Wena Poon’s new contemporary novel, Chang’an, covers the last one hundred years of China’s relationship with Japan through the eyes of Chinese and Japanese protagonists. Her novels about Japan was the subject of a recent article in The Japan Times.
When Japan surrendered to the Allies at the end of WWII, more than 6 million of its citizens were left stranded abroad. In China alone there were 2.6 million Japanese, including many women and children, despised by the world and forgotten by their government. Determined to survive, the brilliant and mercurial military doctor Arthur Hayashi hid in Communist China for decades and left to his grand-daughter an unforgettable legacy. Named after the mythic Chinese city on which Kyoto was modeled, Chang’an is a refreshingly unconventional take on Japan, China and the modern quest to end decades of bitterness.
The novel takes place in mainland China, Japan, and Singapore. The following excerpt, from the start of the novel, features a very familiar spot in Singapore.
by Wena Poon
One night, Mark excused himself from a client dinner and strolled about listlessly on Orchard Road. Once again he had the strange sensation of knowing that he was in Asia, yet being told, at every turn, that he was in the West. The luxury storefronts were depressingly reminiscent of London. He was surrounded by people who looked like him, but they did not speak any Chinese language. The lingua franca was English, weighted with an accent that was heard nowhere else in the world. It was as if they were a completely different race.
He flowed with the stream of humanity down into a fluorescent-lit underpass. The air was oppressively sticky; the crowd pressed in on all sides. He began to regret his little excursion. Then, the sharp sound of a harmonica.
An old Chinese ballad called We Must Cherish Tonight 今宵多珍重, played by an old blind man sitting on the ground. A saccharine tune from the 1950s, resolutely out of sync with modern music. How strange to hear it here, amid Formula One posters and Louis Vuitton ads. Mark watched the busker for a moment, then pulled out his wallet and left some dollar bills in his bowl of coins. It wasn’t after he walked away when he realized that he had given the blind man Hong Kong currency.
With some difficulty, he retraced his steps, fighting against the crush of people. The blind man was now in the throes of Nessun Dorma.
Mark crouched down beside the busker. “Uncle,” he said in Mandarin. “I gave you Hong Kong money by mistake.”
The blind man stopped. A smile spread across his face. His Mandarin was cheerful, colloquial: a Mandarin of the tropics. “Are you a tourist from China?”
“No, not really.” Mark switched the currency. All he had was a large bill in Singapore dollars. Rather than leave it in the bowl, he tucked it in the man’s sweat-stained shirt pocket to keep it safe.
“You speak Mandarin so beautifully, you must be a mainlander, don’t you deny it!” chuckled the old man. “Which city?”
“Shanghai. Long time ago.”
“Ah, a man from Shanghai Long Time Ago! How I wish I could go there!”
Mark smiled and rose to his feet. “Uncle, I gave you a big bill, it’s in your pocket, don’t lose it.” He was aware of contemptuous looks from passersby. Stupid PRC tourist! they thought. Didn’t he know that the blind busker was a permanent fixture on Orchard Road? The man thrived on one-off encounters. Only tourists would fall for his act.
“I’ve got a song for you!” The blind man began playing a 1940s Chinese movie hit. Shanghai Night 夜上海 . For someone who was really from Shanghai, it was as silly and common as playing “Happy Birthday”. Mark stood politely as the man played. The man did not sing, but the lyrics came plainly to Mark’s ear from buried memories of afternoons in China, of a wireless playing in a kitchen somewhere. Whose kitchen? His parents did not like this type of music. It must have been the kitchen of one of his elderly relatives, someone who minded him as a child.
Shanghai night, Shanghai night
You are a city that never sleeps
Light the lamps, start the cars
Let the circus begin!
The guy is drunk by his very first cup
The girl is merry though her soul is dark
He’s in love; she’s just working
Neither will remember this by morning
The song ended. Mark turned to leave. The blind man called out, “Hey, young man! I take requests!”
“C’mon! Since you gave me real money, you pick a song!”
Mark paused. “Any song?”
“Yeah. I can do Beatles, Casablanca, Phantom of the Opera.”
“What about another Chinese song?”
“Sure, I have a huge repertoire! You want Leslie Cheung? You want Faye Wong? Name any song, I’ll do it.”
Mark smiled. “I don’t know what it’s called. I just remembered it, since you were going down that road. It’s an oldie.”
“Oldies are goodies! If you can’t remember the title, just sing it.”
Mark sighed and retraced his steps. “I can’t sing.”
“All I need is a line. My mind, it’s an encyclopedia.”
“It starts with wo you yiduanqing, ya…shuo geishui laiting?”
“Got it,” said the busker happily, striking up.
Mark merged into the crowd as the blind man played:
I had a love affair once
Oh, who will hear my story?
Perhaps I can tell it to the Wind
In hopes my words would carry far
Long afternoons in a kitchen of a lost country. A dark green wireless on a shelf, next to a jar of brown sugar. He was allowed to dip a spoon in that jar as a treat, if he first ate his cough syrup. He would hold the rough, crumbly sugar in his mouth for as long as possible, savoring its dark caramel. It always melted away too soon.
Why are these memories coming back now?
An extract from the novel Chang’an by Wena Poon (http://www.wenapoon.com), to be published in 2015. Originally published as a short story by Manoa Journal in Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Starry Island will be launched in New York City on Saturday, September 13, 2014, 8:15 – 9:00 pm, at the new St. Mark’s Bookshop, as part of Manhattan Lit Crawl. Visit the Facebook page for details.
Wena Poon is a featured author of the Singapore Literature Festival in New York (October 10 – 12, 2014).