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Chen Danyan and Her Shanghai Princess

She was once a favorite writer for China's children, but today she's an adult's author, who writes true stories of old Shanghai. Chen Danyan, a Shanghai writer takes us back to the dramatic times of last century's Shanghai with her book Shanghai Princess, part of a whole series of works that she's devoted to the Shanghai theme.


It was the second of April, 1910.  Perhaps those tall Australian trees had already shed many leaves in the sunshine and wind. Maybe the chrysanthemums had already dropped their buds, just as in that old English song about roses?  It would be one of countless Australian autumns, but I had no way of knowing.


This is the very beginning of Shanghai Princess, a popular novel, which recounts the true life story of a truly incredible woman. As part of a series on Shanghai, this book has helped its author, Chen Danyan establish herself as a fully matured writer.


Always one of China's most popular writers, Chen Danyan graduated from East China Normal University back in 1982. In the early years, she was a writer of children's books, but later, she began to create a new theme in Chinese literature, with short stories focusing on the lives of adolescent girls.  These works won her many awards, yet Chen Danyan has recently changed her style once again. This time she's adopted a documentary style, in printing the memories of people who experienced life back in old Shanghai. Liu Xuyuan, a famous writer, expresses his approval concerning this most recent change from Chen Danyan.



Chen Danyan's change from children's literature to adult literature is quite natural. Her skill in writing children's books can also be traced in her recent works, like Shanghai Princess for example. By this, I'm referring to her skill in the use of language - she still uses the same style, which is childlike, curious and naive. In this way, the innermost content of her creations are intensified. Furthermore, in applying this special style to adult or documentary literature, Chen Danyan has created her own unique literary personality.


It was in the year of 1997 that Chen Danyan first met Daisy, the heroine of her famous work Shanghai Princess. Immediately, Chen was totally captivated by Daisy's beauty of spirit and optimism, with charm, wit, pride and dignity in spite of hands gnarled with toil, and hair white with age. Chen Danyan decided to write Daisy's story, constantly accompanying over a two-year period, until the day before Daisy's death on 25th September 1998. 


Rather than a mere work of fiction, Shanghai Princess actually provides the life experience of a quite remarkable woman. For over three decades, Australian Chinese Daisy Kwok Bew has endured the loss of her husband, home and family, without becoming embittered or broken-hearted. Instead, she concluded that her experiences had given her a very rich life.


Born in 1909 in Sydney, Daisy and her family returned to their hometown of Shanghai in 1917. A prosperous businessman in Sydney, Daisy's father had accepted Dr. Sun Yat-sen's invitation to return to China, where he would help revitalize its conservative domestic economy. Daisy's father was persuaded to join the Wing on Department Store, the second of four modern department stores in Shanghai, which had been managed by successful Australian Chinese. Undoubtedly, Daisy got to enjoy a privileged lifestyle during this time. Unable to speak Chinese, She was sent to a missionary school where the major language was English. Later, she chose to marry Woo Yu-hsiang for the infinite fun in everyday life he could give her.  She was in a dominant position, able to live life exactly how she desired. At the same time however, she was something of a free spirit, with no great desire for material goods. Instead, she wished to achieve something in life, so she always chose to carry on her study. In Chen's book, we don't see an effeminate lady from an over-privileged background. Instead, Daisy always gives us the impressions of positivity and enthusiasm.


Unfortunately, this golden age did not last long for Daisy. As politics changed, her husband was named a rightist and sent to prison. He never saw his family again and died three years later in prison. With two children to support and all her assets confiscated, life finally laid its heavy burden upon Daisy's shoulders. Daisy herself was sent to brain-washing classes, along with other victims of so-called capitalist origin. Her job was initially to clean out the women's toilets each morning, with following tasks including factory work, iron melting, road construction and farm work.  Later, with her parents and husband dead, and her relatives abroad, Daisy had to survive on her own, no matter how execrable her environment was.  As Chen Danyan says in her book, sometimes it makes one wonder whether a person's character is indeed established during childhood. If this is case, surely a rich and bright childhood must be the best cultivation for a pure and tenacious character.


Describing what most impressed him about this book, Mr Liu Xuyuan tells us:

"The way that Daisy deals with life and death left the deepest impression on my mind.  When hearing that her husband had passed away, Daisy' first reaction was to regret those three years that had been wasted in prison.  This fully reveals her unique values, with a calmness that she also applied to her own life.  I believe that the value of this book lies in this redefinition of the lofty spirit."


As a book of reminiscence, Shanghai Princess not only caters for nostalgic older readers, but also leaves its mark on the younger generation. An example of the latter, He Yan comments.



"Although Daisy's story is a little bit far removed from our times, I still think that we young people can draw something valuable from her experiences. Throughout her life, Daisy underwent many unexpected trials and tribulations. Therefore, the lesson she's taught me is that when confronted with ordeals we should always remain brave and optimistic, and try to maintain our tolerance in order to obtain true tranquility of the heart."


Daisy's life was indeed full of upheavals.  However, just like a nut smashed open, her spirit was released in a way that couldn't have happened within the confines of an ordinary life. Others even saw magnificence in Daisy's life, although she herself endured endless suffering. In April 1990, when Daisy was already 81, Miss Chen Danyan describes such a picture: now, she has come back alone, smiling in the sunshine that once upon a time shone just for her.  She will never again wear that skirt trimmed with white laces, and her shoes will never again be so clean that one cannot tell the sole from the vamp.  Her face lights up with a deep smile, the smile of the elderly.


(CRI September 8, 2005)

The Writers And Their Works
Middle-class Writer, Chen Danyan
Shanghai through Chen Danyan's Eyes
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