A Many-Splendoured Thing

by Han Suyin

This is a book sent to me via Bookcrossing. (It’s a great site, a great site, a great site!!) I found it in our mailbox on our way out, so I read bits and pieces of it while my husband drove. The story was written in 1951, but we enjoyed the description of events and landmarks in Hong Kong (where I grew up) and Macau (where he grew up), some of which still stand after half a century, while some long gone. A few we didn’t know about until he verified with someone our senior. We chuckled at the writer’s complain about

Hong Kong‘s crowdedness (at 2 million people – 1/3 of what it is today), and marveled that the city had already made a reputation as shopping mecca half a century ago.Suyin, an Eurasian doctor, widowed with a girl, arrived in

Hong Kong and lived with a group of missionaries who were kicked out of
China during the political turmoil. At a social gathering, she met Mark Elliot, a British reporter. The two fell madly in love, despite the ostracism and bleak future.
Part of my enjoyment in reading this book was to learn more about my birthplace in an era before my time: a colony taxed with a sudden influx of Chinese refugees as civil wars broke out, with the communists advancing closer “just over the hills.” A place where the wealthy

Shanghai immigrants and shrewd British merchants transformed the little fishing port into a world renowned city, where “no one knows where Heaven with its stars ends and the earth with its lights begins.” It’s one thing to know what happened in history but quite another to learn what the thoughts and reactions of the real people in that era are.The author did a beautiful job describing the world around her, from the little details of a dinner on a boat, to the turbulent political climate of the world. Observant, poetic, soulful.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read. And I just want to copy down some favorite passages:

Hong Kong, look, no one knows where Heaven with its stars ends, and the earth with its lights begins.””[The squatters’ wooden shacks] Untidily stacked above each other, clinging to the crumbling hill slope, huddling beneath large threatening boulders, in danger of being washed away by the rains, in danger of being pulled down for health’s sake, in danger of fire every time a meal is cooked, many thousands of huts house many tens of thousands of people. The government of the colony cannot do more, for new thousands cross the border every week.”

“We did not look at each other, draw near, or touch. Only to be like this. Not to want anything. To sit, a little tired, a little muddled with weariness. Happy to know that in the world he was alive, and I was alive, on the same spot on ths earth, at the same moment, aware of each other… We sat, frigthened and grateful. Frightened because so easily we might have missed each other; grateful and asking no more than what we had already, because even what we had was too big for us to encompass.”

“I stopped to stare at the frontage of St. Paul’s Church, divested of any inside or any walls behind it, an abandoned stage prop, high on a hill, framing the evening sky in its doors and windows.”

“If he cannot [marry me], he will feel unfree, and I shall possess his imagination more than ever. If he can, I shall have to give him back to his world, otherwise he may leave me. Not bodily, but part of his mind. One woman is very much like another, after a while.”

“If you were Chinese, I could be your concubine. But we’d have to stay in Hongkong, because concubines are allowed only in your British colonies, Hongkong, Singapore, not in China now.”

“…the new, foolish amah, an irregular comet, darted at intervals from the outer spaces of the kitchen into the planetary system of our supper table to refill our rice bowls…”

“For your absence is even more potent than your presence to evoke you to me.”

Published in: on January 6, 2007 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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