The Piano Teacher, Janice Y. K. Lee

June 17, 2013 / by / 0 Comment

So this is a blog mainly about books. Books that I think are interesting for people our age. Books that we may read apart from what’s given in our academic courses. And why not? I have friends who tell me reading is labour, that it’s already tiresome to have to go through academic readings weekly, but I beg to differ. Personally, I love books – I find it refreshing, exciting even, to be absorbed in different printed adventures during travel, between lesson breaks, before I sleep. What I’ll be trying to do here is to transmit some of that love to all of you readers – I certainly don’t know how contagious it is, but what’s the harm really? Perhaps you may find this nicer than timely checks on Candy Crush whenever you’ve recovered several lives.

And it’s summer. Students have lots of time in summer.

This week’s good read is The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee.

Author (because it’s always important to know the person behind the pen):
It’s a sad truth that Hong Kong writers don’t get much exposure or popularity, but Lee manages to make it to the popular fiction shelves in major bookstores with The Piano Teacher, her first novel. Despite being Korean, she was born and raised in Hong Kong, went to the United States for her education in her teens and has returned to Hong Kong after the handover. Former editor of ELLE magazine, she’s a mother of four (all born during the five years when she was writing the novel!) and is currently brewing new ideas for her next novel.

In a very simple nutshell, the book’s about two beautiful women, one English man and the two consequent romances, one before the Japanese occupation during WWII and one after. The story begins with Claire, British and beautiful, arriving to Hong Kong with her many English prejudices, and who can really blame her? Hong Kong’s the colony of forever perspiration and strange fruit where locals find it proper to have a meal in daipaidongs right beside the gutter. Claire gets herself a job as a piano teacher for the Chen’s daughter, Locket. Despite being married, Claire finds herself increasingly intrigued by Will Truesdale, the mysterious British driver of the Chens, and gradually grows out of her cocoon of English biases. With Will’s help, Claire ventures into the world of local customs which she finds fascinating, as well as bringing her womanhood into full bloom.

As the novel progresses, the story makes more frequent jumps between the two storylines. Back in the 1940s, Will was in a relationship with another woman, Trudy Liang. A social butterfly, she’s the Queen of Hong Kong everybody knows, enjoying her life of partying, socializing and more partying. Eventually though, probably anticipated by the readers, the British life of good champagne and music drastically came to an end when the Japanese military took over Hong Kong.

We’ve probably been the audience of numerous representations of what Hong Kong was like during the Japanese occupation. But what I think makes The Piano Teacher special is that it portrays this subject from the perspective of British expatriates, rather than through the eyes of Hong Kong people. Despite being the colonizers, all supremacy that they had is lost as prisoners of war who are also subject to interrogation and even death. Stripped of their wealth, life in prison reduces them to living for survival than for luxury. Hygiene is a problem that causes illnesses to spread within crowded rooms; instead of foie gras, they have banana peels deep-fried in oil for dinner (and they say it tastes like soiled mushrooms – it’s that miserable).

At the core of the plot is the whereabouts of the Crown Collection in Hong Kong, a collection of invaluable Chinese artefacts, and like Claire, us readers unravel the mystery and its connections to the characters bit by bit. The struggle between Britain, Japan and China takes form as each country, represented by different characters, fights for the possession of the Crown Collection through manipulation and deception. With that, race is a prominent issue: not only does it determine the treatment you ought to receive, but it also assumes an allegiance in ideology and mind, which gets increasingly blurred as characters try to control their fates in their own hands for the sake of coming out of this war alive (and with profit for more ambitious ones).

There’s a certain interesting feeling when you read about places you’re familiar with in fiction: the Peak, May Road, Repulse Bay. It’s like travelling back in time and rediscovering Hong Kong from an entirely different perspective. As the threads of different aspects of the novel meet, love and betrayal, the past and the present, survival and dignity all interwoven, we readers are caught up in this well-weaved web which compels our absolute attention. Definitely a page-turner.

Image Copyright: (c) Janice Y. K. Lee’s official website http://www.janiceyklee.com/

Written by hKUDOS Guest Blogger,
Jacqueline Leung (BA – Year 1)