Amy Tan’s latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, is a sweeping saga spanning fifty years and two continents, at its heart examining the inner workings of Shanghai’s courtesan houses in the aftermath of the collapse of China’s imperial dynasty when the New Republic opened the gates to international trade – and universal chicanery. In territory familiar to readers of Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, it deftly explores the legacies of family secrets, the trauma of abandonment, and the profound connections between mothers and daughters.
Amy Tan’s grandmother (right) poses with a friend against a painted backdrop. Her outfit was an ensemble traditionally reserved for courtesans. Image courtesy Amy Tan
One of the sparks of the novel was a surprise revelation regarding a favourite photograph of Tan’s grandmother (right), which gave her licence to explore the erotic games and courtship rules of the courtesan houses of Shanghai.
“The photograph has been for many years my favourite photograph of her,” she explains, “the inspiration to me for many of my novels. I would look at that picture and feel that I was giving voice to somebody who was voiceless. I was doing research for this book and I had a book on Shanghai. I turn the page to a particular photograph called ‘The Ten Beauties of Shanghai, 1911’, and five of those women were wearing an outfit identical to what my grandmother is wearing. That is when I had my revelation that she could have been something other than the myth that was told by the family. She was said to be quiet, old-fashioned, traditional, a stay-at-home mother and a victim of society. Now I can believe she was a victim of society, but she certainly was not quiet and traditional and old-fashioned; you wouldn’t wear clothes like that. It didn’t give me permission however to write about her as a courtesan or in any erotic way. In fact I was very frightened about doing that, very hesitant because she’d always been my muse and someone I felt standing beside me. Anytime I received a gift, a coincidence that helped my novel, I felt it came from her. So if I were to offend her I felt that she would not bring me these gifts. Now that may of course be simply superstition, it may be the imagination of a writer who just needs some kind of cue to keep going. I grant it could be that, but when you look for something, when you’re expecting something, you often find it.”
I ask if the photo could have just been a daring dressing-up game.
“I considered that. I read a number of books on courtesan culture in the early 20th century specific to Shanghai, and talked to three academicians who studied that area, and one who specialised in photography at the turn of the century including, and in particular, courtesans. They told me the photo studio itself was significant, because no woman would go there except a courtesan, and I was surprised. In a deeper version of the picture you can see the ground is rather coarse, like grass or dirt, and they thought if she had been a courtesan in this picture, she was ‘second-class’. I took offence at that on her behalf! Then also during my research I found other photographs that had always been in a family photo album, but I had never looked at them in the context that she might have been a courtesan. I took a magnifying glass – these photos were the size of a postage stamp – and I looked at them and realised that the stance in these photos, and the fact that they’d been taken over a period of years, from when she was around fifteen all the way to thirty, would contradict the notion that it was a one-time lark.”
We spend several minutes browsing through a selection of images on Tan’s iPad, as she points out the telltale features and poses that suggest her grandmother could have been a courtesan throughout those years. Then she swipes to a picture with a much more traditional pose.
“Now she’s a widow,” she says, “shortly before she became the fourth wife to the richest man on an island just out of Shanghai. She looks like she’s been crying, she has puffy eyes. The picture commemorates the third anniversary of the death of her mother.”
Tan’s own mother is also in the frame as a little girl. The next picture is a few years later still.
“This is just before she killed herself. And you see now how she looks like a traditional woman, very modest-looking. The clothing is looser, the sleeves are belled, no matching bracelets, a less radical hairstyle. She is pregnant here. She was about to give birth to a son. She had made a deal with her husband that if she gave him a son he would provide a house in Shanghai so she no longer had to live on the island. I suppose she just didn’t like being under the thumb of the other wives, because she would have had the lowest status. Though in fact, talking to other relatives, it turned out she was the favourite. But she had a very hot temper; she had opinions, and if people didn’t listen to her ‘they would be sorry later’. So not quiet, not submissive at all.
Author portrait © Rick Smolan
“Apparently he saw her in a park and was taken by her and asked her and her half-sister, whose husband was doing business with him, if they would come over and play mahjong. And the story goes that he held a knife to her throat in the middle of the night and said, “If you don’t marry me I will kill you.” Or in another version, he held the knife to his own throat and said, “if you don’t marry me I’ll kill myself.” The knife is the red herring, in my opinion. Why would they say that? Possibly because a widow is not supposed to ever remarry, it’s a very shameful thing, so they might have had to come up with some dramatic reason why she would join this household.”
This husband owned many businesses and had a huge gated family house like a Western mansion with tall pillars, a roundabout driveway and a giant fountain.
“My mother remembers passing the opium pipe to them. That was something a courtesan would do too, smoke opium with her husband. The husband, besides being the richest man on the island, built the schools, the island’s utilities, water, hospitals, roads – and he was the hero of the island. He had a reputation at stake.”
And taking one of Shanghai’s great beauties from a first-class courtesan house would cement, not detract from that reputation.
“When I understood that picture for the first time, I was obsessed. Like I said, it could be true that she was a victim of society, because many times these women were kidnapped or forced by circumstances. Sudden poverty of the family – a head of the household who’d gambled away the money, or the sudden loss of money because the husband died or the business went bankrupt and these women had no place to go. And so by circumstance they’d be quite lucky to be able to join a first-class courtesan house.”
The next key to the book was to uncover the rules and erotic games young women had to learn before they could enter a courtesan house.
The population exploded with the increase in foreign trade and Shanghai went from sleepy village to a million people by 1920… at one period, one out of every hundred women worked in the sex trade.”
“The tricks of the trade remained secret,” she says. “However we know they were special because wives would come to them and pay dearly to learn them, and there were courtesans who were famous for their techniques. I read novel, very famous at that time, called The Plum in the Golden Vase. It was a banned book, but a lot of people read it. I had heard it was very pornographic, but I went through it and it had mild descriptions of what went on. I discovered it was heavily expurgated, so I found a partially unexpurgated version of the book and that had greater detail. I think there’s something like 53 scenes of sex in there. And now there’s a new edition written by a scholar who’s been working on it for fifteen years or something. He just finished the final volume and it’s huge and he included all the literary references that had gradually been got rid of. So that book provided some clues. There was a lot of sado-masochism, or rather, a lot of sadism and feigned masochism. There were also pillow books I looked at and one of them had thirty basic positions. Thirty basic positions and they all had names – things like, say Phoenix Flying Over the Oyster. Oyster definitely was in there, anyway, and you don’t have to describe much to know what that meant. There were photographs also, including threesomes, information about aphrodisiacs. So there were enough details to give me an idea of what might have been popular. That’s what I drew from to write the sex scenes – and people say they are erotic, but they’re also exploitative, they’re business: the business of appealing to their ego, creating an illusion, receiving gifts, negotiating, becoming popular. Popularity was very important. It extended their career, brought them more business, more suitors, more patrons – and the more they could save up, the better their chances for a future, ideally as somebody who owned their own house, ran their own business.”
The courtesan houses were an entirely a female-run business until perhaps the late 1920s, when gangsters started taking them over and the line between courtesan house and brothel became blurred.
“They became less distinctive because of the competition. Shanghai grew. The population exploded with the increase in foreign trade. It went from sleepy village to a million people by 1920. Even by 1910, 1912 there were close to 3,000 first-class courtesan houses, and at one period, one out of every hundred women was in the business. Not ‘first class’, but in the sex trade, including many sex slaves, little girls who had been kidnapped and forced to do terrible things.”
It was fertile ground for the gangsters to step in and take control.
“Actually, there’s a family connection to ‘Big-Eared Du’, who was the most famous gangster in Shanghai. He tried to claim, when he was a fruit peddler (I don’t know if he really was just a fruit peddler, pushing a cart or something), but he tried to claim that he was related to the family Tu (also pronounced ‘Du’) on the island. He tried to claim that he was a relative and the Tu family said no, no, no, no. He continued to make that claim and they really couldn’t say much because he was so powerful. And to emphasise the claim he showed up at my mother’s wedding. She got married in the 1930s when she was about 18. He showed up at her wedding and only stayed for twenty minutes. He handed her the equivalent of ten or fifteen thousand dollars. That was to prove he was a relative: what non-relative would give that amount of money? So it’s astonishing to me that we also have this connection to the most famous gangster.”
The dubious gains were soon lost, however.
“Her husband – her first husband – gambled most of it away. He was unfaithful, he was a liar, a cheat. She didn’t have enough words to describe how awful this man was. He was somebody who brought home women all the time and expected her to be there, wanted her to be in the same bed, and she refused. In later years, he made his daughters bring home schoolmates and they didn’t quite say but there was a suggestion that if that if they didn’t cooperate he would abuse them instead. Anyway, he went to jail. My mother was a beautiful woman all of her life, and my father was her lover. She ran away with him to the United States and left behind three daughters. She was put in jail one of the first times she ran away from her husband. The trial was going on, she was in the gossip columns, she said young girls cried for her because she was beautiful. I was not beautiful, and she used to tell me that. That was my mother!”
I mention a similar bluntness – and joyous vulgarity – in the private conversations between the characters.
“I think people often think that Chinese courtesans would be like the way Japanese geishas were represented,” she smiles, “and I think it was different. There’s a book I looked at from 1893 by a journalist who established one of the ‘mosquito press’ newssheets. He went to the courtesan houses every night and wrote almost like a daily blog of what had happened, and these characters, the language and the scenes that were represented, I assume were very much like what actually happened. He didn’t say exactly the words that may have been used, but you get the tone of the conversations; the jealousies, but also the sisterhood and the ways they had of wheedling favours from the men.”
The main character, Violet, is the daughter of an imperial-era courtesan and an absent American father, who herself becomes entrapped in the trade. Being of mixed race, she’s a personification of the meeting of Western enterprise and exploitation and Chinese ideas of fate and pragmatism. Why was it important to make her half-American?
“In part I wanted to show a huge, dramatic change in circumstances, just as there had been say in a woman who had been an honourable wife and was suddenly cast in the role of prostitute or concubine. Also by making Violet half-American, half-Chinese, it would show the stakes that she had in a time when there was interaction between the Chinese and the Westerners, but only in business. Social class was quite different. I read numerous accounts in which the Chinese were viewed almost as a lower species, and many spurious books were written about their characteristics. Westerners often talked in pidgin even to educated Chinese who had studied in England or the United States. So I wanted to show primarily what I imagined could have been the circumstances of my grandmother, the feelings she would have suddenly being looked down upon, and this determination that I think was passed down from her to my mother, which is: Don’t let anyone’s opinion ever determine how you feel about yourself. And also, I am very mixed. I’m an American and I’m also Chinese, and when I go to China, in the past I used to really stand out as an American. Not so much now, because the Chinese in the urban areas and among the middle class and the rich are so sophisticated, so modern, that I wouldn’t stand out except perhaps as an older and more old-fashioned person – maybe from Taiwan or something.”
We discuss China’s present and immediate future as an economic powerhouse, underwriting American debt and expanding its interests as far afield as Africa, and Europe. Within China, she notes, there is growing unease that those in the poorest regions may rise in revolt as the rich minority increase their power.
I was in the most remote province in China, high in the mountains in a little village, and I got full cellphone coverage. I think it’s because they want to be able to monitor what’s going on.”
“After the instability of the recent government, what’s happening now seems more liberal in some areas, but also adheres to something much more traditional. There’s been a great rise in the middle class in the urban areas, but corruption is so prevalent, and the poverty of those peasants still out in the countryside is so dramatically different. I lived in the poorest region of China for about three weeks, lived with them to see what life was like. You know, you think of a communist country taking care of everything: education, healthcare, jobs. It’s not true. The schools, if there are schools, go up to the sixth grade, so very few people out there are educated enough to make a living in the urban areas. They are limited, they end up working in factories. And I have to say also it’s my theory that this fear of the peasants creating another revolution is one of the reasons why China has an amazing cellular network. I was in the most remote province in China, high in the mountains in a little village. I climbed up the mountain, went to a very high place with an abandoned cowshed, and I got full cellphone coverage, and I think it’s because they want to be able to monitor what’s going on. And while I was there, there were people who came claiming to be officials come to fix something or other, and it was rumoured they were spies planting bugs.”
Back to her writing, on Tan’s website it’s pointedly noted that The Joy Luck Club was “a selection of short stories which the critics reviewed as a novel”. I ask her how much that distinction matters, since this book too is episodic, linking fractured key events across the generations.
“It doesn’t really matter,” she admits, “it’s just that when I began writing I had a notion of what short stories were and what a novel was, and I think my editor agreed that you couldn’t call it a novel. The same thing happened with Louise Erdrich, who was influential to me. She wrote a book called Love Medicine that won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and she released that originally as short stories and then it became seen as a novel; stories told from different points of view, different people, but linked around certain events in their community. And, you know, it’s my style, and people often say that writers end up writing the same book over and over, and that’s perhaps true, that I can’t seem to get away from including mothers, grandmothers, generational connections. But my interests, my obsessions, don’t have exclusively to do with mothers and daughters, it’s more to do with identity, and that’s what fascinated me so much about my grandmother: I wanted to know who she was; not simply whether she was a courtesan, but who she was internally, how did she see herself? And when you think of that question if you’re a woman, obviously the mother is extremely influential in a daughter’s life, and so that’s why mothers always appear. I can’t get really rid of them! I tried to get rid of Violet’s mother by having her shipped off to the United States, and she came back because Violet was affected by her abandonment – just as my sisters were, as my mother was when her mother killed herself when she was nine. She always blamed her unhappiness on the loss of her mother.”
The week before we meet, Tan and her fellow writers’ self-effacing charity band the Rock Bottom Remainders (“We play music as well as Metallica write novels,” band member Dave Barry once noted) had their first gig since June 2012.
“We made our comeback in Miami last week,” she says with glee, “everybody except Stephen King and Matt Groening. Stephen King was in Paris and Matt Groening had some family obligation, but it was fortuitous and unusual that so many of us were on a book tour – Scott Turow, Mitch Alborn, James McBride, me – and that all of us had been on the bestseller list, and James had just won the National Book Award. So we were all together and we decided that we just love each other so much, we’ve been through so much including tragedies and many of them through divorce, and two significant auto accidents – including the one that nearly killed Stephen King – and the death of our founder Kathi Kamen Goldmark, who was one of my best friends. We’ve all been through so much, how could we disband? Our audience is growing old at the same pace we are, and they’ll soon be too infirm to go to a rock concert, so we have plans to continue!”
Amy Tan’s past fiction includes The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter and Saving Fish from Drowning. She is also the author of the memoir The Opposite of Fate and two children’s books, and her screen credits include co-producer and co-screenwriter with Ron Bass for the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, and an appearance as herself in The Simpsons. The Valley of Amazement is published in the UK by Fourth Estate in hardback and eBook.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.