The Washington Post in its review of Janice Y. K. Lee's novel The Piano Teacher about Hong Kong compared Lee's first fiction to three suberb works about the decline of English and French colonialization in Asia: J. G. Ballard's Empire in the Sun about the British in Shanghai interned in Japanese camps during World War II; J. G. Farrell's The Singapore Grip about a British banker's family in Singapore in 1939; and Graham Green's The Quiet American about the aftermath of the French defeat in Vietnam. Lee's first novel is in its quiet way just as great as the preceding works.
The core of the story concerns Will Truesdale, an Englishman who arrives in Hong Kong in 1942 and who falls in love with Trudy Liang, a wealthy Eurasian heiress and flamboyant socialite. Lee wonderfully describes the endless round of drinks, dinners, and parties that Will and Trudy go to among the highest strata of Hong Kong British society who are too busy partying to pay much attention to the Japanese invasion coming ever closer. Since U.S. military is stalled in two Asian wars, this novel helpfully turns our gaze to the past.
These 1942 sections are contrasted to sections in 1952 dealing with a Claire, a newly arrived naive provincial Englishwoman who wanted to escape from her harpy British mother and boring clerk job so she married Martin, a man she didn't love, and follows him to Hong Kong. Claire is like a century of trapped Europeans and Americans who escape narrow, constricted lives for adventure in Asia. At first Claire seems to blossom iin Hong Kong. She falls in love with Truesdale and meets many of the 1942 characters ten years later but she as well as the reader is forced to learn the hard truths what happened to these characters in the war.
The Japanese conquered Hong Kong and almost overnight imprisoned bankers and socialites as well as clerks and wives in Stanley Prison. The book is fascinating examining what formerly wealthy people do when stripped of their wealth. Will in the prison fights for better conditions. Trudy, a good time Chinese-Portugal girl not imprisioned who loves new fashion and good food, sleeps with a Japanese general Otsubo to keep the good life but also uses her connection to get her true love Will on furloughs. Will is torn between staying in the prison to help the people there or leaving to go be with Trudy whose Japanese lover convinces her to spy for the Japanese.
The core of the novel unfolds like unpeeling an onion as the reader learns how the many characters--Japanese, British, and Chinese--fight for and betray each other to get the Crown Collection, a collection of rare Chinese artifacts the English stole and hid somewhere in Hong Kong before the Japanese invasion. The Japanese general Otsubo tortures a British businessman Arbogast cutting off his hand to get the Crown Collection as if two rival imperialisms are struggling over the wealth of China. Trudy is a spy and lost soul but steals the novel with her dramatic character.The Japanese are defeated, the British reinstored to power, but the main British characters--Will, Arbogast--are hollow creatures after the war, traumatized by their wartime experiences just as the British empire was.
The most fascinating character is the wealthy Chinese Victor Chen who is a master manipulator of the Japanese and Chinese like Trudy who worked for the Japanese . Chen along with many other Chinese argued that the English had no right to the Chinese artifacts in the Crown Collection so he sent them back to China. Chen got the artifacts back to China but in some small way helped Trudy get killed for passing false information to the Japanese.
The novel really concerns the impact of all these tales on Claire, the naive Englishwoman. She loses her lover Will who seems permanetly scarred by the events of the war--one of many European or U.S. women whose man is a traumatized wreck after time in the Asian wars. She loses her husband who discovers her infidelity. At the end Claire finds herself by going to live in the poor Chinese part of Hong Kong. At least one British person Claire no longer sets herself above the Chinese as all the other British characters in the novel have but finds her true self by joining into the Chinese world.
Causes Julia Stein Supports
Doctors Without Borders