Cheng Naishan, a Shanghai literary icon with close ties to HK, dies aged 67

Cheng Naishan, who came to Hong Kong as a child in 1949, is famed for novels about 1930s Shanghai and her translation of Nien Cheng's memoir

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 4:00am

Cheng Naishan, widely considered an icon of Shanghainese literature and who had close ties to Hong Kong, has died after a long battle with leukaemia.

Cheng, 67, was best known for the hai pai, or Shanghainese, style of literature, which is often related to the history, culture and legacy of the city, particularly from the 1930s when it was known as the "Paris of the Orient" for its strong business sector and well-diversified culture, and was on a par with New York, London and Paris.

Cheng was born in Shanghai in 1946. Her grandfather, Cheng Muhao, was a well-respected banker and could afford to move the entire family to Hong Kong in 1949, shortly before the Communist Party won the civil war and founded a "New China" on the mainland.

In Hong Kong, the Cheng family joined many other wealthy Shanghainese who, concerned about political instability after the civil war, had fled to the then British colony.

Before the family moved to Hong Kong, Cheng's grandfather was the No2 at Bank of China in Shanghai. After moving to the city, he became the general manager of Bank of China (Hong Kong) and remained a special adviser to the bank's board even after his retirement.

The family returned to Shanghai in 1956, partly because Beijing encouraged patriotic overseas Chinese to return and contribute to their homeland.

Cheng Naishan majored in English at the Shanghai Educational Institute, from which she graduated in 1965. That led 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 - as a professional writer. Cheng was well known for novels such as The Blue House, 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 the Cultural Revolution, a political movement that pushed China to the brink of collapse and caused huge ethical problems that had a profound effect on subsequent generations.

In her later years, Cheng wrote 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 state-backed Shanghai Federation of Literary and Art Circles in October last year.

"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 said.

Beyond her well-known literary career, Cheng was also a professional translator, who together with her 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's husband was the foreign chief of British oil firm Shell in Shanghai before the Cultural Revolution broke out. Nien Cheng - no relation to Cheng Naishan - continued to work for Shell after her husband died and was eventually tortured and jailed during the Cultural Revolution. She left China in 1980.

Her book was widely viewed as one of the best real-life stories about this period of China's history, telling how a happy Shanghainese family was destroyed by unreasonable Chinese politics.

The Chinese translation by Cheng Naishan and her mother was first published on the mainland in September 1988, but reprinting and distribution was banned as Beijing sought to distance itself from works related to the Cultural Revolution.

In 1990, Cheng Naishan decided again to relocate to Hong Kong and subsequently divided her time between the two cities she loved.

Her futile fight against leukaemia, apparently a well-kept secret, shocked people in Shanghai following her death on Monday.

In the last message she posted on her personal microblog on on February 10, she wished her readers a happy Lunar New Year.