Lee, Janice K.Y. (2009). The Piano Teacher: A Novel. New York: Viking.

The Piano Teacher is a  novel of war-time love, betrayal and intrigue set in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong during the Second World War. It adopts a double-time narrative mode constantly switching between the 1950s when the story reaches its climax and events from the 1940s that inform and shape the narrative in the present. Other than helping build up dramatic tension and suspense in the plot this narrative device does not appear to have any thematic function.

The story begins with the arrival of Claire Pendleton in post-war Hong Kong. The wife of a mid-ranking and unimaginative government official (Martin), Claire comes to the colony in search of adventure. She is presented as a quasi-ingénue  figure whose perceptions of the world outside Britain  are at first informed by orientalist stereotypes which she soon discovers to be inadequate for the complexities of colonial society. Her exposure to Chinese people in Britain, for instance, is limited to waiters, servants, etc which leaves her wholly unprepared for the sophistication of anglicized Chinese society in Hong Kong.

She becomes a piano-teacher to the daughter of a  wealthy westernized Chinese couple, Melody and Victor Chen, and soon develops an affair with their chauffer, Will Truesdale, who appears to have a complicated relationship and history with the Chens. Most of the early part of the narrative is dominated by Claire’s impressions of Hong Kong and her various rendezvous with Will. These events in the present are juxtaposed with scenes from the past where Will has a socially unsanctioned relationship with the larger-than-life and colorful Trudy Laing in pre-war Hong Kong. Born to a Portuguese mother and Chinese father, Trudy is presented as a kind of social outcast  who has nevertheless managed to flourish in colonial society by exploiting the very Eurasian “exoticism’ that has led others to discriminate against her. Through her character, The Piano Teacher mounts a somewhat desultory critique of colonial attitudes towards race.

It is with the invasion of Hong Kong by the Japanese and the internment of Europeans that the narrative begins to focus on its main drama. . Trudy and her cousin Dominic survive by ingratiating themselves with the Japanese military officials. They are seen as collaborators by most of the characters in the text but Trudy uses her influence with the Japanese to provide food to British inmates and also to get special privileges for Will. Otsubo the Japanese commandant grants these favors to Trudy in exchange for sexual favors and the misguided belief that Will has information about the location of the Crown Collection.

Towards the conclusion of the novel, readers learn that Victor Chen, along with two others, had been privy to information about the Crown Collection and that Chen betrays the others to the Chinese while moving the collection to another location so that the Japanese cannot find it. By the end of the war, Chen, realizing China’s growing influence in Hong Kong, has collaborated with the Chinese government to repatriate the collection despite the fact that  the British has entrusted him with it. Will is aware of this secret, and it is the fear of public exposure that makes Chen employ him.  

By the end of the story, Claire learns of this history and Will publicly confronts Victor Chen but is prevented from revealing the secret by Claire. However, Will releases correspondence between Otsubo and Victor Chen to the British authorities and shames him; Chen is denied   an OBE as a result. The readers also learn that Trudy had been possibly murdered by Otsubo in the final days of the Japanese occupation, and that Chen’s child that Claire has been teaching is in reality Trudy’s child conceived with Otsubo. Claire’s affair with Will is also revealed and she separates from her husband but decides to remain in Hong Kong.  (HR)

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