• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,083,283 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

[764] The Crippled Tree – Suyin Han


“It was impossible to isolate either my father or my mother from history itself, the history of their period in China. As impossible as it was for Proust, writing about himself, to cut himself and his characters from the period in which they lived and the events to which they reacted. We are all products of our time, vulnerable to history. I was born because there has been, in China, a Boxer Rebellion (as the Europeans called it) in 1900, and because of this event, which the Chinese cal the Uprising of the Righteous Fists, my Chinese father, instead of becoming a classical scholar, perhaps a Hanling Academician, married my Belgian mother. The tree is known by its roots. I had to go back to the roots.” (Ch.1, p.10)

The Crippled Tree is the first of an autobiograhical series dated from 1885. Han Suyin (real name Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou) was a Eurasian writer born of a Chinese father of Szechuan stock a and Belgium mother, raised in China but educated abroad later, where she married and divorced a British army officer.

This first volume introduces the circumstances in late 19th century under which her father, a native of Szechuan scholar family who was commissioned by the then-weakening Manchu (Qing) monarchy to study railway enginnering abroad, met her Belgian mother. Their romantic pairing takes the couple confidently back to China, only to confront harsh conflicts and prejudices on all sides—ultimately undermining their love, and shaping resentments that cripple their life together, and the future of their children.

As Han has noted in the very beginning, private life is inevitably woven into history. Everything that happened on a large scale influenced also private life. The book is itself woven with the belligerebnt events in China as monarchy is weakened during a time of uprisings to form a republic. Han’s father is from a gentry background. He is pruned to become a scholar and official. The Manchus have relied on the Chinese gentry to organize levies of Chinese provincial militia to fight the Taiping Uprising.

I found The Crippled Tree a very slow read, mainly because Han Suyin recounts not just her own life, but that of her various family members, using detailed excerpts from diaries and letters that probe many experiences exhaustively. She draws from the letters of her parents, as well as diary entries of her Third Uncle, who went on to military academy and fought in the war with Chiang Kai Shek. It is easy to get bogged down in specifics, and become diverted from the overall relationships being traced.

It was Papa being Chinese, and to be a Chinese in China was wrong, only being European was right. (Ch. 23, p.384)

The broad scope and the expanse of the history make this an important read on China during the period Han is documenting. That the Western powers have stripped China off its capitalist power made it convenient for Japan to conquer China in 1895 and helped bring forth the Revolution in 1911. It illuminates how the Manchus managed to twist the demand for change and the hatred against the manchu monarchy into a hatred against the foreigners. Knowing the rising restlessness among the reformers, the manchus diverted the violence, which threatened to be anti-dynastic to an anti-foreign frenzy, then condemned it. But all the foreign powers that offer China financial help in building the railway also had political motives.

All these events played a role in the domestic turbulence at home. Han’s mother becomes a piteous victim of her situations for her remaining years in China. She is a dislocated, hectic, miserable, and suspicious woman, who is a target of Chinese’s verbal attack. She is given to fits of rage and tears, developing a lifelong addiction to anger. She blames Han (Rosalie) for the death of her son. As a grown woman, Han wants to research and write about the years in which her relationship with her mother had gone cold. The Crippled Tree is a powerful and compelling book, because it presents such a vivid and comprehensive picture of parts of China, and how they were devastated by the years of foreign intervention that marked this period. As for Han and her parents, a mixed marriage is proved to be even tougher. The book depicts the beauty and brutality of the life around her, the pressure of living between irreconcilable contradictions in a China where to be Chinese was to be a beggar, to be European was to be a “foreign devil.”

503 pp. Bantam Book. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Han Suyin, Crippled Tree, 19-20th Century China


I came know about Han Suyin from the movie Love is A Many-Splendored Thing with William Horton and Jennifer Jones. It’s the story of an American reporter who falls in love with an Eurasian doctor originally from China, only to encounter prejudice from her family and from the Hong Kong society. Han Suyin is the author of the book and she is, herself, a Belgian-Chinese. The film is based on her autobiographical novel A Many-Splendored Thing.

In The Crippled Tree, Han researches and writes about her Eurasian roots, beginning with the tumultuous events toward the end of 19th century that weakened the monarchy of Qing Dynasty. It was during the time of uncertainty and disquiet that his father, a native of the distant Szechuan province, was born. A man born into the scholar-gentry class, Han’s father was selected by the government to study railroad engineering in Brussels, where he met Han’s mother, Maguerite Denis.

In a time of change and revolution, the clash between the old (monarchy) and new (reform), everything happened on a large scale influenced also private life. This is what Han sees to capture, to reconstruct the lives of her parents as they cope with the changes in China. For me, the book is an eye-opening testimony to the final years of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty, as the Empress Dowager, under the pretext that her son the Emperor was ill, interfered with and took over administration. It’s appalling how Manchus managed to twist the peasants’ demand for change and the hatred against monarchy into hatred against the foreigners. Equally stunning is how Western powers manipulate the Chinese, by offering loan to complete the railway to keep china under control.

[651] The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig


” And, oddly, one lived the war in one’s mind more intensively than at home in a country at war, because here the problem became objective, and so to speak, wholly detached from any national interest in victory or defeat. The war was soon, no longer from a political standpoint, but rather as a European matter, as a horribleand mighty happening which was not merely to change some boundary lines on the map but the form and future of our world. ” (XI: In the Heart of Europe, p.274)

Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, published a year after his suicide in Brazil in 1942, is not a conventional one, for it is a mirror of an age rather than of a life. Once the most popular writer in the world in terms of translations, this volume, however, is not intended as Zweig’s literary testament, but a skillful momento of an era as seen through the eyes of one of its outstanding citizens. Zweig is far too shy and modest a man to draw attention to himself, let alone to write the story of his life. But he feels obliged to record and capture the golden age that was no more as Europe turned into madness and barbarism. It is through The World of Yesterday that w appreciate the full measure of a man in the lost era before the First World War.

It was too painful for me to cast another glance at the beautiful country which had fallen prey to gruesome devastation through foreign guilt; Europe seemed to me doomed to die by its own madness; Europe, our sacred home, cradle and Parthenon of our occidental civilization. (XVI: The Agony of Peace, p.398)

This memoir reinforces the point that his art is often self-effacing and certainly not self-revelatory. It also reveals much about the genteel world that made him. Therefore, it’s more than an autobiography; it’s a long lament for a lost world, a testament to the (diminishing) values of decency, toleration, humanism, and artistic and cultural endeavor—since his expulsion from the paradise of the “world of security,” the Austro-Hungarian empire, although he was realist enough to see that the world in which he grew up was in many ways a fool’s paradise, “naught but a castle of dreams.”

The outbreak of the First World War shatters forever this world in which Zweig had been insulated by affluence, culture, and a sure sense of style against remote conflicts and conflagrations. Now he finds himself encroached by global clashes and cataclysms, aghast at the war’s power to break ties and corrode loyalties. Despite being a brave and outspoken pacifist during WWI, advocating against mass litany of hatred and dreadful hysteria, he is too exhausted to live after the rise of Hitler and in the wake of the Second World War. Not only was Hitler’s seizure of power beyond the comprehension of even the ample minds, it also represents the absolute, nightmarish opposite of every value Zweig believed in and held dear. Zweig’s sense of acuity presents the details as if they become available for the first time. He depicts how a power that loves violence and stands in need of it and to which all those concepts to which we held and for which we lived—peace, humanity, conciliation—seemed infirmities of a bygone day. The book is a prominent portrait of the turn-of-the-century Vienna and European culture prior to World War I.

454 pp. Bison Book. (1964) [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[549] Below Stairs – Margaret Powell


” We always called them ‘them.’ ‘Them’ was the enemy. ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil. ” (Ch.14, p.91)

In 1968 debut author Margaret Powell published Below Stairs, a memoir of the ten years she had spent in domestic service earlier in the century. Daughter of a seasonally-employed house painter and a char lady, who cannot afford her education, Powell had no choice about going into service. By the age of eight the little girl (eldest of seven kids) already knew what it was like to queue at the soup kitchen and collection banisters for fuel.

Although much of what I have said may make you think I was envious of the lives of other people this wasn’t really the case. It was the inequality and the unfairness that struck me so much of the time. (Ch.16, p.117)

Although she won a scholarship to attend grammar school at age 13, at her parents’ insistence she started working in a commercial laundry until she was 15. Used to cooking for her six siblings and loathing needlework, Powell opted to be a kitchen maid, “the lowest of the low,” (Ch.8, p.41) rather than take a slightly more genteel post as under-housemaid. Powell is very good at dramatizing those mortifying moments when a servant’s lack of self-hood are brought painfully home to her. In one household she was looked down as something sub-human when he tried to hand her mistress a newspaper (without placing it on a silver tray). In another provisions were rationed, as the mistress insisted on keeping the key to the store cupboard with her at all times. Still another expressed surprise that one of her maids should want to borrow a book from her library shelves.

Girls like me who they considered came from poverty-stricken homes should be glad to work in a large home with food and warmth. To them upstairs, any home was better than the one that you lived in with your parents. . . . And as for domestic servants having aspirations to rise above the basement, such a thing was incredible to them. (Ch.21, p.167)

Despite what her memoir may sound like, Powell claims that she is not embittered about having had to go into domestic service. In fact, the memoir reflects the fact that during her time, almost 70 percent of the Britain population engaged in a workforce serving the privileged minority. While acknowledging that individual employers could be kind, Powell reassures readers of a maid’s lowly position and the inferiority complex the job triggers. But behind their impassive expressions and respectful demeanor hide servants’ scorn and derision. What angers Powell the most is the unfairness: Getting married is the only legitimate reason for quitting the job, yet having a boyfriend was an offense that would send a girl packing. Filled with keen observation, forthrightness, and honesty, Below Stairs gives a glimpse of life in the strictly class-driven society of 20th century England. What the book does not convey is the in-depth look into the domestic service since she quit after 10 years.

212 pp. St. Martin’s Griffin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Gertrude Stein and Jose Saramago

In at least two occasions from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein challenged for her unique writing style. T.S. Eliot called a revision to her “grammatical solecisms” and discussed why Gertrude Stein used them. The conversation was said to be a solemn one and it was all about “wool is wool and silk is silk or wool is woollen and silk is silken.” Earlier someone had been fascinated with what he had read in manuscript of The Making of Americans. But he pleaded for commas! Gertrude said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that “one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath.” Even this sentence itself, like many others in her writing, are a bit too long.

Which reminds me of Jose Saramago, Nobel-laureate Portuguese writer, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago’s experimental style often features (very) long sentences, at times more than a page long as in Blindness. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. Many of his paragraphs match the length of entire chapters by more traditional writers. He completely does away quotation marks to delimit dialogues—all the dialogues are embedded in the prose—when the speaker changes Saramago capitalizes the first letter of the new speaker’s clause.

I don’t consider the lack of commas and embedded dialogues “grammatical solecisms” as T.S. Eliot had staidly designated, so long as the writing is clear and the thought conveyed. What about you? What kind of writing style might discourage you from reading a book?

[135] From the Land of Green Ghosts – Pascal Khoo Thwe

“First we gave him water and a drip, intending to take him to Maechongson hospital later, but while we were tending to other sick people, a villager gave him a hearty dinner out of compassion. The porter sat up contentedly against a tree after his meal and fell asleep. When we tried to wake him up, he was already dead. His digestive system could not absorb the food after he starved for so many days. He had been allowed to eat himself to death.” (221)

This is one of the several passages that puts me to tears.

Pascal’s childhood was bombarded with horrible memories and anecdotes under the military regime of Burma. Stricken by poverty, his family had to grow poppies for extra money to feed the numerous young siblings. Twice the military-controlled government demonetized the banknotes and left thousands without a penny. Being a member of a tiny, remote Burmese tribe, he experienced first-hand the ethnic insurgencies that plagued the country. In 1962, U Ne Win, who claimed that the unity of the country was in danger, seized power in an almost bloodless coup. When he set up a one-party system, he banned all other political parties, shut down independent newspapers, and outlawed all student organizations. Like in any Communist country, one is supposed to revel the leader and never question the authority. Pascal had soon learned that happiness, if it ever existed, was not to be taken for granted. Happiness was as frail as a candlelight in the dark, flickering with every wind that blew. Pascal found himself rebelling against lessons, obedience, and good citizenship at the expense of traditional teaching. He could not formulate the thought that education was being invaded by political brainwashing. That he was told what to say and how to breathe simply made him sick. Nor would he realize the inveterate impact of this military regime, which was marked by hostility toward educated people, would penetrate his study at Cambridge University later. For the liberal education encouraged him to form his own opinion and nothing could have been more opposed to the whole pattern of his previous mentality, let alone education.

In 1988, the tension in Rangoon culminated in a full-blown insurrection. A university student who had been gunned down allegedly by civilians with connection to the leaders caused the volcanic eruption of political rage. That without warning the soldiers opened fire indiscriminately–shooting directly at the crowd and the monks, whom are universally revered in Burma–made Pascal join the guerrilla force of the rebels. He was among the thousands who had fled into the jungle, hoping to bring down the regime in a coalition of urban Burmese and their former enemies, the ethnic minority rebels. The encounter with Professor John Casey was pure chance. It was amazing how he kept in contact with him through letters in the jungle. What were the odds against his meeting a couple from Bangkok in the Chinese restaurant he worked in Mandalay, talking to them about James Joyce and literature, so that he provoked the interest of a Cambridge don who met them the day before he came to Burma, and who on the spur of the moment decided to visit the restaurant, and then as a result of Pascal’s writing to him from the jungle John had brought him to England and urged his case on Caius College.

From the Land of Green Ghosts embraces an uncanny experience of a young man’s escape out of a military regime that would have at first appeared a long shot. The indomitable determination with which he forced himself to overcome put to shame those who quit at the smallest obstacle. The pricking sensitiveness and haunting consciousness with which he described his post-trauma symptoms–warped sense of physical safety, the encroaching uncertainty, humility and fear–are as daunting as his painful recollection of his turmoil.The book gives a fairly good understanding of Burmese history and how the emergence of a military dictatorship has still fettered the country today.

On Burma, Another Memoir

Chance encounter with a visiting professor from Cambridge changed the life of Pascal Khoo Thwe, a member of the remote Burmese tribe known for the giraffe-necked women. They struck up a scholarly correspondence that would take Pascal from the brutal hardships of guerrilla warfare to the hallowed world of Cambridge University. I just started the book which has a brief history of Burma–the rise of Burmese Socialist Programme Party and the Burma Nationalists, the latter being responsible for helping the Japanese Imperial Army invade Burma, hoping in reward for Burma’s independence.

In 1962 U Ne Win, claiming that the unity of the country was in danger, seized power in an almost bloodless coup. But he regarded himself as the Father of the Country, and made no distinction between his own and the national wealth. His regime was marked by hostility to educated people. When he set up the one-party system, he banned all other political parties, shut down independent newspapers, and outlawed all student organizations. All these helped army become the super-privileged body.

This is hardcore reading. It requires con-cen-tration! Not that I usually don’t concentrate when I’m reading…

[134] Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood – Martin Booth

“I thought about it. I had been happy in Hong Kong. It had been an exciting place in which I live and I was sure it had much to offer that I had yet to uncover. However, there was more to it than that. I felt I had grown up in Hong Kong. I could recall little of my life prior to the Corfu. It was as if my memory—my actual existence—had begun the minute my foot had touched the dock in Algiers.” (371)

For an eight-year-old who has to leave his home country for a far-flung unknown territory, Martin Booth fares really well, aside from the fear that his hair might be put into a braid upon arrival in Hong Kong in 1952. Homesickness doesn’t seem to have a clutch on the amicable boy, besides his grandparents with whom he maintains a scrupulous correspondence in letters, who scrapes pleasant acquaintance with locals everywhere he goes. The beauty of Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood is the recreation of a city that had long vanished through the curious eye of a boy, his inquisitive mind, his penchant for urban adventure and a desire to understand its people and culture. His blond hair is what makes him the Congeniality Boy—for the golden color bespeaks good fortune. Amazingly this physical attribute gives him a passport to many a nook and cranny of Chinese life. Locals lay their hands on the head of this walking talisman.

Besides the fact that Booth’s narrative, sometimes very novelistic for a memoir, is full of color and anecdote, wit and originality, this book strokes my heart-string because his first residence in Hong Kong, on Waterloo Road near Soares Avenue in Ho Man Tin, is right across the street from where I used to go to school. The disparate expatriates at Four Seas Hotel on 75 Waterloo Road find themselves living in proximity of locals. The alleys and streets on which Booth is centered are the very same that I have trundled for a decade en route to school. The food stalls, known as dai pai dongs as Booth fondly recalls his patronizing, are typical sights of Hong Kong back in the 50s and eventually disappeared in early 80s. They are shanties made of wood with corrugated tin roof. Served underneath these shanties are noodle soups, milk tea, and other local savories. A thin pall of smoke hangs over them. I’m amazed how well a little boy could fit in and assimilate to living in a neighborhood that is not traditionally an expatriate quarter. He is not even a bit dismayed at the staccato rattle of mahjong tiles at nights, the humming richshaw traffic, and the stench of pipes.

I won’t be guilty of hyperbole to say that young Booth has taken Hong Kong for what it is—the ubiquitous bamboo poles on which hung drippy laundries, the burning joss-sticks as thick as cigars with which ladies hedge their bets on good fortune by being on the good side of gods, the signs erupted in numerous shades of neon color in twilight, the live hens in bamboo cages that clank with aviary irritation, and the narrow cobbled streets infused with aroma of herbs in Western District—and has seen more of what Hong Kong has to offer than many of us natives. His escapades take us to secluded sites like the walled city ghetto, Islamic cemetery, and even the typhoon shelter where sampans with arched awnings under which live a whole family of fishing folk.

Gweilo, with all the vivid details and comic elements, reaches out to my heart. That the colony and its culture pique the little boy’s interest makes this book a very engrossing read. I’m not surprised that Martin Booth has become a native who roams around the city and befriends the locals after living there for only three years. His mother, who puts herself at equal level to the locals and her servants, without ever condescending, imparts a very positive lesson to him in commanding respect. Full of color and packed with incident, this book is evocative of the noise and bustle of Hong Kong half a century ago. Most of the landscapes that Booth depicts in the book still remain today so it will make a great travel companion.

Click here to see my latest pictures from Hong Kong.


I picked up a book called Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood in Hong Kong. It was a beautifully written memoir of Martin Booth, who arrived in the then British far-flung colony in 1952, at the age of seven. Gweilo is a Chinese slang for a Caucasian male. It translates literally as ghost (or pale) fellow, but implies a ghost or devil. Once a derogatory or vulgar term, referring to a Caucasian’s pale skin, it’s now a generic expression devoid of denigration.

The term is believed to stem from the Chinese xenophobia. The people have been known to handle relationship with foreigns at an arm’s length, maintaining a safe distance and refraining to cultivate a deeper relationship than just an acquaintance. From my fond memory of growing up in Hong Kong, anyone who was not one of us would be a ghost. White ghost. Black ghost. American ghost. Korean ghost. Now we still call these foreigners gweilo , or the feminine equivalent gweipor; but many have adopted another term lo ngoi, which translates to old outsider.

Martin Booth’s book has been very engrossing. The Hong Kong from the 1059s that has long vanished is revitalized, in vivid details and evocative words, is resurrected through the sharp eye and sensitiveness of a kid. The book is admirably evocative of the noise and bustle of Hong Kong half a century ago.

* * * * *

I’ve been living away from Hong Kong for 20 years, have more “gweilo friends” than Chinese friends. It’s a bit difficult for me to perceive the unease, especially the language barrier and the cultural difference, dealing with gweilo. Recently some of my childhood friends have called me “gweilo” because of my being assimilated.