When I read about Eileen Chang’s translation (with much editing from Eva Hung) of The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai (Columbia University Press, 2007) by Han Bangqing, I naturally added it to my list of books to read. And that’s what I finished last week.
I was interested in learning about late 19th century Shanghai and imagined a quick read of the 500+ pages of Sing-Song Girls. But that didn’t happen. There was little to no racy material and few story arcs. At times I thought about ditching the book and pretending I’d never mentioned it in an earlier post.
But guilt got the best of me and I trudged through page after page. My favorite sub-plots included a couple of women from the countryside who travel to Shanghai to find their brother (who’d fallen into huge debt, partly from frequenting prostitutes), only to end up as courtesans themselves. I was also captivated by the jilted courtesan who threatened suicide over a no-good client.
In the end I’m happy I finished Sing-Song Girls. I really have a better sense of late 19th century Shanghai. Even in Eva Hung’s postscript, I learned that many have found this book slow and dull. Hung explains that before industrialization, life moved at a slower pace, as did literature. Today people expect action and adventure in the books they read.
So here’s what I learned from Sing-Song Girls:
* prostitutes, no matter their level in the Shanghai red light district, were illiterate
* the Mexican dollar (not peso) was a widely-used currency in Shanghai back then
* men used brothels as places to socialize with their friends
* high-class courtesans enjoyed glamorous fashion, but wore multiple layers because men back then didn’t desire the natural shape of a woman’s body
* courtesans sat behind their clients when they ate and played mah-jong or cards
* courtesans didn’t eat dinner with the men (they had to eat before their clients arrived), but they did drink in front of men
* everyone smoked opium
* courtesans could only leave the brothels if they found a husband (or became a concubine) or opened their own “house”
* high-class brothels were in the international settlement because Chinese officials were prohibited from patronizing “houses” in Chinese-governed areas
* raw opium causes death
For years I’ve dissed Memoirs of a Geisha (Knopf, 1997), Arthur Golden’s runaway hit about Kyoto courtesans. I also found it slow and a bit dull. So now I know better.