China in September: Shanghai Then and Now

This month I’ve been meaning to read mainly Chinese writers – as it happens, all women in translation, so my #WITMonth continues.

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution and Other Stories (transl. Julia Lovell, Karen Kingsbury, Janet Ng, Simon Patton and Eva Hung)

Eileen Chang had a brief moment of fame in Japan-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War, which she was never quite able to replicate later, when she moved to Hong Kong and then to the United States. She became a recluse; sadly, her body was found in her apartment in LA several days after she died in 1995.

However, her posthumous success in China has been phenomenal. Her essays and stories were rediscovered in the 1970/80s and she became one of the most influential writers for younger authors in Taiwan, Hong Kong and finally mainland China, but she is not that well known in the West, even after director Ang Lee adapted her story Lust, Caution into a film in 2007. Although she is not an overtly political writer and has occasionally been criticised for focusing almost exclusively on the lives of women, there is no one to match her sharp observational skills. She not only manages to give us a slice of life of a certain period in Shanghai’s history, but also captures issues of class, exploitation and gender expectations in a way that feels perenially relevant. The stories are often very funny, for example In the Waiting Room, with quirky and diverse characters such as you would expect to find in a doctor’s waiting room, but far more willing to open up about their personal lives and worries than anything you might encounter in England.

Above all, I like the way she describes the simmering resentments and misunderstandings between East and West in cosmopolitan Shanghai. My favourite story in this slim volume is Steamed Osmanthus Flower, in which a Chinese housekeeper navigates the tricky relationship with her English master, while simultaneously trying to keep her husband and child content.

The title story Lust, Caution is about an affair but also a tale of war-time espionage and an assassination attempt. Apparently, it took nearly twenty years to write, and it shows: each word is so precise, so perfectly placed, the dialogue is so sparkling and full of innuendo. This is perhaps the most openly ‘political’ of her stories, but it shows how ordinary people’s everyday lives are being shaped (and sometimes destroyed) by politics rather than arguing for or against a particular political thesis.

Zhou Wei Hui: Shanghai Baby, transl. Bruce Humes

By way of contrast, Zhou Wei Hui’s novel set in late 1990s Shanghai has little of Chang’s subtlety or awareness of the complexity of East/West relations. It is the story of Coco, a young woman who aspires to be a writer, and who is torn between two men: her romance with a Chinese boyfriend who is impotent and her sexual entanglements with a married German. The Shanghai she describes certainly doesn’t correspond to any images of China you might still have lingering in your head: people in Mao suits riding bicycles or struggling to make ends meet. This is the Shanghai of the well-off, a consumer’s paradise, a city full of nightclubs and drugs, a ‘feminine’ city as the narrator describes it, in comparison to the macho cities of northern China. Coco and her friends think nothing of hopping onto a plane at short notice to attend a concert by a band in Beijing.

Ironically, the hedonistic lifestyle she describes was regarded with suspicion by the Chinese authorities and the book was banned shortly after publication for its immoral nature and irreverent style. There is nothing there that is very shocking to a Western reader: a lot of sex, a lot of drug-taking, but the details are not prurient or voyeuristic. It is clear that the author admires Western culture – there are several quotes from Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, Milan Kundera but also from various musicians, but overall the style is pedestrian, while trying achingly hard to be hipsterish (if the term was in existence back in 2000 when this was first published). It is a young person’s book, so perhaps I am being a little harsh: it reminded me of the so-called millenial writers like Otessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney (neither of whom I’ve read exhaustively because… they bore me. I am not the target age group, I think.) But, needless to say, there are plenty of people who love those English-speaking writers, so you might love this book. It certainly helps to dismantle some stereotypes and shows a Chinese society in flux.

Holiday Book Haul

I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
Brasov Bookshop 1
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo –  Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
Brasov Bookshop 2
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleSputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers). Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison. Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!