She wasn’t a bird in a cage. A bird in a cage, when the cage is opened, can still fly away. She was a bird embroidered onto a screen—a white bird in clouds of gold stitched onto a screen of melancholy purple satin. The years passed; the bird’s feathers darkened, mildewed, and were eaten by moths, but the bird stayed on the screen even in death.Excerpt from ‘Love in a Fallen City’ by Eileen Chang
If it hadn’t been for an online literature course offered by Harvard on EdX, some readers like me would’ve never learnt of Chinese author Eileen Chang. It’s such a shame, because despite having a literature degree, I had not heard of her until September 2021. Not from friends, or teachers or fellow ‘bibliophiles’ in the online community.
“Love in a Fallen City” is a short-story collection by Chang, set mostly in the 1940s, spread over 300 pages, with six distinctly different tales. Four of them are almost novella sized, while just two are actually short. The book starts with ‘Aloeswood Incense’, a story of a teen-girl called Weilong, whose parents plan to move cities and expect her to repeat a whole year, because they cannot afford her tuition & boarding fees. So Weilong hopes to seek help from her father’s estranged sister, Madame Liang, a wealthy widow living in one of the poshest districts of Hong Kong. It almost feels like a Chinese reboot of ‘Great Expectations’, except that Madame Liang is no Miss Havisham; instead, she is a young woman, still in her 40s, charming enough to lure young men and have her fun.
Chang weaves engrossing sentences, filled with rich imagery of the scenes where the stories unfold. Long descriptive sentences that I usually find tedious/annoying in most other novels (even if the author is a literary rock-star), were soothing and essential in Eileen Chang’s prose. A lot of lines almost feel like poetry in motion. However, the most interesting bit about her stories is the fact that they are set in a time when the Chinese people were struggling to strike a balance between their traditional customs and the rapid Americanisation of life in the upper circles of their cities. So there is a lot of this ‘east versus west’ struggle that some of the characters face. Like how her women protagonists want to be able to go out and date men, but fear gossip and slander, which holds them back from speaking their heart and resorting to mind-games.
This struggle seems to be most stark in the story titled ‘Jasmine Tea’, where the protagonist is a young college boy, whose father loathes him, because his deceased mother was never happy in the marriage. The boy viciously curses his dead mother, wondering why she couldn’t just pursue her dreams – which included studying further and pursuing a relationship with a man who wasn’t her equal in class – and lead a more content life, because he thinks it could’ve meant having a father who cherished him. But he then chides himself, rationalizing that the times his mother lived in was much more conservative and she couldn’t lead life on her own terms. The women protagonists throughout Chang’s stories are held back in different ways, because of the unequal place they hold in the society due to their gender. It almost gets frustrating at points, to see these women being restrained and stifled by bizarre expectations.
It’s easy to see why publishers picked the title of the story called ‘Love in a Fallen City’, because it’s definitely the most vivid of them all – of two adults falling for each other during wartime, when the city around them is crumbling. There’s a sudden shift in scenarios in the story, one minute the protagonists are dancing at fancy parties in expensive hotels, the next they are surrounded by bombings, with little food to themselves, since the most of rations is reserved for front-line soldiers. The name for this romance that’s filled with contradictions couldn’t have been more apt.
A lot of readers might not enjoy how manipulative Chang’s women leads are, but given the cultural/historical context, it’s not like they had a lot of choice – a woman couldn’t just get what she wanted if she asked for it upfront. Ridiculous, yes. Readers will also get to learn how Hong Kong and Shanghai are a world apart from each other – their food is different, their language is different, among other cultural elements. Add to that the tumultuous period itself – the 1940s.
The only story that I did not like at all was the one called “The Golden Cangue”, it felt like an Indian “saas-bahu” family drama, a genre that is all about scheming mother-in-laws and evil sister-in-laws. Also, it was the only story where it was hard to keep up with the names of the multiple protagonists and just what the hell was going on. Fortunately, the next one is ‘Sealed Off’, a great short story that completely changes the mood. We are in the thick of World War II in this one, where people are stuck in a tram-car for hours because of an air raid. Two passengers, a married man and a single teacher strike a flirtatious conversation, forgetting their regular lives for a while, imagining a romance that could’ve been.
For someone who has never read any Chinese literature but is curious about it, Eileen Chang seems to be a great place to start. She conjurer up moods, places, aromas and relationships that are spirited and colorful. It almost feels like you are watching a mini-series. It’s a 4/5 from me.
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