Standing outside the art deco apartments on Shanghai’s Changde Lu, staring up at the
So why was Chang so influential? We don’t know how many copies she sold but we do know that her popularity came from her then radical style, which focused on everyday life and avoided the political subtexts that preoccupied her contemporaries. She drew on the characters around her, many of them dark and tragic. Chang’s father led a dissolute life smoking opium and keeping a second wife, who Chang despised. Later, she married twice, divorcing her first husband, a Japanese collaborator and philanderer. She lost her second husband, American screenwriter Ferdinand Reyher, in 1967 when he died following a series of strokes, leaving Chang to live her final decades alone in a Los Angeles apartment.
Despite her tragic personal life, she is remembered as a sizzling combination of heart and wit, always poised with a quip or tender remark. Her observations captured the tensions and excesses of colonial Hong Kong and pre-1949 Shanghai, where her best works were written. Lust, Caution director Ang Lee described her as a 'fallen angel’ of Chinese literature. ‘With language as sharp as a knife edge, Eileen Chang cut open a huge divide in Chinese culture, between the classical patriarchy and our troubled modernity,’ the award-winning filmmaker once said.
The blockbusting success of Lust, Caution in 2008, which grossed over 65 million USD (415 million RMB) worldwide, catapulted Chang and her work back into the public eye. The film won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Festival, but in China it was heavily censored, with many of its steamy sex scenes involving lead actors Tang Wei and Tony Leung cut by the authorities. Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the plot centres on an assassination attempt by a group of patriotic Chinese students who plant the seductive Mrs Mai to infiltrate the household of Mr Yee, a suspected spy himself and recruiter for the puppet government set up by the Japanese forces in China.
Comparisons have been drawn between Chang and Wong Chia-chi (Mrs Mai). They both attended the University of Hong Kong and became involved with members of Wang Jingwei’s regime. In Eileen Chang: Romancing Languages, Cultures and Genres, University of Hong Kong literature professor, Gina Marchetti, corrects the record. ‘Chang may have wanted to see herself as an idealistic ‘spy’ seductress but, in fact, she had no plans to assassinate Hu Lancheng (her husband) for political reasons and no ties to Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing,’ she writes.
In fact, the novella is based on the true story of Zheng Pingru, a half Japanese, half Chinese Kuomintang (Chinese National) agent – not Chang. The real Chang was neither a temptress nor a political enthusiast (though she was a critic of communism during the Cold War), and Lust, Caution was never a nationalist statement. ‘[She] wrote and rewrote in her story her own emotions which were derived from her marriage to Japanese collaborator Hu,’ concludes Marchetti.
Chang wanted to avoid politics in her writing. ‘Political topics are rarely favoured because our private lives are already packed full of politics,’ she said. Finishing our coffee surrounded by Chang paraphernalia, it occurs to us that it is her books that have best preserved her memory, not the films or the cafés they inspire.