Cut Lotus Root

Review of Chang’an: a Story of China & Japan by Wena Poon (CreateSpace, 2016)
by Eric Norris

Chang’an: a Story of China & Japan is a compellingly and compulsively readable family saga that spans the long and terrible 20th century: from the Russo-Japanese War, through the Invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s, World War Two, the Communist Revolution in China, the Cultural Revolution, past the tanks and students and TV cameras in Tiananmen Square, all the way to the demi-monde of qipao clad toilet towel attendants and the craze for Cat Cafés in early 21st century Singapore.

The author, Wena Poon, describes the novel in her dedicatory afterword this way:

This book is for the people of China, Japan, America, and Singapore, the four countries that have forever shaped the destiny of my family.

The book draws you into that shared destiny immediately.

Book one, entitled “The Avant” (“The Coming”), opens during the final stages of a possible banking scandal in Hong Kong, in 2014. It introduces us to a 40-something executive, Mark Lu, who is removing his nameplate from his office door. Mark, a laconic British educated financier, is being investigated by U.S. officials for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: for using his position and family political connections—compared in a delicious metaphor to a “cut lotus root” connected by “sticky strings”—to enrich himself, his family, and his employer. We learn that Mark is the estranged only son of an illustrious clan of Lus that can trace their family pedigree back to 16th century Imperial administrators, men and women who have alternated between being on the right and wrong side of the law for the last 500 years.

While the wheels of American justice are groping in the dark for something more substantial than suspicions about cagey Asians to grind between their teeth, Mark—a fully functional and fully realized human being in need of a time out—travels to Singapore to collect himself. Here, we meet his on-again off-again girlfriend, 30-something Jasmine Lin: a PRC immigrant to Singapore. She is a woman with a fascinating past that Mark met a few years earlier, when she was a toilet attendant. The relationship between Jasmine and Mark, their very different families and how their destinies separate and recombine form the core of the novel.

Chang’an is divided into seven books, each of which focuses on a different individual or group of individuals and their relationship to the central pair of protagonists, Mark and Jasmine. In book two, which covers the years 1910-1945, we meet Edmond Arthur Hayashi, Jasmine’s grandfather. The imaginative vehicle Weena Poon uses to introduce him to us takes the form of a handwritten diary, in hiragana, that Jasmine is translating for her two elderly aunties—one Chinese and one Japanese—now living in California. Arthur, the son of an Imperial Navy doctor, is born in Manchuria in 1910. He is named after Sir Edmund Halley—whose eponymous comet made an appearance in 1910; and for the famous 1904 victory over the Russian Navy at Port Arthur.

According to Arthur himself:

Mother objected to “Edo-mon-do” as it was too difficult to pronounce. Father said Westerners had middle names. So she named me after the port. “Arthur” was pronounced “A-sa” in Japanese. “A soft, warm sound,” she said. “I prefer it. It is a familiar sound. Like asahi, Dawn.” Eventually, when my sisters were born, I was known only at home as Arthur.

One of the loveliest aspects of this remarkable book is how attentive the author is to the richly interwoven tapestry of language and its historical associations. There is a great deal of word play, especially with names, as we see here.

The Book of Arthur traces Arthur’s progress from colonial infant in Manchuria, to student of Tokyo Imperial University, to doctor examining potential comfort women for virginity and VD, to petty war criminal, to a second identity and a new life, as Lin Fuying, a clinician working out of a small dispensary treating villagers for various ailments and itinerant American photographers for groin lice at the back of a martial arts school in the southern Chinese city of Shantou. The Book of Arthur, which continues as The Book of Worm, is a richly detailed historical novel in itself, buried inside of Chang’an.

Here is a description of a minor bit of insanity during the battle of Shanghai:

The second memory of the Battle of Shanghai is of a sudden, albeit temporary, ceasefire. We agreed to it for three whole days. It wasn’t because of any peace-brokering by international powers, but because the mackintoshes that were distributed to the Imperial Army came from the same local manufacturer who also supplied the Chinese troops. How typical of Chinese businessmen to make money from both sides. In the heavy rain, the two armies became indistinguishable: uniforms, cannons, and colors were cloaked under the same black plastic. We couldn’t fire at anyone for fear of shooting our own men. What a joke.

Two things stand out from this passage for me. The voice of Arthur, a perfect testament to Wena Poon’s powers of imagination: it is as clear, deep and distinct and individual as the voice of George Sherston, Siegfried Sassoon’s thinly veiled alter-ego in his fictional reworking of his World War One experiences. The second is the absurd intersection of the weather, the war, and greed. The endless rain is a painfully funny and wonderful gloss on Von Clausewitz’s traditional Nebel des Krieges or ‘fog of war’ with a distinctly Kurosawan tint. These quiet effects—sometimes cinematic, most often verbal—are one of the great delights of Wena Poon’s writing.

The Book of Arthur and the Book of Worm unfold in real time—our time, as readers—in various places: on a laptop in a small Singapore flat, in between bouts of banter, late at night after lovemaking by Mark and Jasmine, and visits to the Cat Café and Bookstore. The business of translating the book is an effective way of setting up parallel stories. Arthur and Worm are Mark and Jasmine’s historical avatars.

Worm is 17 when we first meet her. She is the gorgeous, feisty, cynical and sexually adventurous adopted daughter of the martial artist in Shantou who accepts Arthur as his lodger, through the kind offices of the old man’s ne’er-do-well nephew: a shifty and perpetually horny peddler of patent medicines whom Arthur met while escaping from Manchuria in the final days of World War Two, as the Russian armies advanced.

You can really see how those sticky lotus roots spread fibers of goo when sliced.

Arthur arrives in Shantou in 1946. Over the next two years, he adapts to his new, fictitious life as a Chinese refugee from the north, and settles in the town. He is received and treated as a member of the family. Although Arthur—Lin Fuying, I should say, to keep up with his shifting identity—is betrothed to Worm’s dull elder adopted sister—a cold as cod Christian convert nicknamed by the ever-generous gods of irony, ‘Rainbow’—Worm becomes Arthur’s lover as the Communist forces draw ever nearer to Shantou.

The lazy days of private intimacy that Lin Fuying/Arthur and Worm enjoy under the slowly rotating fan in a humid rundown flat—as civil war savages the country—are tenderly immortalized in a gorgeous piece of Classical Chinese verse which Arthur/Lin Fuying recites from memory to the restless Worm in his arms.

Here is the entire poem, by Liu Yong:

In the tiny winding ways of the city’s pleasure quarters
Roam the queens of silk and brocade
Among the girls beckoning from balconies
I have eyes for only one—
My Little Bug

No painting can capture your poise
Nor flower represent your face

How many times have we gone drinking till dawn
Only to fall exhausted on warm pillows
And embroidered duvets drenched with scent
Two hearts in tandem—neither Heaven nor Earth
Ever saw a more splendid pair

But lately, madam, storms have driven us apart
I can no longer afford you
But still you agree to meet
For hurried trysts that left us desiring
When all we ever wanted to do was marry and grow old together!

Dry your tears. We have to bear what the heart cannot bear
I swear I will return to take you away from this life
And pen a proper ending to our years of love.

Falling as it does almost midway in Chang’an, this poem—this scene of intimacy—is the mythopoetic axis around which the entire novel revolves.

The subsequent four books of the novel, The Book of Mark, The Book of Tomoe, The Book of Jasmine, and Epilogue, bring the narrative up-to-date. We learn more of Mark’s immediate family: his brutally businesslike mother, his artsy and ineffectual closeted gay father, and his extended family of country cousins, relatives of his nurse and nanny, the only family Mark really seems to have any meaningful affection for.

We find out how Jasmine came to be raised by her grandfather; how she met a young Japanese mayor, Tomoe, scion of a family of kabuki actors, in the course of a business deal that has comic echoes of the earlier business deal involving raincoats, business ethics, and armies; how they fell in love; how she became a kendo master; and how a successful Chinese businesswoman with such a fascinating history wound up as a toilet attendant in one of the poshest neighborhoods of Singapore.

All of this takes place against a background of constant destruction and renewal, post-war revolution and rebuilding, the rise of the Asian Tiger economies, recession, peasant migration, violent protests, and conflict over tiny seagull splattered islands. Individual identities are erased, villages disappear, new career paths are taken, new fortunes are made, new humiliations are endured, old loves are lost and new loves are won, peace between rivals made. Chang’an is a kind of temporal kaleidoscope. Each twist of time—as characterized by the seven books—brings a new combination of events for the characters to cope with, but the emotions that color their lives—our lives—remain vibrantly identifiable.

Dry your tears. We have to bear what the heart cannot bear
I swear I will return to take you away from this life
And pen a proper ending to our years of love.

Part historical romance, part adventure, part family chronicle, part—perhaps—Korean soap opera, you might think of Chang’an as a Buddenbrooks for the Manga Era. It reads that fast, and sometimes that frivolously, but Chang’an never loses Thomas Mann’s generational sweep and literary scope. The dialogue is snappy, clear, and concise—whether, at any given moment in the novel, that dialogue happens to be rendered in Chinese, Japanese, English, Singlish, or French. The characters are drawn with strong and definite brushstrokes. The complex web of relations—the sticky strings of those lotus roots, confusing at first to a foreigner, like being invited to a family dinner party by a college friend—clarifies almost as if by magic as the food and liquor and fellowship flow.

If you will take my advice—which I fervently hope that you will—you will set aside a few evenings for Chang’an. While you are doing that, or thinking about doing that, I plan on visiting to see what they have in stock. According to page 458 of Chang’an—the list of books by the same author—Wena Poon has also written a series of Pacific War novels. I can’t wait to get started on those. Between you and me, I think she has a new fan. 


Eric Norris‘s poems and short stories have appeared in SoftblowAssaracusE-Verse RadioJonathanNew WalkGlitterwolfThe Nervous Breakdown, and The Raintown Review. He lives in Portlandia, USA.