Eileen Chang is probably the most talked about, studied and emulated writer in modern China. She made her debut as a prodigy in the 1940s in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. After she emigrated to the US in the 1950s, she was canonised in the 1960s by C.T. Hsia in his History of Modern Chinese Fiction, where he called her the ‘best and most important writer’ in mid-20th-century China. In the 1990s she completely withdrew from society and her Salinger-like reclusion led to a frenzy of voyeurism – fans tracked down her apartment in Los Angeles and dug through her dustbin.
She read extensively both in Chinese and in English: Maugham, Shaw, Huxley, D.H. Lawrence and Stella Benson were among her favourites; she didn’t like Shakespeare, Goethe or Hugo. The 18th-century Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber was to her mind the world’s greatest work of literature. Big subjects – theory, history, politics – didn’t interest her. The complexity of human relationships, an individual’s calculations and their flaws, the trivial pleasures of daily life – lipstick (had to be by Tangee), clothes, food (she was a dedicated carnivore with a sweet tooth) – were her passions. As Hsia wrote,
Chang does not profess high-minded ideals, but this does not mean that her moral passion is in any way less intense than that of the professed didacticist. On the contrary, her registration of the inescapable pettiness and sadness of human endeavour is nearly always morally disturbing precisely because, given the human condition, she refrains from overt gestures of indignation or protest.
A fine example would be her essay on watching a policeman beat up a teenage boy in the street for no reason. She was so angry and yet thoughts of proletarian revolution never crossed her mind (lack of systematic training, she reflected). She just wished she could turn into the chief of police or the chairman’s wife, so that she could slap the policeman in the face, hard.
Chang’s mother, Yvonne Whang (also known as Huang Yifan and Huang Suqiong), was born into an elite family at the dusk of imperial China. Her mother was a concubine from a rural background, but she was raised by her father’s wife. She married the son of Zhang Peilun, a naval commander who had married the daughter of the most powerful politician of the late Qing dynasty, Li Hongzhang, the ‘Bismarck of the East’. Not quite a traditional oriental beauty, Yvonne was later described by her daughter as having ‘neither very black hair, nor a pale complexion, a bit like a Latino’. Chang’s father was a disaster. He developed a severe opium addiction and insisted on taking home a concubine. The couple fought from the very beginning, and Yvonne filed for divorce as soon as she saw an opportunity, probably making her the first woman in modern China to initiate a divorce and see it through. She didn’t ask for custody of the two children. Eileen was ten and quite proud of her mother’s divorce: ‘A divorcée is as modern as a scientist,’ she wrote.
When Eileen was four, her mother went abroad with her husband’s sister; Little Reunions, an autobiographical novel, suggests that they may have had a lesbian relationship. Bound feet didn’t prevent Yvonne travelling across continents. She learned oil painting in Paris alongside Xu Beihong (later a master painter of horses), and made friends with his wife and many artists. She skied in the Swiss Alps, where her small feet seem to have been an advantage – they say women with bound feet had exceptionally strong thigh muscles.
The brief periods young Eileen spent with her mother between her European trips are always warmly described in her essays. Yvonne would talk about England, France and the Swiss Alps, and Eileen was inspired to study at the University of London, become more famous than Lin Yutang, travel around the world, have her own house in Shanghai, and live a brisk and resolute life. Yvonne wanted to raise her to be a lady, and taught her to play the piano, to paint, to speak and write English. For young Eileen, smiling properly was especially hard. She failed every time, either laughing too loudly or not smiling at all. Yvonne also tried to teach her how to cook, how to wash clothes, how to walk elegantly, how to read people’s micro facial expressions. ‘If you don’t have a talent for humour, don’t try to tell jokes,’ Eileen was warned. She admitted to herself that she had zero living wit. She never managed to learn to knit, neither did she remember the way to the hospital despite at one point having to go there every day for three months. She knew her mother saw her as a failure.
Not long after the divorce, Eileen’s father married again, this time to the daughter of a former prime minister of the Republic of China. In Little Reunions, the stepmother is called Jade Flower:
She once had a love affair with a cousin. They had become intimate, but when her family objected because he was impecunious, the lovers made a suicide pact to take poison together. At the last moment, her cousin backed out and notified the family to take her home from the hotel … from that time on she was tarnished in the eyes of the family and rarely had contact with the outside world.
Eileen’s stepmother soon turned her father against her, and she was beaten and locked in her room for six months. Finally, at the age of 18, she escaped to her mother’s house. She had no idea that another nightmare was waiting.
It wasn’t until Little Reunions was published – posthumously – in 2009 that people began to understand the level of entanglement between Chang, her mother and the rest of her family. Chang asked her literary executors, Stephen and Mae Fong Soong, to destroy the manuscript of Little Reunions. They didn’t publish it, but they didn’t destroy it either. After the Soongs died, the burden fell on their son Roland. Like Max Brod, he made the decision not to obey the author’s wishes.
The characters in Little Reunions are thinly disguised, autobiographical to a fault: all have a source figure in real life. But the novel doesn’t follow a chronological timeline, and is almost unreadable if you’re unfamiliar with Chang’s life and her family background. In the novel, the mother (Rachel) gives the daughter (Julie) a puny allowance, but when Rachel visits, she travels with more than twenty suitcases, stays at the most luxurious hotel in Hong Kong, and busies herself dating younger men. A brilliant student, Julie is given eight hundred Hong Kong dollars by a thoughtful professor, a kind of private scholarship. She hands the money to Rachel, hoping for some good words as a reward. The next day, she overhears that Rachel has lost $800 on a card game. In another of Chang’s autobiographical novels, The Book of Change, the mother suspects the daughter of having slept with the teacher to get the money, and barges into the daughter’s shower to inspect her body.
Yvonne had many romantic relationships with both Chinese and Western men. Eileen often felt that she was in the way. When her mother had male visitors, she would go up to the attic to read a really long novel (her reading list suggests her mother was quite busy). She worried about being seen as a burden, and constantly suspected her mother of trying to marry her off. Reporters from the Singapore newspaper Lianhe Zaobao recently traced one of Yvonne’s younger friends, Xing Guangsheng (now 94 years old), in Malaysia, and pieced together Chang’s mother’s last years. When Xing met Yvonne in Kuala Lumpur in 1948, she was in her fifties, teaching handicrafts at the local girls’ school. She was considered stuck-up and had few friends, but Xing was more or less Eileen’s age, and the two became close. They went shopping and to the movies together. Yvonne never mentioned that her daughter was a famous writer. Xing told the reporters that Yvonne always travelled with family treasure, Qing dynasty porcelain from the royal kilns, and that her walls were decorated with the canvases of her famous painter friends. Yvonne once adopted a girl from an orphanage, and tried to turn her into a lady (as she had done with Eileen). After repeated failures, she sent the girl back to the orphanage.
From Kuala Lumpur, Yvonne moved to London, where she worked as a machinist, living in a damp basement. In 1957 she was diagnosed with stomach cancer and her health deteriorated rapidly. On her deathbed she cabled Eileen, then in the US, asking for a last chance to meet. Eileen didn’t go to London but sent her mother a $100 cheque. Yvonne left her antique porcelain to Eileen. According to Eileen’s second husband’s diary, she cried and wailed when the familiar suitcases arrived at their apartment, and was ill for two months before opening them. But perhaps Little Reunions reveals a deeper truth:
Her mother wrote to Julie from her deathbed in Europe: ‘My only wish is to see your face one more time.’ Julie didn’t go. After her demise, a world-famous auction house sold off Rachel’s effects to settle her debts. When Julie received the detailed inventory, only a pair of jade vases had any value. They were among the antiques Rachel always took with her when she travelled overseas – she waited for the right price to sell things but she never actually sold anything …
However, Julie had never seen the jade vases. When she examined the inventory from the auction house, the edge of her lips curled into a bitter smile. ‘Never afforded me an opportunity to broaden my horizons,’ thought Julie. ‘As the saying goes, “One must not reveal valuables to strangers.” The older generation really treated us as if they needed to guard against thieves.’
Chang witnessed plenty of ugly break-ups in her family before she met Hu Lancheng, an essayist, critic and high-profile Japanese collaborator. But she didn’t care much for politics and ‘had a weakness for Western middlebrow romantic literature’. She was studying in Hong Kong in 1941 when Japanese bombing killed her favourite teacher and one of her mother’s lovers. She dropped out of school and headed back to occupied Shanghai, because ‘Shanghailanders believed Shanghai, even under occupation, was the best place to be no matter what.’ She didn’t hate the invaders but rather admired the sophisticated Japanese aesthetic: they could find the most delicate contrast between different shades of green and red (which usually clashed). She was too cosmopolitan to become a nationalist or a patriot. Hu had written some clever reviews which deeply impressed her, and when they were introduced, she immediately fell in love. He was a predator and Eileen, who only knew love stories from novels (‘an armchair strategist of love’), was easy prey. They married in secret – when Eileen went to buy the blank marriage certificate, she got only one, not realising that two were needed, one for each partner. They signed the certificate, and Eileen kept the only copy in the bottom of a trunk. She never showed it to anyone.
After Japan surrendered, Hu was wanted as a traitor and went into hiding. In hospital, he slept with a nurse; in a Japanese friend’s home, he slept with the man’s wife; in the countryside, he slept with the concubine of a friend who harboured him. Eileen trudged out to the countryside to visit him (the journey is described in detail in her unfinished memoir, Notes on a Strange Land), only to find him living with another woman, while still pining for the nurse. When the woman got pregnant, Hu sent her to Shanghai for an abortion and asked Eileen to help with the cost.
After Hu went into exile in Japan, the relationship ended. In 1959 he published a melodramatic memoir flaunting all the women he had conquered (of course he loved every one of them sincerely when they were together, and felt very sad when he had to leave each one of them behind). Chang was one of many. When she became a literary phenomenon again in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1970s, Hu tried to capitalise on her fame by reprinting his memoir. He even accepted an invitation from Chang’s most devoted fan, the writer Zhu Xining, to live in his house in Taiwan and tutor his three daughters (they all grew up to be writers, the famous Zhu Sisters). Zhu took the liberty of writing to Chang, and tried to persuade her to take Hu back: ‘Jesus fed each of five thousand men with five loaves and two fish … He doesn’t reduce the love for one because of another, thus every woman has the same full love from him.’ He never heard from her again.
It was said that this letter from Zhu provoked Chang to write Little Reunions and take control of her own life story. It was supposed to be a novel, but I haven’t come across anyone who hasn’t read it as an autobiography. People say that the novel shows how obsessed Chang was with money. There is some truth here, because every relationship it describes involves money in one way or another. When Julie/Eileen tells Hu’s avatar, Shao Chih-yung, that she is worried the little she earns from writing for magazines will mean she’ll never be able to pay her mother back, he sends her suitcases of money (something similar happens in the short story ‘Lust, Caution’, which was adapted into a movie directed by Ang Lee). She immediately changes it into gold bars and gives them to her mother, but she refuses them. Later, when Chih-yung goes into hiding, she gives him back all the money in gold bars, and pays for his mistress’s abortion.
Why the rush to pay her mother back? When Rachel is paying for Julie’s education, she’s always saying things like: ‘I didn’t drink coffee this week, because I have to pay for your school’; ‘I didn’t buy new clothes this month, because of you.’ When Julie is ill and has to go to hospital, her mother says: ‘Oh, you just live to bring disasters! People like you should just be left alone to die!’ Chang’s most famous saying, ‘Be famous as early as possible!’, shows how eager she was not to be dependent on her mother. Paying the money back was also a way to tell her mother that without the debt, which was now settled, there wasn’t much left, affection included.
Deep down, it wasn’t about money. Little Reunions is about the people who can hurt you the most: in Chang’s case, that was her mother and her lover. The father who beat her and locked her up didn’t count for much, ‘because I never loved him’. Julie’s revenge on her mother is brutal, and the $100 cheque a way to deny her mother’s last wish. There is no final reunion, ‘little’ or otherwise.
None of the characters in the book is particularly likeable, not even Julie. Stephen Soong called the book ‘unsympathetic’ and advised Chang to change some of the characters and to make the plot less obviously autobiographical, but she didn’t. However, she remained conflicted about whether to publish the book or destroy it.
After the communists took Shanghai in 1949, Chang stayed on for a short time. She was invited to a writers’ and artists’ assembly, where everyone wore grey and blue Mao suits (the ‘blue ants’ outfit). She made an effort to tone down her bold style of dress, putting a white mesh blouse over her cheongsam, but still stood out in the sea of greyish blue. She must have got the feeling that communist Shanghai was not for her (her relationship with a Japanese collaborator had also to be taken into account).
In 1952, she moved to Hong Kong, and soon published two anti-communist novels in English, The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth, both commissioned by the United States Information Service. They are concerned with the change in rural life under communism – surely a subject outside Chang’s comfort zone. How could Eileen Chang, a writer ‘compulsively fixated on reality’, write about the peasants she barely knew? She made what use she could of her limited experience in the countryside, when she was visiting Hu in hiding. In 2010 Roland Soong published Chang’s unfinished Notes on a Strange Land, a mix of memoir and travel notes, and clearly a source for many elements of The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth, including the pit latrines and the famous pig slaughtering scene. She wasn’t satisfied with the results. The novels’ outlines were set by the American propaganda officer, and Naked Earth caused her a lot of headaches and ‘mental constipation’. The ‘bedroom scene’ was a challenge too: ‘How do English novels deal with this? Maybe I should read something like From Here to Eternity or Bhowani Junction.’ The Rice-Sprout Song was acclaimed by American critics, but Chang swore she’d never again write anything she didn’t feel committed to, or on a subject she wasn’t familiar with.
In 1955, she emigrated to the US under the 1953 Refugee Relief Act, where she wrote more novels in English about the world she knew, but couldn’t find a publisher. American editors, she decided, turned her down for political reasons: they wouldn’t accept a book about rotten decadent old China because it would make communism look too good. Chang’s second husband, Ferdinand Reyher, was a leftist writer thirty years older than her. They met at the MacDowell artists’ colony in New Hampshire. She didn’t read his books, and he didn’t mind: ‘I’m in good company, because she doesn’t read Joyce either.’ But the good times didn’t last long. Reyher’s health was poor and during the ten years of their marriage, he was often in bed ill, and in need of constant care. Chang sold her mother’s antiques piece by piece to pay the bills. After Reyher died in 1967, Chang gradually withdrew from society as her fame increased, eventually living in puritanical seclusion, corresponding with only a handful of people.
Chang devoted her last years to her favourite novels. She compared the texts of several major editions of The Dream of the Red Chamber and documented every minor difference, which resulted in her own book, Nightmare in the Red Chamber. (Chang kept a list of things that disappointed her: shad fish has too many bones; crabapple blossom doesn’t have fragrance; Cao Xueqin left The Dream of the Red Chamber unfinished.) Gao E, who claimed to have recovered the last forty chapters of The Dream but was widely suspected of having written them himself, should be ‘sentenced to death by a thousand cuts’, Chang wrote, for his corny, sloppy writing, his lack of talent and understanding.
The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangqing was written in the Wu dialect spoken around Shanghai, and Chang spent many years translating it into Mandarin Chinese and English. Her affection for the 19th-century novel may have come from her childhood, when her father took in a prostitute as a concubine – after Yvonne had left him – and she treated Eileen quite well. She didn’t care much for Eileen’s younger brother, but took Eileen to fancy restaurants and spoiled her with cakes. In Little Reunions, Euphoria, her avatar, dresses Julie in clothes like hers and takes her out to high-end gambling clubs:
After the seamstress left, Euphoria cuddled Julie and sat her on her lap. ‘Second Aunt just refitted old clothes for you. These will be made with brand-new material. So who do you like better, Second Aunt or me?†
‘I like you.’ Julie thought that to say otherwise would be far too impolite, but it felt like a chimney popped up on the top of her head, pointing straight into the predawn sky. The faint sound of a rooster crowing could be heard in the distance.
The translation here is slightly off. It should be: ‘Someone up there heard what she said, in the dim daylight and with the rooster crowing from afar.’ The little girl knows that it isn’t right to like another woman better than her mother, and is afraid of being heard saying so by a spirit, somewhere up there. But her mother isn’t around, and the substitute is glamorous as hell. (The concubine is later dismissed for hitting her master with a spittoon during a quarrel.)
Later on, Chang’s father’s second wife (the evil stepmother) gave her worn-out clothes: ‘cotton gowns with frayed collars … that seemed awfully out of place in her exclusive private girls’ school’. She felt ashamed and humiliated, and wrote about the experience in numerous essays and novels. As soon as she became financially independent, she acquired a reputation for dressing ‘outrageously’ (she liked unconventional tailoring and unusual colour combinations). ‘I’m not pretty,’ she once said. ‘If I don’t wear something strange enough to catch the eye, no one would notice me.’
Her father’s concubine wasn’t the only reason for Eileen’s fascination with the lives of courtesans:
In former times, sex was not an issue for men, because they got married quite young. But marriage was arranged by elders, and your wife would not be like the women you met in brothels or on other social occasions. In a high-class brothel, to establish an intimate relationship with the courtesan of your choice could take much time, patience, energy and money, and in the end there was rejection if she was not into you. The whole process and etiquette was almost like a dating ritual between lovers … Courtesans could marry the man they had feelings for as a concubine – in this way, they had more options than a common woman … Certainly there was a chance that arranged marriages could be happy too, but the couple had sex first, then grew feelings for each other, without a sense of uncertainty, longing, mystery and excitement, so it couldn’t be defined as a love affair. The rare chance of puppy love was usually between young cousins; adults’ only hope for love was to look hard in the filthy corners of some brothel.
If The Dream of the Red Chamber focused on the intricacies of love and marriage among young cousins, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is the first novel devoted to adult love in a brothel. As Chang sharply observed, with the arrival of modern marriage and the freedom to choose one’s spouse freely (and divorce them freely), the brothel novel as a genre disappeared.
After a selection of correspondence between Chang and the Soongs was published in 2011, it was clear that the dozens of biographies of Chang would need revising. Mae Fong Soong was Chang’s confidante for life. You can’t choose your parents, Chang used to say, but you can choose your friends. Her best friend at school was a cheerful girl called Fatima Mohideen (Bebe in Little Reunions), half Ceylonese, half Chinese, the only witness to Chang’s secret marriage with Hu. But she couldn’t read Chinese, so she only knew part of Chang. Soong was the only one who understood Chang inside out. ‘I’m so glad you are not a man, because if you were a man, it would complicate things,’ Chang once wrote to her.
Soong knew Chang wasn’t pretending to be unapproachable. She was short-sighted but refused to wear thick glasses, which made it easier to ignore people greeting her. Soong also knew that she didn’t dine out much because she had food allergies – she was not ‘stuck-up’ as many others presumed. Most of all, Chang slept during the day and wrote at night, which made a normal social life almost impossible. Soong was always composed, ‘elegant and delicate like a rare orchid’, and their friendship supported Chang during the difficult time when she lived on her own abroad. Whenever something bad happened, she would think: ‘What would Mae say or do? Mae always saw the good side in a bad situation, and that’s what I should do.’
The final period of Chang’s life was filled with ailments: headaches, allergies, dental problems and, most of all, a phobia about bugs. She burned unopened letters in case they had bugs in them. She abandoned an apartment because of fleas and moved from one motel to another, decluttering along the way. She wrote to Mae about everything, and they exchanged more than six hundred letters over forty years. Chang died in her apartment in Los Angeles in 1995. In her will, she left everything to the Soongs, and wrote: ‘I wish to be cremated instantly – no funeral parlour – the ashes scattered in any desolate spot, over a fairly wide area if on land.’