For two years now, all of us--everywhere--have faced a confinement of sorts, not being able to travel abroad. For my husband and myself, we're finally spreading our wings and taking a trip to a truly different place, where we'll face a different language, and (I'm sure) a different culture.
We're going to Iceland.
I'm looking forward to the waterfalls, the bird-life, walking atop a glacier, learning more about the island's Viking history, and seeing wonders of nature. It'll be delightful to experience another place and a different way of living for a few weeks. Isn't that what books do for us, when we're unable to travel? They TAKE us places--places we wouldn't ordinarily get to visit and back into periods with which we're less familiar.
This week's excerpt is doing just that--taking us to the magical land of Hong Kong at the turn of the 20th century. For one western woman, it's a unique and eye-opening experience. Please join me in welcoming M.K. Tod to Brook's Journal, as she shares with us a scene from her book, The Admiral's Wife.
Excerpt from The Admiral's Wife
By: M.K. Tod
June 1912 – The theater looked surprisingly modest. Indeed, Isabel would not have imagined the plain gray exterior and simple wooden door to house anything of significance, if it weren’t for the strings of red paper lanterns spanning the trees in front. Mr. Li and his wife were waiting in the lobby, a small space decked out in vivid red and gold.
Li Tao-Kai greeted her with a slight bow. “Mrs. Taylor, how good to see you.”
Earlier, Isabel had asked Ah Lam to teach her how to say hello in Cantonese. She’d practiced the two sounds several times to much amusement from her housemaid. As far as she could discern, hello sounded like “neigh hoe,” which she said now to both Wen Lee Chu and Li Tao-Kai. Her greeting brought smiles to their faces.
“I’m delighted to be here,” she continued. “Allow me to introduce Miss Fletcher.”
When responding to the invitation, she’d mentioned that Henry would not be able to join them. It was Li Tao-Kai who had suggested she bring a friend. For the sake of propriety, then, Muriel accompanied her to the opera. Glancing around at the almost exclusively Chinese audience, Isabel was relieved. She didn’t relish the notion of being a single white woman in the company of an Asian couple.
Unlike London theaters, here it seemed that those attending did not mingle while drinking cocktails or champagne before the performance but instead took their seats upon arrival. Wen Lee Chu led the way into a large, two-story room unlike anything Isabel had ever seen.
Like the lobby, red and gold were in liberal use along with touches of green, blue, and black. The first-floor stage was square and thrust into the main seating area at least thirty feet. A black curtain with an intricate scene of flowers and trees in silver and gold was draped across the back of the stage. Red stairs allowed actors to mount to the smaller second-story stage where the backdrop was red and an enormous brass gong was mounted on a stand and flanked by marble-topped tables set on what looked like ceramic dragons.
As for seating, rows of dark wooden chairs stretched from side to side, and similar chairs painted with red lacquer populated the balconies, where painted silk banners defined each separate box. The buzz of conversation rose as more and more people entered the hall.
“Let me tell you a little bit about the opera we will see tonight,” Li Tao-Kai said after they were seated in the upper balcony level. “It’s called Legend of the White Snake—a Chinese fairytale about a snake spirit who falls in love with a man. Chinese legends often involve spirits. This snake spirit takes on the form of a woman, and the man falls in love with her. They get married. Unfortunately, another spirit is jealous and exposes the woman as a snake. This causes her husband to have a heart attack and die. Of course, being a spirit, she is able to bring him back to life . . . but more troubles follow.”
Wen Lee Chu leaned towards her husband and spoke softly.
“My wife wants me to tell you that it’s one of China’s great folk tales.”
Smiles and nods followed this statement.
“The opera is about to begin,” he said. “I hope you find it interesting.”
The lights dimmed and a gong sounded. The audience quieted until all that could be heard was the faint rustle of clothing. On the balcony stage, an actor appeared dressed in white, his long black hair pulled back from his face, his brows and eyes heavily accented with makeup. He raised a wooden mallet and struck the brass gong which reverberated across the hall and then the performance began.
For the next hour, Isabel’s attention was riveted to the stage. The story played out in music, song, mime, dance, and even acrobatics. The costumes were magnificent creations: long, flowing gowns in blue or white with occasional bits of red. Banners swooped and fluttered in the hands of the actors, at times suggesting water, at other times birds, clouds, or snakes. Flags, lanterns, umbrellas, pikes, and swords appeared with dramatic flourish. Symbols clanged, drums beat, horns blared. Castanets, bells, lutes, and reed pipes added to the tumult of sound. At times, these instruments were so loud that the actors sang in a piercing style to be heard. To her Western ear, these songs were more noise than music.
“Now there’s a brief intermission,” Li Tao-Kai said. He rose to his feet. “Did you find it enjoyable?”
“Fascinating,” Isabel said. “There’s so much color and movement. It’s very different from our opera.”
“And you, Miss Fletcher?”
“Wonderful, Mr. Li. It was like a combination of ballet, athletics, and opera. The actors are superb. The lead female expresses such emotion in her gestures that at times I felt I could understand what she was saying.”
“A performer’s skill is judged by the beauty of their movements,” Li Tao-Kai said. “This particular actress is well known in Peking opera circles, and we are fortunate to have her here in Hong Kong.”
Wen Lee Chu touched her husband’s arm and spoke at length.
“My wife says these ancient legends tell us that all things may grow and change. A snake may become a woman, for example. A plant may become an animal. A human may become a god. And naturally, the reverse is also true. In tonight’s play, the snake becomes a woman. But she wants more. She wants love.”
“Perhaps such tales of growth and change symbolize our desire as humans to strive for more,” Muriel said. “More wealth, more beauty, a happier family, and so on.”
“An interesting observation, Miss Fletcher. Do you think we should all be content with our lot in life?” As he spoke, Li Tao-Kai looked directly at the governess, a slight frown marking his concentration.
Based on the blush in Muriel’s cheeks, Isabel assumed she was embarrassed by the intensity of Mr. Li’s gaze. I wonder if she’s has ever had a man in her life. The thought made her realize she’d never asked; indeed, she knew little of Muriel’s personal life except that her father had died, and Muriel had lived with her mother and younger siblings before becoming Georgiana’s governess.
Muriel drew her shoulders back and stood a little taller. “I think there’s a distinction between bettering oneself and tromping on others in a desire to get ahead. Or for that matter, denying the roots that gave one a start in life.”
“You make an excellent point, Miss Fletcher.”
Li Tao-Kai spent a moment chatting with his wife. He seemed to want to include her, despite her inability to converse in English. Based on the few comments Wen Lee Chu had already made, Isabel wondered if perhaps she understood some English but was uncomfortable speaking it.
“Mrs. Taylor told me that you went to Cambridge,” Miss Fletcher said. “Did you enjoy your time there?”
“It was difficult to fit in as a young Chinese man. My father made sure I spoke English before I went so there wasn’t a language barrier. Fortunately, I was good at sports.”
Isabel imagined the attitudes he would have encountered from the British upper-class men who attended places like Cambridge and Oxford. Men who felt entitled to wealth and position merely because they were born into it. Men she had socialized with in the heady days before marriage.
“What sports did you play?” Isabel asked.
“Tennis and cricket. I was reasonably good at them, which helped me be accepted. In the upper years, I had quite a few good friends. They called me Teddy.”
“Teddy?” she said.
“Yes. Tao-Kai seemed unnecessarily foreign. Teddy Li was much easier for everyone.”
“Did you enjoy your time in England, Mr. Li?” Muriel asked.
“Very much. I enjoyed your British culture and way of life. There are many things to admire about it. Unfortunately, my family disapproves of these sentiments.”
Tao-Kai’s admission surprised Isabel. However, the intermission came to an end as another gong sounded and she was unable to question him further.
Isabel thought about the evening while getting ready for bed. Li Tao-Kai had been the perfect host—solicitous and informative, blending serious conversation with more lighthearted matters. Just like the evening at government house, he’d been attentive to his wife, but Isabel hadn’t observed any signs of great affection between them. Was theirs an arranged marriage? Were arranged marriages the custom for Hong Kong Chinese?
Sights and sounds from the opera lingered in her mind. According to Wen Lee Chu, the meaning of the story was that all things may grow and change but that change might come in unexpected ways. As she drifted off to sleep, she wondered how Hong Kong would change her and her family.
All About The Admiral's Wife
The lives of two women living in Hong Kong more than a century apart are unexpectedly linked by forbidden love and financial scandal.
In 2016, Patricia Findlay leaves a high-powered career to move to Hong Kong, where she hopes to rekindle the bonds of family and embrace the city of her ancestors. Instead, she is overwhelmed by feelings of displacement and depression. To make matters worse, her father, CEO of the family bank, insists that Patricia’s duty is to produce an heir, even though she has suffered three miscarriages.
In 1912, when Isabel Taylor moves to Hong Kong with her husband, Henry, and their young daughter, she struggles to find her place in such a different world and to meet the demands of being the admiral’s wife. At a reception hosted by the governor of Hong Kong, she meets Li Tao-Kai, an influential member of the Chinese community and a man she met a decade earlier when he was a student at Cambridge.
As the story unfolds, each woman must consider where her loyalties lie and what she is prepared to risk for love.
All About M.K.
M.K. (Mary) Tod’s interest in historical fiction began as a teenager immersed in the stories of Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy, and Georgette Heyer. In 2004, her husband’s career took them to Hong Kong where, with no job and few prospects, Mary began what became Unravelled, her first novel. The Admiral’s Wife is her fifth novel.
Mary’s award-winning blog, www.awriterofhistory.com, focuses on reading and writing historical fiction. She’s an active member of the historical fiction community and has conducted five unique reader surveys on topics from readers’ habits and preferences to favorite historical fiction authors. Mary is happily married to her high-school sweetheart. They have two adult children and two delightful grandsons.
Connect with M.K.
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