After reading a couple of Eileen Chang novels and short story collections, I wanted to learn more about this intriguing author. So last week I headed to my public library and checked out her collection of essays, Written on Water (Columbia University Press, 2007).
Chang wrote these essays in her early 20s after fleeing Hong Kong for Shanghai at the beginning of WWII. They cover a wide range of topics from Chinese opera to western art to fashion and her relationships with her father, mother, and step-mother. I especially loved reading her vivid descriptions of Hong Kong and Shanghai during this time.
Growing up with a gambling- and opium-addicted father and a mother who whisked away to Europe for a few years at a time, Chang longed to escape to the UK for her university studies. But by the time she graduated high school, WWII had broken out in Europe and going abroad was no longer an option. So she enrolled at Hong Kong University.
In some of her essays, she described this troubled childhood, including living under the wrath of her new stepmother, also an opium addict, after her parents divorced. (She remained with her father and step-mother until after they locked her in her room for half a year; she finally escaped to her mother’s home, also in Shanghai.)
I’m glad I read Written on Water after Love in Fallen City and The Rice Sprout Song. I can now see where she used snippets of her life (people she knew, places she lived, events she experienced) in her fiction. Interspersed throughout these essays are illustrations Chang drew during the early 1940s.
For the novice Chang reader, I would suggest leaving Written on Water for after Love in a Fallen City or her other work originally published before 1949.