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Aloeswood Incense: an excerpt

The white Liang mansion was melting viscously into the white mist, leaving only the greenish gleam of the lamplight shining through square after square of the green windowpanes, like ice cubes in peppermint schnapps.

Read a critical essay by Shu-Ling Chua reflecting on Eileen Chang’s life and legacy here.

It was a humid spring evening, and the Hong Kong hills are famous for their fog. The white Liang mansion was melting viscously into the white mist, leaving only the greenish gleam of the lamplight shining through square after square of the green windowpanes, like ice cubes in peppermint schnapps. When the fog thickened, the ice cubes dissolved, and the lights went out. The Liang house stood alone on the street; the asphalt road was empty and quiet, but there was a row of parked cars. “I’ve picked the wrong day to arrive,” Weilong thought. “Aunt has guests; she won’t have time for me.” She went up the flight of steps to the little gate. There she found a palace lantern, a replica of an antique, hanging from its arm of ornamented bronze. When she reached the door, she was surprised to find that it was quiet inside, as if there weren’t any guests after all. But then, listening intently, she could make out the light clicking sound of mah-jongg tiles—probably four or five tables.

Big houses in Hong Kong are more densely packed, more modern and compact, than houses in Shanghai, and they make a different impression. Weilong was about to ring the bell when Amah Chen called out from behind, “Miss, be careful, there are dogs!” A pack of dogs started barking just then. Amah Chen was frightened. She was wearing a brand-new tunic of light blue cotton that was stiff with starch. When she got flustered she twisted around inside her clothes, so that the cloth rustled noisily. She wore her hair in a braid, as did Glance and Glint of the Liang household, but the braid was tied murderously tight, like a nine-segment steel whip in a martial arts novel. Weilong suddenly felt that she didn’t know Chen, that she’d never taken a good, hard look at her; now she realized that this longtime servant was not at all presentable. “Amah Chen, you should go now,” she said. “If you wait any longer, you’ll be scared going back down the hill. Here’s two dollars for the ride. Leave the suitcase, someone will come to take it.” She sent Amah Chen off, and rang the bell.

A junior maid went in and announced her just as the eighth round of mah-jongg was ending and dinner was about to be- gin. When she heard that her niece had arrived, Madame Liang hesitated for a while. Always careful about financial matters, she was planning to spend quite a lot on this niece, but still felt some uncertainty. Did the girl have potential? Was she worth the investment? Her tuition wasn’t very expensive, but it wasn’t cheap either. Since the money hadn’t gone out yet, the smart thing would be to make use of this opportunity—tell the child to change her clothes and come meet the guests. As the saying goes, “True gold does not fear testing by fire.” Then she’d find out right away. The only problem was that tonight’s guests had been carefully matched; she’d gone to considerable trouble over the details. If this girl, with her very first trill, did cause a sensation—if the young phoenix sang more thrillingly than the old one—that would lead to all kinds of fuss, and the balance would be upset. If, on the other hand, Weilong wasn’t up to the job and things went wrong, well, a blockheaded child in the middle of a party can spoil all the fun.

And there was another angle to consider: too many greedy- eyed people here. Madame Liang glanced at the lean and hungry tiger seated across from her. Of all her paramours, he’d had the greatest staying power. He was Situ Xie, a rich boss from Shantou, the owner of a factory that made ceramic toilets. Although Madame Liang knew a lot of people, she usually preferred Hong Kong’s local big shots, members of the gentle- manly class who had ties to officialdom. Nonetheless, she’d been quite taken with this businessman, for he was an expert charmer, with a talent for pleasing the ladies. They’d known each other for a long time now, with Madame Liang always walking in slight fear of him, letting him have his way and keeping herself in check. If twenty years had passed like a single day for Situ Xie and Madame Liang, it was because he understood her all too well, and paid her plenty of attention; besides, although she didn’t pick up the tab for him, he didn’t have to spend money on her, either. When he wanted to throw a dinner party, he could use her place—it was lovely and the guests were well treated; people could relax and enjoy themselves here. This evening’s party was a send-off for Situ Xie himself: soon he would be returning to Shantou to marry a girl. Then again, if he were to take a liking to Weilong he might not go back to Shantou after all—that could get complicated.

Madame Liang quietly summoned Glint. “Go and make my excuses to the Ge girl,” she ordered. “Tell her I can’t get away right now, but I’ll see her in the morning. Ask her if she’s had dinner. The blue bedroom will be hers, so take her there.”

Glint went off to discharge her duty. She was wearing a lilac-colored fitted tunic over a pair of narrow, kingfisher-blue trousers, her arms folded inside a white vest embroidered with gold thread—a slave-girl costume from the days of Dream of the Red Chamber. She wore no powder at all, only a bit of green oil, highlighting the lusciousness of her coppery skin.

As soon as she saw Weilong, Glint rushed forward and took her luggage. “Young Mistress has been anxiously awaiting your arrival, asking every day why you weren’t here yet. But tonight, as luck would have it, she has guests.”

Then, leaning over to Weilong’s ear, she added, “They’re all old masters and wives, and Young Mistress is afraid you’ll feel awkward and uncomfortable with them, so she’s ordered a sep- arate supper for you upstairs.”

“Thank you very much,” said Weilong, “but I’ve already eaten.”

“Then I’ll take you to your room,” said Glint. “If you get hungry later on, just ring the bell and order a sandwich. There will be someone in the kitchen all night.”

When Weilong went upstairs, the people below sat down for dinner, and radio music drifted upward. Weilong’s room, small like a boat, was launched on waves of music. The old wall lamp in its red gauze shade seemed to bob and float, and she felt herself swaying about, exuberant and elated. She opened the pearly net curtains and leaned against the frame of the glass door. There was a narrow balcony and, beyond the metal railing, the mist was drifting by, thick, white, and rolling; it felt like a shipboard view of the sea.

Weilong opened her suitcase, ready to put her things in the drawers, but when she opened the door she found the closet was full of clothes—gleaming, gorgeous clothes. “Whose are these?” she gasped. “Aunt must have forgotten to clear this closet out.”

Like the child that she still was, she had to lock the door and try on all the clothes, which fit her perfectly. Suddenly she realized that her aunt had put them there for her. Silks and satins, brocade housedresses, short coats, long coats, beach wraps, nightgowns, bath wear, evening gowns, afternoon cock- tail dresses, semiformal dining wear for entertaining guests at home—everything was there. What use would a schoolgirl have for all this? Weilong hurriedly stripped off the dinner dress she’d been trying on and threw it onto the bed. Her knees grew weak and she sat down on the bed, heat surging across her face. “Isn’t this just how a bordello buys girls?” she whispered to herself. She sat for a moment, then stood up and put each out- fit back onto its hanger. Hanging inside each dress was a little white satin sachet filled with lilac petals; the closet smelled of their sweet scent.

Weilong was leaning into the closet to straighten out the sachets when she heard a woman’s laugh downstairs. It was a sweet, slippery laugh, and Weilong couldn’t help laughing too. “Glint said the guests were all old masters and wives. Well, there’s no telling whether those masters really are old, but as for the wives, they don’t sound like old wives—or like young wives either!”

When dinner was finished, the mah-jongg started again, but some of the guests turned on the phonograph and started to dance. Weilong couldn’t get to sleep; as soon as she shut her eyes she was trying on clothes, one outfit after another. Woolen things, thick and furry as a perturbing jazz dance; crushed- velvet things, deep and sad as an aria from a Western opera; rich, fine silks, smooth and slippery like “The Blue Danube,” coolly enveloping the whole body. She had just fallen into a dazed slumber when the music changed. She woke with a start. The panting thrust of a rumba came from downstairs, and she couldn’t help but think of that long electric-purple dress hanging in the closet, and the swish it would make with each dance step. “Why not give it a try?” she murmured softly to everything downstairs. Only her lips moved, without any sound, but still she yanked the blanket up over her head. No one could hear her. “Why not give it a try?” she whispered again. Then, smiling, she fell asleep.

—Eileen Chang, translated by Karen Kingsbury

excerpt of “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier” from Love in a Fallen City, New York Review of Books, 2007