Jul/Aug 2009 Reviews & Interviews

A poetic trip to Shanghai

The Concubine of Shanghai
Hong Ying.
Marion Boyars. 2008. 396 pp.
ISBN 9780714531502.

Review by Kajsa Wiberg

Buy now from Amazon! I wasn't sure what to expect from The Concubine of Shanghai. The title suggested soft porn; the reviews on the cover mass-market; the synopsis mystery. In a way, it is all of the above.

Cassia is only a little girl when her parents pass on, leaving her with an evil aunt and uncle who make her work in the fields until they are able sell her to a brothel in Shanghai. The transaction is both a blessing and a curse—while it enables Cassia to escape from her evil relatives and trade dreary rural life for electrifying Shanghai, Madame Emerald, the owner of the brothel, detests her and does everything in her power to make Cassia's life miserable. Since she refuses to bind her feet and chest, Cassia is not considered prostitute-material, but instead becomes a servant. And with tasks such as cleaning the other girls' toilets at night, who could blame her for wishing for better?

Then one day, Master Chang, the prestigious leader of the famous Hong brotherhood, sets eyes on Cassia. Liking what he sees, and ignoring Madame Emerald's protests, he orders her to be his mistress. Master Chang and Cassia hit it off from the word go. They spend a few intoxicating months together... until he is brutally murdered.

Madame Emerald seizes the opportunity to get rid of her foe once and for all. Cassia, however, refuses to go back to the countryside, but rather struggles to make a living as a second-class prostitute. When this fails she has no choice but to return home—where she is brutally rejected by her aunt and uncle as well as ridiculed by the entire village.

Short on luck but never ideas, Cassia gathers a few young boys and girls from a neighboring town and sets up a troupe. Though Madame Emerald makes a special point of mocking Cassia's acting skills, the latter nonetheless manages to make the move back to Shanghai and scrape by without having to sell her body.

The same unwavering ambition enables her to seduce the new leader of the Hong brotherhood—Huang Peiyu—and become his favorite mistress, too. Their relationship never rivals the one she had with Master Chang, but it does sort out the material aspect of her life. Huang Peiyu gives her a nice theater to perform in and a luxurious villa. It seems her life is changing for the better.

But Cassia's gut never lets her forget that there is something genuinely unpleasant about Huang Peiyu. For years, it bothers her, as he leaves behind fuming—even dead—concubines, broken promises, and piles of excuses. It is not until Cassia ends up in bed with his right hand man, Yu, that she learns the terrible truth. And speaking of terrible truths, we learn a few things about Cassia as well. If you read this story to the end, brace yourself for some major surprises.

I have very mixed feelings about this novel. While I found the first two thirds of the story intriguing, toward the end, it was hard to stay motivated and keep reading—hardly the effect a writer aims for. By the time I put the book down I was ready to slander it. I had to give myself a few days to calm down before writing the review because there were many things I adored about this novel, and I wanted those also to be reflected.

For starters, Cassia is a lovely character—the kind of girl most of us would love to call a friend. I especially like the way she engages in so many activities most people would consider appalling—prostitution, for example, not to mention murder—yet comes across as a warm, sweet and overall good person. I also like how she goes from hell to heaven, back to hell, just to climb her way back into heaven again. With the exception of the last third or quarter of the book, the plot is outstanding.

Others have compared Hong Ying to Amy Tan. I think Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) is more suitable.

The main thing stinging me in the eye was the last portion. Seeing the characters we love being punished with bad endings can be heartbreaking. Leaving them hanging after disaster has struck is simply unforgivable. It would have made perfect sense if the misunderstanding between Yu, Cassia and her surprise daughter Lily had torn them apart for a few—even many—years. But the author chose to end the story without a resolution, without a chance for Yu—or Lily—to explain, and this completely spoiled my reading experience. It made Yu come across as lame; Lily as selfish and spoiled. I reckon there are plenty of people who appreciate a good tragedy (although I've never been one of them). But I think rather few have a taste for the tragedy-open ending combination, especially when there's no honor or grandeur—just a stupid misunderstanding.

To make things even worse, after the misunderstanding, the narrator changes the subject and starts to tell the story of how she, herself, got to know Cassia. Page after page of irrelevant information when all I wanted was a resolution. This was a true anticlimax.

It also found it ironic how the narrator describes herself as a feminist while repeatedly picking on women's age, equaling youth with beauty. She mentions more than once that Madame Emerald is amazing because at age 40, she can still turn a man on. Furthermore, she defines Cassia as old—at 35! Her remarks would have been very effective, had her intention been to bring to life a patriarchal and old-fashioned character. But coming from the pen of a so-called feminist?

Finally, however, I did love the poetic descriptions. The novel is like a love song dedicated to Shanghai, where blossoming peach trees mix with skyscrapers, Western businessmen with Chinese peasants hoping for a better life, and movies and dance halls exist next door to tea houses and pavilions. I learned a lot about Chinese culture—and the novel made me want to visit Shanghai!

It is not easy to summarize everything I felt while reading this multifaceted novel into a thousand words. Between poetic and vivid descriptions, surprising characters, an intriguing plot, a questionable sense of feminism and an ending that fell short, it may be easier to stick with just one word: unique.


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