Chang’s readers might have a question: Chang visited Hong Kong thrice. Can she be regarded as a Hong Kong writer or a “South-coming writer”? The academia and the literary scene have always been strict about the definition of a Hong Kong writer. Chang’s literary career has never firmly set foot in Hong Kong. She was, at most, a transient traveller. In the 50s, Chang revisited and stayed in Hong Kong for 3 years. Her preoccupations, however, were always with the world outside. Even so, Chang managed to create the most well-known literary descriptions of the city. Although she rarely wrote about Hong Kong while being here, she depicted extensively the city she called “exaggerated,” “paradoxical,” “luxurious but sad” while in Shanghai and the United States.
Chang started publishing English reviews in the 20th Century in 1943. She had hoped to tap into the Western market with her English novels but failed. Although her literary works did not impress the global audience, they made appearances on stage and in movies. Following the stage and film adaptation of her works, Chang became a cultural icon symbolising an acute sensitivity for the city and a thorough understanding of human nature. Splendor and desolation mark her works — splendor for a city’s materialism and desolation for the forces that drove the happenings around us.
Chang’s perception of human nature is inseparable from her isolation and tendency to declutter. Isolation requires frugality, but still allows a tiny room for choices. The art of choices and trade-offs became crucial. In “From the Ashes,” Chang comments that university students tend to fall for and marry their first love: “Students are ignorant towards human nature. Once they had a glimpse of the reality under the mask – the fragile, ticklish, pathetic and laughable men and women — they fell in love with their own discovery.” In “Preface to the Second Printing of Romances,” she wrote that people living in the freezing North-West China had nothing to live with but their family. Scarcity has trained them to remember what they had clearly.
“From the Ashes” seems to argue that true love can only be found in ruins. The rest can be casted away. “In a versatile world, money, property, everything that claims to last forever are unreliable. The only thing reliable is her own life, and the person sleeping beside her.” Decluttering leaves behind a void. After the war, Liu Yuan and Liu Su entered the city. Chang captured the moment as such: “They entered the city and arrived at a turn. The road suddenly collapsed, revealing a void before them — a light inkish, humid sky.”
Chang was perhaps a master of decluttering long before it became a viral hit. She was discovered dead in her home in the Westwood neighbourhood after a period of time. The house was mostly empty except for her beddings and necessities. In her old age, Chang had decluttered most of her furniture, leaving behind only her wig and clothes. It was her choice. The remaining items were hopefully the ones that pleased her the most — what we call the “spark joy” items in the modern philosophy of decluttering.
“Let’s make our days tranquil and pleasant, our times peaceful and stable.” The statement was always mistaken to be Chang’s words. In reality, those were written by Hu Lancheng. In “A Woman of the Republican Era” in This Life, These Time, Hu mentioned that the first two lines in their marriage certificate were by Chang, while the last two by him. Chang wrote, “Hu Lancheng and Chang Ailing become married by signing this certificate.” Hu wrote, “Let’s make our days tranquil and pleasant, our times peaceful and stable.” To vow to “make” their days a certain way implies Hu’s arrogance. By contrast, Chang wasn’t putting her focus in the future, nor in her contemporary present. In “The Way I Look at Su Qing,” she used “we” as the subject. “We can only wish that everyone finds their own peace in their proximity.” No one can guarantee tranquility and peace in the times to come, or outside of our immediate proximity. In 2020, let’s wish everyone peace.