Back to Getting the Hang of the Chinese Novel
This is a review of a book by an author whom I had thought, in my naïveté, is Chinese.
It’s said you cannot slander the dead – so now that the author of Red Lotus, Pai Kit Fai, is dead, I can express my view that this novel is not well written. Geoffry – yes, that is how you spell it – Morgan Pike, who wrote as Geoff Pike and Pai Kit Fai, was an English-born, naturalized Australian writer and cartoonist. He was born in 1929 in the UK, and died in Australia on March 8, 2018, aged 88. He lived and travelled extensively in the Far East, in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India and the Philippines, studying Oriental methods of fitness and healing.
One of the stories about him is that while he was living in Hong Kong, he met and married Phyllis, the granddaughter of Sir Robert Kotewall, a prominent Hong Kong politician, and the name Pai Kit Fai was given to him by his Chinese in-laws. It means, loosely translated, “White Person of Letters and Grand Ambition”. I have not been able to confirm this claim. He had a successful career in advertising and wrote a number of novels and non-fiction, but just two books under this nom de plume, The Concubine’s Daughter and Red Lotus.
Judging by the cover, Red Lotus looks like a novel about Chinese people (girl in cheongsam, man and buffalo in rice paddy) written by someone with a Chinese name. To me, it looked like a romantic novel with a Chinese setting, by a Chinese author.
The blurb reveals that this is a story with a high level of drama: an old man and a teenage bride, death in childbirth, a child surviving suffering with fighting spirit, etc. The blurb alone contains enough clichés to make you wary: a worthless girl-child, a forbidden practice, a mysterious foreign devil, a perilous journey. Gosh. I should have minded the blurb bit I was given a copy of the novel to review for a magazine, so I had to read it.
When Red Lotus was published Pai Kit Fai was 81 years old, and his experience as an advertising-copy writer shows in his writing style of fulsome, familiar and frequently applied adjectives and expressions. It is a completely over-the-top mishmash which should have been reined in by the publisher.
As you can see by the sample above, which is the opening lines of the novel, the agony of the farmer’s no. 4 concubine are “shrieks”, the “squeals” of a sow; “bleating” and like “a demented wraith”. One image would have sufficed. So it goes on.
The story covers three generations of Chinese women and every conceivable facet of Chinese life from 1906 to 1941. There is just too much going on and he chose to feature details that Westerners would find most juicy, sensational and dramatic. He packed them all into an over-rich melodrama: foot binding, concubines, noble sea captains rescuing tender Chinese maidens from fates worse than death, etc.
A few pages further (above), Pike describes the past of the farmer’s latest concubine, piling misfortune upon misfortune. Not only is her once wealthy family broke, they had sold her to the old farmer, she is illegitimate, her father is a white Russian, she would have to sleep with the old man and give him children, and she has crippled feet from foot-binding. The fact that she is only fifteen years old should be awful enough. The entire novel is like this.
Neither fish nor fowl
It’s not very good as a Western novel or as a Chinese one. What happened here was that the author wrote a Western style bodice-ripping historical romance under a Chinese pseudonym, and set it in the Far East. The novel has none of the features of Chinese novels in translation, and I doubt whether any Chinese author would have used those characters, that storyline and that writing style. The closest comparison I can get to it is James Clavell’s series of novels, Tai-Pan (1966), set in Hong Kong in 1841; Shōgun (1975), set in Japan from 1600 onwards, and Noble House (1981), set in Hong Kong in 1963.
It’s not that I distrust the author’s historical research. It is fiction after all. What I found unconvincing is the portrayal. Even if he had set it in England or Australia from 1906 to 1941, it would have been too much – too much emotion, too many entanglements and intrigues, too many over-used adjectives, and too many storylines.
I regret to say this but by the end of the novel I had no idea who had done what to whom and who was still alive and why. The only thing I remember about it now is that it was forgettable and left me unmoved. It is a harmless novel. It never got translated and it never got banned. It is probably read less all these years later, than Pike’s manual on Ch’i.
The lesson for me was: learn about Chinese fiction writers so that you can spot the cat disguised as a chicken in the hen-coop.
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