Historical Fiction

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Chang, Eileen. (2010).  The Book of Change. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Eileen Chang arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1939. The outbreak of war in Europe thwarted her hopes of studying in England, and she enrolled in Hong Kong University, in the Faculty of Arts. In December of 1941, the Japanese invaded the colony of Hong Kong. The University closed in the aftermath of the surrender, and the students had to shift for themselves in a city under occupation. Chang was eventually able to get a passage back to Shanghai – which was also occupied by the Japanese – on a refugee ship, in the summer of 1942. This experience formed the basis for the autobiographical memoir in Chinese, “From the Ashes”, and later for the novel The Book of Change. Here we have a Hong Kong novel in English by a major modern writer.

The Fall of the Pagoda and its sequel, The Book of Change, were written in English in the nineteen-fifties, and did not find a publisher in Chang’s lifetime. They were published together by Hong Kong University Press in 2010.

After the Strindbergian vicissitudes recorded in The Fall of the Pagoda, when the heroine Lute eventually ran away from the household of her father and stepmother, The Book of Change finds her living with her divorced mother Dew and her aunt, Coral, in Shanghai. The early parts of the book are taken up with the doings of this improvised family, with the three women prowling round one another uneasily, in a frank portrayal of a household in which each member is somehow resentful of the others and at the same time dependent on them. The relationship between mother and daughter, experienced by Lute as “half identification and half antagonism”, is the central theme here.

When it becomes clear there is no possibility of her going to Europe, Lute sets out for Hong Kong, meeting on the ship a girl from a rich Shanghai Indian family, Bebe Shastri, who is also going to “the Victoria University of Hong Kong”, to study medicine. They become friends, and stay in a student dormitory run by Catholic nuns. But not long after Lute has begun her studies, her mother appears in Hong Kong with seventeen pieces of luggage and some friends from Shanghai, staying at the Repulse Bay hotel, with some plan to make money running the blockade of goods to the Chinese interior. Dew, who has always enjoyed consorting with foreign gentlemen, now begins a liaison with a British army officer, but she comes under suspicion with the colonial police and leaves Hong Kong in a hurry, leaving her daughter unhappy but relieved.

December 1941: unfamiliar planes are in the sky overhead, and the students learn that Hong Kong is being invaded. Lute’s first reaction is joy that a scheduled history exam, in which she was expecting to do badly, will not now take place. Most of the students have paid no attention to politics and Lute only ever reads a newspaper for the cinema advertisements: besides coming as a complete surprise, the war seems to have nothing to do with her. “She had sat through two wars in Shanghai. It was just a matter of staying indoors.” The embedding of interior life, domestic and psychological  – especially that of women – within the great changes of history, but also the weird disconnection between that inner and that outer world, is perhaps the main fascination of the novel, one explanation of its title, and a way of approaching what David Der-wei Wang, in his introduction to this volume, calls “Chang’s rumination on the poetics of change”. 

Her family elsewhere and her friends dispersed, with almost no money and just a few words of Cantonese, Lute finds herself caught up in the community under siege, aware for the first time of the city as a collection of her neighbours, sharing an ordeal. In a similarly paradoxical way, the danger of bombing makes her aware of her body as never yet before. This withdrawn, sometimes affectless girl starts to grow up.

Invasion is followed by occupation. The British are interned. Some local people profit from working for the occupation forces or by smuggling, most just get on with their lives and look after their own interests as best they can. Lute works, not at all efficiently, as a clerk, then as a nurse, and is paid in rice and canned milk. Life in wartime Hong Kong is a strange combination of anxiety and turmoil with humdrum and boring everyday existence. The sight of a Japanese soldier beating a Chinese farmer begins to bring the war home to Lute. She starts to think about what it means to her to be Chinese, but she still resists the rhetoric of nationalism. “Patriotism was just another religion she could not believe in.” Determined to get a ticket to take her back to Shanghai where she hopes to set up as an artist, she becomes, for the first time in her life, active and resourceful. “When you did what was mapped out for you, you won and lost in a dream. It all felt different the minute you did what you really wanted to do.” Lute departs from Hong Kong without regret. “Like when she left Tienstin as a child she was just going somewhere, not leaving anywhere.”

There is a rather roughcut feeling to this novel, with some awkward rhythm and missed opportunities. But for Eileen Chang enthusiasts, and students of both Hong Kong and Chinese literature, it is essential reading. (DK)

 

 
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