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Eileen Chang's literary legacy

09-17 10:32 TimeOut Beijing
Chang has become the symbol of art deco glamour, synonymous with her on-screen heroines and spies, yet somewhere along the way the real person got lost in the mire

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A visit to the legendary writer's Shanghai home on the 19th anniversary of her death

This month marks 19 years since the death of Eileen Chang, one of the 21st century’s most influential writers. Charlotte Middlehurst visits her former Shanghai home and discovers how box office success has obscured the real life of the Lust, Caution author

Standing outside the art deco apartments on Shanghai’s Changde Lu, staring up at the former residence of Eileen Chang, we feel underwhelmed. There’s a dusty placard by the door but you’re blocked from seeing the floor where she lived for over six years and finished her last few works of fiction. A family lives there now and they don’t like visitors. The only sign of her existence is an over-priced café on the ground floor, an homage to Chang. We’ve little choice but to enter. We order a pretentious ‘Viennese coffee’ that arrives in an elaborate glass with a long, curly-ended spoon. Our ham sandwich is served in quarters, on a cake stand.

Novelist, socialite and Shanghai cultural icon of the ’40s, Chang, we are supposed to deduce, would have approved. But would Chang really have approved of such frippery? The café is the perfect example of how we pay homage not to Chang the woman but to the fictional image of her life. Chang has become the symbol of art deco glamour, synonymous with her on-screen heroines and spies, yet somewhere along the way the real person got lost in the mire. Twirling our long spoon while listening to classical music, it soon occurs to us that the more we learn of her, the less she resembles the pampered Shanghai socialite, the collaborator’s wife, or the creator of China’s most iconic femme fatale (Mrs Mai).

张爱玲

Eileen Chang's former apartment

Chang Ailing, as she was named originally, was born in 1920 in Beijing to a distinguished family, moving to Shanghai when she was eight. She studied in Hong Kong but returned to Shanghai before the Japanese troops invaded in 1937. From her apartment on Chang de Lu she published a collection of essays, Romances (1944), and Written on Water (1945) that made her a literary star. Chang would not publish her most famous book, Lust, Caution, until 1979 – a short story that allegedly took more than two decades to complete.

So why was Chang so influential? We don’t know how many copies she sold but we do know that her popularity came from her then radical style, which focused on everyday life and avoided the political subtexts that preoccupied her contemporaries. She drew on the characters around her, many of them dark and tragic. Chang’s father led a dissolute life smoking opium and keeping a second wife, who Chang despised. Later, she married twice, divorcing her first husband, a Japanese collaborator and philanderer. She lost her second husband, American screenwriter Ferdinand Reyher, in 1967 when he died following a series of strokes, leaving Chang to live her final decades alone in a Los Angeles apartment.

Despite her tragic personal life, she is remembered as a sizzling combination of heart and wit, always poised with a quip or tender remark. Her observations captured the tensions and excesses of colonial Hong Kong and pre-1949 Shanghai, where her best works were written. Lust, Caution director Ang Lee described her as a 'fallen angel’ of Chinese literature. ‘With language as sharp as a knife edge, Eileen Chang cut open a huge divide in Chinese culture, between the classical patriarchy and our troubled modernity,’ the award-winning filmmaker once said.

The blockbusting success of Lust, Caution in 2008, which grossed over 65 million USD (415 million RMB) worldwide, catapulted Chang and her work back into the public eye. The film won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Festival, but in China it was heavily censored, with many of its steamy sex scenes involving lead actors Tang Wei and Tony Leung cut by the authorities. Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the plot centres on an assassination attempt by a group of patriotic Chinese students who plant the seductive Mrs Mai to infiltrate the household of Mr Yee, a suspected spy himself and recruiter for the puppet government set up by the Japanese forces in China.

Comparisons have been drawn between Chang and Wong Chia-chi (Mrs Mai). They both attended the University of Hong Kong and became involved with members of Wang Jingwei’s regime. In Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres, University of Hong Kong literature professor, Gina Marchetti, corrects the record. ‘Chang may have wanted to see herself as an idealistic ‘spy’ seductress but, in fact, she had no plans to assassinate Hu Lancheng (her husband) for political reasons and no ties to Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing,’ she writes.

In fact, the novella is based on the true story of Zheng Pingru, a half Japanese, half Chinese Kuomintang (Chinese National) agent – not Chang. The real Chang was neither a temptress nor a political enthusiast (though she was a critic of communism during the Cold War), and Lust, Caution was never a nationalist statement. ‘[She] wrote and rewrote in her story her own emotions which were derived from her marriage to Japanese collaborator Hu,’ concludes Marchetti.

Chang wanted to avoid politics in her writing. ‘Political topics are rarely favoured because our private lives are already packed full of politics,’ she said. Finishing our coffee surrounded by Chang paraphernalia, it occurs to us that it is her books that have best preserved her memory, not the films or the cafés they inspire.

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