the Eter­nal Ex­pats

The World of Chinese - - Bookamark - BY CAR­LOS OT­TERY

Some­times a writer re­veals a lit­tle more about him­self than he fully in­tends. So it is on the first page of W. Som­er­set Maugham’s travel mem­oir, On a Chi­nese Screen, when the au­thor de­scribes a train of camels in an un­named city with “the dis­dain­ful air of prof­i­teers forced to tra­verse a world in which many peo­ple are not as rich as they.”

His words skewer the ex­pa­tri­ates (in­clud­ing Maugham) of China al­most a cen­tury ago, as much as the camels’ haughty de­mur. In­deed, many of the de­scrip­tions that pop­u­late this slim vol­ume of ob­ser­va­tions would suit a few for­eign trav­el­ers to­day.

The sketches here were ini­tially planned as re­search for a novel, but Maugham con­cluded there wasn’t enough for a story, so pub­lished them as the vi­gnettes that make up On a Chi­nese Screen. It was a wise choice—those with a thirst for nar­ra­tive will not find one here. In­stead, we get a series of out­lines and im­ages, some barely a page long, show­cas­ing the feck­less char­ac­ters Maugham meets. Though a trav­el­ogue of sorts, it is of­ten un­clear what part of China we are in; the “sto­ries” of­ten have el­e­ments of fic­tion, oc­ca­sion­ally even the su­per­nat­u­ral.

Con­scious of his place in the lit­er­ary canon, Maugham some­times de­scribed him­self as “in the very front row of the sec­ond-rate.” It’s a fair sum­mary: Maugham’s China is pop­u­lated by weath­ered East­ern ex­ot­ica that could be found in al­most any work—rugged moun­tains, men­ac­ing

watch­tow­ers, wind­ing bam­boo groves, moon­lit paddy fields, opium dens, tav­erns full of un­ap­pe­tiz­ing meals, crum­bling tem­ples, butch­ers where en­trails hang bloody among flies.

For­tu­nately, Maugham finds his feet when de­scrib­ing peo­ple, del­i­cately tread­ing be­tween heart­felt em­pa­thy and gen­tle mis­an­thropy. The ex­pats of his day were seem­ingly priv­i­leged, bored, and hyp­o­crit­i­cal, si­mul­ta­ne­ously nos­tal­gic for the old coun­try and dis­in­ter­ested, even hate­ful, of their cur­rent sur­round­ings.

Like Maugham’s ar­ro­gant sub­jects, the book suf­fers from too hefty a dol­lop of Ori­en­tal­ism—the open­ing sketch men­tions “the mys­tery of the East”—and though this is to be ex­pected from a Vic­to­rian writ­ing at the fag end of colo­nial­ism, there are only so many wiz­ened coolies and bearded Con­fu­cians one can take: There’s lit­tle to be learned about the lo­cals here.

“Upon your own peo­ple, sym­pa­thy and knowl­edge give you a hold,” Maugham com­plains. “But [the Chi­nese] are strange to you as you are strange to them. You have no clue to their mys­tery.”

So Maugham pro­ceeds much as Or­well did ob­serv­ing the poor, with a fas­ci­nated mix of ad­mi­ra­tion and dis­gust: “You see old men with­out an ounce of fat on their bod­ies, their skin loose on their bod­ies, wiz­ened, their lit­tle faces wrin­kled and ape-like, with hair thin and grey, and they tot­ter un­der their bur­dens to the edge of the grave,” he writes. “Their ef­fort op­presses you. You are filled with a use­less com­pas­sion.”

Maugham’s for­eign­ers are an un­happy mix of naive mis­sion­ar­ies, bump­tious diplo­mats, and cruel busi­ness­men. Only the sailors come out well, play­ing dice and telling tales of the high seas in The Glory Hole, their fa­vorite boozer. There are fa­mil­iar fig­ures: the des­per­ate sin­gle woman (“It was pa­thet­i­cally ob­vi­ous that she had come to China to be mar­ried, and what made it al­most as tragic was that not a sin­gle man in the treaty port was ig­no­rant of the fact”); the petty bu­reau­crat (“It was hard to lis­ten to him with­out a smile, for in ev­ery word he said you felt how ex­as­per­at­ing he must be to the un­for­tu­nate per­son over whom he had con­trol”); the dog­matic evan­ge­list (“He took no in­ter­est in the reli­gions which flour­ished in the land he had come to evan­ge­lize. He classed them all con­temp­tu­ously as devil wor­ship”).

And the drink­ing: “It was al­ways the same story: they had come out to China; they had never seen so much money be­fore, they were good fel­lows and they wanted to drink

with the rest; they couldn’t stand it and they were in the ceme­tery.”

These words are spo­ken by a taipan— a Can­tonese term for a busi­ness­man in China, pop­u­lar­ized by Maugham’s own 1922 story “The Taipan”—who takes great plea­sure in drink­ing ri­vals, friends, even girl­friends to an early grave, and de­spises his new home de­spite the lux­u­ries it af­fords him: “Though he had been so long in China, he knew no Chi­nese, in his day it was not thought nec­es­sary to learn the damned lan­guage, and he asked the coolies in English whose grave they were dig­ging. They did not un­der­stand. They an­swered him in Chi­nese and he cursed them for ig­no­rant fools…china. Why had he ever come? He was panic-stricken now. He must get out.”

Like the taipan, few of Maugham’s mis­fits care about any­one other than them­selves. In­stead “they dwelt in a world in which Coper­ni­cus had never ex­isted, for them sun and stars cir­cled ob­se­quiously round this earth of ours, and they were its cen­tre.” Only a des­per­ate yearn­ing for home stirs them: They are for­ever pin­ing for an an­cient copy of The Times or Punch, or the lat­est songs from Lon­don’s mu­sic halls. A woman can­not dec­o­rate a room with­out point­ing out its re­sem­blance to “some nice place in Eng­land, Chel­tenham, say, or Tun­bridge Wells.” Maugham him­self catches this home­sick­ness, some­times wax­ing lyri­cal about the hop fields of Kent in the midst of de­scrib­ing a Chi­nese moun­tain path.

Some may ask why we should bother with all this to­day. For stay-at-homes, ea­ger to sam­ple the at­ti­tudes of a colo­nial life abroad, On a Chi­nese Screen is a splen­did digest of the booze, bore­dom and the cru­elty, all deftly laid out in Maugham’s pierc­ing prose. Travel is sup­posed to be fa­tal to prej­u­dice, or so Maugham’s con­tem­po­rary Mark Twain be­lieved. In­stead we meet mis­fits, big­ots, and bores who, given an op­por­tu­nity to re­make them­selves over­seas, ea­gerly fail anew. What if liv­ing abroad in­stead makes one nos­tal­gic, in­ward look­ing, and too par­a­lyzed to re­turn? It’s a bleak the­sis, and casts Maugham’s col­lec­tion as less a series of play­ful sketches than a cat­a­logue of cau­tion­ary tales.

Rick­shaw driv­ers, of­fer­ing hu­man-pow­ered trans­port, line a street in Bei­jing's Le­ga­tion Quar­ter in the 1920s

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