Historical Fiction

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Cordell, Alexander. (1965). The Sinews of Love. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.

The Sinews of Love dramatizes the conflict between tradition and modernity in 1960s Hong Kong through the life story of Ming Pei-Sha, an orphaned girl from a fishing community in Sai Kung. Narrated in the first person by Pei-Sha, the story attempts to look into the interiority of peasant life in Hong Kong, and the limited options, especially for women, available within traditional society. It attempts to build an intimate portrayal of life in traditional fishing communities. One of the ways in which the text tries to achieve this is by introducing colloquialisms that the fisher-folk are supposed to use. But this attempt is not entirely convincing. However, the text does make a consistent, if romanticized, attempt to detail the inner life, rituals and beliefs of traditional Chinese communities like the Hakka and ‘Tan-gar’.

Orphaned by a typhoon which strikes their village, Pei-Sha, her sisters and brothers seek refuge with Po Shan, a fisherman friend of their father. Before the tragedy, Orla, the strikingly beautiful sister of Pei-Sha, has been sold into concubinage by their father.  Abused by her in-laws, Orla runs away to become a bar-girl. The merchant, Wing Sui, who negotiated Orla’s sale exerts pressure on Po Shan to return the money. This  results in life for Pei Sha and her siblings aboard Po Shan’s junk to become strained and unpleasant. Adding to these complications, Po Shan also decides to take a young concubine because he has no children from his middle-aged wife.

As life aboard the junk becomes intolerable, Pei Sha decides to sell herself into concubinage so that she can settle her father’s debt with Wing Shui, and also give him money  in return for an assurance that her siblings’ welfare will be guaranteed. An intelligent girl who  has some English education through missionary exposure, Pei Sha negotiates a favorable deal with Wing Shui and becomes the concubine of a childless Hong Kong millionaire, Lo Hin Tan. From the outset, Pei Sha rebels against her subordinate position within the family as a concubine. Though Lo Hin Tan proves to be a somewhat sensitive husband, the novel makes a sustained and intense critique of customary marriage practices which allow concubinage. It sees the practice  as an archaic anomaly, the survival of which is antithetical to liberal British values—especially when concubinage is illegal in communist China eager to represent itself as modern.  

Though Pei Sha largely manages to maintain her self-respect within Lo Hin Tan’s family, she is constantly made aware of the humiliation that accrues to her position. She finds some relief from her life as a concubine through an affair with Jan Colingten, a Dutch-British teenager she knows from her childhood in Sai King. Underscoring the precarious position of a concubine, Pei Sha has to leave Lo Hin Tan’s family when the heir Lo  eagerly seeks dies in childbirth. The father of the child in reality is Jan but Pei Sha manages to deceive the family till the end. Lo immediately makes arrangements for another concubine, and Pei Sha decides to leave voluntarily with no financial compensation because she does not want to be humiliated by being paid off like a prostitute.

Pei Sha’s hope for the future rests on Jan who is supposed to return from London after  completing his legal studies. But Pei-Sha decides to leave  Jan after meeting his mother and being told that this marriage would mean permanent estrangement for Jan from his family. Pei-Sha’s options are limited—she can become a barmaid or join her elder sister in a Hakka village community where she will face ostracism. However, despite thwarting a romantic resolution to Pei Sha’s life through marriage to Jan, the novel ends with her deciding to join an ageing ‘Tan-gar’ fishing family—a kind of symbolic return to sea and her ethnic roots. (HR)

 

 
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