Beverly Ngai reviews new historical fiction, exploring the oppressive patriarchy of 1930s Shanghai.
Karen Kao, The Dancing Girl & the Turtle (Linen Press, 2017), 288pp.
“A girl’s life was worth nothing without money to protect her.” Karen Kao’s debut novel deals with a fate that is written out by class and gender conditions before a child’s birth, a harsh reality faced by innumerable Chinese women in the 1930s. For the rebellious protagonist Song Anyi, Shanghai was a vision of liberation, the gates to endless possibilities—until a traumatic rape shatters her and drives her to Shanghai’s red light district, unravelling the darkness and horror that lurk beneath the glamorous façade of the famous port city. The Dancing Girl & the Turtle, meticulously pieced together to address issues of rape, self-harm, and violence, warrants praise for its illumination of women struggling in and against a patriarchal society during a tumultuous time.
After Anyi’s survival of rape on her journey to Shanghai, readers are encouraged to feel relatively hopeless about her situation, only to be proven wrong time after time. Anyi is saved and taken in by her aunt and uncle and gradually recuperates to form a bond with her cousin Cho and her brother Kang, who cares deeply for her. But after this brief repose, Anyi finds herself plummeting even deeper into the depths of violence and despair. Readers realize that the story, and the conditions of patriarchy that make it possible, are never going to lead to a happy conclusion. Anyi is no heroic protagonist with invincible strength, who could fight her way through injustice and stand back after being knocked down a thousand times. Instead, the book portrays a realistic image of a traumatized girl, who displays human responses to the cruelty that is systematically thrown at her. The emotional damage Anyi suffers is irreversible and under these suppressive and unjust societal circumstances, nothing can save her.
The cornerstone of the story centers around the fact that Anyi is unable to vocalize her pain or seek help. In 1930s Shanghai, society condemns open discussions of rape and poisons victims with shame. Rape occurs on a daily basis, yet the police do not investigate. Anyi’s aunt and uncle attempt to marry her off before everyone finds out about “her shame”, but when Anyi is forced to bottle up her pain, it bites back with amplified force. She externalizes her trauma by engaging in self-harm and violent sex work. The book unapologetically rebels against this silencing. It does not shy away from heavy topics, nor try to minimize the gruesome nature of sexual abuse, but illustrates it authentically. As heart-breaking and disturbing as some parts of the book necessarily are, the honest depictions pay tribute to those who have suffered in such a violent patriarchy.
The novel alternates interestingly between first person and third person, and is told from the perspective of more than five different characters, presenting something near to a holistic account of the lives of people from different social classes and backgrounds. Anyi is not the only one suffering from the deep-rooted culture of female degradation and the book purposefully makes this clear. Anyi’s servant Nian is kicked and beaten when she approaches two boatmen asking for some minor information. Young girls working in brothels are described as “dead meat” to be flung to sexual predators. Manipulation and betrayal permeate every class and demographic, instilled as societal mentalities. Tanizaki, the Japanese political attaché, claims to be Cho’s friend but takes advantage of Cho’s addiction to opium to exert mastery over him. Auntie Wen, the blind masseuse who has also been raped , should understand Anyi’s pain more than anyone else. She does not try to help her, but literally brings violence to Anyi’s doorsteps for her own monetary benefit. The society that thrives on power and ambition ultimately drives characters to lose sight of their morality. “The turtle” is a term used in the book referring to free riders, and points most obviously to Cho, who feeds off his parents’ money and abuses Anyi despite claiming to love her. But “the turtle” is also in the reflection of all the characters who abuses the broken and the weak for their own benefit.
With Shanghai of 1937 as the backdrop, political tension is to be expected. Although the brewing war between China and Japan is not the focal point of the novel, political undercurrents set the tone of the story and play an indispensable role in driving the plot forward. The novel addresses the strained international relationships between China, Japan, and the West. Anyi refuses to service the Japanese, whom she calls the “Eastern devils” and she considers it scandalous for a Chinese woman to be seen with an American man. The deep-seated racial prejudice makes the unlikely, yet genuine friendship between Anyi and Beauregard, a black bouncer at a club, all the more precious.
It would perhaps be nice if the book introduced more diverse characters like Beauregard, who defy the stereotypical representations of foreigners. In general there may be some questionable representations of other races in the novel. It did not escape my attention, for example, that characters such as Tanizaki and his assistant Kokoro are stereotypically depicted as brutal and cunning predators. While such characterizations may be purposely done to highlight the hostile relationship between China and Japan at the time, the problem arises when the only Japanese characters we are introduced to fully live up to the stereotypical Chinese reputation of being the “devils” with no moral complexity. It does little to promote the fact that despite political conflicts, the people from a “rival” nation cannot all be generalized by the spiteful actions of one or a group of people.
Despite this, the brutally authentic struggles that Kao delineate and the powerful message exposing the violent consequences of an oppressive and patriarchal society make this story vital. The Dancing Girl & the Turtle touches upon important issues such as sexual violence and self-harm, which are too often glossed over, and prompts readers to re-evaluate the appropriate attitude and approach towards them. It is a story worth reading and a cry worth hearing.
Beverly Ngai is an undergraduate student studying English at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has just completed an internship at the Hong Kong Review of Books.