This week I read Eileen Chang’s autobiographical novel, The Fall of the Pagoda (Hong Kong University Press, 2010), which was originally published in 1968 in Chinese. If you’ve read this blog over the months, you’ll know I just love Eileen Chang.
Chang’s many novels, novellas, essays, and short stories touch upon her troubled childhood. A product of an arranged marriage, Chang’s early years (chronicled in The Fall of the Pagoda) are plagued with an emotionally and often physically distant mother; an opium addicted father and stepmother; and a half year locked away in her father’s attic just after she takes UK university entrance exams.
The first 100 pages of Pagoda brought me back to the aura and snail’s pace of The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai (Columbia University Press, 2005), Han Bangqing’s massive novel about Shanghai’s red light district. (Chang translated Sing-Song Girls into English.) But the next 180 pages of Pagoda captured my attention and picked up speed, bringing the reader into the decadent turbulence of pre-WWII Shanghai.
That’s what I’m talking about.
I loved reading about Chang’s modern mother, who–even though she abandons her children in China for the opulence of France and England–epitomizes New China. She swims and skies in bound feet and divorces her philandering husband, something novel back then.
I get goosebumps every time Chang mentioned popular Shanghai landmarks from back then, like the Cathay Cinema, where–shivers down the spine–in 1995 I saw the film rendition of Chang’s novella, Red Rose, White Rose. (Speaking of, I can’t find a place to rent Red Rose, White Rose, so I just bought it on eBay!)
But The Fall of the Pagoda reminds me of another film.
Back in 1990, I saw a movie in Hong Kong called Red Dust. Although the film took place up north in Manchuria, it told the story of a young female novelist who–surprise–was locked away in her father’s attic. And the protagonist, Shen Shaohua (played by Brigitte Lin), falls in love with a dreamy guy (played by Han Chin) who works for the Japanese-sympathizing puppet government. Chang herself married a Chinese guy who worked for the Japanese government.
The Fall of the Pagoda ends after Chang’s 18 year-old protagonist escapes from her father’s and step-mother’s wrath. Her story, which takes place during Chang’s university years in Hong Kong, continues in another novel, The Book of Change (Hong Kong University Press, 2010).
And that’s what I’m going to read next.