My Heart's An Apartment by Shu-Ling Chua
“Marriage is a gamble,” my grandfather once said. “If it doesn’t work out, just come back.”
Written in 1940s Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Eileen Chang’s debut collection 傳奇 [Romances] sold out within four days. The preface to its second printing is world-weary, little wonder given all Chang had lived through by her early twenties. Her independent, often-absent mother and opium-smoking father divorced in her teens. Her father beat her, imprisoned her, and denied her medical treatment. War prevented Chang from accepting a scholarship to the University of London, then cut short her studies in Hong Kong. Her privileged background and subject matter—Chang eschewed politics—made her vulnerable. Forced to flee a decade later by the Communist Party, her reflections are prescient:
I have to hurry: faster, faster, or it’ll be too late! […] our whole era is being pushed onward, is breaking apart already, with greater destruction still coming. […] If the word I use most often is “desolate,” it’s because I feel, in the back of my mind, this staggering threat.
Love in a Fallen City brings together six stories, five translated by Karen S. Kingsbury and one by Chang.
In ‘The Golden Cangue’, Ch’i-ch’iao, the daughter of a sesame oil merchant, is married off to an upper-class family where even the servants look down on her. Trapped in a loveless marriage (a recurring theme) and bitter at nursing her invalid husband, she sabotages her children’s chances. Her daughter Ch’ang-an breaks off her engagement:
This was the most beautiful episode of her life, better finish it herself before other people could add a disgusting ending to it. A beautiful, desolate gesture . . .
Ch’ang-an forgoes another life, severing her first love to circumvent future heartbreak. (Then again, who is to say her marriage would have led to happy ever after?) There is no escaping her mother’s wrath. Calling off the engagement, at least, remains her choice, some form of control.
“What if I keep breaking up with people?” I asked my second ex, as I was breaking up with him.
He finished tying his shoelaces in my doorway, then stood to look me in the eye. “You won’t,” he replied. It was his last gift, but I didn’t believe him. Like Ch’ang-an, I go for a clean break. Get out, I think, while the going is good. Get out while you can, before things have a chance to fail. Cut your losses early. Who cares if you never win, as long as you never lose. (I’m not playing for marriage.)
Rather than making moralistic statements, Chang’s depictions of love—the calculations one makes, the price one pays—are complex. She wields subtlety like a knife, eviscerating a marriage in two lines:
Zhenbao thought it was a good idea for Yanli to listen to the news—part of a modern woman’s education. […] He didn’t know that Yanli listened to the radio just to hear a human voice.
Her cruel yet tender portraits reflect our desires, our weaknesses, back at us, as do motifs of mirrors, moon, rain, water, sky, and smoke. George recklessly tells schoolgirl Weilong he will visit her if the moon shines. Rich playboy Liuyuan telephones Liusu in the dead of night to say he loves her and asks if she can see the moon. Twenty-eight-year-old, once-married Liusu is wiser, more careful than Weilong, but she too miscalculates. The moon serenely watches over all, whatever petty decisions we make, a steady reminder of human fickleness. She remains, even as civilizations fall, yet she too waxes and wanes. As Liuyuan laments, “we people are so very, very small. But still we say ‘I will stay with you forever, we will never, in this lifetime, leave each other’—as if we really could decide these things!”
Chang’s prose is punctuated with cinematic detail. ‘Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier’ lingers over Madam Liang’s hillside mansion, its garden and interior, a slow two-page camera pan:
An ivory bodhisattva stood on the mantel of the fireplace, along with snuff bottles made of emerald-green jade […] These Oriental touches had been put there, it was clear, for the benefit of foreigners. The English come from so far to see China—one has to give them something of China to see. But this was China as Westerners imagine it: exquisite, illogical, very entertaining.
These asides, Chang’s aphorisms, underscore political and social realities: a subtle fuck you. Several stories feature azaleas which, among other things, symbolize fragile love, falling when brushed by a passing person or a strong breeze—one story opens with the flowers crushed against a bus window: ‘a flat sheet of red’. Raindrops on a lovers walk become ‘a skyful of stars that would follow them about later on the taxi’s glistening front window of crushed silver’.
As freeze frames and reminders of love easily lost, these stylistic choices spotlight characters not only performing to each other but life itself as a performance. (Chang was a great fan of cinema and Chinese Opera, even penning film criticism at one point.) Serving as observations made by characters, they reveal states of mind and foreshadow plot. For instance, when divorcée Liusu arrives in Hong Kong for the first time, hopeful, in pursuit of playboy Liuyuan and a fresh start, she is struck by:
the parade of giant billboards along the dock, their reds, oranges, and pinks mirrored in the lush green water. Below the surface of the water, bars and blots of clashing color plunged in murderous confusion. Liusu found herself thinking that in a city of such hyperboles, even a sprained ankle would hurt more than it did in other places. Her heart began to pound.
Her second arrival is subdued. Light drizzle cloaks the lovers as he whispers, “You’re just the medicine I need,” a nod to the bottle green of her rain slicker. Chang could have closed on Liusu resigned to life as Liuyuan’s mistress, wandering the halls of an empty house. Instead, war breaks out, turning his London-bound ship around. This decision expands ‘Love in a Fallen City’ beyond a story of two.
Kingsbury notes, ‘Chang’s melding of Qing and Edwardian, patriarchal and feminist, past and present offers her readers a nuanced, historicized view of their own cultural moment, in all its singularity and repetitiveness.’ Her tales about the ‘trivial things between men and women’ remind me of my own relationships, even as they grapple with the threat of war, the clash of tradition and modernity. Chang is of my grandparents’ generation, but our realities are not dissimilar. Criticized for her preoccupation with ‘love and marriage […] leftovers from the old dynasty and petty bourgeois’, she countered:
Though my characters are not heroes, they’re the ones who bear the burden of our age […] Although they are weak—these average people who lack the force of heroes—they sum up this age of ours better than any hero […] I don’t like stark conflicts between good and evil […] we should perhaps move beyond the notion that literary works should have “main themes”.
I find Chang’s work, her response to detractors, reassuring. I too have written about men for years.
Jiaorui, the married woman with whom Zhenbao has an affair in ‘Red Rose, White Rose’, describes her heart as an apartment. Later, she jokes that the house he wanted has been built in its stead. Zhenbao, ever pragmatic, prioritizes his career and reputation over the love of an unruly woman. I used to come home to an empty apartment and text M: Hey! Are you free tomorrow or this weekend? I wonder if my neighbors heard me scream as we fucked. There was no possibility of renovating in any case.
“Would you ever stop seeing him?” a friend asked.
“If I fell in love with him,” I paused. “But I haven’t.” He and I had agreed to keep things casual.
Do I guard my heart because I fear disappointment? Or, is it because I’ve never been in love that I am disappointed? Liusu wagers her future: ‘If she lost, her reputation would be ruined […] If she won, she’d get the prize the whole crowd was eyeing like so many greedy tigers.’ I suppose I was a gambler too: different prize, different stakes. I only ever dated two guys, before turning to one-night stands. Being disappointed by a stranger, I calculated, hurt less. Is it love that disappoints? Or men?
Weilong, Madam Liang’s schoolgirl niece, claims she is grateful that George hadn’t married her but later reflects: ‘she was in his power. […] there was nothing especially terrifying about him—the terrifying thing was the passion, raging and wild beyond words, that he inspired in her.’ (He promises her neither marriage nor love, but happiness. At last, an honest man, I think. And yet…) When I was younger and more naïve, it was not men who scared me but the sense that I might lose control.
I told the first man I dated, of the wall in my heart and the bricks he was starting to take down. He asked if he could continue taking them down, “Every two or three days?” He was sweet, but I couldn’t see a future with him. The second time I broke up with him, after five and half weeks, he told me he’d been chatting with his best friend about ‘wife material’ and had scored me eight out of ten.
Liusu’s and Liuyuan’s story features a wall too, albeit a physical one. Before the Japanese attack, the couple stumble across a gray brick retaining wall, ‘cool and rough, the color of death.’ Liuyuan muses:
“Someday, when human civilization has been completely destroyed, when everything is burned, burst, utterly collapsed and ruined, maybe this wall will still be here. If, at that time, we can meet at this wall, then maybe, Liusu, you will honestly care about me, and I will honestly care about you.”
The couple take cover with other civilians in Repulse Bay Hotel. Dodging shells, awaiting their fate, Liusu reflects: ‘when one person seems to have two bodies, danger is only doubled.’ (I feel that.) When the fighting ends, they trudge up back home. The wall no longer matters as she realizes:
Here in this uncertain world, money, property, the permanent things—they’re all unreliable. The only thing she could rely on was the breath in her lungs, and this person who lay sleeping beside her. […] They looked and saw each other, saw each other entirely. It was a mere moment of deep understanding, but it was enough to keep them happy together for a decade or so.
The pessimist in me thinks, ‘Oh, so they eventually break up.’
The optimist, ‘Maybe that moment alone was enough to keep them happy for ten years.’
I am all too aware that when I read Chang, I will nearly always be reading someone else’s translation.
I ask Mum for Ye Ye’s exact words. I’d heard the story many times, ever since I was a teen, when I first comprehended the gravity of marrying a man who lived overseas, but never in Cantonese.
“Heoi dou gom jyun. Mm ngaam zau faan lei laa,” she repeats, low and soft.
“So, he didn’t say, ‘Marriage is a gamble’?”
“You know old people,” she replies. “They don’t always say things exactly, but I knew what he meant.”
Shu-Ling Chua (@hellopollyanna) is a Melbourne-based writer. Her work focuses on sex, culture, femininity and growing up and has appeared in Feminartsy, Peril Magazine, The Lifted Brow and Meanjin, among others. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Award for her essay 'Through the Looking Glass' and is working on a collection of essays on coming of age as a young Asian-Australian woman.