Michelle Reis as Emerald in Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

Life in the Interzone in Old Shanghai

The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai and Flowers of Shanghai capture a William S. Borroughs-like Interzone in Old Shanghai.

William S. Burroughs’ concept of an Interzone, based on his experiences in the International Zone in Tangiers at mid-century and explored in his 1959 novel Naked Lunch, remains starkly powerful. In a nutshell, as the name suggests, Interzone is a liminal space between other territories. Since Interzone is neither one place nor another, the normal rules of civilization are either suspended or perverted; the value systems that apply to the places on either side of the zone are subverted by the people of the zone to their own needs. Amidst inherent dangers, the Interzone offers forbidden knowledge alongside immoral delights. It’s a shadowy place where flourishing vice nourishes blossoms of dark artistic endeavor, a place where erotic crimes stem from exotic visions and travelers are warned that once they enter they will be forever altered.

Interzones ebb and flow. The International Zone in Tangiers officially began in 1924 and came to a swift end in 1956, but Burroughs’ concept can also be found in unexpected places. While researching the history of late Qing dynasty for my recent translation, with Paul Bruthiaux, of Alfred Raquez’s 1899 travel narrative through China, In the Land of Pagodas, I read many descriptions of the international concessions in Shanghai. While the entire city was renowned for crime and vice, there was a sense that it was a cosmopolitan place and not an Interzone as Burroughs conceived of it. It was not until I found a description of Shanghai from a Chinese perspective that I found that Interzone. It existed in the alleys of the international settlement, in a neighborhood of so-called sing-song houses where high-classed courtesans entertained Chinese men grown wealthy from trading with the foreigners.

The description was written by a member of this brotherhood and if not for his depiction of the elaborate subaltern culture of the sing-song houses, this brief Interzone may have been utterly forgotten within a few generations. Translated into English as The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (an older version is more poetic: Biographies of Flowers by the Seashore), Han Bang Qing’s 1892 fictional trace of this brief subculture vividly transports readers into a strange, beautiful, and occasionally cruel world that, like the International Zone in Tangiers, is now no more than a moment in history.

Modern Shanghai is a glitzy showcase city where Chinese ingenuity and prosperity are displayed in a mesmerizing skyline that has become iconic. The razzle-dazzle beside the Huangpu River also helps to erase Shanghai’s past. The city came into being because of the opium trade. Specifically, it was the British who, at the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842, forced the Chinese to sign a treaty opening a handful of port cities to foreigner residences and Shanghai, due largely to superior geography and weather, became the most prosperous of these opium ports. The French followed suit and created a settlement in 1849, the famed French Concession, then in 1863, the Shanghai International Settlement was formed by the merger of the British and American zones.

The often fractious history of the mercantile relationship between Chinese traders and the foreigners makes for a broad, interesting study. For understanding the Interzone in question, it’s important to know that by the 1880s there arose a class of Chinese who, while not from the traditional elite, had become notably wealthy, and they expected elaborate entertainment to match this affluence. The houses of the sing-song girls fulfilled this expectation.

Sing-Song Girls

The sing-song girls were not prostitutes so much as courtesans. While somewhat similar to Japanese geishas, sing-song girls occupy a unique social space, in that they also fulfilled the role of mistresses.

While sexual intimacy could occur between a girl and a client, it could take a long time to establish such a relationship, and often once it was established, it would be monogamous within the sing-song world. So while the man may be married and might sleep with his wife, he would not sleep around with other sing-song girls. He would be expected to pay for the woman’s house, food, and general upkeep, however, she would also be expected to go on “party calls” with other men in which she would keep him company (“escort” in modern parlance), but there was no expectation of sexual favors. If the woman were to break this code of conduct by having an affair with another client, or even just a lover, the man would be within his bounds to feel cheated and respond accordingly by cutting her off. The English word for these women in the translation under review is “maestro”, and that neatly captures the social role they were expected to play.

A large part of the novel is given to describing the entertainment at the parties held in the sing-song houses. Food, both Chinese and Western, would be served and much rice wine would be drunk. A key component was playing games in which the loser would be forced to drink and one of the functions of the sing-song girls was to drink the penalty for their client. The game most often played was shiwu shiwu, or in the novel’s translation, the “finger game”, and I am happy to attest from personal experience that it is still played as a bar game in Singapore where it is called “5-10-15”. Here is Alfred Raquez’s description of it from In the Land of Pagodas:

Both players launch their right hand forward simultaneously while extending the number of fingers of their choice at the same time as they loudly call out a number. The player who called the exact number of fingers extended by both partners is the winner. The loser must empty the glass that stands before him. As a result, the champagne glasses are drained at marvelous speed.

In addition to the alcohol, much opium is consumed at the sing-song parties and one amazes that any of these prosperous men can wake up in time to make it to their office the next day.

Han Bang Qing also describes in detail the staff of the sing-song houses, from the madams to the men who carried the palanquins. Each person has a very specific role and the relationships between these people, while not the focus of Han’s narrative, make for some of the most interesting points in the novel.

All of this sounds rather mundane but the novel is written in such a way that the reader often feels a peculiar sense of voyeurism mingled with alienation, as though we were peering into the parties and private lives of these people through a spyglass. The esoteric subject alone would foster this distancing effect, but the novel’s construction also contributes to it.

Originally published serially in a Shanghai literary magazine founded by the author, the novel was written in Wu dialect, an ancient language that is the foundation for the modern Shanghainese regional language, which, in case you’re keeping count, is one of the 297 languages currently used in the People’s Republic. Wu was the dialect used by the sing-song girls and their clients, but unfortunately for most modern Chinese readers trained in Mandarin the original novel is as unreadable as if it were written in Polish.

This sad state of affairs was remedied by the highly esteemed author Eileen Chang, who wrote a Mandarin translation in the ’80s; her novella Lust, Caution was made into a film directed by Ang Lee in 2007. She also started work on an English language version of the novel, but that project was left incomplete at her death (this was not, as some reviewers have misunderstood, a translation from the Mandarin; it was instead a transition directly from the original Wu).

In 2001, Columbia University Press asked the accomplished translator Eva Hung to take on the task of revising Chang’s manuscript for publication, which after some hesitation she agreed to do. In her afterward, she claims that 60 percent of the final product is her own work. As befits a university press publication, there is substantial critical apparatus, including an introduction, an afterword, a bibliography, and a long essay written by Hung titled “The World of the Shanghai Courtesans”, which is invaluable as a guide to this strange world (it’s better to read it before starting the novel).

Nonetheless, there are oddities that further the sense of alienation the book creates.

Han rarely describes the appearance of individuals, which means that their names became the main signifier of each character. There’s a difficulty for the reader to this technique, however. If you have a Chinese friend named Yu Shuang, you probably call her that name and not “Double Jade”, which is the literal translation. Yet the names in this book are translated literally and the names are often incredibly similar so that it becomes difficult to keep track of each one. To wit, there are Pearl Phoenix, Gold Phoenix, and Green Phoenix, as well as Twin Jade, Twin Pearl, and Twin Jewel, plus Water Blossom and River Blossom. The list goes on. With over 140 characters, the effect on the reader of these similar names can become dizzying.

The parallel naming coupled with Han’s programmatic writing style often makes the book read like a catalog of minute events. Here is a typical passage:

Tiger eagerly assisted in the entertainment of Lai. Second Treasure was open and polite in her manners. Unfortunately, Lai had taken a fancy to her and kept staring at her until she felt annoyed. She looked down and played with her handkerchief. He reached out surreptitiously, took hold of a corner of the handkerchief, and snatched it away. The handkerchief was torn, and with it two of Second Treasure’s long fingernails measuring over two inches. Shock, pain, and anger flooded over her; she would have given him a piece of her mind, but for the sake of business, she controlled herself. With her handkerchief in his hand, Lai gloated.

Such composition does not fit well with the sensibilities of modern creative writing schools which extol a “show don’t tell” approach to fiction that prizes purple passages coupled with descriptions of psychological states and emotive responses (viz, Dave Eggers). Han’s “tell don’t show” approach has its virtues in that the actions of characters reveal their personalities without the author having to create psychological profiles for readers. Han’s approach is closer to stage drama than fiction and owes more to performance than to the printed page.

There’s also the very sharp sense that, despite being set in the international settlement of Shanghai, this is a Chinese story. Very few foreigners appear and those that do are ciphers on the edges of the narrative. A representative example: “They saw that it was not a fire but a foreign policeman standing bolt upright on the top of the pitched roof of the stored house opposite. He was in a black uniform and had steel sword in his hand that glittered in the electric light.”

But there are also lines of dialogue that are both intimate and realistic while maintaining a universal component. For example, two characters discuss the dangers of smoking opium for fun: ‘It’s best not to touch it.’ ‘Don’t worry. How can I work if I’m addicted?’ she replied.” There is a sense of immediacy here, like eavesdropping, that is satisfying and resonates with a modern audience.

This sense of alienation mingled with voyeurism is beautifully captured in a hypnotic version of the story that was brought to the big screen in 1998.

Biographies of Flowers on the Silver Screen

Like most brick-thick novels about 19th century manners and mores, The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai has the latent potential in its DNA (so to speak) to become a multi-part televised costume drama. These sort of men-in-funny-hats, women-in-flowing-gowns style historical series are churned out in China and Korea at an industrial rate and one would suspect that Han’s novel would have received the same plodding treatment.

Fortunately, instead, director Hou Hsiao Hsien took on an adaption project titled Flowers of Shanghai. The result is a vivid interpretation of the source material as well as unique telling of the narrative that throws light on some of the murkier aspects of the text.

First, Hou smartly parred back the characters as well as the locations, with fewer than ten characters and a mere four sing-song houses instead of the nearly 20 presented in the novel. This compression, coupled with Hou’s brilliant directing, enhances the story. By utilizing long takes, a neutral camera position and very limited movement, the film perfectly captures a sense of voyeurism, as though the viewer were seated in the room with the characters. Each scene is filmed in one take (or should I say each take is filmed as one scene?), with the opening seven-minute scene rightfully earning kudos from connoisseurs of such stuff.

Throughout the movie, there are no close-ups, no zooms. If the camera moves at all, it’s in a very limited space and never into the action of the scene. Detractors will complain that the result is stagey and dull if not pretentious. But it makes perfect sense in capturing the novel, which manages to be both sprawling and claustrophobic. What matters here are the sing-song girls, their clients, and the rooms in which they interact, eat, drink, gamble, and get high.

The tightness of the narrative is contrasted by the sumptuous visuals. Every item on screen is visually arresting and as the camera lingers without moving on characters that often remain quite still, there’s plenty of time to take in the detail of the set design and costumes. Authentically, the rooms were designed to become interesting for boozers and opium smokers and the décor can be described as toy-box psychedelic. Except for the walls, which remain as blank as a mid-town art gallery, daedal patterns and colors cover nearly every surface, even the clothing. The women have elaborate hairdos with ornate hair pieces that shimmer like fishing lures above perfectly arranged faces. Even the rough and tumble male characters become shimmering spirits experienced in a reverie. All the explosive computer generated psychedelic scenes of 2016’s Doctor Strange becomes artless pablum beside the intricacy on screen here. Flowers of Shanghai is not so much a far-out trip as a psychedelic implosion. It’s opium, not LSD.

The restrained, refined acting of the main characters adds depth to the fine cinematography. Tony Leung, familiar as the lead in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and the villain in 2007’s Lust, Caution (mentioned above), is impeccable. He can do more with an eyebrow lift than most actors can with their entire bodies. In this film, he is given the task of acting a man who is naturally reserved and taciturn, then depicting how these qualities alter under the intoxicated states of rice wine and opium. His work is so realistic it’s hard not to believe that he didn’t get drunk and high on set. When he finally loses his temper, it’s like someone took the lid off a pressure cooker. Then just as quickly that lid is returned and we can feel the emotive energy welling inside him.

Michelle Reis also deserves special mention as an-all-business sing-song girl named Emerald who winds up negotiating the cost of her own freedom. Even though her lover is willing to pay the initial asking price, out of sheer spite to the madam, she connives to reduce the price to the lowest possible amount, even if it means risking her freedom.

The actors speak their lines in Shanghainese, which is similar to the Wu dialect used for the original novel, although some of them speak in Cantonese as well. While this aspect of the film will be lost on most viewers in the West who rely on the subtitles (like myself), for Chinese viewers who are not familiar with Shanghainese, the use of the dialect accentuates the sense of alienation of the subject matter while maintaining the immediacy of the film experience. Nonetheless, some lines from the novel make it straight into the film, including the dialogue about the addictiveness of opium noted above, which makes a strong thematic connection between the two versions of this narrative.

The film illuminates the novel in a way that no amount of scholarly accretion would be able to. Whereas the words on the page can sometimes appear as little more than lists of strange names and actions, the film allows us to see how these people could have dressed and moved and touched one another. Put another way, since the novel is old and the world described utterly alien, even in modern Shanghai, our imaginations may fail us when picturing what Han Bang Qing describes. The film version gives us the visual experience that is critically needed to bring the book completely to life.

Work or Leisure?

It’s ironic that a novel dedicated to describing a world of male leisure requires both scholarly essays and feature length films to fully appreciate. If we have to do homework prior to engaging with a novel, doesn’t the novel itself become homework? There’s a balance required in our hectic lives between what will pass as study and what we will accept as recreation. What will one gain from the all the effort required to read, understand, and imaginatively enter the world captured by Han Bang Qing?

Like all journeys into an Interzone, merely a glimpse of something ineffable.