Courtesan culture drew author Amy Tan's interest


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Shanghai boomed with commerce during the 1900s, and Chinese courtesans with names like Luscious Peach catered to an influx of foreigners. These young, beautiful women wore outlandish costumes, rode in carriages and were the Asian rock stars of popular culture.

"They made Western fashion and furniture popular in Shanghai. They were the most free of women. Teenage girls would see them and be excited," author Amy Tan said in a recent telephone interview.

This month, Ms. Tan published "The Valley of Amazement," her first novel in eight years. She speaks Monday night at 7:30 in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall.

The 61-year-old author also wrote "The Joy Luck Club," which became a successful movie, "The Kitchen God's Wife," "The Bonesetter's Daughter" and "Saving Fish From Drowning."

"The Valley of Amazement" opens in a Shanghai courtesan house where the narrator, 7-year-old Violet Minturn, is desperate for love and attention from her mother, Lulu, a busy, business-minded madam. The quest for identity and the pain of abandonment are dominant themes in the story.

Ms. Tan began this novel after reading a book about Chinese courtesan culture. To her surprise, the book contained a picture of her maternal grandmother dressed in a headband with intricate embroidery, a tight-fitting jacket with a tall fur-lined collar and matching tight trousers. The caption for the 1910 photo read, "The Ten Beauties of Shanghai."

"I looked at the other photo of my grandmother on my desk," Ms. Tan said, adding that her grandmother is wearing the same outfit in that picture. The author became obsessed with learning more about what Chinese courtesans wore.

"It was a mystery as to why she was wearing these clothes and had her photo taken in a Western photo studio. Who knows? Maybe she was in a theatrical company," Ms. Tan said, adding that her grandmother could have borrowed the clothes and had the pictures taken in an act of adolescent rebellion.

Her maternal grandmother posed for four similar pictures taken over a period of years. She became the concubine of a wealthy man, then committed suicide by ingesting opium.

The pictures, Ms. Tan said, "made her more real, not this quiet person who was a tragic person who was traditional and stayed at home. China is always full of surprises. The mystery of my grandmother is just one of them."

For a chapter titled "Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir," Ms. Tan studied protocol at courtesan houses, including courting rituals, typical clients and the fact that women chose which suitor received their sexual favors. Younger, more successful courtesans rented their fancy jewelry to older, less popular courtesans.

Shanghai residents read tabloids called "the mosquito press" because the stories "went buzzing around stinging people." News included accounts of courtesans fighting each other or being arrested for having sex in their carriages.

For Ms. Tan, writing is "not simply just the words on the page and my imagination. It's an excuse to experience the past."

That's why she traveled to China's Anhui Province about seven years ago and stayed in a 400-year-old mansion built by a wealthy merchant.

"I wanted to live in that world," she said.

Like one of the characters in her new novel, "I had a romantic notion I would be in a scholar's home, sitting there writing peacefully at my desk with springtime weather and geese calling to me," the author said.

"My bathroom was a chamber pot in the room," Ms. Tan said, adding that there was no glass in the windows, only shades.

Her room was tiny and filled with primitive antiques. She fell twice in a corridor that was slippery because it was covered in moss.

"My husband and I had to be in separate rooms, the beds were so narrow. The one modern feature was an electric blanket," Ms. Tan said. "I'm glad I don't live in the past. That mansion I stayed in was very uncomfortable."

Her experience in Anhui Province served as inspiration for Moon Pond Village, a remote place in the Chinese countryside that figures in the novel.

Ms. Tan's family has a home in the Shanghai International Settlement, a one-square-mile area that was filled with American, British and Japanese expatriates during the 1900s.

The place and period in this novel were personal to Ms. Tan because her maternal grandfather joined millions of young men trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. He died of the Spanish flu in 1919.

Ms. Tan's mother lived in Shanghai before immigrating to the U.S. The country's most notorious gangster, Du Yuesheng, attended her mother's wedding, giving the couple a present of $15,000.

"I stayed in the hotel that was his former private club. It looked the way it did in the 1930s," the author said.

When the bellhop arrived for her luggage, he spoke English and said, "The Amy Tan. The author, Amy Tan?"

When she nodded, he replied, "I loved 'Joy Luck Club'!"

"You read it in English?" Ms. Tan asked.

Of course, the bellhop replied.

"I've never had a bellhop say that in the United States," the author said.

Ms. Tan speaks at 7:30 p.m. on Monday in Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave. The lecture is sold out. Tickets turned back by subscribers are sold when the box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Information: www.pittsburghlectures.org; 412-622-8866.


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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