City of the Queen

City of the Queen: A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong

Sylvia Li-chun Lin
Howard Goldblatt
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    City of the Queen
    Book Description:

    From its beginnings as a pestilent port and colonial backwater, Hong Kong became the "pearl" of a declining British empire, and then ascended to its present status as a gleaming city of commerce. Throughout its history, Hong Kong has been steeped in drama, intrigue, and seismic social shifts. Shih Shu-ching, an acclaimed Taiwanese writer, sets her epic tale of one beautiful and determined woman's family amid this rich and colorful history, capturing in vivid, panoramic detail the unique tensions and atmosphere that characterize the city. Critically praised and long popular in the Chinese-speaking world, City of the Queen is now available for the first time in English.

    After being kidnapped from her home in rural China, Huang, the novel's heroine, is brought to Hong Kong and sold into prostitution. Thanks to her shrewd, sometimes devious business dealings and unexpected twists of fate, she emerges from these cruel beginnings to become a wealthy landowner. City of the Queen follows the fortunes of Huang's family, including those of her devoutly Christian daughter-in-law, who tries to redeem the sins she believes Huang has committed; her grandson, who becomes the first Chinese judge on the Hong Kong Supreme Court; and her great-granddaughter, a quintessential Hong Kong young woman, who turns her back on family tradition to revel in the pleasures offered by the 1970s and 1980s metropolis.

    The novel introduces a range of other Chinese and British characters, examining the complicated relationships between colonizer and colonized in a searing and perceptive portrayal of colonialism. There is Adam Smith, the British officer who struggles with the competing seductions of Huang's beauty and British respectability; Qu Yabing, Smith's servant, who despises anything Chinese, yet becomes Huang's lover after she is abandoned by Smith; Colonel White, the sadistic colonial police chief; and Auntie Eleven, a concubine who owns a pawnshop and teaches Huang the secrets of the trade.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50989-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    • 1
      (pp. 3-6)

      Huang Deyun was thirteen that year.

      Dressed in a faded short jacket with loose sleeves, she came out of Dr. Zhou’s Herbal Pharmacy on West Corner, a bamboo basket hanging from her arm. Her prematurely born baby brother had spent a restless night. Saying the infant was frightened, Deyun’s mother had told her to drop by the Temple of Mazu for an amulet to exorcise the evil spirits.

      Passing a stand of sandalwoods by the river, Deyun headed toward the temple, the tips of her worn cloth shoes kicking the yellow dirt under her feet and sending tiny specks of...

    • 2
      (pp. 7-13)

      On the deck of the sampan, the slave trader grabbed Deyun by the hair and examined her for the first time—thin eyebrows over brown eyes that, reflected in the afternoon sea, were much lighter than those of the average Chinese. Her single-fold eyelids, long and narrow, slanted upward, and her eyes reminded him of the prostitutes on Lyndhurst Terrace, most of them mixed bloods from Macao. So Huang Deyun did not become a slave girl, after all. Instead, she followed in the footsteps of a different group of girls kidnapped from inland China to an even worse fate—she...

    • 3
      (pp. 14-26)

      This alien land was a bleak and barbaric hostile island, not just for Deyun but for the early colonizers as well; it was a frightening place with barren mountains and unruly waters. Britons considered it an insidious form of exile to be sent to the queen’s most backward city in the Pacific. Even ambitious young civil servants did not accept their posts without qualms, let alone view them as stepping-stones for future promotion. British sailors who planned to make careers in the Royal Navy had a rude awakening when they were sent to the Western Garrison. The well water decimated...

    • 4
      (pp. 27-30)

      Officially, the plague of 1894 took 2,552 lives, but the actual figure was far greater. Some victims were buried privately, others were never reported, and still more deaths occurred after the infected sneaked back to die in Canton. On June 7 alone, on Mount Taiping Street, where the plague was most rampant, 107 people died in a single day, with 60 more infected.

      At first, the doctors at St. Mary’s Hospital, unable to find the cause, were mystified by the number of corpses piling up. Later the London government sent Professor Pearson, a bacteriologist, to investigate. Wearing a white surgical...

    • 5
      (pp. 31-35)

      After Governor Robinson declared Hong Kong a plague port, the Western businessmen began leaving, taking their families with them. On an afternoon with chilling winds and icy rain, Adam Smith went to bid farewell to Mrs. Dickinson. Before she lifted her black widow’s skirts to board the ship, she turned to cast one last bitter look at Victoria Harbor. How many lives had already been sacrificed for this port amid the smoke and dust of guns and cannons? And the disaster wasn’t over yet. Her husband had given his life in an effort to maintain a sanitary space in the...

    • 6
      (pp. 36-37)

      The day before the Sanitary Board torched the plague area near Mount Taiping, Huang Deyun stepped over the unconscious body of the pimp and, suitcases in hand, climbed into the sedan chair that would take her away from Southern Tang House. She was dressed in flowery silk clothes, a far cry from the wedding procession she’d dreamed about as a little girl.

      The stained-glass doors of Madame Randall’s beauty den stood open, but the place was stripped bare, except for burn marks from disinfectant on the floors and the stairs. The red silk lanterns offered by Southern Tang House to...

    • 7
      (pp. 38-40)

      The plague had finally passed.

      On a morning after the Mid-Autumn Festival, Adam Smith stood on his balcony to watch the sea after his morning toilet. A soft breeze with the light fragrance of cassia brushed over and slipped into the open collar of his pajamas, so comforting. Long-tailed birds flew in and out of the banyan trees beyond the fence. When he took a closer look, he saw bright yellow stripes alongside the beaks and around the eyes.

      It was a pleasant Sunday morning. The steeple bell of the Gothic St. John’s Cathedral was summoning the faithful to Sunday...

    • 8
      (pp. 41-49)

      The plague had passed.

      The Chinese in Hong Kong who had escaped from the demon’s clutches erected stages with thatched roofs in front of temples throughout the island to thank the gods for their protection. Cantonese opera troupes touring China boarded sampans with props and costumes and sailed down the Pearl River. From late November through the end of the year, gongs, drums, and firecrackers sounded continuously, from the Tam Kung Temple at A Kung Ngam in the north to the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road and the Goddess of Mercy Temple on Mount Taiping Street in the west,...

    • 9
      (pp. 50-61)

      The colonial government’s curfew kept Huang Deyun in Hong Kong.

      One evening in 1894, after having lost the favor of her English lover and grown tired of waiting for him, she went out to watch some Cantonese opera. Prior to that, she had attended seven consecutive daytime performances, captivated by a martial arts actor.

      Seven days earlier, a renowned Cantonese opera troupe had sailed down the Pearl River and arrived at the Dawang Temple on Queen’s Road in Wan Chai, where they set up a stage with a thatched roof. Their premiere performance opened on a chilly winter afternoon. Huang...

    • 10
      (pp. 62-68)

      Deyun’s last thread of hope was severed.

      She had no recollection of crossing the mountain and following the country road on her return to Happy Valley. She recalled only sobbing before the image of Mazu. When she opened her eyes again, she was lying in bed, covered by the British wool blanket. Everything remained the same: the broken three-stringed lute lay against her chair, incense still burned in the little red corner alcove, and curtains made of imported cotton fabric fluttered at the window. She did not know if it was dawn or dusk outside.

      Sitting up in bed, Deyun...

    • 11
      (pp. 69-73)

      At that moment, the person Huang Deyun thought about day and night was kneeling before a cross in deep penance at St. John’s Cathedral on Garden Road. The Sunday mass was nearly over, the organ was playing a hymn, and sunlight streamed in through the stained-glass windows. The cathedral was ablaze in golden light. Smith prayed that the light would turn into angels, who would ride the waves of music down to carry him up into the sky under their white wings, away from the miseries and entanglements of this mortal world.

      “May God in all His mercy forgive you,”...

    • 12
      (pp. 74-82)

      After Huang Deyun asked the Sikh for directions to the Peak tram and was frightened into fleeing by an armed policeman, she aimlessly climbed uphill and arrived at a temple on Elgin Street. The small temple, a Mecca for prostitutes from Shui Hang Hao’s Hollywood Road, was nearly enveloped by the giant canopy of a banyan tree. Recently remodeled, the temple, including the altar and tablets, was painted bright red, blinding red, bloodred.

      Deyun knelt at the altar. Only the patron saint of prostitutes could understand what was on her mind, things she could not share with anyone else. She...

    • 13
      (pp. 83-88)

      A battle for land between humans and nature was waged the moment Hong Kong opened for trade.

      In 1841, after the Royal Navy landed, they first leveled the craggy coast. Then they hired Chinese coolies to carry dirt and pave a road, paralleling the long stretch of coastline; this was Queen’s Road, the colony’s first thoroughfare. When the prototype city of Victoria first emerged, it lacked the potential of a downtown, since it was shaped like a belt, leaving too great a distance between its east and west ends. But level ground was rare on this hilly, rocky island, and...

    • 14
      (pp. 89-100)

      Once the plague had passed, Royal Navy doctors and a fair number of others in the colony jointly petitioned Governor Robinson to shut down Tung Wah Hospital, arguing that its doctors treated their patients with Chinese herbal medicine. Suspicious of the therapeutic effects of Chinese medicine, the doctors complained that the Chinese herbal practitioners knew nothing about human anatomy and were ignorant about bacteriology. During the plague, not only was Tung Wah Hospital powerless to adequately treat patients, its doctors did not even perform autopsies on those who had died in spite of their herbal treatment. Most were buried before...

    • 1
      (pp. 103-113)

      On his thirtieth birthday, the Chinese interpreter Qu Yabing picked up a newly arrived copy of the magazine London Hunter at the English-language bookstore on Queen’s Road and returned to the Sanitary Board, where he presented the magazine to Adam Smith. After handing it to him with both hands, he stepped back and lowered his hands to his sides, asking his superior respectfully if there were anything else required of him. As he flipped through the pages of the magazine, Smith waved the man away without so much as looking up. On the latest bird-watching outing to Mipu, the Sanitary...

    • 2
      (pp. 114-118)

      Whenever someone from the royal family visited Hong Kong, everyone in the colony, from the governor down to the last civilian, created an extravaganza to welcome the honored guest; lanterns and festoons were displayed everywhere, starting at Queen’s Pier. When the queen’s son, His Majesty the Prince, stopped in Hong Kong on his return to the United Kingdom after visiting India, the governor led the local Chinese gentry in their formal robes and fancy vests to greet him at the pier. That night the Chinese leaders pooled their money to entertain the prince with gourmet Chinese food. As he was...

    • 3
      (pp. 119-124)

      “You’ve taken my virginity. It’s all your doing.”

      Qu Yabing groused at Huang Deyun, who lay beside him. He’d been a thirty-year-old virgin. Since childhood, his mother, a devout Buddhist, had admonished him that lust was the greatest evil. Even on her deathbed, she had reiterated her caution with her last breath. Never once going against his mother’s wish, he’d remained chaste, until he met the former prostitute, Huang Deyun. She had skillfully guided and instructed him. Slightly anxious, owing to ten months of abstinence, she had grappled with him as if engaged in a wrestling match, employing tactics she’d...

    • 4
      (pp. 125-137)

      The second time Qu Yabing was sent by the Britons to deliver silver was in September 1898. It was three months after China and the United Kingdom signed a special treaty to develop and expand the New Territories, which would add 335 square miles to the colony. He was to meet the recipient of the silver, Lu Huan, the Magistrate of Xinan County, on a remote path in Fenling reputed to be frequented by tigers. Qu Yabing had been chosen to bribe an official of the Manchu court because of his background: he came from the most prominent family of...

    • 5
      (pp. 138-142)

      Adam Smith’s colonial experience had been similar to that of Colonel White, but unlike White, he never wore a mask or played an active role in the British Empire’s overseas expansion and oppression, which could have put him solidly in the ranks of white colonial rulers.

      Five years after his arrival, during the takeover of the New Territories, he shed the starched white uniform of the Sanitary Board and replaced it with the khaki tunic of the Royal Police. His hands, once sheathed in white gloves, now held a pistol, but since he never pulled the trigger, he could not...

    • 6
      (pp. 143-149)

      Qu Yabing had high hopes for the future. Following the British takeover of the New Territories, rather than return to the Sanitary Board with Adam Smith to resume his original position, he began to envision all sorts of possibilities for himself. After being transferred to the Police Board, he learned that the British interpreter to the Police Court had been fired when his scheme to collaborate with pirates was exposed, and the position remained unfilled; Qu Yabing coveted the job.

      Yabing’s aspirations had changed as he grew older and his fortunes improved. As a youngster he’d dreamed of becoming a...

    • 7
      (pp. 150-158)

      After paying her respects at the marriage stone, Huang Deyun once more tried to get her man interested in her, but nothing worked. So once again, basket in hand, she made another trip to Mount Bowring Street, where a group of older women was standing under a banyan tree talking all at once in praise of the powers of the marriage stone. Whatever one for wished for, the deity granted. The recipient of the divine manifestation this time had been the prostitute Liu Ruxian from Embroidery Palace on Possession Street. Liu had fallen for one of her rich clients, who...

    • 8
      (pp. 159-165)

      Life for Deyun took a turn for the worse after Qu Yabing left. Late one night a speckled capon she’d once kicked savagely suddenly began to crow, so frightening her she couldn’t go back to sleep. Early the next morning there was a loud pounding at her door, which she thought was a pirate who had come ashore—the crowing of the rooster had announced his arrival—to rob her. Taking her son with her into the kitchen, she removed the lid from the rice vat and forced him to get inside and hide. The lid was no sooner back...

    • 9
      (pp. 166-171)

      Three days later, Huang Deyun returned to Yihong Pavilion, as promised. When the maid saw that she was carrying nothing, she assumed she’d left everything on the rickshaw she’d taken in order to protect her hands and volunteered to bring her things in for her. Waving her off with a smile, Deyun walked in and went upstairs to the room where she’d lived as a lowly woman. The curtains had not been drawn, even though it was broad daylight; she hurried over to open the curtains and expose the small, barred, prisonlike window high up on the wall. The iron...

    • 10
      (pp. 172-179)

      The year: 1900. The eve of the Ghost Festival, midway through the seventh lunar month. After frantically running from place to place, drenching her shirts in sweat and wearing out the soles of two pairs of slippers, Huang Deyun finally found refuge for herself and her son in a shabby hut on a steep side street near Mount Taiping. She had left the huge four-poster bed with its springy mattress at the flat in Happy Valley; now, laying her meager possessions on the wooden bed and sitting down on a bamboo stool to wipe her sweaty face with a corner...

    • 11
      (pp. 180-184)

      Huang Deyun saw Qu Yabing on one more occasion. She was passing by the Minru Teahouse on her way home after work, when she spotted his familiar figure entering the teahouse; she recognized him at once, with his black cloth shoes and foolish look. Those same black cloth shoes! She calmly turned away, feeling no pangs of regret.

      He reasoned that she could only have wound up one of three ways:

      Given her natural good looks, she could now be someone’s concubine. That would be the best she could hope for.

      A second possibility was that she’d returned to the...

    • 12
      (pp. 185-194)

      Huang Deyun had heard something about this “territory opened by prostitutes and their clients” and read one of the advertisements in the North China Herald. Such things were no longer part of her life, so she closed the newspaper, got up, and handed Lady Eleven a bowl of swallow’s nest soup.

      Huang Deyun had become a woman transformed.

      She rose at the crack of dawn, dressed in clothes she’d laid out the night before, applied light makeup and a spot of lipstick, and, laying down her mirror, took her son to Granny Woo’s house for the day. On the way...

    • 13
      (pp. 195-200)

      Rumors concerning the shady liaison between Manager Zhao and Huang Deyun went unabated. Then, on the eve of the first Mid-Autumn Festival after the Boxer Rebellion, Manager Zhao received a letter from his mother in the countryside at Xinhui. In it she said she was suffering from jaundice and dropsy and did not think she had long to live. She missed her son and hoped that he would return home to see her and, while he was at it, tidy up the ancestors’ gravesites. Manager Zhao bought a boat ticket that very day and left for his home in Xinhui,...

    • 14
      (pp. 201-218)

      The next year, after the Lantern Festival had passed, news circulated among pawnshop owners that Prosperity Pawnshop had been purchased by Jardine’s, the old and established British firm that had branched off from the East India Trading Company and made inroads into China by smuggling opium into the country before the Opium Wars, growing enormously wealthy in the process.

      The comprador responsible for taking over the pawnshop was Wang Qinshan, whose father had been an errand runner in the hilltop home of Dr. Spencer, who worked at the Garrison Hospital. Convinced that the only way his son could have a...

    • 1
      (pp. 221-232)

      It was toward the end of World War I, in 1918, that Sean Shelley was transferred from Kuala Lumpur to replace Mr. Connelly, who had been the loan manager of the Wayfoong Bank, a stately white building in the ancient Greek style of architecture, for twelve years and was returning to London. Shelley was an enigma to people who dealt with him, a curiosity to his former colleagues, who often gossiped about him because he was such a loner. He had lived alone, deep in the jungle, in a big house with red tiles and green walls and a spacious...

    • 2
      (pp. 233-243)

      The bride’s name was Li Meixiu. Decades later, she would sit in her wheelchair and shake her head, lamenting over how the most important events of her life had occurred on the same days as Hong Kong workers’ strikes: once in 1922, the day she was married, and again three years later, on the one-month anniversary of the birth of her son.

      Li Meixiu came from a farming family in Xiangshan, Canton, where a major flood during the late Qing had washed away everything they owned. The family sailed to Indonesia for a better life, immigrating to Hong Kong when...

    • 3
      (pp. 244-249)

      Once, long after Huang Deyun’s death, Li Meixiu was interviewed by a newspaper reporter in regard to her devotion to charity work, exemplified by her years of tireless effort to raise money for orphanages, hospitals, and nursing homes in Hong Kong and Kowloon. She responded by saying that she had done it all out of a sense of repentance, hoping to please the Lord by being his worker. She’d finally realized why he had sent her to the Huang family; it was to temper her through suffering. Devotion to the Cross could then redeem Huang Deyun of her sins. Quoting...

    • 4
      (pp. 250-255)

      The first piece of land Richard Huang sold was a prime property located between Des Voeux Road and Li Yuen East Street in Central. It was a memorable day. He had barely taken over as the comprador at Jardine’s when he stumbled upon his first pot of gold. The agreement he’d made with Mr. Matheson called for a 10 percent commission, a huge sum, all his. The contract was signed in the morning, but even that afternoon he could not contain his excitement. He was so happy he could barely keep his mouth shut, and he chose not to take...

    • 5
      (pp. 256-260)

      Much later, in her old age, Li Meixiu often hosted charity parties in her capacity as the wife of an honorary member of the board of the Tung Wah Hospital. In her welcoming addresses, she enjoyed showing off her medical knowledge, but after the applause died down, she would explain how she’d studied on her own in order to take care of her mother-in-law, Huang Deyun. In fact, she had always wanted to be a nurse, a lofty, honorable profession, even as a student at Sacred Heart College. She believed that Western medicine was far more effective than Chinese herbs....

    • 6
      (pp. 261-268)

      Miss Ingrid Baker, Richard Huang’s mistress, always said that her downfall commenced on that afternoon, as a typhoon approached.

      On that day white waves surged in the ocean, as the force of the winds increased. The weather station had hoisted a force three alert, but there was no wind on the streets of Hong Kong or Kowloon, the typical calm before the storm. Leaving Jardine’s earlier than usual, Richard was on his way to the money-lending service to check the books. His informants had told him that the manager had been gambling, incurring a formidable debt over the past month....

    • 7
      (pp. 269-276)

      Three months before war broke out, Sean Shelley had boarded an ocean liner in London to return to the Far East. After disembarking, he went straight to Yun Gardens, where an overjoyed Huang Deyun could not stop crying. Later she put on a long yellow cheongsam with peacock blue piping and, carrying a beaded purse he’d brought back from Harrods, went to the Peninsula Hotel to host a welcoming party for him and to celebrate his promotion to governor of the Wayfoong Bank.

      Sean moved into Yun Gardens. At her suggestion, he drove twice a week to Sha Tin in...

    • 8
      (pp. 277-280)

      It was the late 1970s. Young people walked the streets of Causeway Bay or Tsim Sha Tsui chewing gum and humming Hong Kong pop music that expressed their feelings about Hong Kong in Cantonese. Long pointed shirt collars, like airplane wings, had gone out of fashion, as had bell-bottoms that created swirls of dust as they swept along the ground; straight-leg pants were gradually taking over.

      The 1970s were coming to an end. The Cultural Revolution on the mainland had ended; the Canton-Kowloon Railway, after thirty years of interrupted service, had resumed; the harbor ferry waited for the whistle to...

    • 9
      (pp. 281-287)

      When Huang Dieniang was little, her grandfather Richard Huang tried hard to bring her up as a lady. She began studying the piano, ballet, and horseback riding at the age of five. Richard asked the wife of a retired French diplomat to teach her social etiquette and hired a ballroom dancing teacher. Afraid she might be lonely, he invited children her age as playmates; he had mirrors installed in one of the west side rooms near the flower garden so the children could learn dancing and other proper codes of behavior. He even selected a boy called Spencer to be...

    • 10
      (pp. 288-291)

      There are more banks than rice shops in Hong Kong.

      By 1979 there were 115 licensed banks, among which the Wayfoong Bank was, of course, the longest-standing and most powerful. It still controlled Hong Kong’s financial lifeline, with the exclusive authority to sign and issue Hong Kong currency. Located on Queen’s Road, the bank was a towering Greek-style building. Except for the two brass lions from Shanghai and the granite on the outside, all the other material had been imported from England and Italy. The mural on the dome was particularly magnificent and awe-inspiring; it had taken workers six months...

    • 11
      (pp. 292-294)

      Yun Gardens would soon be demolished.

      Huang Dieniang had an idea: she’d give the place a grand send-off. She’d erect an outdoor stage in the front yard to connect to the secondstory veranda and reenact the family history. She even thought up a dramatic opening: she’d play the part of the mistress of Yun Gardens, her great-grandmother, Huang Deyun. Dressed in a short-collared silk taffeta dress popular in the 1930s, she would lean against the second-floor railing to watch the sun set, until the last color disappeared in the evening sky before slowly walking back onto the stage as the...

    • 12
      (pp. 295-300)

      Eighty-seven years after the plague had taken so many lives, Huang Deyun’s grandson, William Huang, sat on the magistrate’s bench at the Supreme Court. Wearing a silvery white wig and a shiny creased red robe with a white silk bow tied around his chest, he was hearing a case of corruption and bribery that had occurred in the oldest and most revered institution in Hong Kong, the Victoria Club. The chair had been designed for a taller British magistrate; its back was too high for William, with his one quarter British blood, and left a considerable space above and behind....

  5. Translators’ Note
    (pp. 301-302)