Saturday, 19 June 2010


The continuing thematic appeal to contemporary English writers of the great conflicts of the twentieth century, in particular the Second World War, has often been the subject of debate among critics and scholars. War as a watershed phenomenon, during the course of which, old routines are turned upside down, or as a result of which, major social changes occur, seem to offer writers opportunities for comment about social conundrums or national history, while introducing dramatic tensions, unforeseen romance, episodes of brutality and betrayal, that make for strong story lines as well as providing readers with reasons for reflection about the nation’s present in relation to its past. War as an agent of drama and of change is also a feature of some of the literature set in Macau and Hong Kong, not to mention other parts of Asia that have experienced widescale conflict during the last century. It is, of course, present in the short stories of Deolinda da Conceição and of Henrique de Senna Fernandes, Macau’s two main Macanese fiction writers . It is also the subject of a recent bestselling novel set in Hong Kong, The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y.K. Lee.

Lee’s novel featured as a New York Times bestseller earlier this year, and has been translated into no less than twenty-four languages. It is the first novel by this Hong Kong-born, American-educated writer of Korean parentage, who has returned to live in the city of her birth. The Piano Teacher is ostensibly about Hong Kong in the early 1950s, and focuses on a love affair between Claire Pendleton, a recently-married Englishwoman, who has fled the grime of post-war England to live in Hong Kong, and Will Truesdale, a colonial who had arrived in the city on the eve of the Japanese invasion of the territory at the end of 1941. The dramatic tension and interest of this atmospheric novel are maintained through a series of flashbacks to the years of the Japanese occupation, and the slow progress on the part of Claire in uncovering the truth about Truesdale’s involvement with the enigmatic Eurasian beauty, Trudy Liang, the daughter of a Shanghainese father and a Portuguese mother. As this split-level novel develops, it becomes apparent that while Claire is perhaps the heroine of the story in so far as she goes through a life-changing set of experiences, she could hardly have achieved this without her growing understanding of the personality and motivations of Trudy, her lover’s wartime lover.

As the author stated in an interview, Trudy is ‘the truest symbol of East-West culture because she’s Portuguese and Chinese’. It is not entirely clear whether Lee was merely referring to Trudy’s multi-cultural identity, or whether she meant to highlight the historic role of the Portuguese in the encounter between Europe and the East, but something in her words seems to suggest a recognition of Portugal’s position as the first bridge builder between China and the West. Certainly, no one who knows the history of Hong Kong or the Chinese Treaty Ports of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, can deny the pivotal role played by the Portuguese from Macau as intermediaries between colonial administrators and the Chinese population. Trudy is the result of this melting-pot. Brought up in Shanghai, she is fluent in Shanghainese, Cantonese, Mandarin and English, while possessing ‘conversational’ French, and a ‘smattering’ of Portuguese. Abandoned by her Portuguese mother as a child, she and her father fled Shanghai for Hong Kong, where she lives the life of a wealthy socialite, while her father has retreated to a large mansion in Macau. She is a woman in transit between worlds, but is conscious of not being fully accepted, either by the Europeans or the Chinese, for to the Europeans she looks Chinese, while for the Chinese, she acts too much like a European. This is the root of her ambiguity and, for Truesdale, the mark of her allure, for he sees in her the misfit that he, deep down, would like to be.

When the Japanese arrive, the lovers are separated, for Truesdale is interned in a concentration camp, while Trudy, as a Portuguese Eurasian, remains free, to survive as best as she can in occupied Hong Kong. It is from this point on that Trudy allows herself to be sucked deeper and deeper into a web of deceit and betrayal, involving the Japanese police chief, Chinese collaborators, and European civilians, a process that will transform her into a tragic heroine. It is the truth behind what happened and why, that Claire Pendleton sets out to establish as part of her own journey of self-discovery. In so doing, the author is able to raise questions about the nature of cowardice and betrayal. Was Trudy a coward for appearing to collaborate with agents of the occupying power? Or were the real cowards those who adapted too comfortably to their imprisonment, protected at least notionally by the Geneva Convention? Was it more dangerous to be imprisoned in a concentration camp, or to live by one’s wits in the bigger prison of the occupied city governed by whim? The Piano Teacher is a novel that begs to be made into a film, and one can well imagine Ang Lee, the director of ‘Lust, Caution’ rising to the challenge, for Trudy’s dilemma bears some resemblance to that of the enigmatic Chia Chi in Lee’s film: deep down, hers is a conflict of loyalty in a world that appears to offer her none, and the novel suggests that the final outcome of her life may be the result of her own failing as much as it is the failing of other characters.

As the novel draws to its close, and Claire uncovers a plausible truth about Trudy’s life, she abandons both husband and lover, and resigns from her job as piano teacher to the daughter of an upwardly mobile Chinese couple, who are also linked through kinship to Trudy and therefore party to the secret surrounding her fate. But she decides to stay in Hong Kong, to disappear into its Chinese but cosmopolitan society, while turning her back on the constricting circles of the British colonial elite. Is it Hong Kong that has changed her, given her a new lease of life, or is it her association with the story of Trudy Liang? The book allows us, the readers, to decide, but at the end it is perhaps no coincidence that Claire Pendleton, the blond Englishwoman, has somehow taken steps to enter the culturally hybrid, international world once inhabited by a lively, forthright Portuguese Eurasian woman with a Chinese face.


*Published in the Macau Daily Times (Weekend Magazine), 10 October, 2009.

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