Cheng Naishan, widely considered an icon of Shanghai literature who enjoyed close personal ties with Hong Kong, died on Monday morning in hospital after a long battle with leukaemia.
Cheng, 67, was best known for the so-called “hai pai” - or Shanghai-style - of literature which is often related to the history, culture and legacy of the city in its old times, particularly in the 1930s when the city was known as the “Paris of the Orient” for its outperforming business and well-diversified culture. At the time, these credentials aligned Shanghai with other major global cities such as New York, London and Paris.
Cheng was born into a banker family in Shanghai in 1946, but she was soon relocated to Hong Kong with her family in 1949, right before the Communist Party won the civil war and founded the “New China” on the mainland. Cheng’s grandfather, Cheng Muhao, was a well-respected banker in Shanghai who could afford to move the entire family to Hong Kong at that time, joining many other wealthy Shanghai fellows who were concerned about the political instability after the civil war.
Before Cheng’s family moved to Hong Kong, Cheng’s grandfather was already the No.2 at Bank of China in Shanghai. After Hong Kong, Cheng’s grandfather became the general manager of Bank of China (Hong Kong) and remained a special advisor to the bank’s board even after his retirement.
The Cheng family returned to Shanghai in 1956, in part because Beijing encouraged patriotic overseas Chinese to come back and contribute to their own country. Cheng Naishan later studied and completed an English major at the Shanghai Educational Institute in 1965, leading to her first job as an English teacher at a local high school. The publication of her first story in a local literary magazine in 1979 propelled her into a new career: professional writer.
Cheng was well known for novels such as The Blue House, The Banker, The Poor Street and Ding Xiang Villa, which all focus on local family life, business and romance in Shanghai during and after the disastrous 10-year period of Cultural Revolution on the mainland, a political movement that pushed the entire country to the brink of collapse and caused huge ethical problems that affected the Chinese for generations to come.
In more recent years, Cheng began to write columns and a series of short stories about Shanghai, including Shanghai Tango, Shanghai Lady, Shanghai Fashion and When a Baby is Born.
“I know some people say I always write about the old Shanghai and try to keep the flavour of old Shanghai and that makes my writing look less modern,” she said in an interview with an official publication run by the government-backed Shanghai Federation of Literary and Art Circles in October 2012.
“I am not concerned about what those people say about me because in my heart the old Shanghai is just an endless story and I won’t stop writing about it,” she added. Beyond her well-known writer career, Cheng was also a professional translator, who together with Cheng’s mother Pan Zuojun, translated Life and Death in Shanghai, an autobiography first written and published in English in November 1987 by Nien Cheng, a Chinese national in exile in the United States.
Nien Cheng - no relation to Cheng Naishan - is the wife of a foreign officer in charge of British oil company Shell in Shanghai before the Cultural Revolution broke out. Nien Cheng continued to work for Shell after her husband died and was eventually tortured and jailed during the political movement on the mainland. Her book was widely considered one of the best real-life stories about this period of China's history and how a happy Shanghai family was completely destroyed by unreasonable Chinese politics at that time.
The Chinese version of the book, translated by Cheng Naishan and her mother, was first published on the mainland in September 1988 but reprinting and distribution was banned as the government sought to distance itself from works related to the Cultural Revolution.
In 1990, Cheng Naishan decided to relocate to Hong Kong once again and divided her time between the two cities she loved. Unlike Cheng Naishan, Nien Cheng, left China in 1980 when she applied for a visa to visit her relatives in the United States. She never returned to China and remains in the US.
Cheng Naishan’s fight against leukaemia, apparently a well-kept secret, caused shock among people in Shanghai on Monday morning. On Cheng Naishan’s verified personal microblog on Sina.com, her last message was posted on February 10 to wish her readers a happy Chinese new year.
George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Like the Mr. Shangkong column about Shanghai and Hong Kong? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong