Lee, Chin Yang. (1965). The Virgin Market. London: Alvin Redman Limited.

The Virgin Market, set in the fishing community of Aberdeen in 1960s Hong Kong,  attempts to explore themes of morality, tradition and modernity. The story is primarily about a fisher family living aboard a junk and the problems arising from its patriarch, Lum Sin’s, tradition-bound worldview. Lum is portrayed as a vain, boorish and unintelligent man who is unable to adapt to a rapidly modernizing society.

In a modernizing Hong Kong fishing community, the most iconic status symbol is the ownership of a mechanized junk. Lum aspires to be a mechanized junk owner but is too proud to become a member of the fisherman’s cooperative in order to obtain a loan. He scorns the scientific approach to fishing promoted by the cooperative and wants to get an engine on his own.

Lum is unable to raise the money, and following a disastrous fishing season coupled with gambling losses, he decides to sell Pigtail, an orphaned Eurasian girl he and his wife have unofficially adopted. Pigtail is an extraordinarily beautiful seventeen year old who is loved by Lum’s wife, his father, and his two biological children. Despite providing Pigtail a home, Lum has so far resisted legally adopting the girl. The lack of parents is problematic for the girl’s future as no husband will consider a parentless bride. Pigtail finds herself in a tenuous position as she is an orphan in a society that discriminates against orphans, and is also a Eurasian or “half-breed” in a culture that is wary of miscegenation. 

Lum Sin sells Pigtail to a dealer called Hop Fong in the “Virgin Market”. The text is highly critical of this virgin trade which is seen as a morally degenerative practice within traditional Chinese culture in Hong Kong. The text observes  that demand for virgins exists in the prostitution industry, and as companions to wealthy old men who believe sex with virgins is regenerative.

Pigtail, however, manages to escape Hop Fong and seeks protection with her lover, a young fisherman named Ah Woo. But Ah Woo, believing she has lost her virginity to Hop Fong, rejects Pigtail,  and she is devastated.  She attempts to commit suicide by jumping in front of a car but is rescued and taken to hospital by Dr Ferguson, a philanthropic American medic who runs a junk-based civic medical service for the fishing community. Ferguson and the discourse of western medicine are clearly presented as a progressive element of (western) modernity and his chance saving of the girl appears to be a part of a narrative of how such modernizing agents and discourses can be liberating for the marginalized in traditional communities.

The story has a further twist though because Pigtail is again held captive in the Virgin Market by Mrs Tang, a woman involved in the trade of young girls. However, Ah Woo, repenting his earlier actions, saves Pigtail from enslavement, and there is a suggestion that they become married. Because of Pigtail’s escape and Lum Sin’s  refusal to pay back the money for the girl, Hop Fong and his men beat up Lum, and destroy   and his newly purchased engine.. Towards the end of the narrative, a chastised Lum attempts to reconcile with Pigtail by offering to adopt her formally and accept Ah Woo as his son-in-law. But he is unable to find the couple. In Lum Sin’s degeneration and the suggested union between Pigtail and Ah Woo, the text implicitly lays down the lines of  progressive social change from a restricted traditionalism to a more accommodative future. The text by and large sees  East and West within the familiar tradition-modernity dyad and is mostly orientalist in its depiction of “traditional” Chinese society. (HR)


All entries and data copyright © The Hong Kong English Literature Database