Twenty years ago I moved to Hong Kong and quickly splurged on a book I spotted at the South China Morning Post Bookstore at the Star Ferry. It was Simon Elegant’s novel, A Chinese Wedding (Piatkus Books, 1994). I devoured it in a number of days.
And then I went on to basically have the same marriage described in the book.
It’s uncanny how similar my real life story is to this fictional one. So this week I reread Elegant’s novel for the first time in many years.
In his book, Amy Wyse is an American undergrad in Pennsylvania and by chance meets Winston Lee, a Hong Kong-born MBA student. After a whirlwind romance, Winston returns to Hong Kong. And after Amy graduates, Winston invites her to live with his family in Hong Kong. The two decide to get married soon after she arrives.
Hong Kong is very foreign to Amy and quite a culture shock. That part I couldn’t really relate to. Communication is another problem. And that I can relate to. Amy is very American and doesn’t do a ton to meet Winston halfway. I’ve often wondered if my first marriage would have worked out better if I’d just been myself and not had tried to fit a different mold. In this novel, Amy doesn’t give up her identity and her marriage still fails.
After their wedding, Amy feels that Winston has changed from the free spirited graduate student she met in the US and blames cultural differences. Sure, he’s a workaholic, but that’s not specific to Chinese culture. And yes, he expects the couple to live in the same flat with his family. That’s cultural to an extent, but I know plenty of Americans who have done that (my husband grew up with three generations in his house as did my cousins).
But even after the couple moves into their own apartment, things don’t improve. Amy wants to work and Winston wants to have kids, as if marriage in Hong Kong is only about starting a family. She spends her days studying Cantonese and does quite well. That’s where she adapts to Winston’s culture successfully. She eventually finds her dream job working for an international wire service. That’s where things spiral down even more.
There are parts of this novel that are not at all like my first marriage. But I was surprised to find myself saying “That would never happen in real life”, only to realize that it can and in fact did happen–to me.
I was a bit perplexed that Winston was portrayed as a traditional Hong Kong guy, yet he and his family were fine with Amy living with them (in Winston’s room) before they were even engaged. I doubt a traditional family would have been up for that 20 years ago.
And it also seemed that Amy’s family was a caricature of a narrow-minded family in 1950s America. Yes, people are still close-minded in the US, but I’m not sure a family from Philadelphia would have been so mortified about their daughter marrying in Hong Kong. Mainland China in the 80s or 90s, perhaps. But Hong Kong is not the third world and there are so many familiar things there.
I found the book to be a quick read and a pretty accurate look into expat life in Hong Kong. A Chinese Wedding is available on Kindle and used hardcover on Amazon. If you’ve read it or later read it, I would love to hear what you think.