Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sing Song Girls of Shanghai

By Bangqing Han - translanted by Eileen Chang

I first learned about this curious epic here , as mentioned by Fan Wu, the author of another book that I enjoyed. - and now it's been 6 months since I began reading it.

Six months? Yes -- because it's so hard to follow -- as if it were the transcript from a camcorder that was hauled around from one party to another -- and that's kind of how the story proceeds -- the reader is jerked around through the alleys of the pleasure district -- with a large cast of barely known characters from about a dozen small brothels.

It's a reality show -- and reality is hard to follow - especially for a stranger like myself -- and though it's all about the high-end of the sex trade -- the reader is never taken into the bedroom -- we're just told something like "and their enjoyed each other all night long" or "and then they went to bed, and got up at noon the next day".

Apparently -- this scene disappeared in the early 20th Century -- as the men were no longer locked into arranged, loveless marriages -- and as the international community in Chinese port cities (where the first-class brothels were located) were no longer independent of Chinese jurisdiction.

What's curious -- is the kind of relationships that the men seem to want -- where they aren't buying sex so much as the privilege to date attractive, clever, willful women - and hopefully experience romance. The girls ( and all of them seem to be well under 30) have to walk the fine line between playing hard-to-get ladies--- and still be accessible --- between playing a convincing role -- and still attending to the reality of the situation.

And ultimately -- all of the girls fail -- either making themselves so inaccessible that they get no business -- or believing the fiction that their relationships with the men have a future - and then being bitterly disappointed.

Like "Dream of Red Chamber" -- the story is all about smart, beautiful women -- and how they are struggling to get by -- often from very poor beginnings -- like being sold into prostitution as young children. The men are all well-off -- with plenty of disposable income -- the only drama of their lives occurring when they actually fall in love -- and then must be brought back to the reality that their families will not allow them to marry a whore.

But still -- this is very different world from the early 18th C. -- and I think the big difference is opium. Several of the characters are addicts -- or maybe all of them are, since almost everyhone is a regular user. As William S. Burroughs once wrote -- heroin "degrades and simplifies" the users. In Red Chamber , the characters played poetry games -- in Sing Song Girls, they play the stupid finger guessing game - again -- and again -- and again.

And -- unlike Red Chamber -- the framing-story of the novel concerns a man who is not particularly wealthy (or smart) and his sister who enters the life by choice -- because she finds it glamorous compared to her life in the boondocks-- and the story ends with her facing the harshest of realities: deserted by the upper class lover who had promised to marry her-- bankrupted by the preparations for the wedding -- and finally beaten up by a rich hoodlum who just wants sex.

In between that frame -- there are lots and lots of stories -- which all have a different angle.

Maybe because the style of narration is so matter of fact -- I didn't feel really repulsed or antagonistic to any of the characters -- even the rapacious brothel owners (who, in this story, came up as successful courtesans themselves) -- or the obnoxious gangster -- who is a pig and a bully -- but that's the way some people are.

The only character that I came to despise was the wealthy, powerful official who owned an incredibly beautiful garden complex - to which many of the characters were invited to stay for days or weeks on end. He threw a fire-works party that was so spectacular -- I missed my stop on the train while I was reading all about it! A man of great wealth, education, sensitivity,
and social status.

He even took an interest in the lives of the Sing-Song girls -- and had his court poet write up each of their narratives.

But in the end -- though he fucked quite a few -- he really had no interest in helping any of them find a better life -- or in taking seriously his role as a high official. (he was responsible for controlling gambling - but games were conducted on his own estate)

Though some of the lesser men did not behave so callously -- and at the end of the story, they take up a collection to finance the marriage of a young courtesan who was not smart enough to succeed at the profession. Junkie whoremongers with hearts of gold!