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.

The Color Purple

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I have never read The Color Puprle, but has long been aware of its controversy. Written in 1982 by Alice Walker, The Color Purple tells the story of black life during the 1930s in the deep south of the United States from a female’s perspective. The Pulitzer Prize winning (1983) novel is told in the epistolary form over a 30-year period, following Celie Johnson as she struggles through life. What unfolds is a heart-wrenching story of neglect and abuse.

Like many books that have been banned over years, the list of charges against The Color Purple includes homosexuality, offensive language, and being sexually explicit. The literary merit of the book is shadowed by challenges in schools in which parents want the book removed from the curriculum. The book was removed from libraries and rejected for purchase in some school trustee—all because of its rough language,

I am not saying the book should be used for bedtime story for children. The point is to choose practically and wisely. I believe students in high school should have enough intellectual and psychological development to not only deal with the content, but to analyze it with logic and reasoning for its artistic and social relevance. Most importantly, placing themes like racism, violence, incest in the context of fictional characters could help convey a sense of healthy understanding.

The reason I’ bringing up The Color Purple is that on Independence Bookstore Day last Saturday, this book was one of the featured title at my local bookstore, which is in Oakland, California, the very battleground for an episode of censorship. It was decided that a high school honors class was not intellectually mature enough to study the work due to its “sexual and social explicitness, and troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” And back in 1984, predominant population of Oakland was African American.

[739] Beauty and Sadness – Yasunari Kawabata

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” Even now Oki’s words had not faded from her memory. The dialogue in his novel echoed them and seemed to have taken on a life apart from either Oki or herself. Perhaps the lovers of old were no more, but she had the nostalgic consolation, in the midst of her sadess, that their love was forever enshrined in a work of art. ” (126)

This eloquent and lyrical novel allures to a motif, the strange and nihilistic self-love pf the character Otoko. Ueno Otoko has established to be a successful painter in Kyoto. At age 16 she gave birth to a stillborn child from a forbidden love affair with a married man, Oki Toshio, who is almost twice her age. She managed to escape from mental hospital after her suicide attempt because of her unrequited love for Oki.

I suppose even a woman’s hatred is a kind of love. (94)

The novel begins as Oki, now in his mid fifties, is on a train to Kyoto for the New Year’s Eve belling tolling, which gives him an occasion to visit Otoko, whom he has not seen for 24 years. Otoko, too, has remained single and unmarried since the traumatic affair. During the visit, Oki meets Keiko, Otoko’s young portege and lover, in whom he sees the full bloom of Otoko’s lost beauty and passion. His affair with her has been an instrument to his success in literary career—he used the affair with Otoko to write his first novel, which brought hurt and humiliation to Otoko but wealth and fame to himself. Keiko sets out single-mindedly to revenge for Otoko by seducing Oki and his son Taichiro, using her beauty as a weapon.

Kawabata’s story takes place in that ethereal realm that lies between abstraction and reality. In the novel her writes Oki has immortalized his passion for Otaoko. Otoko wants to express her sense of loss, her grief and affection for the child she had never raised in her painting. Keiko wants to prove her love for Otoko by seeking a revenge for her. They are all entwined in this destiny but that neither one of them is comfortable with this destiny. They are all connected in a morbid way, and so their reflections abound, multiply, and reinforce the same locales and images. In a sense, they are lost in the confusion between image and reality.

Kawabata’s style is simple and light, but the novel is carefully constructed such that past events are often called and accumulated in the narrative to render a timeless quality. Since there is a poetic flow to it, the book is better relished slowly, to allow that bewildering array of reflections on the part of the characters to soak in. The recurring imagery—those flowers, temples, stone garden—all ingrained in characters’ memories, continue to reinforce and distort their reflections, and this is what makes the book very literary.

208 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Polite and Honoific Form in Japanese Language

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A passage from Kawabata’s elegiac Beauty and Sadness reminds me of the ordeal of learning honorific form in Japanese language class:

She was taunting him again. Oki came from the western part of Japan, and had never really mastered Tokyo polite speech; Fumiko, however, had been brought up in Tokyo, so he often asked her help with it. Yet he did not always accept what she told him. A tenacious argument would turn into an endless squabble, and he would declare that Tokyo speech was only a vulgar dialect with a shallow tradition. In Kyoto or Osaka, he would insist, even ordinary gossip was usually very polite, quite unlike Tokyo gossip. All sorts of things—mountains and rivers, houses, streets, heavenly bodies, even fish and vegetables—were referred to with polite expressions. (Strands of Black Hair)

Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Since most relationships are not (considered) equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including position within the family, position within an organization, job, age, experience, or even psychological state (for example, a person asking a favor tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. Polite forms are used for new acquaintances, then discontinued as a relationship becomes more intimate, regardless of age, social class, or gender. Polite forms are also used to make a distinction between in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. One of the complexities of the inside-outside relationship is that groups are not static; they overlap and change over time and according to situation. This distinction between groups is a fundamental part of Japanese social custom.

[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.

[738-5] Novella: “The Golden Cangue” – Eileen Chang

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It tells the story of a woman from a middle-class merchant family—daughter of a sesame oil seller—who is married to a wealthy, traditional family, but to a cripple. Stylistically, The Golden Cangue (金鎖記) is based on the 18th century Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber. It examines the life of a woman who is forced by her family into a loveless marriage. Her invalid husband dies young, leaving her a meager share of family legacy. But her in-law family looks down on her. Through her effort to maintain her status and her prickly personality, she alienates the in-law family. She grows mad after years of suffering, but eventually obtains wealth and independence after the death of her mother-in-law and husband. This suffering doesn’t end, she manages to terrorize and manipulate everyone near her. The years of suffering has made her so cold and biter that she ruins the chances of her children for a better and happier life.

While the story depicts family activities, love relationships, and marriages that occupy the mundane life, it reveals the eternal mysteries in human nature that lie beneath the surface of life, the mysteries of human desires for power and money. Chi-chao’s repressed desires over the years have been liberated and gone berserk. She gives rein to her desires and indulges herself in doing whatever she wants. The golden cangue, symbolizing power and money, harbors the ugliest and dirtiest aspects of the world, but it holds people under its spell and makes them debase themselves willingly.

The Golden Cangue along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

[738-4] Short Stories: “Waiting” and “Steamed Osmanthus” – Eileen Chang

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The entirety of Waiting takes place at a massage clinic, which becomes a microcosm of the society. Citizens of various walks and stations in life, as well as social status converge in the little white-walled waiting room. Snippets of conversations make up the narrative. Servants, amahs, mistresses and ladies—all in the face of uncertain future brought forth by the ongoing war—wait for life to become more bearable. But life, like time, is slipping away with cruel indifference.

Steamed Osmanthus: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Auntumn is another vignette. Also set during the war, in Shanghai’s international demilitarized zone, Ah Xiao is the house servant (amah) of an expatriate named Mr. Garter, who entertains his multiple female partners with the same menu: a piece of beef first used to make soup and then fried for main course. It’s an tacit agreement that the women never spend the night. Ah Xiao is a dark, brooding character whose miserable life is punctuated by scolds aimed at her small soon, Baishun, the sporadic appearances by domiciled husband, and chats with neighboring amahs, with whom she complains about her employer. But inwardly she feels grateful working for a foreigner living alone, and he treats her with courtesy that is rare among Chinese masters. The most she has to put up with is the frequent washing of linen and bed sheets. Her soft side manifests itself occasionally, however, as when she donates part of her own flour ration for the purpose of making pancakes for Mr. Gartner and his Chinese of the night. She also plays the conspirator in warding off a Chinese woman who aspires to be the lady of the house.

Waiting and Steamed Osmanthus along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

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