Eileen Chang: Life and Death in a Fallen City

Eileen Chang (Sept. 30, 1920 – Sept. 8, 1975)

I have an abiding interest in Chinese literature, both ancient and contemporary, but my knowledge is by no means comprehensive. Consequently, I had never heard of Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) until a couple years ago.

One autumn afternoon I was standing outside of my apartment building when an Asian woman approached and began taking photos of the building. I didn’t think anything of it, since our place receives a fair amount of attention due to it having been a location in the classic film noir, Double Indemnity (we’re also a stop on several sightseeing tours).

I guess the woman felt uncomfortable with me standing there, despite that I really wasn’t paying much attention to her, and she felt compelled to explain why she was taking photos. I thought I knew why.

“I take pictures because a famous Chinese writer lived here.”

“Really? Who?”

“Eileen Chang.”

“Who?”

“Lee Ang make film of one of her stories.”

To which I brilliantly replied:

“Oh, you mean Ang Lee.”  (In the west, we know Chinese names in a different order.)

Yes, that’s who she meant. The director of such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. The woman quickly departed and I quickly went upstairs to Google this Eileen Chang. Five minutes later, I regretted not inviting the woman in to look around so I could pump her for every bit of information she had on Eileen Chang. The woman knew which apartment Eileen Chang rented (just two doors down from my own apartment), so she must have had more info. But how was I to know?

Eileen Chang, as it turned out, was an well-known and influential writer in China during the 1940’s. On her Wikipedia page it reads: A poet and a professor at the University of Southern California, Dominic Cheung, said that “had it not been for the political division between the Nationalist and Communist Chinese, she would have almost certainly won a Nobel Prize”.

Eileen Chang wrote short stories and novels, to considerable acclaim, and wrote scripts for a number of popular Chinese films. However, that was a few decades before Ang Lee made Lust, Caution, based on Chang’s short story by the same name.

As a young woman, Eileen Chang’s attitude was rather reminiscent of James Dean’s (today is the 55th anniversary of his death), for in 1944, at the age of 24, she wrote, “To be famous, I must hurry. If it comes too late, it will not bring me so much happiness . . . Hurry, hurry, or it will be too late, too late!”

In 1952 she left Shanghai, moved to New Hampshire where she married her second husband, a screenwriter named Ferdinand Reyher. She was 32 at the time and he was 61. Reyher died in 1967 and afterwards Eileen Chang worked for a number of universities, including UC Berkeley, until 1972.

After that, she apparently became a recluse. I don’t know when she moved into this building, but I learned later that she was here when I first moved in around 1979.  I then remembered seeing an older Asian woman, dressed in rather old, drab clothes, in the hallways and going down the stairs with whom I would exchange greetings.  It certainly had to be her, because there has been no other Asian lady of that age who has lived here since then. It is strange to have had such a close encounter with a famous (now) and fascinating person and have no idea who she was.  If I had known, I doubt that would have opened any door for further contact.  She seemed friendly but at the same time distant and closed-off from others.

In 1995 she was found dead at the age of 75 some miles west of here (Westwood) in what has been described by all accounts as a “barren” apartment. Her death certificate states the immediate cause of her death to be Arteriosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease (ASCVD).

You can read the details of her life here, and more here.

I can imagine that her apartment in my building was equally barren, similar to this one, what in California we call a single (one room, bath and kitchen) just a floor below:

I can picture her gazing out the window as she pauses in her work, putting the finishing touches on Lust, Caution, which took her almost 20 years to complete, or slaving over her translation of The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (Biographies of Flowers Beside the Sea), “a celebrated Qing novel in the Wu dialect by Han Bangqing,” which was not found until after her death. She would have been able to see the Hollywood sign, the hills and the luxurious homes that dot them, and instead of the ugly apartment building that is next door now, an old Craftsman style house. She likely had a bed of some kind and perhaps a desk, although probably not much more than that. Maybe some curtains. I don’t know but I have a feeling that she wrote by hand and didn’t use a typewriter.

Chang was considered a consummate prose stylist and an interesting aspect of her literary career is that in some cases, she was also her own translator. Some of her other works in English translation include Love in a Fallen City, The Rice Sprout Song and Written on Water.

I wish I knew more about her, especially about her time  in this building. She would have been around 58. I wonder if she was a recluse then. Interestingly, this building seems to attract people of the reclusive persuasion.

Eileen Chang’s life is wrapped in a certain amount of mystery, so much of the details will probably remain unknown, although I suspect I would know more if I was able to read Chinese.

In any case, today is her birthday and I thought a remembrance here might introduce some readers to this remarkable woman and writer.

Here are a few excerpts. In the first, notice how she bridges the span of time with just a few carefully chosen words:

“The Golden Cangue”

The green bamboo curtain and a green and gold landscape scroll reflected in the mirrors went on swinging back and forth in the wind–one could get dizzy watching it for long. When she looked again, the green bamboo curtain had faded, the green and gold landscape was replaced by a photograph of her deceased husband, and the woman in the mirror was ten years older.

“Lust, Caution”

Though it was still daylight, the hot lamp was shining full-beam over the mahjong table. Diamond rings flashed under its glare as their wearers clacked and reshuffled their tiles. The tablecloth, tied down over the table legs, stretched out into a sleek plain of blinding white. The harsh artificial light silhouetted to full advantage the generous curve of Chia-chih’s bosom, and laid bare the elegant lines of her hexagonal face, its beauty somehow accentuated by the imperfectly narrow forehead, by the careless, framing wisps of hair. Her makeup was understated, except for the glossily rouged arcs of her lips. Her hair she had pinned nonchalantly back from her face, then allowed to hang down to her shoulders. Her sleeveless cheongsam of electric blue moire satin reached to the knees, its shallow, rounded collar standing only half an inch tall, in the Western style. A brooch fixed to the collar matched her diamond-studded sapphire button earrings.

“Sealed Off”

When he saw the smoked fish [another passenger is carrying with gingerly care], he remembered the steamed spinach buns that his wife had asked him to buy at a noodle stand near the bank. Women are always like that! Buns that are bought in the hardest-to-find, most twisty-wisty of tiny alleys have to be the cheapest and the best. She didn’t consider how it made him look–a man smartly dressed in dapper suit and tie, with tortoiseshell glasses and a leather briefcase, and then, tucked under his arm, these steaming hot buns wrapped in newspaper–how ridiculous!

Happy Birthday to Eileen Chang, and James Dean, well . . . as some guys once said, you were too fast to live, to young to die, bye-bye . . .

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6 thoughts on “Eileen Chang: Life and Death in a Fallen City

  1. I discovered this post during my research on Eileen Chang. This is wonderful! Chang is an amazing woman and writer, and the so many tragedies that happened to her made her life even more unreal- like a movie or a novel that someone carefully planned and wrote.

    1. Thank you very much. Yes, she was an amazing woman. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. What sort of research are you doing on Eileen Chang? I would be interested to hear about it.

  2. hi, i am the fan of eileen chang and about to visit la. would u pls kindly share the address of eileen’s rochester apartment? thanks in advance. have a good day.

  3. SW —
    Just wondering if you found the address. By coincidence, I attended a lecture in Westwood today about Chinese literature and the fact of her nearby death was brought up. I would also like to know this address. I still live in Westwood, and in fact, lived on Rochester for a couple of years in the late 90s (just missing seeing her on the block, perhaps).

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