Amy Tan’s book ‘The Valley of Amazement’ explores the erotic and exotic world of Shanghai courtesans at the turn of the century

Amy Tan discusses her book 'The Valley of Amazement'

Amy Tan discusses her book 'The Valley of Amazement'

Amy Tan’s book ‘The Valley of Amazement’ explores the erotic and exotic world of Shanghai courtesans at the turn of the century

28/11/13

By Naomi Canton

Internationally renowned and best-selling author of The Joy Luck Club Amy Tan gave a talk about her latest book The Valley of Amazement, at Asia House on November 28, 2013.

The book, published in November, delves into the mysterious and precarious lives of courtesans in Shanghai during the early part of the twentieth century, and again explores one of Tan’s favourite themes: the complicated relationships between a mother and daughter.

This is Tan’s sixth novel and comes eight years after her last book, Saving Fish from Drowning. It spans the period 1897 to 1947 in China.

The book also explores the sociocultural context of Shanghai, the Shanghai International Settlement and the politics and economy of that city, which is forever in flux.

Tan said she travelled to Shanghai to research the book but it was difficult to trace the old courtesan houses as many of the street names have changed.

“I got really absorbed in the details of courtesan houses. I wanted to know where the bathrooms were and when did they go from chamber pots to flush toilets,” she said, adding she also spoke to academics and experts and used her own imagination to describe the courtesan houses.

The novel features Lulu, a white Californian who marries a Chinese painter, then moves to Shanghai and starts an upmarket courtesan house frequented by Chinese and foreign customers. She gives birth to Violet but then abandons her and returns to the USA. Violet also becomes a courtesan.

But Violet resists the fact she is half-Chinese and even looks down on the Chinese, thinking that makes her more American.

As a teenager Tan, an American-born writer with Chinese immigrant parents, discovered that her mother had abandoned her three children in China when fleeing a previous marriage to an abusive husband.

Tan says in her research of courtesans she discovered they were taught never to fall in love and instead to be “popular” and “desired” but also “shrewd” and “never to bargain.”

She describes how they had to think about practical matters such as pensions; they were told not to focus on marriage as they would only end up as the fourth or sixth wife but rather to aspire to be the madam of the house.

“You had to give up love but of course you cannot if you are aged 14 to your early twenties. So of course they would fall in love,” she said.

The novel was inspired by Tan’s grandmother. When Tan was reading a book about courtesans in turn-of-the century China, she stumbled across a photo of 10 women, five of whom were wearing outfits identical to the ones her grandmother wore.

“I went back and forth checking the details of their outfits – the headbands, high collars and so on and they were very specific to courtesans. I then read that only courtesans went to these kinds of photo studios,” she said.

“I can’t say my grandmother definitely was a courtesan but there was a lot of evidence that she may have been and that led to my fascination in them.  Who was my grandmother?  She would have had an influence on my mother and I was curious as to whether the past of my grandmother is in me and that was my obsession with the book,” Tan said.