Eros And Intrigue In Post-War Hong Kong

The Piano Teacher
Viking
The Piano Teacher
Janice Y. K. Lee
Viking
Hardcover, 328 pages
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

Janice Y. K. Lee

Author Janice Y. K. Lee lived in Hong Kong for the first 15 years of her life. Gasper Tringale hide caption

itoggle caption Gasper Tringale

To call a novel cinematic is usually to imply that it has sufficiently failed to flesh out its characters, who might fare better on the big screen, where slow pans and sumptuous sets can do the work of a spotty narrative. In the case of Janice Y. K. Lee's The Piano Teacher, the impulse to think "movie" springs not from the book's weakness but its strength. Having enjoyed the company of Lee's characters so much on the page, I thought it would be nice to hang out with them in another medium.

The Piano Teacher introduces us to Will Truesdale, a high-level English official living in British-controlled Hong Kong in the years leading up to its invasion by the Japanese in 1941. Before the war, he's the lover of Trudy Liang, a half-Portuguese, half-Chinese society belle who snatches him up upon arrival and introduces him to Hong Kong's heady circle of English officials, Chinese businessmen, experts and reinvented outcasts of all kinds. But after the war dissolves society as they know it, Will winds up as a chauffeur to Trudy's cousins, the Chens, with whom he once socialized. While in the Chens' employ, Will meets Claire Pendleton, a shy Englishwoman hired to give their daughter piano lessons.

Having narrowly escaped spinsterhood by marrying a dull British functionary, Claire blossoms in Hong Kong, both in looks and personality, and her growing confidence brings her new hungers, chief among them, Will. On the surface, Will's pre- and post-war lovers seem like opposites: Trudy is a sphinx who controls him absolutely, Claire is a naïf humbled by his enigmatic remove. But we learn that, like the characters themselves, Will's story is filled with buried truths and complex loyalties.

The Piano Teacher is Lee's first novel. Readers expecting a grittily realist portrait of war or a literary tour de force may be disappointed; in the end, this romantic tale of smoky intrigues, near misses, two-faced villains and secretive lovers resolves into a good old-fashioned mystery. But Lee, a former Elle editor, handles the well-worn plot with style.

Excerpt: 'The Piano Teacher'

The Piano Teacher
By Janice Y. K. Lee
Hardcover, 328 pages
Viking
List price: $25.95

Claire and her husband had moved to Hong Kong nine months ago, transferred by the government, which had posted Martin at the Department of Water Services. Churchill had ended rationing and things were starting to return to normal when they had received news of the posting. She had never dreamed of leaving England before. Martin was an engineer, overseeing the building of the Tai Lam Cheung reservoir, so that there wouldn't need to be so much rationing when the rains ebbed, as they did every several years. It was to hold four and a half billion gallons of water when full. Claire almost couldn't imagine such a number, but Martin said it was barely enough for the people of Hong Kong, and he was sure that by the time they were finished, they'd have to build another. "More work for me," he said cheerfully. He was analyzing the topography of the hills so that they could install catchwaters for when the rain came. The English government did so much for the colonies, Claire knew. They made the locals' lives much better but they rarely appreciated it. Her mother had warned her about the Chinese before she left- an unscrupulous, conniving people who would surely try to take advantage of her innocence and goodwill.

Coming over, she had noticed it for days, the increasing wetness in the air, even more than usual. The sea breezes were stronger and the sunrays more powerful when they broke through cloud. When the P&O Canton finally pulled into Hong Kong harbor in August, she really felt she was in the tropics, hair frizzing up in curls, face always slightly damp and oily, the constant moisture under her arms and knees. When she stepped from her cabin outside, the heat assailed her like a physical blow, until she managed to find shade and fan herself.

There had been seven stops along the month-long journey, but after a few grimy hours spent in Algiers and Port Said, Claire had decided to stay onboard rather than encounter more frightening peoples and customs. She had never imagined such sights. In Algiers, she had seen a man kiss a donkey and she couldn't discern whether the high odor was coming from one or the other, and in Egypt, the markets were the very definition of unhygienic-a fishmonger gutting a fish had licked the knife clean with his tongue. She had inquired as to whether the ship's provisions were procured locally, at these markets, and the answer had been most unsatisfactory. An uncle had died from food poisoning in India, making her cautious. She kept to herself and sustained herself mostly on the beef tea they dispensed in the late morning on the sun deck. The menus that were distributed every day were mundane: turnips, potatoes, things that could be stored in the hold, with meat and salads the first few days after port. Martin promenaded on the deck every morning for exercise and tried to get her to join him, to no avail. She preferred to sit in a deck chair with a large brimmed hat and wrap herself in one of the scratchy wool ship blankets, face shaded from the omnipresent sun.

There had been a scandal on the ship. A woman, going to meet her fiancé in Hong Kong, had spent one too many moonlit nights on the deck with another gentleman and had disembarked in the Philippines with her new man, leaving only a letter for her intended. Liesel, the girlfriend to whom the woman had entrusted the letter, grew visibly more nervous as the date of arrival drew near. Men joked that she could take Sarah's place, but she wasn't having any of that. Liesel was a serious young woman who was joining her sister and brother-in-law in Hong Kong, where she intended to educate Unfortunate Chinese Girls in Art: when she held forth on it, it was always with capital letters in Claire's mind.

Before disembarking, Claire separated out all of her thin cotton dresses and skirts; she could tell that was all she would be wearing for a while. They had arrived to a big party on the dock, with paper streamers and loud, shouting vendors selling fresh fruit juice and soy milk drinks and garish flower arrangements to the people waiting. Groups of revelers had already broken out the champagne and were toasting the arrival of their friends and family.

"We pop them as soon as we see the boat on the horizon," a man explained to his girl as he escorted her off the boat. "It's a big party. We've been here for hours." Claire watched Liesel go down the gangplank, looking very nervous, and then she disappeared into the throng. Claire and Martin went down next, treading on the soft, humid wood, luggage behind them carried by two scantily clad young Chinese boys who had materialized out of nowhere.

Martin had an old school friend, John, who worked at Dodwell's, one of the trading firms, who had promised to greet the ship. He came with two friends and offered the new arrivals freshly squeezed guava drinks. Claire pretended to sip at hers, as her mother had warned her about the cholera that was rampant in these parts. The men were bachelors and very pleasant. John, Nigel, Leslie. They explained that they all lived together in a mess-there were many, known by their companies, Dodwell's Mess, Jardine's Mess,et cetera, and they assured Claire and Martin that Dodwell's threw the best parties around.

They accompanied them to the government-approved hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, where a Chinese man with a long queue, dirty white tunic, and shockingly long fingernails showed them to their room. They made an arrangement to meet for tiffin the next day and the men departed, leaving Martin and Claire sitting on the bed, exhausted and staring at one another. They didn't know each other that well. They had been married barely four months.

She had accepted Martin's proposal to escape the dark interior of her house, her bitter mother railing against everything, getting worse, it seemed, with her advancing age, and an uninspiring job as a filing girl at an insurance company. Martin was older, in his forties, and had never had luck with women. The first time he kissed her, she had to stifle the urge to wipe her mouth. He was like a cow, slow and steady. And kind. She knew this. She was grateful for it.

She had not had many chances with men. Her parents stayed home all the time, and so she had as well. When she had started seeing Martin-he was the older brother of one of the girls at work-she had eaten dinner at restaurants, drunk a cocktail at a hotel bar, and seen other young women and men talking, laughing with an assurance she could not fathom. They had opinions about politics; they had read books she had never heard of and seen foreign films and talked about them with such confidence. She was enthralled and not a little intimidated. And then Martin had come to her, serious, his job was taking him to the Orient, and would she come with him? She was not so attracted to him, but who was she to be picky, she thought, hearing the voice of her mother. She let him kiss her and nodded yes.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Piano Teacher Copyright © Janice Y.K. Lee, 2009

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