World Affairs vs Personal Affairs

the book:

A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin

published 1952   chapter 3 & chapter 12 set in Hong Kong in 1949


'You can buy anything here', is the Colony's motto... Hongkong is a shopping paradise. Like battalions of seagulls, the idle rich Chinese women walk from shop to shop, their voices raised above the din of the street, their bracelets tinkling on their wrists.

American sailors amble, hail taxis, have their shoes shined by little boys. On their arms hang shrill Chinese prostitutes. Tourist women in off-the-shoulder dresses gaze at embroidered silk underwear and ornate Chinese coats. Shanghai bankers and businessmen in twos and threes, all in natty sharkskin suits, flamboyant American ties, with Parker 51s in their coat pockets, talk business in earnest sibilant tones…

Ten minutes later, cool, leisurely, charming as ever, Mark sauntered in, wearing his white drill suit, with his Shan bag slung over his left shoulder; it had a design of peacocks on a red cross-stitch background. I looked at him, and I swallowed and my knees were weak under me.

observations: Han Suyin died last week, in her 90s. Her books were very popular in their day, but are mostly out of print now. This bestseller – the sweeping story of a love affair in Hong Kong between a Eurasian doctor and a white journalist – became an Oscar-winning 1955 film Love is a Many-splendored Thing (the first 2 words added for those who needed them), and the song of the same name lives on.

The book was very much autobiographical (the heroine is called Han Suyin), and is very romantic: “Mark and I had many friends, and one of them was the moon”. The Guardian
obit of Han Suyin called it ‘a sharp piece of social satire’, pulling apart ‘the preposterous world of expatriate Hong Kong’ – and at first this is a surprising judgement, because it is the love and sex scenes that seem to dominate, but it is a fair enough description. The couple are faced with all kinds of difficulties in pursuing their relationship, some to do with racism and social considerations, and the book deals with the complex politics of the time as Mao Zedong took over in mainland China - Han Suyin's family are there and she visits during the course of the book.

The descriptions of Hong Kong – the streets, the scenery and the people - are very compelling and beautiful. And in all her writings there is the feeling that she knows whereof she writes – she lived in a time and place where great world events were being played out, and personal lives were subordinate to whatever else was going on.

Links up with: Maugham’s A Painted Veil is set in
Hong Kong & China in the 1920s, and there is a stunningly beautiful picture of a Manchu bride here. There’s a blog entry on Chinese novelist Yu Hua here.

pictures are from an absorbing album of views of Hong Kong held at the UK’s National Archives.