The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai deserves a better reader than me. It required three renewals – easy enough as it was an ebook and no one else was interested in it. There was quite a bit of glancing through of passages. And I really got confused by the very many characters in this book. The lack of a true story arc didn’t really help matters. In fact, it seems that few Chinese have read this tome – The New Yorker said that it may be “China’s ‘Ulysses'”!
But while it is lengthy and not the easiest of reads, it is a fascinating look into a time that is hardly written about. Brothels in 19th century Shanghai, specifically, in the foreign settlements outside the city.
It begins with a young man arriving in Shanghai, fresh from the country, and falls for a courtesan who turns out not to be a virgin despite his having forked out plenty to ‘deflower’ her. It is a cutthroat business after all! The story is more episodic than most, so we catch glimpses of this young fellow throughout the book. The focus here is on the (many) girls instead.
Here’s what I did gleam from the book:
– there are different classes of prostitutes. There are girls and there are “maestros” who sing and don’t play finger games. The ones called ‘prostitutes’ are something else altogether. More like streetwalkers. Likewise, there are different ‘classes’ of sing-song houses, and within those houses, the girls were ranked. Although all of these girls really do provide more than entertainment, it is only hinted at in the book. Nothing hot and heavy here!
– there is a ‘humble’ side to a divan
– opium opium opium. All the time!
– Besides opium, plenty of drinking and finger games. Having watched my share of Chinese movies, I can guess at what the finger games are like but I wish there was more description.
– To “call” a girl, you send a servant out with a ticket
– They did eat “western” meals and drink coffee, probably because they were in the foreign districts. I wish the western-style meals were described though. There were also ‘foreign’ policemen.
– Girls are bought at ages 7 or 8. And they can “do business” at age 16.
– The Shanghainese thought the Cantonese uncouth. Cantonese prostitutes are described as having “terrifying” physical strength.
– bound feet can make a “rickety noise”. Yikes!
– Although most of the girls, especially those who have been in the trade since young, are skilled in music and singing and charm, they were almost always illiterate
– Courtesans were not supposed to go anywhere on foot. They were usually transported from party to party by sedan or rickshaw, or even carried by manservants
– Plus, it was first translated by Eileen Chang, of Love in a Fallen City fame. The translation was discovered among her papers after her death.
Here’s the New York Times’ review for a more complete picture.
Also some background to how prostitution transformed Shanghai’s Old City in this article from CNN Traveler.
I read the Sing-song Girls of Shanghai as a Translated Classic for Back to the Classics Challenge
And for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge
In contrast, the novella Four Girls and a Compact was light, breezy and easy to read. But also quite forgettable.
The girls are tired of work and life in the city. They’re ready for a break out in the fresh air. They send one girl out to seek their El Dorado.
“To get out of the hot, teeming city and breathe air enough and pure enough, to luxuriate in idleness, to rest—to a girl, they longed for it. They were all orphans, and they were all poor. The Grand Plan was ambitious, indefinite, but they could not give it up. They had wintered it and springed it, and clung to it through bright days and dark.”
The girls are a little indistinguishable but otherwise it’s a cute little story. It’s available to read online or as a free download at Project Gutenberg
I read Four Girls and a Compact for the Back to the Classics Challenge – Novella