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[764] The Crippled Tree – Suyin Han

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“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

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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.

Nostalgic Hong Kong

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Despite the difference in story outlines and backgrounds of the characters, The World of Suzie Wong and A Many-Splendored Thing have a lot in common. Both novels are set in Hong Kong during an era before I was born. Born heroines are somewhat social outcasts. Suzie Wong is a prostitute who longs for a husband and family. Dr. Han Suyin (the author herself) is an Eurasian doctor who encounters prejudice from her family and from Hong Kong society. Most important of all and what fascinates me the most is the period details the books paint.

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Both novels, and their movie adaptations (both starring William Holden), show me the Hong Kong that no longer exists. A Many-Splendored Thing predated The World of Suzie Wong by about half a decade. As the opening credits roll, Love is A Many-Splendored Thing delivers an aerial view of Hong Kong Harbor. The camera starts above Green Island, then flies east along the harbor-front towards Central. The hospital scene was filmed at the Fairview which was situated at 41 Conduit Road. The Fairview was built by the wealthy Mok family in 1911. It was a grand palatial mansion built with Italian marble which overlooked the harbor and was the site of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club after WWII.

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The east of the island was the first to take up the population pressures of the nascent colonial capital of Victoria, and until the late 1970s had a low rent reputation. Some of that survives in the haggard pole-dancing clubs and tattoo parlors of Wan Chai, the quarter where Richard Mason wrote The World Of Suzie Wong, and where generations of sailors have nursed hangovers. But today, you’re far more likely to run into Starbucks, serviced apartments and highly expensive office space. The night races at Happy Valley are where you’ll see Hong Kongers at their most fevered, while in Causeway Bay is the neon of restaurants and boutiques. Further out, there are worthy surprises among the unlovely warehouses and office blocks of Quarry Bay and Chai Wan–live jazz, microbreweries and dance clubs.

Many first-time visitors to Hong Kong have one image of Wan Chai fixed firmly in their heads—that of the Luk Kwok Hotel with its tarts-with-hearts and rickshaw-cluttered surrounds from the film of Richard Mason’s novel. It’s an image that’s at least 40 years out of date. The original hotel was knocked down in 1988, and the soaring glass and steel tower that replaced it, bearing the same name, is full of offices and restaurants. Suzie might still survive, but if she does, she has gimlet eyes and a harridan’s scowl.

Han Suyin

The movie, Love is a Many-Spendoured Thing, starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones, introduced me to Han Suyin and her novels. In the original novel, A Many-Spendoured Thing, Han described Hong Kong of 1949 and 1950 and how thousands of refugees escaping from the Communists swelled the population each week. She made the filth, despair, poverty and vice come tragically alive but all these were the backdrop for a passionate love affair. The book, after all, is frankly autobiographical. It is parallel to the love affair between the author and Ian Morrison, an Australian correspondent for The London Times. All Hong Kong, a compact then-British colony where gossips traveled fast, knew about the love affair. They were inseparable, walking the streets of the city and the hills of the island at all hours, meeting openly at his hotel. They made no effort to keep the affair quiet. She was a well-known doctor, a Eurasian widow with a small daughter. He had a wife and children. The affair lasted several months and was suddenly interrupted by Morrison’s front line death in Korea, when reporting on the Korean War. After his death, Han poured her grief into writing A Many Splendoured Thing and it seemed to bring a closure for her.

Han Suyin is a pen name of Elizabeth Comber, born Rosalie Elisabeth Kuanghu Chow. She is a Chinese-born Eurasian and author of several books on modern China, novels set in East Asia, and autobiographical works, as well as a physician. She names her heroine in A Many-Spendoured Thing after herself, who is a physician. In 1933 she was admitted to Yanjing (Yenching) University (later part of Peking University). In 1935 she went to Brussels to study science. In 1938 she returned to China, working in an American Christian mission hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan, then went again to London in 1944 to study medicine, graduated MBBS in 1948 and went to Hong Kong to practice medicine in 1949 at the Queen Mary Hospital. Her husband, Tang, meanwhile, had died in action during the Chinese Civil War in 1947.

As most of her fictional works are out-of-print, finding a workable copy in good condition is quite a stunt. I am able to find brittle copies of The Enchantress, and Two Loves in the Chinatown branch of the San Francisco public library. I will keep my eyes on her books during the upcoming library sale. Here I include a list of her fictional works:

Destination Chungking (1942)
A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952)
And the Rain My Drink (1956)
The Mountain Is Young (1958)
Winter Love (1962)
Cast But One Shadow (1962)
Four Faces (1963)
L’abbé Pierre (1965, French only)
L’abbé Prévost (1975, French only)
Till Morning Comes (1982)
The Enchantress (1985)

Han Suyin, who interviewed Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) in 1969 and recalled it in her book Phoenix Harvest, certainly believed she saw evidence of mental derangement. Pined for international fame, Madame Mao was hoping Han, who maintained a diplomatic relationship with China and is would pen her biography. A go-between dispatched by Madame Mao expressed her interest in soliciting Han’s literary talent. Han crisply dismissed the offer, claiming she was too busy. As she writes in the biography of Premier Zhou Enlai, in priasing him: “…indeed, he was a great Confucianist. His life was a fulfillment of the Sage’s ideals of integrity, self-sacrifice, dedication to the welfare of the people. In him the Chinese found their ideal ‘ruler'”, it was clear that she knew better to be allied with Mao’s villainous wife, let alone cultivating a working relationship with her.