Studious account of innocence lost

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2000, 12:00am

IT MAY BE DIFFICULT for many readers of this novel to appreciate that the world Mimi Chan describes did not end that long ago - a world of slavery, rampant adultery, opium smoking and bound feet.

She tells the story of a wealthy Chinese businessman born in 1885, his nine wives including eight concubines, and their complicated and often tragic lives, first in Guangzhou and then in a mansion on the Peak.

Chan is amply qualified to write such a novel, as her father-in-law had nine wives, although she stresses in the preface that this is a work of fiction and that she is not writing about her relatives.

Each chapter focuses on a member of the fictitious household, including some of the concubines of Lee Pak Hung, known by the sobriquet The King. This family saga spans the 20th century, with the last surviving concubine, or 'little wife', living, in her 90s, in a public housing flat in present-day Hong Kong.

The King's first wife is not a concubine, but it is not long before his eye starts to wander and he looks around for a younger, more appealing woman and one who can bring him a male heir.

When he tires of one little wife, he simply acquires a new one. In pre-communist rural China, selling a girl to a well-to-do man meant a lot of money for a farmer and ensured a decent existence, of sorts, for his daughter.

Once a concubine is broken in by The King, she is said to have 'entered the door'. His many mistresses are known as 'outside encounters'. Even when he no longer desires one of his women, he continues to look after them, with the exception of the third concubine who is beaten and thrown out of the house for infidelity.

As each concubine's story unfolds a common thread emerges. Whatever sensitivity or diffidence she feels, whatever principles she holds, once a girl agrees to enter the door, she must become completely submissive and accept the Confucian adage that 'a virtuous woman was a woman without learning, one who had to rely on the men in her life'.

This results in many of the women becoming stoical and displaying remarkable courage in the face of adversity, such as during the Japanese occupation of World War II. But, sometimes, such unquestioning obedience, socially and sexually, has tragic consequences. The narrator, married to one of The King's sons, tells the story of a concubine of The King's father who, before being sold, was an incurable romantic who immersed herself in the Chinese literary classics and especially poems of doomed love.

Becoming a sex slave at 15 to a 66-year-old broke her spirits. 'She pined for lost innocence, lost dreams.' This is not a flawless novel. The complicated genealogy can be confusing - trying to work out who is related to who - and Chan often writes more with the non-fictional style of the studious academic, which she was for more than 30 years, than with the flowing prose of the practised novelist. However, these are minor criticisms, for Mimi Chan has brought to life, in detail and with meticulous care, a social structure and a Hong Kong of which little physical evidence remains.

Few of those who experienced those times are still with us and fewer still have committed their life stories to paper. Their memories die with them. Chan tells of lavish Cantonese operas in the Ko Shing Theatre in Queen's Road, bulldozed, presumably to make way for another office block; of rickshaw men, their tinkling bells heralding their arrival; the most abject hookers openly plying their trade in the streets of Western; and an apartheid zoning law that forbade Chinese from living in certain parts of the Peak for 'health reasons'.

This is a novel that deserves to be placed on the shelves of bookshops next to those coffee-table tomes with sepia pictures of 'old Hong Kong'. Those pictures show a lost world. All The King's Women vividly describes the real people who lived in it.

All The King's Women by Mimi Chan Hong Kong University Press $90