How Hong Kong Shaped Eileen Chang

This is the first in a new series of articles on Hong Kong’s great writers.

Eileen Chang burst onto the literary scene at 18 years old with an essay published by a magazine in Shanghai, her native city, titled “What A Life! What A Girl’s Life!” It drew from traumatic experiences of being locked up in a room for six months after a quarrel with her father, and being able to run for safety through the aid of a sympathetic domestic helper before finally finding refuge with her mother. 

Today, Chang is increasingly recognized as one of last century’s greatest writers. And through translations and one successful screen adaptation after the other, she has been gaining an ever wider audience. She is naturally well known in the sinophone world—even though her works were banned in China—and especially in Hong Kong, where she lived for many years. 

It would make little sense to describe Chang only as a Hong Kong writer, but the years she spent here made her into the writer that she became. Born in Shanghai in 1920 as Zhang Ailing, educated at St. Mary’s Hall, a bilingual Christian boarding school in Shanghai, she came to Hong Kong in 1939 to study English literature at the University of Hong Kong. The Japanese invasion of 1942 interrupted her studies. She witnessed death and the bombing of civilians, and when she returned home to Shanghai, she was a changed person. 

Her early life there had been materially comfortable—Chang was the great-granddaughter of an influential court official during the Qing Dynasty—but psychologically marred by her abusive father. He was addicted to opium and brothels and had divorced Chang’s mother rather than give up his dependencies. He had remarried, and Chang’s stepmother was insecure and vindictive – a stereotypically mean figure who led Chang to fall into deep conflict with her father. When he held her in captivity for six months, she began writing for the first time. Using her own life as prime material for her work ended up becoming a lifelong habit, and a technique that allowed her to revisit all the some of the most important experiences in her life from different angles.       

But in spite of how much this horrific time remained imprinted in her memory—Eileen Chang would return to it, time after time, and write about those experiences in at least three novels and a number of essays—it was the perspective on life that Hong Kong had given her in just two and a half years that was to remain one of the strongest influences in her life. The insights she gained into ever shifting social dynamics, the strife brought by war, cosmopolitanism, colonialism and the complexities of human psychology in times of historical upheavals shaped her writing in ways that accompanied her throughout the different stages of her life. After returning to Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the war, she came back to Hong Kong after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. In 1955, she finally moved to Los Angeles, where she spent the last forty years of her life. 

One short essay, “From The Ashes,” describes the first bombing she witnessed in Hong Kong, alongside other students attending university with her. Her seemingly mundane, but extremely acute, descriptions of the most quotidian difficulties that accompany war offers a glimpse into the depth of her writing: observant and economical, she leaves the reader to feel what is happening by a careful description, without passing judgment or forcing conclusions. 

With photographic precision—and her trademark sense of fashion—Chang fleshes out every detail. At the end of our reading we are right there with her, our bodies crammed against a wall in Sheung Wan, trying to shield ourselves from the bombs, fleetingly worried by the mundane and inappropriate thought of whether our hairdo will survive an air attack, if we have enough money on us, and how much the demanding practicalities in our lives are going to withstand the shock. 

Chang’s short novel Love in a Fallen City, also set in Hong Kong, describes the lives of a group of people from Hong Kong and the mainland who have been displaced by war. They find themselves cooped up at the Oriental Hotel in Repulse Bay. The relationship between the hotel’s guests, and the impulsive decisions that they make under the pressure given by the military conflict, is the main focus of the story – but Hong Kong, lurking in the background, is one of its main protagonists. 

“Her observations are always very sharp,” says Chris Song, lecturer in Hong Kong literature at Lingnan University. “She was very skilled in observing the colonial condition, and the way in which the mainlanders would show a certain contempt towards local Chinese in the colonial context, and how the expatriate population doesn’t know what is happening in the Chinese community, outside of the colonial circles.” This kind of multilayered relationships between different ethnic groups—including how Hong Kong Chinese were already building a distinctive local identity in a cosmopolitan territory—required a sharp eye to be described.

Chang’s descriptions of the invasion of Hong Kong—and of Shanghai under occupation—are in stark contrast with the kind of wartime narrative more common at the time. “Once back to Shanghai, she describes a city that on the surface is normal, in spite of the invasion,” says Nicole Huang, professor at the Department of Comparative Literature of Hong Kong University and chief curator of an exhibition on Eileen Chang that took place last year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth. 

Chang’s gaze is on the momentous upheavals brought by the everyday, by interpersonal relationships, and by the interplay of trust and betrayal in the upper middle class through which she moved, at a time when other feminist women writers were exploring more politically fashionable themes. Like Ding Lin (1904-1986), who in 1932 joined the Communist Party and started writing in support of its aim and ideals. Or Xiao Hong (1911-1942), whose development as a writer was cut short by her death from a respiratory illness, but who had paid greater attention to the struggles and the lives of ordinary, working class people in the northwest of China, where she grew up. By contrast, Eileen Chang is more interested in the class of misfits, travellers, drifters and aspiring upper class men and women, towards whom she felt a greater, if not an uncritical, affinity.  

But while Chang has a gift for looking at the most complex issues through a      private lens that zooms into her characters to offer deep psychological insights, she often does so with a cinematic attention to detail, giving her pages a crisp sense of physical presence. It can be seen in this passage from Love in A Fallen City, translated by Karen Kingsbury:


“They were home. They pushed open the half-shut door, and a little flock of pigeons took wing and fled. The hallway was full of dirt and pigeon droppings. Liusu went to the staircase and cried out in surprise. The brand-new trunks she had put in the rooms upstairs were strewn about wide open, and two of them had slid partway down to the ground floor, so that the stairs were buried in a flowing mass of satins and silks. Liusu bent down and picked up a brown wool-lined cheongsam. It wasn’t hers. Sweat marks, dirt, cigarette burns, the scent of cheap perfume. She found more women’s things, old magazines, and an open can of lychees, the juice dripping out onto her clothes. Had some troops been staying here?” The pigeons, the trunks, the texture of the fabrics, the sticky lychee juice: everything is evoked with film-like clarity.”


No surprise, then, that while Chang’s legacy in Hong Kong literary circles is deep—though diffuse, as Nicole Huang points out—her impact on Hong Kong cinematography has been even more obvious. Some of the most important names in Hong Kong film have taken abundant inspiration from her work and brought some of her novels and novellas to the big screen, including Stanley Kwan’s Red Rose/White Rose (1994), Ann Hui’s many tributes to Chang such as Love in a Fallen City (1984), Eighteen Springs (1997) and the upcoming Love After Love (2020), and Wong Kar-wai’s debt to the atmosphere created by Chang in her work. But her influence on film also stems from her enthusiasm for fashion—she would design her own clothes and possessed an expert’s eye for fabric and trims—and her work as a script writer and an occasional illustrator. She knew how to transpose the pictorial into words.

After she returned to Shanghai during the war, Chang’s name became an overnight sensation thanks to her Hong Kong-inspired stories and her first works of fiction set in wartime Shanghai. “Hong Kong was a gateway where different ideas met,” says Huang. “The liberal arts education she received here shaped her. Once she went back to occupied Shanghai things seemed very normal on the surface, but she had already experienced in-your-face-war in Hong Kong. When she started writing, she wrote about Hong Kong.”

In Shanghai, she also married Hu Lancheng, a man she loved deeply, but who betrayed her with countless affairs and numerous little cruelties. A writer of some talent, Hu had also been an official in the propaganda department under the Japanese-installed government, a collaboration that would haunt both him and Chang after the war. While Chang was fiercely apolitical, she also had no sympathy for the cultural preferences of the new cohort of leftist writers and of the Communist Party itself – a self explanatory disdain, since her writing, while focusing on the impact on the individual of historical changes, was also sharply critical of both the patriarchy and nationalism. Her family experience no doubt shaped this, but her cool-headed rejection of nationalism might have been one of the many ways in which cosmopolitan Hong Kong shaped her outlook on the world.         

Shortly after the end of the war, then, she returned to Hong Kong, ostensibly to complete her war-interrupted degree, but really to leave behind a country where, after the Communist victory, she no longer felt safe and free to write. To make ends meet, she accepted a commission from the United States Information Agency to write two novels. Both were published in 1955. The Rouge of the North is the story of Yindi, a young woman slowly suffocating in an oppressive family ruled by patriarchal rituals. The Rice Sprout Song is only overtly political novel, in which she describes the devastation and brutality of the land-reform movement on the lives of the peasants, one of the most important movements of the Communist Party in their first decade of political rule.

By then, Hong Kong was already too narrow for Chang. She wanted to become known as an English language writer too, and decided to move to California. “By this point Hong Kong was a transition. She had a literary agent in the US, and she wanted to live the life of a successful professional writer in both Chinese and English,” says Huang. 

All her work, including the novels she completed in the US, revisit some strong recurring themes, whether it is Little Reunions or the autobiographical volumes The Fall of the Pagoda and the one on her Hong Kong years, The Book of Change. Among them: the weight of Chinese patriarchy and the misogyny it has instilled in society, the shattering ease with which the strongest love connections can dissipate in a few, careless instants, and the oppressive entrapment that family and society can visit in particular upon women. Regardless of how much society has evolved and removed the “golden cangue” (the title of one of her most complex and successful novels) from around women’s necks, her ironic, falsely detached look on it remains poignant and resonant. 

While Chang’s legacy lives on in the writers who still take inspiration from her, or in the filmmakers that continue to adapt her works for the big screen, there is little that remains visible of her transit through Hong Kong. This in spite of the fact that the writer’s archives are housed in the city. When Chang’s second husband, scriptwriter Ferdinand Reyher, died in 1967, Chang decided to leave her manuscripts, photos, letters, and so on to her lifelong Hong Kong friends Stephen Soong and Mae Fong Soong. Their son, Roland Soong, is now in charge of Eileen Chang’s legacy and has often pushed for a space where her passage through Hong Kong can be celebrated and researched. “There should be a literary museum to celebrate and own her legacy,” says Huang. 

Hong Kong can be a place with very short term memory, and a strange resistance to honouring some of the most significant people who have lived here – people who contributed to its complexity and charm. But we can keep alive the hope that a museum to Eileen Chang will eventually become a reality, and a tool for everyone to keep discovering the sharp precision with which she could see through people and their affectations: to keep learning about ourselves – and about Hong Kong.

Source of all photos: courtesy of “USC East Asian Library. Ailing Zhang (Eileen Chang) Papers Collection”.

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