Love in a Fallen City

Title: Love in a Fallen City

Author: Eileen Chang

Published: the stories included in this volume were all published in the 1940s; the volume itself was published in 2007

Genre: short stories; two in this volume -- 'Aloeswood Incense' and 'Jasmine Tea' -- are set in Hong Kong

Period: The 1940s

One-sentence synopsis: Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City is a misnomer: it's a collection of elegant short stories about lives and loves in two fallen cities, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Cultural focus (i.e. is the book about westerners or Chinese): Chinese -- the major characters in the Hong Kong stories are Chinese, but differences in these characters' subcultural/linguistic/national backgrounds are often catalysts for contrast and conflict.

Evocation of Hong Kong setting: Superb. The two Hong Kong stories in this collection are set on Hong Kong Island, which is described with well-chosen detail. For example, there's a description of a stylish 'modern' house on the Peak that's just brimming with juicy 1940s decoration:

This garden was like a a gold-lacquered serving tray lifted high amid the wild hills: one row of carefully pruned evergreens; two beds of fine, well-spaced English roses -- the whole arrangement severely perfect, not a hair out of place, as if the tray had been deftly adorned with a lavish painting in the fine-line style. In one corner of the lawn, a small azalea was in flower, its pink petals, touched with yellow, a bright shrimp-pink.

. . .

From the veranda, glass doors opened onto a living room. The furniture and the arrangement were basically Western, touched up with some unexceptionable Chinese bric-a-brac. An ivory bodhisattva stood on the mantel of the fireplace, along with snuff bottles made of emerald-green jade; a small screen with a bamboo motif curved around the sofa. These Oriental touches had been put there, it was clear, for the benefit of foreigners. The English come from so far to see China -- one has to give them something of China to see. But this was China as Westerners imagine it: exquisite, illogical, very entertaining.

The feel of this fascinating historical era effortlessly suffuses Chang's stories.

Inscrutability index, on a scale of 1-10 (i.e., since the book is written by a Chinese, to what degree does she see Western culture as 'inscrutable'): very low indeed, maybe a three. Several of the Chinese characters in Chang's two Hong Kong stories are sophisticated cosmopolitans; they're clearly familiar with both western and Chinese cultures, etiquettes, and expectations. One minor character, a famous beauty of the day, has a complex geneology described as including 'at the minimum, Arab, Negro, Indian, Indonesian, and Portuguese blood, with only a dash of Chinese'.

Typhoon count: None; no typhoon would dare muss the carefully-coiffed ladies inhabiting these stories!

But we are given one of the better run-downs of Hong Kong's heat and humidity I've read:

During plum-rain season, the trees on the mountain were steeped in mist; the scent of green leaves was everywhere. Plantains, Cape jasmine, magnolia, banana trees, camphor trees, sweet flag, ferns, ivorywoods, palms, reeds, and tobacco, all growing too fast and spreading too rapidly: it was ominous, with a whiff of something like blood in the air. The humidity was oppressive, and the walls and the furniture were slick with moisture.

Weilong lay on her bed. The bedding was gummy; the pillowcase ready to grow moss. She had just had a bath, but already the humidity made her wish for another.

Just so!

Review: Eileen Chang's stories are some of the best I've read, and I've read a few. 

'Aloeswood Incense', the first Hong Kong story, is a jewel. Weilong, a secondary school girl from a shabby-genteel Shanghainese family that's quite new on the scene in colonial Hong Kong, faces a return to the mainland because her parents can no longer afford her school fees. But although she's never shown much of a creative spark before, she hatches a scheme: she'll try to hit up her father's wealthy but scandalous sister, and see if she can help with the money. But Weilong ends up getting much more than she bargained for, as her aunt takes her on as a kind of apprentice in corruption and the flouting of social conventions. Will Weilong resist the temptation, or will she slide into the debased life her aunt has chosen? This story is ripe with the gossipy interplay amongst a clique of rich, decadent Chinese and Eurasians, and illustrates their social and cultural constraints in colonial Hong Kong with occasional bitterness, but also with style and acerbic wit.

In the second story, 'Jasmine Tea', a university student from a rich but disreputable family attracts the amorous attention of his professor's pretty but very proper daughter. His reaction is a welter of mixed emotions, misunderstanding, and resentment. This story is harsher than 'Aloeswood Incense', with a violent, ambiguous ending.

In all of her stories, Chang's narrative voice is highly distinctive, even in translation (which, speaking of, is very well done indeed). It's a sinuous voice that curls like a wisp of smoke around a tai-tai's slim black cigarette holder. Chang never overstates, never explains the obvious, and never relaxes into sentimentality or brutality -- although she certainly courts more danger with the latter than the former. 

I recommend these stories very highly.

Bonus information: Eileen Chang is best-known for having written Lust, Caution, which has been made into a recent, highly-acclaimed film directed by Ang Lee, and starring Tony Leung. But since that's again a Shanghai story, it's off-limits here.

Eileen Chang was born in Shanghai and made her name there during the WWII years, but she did attend Hong Kong University, and later spent a few years here before emigrating to the USA in the 1950s. She died in Los Angeles in 1995, having lived an eventful but often lonely and reclusive life.

Getting your hands on a copy: The Amazon link is here, and the HKPL system has the book also; you can search for the title here.

Next up: Muhammad Cohen's Hong Kong on Air.


sound great

have to put that on my reading list then! Thanks for using the HKPL link.

Yes, read it!

This is indeed a good one to put on the reading list, Gweipo -- it's good stuff.

Thanks to you for your post on the film 'KJ' -- that looks excellent.