My novel takes place in Shanghai 1937. Think big band and the foxtrot, opium dens and ballroom dancing. All that jazz as China goes to war with Japan. It’s a dark look at Old Shanghai that I call Shanghai Noir.
My father grew up in Old Shanghai. When he was a kid, the family would visit the Old House where his grandparents lived. They would kowtow before the ancestor tablets that stood on a high table in a quiet niche. There were a half dozen of these wooden tablets, each of which displayed a pair of names. The family lit red candles and incense and left them to burn in heavy pewter holders.
On festive days, the rituals became ornate. The family brought food and wine and money to the ancestor niche. The money was burned but since it was fake, no one minded. The food and wine didn’t go to waste either. Apparently, the idea of food was enough for the dead.
There’s another holiday in China devoted to the dead. Qingming is the day to sweep family graves and show your filial piety. In China, it’s a three day national holiday and one of the busiest times of the year to travel within China.
My father’s ancestors were once buried in a hillside cemetery overlooking West Lake in Hangzhou. The family hired sedan chairs to bring them to the dozen grave sites scattered about the cemetery. In the 1950s, the Communists had the place bulldozed and made into a public park.
Chris Buckley writes about a cemetery in Chongqing reserved exclusively for the veterans of the Cultural Revolution. The locals call the aging custodian “the corpse commander” for personally laying more than 280 people to rest. The cemetery, normally locked and protected by barbed wire, opens only at Qingming.
A corpse left unburied, a grave untended, an ancestor no longer remembered: these are the hungry ghosts of Chinese legend. They roam the earth. They can be dangerous. It’s a matter of self-preservation to go sweep family graves.
But Song Anyi doesn’t believe in that nonsense. She’s not the traditional type. Her ambition is to become a modern girl in the big city. After her parents die, Anyi sets off for Shanghai. But before she can reach her destination, she’s raped by soldiers and left for dead.
Those soldiers come to haunt Anyi. They tell her she’s the one who’s committed a crime.
You deserted the graves of your parents. Who will sweep their headstones now?
In 1930s China, a girl would be independent, rebellious even, and still show filial piety. A mother might bind her daughter’s feet to raise the girl’s value on the marriage market. A father might sell his child out of spite or to settle a gambling debt. The daughter shows her piety through absolute obedience.
After the rape, Anyi loses none of her ambition. She can still glimpse a bright future for herself. But she’s crushed by guilt and a longing to atone. In her time of need, she turns to the ghosts of her dead parents for guidance and approval. Are their ghosts real? To Anyi, they are.
Here is a glimpse of Anyi and her ghosts.
Once upon a time, we too had a winter garden. It was my favourite place with its view of the flowers and the orchards beyond. When Mother was still well, we would sit there together to sew and talk. Later, when she grew too ill to leave her bed, I would go there to dance with my reflection in the glass, dreaming of the day when I would follow Kang to Shanghai.
I curtsy to a row of bamboo seedlings. Smile at the sunflower who leans his handsome head down to greet me. I sit at the wrought iron table and eat cakes with Baba and Mama. Their ghosts need no chairs though they do like food. Mama licks her fingers then disappears into the ferns. Baba soon follows.
When Mama died, I locked the door to our winter garden and let everything that was once green die too.
New ghosts crowd into the winter garden. Mama and Baba huddle behind the ferns. They don’t like to watch. The soldiers line up beside the kumquat tree. I get down on the floor, cold and stony, and let them come. It hardly hurts any more.
An earlier version of this article appeared as a guest post for A Lover of Books during my book blog tour.