, either in the shop or in bed. The second extract describes the meat’s “vitality” and this is the quality of Syn's skin that mesmerised Zhu when he met her: “he was excited, electrified by the sight of her unblemished, translucent skin, unlined, smooth as silk. The glow of the warmth of human skin” (13). Moreover, the lights seem to completely illuminate the pieces of meat and this is the way Zhu Zhiyee leers at Syn´s body, as it can be read in the following extract: “he turned again to fix his gaze on Syn, which pierced and penetrated her head, her brain, eyes, permeated her whole body, seeped into her secret places and crevices” (14). The third excerpt introduces the sexual organs of some of the animals, which are sold to some customers for a high price. Meat is also sexualised by Zhu Zhiyee´s actions, such as his pinching the bottoms of chickens and comparing them with “sacrificial virgins”: “chickens, shamelessly stripped and trussed, hung by their necks, naked in their pimply white skin, seemed like sacrificial virgins. Syn often caught Zhu pinching their fleshy bottoms, while wrapping and serving them to the housewives” (15-16). Zhu also makes comments relating food with sex while he is having lunch next to Syn, which could be considered sexual harassment. All these extracts exemplify the relationship between Syn and Zhu Zhiyee: the orders, the looks and the implicit sexuality in the quotidian activities in the butcher´s shop.

There are also a range of other expressions that include similes with the word `pig´ in Ng´s novel. One of the most recurrent is comparing the left arm and hand of Zhu Zhiyee´s mother with a “pig´s trotter”. Zhu Zhiyee´s mother is known as ZhuMa and Syn is very fond of her, as ZhuMa accepts her and likes her more than her own daughter-in-law. The comparison of ZhuMa´s arm and hand with a trotter may be explained by the fact that ZhuMa´s arm is swollen but also by the loving representation of pigs in Chinese culture. As Seung-Og Kim explains in his article “Burials, Pigs, and Political Prestige in Neolithic China”:

In both Melanesia and Asia, pigs are viewed as a symbolic representation of human beings (Allen 1976: 42; Healey 1985; Rappaport 1967: 58; Roscoe 1989: 223-26). Piglets are treated as pets and receive a great deal of loving attention, and they in turn express affection for their human “parents.” They also share some physiological features with human beings, being omnivorous and highly reproductive (though humans do not usually have multiple litters) and similar internal anatomy (Roscoe 1989: 225). In short, pigs not only have a symbiotic relationship with humans biologically but also are of great importance symbolically (121).

Consequently, pigs are held in high esteem, taken care of and loved. Therefore, comparing a part of a human´s body, such as an arm or a hand, for example, to a part of a pig´s body such as a pig´s trotter is not negative, but has positive connotations. Some descriptions of ZhuMa´s arm and hand can be read in the following excerpts: “As ZhuMa handed her the plate of cookies Syn saw her left arm, swollen like a pig´s trotter” (97); “Syn was horrified, and yet somewhat intrigued by this woman without a breast, with a pig´s trotter arm and a tummy like a chessboard” (99), “mimicking the act of writing with her pig-trotter hand” (99), and ZhuMa was praising the excellence of the opera, the singing, acting, the costumes, and the elaborate props, waving excitedly with her pig trotter arm and pointing with her stubby fingers while she talked. (170)

Moreover, the expression “pig´s trotters” is also used as an example of the erotic fetishism with bound feet, as it can be seen in the following passage, which will be discussed below:

I [Zhu Zhiyee] adore feet which are slender… they seem so soft, like pig´s trotters, so cute and loving, they play tricks on your mind. Imagine feeling them in bed under your blankets—soft cottonwool lumps, plump and cuddly, makes you want to stroke them like your lover´s hands … this was how the bound feet appealed to men, the erotic sensation when balanced on shoulders, clutched in palms, strung to the seat of a garden swing … no matter how ugly a woman is, her tiny elegant feet would win her many admirers (224).

Besides writing about pigs and pork as part of the daily work of the butcher shop and using the expression “pig´s trotter”, “pig” is also linked to money in two sentences in the book. On the one hand, it is used to calculate a price and draw attention to the large amount it represents: “The blouse was very expensive—three hundred dollars, the total takings from selling a pig. Two pigs if he purchased two blouses” (197). On the other, it works as an adjective in the expression “piggy-bank”, the money box in the form of a pig, an animal that represents abundance and happiness in the Chinese culture: “She borrowed money from her neighbours, who emptied pieces of silver from their piggy-banks, their life savings”(54).

Finally, the most frequent porcine expression in Ng´s Swallowing Clouds makes reference to being drowned in a pig´s basket, which represents 19 of the 33 references to pigs or pork that appear in the novel. The first three references appear in the prologue (ix, x, xii), where the reader learns the story of the last woman who was killed by drowning in a pig´s basket as a punishment for her adultery. After this, two references recount a soothsayer´s explanation to Syn about her nightmares and the fact that she is the reincarnation of that lady (67, 155); three references are made by Syn when she explains this story to Zhu Zhiyee and to her companion on the trip to Beijing and Shanghai (28, 154, 248); one refers to a feeling Syn has during sexual intercourse with Zhu Zhiyee (94); and one when the pig basket is compared to a cricket box, a wicker or wooden box used to carry or keep crickets in a house and listen to them singing (73). Furthermore, Syn reflects on the fact of drowning (65, 114, 115, 171, 172, 173, 197, 296) and compares her previous death with that of Concubine Pearl, the favourite of Emperor Guanxu, who was killed by order of his aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi (76-77). The punishment of drowning in a pig´s basket can thus be understood as retribution for a transgression: a woman having an extra-marital relationship, going against the establishment and the boundaries of the authorised. Both the woman who is drowned in a pig´s basket in 1918 and Syn have extra-marital affairs and break society’s rules. However, the consequences are different: the concubine dies and Syn, her reincarnation, takes revenge.

Desire, Transgression and Eroticism

Xavier Pons writes about desire, repression, freedom and transgression in his book Messengers of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing (2009). In this text, he explains that desire can be understood as a positive or as a negative feeling. On the one hand, by experiencing desire, a person feels alive and has joy de vivre, and if that person is desired in return, then, the feelings of being accepted and happiness are also involved (13). On the other hand, desire is often repressed, as it may be considered evil, anarchic, an enemy of reason and an alienation from consciousness (14). According to Pons:

Sometimes repression, in the form of censorship, comes from the outside—from society at large, or from particular social groups—because of desire´s subversive nature, because it is a force which, given a free rein, would threaten the higher purpose which a given society assigns to other (and usually ideological) forces … Repression may also come from the inside, via the internalization of censorship … desire is sometimes feared by the individual as a force alien to his/her true self which would leave him/her vulnerable to rejection or domination, and would result in loss of freedom (14).

Consequently, when talking about sexual desire, the two main concepts to be dealt with are freedom and transgression. As Pons makes clear, “the desiring subject can be taken advantage of, manipulated like a puppet [as h]is or her freedom is in this sense limited by the experience of desire” (15). While some practices may be considered abusive, such as bondage or sado-masochism, they may be deliberately and freely chosen by the partners involved. In this case, these practices represent “an encounter between equals: dominance is no more than make-believe, and a certain amount of freedom (as much as is compatible with giving oneself up to one´s fantasies) is maintained throughout” (24). Consequently, the perception of freedom changes with each person and situation.

What is transgressive depends on the norms in every culture and, as these evolve, so do the forms of transgression (Pons 43). Examples of transgressions can be: firstly, the separation of sex from love, adultery or female and male homosexuality, which happen with the free will of the partners; or, secondly, paedophilia, incest or bestiality, which imply abuse. Going against society’s norms involves taking risks, such as being discovered and exiled from society or feeling isolated as a result of a feeling of difference. As the norms change according to culture, time and person, an individual may transgress the rules and feel liberated, but later on do the same thing and feel alienated. As Pons declares, “transgressing the rules does not always lead to liberation or happiness—transgression can turn into a trap and turn out to be simply another kind of alienation” (46).

In Swallowing Clouds, Zhu Zhiyee transgresses the social norms of his time by having an affair with Syn: firstly, because it is extra-marital, he and his wife, KarLeng, are Catholic and fidelity is one of the promises made when getting married; and, secondly, because he is Syn´s boss and his comments and ways of flirting with her could be considered sexual harassment. For two years, the affair is an escape from Zhu Zhiyee´s daily worries and stress and a liberation and fulfillment of his sexual desires. However, he introduces Syn to his mother and his sisters, who accept her and like her more than his wife. He feels trapped, though, when KarLeng guesses and threatens him with divorce. He cannot accept this as it would mean loss of face in their neighbourhood and society, and so he decides to abandon Syn. Syn´s transgression becomes a trap for her as Zhu, his mother and his sisters have become her only connection with the outside world in Australia and this alienates her from both the country she lives in and the people she knows. However, Syn´s transgression also turns into a trap for Zhu Zhiyee because she will not sign the documents to give him the house back and every month she sends proof of their affair to KarLeng in order to cause disruption in their household. This exposure could be compared with the humiliation suffered by the concubine when she was paraded in a pig´s basket before she was drowned in the HuangPu River. Furthermore, the reader does not know whether KarLeng finally divorces Zhu Zhiyee, which would be his drowning and loss of face and dishonour in front of society, but can imagine the humiliation, shame and disgrace KarLeng makes him feel every month.

Pons also depicts eroticism as a form of transgression. In fact, erotic relations are a power game, and seduction can be a very effective weapon. As such, women can use seduction to obtain power and threaten the patriarchal order, which imposes on them patterns of behaviour, language and codes to follow. However, men also use seduction to get their own benefits, especially in political and social contexts. “Power has often been described as the ultimate aphrodisiac” (Pons 32) and this can be seen in many of the sexual games between Syn and Zhu Zhiyee in Swallowing Clouds, where Zhu Zhiyee is the active partner and Syn becomes little more than an object that gives pleasure. A clear reference to erotic fetishism is embedded in the above-mentioned quote on bound feet, which are compared to pig´s trotters. In fact, bound feet were so important in China in the millennia between the Song Dynasty (960-1276) and the early 20th century that “it was impossible to find a husband” (Holman) without them: “As women’s bound feet and shoes became the essence of feminine beauty, a fanatical aesthetic and sexual mystique developed around them. The bound foot was understood to be the most intimate and erotic part of the female anatomy, and wives, consorts and prostitutes were chosen solely on the size and shape of their feet” (Holman). Bound feet are associated in Ng’s novel with pig´s trotters and are described as “cute and loving … soft cottonwool lumps, plump and cuddly, [that] makes you want to stroke them like your lover´s hands” (224). This approach towards bound feet and, by extension, towards pig´s trotters, can be related to the fond feelings Melanesian and Asian cultures have towards piglets, which “are treated as pets and receive a great deal of loving attention” (Kim 121). Consequently, the bound feet can be considered a synecdoche for the fond feelings piglets inspire.

Food and Sex

The fact that Zhu Zhiyee is a butcher and works with different types of meat, including pork, that he chops it, sells it and gives cooking advice, is not gratuitous in the novel. He is used to being in close proximity to meat and death and seeing Syn’s pale skin through which he can trace her veins excites him. Her flesh is alive and represents, therefore, the opposite of meat. He wants to seduce her, which is human hunting, and he wants to study her, to enjoy her body, which can be compared to animals looking at their prey and deciding where to start eating from. Zhu´s desire for Syn seems destructive and dangerous. In the novel, bodies have a price: dead animals are paid for and eaten and their role is the satiation of human hunger. But humans, who are also animals, have a price as well: flesh is paid for, in the form of prostitution or being a mistress, and its aim is satiation of human sex.

Generally speaking, sex in the novel is compared to food either in a direct or an indirect way, and making love is constantly compared to cooking, the preparation of food and eating (as in Pons 303). Many passages in Swallowing Clouds have cannibalistic connotations, all of these being used as metaphors for Zhu Zhiyee’s desire for Syn. As mentioned before, desire can be positive (as it makes a person feel alive) or negative (as a form of internal or social censorship). For Zhu Zhiyee, desire is positive and similar to a drug he is addicted to. For example, when Zhu and Syn make delivery rounds in an old Mazda van, he plays the recordings he made the previous night when they were having sex and tries to guess when each moan happened.

Sex and Literature

Pons explains that “to write about sex … is to address a host of issues—social, psychological and literary—which together pretty much define a culture” (6). Lillian Ng´s Swallowing Clouds addresses a series of issues. The first of these could be termed ‘the social’: Syn´s situation after the Tiananmen Massacre; her adulterous relationship with her boss and being treated and considered his mistress; the rapes in Inner Mongolia; different reasons for having an abortion; various forms of abuse, even by a mother of her mentally handicapped daughter; the loss of face; betrayal; and revenge. The second issue is the ‘psychological’, with the power relations and strategies used between different characters, psychological abuse, physical abuse, humiliation, and dependency. The third is the ‘literary’, as when the constant use of metaphors with Chinese cultural references becomes farcical, as Tseen Khoo notes in her article “Selling Sexotica” (2000: 164). Khoo explains that, “in the push for Swallowing Clouds to be many types of novels at once: [that is, erotica, touristic narrative and popular], it fails to be any one particularly successfully” (171). Swallowing Clouds is disturbing, full of stereotypes, and with repeated metaphors, and does not have a clear readership and, as Khoo states: “The explicit and implicit strategies behind the novel embody the enduring perceptions of what exotic, multicultural writing involves—sensationalism, voyeuristic pleasures, and a seemingly deliberate lack of rooted-ness in the Australian socioscape (172).

Furthermore, Swallowing Clouds has also been defined as “oriental grunge, mostly because of the progression throughout the narrative from one gritty, exoticised sexual encounter to another” (Khoo 169-70).Other novels which have been described as “grunge” are Edward Berridge´s Lives of the Saints (1995), Justine Ettler´s The River Ophelia (1995), Linda Jaivin´s Eat Me (1995), Andrew McGahan´s Praise (1992) and 1988 (1995), Claire Mendes´ Drift Street (1995) or Christos Tsiolkas´ Loaded (1995) (Michael C). The word “grunge” has clear connotations with “dirtiness”—a further use of pig, but one that is not common in the novel. The vocabulary used during the sexual intercourse and games between Syn and Zhu Zhiyee is, however, coarse, and “the association of sex with coarseness is extremely common” (Pons 344). Pons states that “writing about sex is an attempt to overcome [the barriers of being ashamed of some human bodily functions], regarded as unnecessarily constrictive, and this is what makes it by nature transgressive, controversial” (344-45). Ng´s use of vocabulary in this novel is definitely controversial, indeed, so much so that it has been defined as banal or even farcical (Khoo 169-70).


This paper has analysed the use of the words and expressions: “pig”, “pork” and “drowning in a pig’s basket” in Lillian Ng´s Swallowing Clouds. Moreover, the punishment of drowning in a pig’s basket has served as a means to study the topics of desire, transgression and eroticism, in relation to an analysis of the characters of Syn and Zhu Zhiyee, and their relationship. This discussion of various terminology relating to “pig” has also led to the study of the relationship between food and sex, and sex and literature, in this novel. Consequently, this paper has analysed the use of the term “pig” and has used it as a springboard for the analysis of some aspects of the novel together with different theoretical definitions and concepts.


A version of this paper was given at the International Congress Food for Thought, hosted by the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Barcelona in February 2010.


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Author Biography

Catalina Ribas-Segura, University of Barcelona

Caty Ribas Segura is a teacher at the Department of Languages at the University College Alberta Giménez and runs its International Relations Office. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona. In 2005 she defended her minor thesis on “`We, who were born here, are quite another´: Greek Migrant Writing in Australia, 1977-1995” and is now working on her PhD thesis, where she furthers her research on Chinese and Greek migrant literature in Australia. She is a member of the Australian Studies Centre and in 2007 she was the guest editor of its journal Coolabah 1: This Foreign Country