I’m always on the lookout for new voices in Chinese literature. So when I came across The Concubine’s Daughter by Pai Kit Fai (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009), I was game. And that’s what I read this week.
The story follows the daughter of a concubine in early 20th century China whose father tries to bury her alive because she’s a worthless girl. Li-Xia, as she’s named, survives and is sold to a silk factory owner after escaping the tortuous process of foot-binding. At the silk farm/factory, she stirs up more trouble and is sent to the river to be drowned. As luck would have it, a half-Chinese, half-British sea captain rescues her, falls in love with her, and trains her to be comprador.
Before Li-Xia turnes 20, she and the barbarian sea captain marry and anxiously await the birth of their first child, a daughter named Little Star. The rest of the story chronicles Little Star’s daring escapes from red light districts in Macau and Hong Kong. And her own romantic involvement with a foreigner.
At 471 pages, the book kept me interested throughout, but soon after I started it, I did a little research and learned Pai Kit Fai is not in fact a Chinese man, but a foreign one, born in 1929, who goes by a Chinese pen name. Should I have viewed the book differently after learning the author’s background? Probably not, but I did.
You see, after I learned the author was a foreign man, I couldn’t help but wonder if the book would include western male fantasies about Asia, particularly Asian women. Sue me if I’m on high alert for that, but my limited training in literary criticism focused on gender and Asia. (The World of Suzie Wong and The Quiet American are two of my favorite books nonetheless.)
The first part of The Concubine’s Daughter is beautifully written–poetic metaphors and gorgeous descriptions of the lush landscape of southern China. The author seemed quite progressive with his strong female characters and aversion to foot-binding (and I read these parts when I still thought the author was an octogenarian Chinese man).
The stories of Li-Xia and Little Star do include villainous Chinese men and dashing western saviors. And a little woman-on-woman action in one scene, but what bothered me more was the sequence of events at the end of the story. They were supposed to take place just before the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, but at some point I wondered if the book jacket told a different story. There were no clues–not a one–that the Japanese were honing in on Hong Kong or had occupied China. In fact, when Little Star learned the fate of her father, supposedly killed in a Japanese air raid in Shanghai, I figured the author had skipped over all of WWII. Because there was no mention of the Japanese in Shanghai after that one passage.
Oh, but then at one point toward the end of the book, the author explains in one quick line how Little Star was so caught up in her own world that she didn’t know about the Rape of Nanking or the other events unfolding on the mainland or around Asia. Huh? I knew of some villages in central China where people still thought Mao was alive in the 1990s, but we’re talking Macau and Hong Kong in the 1930s. Those places weren’t exactly cut off from newspapers and radios!
One more point of contention and then I’ll stop (for I really did find the whole novel entertaining and hard to put down). When Little Star goes to visit a doctor on Hankow Road in Hong Kong (my doctor was also on that street), she notices bars like Bottoms Up, the Cave Bar, and the Pink Pussycat, which would have sprouted 30 or 40 years after the story took place. I know it’s a work of fiction, but that historical inaccuracy stuck out.
All in all, The Concubine’s Daughter is an engaging summer read for anyone who enjoys books about traditional Chinese customs like foot-binding and concubinage, martial arts, bi-cultural romance, and organized crime.