Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book 106, Macau: "The Bewitching Braid" by Henrique de Senna Fernandes

Guess what? We're in East Asia! And we're in China, but not in China per se, because if they're going to go around claiming every little island is theirs, I'm going to assert my right to proclaim every disputed and recently returned colonial territory as a distinct country from the mainland.

Thus, Macau. But golly gosh, I'm glad I decided to do this former Portuguese colony, because The Bewitching Braid is loads of fun.

It's fundamentally a romance: boy meets girl and (SPOILER ALERT!) their love triumphs against all odds. The intro notes that the author may be influenced by soapy Cantonese yarns in this respect. But it's written in Portuguese, by a member of the Macanese community: one of the many half-European, half-native mestizo groups the Portuguese empire-builders sired in Goa, Sri Lanka, Melaka, Timor, Brazil.

And it's an interracial love story, too. Thus, we've beautiful details of the privileged 1930s Macanese middle-class world of Handsome Adozindo, playboy about town, as well as the dignified squalor of the Chinese quarter of Cheok Chai Un, where the indomitable Chinese water-seller A-Leng plies her trade. Of course he becomes fascinated with her braid and her spirit, and is determined to seduce her - and yet ends up as her loyal and steadfast husband.

It's not a snap-happy convenient happy ending, mind you: the two are thrown together permanently rather against their will, the boy's family and the girl's community disowning them, leaving them to fend for themselves. Adozindo, being a good-for-nothing, really does look like he's going to become a drunken opium-addled sot at one point.

But they work through it at the end, and by the story closes not with a marriage but with Adozindo's family finally accepting him and his wife and his four children. The point is that it's not comfortable or easy to overcome ostracism and class differences and poverty, but it's possible.

(Btw, I honestly thought there'd be another crisis with the onset of World War Two, but it seems that Portugal was neutral during the war, so Macau ended up being one of the few peaceful refuges during the Japanese Occupation of East Asia.)

Of course, now Macau's gone and become the Las Vegas of the East, and my Hong Kong friends tell me it's hard to find that old, sleepy town they loved so well, a ferry ride over from the hustle and bustle of Kowloon City. More important than ever, then, to have this record of a vanished era.

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Representative quote:
Adozindo staggered to his feet, his clothes torn, his face and body covered in cuts and bruises. A-Leng swung her weapon of war around to give the boy cover, and urged him to go. She was magnificent, inspiring respect, queen of her territory, beautiful, barefoot, her braid twisting like a whip. Adozindo moved off as speedily as his strength would allow. He was safe and it was a heroic display of love that saved him.

Next book: Xu Xi's History's Fiction, from Hong Kong.

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