Hong Kong’s unacceptable genius

Part three of our special report on Hong Kong writing

To read Han Suyin – maybe the greatest writer in Hong Kong literary history, definitely one of its strangest, with her brave life and unforgiveable ideas – is to constantly underline or dog-ear or place many, many bookmarks to keep track of passages that show a wild and original genius at work. I picked up one of her books by chance at a second-hand bookstore a week or so before I travelled to Hong Kong in March, to cover its international writers festival. Her memoir Birdless Summer wasn’t exactly up to the minute. It was published in 1972, and covered the years 1938-1948. But it was an intoxicating record of an extraordinary woman living in extraordinary times and I immediately tracked down two other volumes of her autobiography, as well as her most famous novel, from the stacks beneath Auckland Central Library; the plane arrived as I read Suyin writing of her own arrival in 1950: “In Hong Kong I would breathe the dust, smell the shift of air from China.”

She meant the good reviving fresh air coming from the 1949 Revolution. Suyin was an avowed Maoist. She gave lectures around the world telling of the triumph of Communism in China, the happiness it unleashed, the better way of living for hundreds of millions of people. Whether she knew but ignored the truth that Mao had tens of millions killed, or whether she really had no idea, it makes no difference: the lasting reputation of Suyin (1917-2012) is that she was a useful idiot. Obituary, Wall Street Journal: “It is customary not to speak ill of the dead, but it was her praise for China’s 1966 Cultural Revolution—a 10-year nightmare of communist chaos, murder, forced relocation and cultural obliteration—that defines Han Suyin’s legacy.”

Her books are no longer in print. I found a lovely first-edition of her famous 1952 novel Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing (wrapped tight in cellophane) at that wondrous second-hand den Flow Books in Sheung Wan, but no other books by her anywhere else in Hong Kong. “We don’t really read her anymore,” said Hong Kong writer and editor Louise Law, when I spoke with her during the festival; she was perplexed to be even asked, and fair enough – I felt like Duncan McLean, the Scots writer who formed an intense appreciation for the works of Frank Sargeson (1903-1982), came to New Zealand to ask about him, and was met with a shrug from poet Hera Lindsay Bird. “I know virtually nothing about Sargeson,” she told him. “I’ve never read him.”

Outsiders coming to a country full of new and interesting literature, and wanting to discuss someone long dead…But Suyin, like Sargeson, was such a master stylist. No one writes like her, with her long, lyrical sentences, her peculiar syntax. She learned English in China when she was 10 – so much great literature is written as ESL (exhibit A: Lolita) – but only became an author when she was persuaded by a friend, an American missionary, to collaborate with her on a novel, during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. She writes in the book’s Introduction, “Destination Chungking was written in the evening by oil light in what was left of the room after three days bombing…I carried to the shelter of the hill dugout the manuscript…Whenever I had finished a chapter, I sent it off by airmail to Marian [Manly, the missionary]. Back and forth flew the manuscript, from author to co-author, typed on flimsy translucent Chinese silk paper, the lightest to pack into airmail envelopes. Then one day a publisher accepted it.”

The novel is…dated, that damning word, as if fiction is a newspaper. But it’s true that the Hong Kong settings of Destination Chungking, and Many-Splendoured Thing, no longer exist. From her 1942 debut: “Rickshaws with carriage wheels raced recklessly with honking motorcars, and jerky little tramcars trundled along their tracks, and everywhere the small brown southern Chinese crowded the streets and wharves…War in China, somewhere behind those brown hills on the Kowloon side, was reflected in the tempo of Hong-Kong, like the pounding throb of an engine.”

Ten years later, this is her post-war Hong Kong in Many-Splendoured: “American sailors hail taxis, have their shoes shined by little boys. On their arms hang shrill Chinese prostitutes. Tourist women gaze at embroidered silk underwear and ornate Chinese coats…In the narrow, vertical, staircased streets of the Chinese district abide the poor. The streets are dirty, the houses smell…The offal of the markets – two rotting tomatoes, a handful of beans, one broken egg – is offered for sale by the poor to those poorer than they.”

“The fascinating Eurasian”: The film of the tragic love affair

She records post-war Hong Kong in its early, bustling years now regarded by expats (translation: white people) as a Bell Epoch, a golden age, but golden for who? Not the “coolies”, the Chinese working poor and their children, who Suyin writes about, and who take central place in her politics. She scorns the rampant capitalism that made Hong Kong so rich, so exciting. And yet she writes of it as a ship, a bird, something beautiful and radiant. It will always look like that. My week in Hong Kong was memorable less for its neon than for its plants – everywhere, pots of snake plants, hydrangeas, monstera, impatiens, and my hotel in the Mid Levels overlooked the botanical gardens. Suyin, too, pictures a flowering island, of poinsettia and hibiscus, set among birdsong, and beaches, and hills, and harbour. From her memoir My House Has Two Doors: “Hongkong was a delight; the piercing blue sky; the reflecting, crystal, merry sea we crossed and recrossed by ferry to Kowloon to hear the gurgle and suck of water under the boat and feel the mild, cool wind upon our faces.” From Many-Splendoured: “Around us lay Hongkong, basking in the sun; Hongkong, tiny excrescence of the Chinese mainland, rock of exile to so many; poised, expectant, waiting for the future.” Back then, after the 1949 Revolution, it was a rock of exiles from China, wanting to escape Communist rule. Today it’s a rock that people are leaving behind to live as exiles, wanting to escape Communist rule.


Her novel is a tragic love affair told in high melodramatic style and every word of it is true. Suyin fell in love with Australian correspondent Ian Morrison. They swam at Repulse Bay. They made love in Macao. He was sent on assignment to cover the Korean War and was killed. The letters he wrote to her from Korea reached her after he died; she reprints them in the book. Ian’s name in the novel is Mark and Han Suyin’s name is…Han Suyin. He to her: “I think I am in love with you.” Her to him: “I think it is just an infatuation. An island Is like a ship, and things happen quickly on a ship. And Hongkong is such a beautiful island.”

Beautiful, romantic, unreal. China  is the real thing in her book. She writes in Many-Splendoured of crossing to the mainland, and feeling transformed: “The Hongkong me was gone, it had vanished, dissolved like a cloud in one’s hand…That deep mud rut which called itself a road, ploughing between the slopes up and down to the city 17 miles away, that was the only way I could think of a road now.” Then she writes of crossing back to Hong Kong, to that beautiful but deluded island: “Back to Hongkong from the stern paradise of China; from the pursuit of Heaven on Earth to the pursuit of money.”

The “pursuit of Heaven on Earth”! She did comms for Communism, performed as Mao’s PR trout. Her writings on Mao sometimes resembled an erotic longing, at one point describing him as “a tall, gaunt man, with dream-filled eyes.”

A 1980 review in the New Times described her as an “outmoded sycophant”. Suyin, a grand, fervent believer in Maoism, socialism, all of the great Chinese isms, couldn’t have cared less. Much of her work is driven by her “inescapable passion” for China; much of her work is even more of a love story than Many-Splendoured. Her masterworks are her volumes of autobiography. They are love letters to China, told in that same high melodramatic style of her fiction. “All around us,” she writes of journeying through China during World War II, “was the marvellous big land, land of China, people of China, robust and suffering, ruined and verminous and poor and so barbarously treated by their own ruling class, and so magnificent, and the heat swelled in their greatness, as a rush of love.”

This is from her second volume, Birdless Summer (1938-1948). It’s an incredible book, so deeply felt, so intimately detailed, and describes the terror of life in China during the Japanese occupation. “Often now I think of that birdless summer of my existence; hear the screams I heard then.” Many pages are set in air raid shelters. “A woman brought in her 10-month-old baby whose nose had been eaten away by a rat.” She writes, too, of her own terror as the abused wife an officer in the resistance. “He kicked and beat me for four days…I huddled on the floor waiting for blows for six hours, seven, 10…He will get tired, only an hour more, two hours more…” She was raped, hated, lectured for days. Among his lessons for her moral improvement: “A woman without talent is a virtuous woman.”

He was killed in action. “Of course I wept. I wept a good deal…During my sorrow I remember he had asked me, in case he died, to kill myself, in order to leave behind an honest name as a chaste wife…Within two days my remorse had ended.”

Her strength must have awed her husband, driven him even more insane. What was it about her that gave her such courage, and such convictions? In her first memoir, A Mortal Flower (1928-1938), she describes herself as a young girl: “I deliberately broke every rule, I cycled about in shorts, I laughed in classes, I was rude to everyone.”  As shorthand, you could very easily think of her as a pioneering feminist. In the 1940s she soared above the twin pillars of sexism and racism to study medicine (“I kept a brain under my bed in a large saucepan full of preserving fluid”), and became independent, a single parent with a professional career. But feminism seemed to mean little to her, or at least it meant a lot less than the predominant ideology of socialism. Suyin gave a public lecture in New Zealand in 1975. She was interviewed in Salient. Asked whether women could achieve the same equality in capitalism as they do (according to her) in socialism, she replied, “So long as you still have exploitation in a system it is not possible to achieve the liberation of woman. The liberation of woman is not directed against man, do you see, it is part of man’s liberation.”

Next question: “So women’s liberation must be a movement for socialism?”

Her answer: “That’s right, and that is my point. You cannot liberate yourself, otherwise it becomes a sex war. Why? What has the poor guy really done? After all, he is himself exploited. And this is where I confront the women’s liberation movements in your countries with total misunderstanding. They feel this is all a question of sex, as if sexual liberation was the key to all liberation. Well, it is not.”

Han Suyin at an author signing, Wellington, 1975. Photographed by Brian Bell (1929-2000). Ref: PAColl-4243. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

No liberation without socialism; no paradise on Earth without socialism. Her love affair with Ian Morrison (“a torrid and absolute passion”, she writes in her third volume of memoirs, My House Has Two Doors) was a typhoon of sex, desire, and ideology. She records that he travelled to China to meet “the legendary New Zealander, Rewi Alley, in Kansu province, where Rewi ran co-operatives, and went trekking with him.” The Australian and the Kiwi, at the famous Buddhist grottoes of Tun Huang, and at the Crescent Moon Lake. He wrote to her, “The Times expected me to report on the civil war in China, but I’m afraid Rewi’s conversation entranced me. He really explained to me why the Chinese Revolution was inevitable; and so I came up with something which my newspaper found slightly disappointing…” (Suyin became close friends with Alley, and came to New Zealand to pay her last respects to him in 1987, the year he died.)

Her novel of her tragic affair (Morrison was married) made her famous. Many-Splendoured was turned into a Hollywood film. Her character was played by the not especially Eurasian actress Jennifer Jones, gorgeous in tight-fitting cheongsams, and the theme song won an Oscar. And so she became the best kind of useful idiot – a celebrity useful idiot, interviewed and photographed and invited to appear at festivals and events around the world.  The one subject was China, always China. It meant everything to her. Hong Kong meant beauty, and Ian Morrison, but it also meant nothing – an island without meaning. When she writes about leaving Hong Kong to join the fight against Japan in occupied China in 1938, it’s like a kind of striptease, a shedding of comfort: “I had packed two woollen suits, underwear (bought in Hong Kong), a bathing suit, a Cantonese oilcloth Chinese dress bought in Hong Kong, stockings…One by one I abandoned them on the roads in China. I began with the bathing suit.”

It brought her closer to China. It also brought her closer to her true nature. This is Suyin describing her adolescence, but it feels like she is describing her essence or spirit as a strong and courageous woman, and as a writer of genius: “I was incoherent, fuzzy,  restless, passive, aggressive, dispersed, odd, candid, misrepresented, a stretch of chaos.”


Steve Braunias travelled to Hong Kong with assistance from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. This is the third of his week-long series on Hong Kong writing, following Monday’s overview of the festival (includes poisonous snakes) and yesterday’s portrait of Hong Kong under Chinese rule. Tomorrow: the courage and distress of Hong Kong authors.






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