Day of the Dead

Every culture has a tradition of honoring the dead. It may be grave sweeping in China or the Obon festival in Japan. On All Souls’s Day here in Amsterdam, families set candle-lit boots loose onto the lake in Vondelpark to send messages to departed loved ones.

day of the dead
Dia de los Muertos. Photo credit: Karen Kao

History is another way to remember the dead. It’s drier, to be sure, and maybe heavy on dates and places. Few history books can compete with the over-the-top Día de los Muertos. It’s a celebration I remember from my youth in Southern California. I have a collection of skeletons – in all states of of jollification – to remind me of my roots.

History is an attempt to interpret the past in order to understand the present and predict the future. At least, that’s what I was hoping to get across during my book tour last month for The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.

i hate history

This is a bold statement to make to a group of graduate students at the University of California, Irvine. They’ve assembled to hear me speak at the request of their teacher Jeff Wasserstrom. His title is Chancellor’s Professor of History and his area of expertise is:

modern Chinese history with a strong interest in connecting China’s past to its present and placing both into global perspective.

Jeff is a prolific writer, an indefatigable speaker and, from my experience last month in his class, a beloved teacher.

He invited me to speak to his graduate level class on Chinese social protest. The course starts with the Taiping Rebellion and will, I imagine, eventually address the four topics you cannot discuss in public while in China: Taiwan, Tibet, the Tiananmen Massacre and Falun Gong.

His students were as varied as the subject matter of his course and their questions betrayed their area of study. The history PhD’s wanted to know how I integrated historical source material into my novel. The comparative literature students asked whether I used the films made in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s. And the odd man out, an economics PhD student from the Netherlands was just happy to speak some Dutch.

alternative facts

Of course I use historical material in my fiction writing though not always in a way an historian would recognize. For example, my grandfather was a fanatical letter writer who kept a complete file of incoming and outgoing correspondence. Those letters revealed him to be an irascible sort with a very buttoned-up style of writing. I’ve tried to mimic his diction for my character Song Kang.

Shanghai film
Street Angel film poster. Image source:

Street Angel is the only Shanghai-made film I’ve seen. It tells a familiar tale of two sisters, one of whom has turned to prostitution in order to help support the family and the other who sings in a tea house. The film gave me a wonderful visual of life in the old walled city where houses were so close together a young girl could easily step out the window of one house and enter another.

But it was the singing that really stuck with me. In my next novel, Peace Court, you’ll find a song that was inspired by a scene in Street Angel and sung by its star Zhou Xuan.

anna may wong

Few stars of the Shanghai movie industry were ever known in the West though they achieved national fame. For example, the film actress Ruan Lingyu, according to Lynn Pan:

was to China what Greta Garbo was to the West.

The war with Japan, the civil war and finally the Communist takeover in 1949 soon put an end to Shanghai’s role as Hollywood of the East. Instead, the movie industry was co-opted into an even more prodigious propaganda machine by the Japanese, the Nationalists and the Communists. Some actors and actresses were able to make the transition, launching new and successful careers. One such actress was Jiang Qing, the future Madame Mao.

Anna May Wong
Image source:

On the other side of the pond was Anna May Wong, generally acclaimed to be the first Asian-American film star. She was a trailblazer at a time when Hollywood did not favor women or Asians.

But she found herself playing the same parts over and over again: half-naked slave girls, prostitutes and dragon ladies.

a dead starlet

The ghost of Anna May Wong is stalking me. Last April, when I spoke at the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco, she was the face of the museum’s new permanent exhibit Chinese American: Exclusion / Inclusion.

Last month, I met two men obsessed with Anna May Wong. They didn’t care that she’s been dead for over 50 years. These men travel once a month to a cemetery in LA to sweep her grave and plant new flowers. They came to my talk at the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California in the hopes of hearing news of Anna May Wong.

I hadn’t anticipated this particular expectation and sadly had nothing to offer. I worried much more about the historical gaffes in my book, both the ones I’ve already found and those yet to surface. So I came armed with a List of the numerous historical resources I’ve used, not just for The Dancing Girl and the Turtle but all of The Shanghai Quartet.


Image source:

Maybe all writers of historical fiction have this fear, especially when you’re speaking in front of an history professor. In my case, the fear magnifies when I address a group of history buffs with a very particular axe to grind. The Association for Preserving Historical Accuracy of Foreign Invasions in China is quite a mouthful of a name. Judging from one outburst during my speech, it’s code for Sino-Japanese relations in general and the Rape of Nanking in particular.

That event, which took place almost 80 years ago, continues to rile tempers in both China and Japan. The 2nd Sino-Japanese War had just begun. Northern China had already fallen. In quick succession, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou soon followed. On 13 December 1937, Nationalist troops abandoned the city of Nanking to the Japanese troops.

Eyewitness accounts report that for six weeks the Japanese army went on a rampage of killing, raping and pillaging. The number of dead varies depending on who you ask. Factions close to the Japanese government to downplay the number of dead while the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall puts the dead at 300,000.

I may have disappointed the folks from APHAFIC. My talk was not about extolling Chinese virtues or shaming the Japanese. It was about my attempt to create complex characters in a complicated geopolitical setting. I may be a mere fiction writer but I, too, am in search of the truth. In my case, it’s the truth about human nature. I can think of no better way to honor the dead.