China

Out of the squalor and into the light: When the Shanghai wall came down

Yu Garden in the former walled city, 1990 (photo by Isham Cook).

A city wall is a potent symbol — and equally so its tearing down. The dismantling of the Beijing fortifications began soon after the Communist Liberation of 1949. I say “dismantling” as more than a few jackhammers were needed to raze some sixty kilometers of massive ramparts twenty meters thick by fifteen meters high, and it took the better part of two decades. The ostensible reason was to ease transportation, but it was also to make a revolutionary point: the sweeping away of the old to make way for the new. Liberated Xi’an was wise enough not to engage in such cultural destruction and held on to all thirteen beautiful kilometers of its wall, its second major tourist draw after the Terracotta Warriors. Today, nobody considers the Xi’an wall to be a hindrance; traffic has adjusted to it. By contrast, the moat surrounding the Beijing city wall, once it was filled in and paved over, turned into the rush-hour parking lot known as the Second Ring Road (while some of the moats were preserved or reconstructed and moved further away from their original location). In 2002, Beijing restored a 1.5-kilometer section with original bricks, assuaging a bit of its guilt, though this required the razing of 2,000 homes that had been built where the wall had formerly stood.

The comparatively modest five-kilometer wall surrounding Shanghai was altogether another matter. Built up in 1553 to fend off pirate attacks, the wall wrapped around the city in a tight oval, unlike the grand rectilinear plans of Imperial Beijing and Xi’an. Although the wall lasted a good 360 years until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Shanghai was never designed to be walled in. The city’s transportation routes were creeks and canals, requiring unhampered flowing. With flooding problems now exacerbated by water gates and free access blocked to outside boats, the waterways silted up over time and became unusable sewage and refuse ditches. The wall was torn down to little public fanfare and much relief in 1912-14. No signs of the wall remain today except for a tiny restored section attached to the Dajing Ge Pavilion. There is also of course the ghostly circular outline of the former moat paved over by Renmin and Zhonghua Roads. More evident, however, is the striking difference between much of the old city and the surrounding urban environment. That is because the decision of what to do with it has languished in confusion and indecision for over a century. Whatever hasn’t been cleared away or become rubble is shabby and decrepit, reminiscent of the more impoverished byways of backwater China, or an American inner city ghetto, while the rest of Shanghai flourishes around it.

Former walled city, 1990 (photo by Isham Cook).

Apparently it was always thus, above all whenever the population burgeoned and became squeezed into cramped neighborhoods with no room for expansion. The wealthy laid claim to large swaths of the walled city to build their sprawling courtyard homes, temples, gardens and orchards, and to remind the rabble of who was in charge they named the streets after themselves. Nineteenth-century reactions by visiting Westerners, when the city was at its most populous (250,000), are revealing: “Filthy dirty and neglected,” according to Peter George Laurie in The model settlement (published 1866), or in James Ricalton’s 1910 account, “a wilderness of low, one-storey buildings…traversed by lanes or streets which might better be termed fetid tunnels, seething with filth” (China through the stereoscope: A journey through the Dragon Empire at the time of the Boxer uprising; both cited in Denison & Guang, Building Shanghai: The story of China’s gateway (John Wiley & Sons, 2006)). Famed traveler Isabella Bird wrote of the walled city, “It is bad form to show any interest in it, and worse to visit it,” though she herself found “the slush was not fouler nor the smells more abominable than in other big Chinese cities that I have walked through.” The “dark, crowded, dirty, narrow, foul, and reeking” streets are only “eight feet wide…narrowed by innumerable stands, on which are displayed, cooked and raw and being cooked, the multifarious viands in which the omnivorous Chinese delight, an odour of garlic predominating” (The Yangtze valley and beyond (Earnshaw Books, 2008; orig. pub. 1899). Like medieval European cities, so narrow were these lanes they obscured the sky above. In the words of contemporary Liu Yanong,

Bamboo poles with laundry rest on the eaves of houses on the opposite sides; the sky is permanently obstructed by the drying underpants, foot-binding strips and cloth diapers. Lazy housewives don’t even bother to wring the laundry before hanging it. Pedestrians curse the residents in their homes, who loudly return the abuse. There is no end to quarreling until the sound of gongs announces the magistrate is on his way. Yamen runners rush ahead to clear the way yelling: “Take down your wash!” as if there was a fire. People rush to drag their laundry poles back into their houses and grab any stray clothing that drops; those not quick enough get a public scolding. (cited in Knyazeva & Sinykin, Shanghai old town: The walled city)

Even after the wall was torn down the character of the place remained the same, as another eyewitness recounted:

One street here, perhaps half a mile long, must rank as one of the oddest in the world. Spread on the sidewalks for its entire length, on a day when there is no rain, is an endless assortment of picked-up rubbish for sale. It is a new revelation in poverty. The Flea Market in Paris looks like Tiffany’s in comparison. Each “shop-keeper” has a dirty cloth a yard or two square laid on the ground. On this he has perhaps a single burned-out electric bulb, an old tooth brush or two from some garbage can, some scraps of rusty wire, some bent nails and a couple of cork stoppers. That will be all. He will sit all day, day after day, to sell that — presumably the findings of his wife and children sent out as scavengers. And the hundreds up and down the street, most of them, will have stocks as amazingly trifling and worthless. A few will have such imaginably useful articles as a workable cast-off hinge or a pair of bent scissors. Anything, absolutely anything, available in ash heaps and garbage cans is on sale here — an unmated old slipper, a nicked ink bottle, the cover of a book with the pages gone — all are for sale, each merchant having only half a dozen or so bits of such junk for his entire stock. (Ralph M. Townsend, Ways that are dark: The truth about China, orig. pub. 1933)

Early twentieth-century journalist Carl Crow summed up the old city as “a mean place…actually not important enough to justify the dignity of a wall” (Foreign devils in the flowery kingdom (Earnshaw Books, orig. pub. 1940).

Former walled city, 1990 (photo by Isham Cook).

And now we have a valorous attempt at a corrective reading: Katya Knyazeva and Adam Sinykin’s, Shanghai old town: Topography of a phantom city. Vol. 2: The walled city (Shanghai, Suzhou Creek Press, 2018; Vol. 1: The old docks covers the area between the walled city and the Huangpu River). Knyazeva (who is the researcher, photographer and main author) is at pains to conjure up the glories of the old city — the elaborate gardens, the fine stone and woodwork still plentiful to the discerning eye in many surviving buildings, and everything else of unnoticed significance. It will not escape the notice of expats and China Hands that it often takes a foreigner to conceive of such a book. Earlier models on Beijing’s history are Michael Meyer’s The last days of old Beijing: Life in the vanishing backstreets of a city transformed (Walker & Company, 2008) and Virginia Stibbs Anami’s Encounters with ancient Beijing: Its legacy in trees, stone and water (China Intercontinental Press, 2004). The latter publication is particularly gorgeous, from the lush cover and interior photography to the exhaustive research and descriptive care of the prose, drawing us into an urban story that would otherwise escape notice. Comparable publications in Chinese are hard to come by and whatever can be found tend to be dull and pedantic. This is due to a general contempt among the Chinese for history, above all the history of their own country, the more so as this history is incessantly trumpeted (a paradox explored in my Questioning China’s “5,000 years” master trope); and still less interest among the citizenry for the cities they live in. When history lessons in school and government propaganda on TV and film reduce history to a list of cherry-picked events, when the professional practice of history — which requires the airing of alternative accounts and competing interpretations — is forbidden, then history no longer exists in any meaningful sense of the term. People know, or sense this. Hence the kneejerk antipathy among the majority to anything smacking of “history.”

Knyazeva’s tome resurrects the Shanghai walled city in over 500 lavishly illustrated and exhaustively researched pages, including a systematic tour of every important street and lane, both those which survive and those which have been obliterated. There is a great deal that is informative here. We learn for example the interesting fact that rickshaws and other vehicles were of little use in the city because they couldn’t surmount the arched bridges spanning the numerous creeks, which were perpetually slippery from spilled water carried by the parade of water carriers whose guild was protected by the city authorities (the foreign concessions outside the walled city already had piped-in tap water by the 1880s). Meanwhile, in the absence of a social welfare system or any municipal services to speak of, the wealthier half were left to organize rudimentary fire brigades and hospitals, charities for orphans and the destitute, the collection of the many dead left on the streets from starvation, disease and infanticide, and the maintenance of the streets and bridges.

Virtually every building that can be identified and has some sort of story behind it is photographed. There are many illustrations of noteworthy architectural and decorative motifs, whose cumulative effect is to create a mood or atmosphere. Some details are photographed so close up as to appear abstract or unidentifiable, like mysterious talismanic symbols of an ancient society, if one existing only a bit over a century ago. Interspersed with these are many photos of the present-day occupants of the buildings, lounging about with an ambivalent or suspicious gaze at the camera, or merely going about their business. Most of these residents are of modest economic means, dowdily dressed and comporting themselves with absolute indifference toward the historical significance of their habitat and blind to the motives of the strange foreigners so obsessed with it. Although Knyazeva’s photos are meant to convey a nostalgia for the past, some seem to undercut her labor of love by depicting with unintended candor the evident shame for their surroundings written in the faces of those inhabiting them.

Former walled city, 2018 (photo by Isham Cook).

Knyazeva befriended a number of surviving descendants still living in their family’s Qing-era homes. From them we learn about the last major destructive event to visit the old city before today’s bulldozers, the rampaging Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, who set about systematically mutilating every piece of traditional handiwork they could find, scraping bas-reliefs off gates and lintels, smashing street-side sculptures, and generally attempting to complete the work the Japanese had begun in their bombing campaigns in the 1930s. After 1949, the surviving houses and mansions were arbitrarily partitioned up to peasant families. If the owners were lucky, they were allowed to reside in one of their own home’s rooms. This is another reason why foreign-authored historical publications on China tend to fare better than Mainland editions. Anything dealing with the Cultural Revolution remains taboo. Knyazeva is at pains to record the source of each occasion of loss, and the Cultural Revolution gets frequent mention. Her book was published on the Mainland, but she got away with it because it was written in English.

The argument of The walled city rests on an act of imagination, a fantasy: what the old city would be like if it could be fully restored. This will never happen, of course. On the contrary, there will soon be nothing left, apart from the shlocky built-up tourist section surrounding the Yu Garden. The real estate is simply too valuable to tolerate anything less than high-rise development.

But there is another phenomenon taking place which goes some way toward offsetting the loss of China’s original walled cities. Oxymoronic as it sounds, it is the explosive growth of ancient canal towns. The fashion took off in the early 2000s in the Shanghai vicinity of Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces, most notably the towns of Zhouzhuang (周庄) and Wuzhen (乌镇), though southern China is populated with scores of them. The towns can be dated back to hundreds of years or even one or two millennia, but only recently has the concept of turning these picturesque old villages into major tourist destinations caught on in a big way, perhaps on the model of long-established haunts such as Lijiang and Dali in Yunnan Province or Pingyao in Shanxi Province. Decrepit structures were repaired and refurbished and the towns considerably expanded beyond their original boundaries with new buildings in the same style, so that it’s no longer possible to tell where the original ends and the fake begins. Rumor has it the towns’ inhabitants have been told to make themselves more visible through their windows and ape their traditional lifestyle for the thousands who mill through the narrow streets every day; rumor also has it they were hired and brought in specifically for the job. There are also “ancient” water towns sprouting up wholly from scratch, such as Gubei Water Village (古北水镇) near the Simatai Great Wall outside of Beijing, constructed only a few years back. Great care is taken to make everything look authentically old, to justify the high entrance fees. The crowds don’t seem bothered by the question of authenticity. If anything, the more impressive the simulacrum, the more they feel they are getting their money’s worth.

Former walled city, 2018 (photo by Isham Cook).

If the tourist authorities were truly serious about recreating life in old Chinese towns, or the walled city of Shanghai for that matter, you would find yourself in a crowd of mostly men with shaved foreheads and Manchu queues, prostitutes calling from doorways and other scattered females in bound feet tiptoeing along or being carried on the back of their maids (respectable women were discouraged or forbidden from venturing outside), dying lepers and child beggars latching onto your limbs, while opium fumes mixed with noxious rural miasmas from stagnant creeks wafted along the muddy lanes. During the Small Swords Uprising of 1853-55, the walled city was taken over by a local militia of Triads paying homage to the Taiping, who had by then established a religious dystopia in Nanjing. The Taiping understood the single most effective method totalitarian regimes employ for inserting the tentacles of fear deep into the minds of the population: stamp out sex. All men and women, including married couples, were segregated and anyone caught in the sexual act was executed (a form of psychological terror experimented with in the Cultural Revolution, when married couples were split up into sex-segregated dormitories). The militia banished thousands of prostitutes and courtesans from the walled city. They fled to the foreign settlements immediately to the north. After the collapse of the uprising, sex workers who hadn’t fled crawled out from hiding and set up shop in the Rainbow Bridge neighborhood of the old city, which as Knyazeva recounts, became a magnet for males in their leisure hours. Those who had fled never came back, once they saw what foreign-run Shanghai had to offer.

The British Concession started developing in 1846, followed by the American and French Concessions; in 1863 the British and American Concessions merged to form the International Settlement. From today’s perspective of aesthetic sophistication, we look back with nostalgic interest to historical architecture and museum-set cities, but the refugees arriving from the walled city in foreign-run Shanghai would have felt quite the opposite — a disgust with what they were leaving behind and an overawed embrace of the new and the modern. Even in those rustic beginnings it must have seemed like emerging into technicolor Oz from black-and-white Kansas: the elegant stately buildings in styles never seen before, the spacious paved roads and sturdy wooden walkways in place of the cramped lanes of the walled city, the outdoor gas lighting brilliantly illuminating the streets at night (the 1860s), followed by electric street lighting (the 1880s). The century’s last two decades saw miraculous modern sanitation — fresh piped-in water and sewage safely removed from people’s homes (in the walled city sewage was dumped into the creeks); in the first decade of the new century, motorcars and tramlines. By 1920, 9,000 settlement homes had telephones, and cinemas had sprouted up like mushrooms. By the 1930s, well, by then visitors from around the world were flocking to Shanghai, now boasting teeming boulevards, classy dancehalls, and sexy cheongsam-clad poster girls suavely posing with cigarettes. Meanwhile, life in the walled city — and the rest of China — by staying where it was, was rapidly receding into the past. The contrast must have struck foreigners and locals alike as pathetic and embarrassing.

The standard Mainland narrative of the so-called “century of humiliation” (1839-1945) would have us believe the foreign powers were responsible for the immense violence over this time period, but the most catastrophic manmade event was entirely homegrown, that perpetrated by the Taiping and Qing armies in one of the most horrendous of China’s recurring civil wars; only the Japanese approached the same scale of destruction in their invasion of China. The Opium War treaties granting the Western powers control over Shanghai, Tianjin, Hankow (Wuhan), and other ports is also singled out, symbolically at least, as epitomizing the most egregious aspect of the 100 years of the concessions, when the motherland was not allowed to govern its own territory. There was undeniably cause for outrage when foreigners were let off lightly for crimes against Chinese, landlords charged steeper rents to Chinese than to their fellow citizens, Chinese were excluded from parks and hotels and were lashed with truncheons by Sikh policemen who wouldn’t dare touch a foreigner (practices which were in fact eased over time). But people vote with their feet and they kept pouring en masse into the Shanghai concessions: “By 1885, the Chinese population of the International Settlement outnumbered the foreign by nearly thirty-five to one, while in the French Concession, there were some 25,000 Chinese to 300 foreigners” (Lynn Pan, In search of old Shanghai).

Former walled city, 2018 (photo by Isham Cook).

At the vanguard of this migration were the courtesans. Among the many thousands of refugees fleeing to the concessions from the Small Swords Uprising and the Taiping siege a decade later, it was they who quickly ascertained how to turn their newfound circumstances to advantage. Whereas prostitution in Imperial China was often proscribed and punished, the authorities in the concessions allowed it flourish openly. But more important than the freedom to practice the profession without fear of arrest or public censure was freedom of movement. Back in the walled city, courtesans were confined to the indoors and a passive life of waiting and dependence for their livelihood on male visitors led to them by word of mouth. In the concessions, by contrast, they could actively and systematically target customers. Initially setting up shop in the undeveloped back streets of the British Concession, they eventually expanded to an area bounded by today’s Nanjing East Road to the north and Yan’an East Road to the south (formerly Yangjing Creek separating the British and French Concessions), Henan Middle Road to the east (Chessboard Street) and Hubei Road to the west (the edge of the original race course, moved in 1863 further west to today’s People’s Park).

In this territory that they could now call their own, the courtesans evolved a practice of hosting frequent, daily parties — issued through “call chit” invitations delivered to nearby courtesan houses by messengers — to which they invited friendly rivals, who brought with them their own customers and patrons, all for the purpose of mutual networking, and fun. In an almost choreographed routine, as we learn from Han Bangqing’s novel The sing-song girls of Shanghai (to be returned to below), four intoxicants were rotated throughout the day and night as new guests arrived and others departed, to maximize the desired results. The guest was greeted with a water pipe lit with tobacco, and tea for relaxation; this was typically followed by many rounds of a popular drinking game similar to rock-paper-scissors (which is actually Chinese in origin) known as the “finger game,” the losers downing shots of Shaoxing wine. To pick up guests who became drowsy from too much alcohol, opium was then offered as a stimulant, before things swung back to more drinking — and guests’ carefree spending on the elaborate meals. There was much flirting of a nature which today would merit the term sexual harassment, and which the females present encouraged up to a point. Sex itself was rarely available in the top-ranked courtesan houses; males could visit lesser-ranked houses for girls on demand.

Patronage was a courtesan’s ladder to success. It generated a cash flow enabling her to live in ever-larger apartments decked out with high-quality furniture and décor, including the de rigueur huge framed mirrors hung high on the walls and tilted towards the guests to expand the room’s size. To adorn these salons with appropriate cultural capital, and to hold her own with wealthy intellectuals, the ambitious courtesan cultivated not only singing and poetry but literary study and philosophy. As her reputation grew, she became unattainable and coveted. Patrons competing for a courtesan had to throw away large sums of money on her. None was promised anything, though there was the expectation that the most favored would eventually be invited to share her bed. Her sexual and psychological control over the chosen patron gave the courtesan leverage to secure a stable future, potentially as his concubine or wife. Here we come full circle to traditional bourgeois marriage, where sexual ownership is promised to the man with the livelihood to afford it. Yet other courtesans prized their independence, even when the sums they had been promised by their patrons failed to materialize, and they had to resort to sleeping with lesser customers to maintain their lifestyle or prevent financial disaster. The venues also saw their share of violence and rape, less so in the more exclusive houses which attracted a politer crowd and the skilled courtesan knew how to manage the boorish customer, as we shall see below.

Wuzhen water town, 2014 (photo by Isham Cook).

Appearing every day out on the street doing the neighborhood rounds gave rise to the idea of showing off. Instead of simply gathering their train to visit another courtesan house only a few minutes away, they turned their journeys into an event, and a more extensive daily route along which they could draw an audience. And indeed the initially startling sight of colorfully dressed courtesans trawling the streets in sedan chairs and horse-drawn carriages began to attract enthusiastic gawkers and crowds. By the later nineteenth century the daily outing ventured well beyond the courtesan district to the riverside along the Bund, before heading westward down Bubbling Well Road (Nanjing West Road) all the way to Jing’an Temple and back, and finishing with a circuit around the big race track — rounding out to some fifteen kilometers. Midpoint along this journey was a stop-off at the luxurious Zhang Garden (張園) with its mixture of Chinese and Western pavilions, where the masses flocked to view the fashionable (now the location of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, one of the largest Starbucks in the world and Shanghai’s modern equivalent of the Zhang Garden). As Catherine Yeh observes in her highly informative study, Shanghai love: Courtesans, intellectuals, and entertainment culture, 1850-1910 (U of Washington Press, 2006), “the courtesans helped shaped a new type of urbanite performance, in which looking and being looked at became absorbing activities in their own right.” The courtesan parade around the race course grew into a major occasion during the biannual races, attended by the thousands, more eager to see the courtesans than the horses. Thus the magazine Entertainment (游戲報) gushed at the 1899 races:

Yesterday was the second day of the races and more people participated than on the first day. Especially noteworthy were the top courtesans; dressed without exception in the height of fashion, they were dashing up and down through the Foreign Settlements….Lin Daiyu wore a blue satin gown trimmed with pearls; she was riding in a four-wheeled carriage drawn by black horses, with her coachman dressed in a gray crêpe-de-Chine jacket and a black-rimmed straw hat. Lu Lanfen in a pearl-trimmed gown of lake-green color; she rode in a black carriage with her coachman in a starched light-blue cotton uniform with a black vest and a straw hat. Jin Xiaobao a flowered gown with black butterflies on a white background; she rode in a yellow carriage with red wheels, her coachman in a lake-green silk uniform with a black-trimmed straw hat. Zhang Shuyu a pearl-hemmed blue gown; she rode in a black carriage accompanied by Gu Yu, who wore a moon-white pearl-hemmed gown; their coachmen each had on black summer hats and wore light white-gray uniforms. (cited in Yeh)

These Victorian Marilyn Monroes became the first mass media sex symbols, an extraordinary transformation of the high-class sex worker from her reclusive, hermetic existence back in the walled city. The public spotlight in turn compelled the leading courtesans to take on a leadership role and become spokeswomen for charitable causes, in collaboration with the daily newspapers. Yeh concisely sums up this development: “With public activities such as performing in public theaters and storytelling halls and participating in charity fund-raising, they created a public persona that was marked by the presence of two mutually exclusive features of the modern celebrity, high exclusiveness and perfect accessibility….The tabloids took over the traditional patron’s role of spreading the courtesan’s fame, the exclusive channels of communication were thrown open, and courtesans gained a strong influence over these papers as the papers’ success with the public hinged on the new stars’ public performances.” Already among contemporaries the visual documentation of the era took on an obsessiveness, and Yeh’s study includes over 150 beautifully detailed lithographs and photographs of late-Qing courtesans from magazines, city travel guides, collectible photos and postcards; her book can be fruitfully paired with Ferry M. Bertholet’s lavishly illustrated Concubines and courtesans: Women in Chinese erotic art (Prestel, 2011) for a more comprehensive visual understanding. Meanwhile, soon after the collapse of the Qing, the camera would be instrumental in the transformation of the courtesan into the so-called Shanghai poster girl and the cinema sex goddess of the 1920s-30s.

Gubei Water Village, 2017 (photo by Isham Cook).

A major ramification of the courtesan’s public arrival was to abet the cause of women generally. The concept of sexual equality was only dimly imagined in late-Qing China. The courtesans in the foreign settlements were among the first women at liberty to reject marriage and support themselves through self-employment. Admittedly, financial independence was only really an option for the minority of successful courtesans who had the physical allure, culture and social savvy to enlist wealthy patrons. But none of this could have happened without the conceptual breakthrough of freedom of movement. It was an idea not understood until witnessed in action. Chinese women arriving in the settlements may have been shocked or offended by the sight of courtesans nonchalantly carrying about in open carriages, but it put the idea into their head that this was something they too could do. Respectable women had also been confined in their homes and now they saw they no longer had to be. They flocked to the public gardens to view the courtesans and indeed acquired the latest clothing fashions from them. It would not be long before women were marching with men on the streets for nationalist causes; female university students were at the forefront of the May Fourth Movement in Beijing and Shanghai in 1919. All of this was enabled by the move from the walled city into the foreign settlements, a mini revolution which powerfully impacted the consciousness of those who experienced it.

If Han Bangqing (1856–94), after his failed attempts at the imperial exams in Beijing, had written a courtesan novel while living in Shanghai’s walled city instead of the International Settlement, it would probably have been in the tradition of classic romances like Li Ju-chen’s Flowers in the mirror (1827), Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the red chamber (1791), or The plum in the golden vase (1610, often attributed to Tang Xianzu), all of which he acknowledged a debt to. What he did write, Sea flowers (海上花), published in 1894 and better known in the English translation by Eileen Chang and Eva Hung as The sing-song girls of Shanghai (Columbia UP, 2005), could only have been the product of a mind profoundly impacted by settlement life. The freedom of movement which liberated the settlement courtesan, in the hands of Han Bangqing similarly liberated the novel, not so much in terms of content (sexual relations was a timeworn topic in Chinese literature) but on a deep structural and symbolic level. The novel is notably radical in the way it breathes naturalism into the dialogue, but its breakthroughs in narrative technique were not due to any influence from contemporary developments in European fiction (such as the Naturalist school led by Émile Zola), whose celebrated works had yet to be translated into Chinese.

Sing-song girls can be regarded as one of the most original novels ever written. There are a number of reasons as to why it’s not better known and appreciated today. It was written in the Wu dialect, sorely testing the patience of Chinese readers not from the Shanghai region. Eileen Chang’s 1983 translation in Mandarin Chinese helped gain it wider recognition, but a greater obstacle for Chinese and English readers alike is that it’s not an easy read. Han set out to encapsulate a society in microcosm with a vast cast of characters whom the conventional reader would be able to keep track of and empathize with. On this last count he can’t be said to have wholly succeeded, but his particular solutions to this narrative challenge are immensely interesting to the more sophisticated reader, anticipating as they do many modern cinematic techniques of story-telling (Han died two years before the arrival of film in China in 1896).

Shanghai café in former French Concession, 2014 (photo by Isham Cook).

Many novels have attempted to work on an epic scale, seeking to capture a whole society with a large cast of characters and told at great length. Tolstoy’s War and peace contains almost 200 characters and 1,400 pages (Oxford edition), but that’s dwarfed by the Chinese classic The plum in the golden vase, which has over 800 characters and 3,700 pages (Princeton UP edition in five volumes), or Dream of the red chamber with over 400 characters and 2,500 pages (Penguin edition in five volumes). Sing-song girls is more modest in scope but still substantial, with 120 characters and 527 large-format pages (Columbia UP edition). Epic novels typically cover a sufficient passage of time to allow new characters to be introduced at a leisurely pace, a few at a time, so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed (as with The plum in the golden vase). There also tends to be some sort of constraining unity, such as unity of place, to which the action keeps returning in order to build a sense of familiarity. Dream of the red chamber achieves a strong sense of unity by circumscribing the story to a single large household and revolving around a few main characters. Han sought to capture the actual conditions of life in the courtesan district, where people were on the move daily from one location to the next. The challenge he set for himself was what form of narrative could best realize the telling of concurrent stories involving a mutually acquainted cast of characters shifting among these multiple locations. The resulting novel has no single main plot but numerous simultaneous plots occurring in over twenty different courtesan houses. To provide a sense of linearity and continuity in such a potentially fractured and unstable narrative, the central structural problem was how to join all these isolated snapshots: how and when to move seamlessly among the various locations to create a satisfying montage of courtesan life.

The technique Han latched onto was to literally tag along. When a character or group of characters gets up to leave one establishment to go to the next, the narrator follows along, as if with camera in hand. This brings the action to the next locale with its new mix of characters. Later, the narrator follows another character to the next locale, as so on. As we keep returning to earlier locales, the characters gradually grow familiar (the novel gels after a second reading). While reading Sing-song girls and trying to visualize the action in my mind to better keep track of it, I kept being reminded of certain modern films by arthouse filmmakers. There is of course the movie version of Sing-song girls by the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, Flowers of Shanghai (1998), an elegant enough movie if one isn’t familiar with the novel, but I find the effort falls woefully short. His signature technique (shared with fellow Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang) of fixing the camera in place for long shots to simulate “real time” severely narrowed the parameters of the action, so that only a few portions of several intertwined plots could be featured in the 130 minutes Hou had at his disposal; this also forced him to cut abruptly from one locale to the next rather than depicting the passage to and from the various locales, an important aspect of the novel.

Shanghai café in former French Concession, 2012 (photo by Isham Cook).

A more fluid approach toward action that moves among various ensembles of characters in shifting locales is found in the ever-inventive Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, who made a film version of the supremely film-resistant novel In search of lost time by Marcel Proust, or more exactly a section of the massive novel’s first volume, Swann’s way. The result, Time regained (1999), is intriguing more for Ruiz’s unique cinematography than Proust’s writing. The camera is in almost continual motion, gracefully gliding in and around the characters, while spatial depth playfully contracts and expands and objects and furniture move toward or away from the camera as if of their own accord. The effect is to make the camera seem very much alive, an autonomous creature, constantly prowling and on the move — like the peripatetic narrator of Sing-song girls. Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s Russian ark (2002) is equally original in its cinematography, famously shooting the entire 93-minute sequence in a single take, as the camera carried by an unseen character follows a mad Frenchman from the nineteenth century inexplicably stuck in the corridors of Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum as the time jumps between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries. The point I wish to make here is that if Sing-song girls could be successfully rendered into film in a way that does justice to the novel, it would be better suited to a TV series in sixty-four episodes (the number of chapters in the book), while employing the fluid filmic techniques of a Ruiz or Sokurov.

The narrative structure of Sing-song girls could be examined at greater length, but I’d like to focus now on another highly innovative aspect of the novel, its dialogue. Almost any fragment of the dialogue can be chosen at random and profitably analyzed, from the seemingly trivial to the charged and dramatic. Let’s unpack a brief example of the former before moving on to a more consequential example. Clever Gem is a first-class courtesan attending a party at the house of another first-class courtesan, Twin Pearl, with many wealthy patrons present. She informs her primary client, Cloudlet Chen, that they’ve been invited to the house of her elder sister, Love Gem, a second-class courtesan. Clever Gem doesn’t really want to go as they have more important parties to attend that evening but feels obligated for the sake of saving her sister’s face. She drags several of the patrons along, already quite inebriated, and they ride over to Love Gem’s house a few minutes away by rickshaw. Love Gem fawns over the guests, embarrassing her younger sister. After a round of drinking, most of them leave, while Clever Gem, Cloudlet Chen, and another patron, Benevolence Hong, agree to stay a bit longer. Love Gem plies them with opium, but Clever Gem grows impatient and gets up to leave:

“Let’s go, too,” said Clever Gem to Cloudlet, who immediately put down his opium pipe.

Afraid they would really leave, Love Gem detained Cloudlet on the divan with one hand, saying, “Please don’t go, Mr. Chen!” With her other hand, she held on to Clever Gem, complaining, “Why are you in such a hurry? Is it because our place is so small, so you won’t stay a minute longer than necessary?”

Clever Gem shifted her weight impatiently from one foot to another and persisted. “I’m going.” But Love Gem clasped her around the her waist and threatened, “Go then! If you do, I’ll never look in on you again.”

Cloudlet laughed a little awkwardly. At this, Benevolence said, “You two stay a little longer; I’ll go ahead.” He then took his leave from Cloudlet and walked out of the room. Love Gem immediately let go of Clever Gem to see him off at the stairs, saying repeatedly, “Do come tomorrow, Mr. Hong.” (Chapter 29)

You may notice the dialogue is rather clipped, and if that’s all we had, the characters’ behavior might seem somewhat abrupt or illogical. But the speech is supplemented by the author’s close attention to their body language — Love Gem grabbing Cloudlet and her sister in each hand, Clever Gem shifting on her feet, Love Gem suddenly letting go of her — which telegraphs their motives more effectively than words and enables us to grasp the precise import of Love Gem’s threat. Without these intimate, physical gestures, we might interpret her threat to be angrier than it is. Her gestures tone it down and are just playful enough to allow Cloudlet to laugh it off. After all, she doesn’t want to frighten them all away for good.

The key point I wish here to highlight, beyond the vital importance of body language in the dialogue throughout the novel, is that we are not privy to what’s going on in the characters’ heads. The narrator adds little touches here and there to help out, but they are redundant, e.g., “Afraid they would really leave….Clever Gem shifted her weight impatiently….Cloudlet laughed a little awkwardly.” We know Love Gem is afraid they will leave, Clever Gem is impatient, and Cloudlet feels awkward about their leaving, this being already evident from the combined interplay of the body language and the dialogue. What is remarkable, however, is the disciplined consistency of the narrator’s approach — never telling us what’s going on in the heads of the characters unless it’s told or implied in their words and gestures. If the novel’s narrator is a highly observant one, it goes no further than that. It’s an impersonal sort of narrator, a mere video camera, and it’s up to the reader to work out the motivations and psychology of the characters. This is what is known in literary terminology as third-person objective point of view (“objective POV” for short).

A famous example of objective POV is the oft-anthologized Hemingway short story, “Hills like white elephants.” Evidently the story was catalyzed by Hemingway’s eavesdropping on an angry conversation between a young American couple while waiting for their train at an outdoor café in the Spanish countryside. It’s difficult to make out what the couple is bickering about at first, but it turns out the man is pressuring the woman to get an abortion after having gotten her pregnant. A lesser author would have explicitly put the word “abortion” into the dialogue, but Hemingway cleverly lets the conversation proceed in all its mysterious obscurity, with the crucial elisions intact and no clear resolution by the end. It’s a great example of “less is more” and makes for fascinating reading. Three decades before Hemingway, Han Banqing employed the same technique relentlessly over hundreds of pages.

It is unfortunate, I believe, that novelists today seldom employ objective POV anymore. It’s regarded as not “reader friendly.” The default, conventional POV modes are either first-person or its third-person equivalent, “omniscient” POV. Like first-person POV, omniscient POV takes us into the head of the main character or characters (when a third-person narrator is privy only to one or a limited number of characters, it’s sometimes called omniscient “limited” or “subjective” POV). It’s the easiest style of narration to follow because it immediately makes transparent the characters’ mental landscape, their feelings and motives, allowing the reader to readily identify with them; the reader also obviously enjoys vicariously sharing the characters’ innermost thoughts. While from an empirical or experiential standpoint omniscient POV is unrealistic and impossible, nonetheless it feels perfectly effortless, as we are so used to it. Nothing could be more natural than a narrator slipping in and out of characters’ heads at will and revealing the thoughts, desires and goals of each to the reader. Many writers may not even be aware they’re using this particular POV but intuitively employ it since almost all novels narrated in the third person employ it. This does not mean omniscient POV is superior to objective POV; they are simply different modes or styles, each with its pros and cons.

Shanghai café in former International Settlement, 2017 (photo by Isham Cook).

With objective POV, in contrast, we have no more access to the characters’ minds than we would if we were interacting with them real life, where we also do not have this access, even among those we are close to and spend every day with. People are often not even sure what’s going on in their own head. An honest engagement with human psychology soon bumps up against this problem. People’s actual thoughts are never straightforward but rather a dynamic, evolving congeries of unpredictable and conflicting emotions. Everyone is a hapless bundle of contradictions, highly vulnerable and liable to be swayed this way or that by those around them. (This includes those known for their strong personality and firm opinions, whose seeming decisiveness may be nothing more than a defense against threatening alternatives.) The field in linguistics known as pragmatics, which studies the gaps and contradictions in real speech, also understands this. In actually occurring conversation, meaning is conveyed more by what the speakers are silent about than what they are not. Body language picks up some of the slack, but again it’s never wholly clear what people mean or intend, in spite of what they say. It’s this more sophisticated understanding of dialogue that many novelists who work in objective POV are trying to capture: with the reader denied access to their minds, the characters paradoxically reveal themselves more fully and realistically through their language, expressions and gestures.

Before returning to Sing-song girls, let’s consider some of the pitfalls of omniscient POV in the hands of a conventional novelist, Christopher New’s Gage Street courtesan (Earnshaw Books, 2012), an historical fiction about a Jewish courtesan and former opera singer from Galicia living in 1860s Hong Kong. Despairing of her occupation, Franziska Goldmann is keen to marry one of her clients and lovers but becomes entangled with a powerful prince, with tragic consequences I’ll not divulge here. We will focus merely on one episode, chosen almost at random, to illustrate omniscient POV when mechanically and indifferently employed. Her pimp, Edwin Hammond, shows up for one of his periodic sexual sessions with her. As they share a drink and a chat before moving to the bedroom, his squeezes her hand provocatively:

She glances at his slightly bloodshot blue eyes as he lets her hand go, at his permanently ruddy cheeks merging with his greying beard. A kindly man, she knows him to be, a successful lawyer. He doesn’t go to church much, he’d told her, but she knows he gives money to charity for Eurasian orphans, the discarded offspring of “protected women” whose protectors have ceased to protect them. But she can’t help thinking of Mr Hammond’s wife, why isn’t she enough for him? Does he come to me like a greedy child at a party, she wonders, or like a starving one? She asks herself so many questions these days, but now she asks him one. “Is your wife back?”

He sips the wine and sighs, either with satisfaction or with regret, or perhaps with both. “Last week, yes.”

“You don’t look very pleased.” Is this malicious of her? Yet actually she wants to know. “Didn’t you miss her at all?”

He smiles, glancing obliquely up at her over the rim of his glass. “I was able to find some consolation. As I shall continue to, I trust, if not quite so often as before.” He drains his glass, puts it down with a little thump on the table and nods towards the door, his bristly white hedge of eyebrows raised suggestively. He doesn’t have much time today. “Now, for instance?” (Chapter 6)

Owner couple of Shanghai café in former International Settlement, 2017 (photo by Isham Cook).

We have here dialogue, body language, and — the prerogative of the omniscient, “all-knowing” narrator — Franzisca’s interior thoughts. The initial question is whether her interior thoughts provide crucial information and significantly contribute to our understanding of her character and motives. The more fundamental question, however, is whether the author’s inclusion of her interior thoughts actually prevents us from accessing her character. For it presupposes a common fallacy in fictional dialogue, that there is a one-to-one correspondence between thoughts and words or actions. It’s in fact a comic-book form of characterization that represents a severely attenuated view of the human personality and corresponds to nothing in real life. People are not robots or automatons, with a scripted program installed to produce a predictable output of words and behavior. This is precisely the formula for creating what in the literary world is known as cardboard characters. To counter this tendency, an author needs to disrupt the illusion of causality between mental activity and speech and complexify the thoughts, so that they work at variance with speech (as well as insert these thoughts at nodes that don’t disrupt the flow of the dialogue). Alternatively, an author might employ objective POV and withdraw them altogether. For the sake of experiment, let’s see what happens if we remove Franziska’s interior thoughts from the above passage:

She glances at his slightly bloodshot blue eyes as he lets her hand go, at his permanently ruddy cheeks merging with his greying beard. “Is your wife back?”

He sips the wine and sighs. “Last week, yes.”

“You don’t look very pleased. Didn’t you miss her at all?”

He smiles, glancing obliquely up at her over the rim of his glass. “I was able to find some consolation. As I shall continue to, I trust, if not quite so often as before.” He drains his glass, puts it down with a little thump on the table and nods towards the door, his bristly white hedge of eyebrows raised suggestively. “Now, for instance?”

The passage is now much improved, and not just because its quicker pacing matches that of actual conversation. More importantly, the narrator’s explicit inclusion of three rationales for Edwin’s “sigh” in the original — satisfaction, regret, or both — thereby forecloses other possibilities. But there are other possibilities, freed up in my revised version, such as that he simply wants to convey to Francisca the impression of genuine longing to see her by pretending to be uninterested in his wife. Franzisca’s response, “You don’t look very pleased,” likewise invites a variety of interpretations which a pragmatics analysis could tease out, now that we’ve turned them into real people with opaque motives behind the front of their words.

To return to Sing-song girls, I’d like to examine a more extended passage to demonstrate the author’s psychologically charged dialogue which results through his nimble use of objective POV. We don’t have space here for a microanalysis so I will have to paraphrase parts of it and highlight a few notable points. The scene takes place in the house of a second-class courtesan, White Orchid. A liability of being from a second-class house is it makes her more vulnerable to the overtures of those of low character or criminal background. One in particular, nicknamed Lai the Turtle, is the son of a high-ranking government official and a tyrannical bully, accompanied everywhere by his gang of thugs (Dennis Hopper’s harrowing portrayal of Frank Booth in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet comes to mind).

Dajing Ge Pavilion with remnant of the city wall, rebuilt not quite to the same height as the original wall (photo by Isham Cook).

They show up unannounced with great fanfare, yelling and breaking a few pieces of china for starters, to the protests of her maid and a servant girl. White Orchid emerges from her room to calm Lai down with smiles and apologies for her clumsy welcome. She then deftly upstages him by inviting him directly into her room (guests at a courtesan house are typically feted in a large parlor or dining room before a few favored ones are later invited into the more intimate surroundings of her bedroom). Taken aback, “He stretched out stiffly in the chair and bellowed, ‘I’m not going into that room just to fill a gap!'” (i.e. have sex with her). She holds his hands and coaxes him into her room. As he enters, he bumps his head on a hanging lamp and he responds by shattering it, exclaiming, “‘Even your rotten lamp tries to bully me!'” She maintains a tactful silence as one of his gang adds, “‘The paraffin lamp doesn’t recognize you, that’s why you got hit. Now if you were a favorite client, that wouldn’t have happened. It seems the lamp is quite clever.'” The hooligans work up this conspiracy with the intent of becoming violent again, but Lai remains calm and offers to pay for the lamp and even orders a messenger to a specialty shop to bring over an array of lamps from which the best replacement could be chosen. When the lamps arrive, they hang up ten of them, and to mark the occasion Lai issues call chits to courtesans of his acquaintance to join them. White Orchid flatters him by lighting all of the lamps, causing the room, soon crowded with a dozen courtesans, to become unbearably hot and the hooligans to take off their shirts.

In the beginning, she poured a cup of wine for him as routine required, but he raised the cup to her lips and told her to drink it for him. When she turned away, he slammed the cup down on the table. She glanced at him sideways, picked up the cup, and said with a smile, “If you want me to drink, you should offer me a cup. Now you’re giving me what I offered you. Don’t you appreciate a courtesy?” She put the cup down in front of him, also with a bang.

This made Lai smile. He drained the cup and then filled it again and gave it to her. She downed it in one gulp. Everybody at the table gave a cheer. His spirits soaring, Lai wanted to match her cup for cup.

“You please go ahead, Your Young Excellency. I’m not much of a drinker,” she said, frowning.

“You’re still trying to fool me!” he said in astonishment. “You’re well-known for your capacity. How dare you say you’re not a drinker?”

“Your Young Excellency is going to be the death of me,” she said with an icy smile. “With us, drinking is an acquired technique. We can down a large tumbler of wine then make it come up again; that’s how we learned to drink. At parties, when guests see me draining cup after cup, they all say I can hold my liquor. Little do they know that when I get home I have to bring it all up before I feel all right.”

Lai also sneered. “I don’t believe it, not unless you drink a large tumbler of wine now and then bring it up to show me.”

White Orchid deliberately digressed. “Bring up? Is Your Young Excellency suggesting that I lay something on for you?”

All this while when Lai had been talking to her, she neither teased nor joked, so he was overjoyed at this remark. He stretched out his right hand to pull her into his arms, but she was too quick for him. Pretending to be upset, she screamed coyly and ran away from him. (Chapter 50)

She is deftly able to fend off Lai’s advances with a combination of affability and humor and just the right amount of annoyance and coldness, as she bangs her own cup down and gives him an “icy smile.” Elsewhere in the scene (not included here), she alternately flatters and ignores him, or withholds her feelings and becomes tantalizingly inscrutable:

Lai, for his part, saw that though she was attentive, she showed neither warmth nor coldness in her attitude and wondered how she was disposed toward him. Presently he took her by the hand, sat down side by side with her on the edge of her bed, and plied her with questions. She took special care that she answered his questions but did not volunteer any other information.

When he tries to grab her, she wiggles away with calculated ambivalence, squealing “coyly,” deferring his advances rather than outright rejecting him, saving his face. This enables her to hold out before he tires of his attempts (for the rest of the day, at least). White Orchid is thus able to mollify and control Lai and assert her authority as master of her domain with astute skill and experience, all delivered by the author in precision dialogue and minimal commentary. The hands-off approach of objective POV enables the drama to emerge intact and unmediated by gratuitous interventions into the characters’ thoughts. (What might appear to be such an intervention, when Lai “wondered how she was disposed toward him,” is simply objective commentary on what is already evident in his accompanying actions.)

Later in the novel (Chapter 64), Lai and his gang pay a visit to a new courtesan of rumored beauty, Second Treasure, who has only recently been compelled into the trade by scheming relatives and financial hardship. Quite lacking in the rhetorical finesse of a White Orchid, Second Treasure has scant tolerance for boorish customers. But I withhold spoilers, and the reader is invited to witness what transpires when a courtesan of stubborn constitution encounters the likes of Lai the Turtle.

There is a final peculiarity of Sing-song girls that Western readers of this groundbreaking novel will not fail to notice. The author was clearly well acquainted with life in Shanghai’s foreign settlements where he lived for many years, and the courtesan district in particular upon which his novel was based. But apart from one brief visit by a settlement policeman and a reference to a Japanese courtesan house, foreigners make no appearances in the novel. It is the curious phenomenon of a novel that could not have been written anywhere other than in the emancipatory environment of the International Settlement yet is wholly Chinese. The wall was still present in a powerful symbolic sense, preventing both the Chinese and foreigners from interacting even as they intermingled on the same streets. It was as if the Chinese in the settlements could not bring themselves to engage with foreigners until their hated symbol came down, while foreigners, for their part, had their own psychic wall of entrenched racism to overcome before they were able to take note of the native culture without hostility. This would later change; it would still be another two decades after the publication of Han’s novel before the old city wall came down. From that point on, Chinese literature could no longer hold back its wholesale encounter and hybridization with Western literature, and Shanghai became truly international.

*    *    *

You may also find these posts of interest:

Confucius and opium
The expat and the prostitute: Four classic novels, 1956-62
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

Forthcoming by Isham Cook (January 2020):

CONFUCIUS and OPIUM:
CHINA BOOK REVIEWS

 

2 replies »

  1. Yet again, Cook exercises his right to apply literary baby oil to his cock. Unfortunately some poor souls will attempt to finish this ‘essay’.

    • Thank you for your intimate understanding of my writing. I’m not quite sure what you mean by your second comment, but congratulations on having the attention span to actually make it to the end of my essay, if indeed you were able to do this.

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