Roland Soong’s only memory of Eileen Chang, one of modern China’s most celebrated novelists, was when she stayed at his family home in Hong Kong in the early 1960s. “I was 12,” Mr. Soong said. “Eileen Chang took over my room, which was located off the kitchen, and I had to sleep on the sofa in the living room, which was filled with mosquitoes. She didn’t pay attention to me or talk to anyone. She locked herself away to work.”
In 1962, the enigmatic writer left for the United States, and the Soongs never saw her again. She died as a recluse in California in 1995, at the age of 74. Today, the boy who was once barely a footnote in Chang’s life is the executor of her works and the greatest promoter of her legacy, which was almost lost in the turmoil of 20th-century China.
Mr. Soong, 61 and the blogger behind the popular site EastSouthWestNorth, still lives in the apartment he once shared with Chang, his parents, his sister, his grandmother and two servants. It was there that he discovered “boxes and boxes, dressers and dressers” of neglected documents sent to the family after Chang’s death. His father, Stephen Soong, was her literary agent.
“It was like searching through an avalanche,” he said. Among the papers he unearthed were several unpublished works that he is now making public.
“Small Reunions,” a Chinese-language novel written in 1976, was released last year and has sold nearly a million copies in China. “The Private Sayings of Eileen Chang,” a collection of notes and correspondence, was released at the Hong Kong Book Fair in July.
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Two English-language novels from the 1960s, “The Fall of the Pagoda” and “The Book of Change,” were published by Hong Kong University Press this year. Chinese-language translations were released in Taiwan and Hong Kong last month. Chang is probably best known for “Love in a Fallen City,” and the short story that was transformed into Ang Lee’s sex-filled spy film “Lust, Caution” in 2007. But she was regarded as a literary giant long before.
Her New York Times obituary quoted Dominic Cheung of the University of Southern California as saying that, had it not been for politics, Chang would have almost certainly won a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Restricted in her homeland, she moved to the United States hoping to break through internationally, but she could not arouse the interest of publishers there.
“These manuscripts were meant to be her calling card,” Michael Duckworth, publisher of Hong Kong University Press, said of the two English-language novels released this year. “But she never made it in the New York publishing scene in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Mr. Duckworth added: “She was not just a brilliant Chinese writer, she also deserves credit as a thoughtful, provocative writer in English. It’s unique that a writer can be dominant in two languages.”
Blocked in China and a failure in the United States, Chang became increasingly isolated. When Chang died, all of her files were sent to Mr. Soong’s parents according to her wishes, even though she had not seen them for three decades. Stephen Soong died a year later and the documents languished in storage. Roland Soong had “no idea” that he would someday become a promoter of Chinese literature. He spent most of his adult life in New York, getting a doctorate in statistics and working for a research company. It was only when he returned to Hong Kong in 2003, after his mother suffered a stroke, that he was approached about making a film from one of Chang’s novellas.
Roland Soong showing photos from Eileen Chang at his home in Hong Kong. Credit Lit Ma for the International Herald Tribune
He acknowledged that he had not read it. “So I dug out a copy of the old story in Chinese,” Mr. Soong said. “The first four pages are about some women playing mah-jongg. And I thought, ‘What kind of film is someone going to make out of this?”’ The result was “Lust, Caution,” a thriller set in wartime Shanghai that was so racy that it was given an NC-17 rating in the United States, which restricts the movie to viewers 18 and older.
“When the film came out, all the fuss was about the three sex scenes,” Mr. Soong said. “But there is no sex in the original. Eileen Chang just glided over those things, hoping that the reader could use his imagination. Ang Lee inserted them, but I can understand, and I think Eileen Chang could have, too. She once worked as a screenwriter.”
The film was reworked for the mainland — the sex scenes were cut. The ending was also changed slightly, to make it more ambiguous that the main character, a Chinese agent assigned to assassinate a Japanese sympathizer, may have betrayed her country.
Chang was not particularly political, but her works were often interpreted as such. “She might not have gone looking for politics, but politics had a way of finding her,” Mr. Soong said.
David Der-wei Wang, an Asia scholar at Harvard, wrote that Chang was “forced to the margins of literary respectability” after the Communists took power in 1949. Before then, she was the most popular writer in Shanghai. She made her debut at 18 when she published an essay, “What a Life! A Girl’s Life!” in an English-language newspaper, telling of how her father locked her in the house and denied her medical treatment.
Many of her works are thinly veiled autobiographies that draw on her family’s glamorous, turbulent life. Characters are based on her free-spirited mother and opium-addict father. Chang’s own life plays out repeatedly, particularly how she escaped her family to attend the University of Hong Kong and how she returned to wartime Shanghai, where she fell in love with a Chinese man suspected of collaborating with the Japanese.
“Strange Country” is about a 1947 trip Chang took to the countryside to visit her husband, who was considered a traitor and in hiding. “Of course it wasn’t published, because she couldn’t tell people where she was,” said Mr. Soong, who published the story in Taiwan and Hong Kong this spring.
“She was accused of being a traitor after World War II,” said Perry Lam, who edits Muse, a magazine here that in 2008 published a Chang short story for the first time. “By Communist standards, she wasn’t politically correct. She wasn’t a nationalist, and patriotism was not a major theme in her works.”
It did not help that her stories, with their opium dens, concubines and bound feet, were considered bourgeois. To make things worse, she did translation and other work for the U.S. Information Service. Her Hong Kong novels of the 1950s, “Naked Earth” and “The Rice Sprout Song,” were tarred as “anti-China and C.I.A.-funded,” Mr. Soong said.
Chang has long been popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where there have been films, ballets and other works created in her honor. But it was only in the 1990s that there was a revival of interest in her work in China, partly through unauthorized copies. “In 1980, nobody knew who she was,” Mr. Soong said. “By 2005, she had become one of the top five Chinese authors selling in the mainland.”
In 2003, he went to a major bookstore in Beijing and found what he called “the Eileen Chang special pirated section, with works by 30 different publishers, none of them authorized.” Mr. Soong plans to bring the definitive, complete set of Chang’s works to the Chinese market. But while many of her books have been allowed into mainland China, some are still available only from publishers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
A vestige of the politics that hounded Chang still follows her works today.
“All these issues were left unresolved in her lifetime,” Mr. Soong said. “They were deferred. I could defer it, too, but then what would happen?”
By JOYCE LAU