The Shanghai forgotten modernist writers, Mu ShiYing, Shi Zhecun, Du Heng, Liu Na’ou, Xu Chi have captured my attention since I first came across them in Lynn Pan’s excellent Shanghai Style. I also wrote a specific post about Mu ShiYing “Shanghai Foxtrot” a few years ago. The opportunity to read a novel focused on the author’s life was quite exciting, this is the story told by Shanghai Scarlet.
Author Margaret Blair spent her youth in the Shanghai International Settlement, and now lives in Canada. Like JG Ballard (surely the most famous), Liliane Willens and several others, she wrote a book about her life in Old Shanghai, Gudao, Lone Islet. Shanghai Scarlet, her second book, has received little review as self-published by the author in Canada.
Shanghai Scarlet is inspired by the life of Mu Shying, but it is told by 2 characters, Mu himself and his wife Qiu Peipei. The book is a novel based on historical facts on which the author has added her own vision and filled out the blanks. It is very clear that Margaret Blair has taken the forgotten Shanghai modernist writers to her heart and acquired an impressive knowledge about the topic. The Old Shanghai decor feels really right and the fast changing background of the Chinese politics of the time really shows the hard choices those artists had to make. Mu XiYing’s career started in the early 20’s as a Ningbo student who discovers life in Shanghai, China’s center of modernity. He became part of the group of modernist writers that tried to reform Chinese litterature, in the wave of the changes of the time. With the civil war going on in China in the 1930’s and the Japanese invasion, artists became under pressure to choose a side between Nationalists, Communists and collaboration with the Japanese occupant. Each of them made his own choice, turning long life friends into enemies. Mu XiYing ends up siding with the puppet government of Wang Jingwei, collaborating with the Japanese. Although there are not many information about the topic, the book analyses the thoughts and motivations of the various choices in a very credible manner.
The narrator’s voice is alternatively Mu Shying and Qiu Peipei, keeping the story together and showing the adventurous life of this couple through different angles. Very little is known about Mu Shying’s wife and Margaret has chosen a very strong and (nearly) feminist tone and personality for her. That is probably a little odd in regards to the actual period but matches the story. Despite the heavy research, I noticed a few anachronisms (Margaret, the name Art Deco was coined in the 1960’s so I don’t see how Mu Shying could be thinking about “Art Deco” buildings, for him they were probably simply “modern” I guess). The writing style itself is a little slow sometimes and the same story to be made shorter at some point, particularly toward the end. However, the book all in all is quite an entertaining read, as well as a good source of information.
I had never heard about the book nor the author before she contacted on this blog, however the book is also available on amazon. This is not really a mainstream book, but people interested in the topic will enjoy it. The author’s website is www.margaretblair.com