A Scholarly Review

Scholarly review

A Scholarly Review

Larry Feign’s The Flower Boat Girl

by Stuart Christie

Head, Department of English and Literature, Hong Kong Baptist University

Writer and artist Larry Feign’s own biography offers the familiar, yet always distinctive, story of the foreigner’s first arrival in Hong Kong: one of initial wonderment, backed by the much harder-won commitment to the Hong Kong Chinese people over time. Far too few dare to run this particular gauntlet and even fewer succeed. Convention dictates the opposite for most foreigners failing to assimilate. Once proven incapable of sounding the grittier depths and actually-mapped contours of our city and its environs, most foreign artists fail to grasp the local in droves. In failing the test of the Hong Kong local, they may even be forgiven for falling back upon those pre-packaged superficialities so gamely, and lamely, reflected back by the surrounding culture which, for its own part, has perhaps grown too accustomed to being overlooked and misunderstood. How could it be otherwise? The foreign humorist, however, carries an even greater burden. Once penned and published by him or her, this or that cliché about Hong Kong gains real force and currency in application. The humorist’s granular quip risks becoming perpetuated as a dig, or swipe, which only wins at some considerable deferred cost—by keeping Hong Kong at a wry distance. Careers of a narrower kind have been secured using just this cheaper kind of paper and backed by the wrong kind of bank. All jokes fade into history: thankfully, bad jokes fade even faster, alongside the uglier facets of colonialism which first leavened their rise. This legacy remains, even as Hong Kong everyday experience still meets, and regularly confounds, the English language seeking to convey it.

LAIEEYAAA! Learn Chinese the Hard Wayaughing, it follows, has always been a superb place to begin. Still, humor makes only a beginning not an end. Enjoining effective communication across cultural and linguistic divides—let alone seriousness, nuance, and depth—is always so much harder. Since 1985, when he first vaulted into the territory and proceeded to stick his landing, Feign has approached the place with a spirit of learning, good humor, and respect. He has accordingly achieved a rare staying power. Across fifteen published works and collections, Feign’s work has struck a chord: the Lily Wong strip, published in the South China Morning Post from the early to mid-1990s, continues to define his legacy; a more persistent, lively and popular work remains his AIEEYAAA! Learn Chinese the Hard Way. Harry Harrison apart, Feign has been Hong Kong’s most famous illustrator and artist, in English, as read by anglophone audiences calling Hong Kong home and most often viewing it from a Western (or Westernized) point of view.

Feign’s Contributions to Hong Kong

At its best, Feign’s past writing, most often in tandem with his illustrations, has afforded his readers cross-genre access and vitality legitimizing actual learning—text becoming image and back again. Feign’s “transadaptations of genre” (as the experts call it) have always served, and amply, as the common Hong Kong reader’s guardrails against vulgar ignorance. Beyond provoking laughter—much of Feign’s prior work is recognizably arch and yet also funny—a found uniqueness of place emerges. The encouragement of greater proximity to Hong Kong results, its special places and situations, the dawning understanding which lies in the pass, in the broader distribution, of baser meanings refined by the reader’s recognition that the writer truly knows what he is writing and illustrating about.  The reader trusts this particular artist’s vision as a result, that he knows what we know. (Being funny has not, in truth, always been only about being funny.) As such, and as far as any foreigner writing about Hong Kong goes, Feign’s intermedial grasp (fusing situation, text, and image in a shared artistic cause) has for decades offered just about as good as it gets. (Not nearly so good as achieving literacy in written and spoken Chinese, but so much further than one usually gets by learning jyutping.) There has always been not only something to recognize, but also to evaluate, and to learn from in even Feign’s lighter works.  And, suddenly, in his latest project, he is daring to leave all of this behind in the name of a newer artistic discovery. He is offering to his readers an early modern version of Hong Kong most will not recognize. He is discovering how to write fiction.

After all, foreigners shouldn’t—and most probably can’t—trade goods in the market of local (Chinese) authenticity without undeniable trepidation. Here on Hong Kong ground, there are legitimate (and mostly reasonable) historical reasons for the fierce boundaries still policing the “go thus far and no further” approach to the Hong Kong local. Yet in his latest novel, The Flower Boat Girl, fictionalizing south Chinese maritime history becomes more plausible, both substantively and practically, than engaging mightier foes presently occupying the lists of our own Chinese contemporary moment. The high stakes of artistic representation about Hong Kong today make Feign’s steady and rewarding effort all the more striking. Cynics may assert nonetheless that foreigners are not likely to know much or to care about any Hong Kong topic, so why should a foreigner living in the postcolonial era still insist upon the task? A stag never has been a horse (指鹿為馬).  And yet: in the right hands, even the trafficking in illusory falsehoods outside the Chinese language, and for all the potential dangers at play on deceptive surfaces, just might serve as the instrument of a more thoughtful probity. Feign’s latest book accordingly defies cynicism, by sacrificing an easier levity, the ephemeral snort or chortle, to secure something far more important: the closer approximation of Hong Kong truths, past as well as present.

It is after this point, and entirely to the artist’s credit, that one no longer thinks of Feign exclusively as a humorist—and a fine one he has been—but as a fiction writer.  Urging our reconsideration of his artistry in transition is a perhaps one contribution Feign’s new novel makes, in and of itself, even prior to the act of reading.  Feign has survived, and stayed, by virtue of transforming his craft and by doubling down on his writing as métier. The Flower Boat Girl is accordingly a work of discursive prose, written in the absence of illustration, and operating beyond the known confines of the artist’s regular, artistic demesne. With publication funded by a local grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and backed by in-residence fellowships from the MacDowell Colony (New Hampshire) and Fundação Obras (Portugal), the writing of Feign’s novel has achieved that very rare distinction of a non-Chinese person securing real money and worthy support to write about China.

The Flower Boat Girl

Based upon a composite of archival finds, backed by the fact-checking of specialists, The Flower Boat Girl essays the reconstruction of the golden age of piracy along the south coast of Guangdong province. Feign rebuilds for us a maritime world at the turn of the nineteenth century, one extending from the mouth of the Pearl River Delta southwest to Hainan Island, north to the Fukkien coast, and all the way west to the Annamese (Viet Nam) frontier. The protagonist of the tale, Shek Yang (石陽), is sold into prostitution by her own father, suffers and survives the predations of serial rape and human trafficking, until her buccaneer’s “luck” results in her capture by a local pirate chief, Cheng Yat, who is willing to marry her. This one, very conventional move affords her greater respectability, and a new name, as the captain’s first wife (Cheng Yat Sou, 鄭一嫂). The ensuing plot details her self-becoming, over time, all the while surviving swashbuckling adventures of generic type: acquiring focus for rage, killing a man, hatred The Water World of Cheng Yat Soutoward (then embracing) motherhood, cultivating a sense for intrigue, achieving tactical range and vision which, along with basic accounting principles, all constitute the ins and outs of the pirate economy on-board as well as off.  Shek Yang loses some interpersonal battles, wins more, and earns the trust of her man—the Captain—in an emerging and capable role as éminence grise. Cheng Yat Sou’s acumen and Cheng Yat’s power and reach grow in lockstep, as their increasingly organized, and yet always mercenary, pirate syndicate achieves practical cohesion. Inspired by his resourceful wife, Cheng Yat ensures that his new confederation will attain a highly lucrative degree of mutual cooperation and organization. Under the threat of variously enforced and calibrated penalties, the Red Fleet binds its members to mutually binding by-laws, contractual sureties, collective action against external threats, and group medical insurance. Such quasi-legalistic enactments lend credibility to the novel’s depiction, contrariwise, of the fundamental facts of plunder.

As far as I can tell, Feign’s research is credible and generally sufficient to the purpose of imparting degrees of authenticity to his fictional flights. In his acknowledgements, Feign readily owns outside help. As a reader, I can identify specific points where he has sought to signal local nuances and texture to everyday situations. Notable examples include his use of colloquial expressions such as “說三道四”, which may be transliterated as “talk-three-walk-four” as the description of idle gossip; or, again, “無風不起浪” (“where there’s a wave, there must be wind”; the inverse “no wind, no wave” also applies) which traces the visible effects attributed to formerly hidden causes. Feign’s invocation of living Cantonese idioms, even when conveyed by means of an awkward or rustic transliteration, strengthens the plausibility of his novel’s truth claims. This buoys his overall method as he painstakingly creates, then back-fills, the enlivening details embellishing the otherwise murky legend of the Pirate Queen more than two centuries ago. Feign does not simply drape window-dressing over the spare historical evidence.

One of my favorite scenes involves a long conversation between Shek Yang and an erstwhile competitor for her husband’s affection, Cheung Po Tsai. Both establish boundaries throughout, make a better acquaintance, as well as a more effective relation all the while eating fried turnip cakes (蘿蔔糕) in a tea house. (Over time, Cheung will earn Shek Yang’s trust, access to her bed and, eventually, status as her husband.)  At the start of the scene, however, their shared baseline is mostly suspicion and hostility for Shek Yang and playful diffidence for Cheung. Feign lets the dialog build, all the while drawing attention to the coming and going of the turnip cakes: from mouth to chopstick; as replenished by the server; as hot, spicy or cold; dropping on the floor. Taken in its social context, and in between mouthfuls, the pair’s wary fencing gives way to laughter, the sharing of sensitive history, and even the establishment of trust following on from this otherwise gentle and lifelike turnip-cake dance. Here, clearly, is the careful sustaining of readerly interest toward the achieving of more effective characterization. Beyond this, the writing delivers elements of mise-en-scène superbly: Feign’s nearly cinematic method achieves dramatic tension culminating, at the close of the scene, in Shek Yang’s significant realization:

Of course, he was right. We had both made the best of our circumstances. We were both survivors. We’d been rivals for our abductor’s affections when me might as easily have been conspirators against him. We were the same, yet so different. (266)

By the end of the novel, Shek Yang/Cheng Yat Sou is widowed, ritually grieves, and remarries. She chooses Cheung Po Tsai—for love, this time—as the commander of her newly syndicated fleet. Beating off competition and an assassination attempt from within her own ranks, her winning pitch to her would-be confederates, and ensconcing her own rule, employs the highly anachronistic term, “transshipment of goods” (and with it, presumably, a wink from her creator). At the very close of the novel, one realizes that Feign has in fact written the prequel to the mythology handed down to us. Perhaps Feign is considering—as well he might, pending the necessary evidence of the present novel’s reception—a series detailing Cheng Yat Sou’s further career and ascendancy as the head of her own proper fleet.

Macau 1810
O Moon (Macau) 1810

The novel becomes particularly compelling for readers to any extent familiar with our local marine geography and its history. Feign draws capably from the unique aural, as well as sensory, landscapes and ecology of the Hong Kong archipelago, Macau, and their interlocking and communal waterways. As late moderns possessing worldly viewpoints, we are all too likely to reduce Hong Kong and the Pearl River delta to the restrictive grid of a Mercator projection—so far from Beijing, or London, as to seem insignificant: merely a speck, the place where a tourist sticks his or her pin in the map before moving on. With contrarian verve, The Flower Boat Girl reminds us vividly that this archipelago to which we belong was once the center—and not the margin—of a thriving maritime culture, a key strut in a regional water-based economy, community, and system of shared kinship networks.

Conveying the identity of a people sustained by the sea—as it existed long before identity politics—the maritime culture Feign describes at depth confirms the thesis Markus Rediker levied many years ago concerning piracy as a key driver of development, of period globalization, and long before ethnonationalism imposed its land-based rules over human interactions. Feign’s interesting tale gives that larger historical frame its proper, south Chinese—and, most welcome of all, its Cantonese—focus.  Even Hong Kong, so privileged in the anglophone imperial memory things British, loses its eminence as, some forty years prior to the First Opium War, the pirate queen, Cheng Yat Sou establishes her own base, in honor of a dead friend, at Tung Chung and Chek Lap Kok (赤鱲角)—Chek Lap Kok! This is a funny, even arresting, juxtaposition: the pirate queen of the Southern Red Fleet harbored her hundreds of masts and thousands of sailors in the inlet, opposite the village of Tung Chung (東涌), and much transformed since, where jetliners now soar. From my perspective, such trans-temporal links do not constitute the past the novel restores to us as pathetic or barbarous, but, instead, as a restorative reminder of centrality, evoking a time we can now point to—thanks to Feign’s efforts—when the coastal ecology thrived at the expense of the center.

What makes The Flower Boat Girl most compelling, of course, is its very implausibility. Feign undertakes the telling of a woman’s story of upward social mobility which, however extraordinary for its day, nonetheless secures the germ of veracity quality historical fiction demands.  Achieving status as the privateer’s wife, Shek Yang achieves power, influence, and a mastery of her own over the fierce and often brutally patriarchal order of the era which has created, paradoxically, the conditions for her own emerging phallic agency.  At least in Feign’s sanguine rendering, his heroine rides this system much more capably, as it turns out, than she was ridden by it. Feign’s resulting gamble in the undertaking is that contemporary audiences of the twenty-first century will find Shek Yang’s story just as seemingly remarkable as did the historical personage’s own peers. And he may well be right, to echo the prior phrase, “the same, yet so different”. I recognized another particularly satisfying moment where the narrative joins Shek Yang’s marriage in the south Chinese past to our present: “All those grinning, wide-eyed faces made me think of spectators at an execution. [. . .] What was happening was unstoppable, and I would cope with the consequences later”.  Shek Yang’s realization is both profound and familiar, as centuries of socially conditioned behaviors crystallize into the moment of ritual capture, as the seriousness and pragmatism underlying Cantonese levity briefly appear in tension with the promises of connubial bliss. Anyone who has enjoyed the unique bonds created through a traditional Chinese marriage will understand exactly how Shek Yang feels.

As a whole, the style is literary and well-crafted for a first, sustained foray by a career artist who has set his mind to the task. I particularly enjoyed Feign’s deft use of metaphor and simile as when, for example, in describing her awkwardness in embroidery, Shek Yang admits: “my second line always set out like a bird in flight and ended in a different land entirely”. Or when depicting the effects of foul weather: “After ten days of relentless downpours, Chiang-ping reminded me of an aging whore who’d been washed free of makeup.”  Or with reference to the addictions of forcibly conscripted child sailors: “Three hundred mouths chewing betel nut day and night left our deck looking like a bloodier battlefield than any they might face.” And, finally, of hunger: “The aroma of fresh boiled rice made my stomach sit up and talk”. There is talent in these and, more important, evidence of delight which always serves as the prerequisite to any writer’s continuing improvement.

For all of these reasons, then, The Flower Boat Girl marks a distinctive and original departure for its author. The pacing, calibrated length, and supremely sequenced plot of the novel still owe much to Feign’s long-established skills as a story-boarder, as a compositor of visualized situations, and expert illustrator of compact yet compelling scenes. The avoidance of long, descriptive passages, buoyed by a light touch at the level of the line, achieves a lively, pictorial effect lending itself to a future adaption for the screen, big or small.

Minor Sticking Points

As welcoming and thoughtful as is the approach Feign takes to his subject, there are only one or two rookie errors which fail, nonetheless, to dent the broader success. First, he faces the unenviable task, and test, of transculturating established (and, frankly, long abandoned) popular motifs of piracy, exoticism, and the conventions of foreign romance for a decidedly inhospitable, even hostile, age.

(Experts in the Western genre, for example, may think of Shek Yang as a feminine, and climbing, Horatio Hornblower in the absence of military respectability; or, perhaps, recall David Balfour’s youth and inexperience recast from the perspective of a frightened, yet defiantly capable, Cantonese girl becoming woman.) Across more recent decades, enlightened readerly taste has accordingly denounced any mention, however indicative, of sodomy, opium dens, and girdle-ripping carnality as beholden to the unacceptable taxonomy of sensational orientalism. That Feign doesn’t overplay these moments in the narrative, even while sticking with them, requires delicacy as well as bravery. And that he largely succeeds when re-routing orientalist tropes back toward recognizably local values and utterances, and despite the flattening effect his English pseudo-translations impose, all without apology or shirking what he feels is his duty to his subject, is equally bracing. The fulfillments of the book startle, then, not because they confirm vulgarities in terms the all-too-apparent limits of an ignorant foreigner’s imagination can grasp—the “real” orientalism—but because the coarseness depicted comes sufficiently close to approximating everyday life and hence indemnifies Feign’s characterization, at least to some manageable extent, from the original orientalist charge. Feign’s characters routinely rise above their orientalist emplacement, as his figures draw strength from their local ground as more and less than “Chinese” and always as human beings.

A greater difficulty, I think, lies in that Feign’s narrative occasionally attributes to characters alien-sounding words (for example, “licit”, “infuriatingly manipulative”, and “catamite”) or phrases (such as that describing Tunghoi, “a town whose major enterprise was piracy”) which emerge ex nihilo from their character’s subjectivity as if fully formed. These tone-deaf moments grate not because they are inappropriate, in principle, so much as because they feel given rather than earned.  (The critic and biographer, Jeremy Treglown, levels a similar charge at John Hersey’s Chinese novels with which Treglown is otherwise sympathetic.) The effect is curiously banishing of the mood, and alterity, from which the story derives so much of its pleasure and power: “I’d never heard any person in my life mention a library, nor had I ever stepped inside one. But to discover one on a pirate ship? He must have noticed my surprise.”  Certainly, this encounter could have been handled differently—Shek Yang’s first encounter with an elephant, by contrast, comes off better—even without highlighting the difficulty, widely debated, of just how it is any protagonist knows what she, presumably, cannot yet know.

Finally, as charming and well-researched as the novel is, Feign was perhaps too cavalier in dispensing with the consistency of standard romanization used, more or less faithfully, by other amateur historians writing similar kinds of books. He should probably have either stuck with Cantonese (jyutping) throughout, or Mandarin (pinyin), but not both.  To name only the most prominent example: the heroine’s name is consistently invoked, in English, as “Shek Yang” (so far so good). Yet, in jyutping, which reflects the romanization of the Cantonese language for foreign learners, her name (石陽) is transliterated not as Shek Yang, but as Shek Yeung. That proper names appear, variously, in two quite different romanization systems is at least confusing, and perhaps even misleading, for those who are reading this book not only for enjoyment but as an entry point for the study of any Chinese language.

All in all, Larry Feign’s The Flower Boat Girl amounts to a fine, and certainly loving, debut by a Hongkonger continuing to do right by his hometown and in approach to another genre. I look forward to the next book, as part of the Pirate Queen’s unfolding series, and intend to call my solicitor in hopes of drumming up exclusive access to the rights for the screenplay to follow.