Asian Explorations: Books 1 and 2

Book 1: The Valley of Amazement

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite daytime cartoons was Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat. Unbeknown to me at the time, the show was an adaptation of Amy Tan’s children’s novel of the same name. I forgot all about Sagwa after the show ended and 14 years passed before I encountered Tan’s work again. This time, it was through the ENG101 course I did on edX where one of the required ethnographic readings was one of Tan’s essays. I don’t know what made me google her; the Chinese may call it fate while others may call it coincidence, destiny or simple curiosity. Whatever it was drew me into childhood nostalgia while the attractive, green cover of The Valley of Amazement seduced me between its covers.

When I started reading The Valley of Amazement, I didn’t know what to expect. I supposed I failed to read the cover synopsis because I was so eager to read the book whose cover had teased me in the kindle store for months. However, I have no regrets. I enjoyed the book immensely.

The Valley of Amazement told the story of several women, but focused on the life of Violet Minturn – the spoiled, American-Chinese daughter of an American courtesan house-owner named Lucia. Just as Violet’s life was about to get a bit more American, she and her mother were separated and Violet was sold to a competing courtesan house. From there, she was forced to rethink her place in the world, confront her Chinese heritage and reform her perception of life and love.

I loved that Tan’s novel wasn’t totally predicable. There were some plot points that I was able to figure out, yes, but when I thought that I had figured out others, Tan would blindside me with a plot twist that I couldn’t foresee. It was brilliantly written and that mix of predictability and surprised really made me love the book. The best part about it was that the book introduced me to a culture and time-period unfamiliar to me, namely, the Shanghainese courtesan culture in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

When I reached Chapter 4, something about the prose reminded me of some scenes from the movie adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. I had watched the movie about 3 or 4 years ago and I promised myself to read the book someday. This year, I couldn’t put it off. Reading The Valley of Amazement made me curious about the sex industries of both Shanghai and Kyoto and how the old courtesan and geisha traditions helped to influence some aspects of their modern entertainment and sex industries. I can only speculate from these novels and some very amateur research, but I do think that I have found a correlation between the past and present.

But before I go into my comparison, let me tell you about Memoirs of a Geisha.

Book 2: Memoirs of a Geisha

I think I finished Memoirs of a Geisha a lot faster than The Valley of Amazement because I had already seen the movie adaptation and already knew most of the plot. However, I must admit that I enjoyed the book so much more than the movie, that I began to dream about various scenes. Yes. The book really was vivid enough to influence my dreams.

Golden’s novel retold Nitta Sayuri’s life in Japan and the series of events that led her to become one of Gion’s top geisha. The book the life of Nitta Sayuri as she relieves the series of events that led her to become one of Gion’s top geisha. Similar to The Valley of Amazement, the book started with Sayuri as a young girl and, just like Violet, outlined the circumstances that led her to debt-bondage. Sayuri’s situation was not always ideal, but through various acts of kindness and a bit of good luck, she overcame her many challenges and achieved her ultimate goal.

I adored Sayuri’s narration in this book. Her words drew me deeper into the story, as if I was right on her shoulder watching the events unfold with her. Even though I did watch the movie before, I was still on edge throughout most of the book because of some key differences. For example, in the movie, they got rid of the main villain – Hatsumomo – very early in the script. In the book, however, Hatsumomo was a persistent adversary and I was eager to see how she would fall in the original story.

My greatest disappointment, on the other hand, was the misleading translator’s note at the beginning. The note made it seem like Nitta Sayuri was a real person, but again I must confess that I did not read the novel’s synopsis. When I reached the end of the book, I was disappointed to read the acknowledgements and realize that Sayuri, the other characters and the story itself was purely fictional.  I have to give Golden some credit for this deception. His storytelling was so powerful, that I fully suspended my disbelief and allowed his characters to become real to me.

I Googled Mr. Golden after I finished the book and I was rather pleased to find that he had based Sayuri on a real-life top geisha named Mineko Iwasaki. Iwasaki, as it turned out, sued Golden in the early 2000s for breaking her confidence and misrepresenting some parts of her own story in the book. This thrilled me as I hadn’t realized that Memoirs of a Geisha was shrouded in even more scandal than I had thought. Further research also recognize that the Dutch translator was a projection Golden cleverly projecting himself into his own novel. That was the icing on the cake for me. I tip my hat to you, Mr. Golden.

Comparison

Warning!

For this comparison, I will be exploring both of these novels on a deeper level rather than just providing a surface-level review. With that said, spoiler alert!

When I finished The Valley of Amazement, I dived into Memoirs of a Geisha with the assumption that geisha and courtesans were almost the same. According to Golden’s account, this is not entirely true and his book helped me to quickly rectify this misconception. There are many similarities, of course, but there are some key distinctions.

One similarity I have noted is that girls can be born courtesans or geisha if their mothers get pregnant on the job. However, in other cases, both geisha and courtesans are sold into debt-bondage where they must work until they pay off the cost of their purchase with interest as well as the cost of their living (food, water and utilities).

The second similarity I noticed was just how young the girls in both books were. In Memoirs of a Geisha, Sayuri began her initial geisha training at 9 or 10 years old and Lucia’s last purchase was 9 years old as well. I began to wonder if this old fascination with young girls was an influence in modern human trafficking and sex slavery in Asia. I did some amateur research and I realized that most of these operations are run by crime syndicates in China. In The Valley of Amazement, Tan mentioned that the Green Gang bought many of the Shanghainese courtesan houses and had strong political influences. I can only speculate that the Green Gang was only the beginning of a much larger problem.

On the Japanese side, I could see the modern influences are a bit clearer. Geisha may not be as popular anymore (but I am happy to say that they DO still exist), but I recently watched a documentary on the growing fascination with school-aged girls in Japan. According to Golden’s novel, apprentice geisha debut when they are around 14 or 15 and are considered fully fledged geisha at around 20. During this time, or sometime after a geisha’s mizuage (deflowering), she may be courted by much older men. Something similar is currently happening on the streets of Japan where school girls are offering ‘walking dates’ to older men or performing seemingly innocent concerts in front of a predominantly male audience. In many cases, these men just seem to want to have a chat over tea with these girls, but some suspect that there are darker undertones. Even though this is just an amateur comparison, the parallels to Sayuri’s stories are stark. It just goes to show that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

There are two key differences between courtesans and geisha. According to Tan’s novel, the first is that a courtesan’s purpose is to provide a romantic fantasy for the men who can afford it. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Shanghainese marriages were arranged. This left a romantic void for men that courtesans soon filled. Men were able to relive a kind of nostalgia through courtesans by going through a period of mock-courtship before a man may agree to be a woman’s patron for a season or more. This courtship may take several weeks to complete and during this time, the man is expected to provide the courtesan with expensive gifts. Once a man decides to be a courtesan’s patron, he will be able to win her sexual favours. This courtship ritual sets a courtesans aside from prostitutes and although they may have a bit more dignity, they are still in bondage. As the character Magic Gourd said “Courtesanship is a game between free men and enslaved women.”

The second difference is the length of courtesan and geisha careers. Unlike courtesans, who may be forced into retirement by the time they are in their mid 20s or early 30s, geisha can work until they are well into their 50s or 60s. This is so because geisha are professional entertainers and conversationalists rather than “glorified prostitutes” (and even that description may be incorrect when it comes to courtesans). Even if a geisha does have a danna or patron, she may only have one or two for her entire lifetime while courtesans can have a different one every season. Therefore, geisha can keep on working for a very long time if their careers are not prematurely ended by scandal, injury, marriage or pregnancy.

In closing

I thoroughly enjoyed my first books of the year. Tan and Golden were able to give me romantic (and sometimes erotic) stories without the usual East-Asian stereotypes. These readings helped me to break down my personal barriers and correct many of the misconceptions I had about East-Asia while I rekindled my childhood fascination about the region. I would recommend both books to anyone who would like to view Shanghai and Kyoto with an insider – rather than a spectator’s – eyes.

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