Lust, Caution – Eileen Chang

lustcautionI watched Lust, Caution the movie at the end of 2013. It was so good that shortly afterwards I was rushing to buy and read the short story it is based on.

The story is more compact than the movie — Ang Lee took the liberty to add a few details, but the story is clearly Eileen Chang’s, following her recurring themes of emotional loyalty, vanity, and betrayal with the backdrop of turbulent China.

I was very impressed at both the author and director, of how much the author managed to convey in the number of pages (only 30+ pages), and how much the director was able to read so acutely between the lines and regurgitated such a great film. It was hands down my favorite movie from Ang Lee, and possibly the best Chinese movie I have ever seen. I loved it that much.

After reading the main short story in this collection though, I left the book for a while, and only picked it up again to finish the rest of the collection a couple of months ago.

Having read Eileen Chang’s other short story collection Love in a Fallen City, in a way I knew what to expect. I liked her stories then, and I liked them now.

My edition is the Penguin Modern Classics (as pictured above), and I was curious whether the NYRB Classics version had the same stories in the collection. It seems that it doesn’t — weirdly the majority of the stories in the NYRB Classics are in the Love in a Fallen City Penguin Modern Classics version. Just something to keep in mind, if you’re wondering which version to get.

The stories in Penguin version are: Lust, Caution; In the Waiting Room; Great Felicity; Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Autumn, and Traces of Love.

In the Waiting Room gives us a peek into social dynamics in a simple setting of a doctor’s waiting room. Great Felicity explores family dynamics of a soon to be married woman with her two future in-law sisters. Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Autumn (curiously a mouthful of a title — wonder how well the original title works) took us into the home of a foreigner living in China from the maid’s point of view. Traces of Love follows an old couple, both married other people in the past, who are now married to each other, each for their own reasons.

Chang’s themes felt familiar, in my opinion especially in her seemingly cynical views of love and marriage, and of the binds of society. Love the atmosphere and the settings of her stories. Love the impeccable insight into her characters. I’m curious about her novels now as I’ve only read her short stories so far. My next Chang will be one of her novels.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

She looks so cool. I wish I could look that cool.

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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