Snakes and Earrings

Earlier in the week I wrote about Zhou Weihui and her novels Shanghai Baby and Marrying Buddha. Kanehara Hitomi is the Japanese Zhou Weihui and her novel Snakes and Earrings is similar to Shanghai Baby – about a young woman who’s passive and easily influenced by others.

snakes and earrings

The themes however do differ. Instead of shopping and sex, the character Lui explores body art (tattoos and piercings) and sex and uses these to explain her life along with other literary themes which litter contemporary Japanese literature (such as violence and death).

The novel focuses around the character of Lui, a young girl who battles with depression and wishes to create feeling in her empty life. Lui meets Ama, who has a forked tongue and immediately becomes obsessed and starts a relationship with him. Ama introduces Lui to the life of piercings and tattoos and she begins the process of getting her tongue forked as well.

Lui is obsessed with pain. Her piercings, tattoos and alcoholism are all a form of self-harm for her. They enable the character to feel. Pain fills up the void Lui is feeling, and it’s pain and the need for physical pain which draws her into a relationship with Shiba-san, a sadist who is often violent towards her.

Lui doesn’t realise that it’s not pain which makes her happy. It’s love which fulfills the void and it’s not until Ama protects her from violent men which she realises this. This feeling is further reinforced when Ama goes missing, and after a few days the police reveal that he was brutally raped and murdered.  It is here that Lui recovers from the numbness she was previously experiencing and sets about changing her life.

The novel, like Shanghai Baby, is poorly written and has a sloppy and immature feel, but this adds to the characterisation. It’s not elegant, it’s not perfect – just like Lui.

The novel, by embracing topics such as alcoholism, sex, and the very taboo tattoos (which are still associated with the Yakuza in Japanese society), shows Japanese youth culture changing. It’s breaking away from traditional Japan and becoming radical and rebellious due to the pressures on youth from society. This all creates an unstable youth population who use this new youth culture to vent out its frustration.

Snakes and Earrings is a cry for help on behalf of the young people of Japan.

Author Kanehara Hitomi

Author Kanehara Hitomi

The novel won the Akutagawa Prize in 2003 which has cemented its importance in Japanese literature. Like Zhou WeiHui’s novels, I am not a fan of Snakes and Earrings, but I can appreciate it in comparison to other Japanese novels.

Mid-Autumn Festival

Last week was the Mid-Autumn festival (中秋节) in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong (and indeed the rest of East Asia, which is called Tsukimi in Japan and Chuseok in Korea). A public holiday for the country (and me!) and the chance to indulge in mooncake, a traditional cake made of pastry and various pastes (such as red bean. I’ve also eaten a chocolate mooncake) and often containing around 1,000 calories!

Mooncake

Mooncake

Whilst this festival is associated with the harvest season, in China at least, there is a story behind it. Here in this post I will tell you that story as it was told to me by Chinese friends.

Many thousands of years ago, there lived a young married couple who were deeply in love. The husband was great at providing food for his wife by hunting. He was so good that when ten suns appeared in the sky, causing destruction to the world, the people turned to him and asked for his help in shooting them down. He shot down 9 suns and left one in the sky to look after the earth and provide warmth.

A watching immortal fairy was impressed by his actions and went down to earth from the stars to present him with a gift. This gift was the elixir of immortal life. Not wanting to separate from his wife, he gave it to her to keep. Likewise, his wife did not want the elixir as she did not want to leave her husband.

A man was watching near by and saw the elixir. He waited patiently until the husband left to go hunting one mid-autumn afternoon. Once he’d left he approached the wife and demanded the elixir. He was imposing and threatening. Scared, the wife swallowed the elixir so the evil thief would not get it. After drinking the potion the wife became an immortal fairy, like the one who gave the gift. She flew into the sky, but she was heartbroken at having to leave her husband. To watch over him every night, she lived in the moon.

moon

Upon returning to his home, the husband found out what had happened. He was devastated that his wife had left him, but soon realised she was watching over him from the moon. Reassured, he offered the moon her favourite cakes to say thank you.

The story captured the hearts of his fellow villagers, and soon spread all over China. On the anniversary of his wife becoming a fairy, they too offered cake and celebrated the moon.

My Chinese friends love telling stories like these (and there are a few for various holidays!). They did not remember the names of the characters, but were able to retell the essence of the story. I hope I’ve been able to pass it on to all of you!

Shanghai Baby

 shanghai baby

Shanghai Baby, the controversial novel by Chinese author Zhou Weihui, depicts the glamorous life of Coco (named after Coco Chanel, and based upon the author) – a character who loves shopping, smoking, drinking, and exploring her sexuality. The novel is packed with all the ‘taboos’, such as sex and marital affairs, which offers an insight into contemporary Chinese society for women (as well as acting as a tour guide of all the ”cool” places to eat and shop in Shanghai).

The writing style reflects the character of Coco – it’s basic, has a ‘teenager’ feel, and it’s not very mature. The themes also reflect this: sex, sexuality and becoming aware of one’s self – all of which fit in with young adult and teen fiction. Aside from the obvious, in this case sex which is everywhere in the novel, the book also shows the rapid commercialisation and modernisation of China and its consequences.

Many may argue whether it does reflect the ‘real’ modern China. Living in a very affluent and traditional Chinese city myself, I can see the similarities between Coco’s life and the life of many young Chinese women today. Life to them has three important areas: 1) making money, 2) spending money, 3) having a boyfriend. Note I said boyfriend and not husband; there is certainly an element of ‘try before you buy’ when it comes to modern Chinese women and relationships.

Author Zhou Weihui

Author Zhou Weihui

Obviously, I cannot speak for all Chinese women. The many Chinese women from various parts of China who I have met however, all describe the life of women in Shanghai as being the same as that described in Shanghai Baby. Many openly criticise this, and Shanghai, exclaiming that they hate the city because it’s too ‘Western’ and not ‘Chinese’. These women criticised the women of Shanghai whilst playing on their new iPhones, discussing sex, and describing dreams of moving to the US, Canada, UK and other western countries – embracing ‘modernisation’. Whether they realise it or not, a lot of these women are Coco.

Shanghai Baby‘s sequel, Marrying Buddha, is a lot more mature in terms of writing and themes. There’s still a lot of sex and commercialisation, but the novel feels a lot more ‘adult’ and empowering. Coco is no longer passive and one-dimensional (how I feel she was in Shanghai Baby). Instead, she is much more well-rounded.

marrying buddha

There is also more of an embrace of traditional Chinese culture in the novel too, with Coco spending vast amounts of time in Buddhist temples conversing with monks – informing the reader, and possibly modern China, that modernisation doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning traditions and one’s spiritual self.

Many will say Shanghai Baby empowers women because Coco explores her sexuality. But, she is rarely in control and is passive, being influenced by those around her. Marrying Buddha is  empowering. Coco takes control of her life (although sometimes is still influenced by men), and by the end of the novel she is a strong, powerful woman.

Marrying Buddha, like Shanghai Baby also breaks ‘taboos’, for example, it embraces the Japanese. A lot of modern Chinese people – again, not all – still have contempt for the Japanese due to the history of the two nations (the rape of Nanjing plays a huge part in this feeling, as does continuous territorial disputes over islands). Coco however falls in love with a Japanese man, one who is able to detox and renew her spirit. To the modern Chinese, this may be seen as a betrayal but it does reflect an attitude which needs to be addressed. Coco doesn’t dictate her life and feelings by Chinese history, an idea which contemporary Chinese society is coming to grips with. Indeed, there’s a growing number of Chinese who are embracing the Japanese, but equally there are those who still openly hate the Japanese.

Whilst these are not my favourite Chinese novels, they are definitely novels worth reading for a depiction of modern China.

Survival in the Killing Fields

This autobiography sums up the chaos that was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and to an extent, what still happens in Cambodia. I’ve read a few autobiographies of the Khmer Rouge years, and this one hits me the hardest. It makes you depressed, and more importantly, makes you appreciate the life you are living now.

killing fields

Haing S. Ngor was made famous by acting as Dith Pran in the 1984 film The Killing Fields – a role which won Ngor an Oscar. Dith Pran’s story is a famous one, it’s horrific and upsetting what he experienced under the Pol Pot regime. Ngor’s account takes this feeling to a whole new level.

This book definitely isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s heartbreaking and horrowing. There are graphic descriptions of torture and murder, of disease and starvation, of crimes against humanity both within the Khmer Rouge and outside (including the rape of women by Thai soldiers as they try and escape Cambodia, and the mass killing of Cambodian refugees in Thailand). The description is so vivid you can almost smell the death of the people around him.

Ngor doesn’t just describe his own personal suffering, he describes Cambodia’s suffering. He writes what he witnesses. His personal accounts of being tortured (which happened on numerous occassions) also describe how others were treated. Not many autobiographies of the Khmer Rouge do this, for example, Denise Affonco’s  To The End of Hell, which describes only the author’s suffering and feelings of starvation. It’s quite a tedious read as Affonco doesn’t even describe in detail her own children’s death and as a result doesn’t generate the same emotional response as Survival in the Killing Fields.

Haing S. Ngor not only gives an account of what happens to his life during the Pol Pot regime, he also disusses the culture and most importantly, the politics of Cambodia before, during and after the regime.  The book can easily be split into two sections: Ngor’s life before, during and after the regime; and what happened to Khmer citizens before, during and after the regime. The book is a mini contemporary history of Cambodia and you can begin to understand the political workings of a nightmare.

The Khmer Rouge regime is incredibly fascinating and raises certain questions: why didn’t the West intervene? We knew what was happening in the country, yet there was no international discussion about how to solve the problem. This wouldn’t happen today – Syria being the prime example. Ngor doesn’t blame anyone for events happening in his country. All his anger is directed at the Khmer Rouge, to those who tortured him and others, to those who brought the Cambodian people suffering and death.

haing-portrait

Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields

Ngor’s memoirs conclude with his own death.  Roger Warner (the co-author) describes in an epilogue what happens after Ngor won an Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields and he ends describing Ngor’s death in 1996 and the mystery surrounding it.

There is a happy ending however. Since his death a charity, Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation  was founded, which provides aid to the people of Cambodia.

Survival in the Killing Fields is a book everyone should read, and no one should forget.

Apologies

I would like to apologise for not posting for a long time. I have recently moved country (skipped across the Yellow Sea infact) and have been settling into my new job and life. From hereon in, I will be making an effort to keep you all up to date with Eastern literature!

As a side note, I have rebranded this blog. If there’s anything you would like to see or read please get in touch!