Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

love in a fallen cityLove in a Fallen City was picked by Claire for our Asian Book Group. It’s a perfect selection after The Good Earth, because both women wrote in the same era, both about China. Buck is even mentioned in the Introduction by Karen S. Kingsbury, the translator.

“[Chang] tried , with little success, to break into the English-language fiction market… But the cultural and linguistic gaps were to wide to cross. As C. T. Hsia, one of her earliest and most perceptive advocates, remarked, mid-century American readers’ views of China were greatly influenced by writers like Pearl S. Buck, which left them unprepared for Chang’s melancholy incisiveness and insider’s perspective.”

Don’t you find it ironic that the real Chinese was less accepted? Once I started, I could sort of see why. While Buck concentrated on the poor rural life, Chang wrote about the middle to high class Chinese society. From Westerners perspective, the tale of misery from a third world country might be more exotic than the intricacies of ordinary Chinese life and relationships.

The first story, Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, quickly set an image in my head as Pride and Prejudice in Hong Kong. There are parties and courtships, and people are measuring someone’s worth from how much he/she owns or earns. But unlike P&P, it’s not a feel-good romantic story, a pattern that will follow throughout the rest of the book.

Chang’s stories may be about love, but it may be love you’re not familiar with. The stories are essentially–borrowing words from the Introduction–“anti-romance”. Every single character is calculative–a very Chinese trait I think. I likened it to watching a game of chess, or a game whose rules I’m not very familiar with, so it’s required of me to pay attention to details, to what is said between  the lines, to things they say and not say, to little gestures. I love the intricacies, the power play, and complexity of the relationships. This is almost unheard of for short story collection, but I loved all the stories in the book. The more I read the more I love Chang’s writing and the more I appreciate her skills in building these tales of life.

Chang wrote film scripts apart from short stories and novels, so it’s little wonder that her strength in this aspect shines through. Her writing is often cinematic, it’s almost like she wrote with a big screen in mind. Jasmine Tea, her second story in the book started with a cup of tea:

“This pot of jasmine tea that I’ve brewed for you may be somewhat bitter; this Hong Kong tale that I’m about to tall you may be, I’m afraid, just as bitter. Hong Kong is a splendid city, but a sad one too.

First pour yourself a cup of tea, but be careful–it’s hot! Blow on it gently. In the tea’s curling steam you can see… a Hong Kong public bus on a paved road, slowly driving down a hill. A passenger stands behind the driver, a big bunch of azaleas in his arms. The passenger leans against an open window, the azaleas stream out in a twiggy thicket, and the windowpane behind becomes a flat sheet of red.”

In Jasmine Tea, we follow a young man who grows up in family with little love. Frustrated with his own father and stepmother, he starts to contemplate having a different father. He indulges in possibilities if her dead mother had married another man. All leads to dire consequences. The story is probably my least favorite because it’s quite disturbing at the end.

hui_loveinafallencityNext is the title story, Love in a Fallen City, which was made into a movie with the same name in 1984, played by Chow Yun Fat (The King and I, Pirates of the Caribbean). I really wanted to see the movie, but it’s an old movie and it’s so hard to find with proper subtitle so I gave up looking. But I searched some clips on youtube and watched some to have a feel of the atmosphere during the time as I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Chinese or Hong Kong movie from this era. I was especially intrigued by the clothes. During the time of reading, I had a hard time imagining the clothes they were wearing, so it was nice to see the clips and learned what they actually might look like. The story itself is one that most resembles a love story, with a man and a woman who find love in each other in the middle of turbulence and chaos.

In The Golden Cangue, we are faced with the epitome of evil mother and mother-in-law. She’s a very strong character, but I almost couldn’t stand to read on. Several times I needed to close my eyes and take a deep breath before continuing. Do you know what cangue is? Google it and check it out. It often appears in Chinese movies and only now I know the name of it. The title has great meaning in connection with the story.

My favorite stories happened to be the last two: Sealed Off and Red Rose, White Rose. In Sealed Off, the city is sealed off for unexplained reason and everybody is stuck at where they are until city is “re-opened” again. Camera pans to a tram, to the people in it, then is focused to a man and a woman. Two people meet by chance, forced to interact by circumstances. From the footnote of Sealed Off:

The military situation that creates this interlude is presented very obliquely; all that we know is that the authorities have shut down, or condoned off, all or part of the city. The authorities, in this case, are probably the Japanese occupiers or (more likely) the Chinese puppet government that answered to them. Chang made a point of never directly referring to the political or military situation in Shanghai prior to the defeat of the Japanese, and thus she usually escaped censorship and was never thrown in prison (as did befall those of her associates who took a more aggressive stance).

eileenchangInteresting insight into the political situation of that time. Chang left China when she was 32 and for the next three decades was a banned writer in her homeland, though still much loved by loyal readers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the overseas Chinese communities. Sealed Off is told to be one of the stories that impressed Hu Lancheng, an influential man of the time, that “he looked her up, swept her off her feet, and became her husband” (from the Introduction).

Last, another favorite of mine, is Red Rose, White Rose. It has such a great opening:

“There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress. Isn’t that just how the average man describes a chaste widow’s devotion to her husband’s memory–as spotless, and passionate too?

Maybe every man has had two such women–at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is “moonlight in front of my bed.” Marry a white rose, and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.”

Just brilliant.

This is the short story that was picked by Jeffrey Eugenides to be included in anthology he edited: My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, whose short stories I’ve been reading and talking about here several times before.

Like Hong Kong the city, the recurrent theme in the book is fusion or clash between the East and the West. There are many mixed blood people make appearances or Chinese people who have spent a lot of time overseas. That and the progressive nature of the place and time, there bounds to be confusion and tension between the old and the new ways.

“Yanli rarely spoke or raised her head and always walked a little behind him. She knew very well that according to modern etiquette she should walk in front, left him help her put on her coat and wait on her, but she was uncomfortable exercising her new rights. She hesitated, and this made her seem even slower and more awkward.” ~ Red Rose, White Rose, p294

Love in a Fallen City contains 6 short stories, 4 of which are sort of novella length, and I think they worked really well for me exactly because of that. The short stories are not too short, so there’s time to develop the characters and the plot and there’s time for you to get immersed in them. They’re not perfect, as I found the dialogues sound a bit odd at times, but it’s understandable as Chinese is a very sharp and short language (though sing-songy), so it must be hell to translate to a wordy language like English. Then the behaviours of the characters can sometimes be very abrupt which I didn’t quite get. But all in all, what a great find. Thanks to Claire for picking this up, otherwise I may not have found it by myself. I will definitely look for more Chang’s works in the future. She is a gem of the East.

Chinese (1940s), English (1990s), Penguin Modern Classic (2007), 321 pp


“No matter how amazing a woman is, she won’t be respected by her own sex unless she’s loved by a member of the opposite one. Women are petty this way.” ~ Love in a Fallen City, p127

“Basically a woman who was tricked by a man deserved to die, while a woman who tricked a man was a whore. If a woman tried to trick a man but failed then was tricked by him, that was whoredom twice over. Kill her, and you’d only dirty the knife.” ~ Love in a Fallen City, p152

“Even though status wasn’t something you could eat, losing it would be a pity.” ~ Love in a Fallen City, p153

“We were way too busy falling in love–how could we have found time to really love each other?” ~ Love in a Fallen City, p166

China Challenge (book #5), Women Unbound (fiction #9), Reading the World

Also reviewed by
kiss a cloud | A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook | A Striped Armchair

ps: We are going to read Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima for our next group read in September. Would you join us?

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22 thoughts on “Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang”

  1. Wonderful, thoughtful review! I have wanted to read this for so long, and I love the cover of this edition! I’ll have to bump this up my TBR.

    1. Rebecca, thanks for visiting. You’re probably the first person that told me you have wanted to read this book for so long! I hadn’t heard of it before it got picked by Claire. I love this cover too!

  2. Yay!!!!! So happy that we both loved ALL the stories in the collection. You did such a wonderful job reviewing this, Di. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to come up with discussion questions. Maybe you could? :D I didn’t realize Chang was included in My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. She deserves to be in it.

    I also hadn’t known what cangue meant before this book. The Golden Cangue is one of the strongest stories, if not the, in this book, I think. (Even though my favourite is Love in a Fallen City.) The evil mother was a product of her past, the humiliation she had gone through with her in-laws. The progression of her character was very well done. Her daughter was such a sorry character, having been brought up by suc a vile woman. I felt for them both.

    1. claire, you definitely don’t have to come up with discussion questions if you can’t think any hahaa, and we probably have covered almost everything, don’t you think?

      I agree that The Golden Cangue is a strong story, it has very strong character too, but gosh it’s so hard to read. I love the title, it suits the story so well. I think I may love Red Rose White Rose the most mainly because of the opening paragraphs. I love the opening so much!

      See, the reason I like My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead is similar with why I loved this book. Both contain love stories, but the love is defined in all sorts of different ways. Love is a complex, multi-layered thing. It’s fabulous.

  3. This looks like such an amazing collection. The stories sound melancholic and bittersweet. Your wonderful discussion of the multicultural and diverse aspect of Hong Kong is so interesting especially when you consider it’s history as a trading post.

    I’ve only just realised that I have the DVD of ‘Lust, Caution’ which is based on a story by Eileen Chang! I still haven’t seen it yet, but the trailer looked great and it’s directed by one of my favourite directors Ang Lee and starrs Tony Leung.

    I have a copy of ‘Confessions of a Mask’ and am so tempted to join you guys in September. I haven’t read any other novels by Mishima yet so I was waiting to read some of his fiction first before delving into his autobiographical stuff, but I may just have to speed everything up!

    1. sakura, I think I have Lust, Caution DVD somewhere at home too. I’ve been wanting to see that! Haven’t watched many Ang Lee movies but I liked Brokeback Mountain. On the other hand I’ve watched MANY Tony Leung movies, so I look forward to see him there.

      I never read Mishima, so this will be my first. Confessions of a Mask is his first novel, I don’t think it’s his autobiography? Hope you can join us in September!

  4. I just read it too — and wrote about it for today. I couldn’t read the Golden Cangue — I started about 3 times and stalled after five pages or so each time. But the others I too enjoyed. Depressing, yes, but so incredibly well done. I do think some had a few too many characters for the length of the story, but overall, it was very satisfying to read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts too. You discuss it all in more depth than I did, I think.

    1. Rebecca, oh I can see how Golden Cangue is kinda boring at the beginning, but I wish you had continued, because it gets really strong further on. I don’t think the stories came across as depressing, just realistic in my view. (Okay Jasmine Tea IS depressing) Interesting that you found some had a few too many characters. The problem is the stories are often about family, and Chinese family always lives together as one big family, so the big number of characters are quite unavoidable to be realistic. In Sealed Off the setting is outside of home, about the two people meeting as strangers, so there isn’t family interference so to speak. Anyway I’m glad to know you appreciate the book!

  5. I’ve JUST posted my own thoughts on this book. (I know, I’m late. I actually finished this book in time, just couldn’t find the time and internet connection to post my thoughts..)

    By the way, I think your post is great. Sums up the collection very well.

    1. Michelle, great to hear from you! Do you not have internet connection at home now? That’s horrible! Glad to know you liked the book to some extend. I look forward to our next group read. Can’t wait to try Mishima ;)

  6. Yes, I agree that Chinese is a sharp-sounding language and yet the dialogs also tends to be “sing-songy” (lol, can’t imagine how you came up with that word but I think it’s rather fitting!). And it’s very interesting that you likened the first story to P&P, which absolutely didn’t cross my mind while I was reading it but now makes sense now that I look back at it.

    So, being Chinese yourself, do you consider yourself to be “calculative” as well? I think that might be one trait that was swept away by my Filipino blood. I tend to be quite impulsive, as you probably already know :D

    So sorry I still haven’t finished the book yet. I’ve been in a terrible reading slump lately. But I’m still excited for our book next quarter :)

    1. Hahaa, I think I read the word sing-songy somewhere, I can’t remember. I think I can be both calculative and impulsive, but I do know a lot of people who are “calculative”, so it is somewhat a familiar trait and I can understand where they’re coming from.

      You have a couple of months before we start on the next group read! lol ;)

  7. Absolutely brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant review.

    Sorry for the long absence, Internet connection is out, had to re-format my PC.. you know some of the nightmares that a home IT user would go through… But you wrote a great review for this one and although my books are stacked up to the ceiling, I’ll most probably go out and get one copy, since my library don’t stock them.

    1. Wow Jo, thanks for the four times brilliant ;). Gosh “reformat” is my absolute nightmare. Luckily I haven’t had to do it for a long time.

      My library doesn’t stock this one too so I needed to buy a copy. Definitely worth reading. I’m dying to read her other stories now!

  8. Great writer, good stories. The translation, on the other hand, is simply terrible. Chang’s Chinese is both concise and precise, but the translation somehow manages to be clunky and verbose–over-translated: ‘mosquito-blood streak smeared,’ ‘sticky rice that’s gotten stuck,’ ‘just over your heart’–just where did all these extra meanings come from? If you’re enamored with the language here, you’ve greatly underestimated Chang’s true prowess.

    1. hh, I’m sure the translated version doesn’t do the original version justice. But I can’t read Chinese and wouldn’t dream to do it, not in this lifetime :). So I just have to make do with the translated version unfortunately :(

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