I wanted to like this book more than I actually did because a) she’s a female Chinese writer b) writing during the first half of the 20th century c) while China was under Japanese rule and Shanghai and Hong Kong are crumbling around her. But her writing style was too halting and abrupt for my taste (I don’t know how much of it is in the translation). All I know is events and plot move too quickly with little time for character development. A lot of people die very quickly and as the body count rises, I’m trying to remember who is who. “The Golden Cangue” was trying to do too much too quickly and as a result felt way too long if that makes sense.
Her portrayal of women doesn’t sit well with me. They’re either dragon ladies ruthless in their pursuits, silent pretty young things, or very petty and ignorant. Perhaps this was her reality but I couldn’t help but feel she was sensationalizing a little. Quotes like this got my ire up: “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” (127). Not that I’m faulting her for not being more feminist but it was hard for me to swallow. The best stories are “Aloeswood Incense” and “Love in a Fallen City”. The female protagonists were the least objectionable and there was more character development and the love story seemed more plausible.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book are the struggles between East and West which almost always means Traditional vs. Modern. And it was also fascinating to learn about race restrictions in colonial Hong Kong and to see that tension between Chinese people who were able to live abroad versus those that never left, and the view of mixed race women. At first, I thought Chang was assuming West/Modern > East/Traditional but then I read something like this: “She was a good daughter, a good student. All the people in her family were good people. They took baths every day; they read the newspaper every day. When they turned on the radio, they never listened to local folk opera, comic opera, that sort of thing, just symphonies by Beethoven or Wagner; they didn’t understand what they were listening to, but they listened anyway. In this world, there are more good people than real people…Cuiyuan wasn’t very happy” (241).
The common theme among the stories is people want to be loved but don’t know how to love. Sometimes they’re thwarted by familial obligations or lack of agency and most relationships seem loveless and for the sake of propriety. She seemed a bit of a moralist and was really critiquing the lives of the upper and upper middle-classes. They have pretty messed up lives. Or it may have even been a critique of traditional upper class households. Those houses seemed to be full of drug addicts, womanizers, indolent men, and gamblers and their legacies (money, genes, social status) are evaporating like so much opium smoke.