‘My story that should make
The civilized society hide its face
In the interiors of the earth, in shame –
In which canto of your country’s famed history
Will you write it down, my story?’
(From a Telugu dalit poem Prohibited History by Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, translated in English by K. Damodar Rao)
Pai Kit Fai’s Red Lotus is an epic spanning three generations of women where history merges with fantasy, despair with formidable will power, and tears with laughter. It’s a saga of the redemption of the woman will and how it triumphs against all odds. Working in the Far East and diving deep into traditional Chinese culture, medicine, and martial arts, Pai Kit Fai, delivers a unputdownable tale of love, passion and courage in his first novel. He says in an interview:
‘In male-dominated societies of the early twentieth century, underprivileged girls were arrogantly and often savagely exploited with no concept of dignity, spiritual freedom or physical comfort. Nowhere was this more harshly followed than in China… Those few who forged their identity in such a cruel and unrelenting society through their own wits, decisions, and choices were sometimes clever enough to change their cruel destiny against the most formidable odds and by the most remarkable of adventures – to find a life and love of their own that lead to great success. Theirs are the tales worth telling.’
Yip Mann, an elderly spice farmer, purchases a fifteen-year-old cherry-girl, Pai-Ling, as his concubine in the hope of a last few sons. Pai-Ling has lotus feet and is beautiful enough to be seen as Ch’ien Gum – a thousand pieces of gold. To Yip Mann’s dismay, Pai Ling delivers a worthless daughter. As Yip Mann snatches the daughter from her mother and goes to bury her in the paddy fields where he had buried his previous daughters, Pai Ling throws herself out of the window in a desperate bid to save her daughter and dies. A death highly forgettable and unmourned for in the Yip Mann household.
The appearance of a fox fairy saves the little girl from sure death, by a superstitious and illiterate father who is scared of the dreaded fox fairy. She is named Li-Xia – Beautiful One – by her father not because of any fondness for her looks but because he thinks the name along with her lotus feet would fetch her a higher price in the market when she is sold off as a cherry girl. But Li-Xia has inherited the fighting spirit of her rebellious mother, and escapes the crippling bandages with a little help from the compassionate Number Three wife of his father. She knows from a young age that her feet will be her freedom. Against great odds she learns to teach herself to be able to read her mother’s diary. Sold off to a silk merchant, after many adventures and defiances she is saved from near death by a young English sea captain. Though they find great love and happiness together, their happiness is short lived. Li-Xia becomes the victim of dynastic rivalry and a hostile society. She dies giving birth to her daughter Su Sing.
Su Sing’s – Little Star – journey takes her from the remote mountain refuges of interior China to the pre-world war I Macao and Hong Kong. Siu Sing is raised until the age of twelve by an elderly Taoist sage Master To who is master of the White Crane. She is trained as his last disciple. After her master is killed she begins a quest to find the father she never knew and to reclaim her birthright. She is given the name of Red Lotus by her Master.
The novel with its numerous stories, characters, traditions bring alive China of that era. It is the Lotus that unites the three women. Pai-Ling had the crippling Golden Lotus feet, they imprisoned her and led her to her death. Her daughter Li-Xia managed to escape the Lotus Feet. And though she became a great scholar and a reputed comprador, she was defenceless against the forces of violence and had to lose her life to them. Su Sing masters the martial art of the order of the White crane and is able to defeat the Tiger before she is able to find her happiness. For as Master To had taught her:
‘The crane was content to live quietly in the marsh, to build its nest in the rushes and to dry its wings on the sandbar. But the tiger came seeking the crane in the reed bed and tried to destroy her. She was ready, and defeated the attacker through the power of her wings and the steel of her feet and the blade of her beak. It will always be like this. The crane must be constantly vigilant.’
It takes three generations of women to be able to learn the tricks of survival in a male-dominated society. To learn that survival skills should come from within the self. In the transformation of the Golden Lotus to the Red Lotus lies the triumph.
Pai-Ling urges her daughter in her journal to seek out every hidden happiness and the little joys and store them in the memory as a piece of pure gold. Only when a woman has collected her thousand pieces of pure gold has she lived a life worth living. The novel records these pieces of pure gold and against each memory of pure gold, at least a dozen lead coins of hardship and heartbreak.
I would definitely recommend this book to all readers for the pieces of pure gold it offers. I am a little intrigued though that a male author has talked about generations of female protagonists with such sensitivity and would be glad if you would share other such instances with me.
More posts by this author:
- Of Sita We Sing
- Love’s Like That
- Flightless and Fightless An Inhuman Story
- Colourful Musings
- Random Reflections on Mommyhood