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[803] Memories of Beijing Southside 城南舊事 – Lin Haiyin 林海音

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This volume of five sequential stories is autobiographical of Lin’s childhood from age 6 to 13. The novella captures life in Beijing through the eyes of Yingzi, who lives with her family in a shiheyuan (a Chinese quadrangle in which four houses command a central courtyard) in the southern part of Beijing in 1930s. They are middle class people living among the poor. It’s 1930s but etiquette and social practices still resonate the imperial times. The stories testify the growth of this rambunctious girl into a keen observer of the social family turmoils she is not aware of at an earlier age.

Her life revolves around her family house and the rabbit warren of alleys (hutongs) that strew the neighborhood. She braves the neighborhood with a curious mind, exposing herself to the sights and sounds. The people really flesh out through the 7-year-old’s keen observation and interactions. There’s the young mad woman who yearns for her daughter, whom her family gave away because the bastard child is a disgrace to the family. Her best friend is an adopted girl whose abusive parents primes her to be a sing-song girl. Yingzi then befriends a thief who is hiding his loot behind her house. Then she plays the match-maker for a young concubine from next door who takes refuge in her parents’ house. Her nanny’s son dies in the distant village. her father, who has always been strict and loving, and most of all, interminable, becomes sick and dies as she graduates from elementary school. But her father’s death really marks her graduation from a childhood full of joy and innocent escapades. She matures to become cognizant of the turmoil and demands of life, and shoulder responsibility.

The world Lin portrays (through the eyes of Yingzi) is at the crossroad of old and modernity. She is especially keen on the role of women—how they thrive silently in a male-dominant, feudal society. Few women went to school. They all end up working away from home or being a concubine. There’s the nostalgia of the grown up who once upon a time was a child. The sense of loss and bewilderment that arouses the child’s awareness of the uncertainties of human relationships, even of life itself, and which jumpstarts her adolescence, is handled with great sensitivity and lyricism.

238 pp. Chinese University Press Hong Kong. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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[794] Intersection 對倒 – Yi-Chang Liu 劉以鬯

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Intersection tells of the way in which two characters’ lives, strangers to each other, appear to intersect in ways apparently determined by the nature of the city—Hong Kong in the early 1970s, when inflation was out of the roof and crimes were rife. The two parallel stories unfold on a day, when the teenage Ah Xing and the middle-age Chun Yu-bai eventually cross path at the movie theater. Everything about them—age, sex, station in life, the direction of the walk, and financial status—is the opposite. Everything the young craves has been achieved by the mature, but the mature is not necessarily pleased with his life. Whereas the girl wants a rich, handsome husband, the mature has been divorced. The young lives in a rickety old building not too far from a stinky public toilet. The mature, a transplant from Shanghai after the Sino-Japanese War, bought a few flats with his little fortune. Chun is living on the rents he collects while Ah Xing resents working in the factory. They have encountered the same incidents and people on the streets, but in reverse order as they are coming to the theater from different directions.

Over the course of the day, the happenings and scenes of the city provoke in Chun and Ah Xing stream-of-consciousness that is completely different. Chun bathes in reminiscence of the past, in particular the bygone age of his youth in Shanghai before the war. For Chun happiness only exists in his memory. Subjected to the same vistas but evoked a different psycho is Ah Xing, a vain, narcissistic girl who dreams of becoming a movie star and of marrying a rich, handsome man. She is enthusiastically appealing to the future as Chun is assiduously reminiscing the past.

During the time of constant change, “present” is almost very short-lived. What Chun and Ah Xing see and hear on the streets quickly transport them into the realm of their thoughts and imaginations, away from the present. This impermanence is evoked by the Joyce-like progress of Ah Xing and Chun, whose peripatetic meanderings through the city invoke thoughts about Bruce Lee, war, politics, inflation, and the overpopulation of Hong Kong. They each project their desire onto music, films, street scenes—objects of their obsession that displace them from reality. The narrative is interwoven with reality, consciousness, memory, and even imagination, which alternately take over their mentality.

330 pp. Holdery Publishing. Paper, in Chinese Language [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[790] Little Reunion 小團圓 – Eileen Chang

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First written in 1957 but not published for fear of censorship, Little Reunion is an autobiographical novel depicting Chang’s short university life in Hong Kong on the eves of Sino-Japanese War and her secret liaison to Hu Lancheng, who collaborated with the Japanese in the 1940s. She was warned by a friend who became the executor of her will after she died in Los Angeles in 1995 to revise, if not to re-write the parts of the book that would give her away and identify her. The thinly veiled Little Reunion is explicitly a roman à clef that takes the source material of Chang’s disastrous marriage to Hu Lancheng, who was an up-and-comer in Wang Ching-wei’s puppet government.

Like Chang’s other works, Little Reunion portrays love, and its many convolutions and iterations, in a bleak time. Sex is almost like a means of survival. This is a leitmotif that runs through her oeuvre. In many of her stories, like the very traditional Eighteen Springs (in which a young woman is raped by her brother-in-law in a scheme undertaken by her own infertile sister), the protagonist, after being contracted to a loveless marriage or relationship, reconciles with her and uses sex to ensure her own existence.

Chang takes a dark view in love, one that is dictated by the lack of love in her childhood. Her parents were divorced. Her mother became a world traveler. Her father an idle and opium addict who remarried. Chang, stubborn and hot-tempered, had fallout with her scheming step-mother. She resists and loathes the feudal norm that allows polygamy. She is distrustful of marriage but yearning for love. Her stand-in is Jiuli Sheng in Little Reunion, who does not believe in everlasting love; even in feelings, she believes there must exist some accounting or retribution; in any case, passion always runs out. In the end of the book, Jiuli scraps Zhixiong not because of his infidelities, not even because his role being a spy for the Japanese, but because the relationship was a dead-end.

The first half of the book is a tedious description of her messy, privileged childhood. Her household was a hotbed of sexual repression and competition among the different wives. The ironic title, which is mocking inversion of the Chinese phrase “big reunion”, the joyful celebration when a scholar’s triumph at the imperial examinations (Qing dynasty) guarantees power and prestige of his household and allows the many wives and concubines to take a break from the habitual back-stabbing and quarrel to enjoy their shared success. No, Jiuli doesn’t want such “big reunion” but rather a little, intimate one.

Jiuli is unconventional, but the choices she makes also renders her unsympathetic, as she refuses the fate destined for the women of her times. She chooses to write and expresses her disapproval of her time. She is also this unsentimental woman who copes with the reality of her philandering, unapologetically no-good husband with indifference.

Since the book is only a manuscript that Chang never finished editing, it is loosely written. It reads like some poetic effort to revisit significant fragments of her being. The narrative, interspersed with flashbacks, is strongly indicative of this attempt. It’s nonetheless unique of Chang’s rich and acrimonious lyricism.

328 pp. Crown Publishing. Trade paper, in Chinese. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Eileen Chang’s Posthumous Novel

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First written in 1957 but never published, Little Reunion is Eileen Chang’s (author of Lust, Caution; Eighteen Springs; Rouge of the North) last novel. It took her almost twenty years to complete but she never made the necessary revisions after a friend, Song Yilong, who is actually the beneficiary of her inheritance, cautioned her about the sensitive autobiographical details disguised in fictional prose.

In this autobiographical novel, Eileen Chang describes the book’s protagonist, Jiuli Sheng—Chang’s literary alter ego—as someone who is not sentimental. She is an unconventional woman in her times, falling in love with a man who is allegedly a spy working for the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War. It was sensitive material indeed as Song reminded her that the public could have used the book as documentary evidence against her.

In real life, Chang falls for a cynical and talented womanizer, Hu Lancheng, collaborator of the puppet government installed by the Japanese. They married in 1943, but as soon as he returned to Wuhan, he started to be unfaithful. After the Japanese defeat, he was hiding, but Eileen Chang found him in Wenzhou, supported and protected by a young widow. This humiliation did not save her marriage and they divorced in 1947. On the run in Japan, he published memoirs in which Eileen Chang, then a famous writer, played a hopeless role among his eight mistresses.

Little Reunion is a book about her childhood and her relationship with Hu Lancheng. In 1976, her friend Stephen Soong, Director of the Translation Center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, advised her not to publish the text specially as Hu had been granted in 1974 a visa to Taiwan where lived three years. Their correspondences reveal Eileen Chang’s desire to destroy the manuscripts. She contemplated making the necessary revision but never got around doing it until she died in Los Angeles in 1995. 

[788] Island and Peninsula 島與半島 – Liu Yichang 劉以鬯

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First serialized in newspaper in 1975, Island and Peninsula, yet to be translated into English, portrays the reality of Hong Kong during the turbulent years between 1973 and 1975. It’s fiction with a realistic backdrop reflecting on the adverse social and economic condition of the time and on how common people cope with their difficult life. Lau insists that the book is not historical fiction, as he has no desire to chronicle the crucial events, but it rather annotates these historical events by placing fictional characters in them. They are in constant interplay with the tough demand of life in a trying milieu following the stock market crash in 1973. Many have lost their assets in entirety and even mortgaged their properties in order to pay debts. The city is hit by depression; housing is meager; commodities are scarce and their prices skyrocketing; robberies and burglaries rife; power outage mandatory; and unemployment a constant threat.

At the center of this social struggle, and thus putting it all into perspective is the Sha family, a middle class family with two teenagers. In the face of tough financial outlook, husband and wife are often engaged in heated argument over petty household matters, especially money in times of inflation and depression. Even a small expense warrants careful deliberation. They argue over stocking up toilet papers, plastic buckets (for saving water during rationing), canned food. Their bickering is often followed by a timely reconciliation, which shows how social turmoil takes a toll on individual mind and relationship. Through people’s interaction with one another, their clipped but sharp-tongued conversation, Lau really nails the nuances of people’s psyche, one that is dictated by the desire to stay afloat.

The book is not plot-driven, but the constant interplay between society and people, in particular how they respond to hostile conditions and challenges imposed on them, keeps reader engrossed. What loosely constitutes a plot is a continuous flow of contingent events imposed on these helpless people caught in a times of depression. Lau portrays a city full of ironies, which even the most rational minds have lapsed in the face of a windfall.

222 pp. Holdery Publishing. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Xi Xi: Hong Kong Writer

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Xi Xi (meaning west, west) is arguably the greatest female writer from Hong Kong. The word “xi” in ancient Chinese pictograph depicts a girl clad in a dress standing on a grid. Her real name is Zhang Yan. She was born in Shanghai, where she attended primary school, in 1938. In 1950, she immigrated to Hong Kong with her parents. Her father worked at Kowloon Motor Bus as a ticket checker. Xi Xi attended the prestigious all-girl Heep Yun College and the Teacher’s College.

My City was her first novel set in Hong Kong. Shifting discursive and abundant details reveal that urban life has not been totally reified and fixed on any single perspective. That the urban scenes unfold through multiple discursive postures implies Hong Kong itself as a continuous scroll in which Xixi expresses her sentiments and hopes for the city.

Shops is an essay that illustrates the aging buildings, squatters, and old-fashioned traditional shops in Central and Western District, particularly in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, as well as other human behavioor in this hustling district. She expressed her tinge of nostalgia of her childhood, and of the disappearing old shops due to drastic infrastructural development.

[738-6] Novella: “Love in a Fallen City” – Eileen Chang

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This is the last post on the Eileen Chang series. Foreign readers are probably most familiar with Love in a Fallen City (傾城之戀), which has achieved popularity almost instantly after its first release. Over the decades the story has been adopted and made into theater plays, movies, and television series. It’s more accessible to English readers since it is one of the first of Chang’s works to be translated.

Hong Kong’s defeat had brought Liusu victory. But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall so that she could be vindicated? Countless thousands of people dead, countless thousands of people suffering, after that an earth­shaking revolution … Liusu didn’t feel there was anything sub­tle about her place in history. She stood up, smiling, and kicked the pan of mosquito-repellant incense under the table.

At age 28, Bai Liusu has already been divorced her abusive husband for almost 8 years. Having moved back home and lived off her brothers, she is shocked to find they have resented her all along. In the wee hour of the night comes the obituary news of this ex-husband, whose family expects Liusu to be on bereavement. Her family has blamed her and this disgraceful divorce for the decline of their wealth. So it’s against this backdrop of shifting conflict between traditional family structures and customs and the modern world that Chang posits Liusu, who has to carve out a precarious space for herself, albeit often at the expense of others. In this case, it’s her sister Baoluo. Liusu becomes acquainted and eventually falls in love with the man the matchmaker selects for her sister.

Fan Liuyuan and Bai Liusu are from different worlds. He studied abroad in England and she was raised in family still rooted in customs from imperial times. Despite their mutual affection for each other, they have to jump hoops imposed by class and gender difference. He is phobic of marriage and she is urgent to break free of her family. From Shanghai to Hong Kong their relationship seems to drag insouciantly. The story is fraught with sexual tension, moral ambiguity, and pangs of conscience. Love in a Fallen City illuminates on a woman’s struggle: to find a man, fall in love, get him to marry her, thus ensuring a comfortable future and no loss of social status. Liusu’s victory is a monumental one: not only does she overcome personal qualms, she also honestly coonects with another person—through a war in a besieged city.