There always comes a time when, as people age, events move from being “within living memory” to “history”. There is even more urgency to capture these voices in a place like China where, for reasons of war and turmoil, fewer voices were, on the whole, captured at the time.
Earnshaw Books has released the memoirs of two women, each remarkable in her own way, and similar in others, that lived through these times and who, atypically, have set down their memories in English. They share some commonalities: although spent their formative years (and in Kwok’s case, the rest of her life) in Shanghai, both were Cantonese. Kowk was a bit older, but both knew pre-War Shanghai and the Japanese occupation as well as, of course, the periods following.
Margaret Sun evidently was (and presumably still is) a woman of considerable intellect.
Margaret Sun’s Betwixt and Between is the more substantial of the two. Sun was born into a what sounds like a middle-class family—her father worked for Siemens—but the War and her father being accidentally caught up in a foiled embezzlement reduced them to near penury; Sun herself sold cigarettes and snacks on the street outside the building where three generations of the family lived in one room. The company her family kept, however, remained reasonably cosmopolitan and, somehow through all this, Sun grew up with considerably fluency in English.
In 1956, Sun volunteered to go work in Xinjiang. The next two decades are a time of a few highs (the melons) but mostly considerable hardship. Sun, it appears, was (and presumably still is) a woman of considerable intellect: not only did she speak Cantonese, Shanghainese, Mandarin, read and write English (she would seek out English-language books, which were as rare as hens teeth in Xinjiang), she also picked up Uyghur and Kazakh. These sections of the book are filled with a wealth of anecdote and observation.
I have milked cows, collected cowpads, taken in knitting and worked as a day laborer. I have taught, done interpretation and translation. I have done whatever I had to do.
Despite having little formal education, Sun ended up teaching English at Xinjiang University.
There is a Dr Zhivago aura to Daisy Kwok’s story.
Daisy Kwok was what would have been in other circumstances an heiress to the Wing On retail empire. But 1949 put paid to that. Born in Australia in 1908, she moved to Shanghai as a young girl when her father went to Shanghai to set up Wing On Department store on Nanking Road. Although almost all her relatives left Shanghai by 1949, and despite having had a number of opportunities to leave herself, Daisy Kwok stayed on, and was slowly swallowed up by China’s turbulent history.
While Kwok’s pre-War life was evidently both glamorous and exciting—her account contains equal parts of parties and run-ins with gangsters—the appeal of the work lies in its scope as her life traces out a trajectory from effective princess to effective peon: there is a Dr Zhivago aura to this story, of someone trying to maintain some sort of normality, concern for family, even keeping what she felt were standards up, in the harshest of circumstances.
Her account has also has numerous surprising details, such as continuing to celebrate Christmas through the War. The good life seeped away only slowly. “The changes to life in Shanghai didn’t take place immediately after the communists arrived in 1949. It was a more gradual process…” notes publisher Graham Earnshaw in his preface. “Life continued remarkably unchanged for many years for many people in many ways, through to the end of the 1950s.” Kwok mentions the “Park Hotel’s new restaurant in the penthouse” in the 1950s, which implies, notes Earnshaw. that “people other than the lumpen proletariat were around to dine there.” And Kwok somehow managed to keep a maid until 1966.
The book is however very short, with fewer than 100 pages from Kwok, bookended by the lengthy preamble from publisher Earnshaw and similarly lengthy epilogue by the former American diplomat Tess Johnston, both evidently close friends of the author. Kwok died in 1998; why these memoirs remained in the drawer, as it were, for two decades is unclear.
Either book could catalyze a very good novel.
However immensely valuable both books are as first-person accounts, both suffer from a certain lack of narrative. We are fortunate to have either, and given the circumstances under which they were written, any literary shortcomings can and should be forgiven. Nevertheless, if one were to review the books rather than their authors, one might feel obliged to point out both suffer from a certain amount of repetition, digression and chronological jumping about. Kwok’s is more a series of vignettes than a narrative.
Either, however, could catalyze a very good novel. Both are thought-provoking, individually and jointly: were the various Chinese political campaigns harder to endure if one started off affluent? Sun, friendly with Uyghurs and Kazakhs, tolerant of Muslim beliefs and practices, observant to a fault, is still in Xinjiang. She effectively ends her story in 1978; the years to her retirement in 2002 are covered at a gallop. Regarding conditions today, Sun keeps her own counsel.