Since her hugely popular fictional debut, “The Joy Luck Club” (1989), Amy Tan has devoted her career to telling the stories of Chinese and Chinese-American women — in particular mothers and daughters — in novels that include “The Kitchen God's Wife” (1991), “The Bonesetter's Daughter” (2001) and “Rules for Virgins” (2011). In her new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” Tan continues her quest, this time returning to source material that is perhaps uncomfortably close to home.
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Set in the glamorous but pain-wracked world of courtesan houses in Shanghai in the early 20th century, “The Valley of Amazement” began to form in Tan's mind when she discovered a historic photograph suggesting that her own grandmother might have been a courtesan. It's the story of Lulu, who runs a "first-class" courtesan house called Hidden Jade Path, and her daughter, Violet, from whom she becomes separated and who later becomes a courtesan herself.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Tan, 61, for a phone interview from her home in Sausalito, Calif. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: I understand you were writing a different novel when you came across a photograph that you connected to your grandmother.
A: Yes. I came across a photo in a book at the Museum of Asian History called "The Ten Beauties of Shanghai, 1910." Five of the women in the photo were wearing clothes that were identical to what my grandmother was wearing in my favorite photo of her. The clothes were very specific, especially the embroidered cap around the head, and very tight-fitting. The collar went up to a certain length. The hair was pulled back, which made the eyes elongated. I was shocked, and I ended up contacting three academics to find out if it could possibly be that my grandmother was a courtesan. They said the most telling feature was the photo studio that took the photo, because no proper woman went into a Western photo studio in those days.
I still don't know with certainty whether my grandmother was a courtesan, and I would never say that she definitely was. But it caused me to think back on everything I'd ever been told by my mother about her, and thinking about things that perhaps my mother had inherited from her. I also looked into myself, to think about what I had possibly received through this same line of inheritance. From there I started imagining what life might have been like in a courtesan house, and the attitudes that might be developed if my grandmother found herself tossed into that world.
Q: How much did you know about your grandmother, in particular her early life?
A: Well, she killed herself on an island in 1925, long before I was born. I knew she'd been raised as a very spoiled daughter. Her parents never wanted her to leave the house. She married late, at age 24, to a scholar who died during the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1919. She was his first wife. She was widowed with two children, one of whom, the youngest, was my mother. She remained a widow, living with her brother, until she was raped and forced to become the concubine of a rich man. That is the story I was told.
But as I did the research on her, I uncovered things that were quite different. One is that she was not the first wife, as it had been emphasized to me that she was; she was actually the second wife, so she essentially was already a concubine. Her husband was very poor — he didn't have a job — so my grandmother had to live with her brother already, before the death of her husband. And it went on and on. It made me wonder what exactly was the truth about any of this.
Q: So what's your best guess about what really happened?
A: I think there may have been circumstances that led to her becoming a courtesan. Families that were well-to-do often lost their wealth overnight for different reasons — it's clear that her family had long ago fallen into poverty — and there was no assistance for widows or orphans or anything like that. It could also be that for some reason her very frugal brother gave her the money to buy these fabulous clothes and pay for her to have her photo taken at different periods, but that seems unlikely. It's possible that she married late because she waited until the end of her courtesan career. For many courtesans, it was over by age 22.
Q: What did it really mean to be a courtesan in that time and place? Early in the novel, Lulu says, "This is not a house of prostitution." She emphasizes all of the nonsexual aspects of how one was entertained in the place. But we know from things that Violet describes that it is just that, a house of prostitution. On the other hand, Lulu's is repeatedly described as a "first-class" courtesan house, implying a hierarchy among such establishments. Could you give us some context here?
A: In the mid-1800s, they were known also as "singsong houses," and the courtesans were actually master musicians. They were called "maestro," and that term continued even into the days when there was more in the way of sex going on. Sex was not expected in the 1850s. By the 1900s, there was an expectation that after a certain amount of courting, the courtesan would choose a man, and allow him the intimacy of her boudoir. The sexual aspect continued to increase, but for a long time, it remained to the courtesan to choose the man from among those who had courted her. That's why Lulu says it's not a house of prostitution. Even Violet says, you can't just come in here, point to the girl you want, and expect to get those favors in her bed. That was a first-class courtesan house.
In a second-class courtesan house, the courtship was much briefer. It could even be one night; usually it went on a little bit longer. But as the years went by, that period of courtship was shorter and shorter. And obviously the furnishings and the decor in a second-class house wouldn't have been quite as nice. After that level were the "opium flower houses," where you smoked some opium, and then you could pay a little extra and have sex at the end. Then there were streetwalkers or those in lower-class brothels. And after that, there were sex slaves, often young girls, who were taken to the streets and made to have about 20 tricks a day. Sometimes these girls were found in sheds, lying on their backs, as men came one after the other. It was a horrible life, whether the women were in the first-class houses all the way down to these death sheds, because you were on a continuum. If you didn't find an opportunity in a first-class house to escape that world, you would then descend to a lower level. There were a number of very, very famous courtesans who wound up as streetwalkers. They were often addicted to drugs and lost their looks, lost their skills, and lost their suitors, who paid them money or gave them gifts.
Q: Was the "courtship," as you say, understood to be a formality — a technical prelude to the real business at hand — or was it more than that?
A: It was almost a rule. There was a protocol, and people who violated it, because they were new or didn't understand, were very much frowned upon. The problem was that there might have been several suitors courting one courtesan, and at the end, she would choose one of them — often the person who did not give the greatest number of gifts. It might have been somebody she found attractive or fun. And there were many reports of men who felt they had been fleeced by courtesans. This was a business, but the rules of the business were open to interpretation. And these were very young girls, many times 14, 15, 16, so they were not necessarily savvy. But those who were understood that it was a business, and to keep their popularity, they had to play the game right, and not just have favorites.
Q: It's important to note that for these young women, economic opportunity was quite circumscribed in that place and time. These girls didn't have a lot of choices.
A: The choices would often be to become somebody's concubine, or to become a wife; the latter would be very unlikely, if you had been in the flower world. Becoming a concubine was the "out" that was most looked for, or to become a famous musician and entertainer, though the chances of that were very slim as well. It was a dead-end job for many of them, basically. It was very glamorous in the beginning, and if you were thrust into that world, you probably felt lucky that you weren't out on the streets. It was a life of luxury, and these women were like movie stars. They would ride around the streets of Shanghai and young girls, proper school girls, would look at them and practically faint at the sight of them, because they wore the most fashionable clothes that they had created themselves. And they were popular at social gatherings. However, they were still not looked upon and respected in the same way as a woman of proper social stature.
Q: And how do you think your grandmother might have fit into this context?
A: At the same time, she was a concubine, which was also looked upon as less than a wife. But she was pitied for being a concubine, because she was forced to be one. You know, the idea of the circumstances we find ourselves in is fascinating in terms of who we are. There's something innate, of course, but there's also our upbringing and our circumstances. The given circumstances, the ones foisted on us, are the ones I'm interested in here. The fate we're given — do we struggle against that, or go with it? That's what I find interesting about that world, rather than the glamour of it, or the social hierarchy. It was a world in which women had a greater amount of freedom of any class in Shanghai at that time, including wives. They got up when they wanted, ate when they wanted, wore the clothes they wanted, took lovers when they wanted. They walked around the streets unescorted, let themselves be blatantly looked at and admired. And for that very short period of time, they were the stars. And I wondered: If I had been born a hundred and something years ago, how would I have reacted in the circumstances? Would I have reacted in a pragmatic way? Would I have developed cunning business skills? Would I have thought of myself as a victim the whole time, and clung to a certain sense of purity in myself?
Q: Lulu certainly has cunning business skills. She understands her customer, and how to use his own desires and, as she says, his fears against him. And she and Violet, in their own ways, are first and foremost women of action. They seem to see that the world is harsh, and here is a way for them to make the most of it.
A: They also have a sense of pride that is both good and bad. It allows them to overcome their distaste and find ways to be victorious. But at the same time, that same pride leads them to make mistakes, to leap at opportunities that are bad. I think it's natural that we have traits that work both for us and against us.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"The Valley of Amazement"
By Amy Tan, Ecco, 608 pages, $29.99Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun