Chinese boxes

Some open, some don't

By William Wetherall

First posted 15 August 2006
Last updated 5 September 2006

Introduction

"Chinese" puzzle boxes

Novels and short stories

Marian Bower and Leon M. Lion, The Chinese Puzzle, 1919
Captain W.E. Johns, Biggles' Chinese Puzzle, 1955
Katherine Wigmore Eyre, The Chinese Box, 1959
Robert Martin, The Chinese Box, 1960
John Creasey, The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle, 1965
Gerald Chan Sieg, The Chinese Christmas Box, 1970
Marjorie McEvoy, The Chinese Box, 1973
Christopher New, The Chinese Box, 1975
Marele Day, The Case of the Chinese Boxes, 1990
Chris Auer, The Chinese Puzzle Box, 2005

Films

Wayne Wang, Chinese Box, 1997


"Chinese" puzzle boxes

"Chinese box" and "Chinese puzzle box" -- and sometimes just "Chinese puzzle" -- are synonymous with mystery and suspense, an enigma or a riddle. They suggest something complex and difficult, or hidden and secret, as in boxes within intricate boxes.

Some stories with such phrases in their titles are set in China and some have nothing to do with China. Most involve actual puzzle boxes with secret compartments containing something someone will kill for. A few have nothing to do with such boxes other than to suggest that China itself is a puzzle for an outside world that tries in vain to discover its hidden secrets.

Made in Japan

If "Chinese puzzle boxes" symbolize the inscrutable Orient in the Occidental world, they reflect more the capacity of the Occidental world to confuse and conflate Chinese, Korean, Chinese, and other Asian countries, languages, peoples, and cultures.

A puzzle box bought in a curio shop on Grant Street in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s was Chinese. That it had been made in Japan simply meant that Japanese had started producing Chinese puzzle boxes.

Serious students and collectors of such boxes have issued all-point-bulletins for the whereabouts of a puzzle box that is truly Chinese. There are Chinese boxes, and Chinese puzzles, but are there Chinese puzzle boxes? Apparently only in the Occidental imagination.

Property of fans

While this may seem a prime example of Orientalism, consider the fact that "culture" is never a private property. The British writer and filmmaker should now (Barker's website).

The extraordinary event is this: that the moment you make a story or create an image that finds favour with an audience, you've effectively lost it. It toddles off, the little bastard; it becomes the property of the fans. It's they who create around it their own mythologies; who make sequels and prequels in their imagination; who point out the inconsistencies in your plotting.

The most famous "Chinese puzzle box" is fiction is the "Lemarchand's box" in Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart (1986), which he himself scripted and directed as the now classic horror film Hellraiser (1987). And like the Japanese puzzle boxes that have become Chinese, Barker's "little bastard" has a life and will of its own.

Since its release, Hellraiser has spawned a veritable industry of related films and comics, and a huge cult following that can't get enough the horrors that the box released. Various replicas of the Hellraiser Puzzle Box, some very intricate and expensive, are also for sale.

Pandora's "box"

In the Hellraiser story, Frank Cotton returns to England from a visit to an unnamed country with a mysterious Chinese puzzle box. He bought the box because it comes with a promise of stronger sexual sensations, which he can't wait to enjoy with his brother's wife, with whom he is having an affair. When he opens the box, he is sucked into the world of the Cenobites, who take him to the limits of unbearable pleasure and pain. He is able to return to his world, but can survive only on the blood of other people.

This is a variation of the Greek myth of Pandora, which itself has numerous versions. As told by Hesoid (circa 700 BC) in Works and Days, Zeus gives the beautiful Pandora to the titan Epimetheus with a storage jar as a dowry. Epimetheus, who has been told not to trust any gifts from the gods, falls in love with Pandora but tells her she was never to open the jar. She does, though, and before she can replace the lid, just in time to keep hope in the jar, she releases all possible misfortunes on humanity.

Pandora -- whose name means that her personal traits were gifts from the entire pantheon of gods -- had cousins like Eve, who brought the same miseries to Adam's world by partaking of a forbidden fruit. All beautiful seductresses trace their ancestry back to such early femmes fatales.

European paintings of Pandora show a box, rather than a jar, apparently because Erasmus of Rotterdam (c1466-1536) mistranslated the "pithos" in Hesoid's story, or confused it with the box Aphrodite gave Psyche with orders not to open it, in The Golden Ass, a much later story by Lucius Apuleius (c123/5-c180 AD). Psyche, also unable to control her curiosity, opened the box and found not beauty but sleep.

So the bastardization of "Japanese" into "Chinese" puzzle boxes -- and a Chinese puzzle box into a portal to evil like the Lemarchand's box in Barker's tale -- is par for the course in the history of cultural migration, adoption, and adaptation mal and otherwise.

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Play

Marian Bower and Leon M. Lion
The Chinese Puzzle
(An Original Play in Four Acts)
[Acting Edition]
New York: Samuel French, 1919

Novel

Marian Bower and Leon M. Lion
The Chinese Puzzle
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1919
341 pages, hardcover

Movie

The Chinese Puzzle
Produced by Julius Hagen
Directed by Guy Newall
Screen play by H. Fowler Mear
Crime, UK, 1932, 81 minutes

The Chinese Puzzle was performed as a play in 1918, published as a novel in 1919, and released as a movie in 1932. The writer and actor Leon M. Lion (1878-1947) played Marquis Chi Lung in both the stage and film versions. Lion also played

Old China hands

In the novel, Roger de la Haye decided to follow in the footsteps of Sir Aurthur, his father, who had devoted his life to British relations with China. Roger himself had spent most of his life in China, and his upbringing had been strongly influenced by Chi Lung, a mandarin who became a close friend of his father's when Sir Arthur had helped prevent Chi Lung's family land and tombs from being seized and destroyed by the court.

Back in England for a visit with his mother, Amabelle, Roger meets Naomi, who strikes his fancy. Amabelle learns that though Naomi's family was not rich, "the girl's father had been in the consular service in the East" (page 33), and he and Sir Arthur had known each other when they were young men (page 37).

The Chinese Room

Roger invites Naomi to the family home at Zouche de la Zouche. Amabelle has planned a small party in the "Chinese Room" -- Sir Arthur's large study -- which had not been used since his death five years ago. She has not yet told Roger, though, and tension builds when Naomi turns a conversation with Amabelle and Roger to the room, which Roger had described to her (pages 48-49).

"Tell me," she began again, wanting to improve this hour when Roger's mother would be her friend, "may I see the Chinese Room, I have heard so much about it? Wasn't it there that --"

She stopped, warned by a glance from Roger.

Amabelle saw not only the look, but the understanding it implied. She had been going to finish Naomi's sentence, and say that in this Chinese Room, so celebrated for its treasures, had been signed the first treaty by Chi Lung and her husband wherein the East deigned to borrow of the West: but instead, she answered the inner spirit, and substituted: "I was going to keep a surprise for you, Roger, until Chi Lung came."

The secret drawer

Amabelle tells Roger the room is now unlocked and urges him to show it to Naomi. She opens the double doors and lingers in the salon outside when Roger and Naomi enter the room and the doors swing all but closed behind them (pages 51-52)

"What is that?" Amabelle heard her son's voice say, "Why, that is my father's desk. Look."

She knew he was bending down to show all the quaintness of an Eastern design adapted to European purposes. Perhaps he would explain to Naomi how the spring of what Sir Arthur called the confidential dispatch drawer worked.

It had been a whim of Sir Arthur to keep the secret of this drawer. Besides him, only Amabelle herself and Chi Lung knew that it existed.

She made a hasty step towards the Chinese Room. Her first idea was that Roger must not tell Naomi, then she checked herself.

A Man's wife must not only walk by his side, she must share his life -- and his career, unless the marriage is to be a failure.

Chapter 4 thus lays the foundation for the intrigue that unfolds in the rest of the story. Suffice it to say that the "Chinese puzzle" does not involve a box, or boxes inside boxes.

Note on Leon M. Lion

Leon M. Lion was known for playing yellowface on stage and screen. He played The Mandarin in another Guy Newall celluloid thriller, Chin Chin Chinaman (1931), which was released in the United States as The Boat from Shanghai.

Hal Erickson describes the plot of the film, and comments, as follows (The New York Times, AOL).

The Boat From Shanghai may be an unprepossessing title, but at least it's better than the film's original cognomen, Chin Chin Chinaman. Leon M. Lion plays The Mandarin, a Charlie Chanish oriental sleuth, while Elizabeth Allan co-stars as his assistant, The Countess. Infiltrating an aristocratic Chinese family, Lion and Allan search for a gang of jewel thieves. If you're looking for political correctness, skip this one; otherwise, it's fun in a mindless sort of way. The British The Boat From Shanghai was based on a popular stage play by Percy Walsh. -- Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

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Biggles' Chinese Puzzle
1955, Biggles No. 53
1955 hardcover edition
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Biggles' Chinese Puzzle
1955, Biggles No. 53
1967 paperback edition
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Biggles in the Orient
November 1944, Biggles No. 30
Supply planes are disappearing
between India and Chungking.
Biggles must find out why.

Captain W.E. Johns
Biggles' Chinese Puzzle
Leicester: Brockhampton Press, 1955 (hardcover) Leicester: Knight Books (Brockhampton Press), 1967
191 pages, paperback (A Green Knight Book)

Captain W.E. Johns
Biggles in the Orient
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1944
179 pages, hardcover (Pictures by Stead)

Captain W.E. Johns -- William Earl Johns (1893-1968) in real life -- wrote nearly 200 books, half of which featured the adventures of the British ace James Bigglesworth. Most of the stories, written for readers in their teens, taut and packed with suspenseful action.

"Biggles" to his friends and foes is an active then deactivated RFC (Royal Flying Corps) and RAF (Royal Air Force) ace who finds someone in every sky, jungle, and desert in the world who needs the services of a man who was born with wings and courage.

Wherever Biggles has been, there are many serious collectors and fans. The International Biggles Association (IBA), based in The Netherlands, hosts auctions of his used books, and sells new reprints, audio books, comics, news magazines, stickers, lanyards, book plates, and DVDs, in addition to providing information about the hero.

W.E. Johns

Biggles is clearly an imaginary projection of W.E. Johns' own military career (IBA website).

During World War I he first served as machine-gunner and from 1918 as fighter pilot with the RFC in France. He was shot down over Mannheim, became a POW, escaped, was caught again and sentenced to death. He was saved by the sudden ending of the war!

He stayed with the Royal Air Force until 1931, as flight instructor and later recruiting officer. When he left his rank was "Flying Officer". When several years later he became a successful author he added "Captain" to his name.

Biggles

As is fitting of any hero, Biggles also has a proper biography (IBA).

He was born in 1899 in India from English parents and went to school in England, because of his recurrent fevers. In 1916, in World War I, he learned to fly and he became a fighter pilot for the RFC in France and did his first jobs for the Intelligence Service on request of major Raymond.

In 1918 Biggles' only romance ends tragically: his lovely Marie turns out to be a German spy. After that war he started his own flying company, Biggles & Co, together with his loyal friend/colleague and cousin the Honourable Algernon Montgomery Lacey, "Algy".

Biggles continues to work for the Secret Intelligence Services. He pursues assignments all over the world with Algy and new team member Ginger Hebblethwaite. During World War II, he becomes the leader of a Spitfire squadron, and Lord Bertie Lissie and other pilots join Biggles in one adventure after another.

Biggles in the Orient

Biggles in the Orient and Biggles' Chinese Puzzle are but two of many Biggles' adventures set somewhere in Asia.

Biggles in the Orient was published in late 1944, when British forces were deployed mainly in India to contain Japanese in Burma, and to help supply Chungking (Chongqing), the wartime capital of the Republic of China, by air. The story is set earlier in the war, when lifelines to China had not yet been fully secured.

An air service has been established "up the Himalayas to Tibet, and across the Tibetan plateau to China" (page 18), to avoid Japanese interference from the northern extremities of Burma. Many planes are disappearing, though, despite reports from pilots who have gotten through that the route is clear. Biggles' mission is to find out why.

Biggles' Chinese Puzzle

Published in 1955, one year after the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, Biggles' Chinese Puzzle reflects the title of the first of eight short story in the book.

"Biggles' Chinese Puzzle" (pages 7-57) finds Biggles in Saigon to determine who is profiting from difference in the exchange rates in Vietnam and France. The US dollar is 40 piastres, or 680 francs, in Saigon. The dollar in Paris is worth 400 francs. Simple arithmetic. You make 280 francs for every dollar you buy in France and sell in Saigon.

After explaining the math, Biggles says there's a problem, and Ginger knows what it is (page 9).

'Of course, there's one snag.'

'Getting the dollars to Saigon,' murmured Ginger.

How the culprits are doing this is the "Chinese puzzle" that Biggles and his mates must solve in 51 pages. The only boxes in the story are the antiquated "crates" that ex fighter pilots are ferrying around Indo-China.

At the Pagoda Palace, Biggles meets Bollard, an American vet who works as a delivery pilot under an American aid plan (page 18). His flight to Saigon from Cairo, by way of Baghdad, Karachi, Calcutta, and Bangkok, is eased by diplomatic passes that cut through the red tape (page 20).

Biggles' "Chinese" puzzle

Both men are staying at the Pagoda Palace. Bollard wonders how Biggles finds the place (page 21)

'Very good, as Eastern hotels go.'

'Should be. It's run by the Ching Loo outfit. They're the big noise here, and look like being bigger. Buying property everywhere. They'll soon own the whole goldarned city.' Bollard dropped his voice. 'I keep in with 'em because there's a whisper they're going to start their own air line. I aim to get in at the top when the war here folds up.'

The rest of the story is predictable -- but I have to admit, it was goldarned fun getting there -- and I didn't have to look too many words up in the dictionary.

Military science

The paperback edition I have cited conveys the following message to the reader on the page facing the first page of "Biggles' Chinese Puzzle" (page 6).

Publisher's Note

Readers will understand that since this book was originally written, the political situation and currency values, in the Far East have changed very much, and are still changing. Scientific progress has made enormous advancement, and geographical boundaries have altered. But we feel that this will not affect in any way the enjoyment of the stories.

1967, when the paperback edition was published, marked the first of the three worst years in the advancement of American military science in Vietnam.

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Eyre, The Chinese Box
Permabooks edition, 1960
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Eyre, The Chinese Box
Popular Library edition, 1960s

Katherine Wigmore Eyre
The Chinese Box

Hardcover editions

New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, April 1959
314 pages, hardcover

London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1960
vi, 314 pages, hardcover

Newspaper edition

Star Weekly Complete Novel
Illustrated by Tom McNeely
Toronto: Star Weekly, 17 December 1959
16 pages, softcover newspaper

Paperback editions

New York: Permabooks, 1960 (M4167)
265 pages, paperback

New York: Popular Library, nd (60-2144)
221 pages, paperback

Katherine Wigmore Eyre (1901-1970) was a "third generation San Franciscan" according a profile in the Popular Library edition, and The Chinese Box, set in the 1880s, became a minor bestseller in the city. A later novel, The Sandalwood Fan (1968), also involves things Chinese in San Francisco.

The Spencer family

Lilas Spencer lives in the Spencer family mansion on Nob Hill. The grounds are kept free of leaves by a Chinese gardener with a bamboo broom. Servants include a Chinese houseboy named Lew, old Sang in the kitchen, the Irish parlormaid waitress Norah, Nellie the upstairs maid, and buggy driver Wrenn.

The mansion is the home of Edith Spencer, who had inherited Spencer and Company, a shipping firm, from her father. Living with her were two younger cousins, Gregory and Lilas, who were also husband and wife. Gregory had become the head of Edith's household and company.

Lilas and Gregory, distant cousins, were four and eight when their parents were killed in the same Italian train accident. Edith, an older cousin who had never married, who the children had learned to call Aunty, took them in and raised them. Even after they married, though, they continued to live in the Nob Hill mansion, as Edith was getting senile and relied on Gregory, "a rock of dependability, a rock of trust and loyalty and devotion" (Popular Library edition, page 7).

Randall returns

From her bedroom window, Lilas cannot quite see the wooden wharves along the Embarcadero, but she knows the Star of China is berthed there, and that Randall is back from Canton. The shunned "rolling stone" of the family, he had been sent away in disgrace eight years ago, but he had come back on the ship tied up at Pier 10 at the Battery and Front wharves.

Randall was another cousin who, when Lilas and Gregory were young, had suddenly come to live with them. His hair was as black as theirs, but he was always getting into trouble and otherwise destroying the "serenity" of the Spencer palace, in which Edith was queen, Lilas was a princess, and Gregory was a prince who would someday be king.

Now Randall was back -- dark-skinned, almost swarthy. Not just back, but successfully back, for he was now Captain Spencer Randall, not only the commander but also the owner of the Star -- a ship the Spencer and Company had once owned, but which Gregory had sold. She had been a coastal tramp when Randall later found her, picked her up, overhauled her, and put her back on a money-making run that had brought, in fifty-eight days, a cargo of silk, tea, hemp, porcelain, and himself from the Orient to San Francisco.

The ivory box

Randall has also brought Lilas a belated wedding present. She does not want it but "couldn't not" accept it and open it in front of everyone. In the stiff gold paper was an ivory box -- not just one box, but boxes within boxes.

When Randall leaves, she puts the box on her dressing table, and she and Gregory change into their night clothes. He calls her to bed but she goes to the window. She can just make out the docks at the end of the cobbled streets that run to the bay, and is imagining the lights of the Star when Gregory speaks (page 18).

"She is there, is she, the Star? You fancy you can see her?"

I whirled, startled, caught out. Gregory was lying in bed, his arms crossed under his head, watching me. "Your Star. She was always yours, wasn't she, Lilas? Yours and Randall's, no one else's, when we were children." It was a statement, rather than a question.

The blurb on the cover of the Popular Library edition calls this "The chilling novel of a girl fleeing a demonic lover -- and a strange Oriental box that holds the clue to her fate."

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Robert Martin
Illustrated by Richard Kennedy
The Chinese Box
(A Ginger Pennylove Story)
London: Hutchinson, 1960
Hardcover

This is one of several volumes in an easy-reading series for children. Giner Pennylove is a carpenter who laughs a lot, and her life involves lots of action and fun with other characters that have real family backgrounds.

To be continued.

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John Creasey
The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965
New York: Avon Books, 1971 (1967)
175 pages, paperback (3rd printing)

The British writer John Creasey (1908-1973) is supposed to have published "562 full-length books under 28 pseudonyms" in 40 years according to one biographer. That's nearly 1.2 books a month, according to my Casio. Best known for characters like Scotland Yard officer Gideon, and the jewel-thief-turned-antique-dealer-cum-amateur-sleuth John "The Baron" Mannering, Creasey also wrote romantic fiction as Margaret Cole Creasey, and westerns as Ken Ranger, William K. Reilly, and Tex Riley.

Writing as Anthony Morton, Creasey created the very likable John "The Baron" Mannering, a reformed jewel thief who became an antique dealer, amateur sleuth, and gentleman. The first Baron novel came out in 1937 as Meet the Baron in Britain and The Man in the Blue Mask in the United States.

Murder in the boxes

The cover blurbs are perfectly pitched to invite reading without giving much away.

Front cover

Mannering opens all the little boxes and finds -- murder!

Back cover

PRECIOUS ART OR CHEAP FAKES?
SOMEBODY WAS WILLING TO KILL TO PREVENT
THE BARON FROM FINDING OUT.

The invitation came to John Mannering from a colleague in Hong Kong. Would The Baron like to view a priceless collection? But violence strikes at Mannering in London and then in Bombay. When he finally does get to Hong Kong he finds himself up to his impeccable chin in the tangled and deadly coils of international intrigue!

Undercover

Mannering has been invited to Hong Kong by antique dealer Raymond Li Chen, with whom he has done some business, to see a collection of antiques. He decides to go by ship and fly back. Make a vacation of it. Aden, Karachi, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong (page 15).

Mannering then gets a call from Superintendent William Bristow of New Scotland Yard, and by the time they have finished dinner, he has agreed to find out what he can about a huge operation in smuggling old ivory and jade carvings out of China. Mannering secretly relishes the prospect of having more to do in Hong Kong than see an exhibition. He worries only about how to tell Lorna, his wife, who has looked forward to a genuine break from his usual routine (page 21).

As the blurb has forewarned us, by the time Mannering reaches Hong Kong -- not by sea but by air, and alone, his wife safely left with friends at the British Embassy in Bangkok -- he is up to his chin in intrigue, with a passport identifying him as James C. Mason, who has told the stewardess that he has never been there (page 80).

The cover blurb not withstanding, there are not boxes in the story -- and no "Chinese puzzle" other than the one Manning must solve as a "highly respected consultant" for Scotland Yard.

Note on The Baron series

A total of 47 Baron titles were published between 1937 and 1979, the last two or three posthumously. Some 38 of the titles had been published by autumn in 1966 when "The Baron" series began to air on television. Some 30 episodes were broadcast between September that year and April the next. Number 11, which aired on 7 December 1966, was called "Samurai West" and had this plot, according to www.tv.com.

The sale of a 5000 year old Samurai sword gives the Baron trouble. When the seller, Asano, bumps into an old enemy, Norman Sterling, at Mannering's apartment, Sterling promises to avenge the treatment of him and his brother in a Japanese POW camp. After Asano is murdered, the Baron has to protect Sterling from Asano's loyal servant is out for revenge.

"The Baron", which starred Steve Forrest as John Mannering, appears to have been first broadcast in the US (www.tv.com).

John Mannering, The Baron, was an antiques dealer working in an informal capacity as an agent for British Diplomatic Intelligence. Based on the best-selling novels by John Creasey, The Baron was the first colour production by the Incorporated Television Company Ltd. (ITC). The first 14 episodes were broadcast on the ABC Network in the U.S. prior to their broadcast in the U.K: subsequent episodes were syndicated.

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Gerald Chan Sieg
The Chinese Christmas Box
Atlanta: The August Press, 1970
25 pages, paperback

An immigrant Chinese family in Georgia sends for a box of Chinese presents for family and friends every year. The things in the box evoke all sorts of memories and good will.

To be continued.

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Marjorie McEvoy
The Chinese Box
New York: Lenox Hill Press, 1973
192 pages, hardcover

Phoenix Press, which brought out many mysteries and westerns in the 1930s and 1940s, was absorbed by Arcadia House, one of its arch rivals, in 1952. In the 1960s, Arcadia was sold and became Lenox Hill Press, which "has never published a regular mystery line and abandoned its long-standing series of Westerns in 1975" (Bill Pronzini, "The Saga of the Risen Phoenix", in Bill Pronzini, Gun in Cheek: A Study of "Alternative" Crime Fiction, by Bill Pronzini, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1982; web version viewed 10 August 2006).

Hong Kong Gothic

Lenox Hill did, however, publish writers like Marjorie McEvoy, a fairly prolific British author of mostly romance and Gothic fiction set wherever whim takes her -- Hong Kong in the case of The Chinese Box (1973). The front flap of the dust jacket tries to hook the reader with this bait.

At one time Sarah and Delia had been as close as sisters. Then Delia had married in haste and gone to England to run her grandfather's antique shop. Curious that her friend had stopped writing, Sarah set out to trace her -- a task that took her as far as the back alleys of Hong Kong where danger lurked at every turn. The scents, sights and sounds of the Orient lend color to this absorbing Gothic.

The jacket also explains that McEvoy won a prize trip to Japan in 1969 that took her to Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok, where she took "copious notes for future reference". Her "love of far places" like these "comes naturally" to her because she is the "great-granddaughter of a captain on one of the China Seas clippers".

Queer-sounding name, Eurasian

Sarah Bourne and her friend Delia, both nurses, had gone to the Hong Kong area to help after a typhoon. Sarah had worked in Macao and Delia in Kowloon. Delia met Lee Shen, who worked in a curio shop, and he accompanied her to Britain when she learned that her grandfather, Mr. Stanton, who planned to leave her his antique shop, was dying. They were not in time.

Delia and Shen were hastily married, but it is not clear when. First Sarah says "they married in indecent haste as soon as old Mr. Stanton died" (page 13). Later she says "There had apparently been a hasty wedding" (page 16) before they left for England upon hearing that Mr. Stanton was dying.

Sarah, back in England, had not heard from Delia for some time, so decides to visit Delia at the antique shop, but finds it empty. Mrs. Clements, who ran the wool shop next door, had known Mr. Stanton well, knew he was fond of his granddaughter, and had been surprised when Delia "turned up with such a queer-sounding name, married to a Eurasian" (page 15).

Baffling as a Chinese puzzle

Sarah is surprised to hear from Mrs. Clements that Delia had been in a car accident that left her almost blind, which explained why she had stopped writing to Sarah. Mrs. Clements also tells Sarah that Lee Shen had taken Delia back to Hong Kong, saying he knew a specialist there (page 17).

"She didn't want to go, I know that well enough, but the poor girl was like wax in his hands, him being ten years older and all, and as baffling as a Chinese puzzle."

Before leaving, Lee Shen had packed the best stock in the antique shop for shipment to Hong Kong and sold the rest. One day Delia had entrusted Mrs. Clements with "a lovely little red lacquer trinket box" to give to "Sally" as Delia called Sarah, should Sarah ever come by. Later, Lee Shen had barged into the wool shop, demanding it back, saying it was valuable, Delia had no right to give it away, and he would bring the police.

Mrs. Clements says the box "had a number of little compartments for jewels, and almost certainly a secret compartment containing Delia's message" (page 21), for Delia had said there was an "urgent message hidden inside" for Sarah, but Mrs. Clements hadn't seen it when she looked.

The imperious hunk

Sarah Bourne takes the first nursing job she can find in Hong Kong, with deeply tanned and madly handsome Doctor Marcus Loughton. While helping Marcus with his private practice, Sarah will also help his wife, Julia, who polio has left in a wheelchair with an untreatable paralysis (page 27).

"With only a Chinese attendant around, she gets depressed at times. A congenial English nurse in the house to talk to might help a lot."

At Kai Tak airport, Marcus "imperiously" calls to a smiling Chinese, his chauffeur, Chan Lai, and says "He's a good chap and considers himself almost one of the family." Above the door of the Loughton house are the words "Ho Lan" (page 32).

It means beautiful house, missee," Chan Lai said with a bow as he helped Sarah out.

The door was opened by "a wizened little Chinese woman" with a replica of Julia beside her. The girl rushes to her father, who says to the woman, "Has she been good, Amah?" And the amah says, "Velly good, master."

Lili -- slit cheongsam 1

Enter Lili, Julia's personal maid (page 35).

In direct contrast to the wrinkled old amah, Lili was young, lithe and strikingly attractive in her Chinese way, with straight black hair, enigmatic eyes and a honey-gold oval face. A blue silk cheongsam slit almost to the thigh encased her like a glove, showing generous glimpses of seductive leg when she moved. Oh, she was very pretty, and well she knew it.

Sarah was convinced that "her interest in the doctor went deeper" when she cast the doctor "her inscrutable glance" as he left the room.

The Loughtons also have a cook, and a "boy" Ah Wong who waits their table, and has "curious black eyes" (pages 37, 54) Sarah could not trust.

On the trail of Lee Shen

Sarah asks Marcus if he knows a curio dealer named Lee Shen. He doesn't, but if she is buy any curios, she must let Chan Lai do the bargaining with the dealers because "He knows them better than you do" (page 50). Chan Lai cannot find an a curio dealer named Lee Shen in Hong Kong, but an uncle with a tailor shop in Mongkok, in Kowloon, has told him there is such a dealer in "an obscure alley named Ho Wan" (page 50).

"Lee Shen is an ivory carver, and it is said he does much business abroad with fake antiques. Maybe with drug smuggling also. Velly wily person and one my venerable uncle has no dealings with."

Sarah goes in search of Ho Wan alley. She is addressed as "missee" whenever she asks directions (page 57).

Pushed and jostled, startled by sudden bursts of nearby firecrackers, a single European alone in a surging mass of black-haired, slant-eyed Chinese, she felt panic begin to rise within her.

After franticly breaking away from a dirtily dressed Chinese man -- "His slant eyes looked her over; then his hand closed over her arm as, grinning, he muttered something in Chinese" (page 59) -- she finds Lee Shen's shop and, in it, Lee Shen (page 62).

He was young, presentably dressed in European clothes, reasonably good-looking, and could almost have been mistaken for a Latin European if one did not look too closely at the eyes. He was clearly the offspring of a mixed marriage in which the Western influence predominated.

Soon she spots the Chinese box. She admires it and Lee Shen says, "Madam has perception" (page 64). She continues to show interest in it, but when she wonders how expensive it is, he tells her it is for decoration only and not for sale. Can he interest her in another box? No, but she will take a lovely pink Chinese fan at a bargain price. As he bows her out into the now deserted narrow alley, she thanks him and promises to return (pages 67-68).

Suzy Kung -- slit cheongsam 2

I would end on this note of unbearable suspense, but one more wrinkle in the plot deserves mention. Julia has spoken to Sarah of Suzy Kung, a pharmaceutical company rep through which her husband buys most of his drugs and dressings (page 71).

Wait till you see her, Nurse; then you'll realize why she always has a profounding disturbing effect on him, as on most men."

And six pages we see her through Sarah's eyes (page 77).

A whole party came straggling up, talking and laughing over-loudly in their British way. Only one woman stood out strikingly above the rest. Darkly Chinese, with magnolia skin and an alluring golden cheongsam slit up to the thigh, she looked like a lotus blossom among blowsy peonies.

"Suzy Kung," Marcus murmured, his glance lingering upon her.

Julia was right. This woman had the power to blot out all others. Whatever man she desired she would surely get. Even Marcus?

A cold little feeling settled about Sarah's heart, for besides being invincible, Suzy Kung was equally capricious, no doubt, and soon tried of her conquests, leaving them to pick up the pieces. Although Sarah considered him autocratic to a degree, the thought of Marcus humiliated, remorseful and broken was quite unendurable.

It is not clear who is more distracted by the slits in Lili's and Suzy's cheongsams -- Marcus, Julia, or Sarah, or the author who created them, or this reviewer.

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Christopher New
The Chinese Box
Hong Kong: Asia 2000 (Orchid Pavilion), 2001
158 pages, softcover
London: W.H. Allen, 1975 (hardcover)

Christopher New, who founded the Department of Philosopher at Hong Kong University and taught there many years before moving to Malta to write full-time, is best known for Goodbye Chairman Mao (1979) and Shanghai (1985). His first novel, The Chinese Box (1975), did not gain attention until later, and if not his best is doubtlessly his shortest and bitter-sweetest.

China Coast Trilogy

Both The Chinese Box and Shanghai, with A Change of Flag (1990), are now called the China Coast Triology, in the manner of Anthony Burgess's The Malayan Trilogy (1964, also published as The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Triology -- Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, and Beds in the East -- set in Malay during its struggle for independence after World War II), and Paul Scott's much better known The Raj Quartet (1966-1975 -- The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, A Division of the Spoils -- set in India from 1942-1947, the final years of British rule during and after World War II).

Christopher New's "China Coast Trilogy"
1985    Shanghai First half of 20th century
Shanghai
Epic of colonial turmoil

Englishman John Denton comes to Shanghai in 1903. Half a century later he has made and lost a fortune, broken up with his British fiance, divorced his American wife, and married Su-mei, his mistress from practically the day he arrived and mother of Michael and Lily, the protagonists of A Change of Flag. Denton has to deal with gangsters as well as women, as he witnesses the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, the death of the Qing Dynasty and the birth of Republican China, the violent rivalry between nationalists and communists, the Japanese invasion and occupation, and the postwar civil war.

1975    The Chinese Box 1960s
Hong Kong
Impact of cultural revolution

Happiness refuses to come to Dimitri Johnston, a "half Russian and half English" professor was born in Hong Kong and lived there most of his searching for it. From the start of the story he and his English wife, Helen, are not getting along in a city she does not like. They have two children, Elena and Alexander, and on page 13 Helen introduces Dimitri to Elena's ballet teacher, Mila Chan, who is from Shanghai and hopes to go to London. By page 46, Dimitri and Mila are lovers. By the end of the story, both Helen and Mila have left him, though in different ways. The entire story is interlaced with news reports and riots in Hong Kong related to the Cultural Revolution in China. Dimitri and others are caught up in some of the local disturbances.

1990    A Change of Flag 1980s
Hong Kong and China
Post-Mao disillusionment

Michael Denton, son of John Denton and Su-mei, whose love for each other conquered all in Shanghai, left China for Hong Kong just before the communists came to Shanghai. Lily, his sister, who believed that life under the communists would be better, stayed. Michael now gets a message from her asking him to help her escape.

These three novels were not originally conceived as a trilogy. The Chinese Box, though published a decade before Shanghai, is set more than a decade later and is not part of the Denton saga. Lumping The Chinese Box together with Shanghai and A Change of Flag, and calling them a trilogy, is a cheap marketing gimmick that will disappoint readers who buy it thinking it might also be about the Dentons.

Pessimistic teaser

The front fly of the Asia 2000 edition conditions the reader's mind with this gloomy preview.

Dimitri Johnston, half Russian and half English, has spent most of his life in Hong Kong, where he is not a university lecturer, and it is in Hong Kong that he feels most at home. But his English wife, Helen, is growing more and more estranged from Dimitri and from a place and people she neither likes nor understands. Then Dimitri meets Mila, a Chinese dancer who is in Hong Kong hoping to get a visa to allow her to join a ballet troupe in London. As their relationship deepens, Dimitri and Mila find themselves entangled in the troubled political affairs of Britain's last great colony, when it shudders under the waves of the Cultural Revolution spreading out from China. In the outcome, Dimitry has to accept that life is indeed a Chinese box: complex, puzzling and often empty in the end.

Transparent plot

New gives away the plot from the very beginning. The book opens with Dimitri getting out of bed, having just had sex with Julie, a bar girl he's been seeing. The scene runs four pages, and from it we know all we really need to know about Dimitri's character. Julie soon loses her status as his lover but does not disappear from his horizon.

New has troubled to give Julie a name, kept her in both Dimitri's thoughts (page 39, where he compares her laugh with Mila's) and in his vision (pages 50-51, where he runs into her on a beach with a sailor leaving the next day for Vietnam), and even insinuated that he likes her (page 56, where he tells Mila, who has asked if he thinks she is a whore, "If you were, you wouldn't be the first I've known. And liked."

Julie contiues to pop up here and there, only to remind the reader that she is still in town, and in Dimitri's thoughts. So who could be surprised when, at the end of the story, having lost both Helen and Mila, Dimitri returns to the bar where she had been working, and finds her gone. It takes only the last half of the final page for the same mamasan to persuade Dimitri to hook up with Cherie, who claims she's twenty-one, and whose hand in his is "very small, smaller than Mila's or Julie's" (page 158).

Mitigating factors

The blurb on the back informs the browser that Bradley Winterton, of the South China Morning Post, said of The Chinese Box that "Hong Kong should be eternally in New's debt . . it has a genuine masterpiece to its credit.

I bought the book, but I don't buy the hype.

By what stretch of the paleocolonialist imagination can the Fragant Harbor possibly be indebted to a novel that views it through the eyes of an aging foreign devil, who relieves his loneliness by reading the palms of ever younger Chinese whores? In Cantonese no less?

Come to think of it, though, it's his home.

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The Case of the Chinese Boxes
Marele Day, 1990
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Tong in Cheek
Glen Chase, 1973

Marele Day
The Case of the Chinese Boxes
St Leonards (NSW): Allen & Unwin, 1990
187 pages, paperback

In an English world dominated by British and American fiction, people never hear that places like Canada and Australia also have Chinatowns. Dan Mahoney's The Two Chinatowns (2001) sets a lot of action in the smaller Chinatowns of New York and Toronto, before Cantonese-speaking Detective Cisco Sanchez, NYPD's finest, has to go to Hong Kong, the world's biggest Chinatown, to nail his 14K nemesis.

Sydney's Chinatown

Claudia Valentine is Sydney's finest private eye, albeit she lives in one of the city's more rundown neighborhoods. Her creator, Marele Day, employed her four times from 1988 to 1994. Her second assignment, in The Case of the Chinese Boxes (1990), is described on the back cover like this.

1988 started with a bang in Sydney's Chinatown -- and it wasn't just the fireworks. While the rest of the country was celebrating, the biggest bank job in Australia's history was taking place.

"The Great Chinese Take-Away" the press tagged it, and in those missing safety deposit boxes were items infinitely more valuable than money.

A gold key with a dragon on it: why did the Chen family want it back to badly?

It started as a routine case for Claudia Valentine, but that's not the way it ended up. Claudia's hunt for the key spins her into a world of ancient treasures and modern Triad killings, through sleazy back streets and exotic oriental temples. And, everywhere, nothing is as it seems.

The mysterious Mr Chen

Valentine has let herself into a a flat where she is to meet "the mysterious Mr Chen" (page 2). She is not sure the name is really his, she tells us in first person, and adds: "It sounded like the Chinese equivalent of Smith or Jones" (page 2).

While waiting, she flips through a "stack of magazines -- Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, South China Morning Post" (page 2). All were, at the time Day wrote the novel, Hong Kong periodicals. The Review and Asiaweek folded after American companies bought them and destroyed them. The Post, not a magazine but a newspaper, is still thriving after the 1997 change of flags.

Chen finally arrives with a somewhat older woman who like him. He does the talking, she sits and listens.

Chen's family had business interests in Chinatown, he says. As Valentine knows, there had been a bank robbery a few weeks ago. Some safety depost boxes were stolen. One of them belonged to his family. In it was a precious key, worth nothing in terms of money but of great value sentimentally.

Eye to eye

Chen shows Valentine a photo of the key. He wants her to find it. Why her? she asks him. The older woman answers (page 4).

'You are a woman. You are invisible.'

I turned at the sound of her voice and we looked at each other evenly, eye to beautifully made-up-eye.

The heat was on. And it wasn't just the temperature.

It would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

But I liked long odds.

They were waiting for my answer

I nodded my head.

When the woman takes the photo back, Valentine asks her what the key is to. It's not to anything, she says. It's just a family heirloom.

Chen's name is Charles, and the woman, Mrs Victoria Chen, is both the propritor of The Red Dragon restaurant, and his mother.

Chinese keywords

Not until we are two-thirds into the story does Valentine decide it is about time to find out something about Chinese keys. She stumbles into an old library and probes its computer catalog (page 119).

Nothing came up for 'key'. Nothing came up for 'Triad'. Something came up for 'Chen' but it was 'Ch'en' and all historical. All that came up for 'puzzles' were kids' ones. 'Dragon' brought up Chinese ornament: the lotus and the dragon, and The Dragon: nature of spirit, spirit of nature. 'Tong' and 'secret societies' brought up the following -- Primitive revolutionaries of China: a study of secret societies in the late nineteenth century; The sociology of secret societies; and Tong in Cheek (Cherry Delight Thrillers).

Chinese folklore

There was nothing under 'boxes' either, but 'power of keys' led her to Matthew xvi, 19, in which Jesus said to Peter, "'I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven'" (page 120).

Valentine wonders if the key was what gave the Chen family its influence. At which point she looked for "instances of keys in Chinese folklore" -- and learn that "'A key is always given to an only son to lock him into life'" (page 120).

She goes to the serials section and sifts through back issues of China Reconstructs. The November 1987 issue (we are practically in real time here) had photos of "Buddha boxes" -- but not all sides of boxes were shown -- a pity because one detail of interest to her was missing.

Tong in Cheek

Of the three books she takes from the stacks, she saves Tong in Cheek till last (page 123, purple passages restored from original blurb).

I came to the last offering, Tong in Cheek. There was a photo on the cover of a woman in a wig and false eyelashes, baring a breat and a revolver. The blurb said:

I'm Cheery Delight and I'm good at what I do. No boast, just fact. With revolver or automatic I can put six out of six in a bullseye, or a body. My hair is naturally red -- hence the Cherry -- and a Delight is what I am for people I like, or those I want to destroy Mostly I want to destroy the Mafia, and that's why I'm a top agent for N.Y.M.P.H.O. (otherwise known as the NEW YORK MAFIA PROSECUTION AND HARASSMENT ORGANIZATION). I love sex and I hate the Mob. I break the old guys backs and the young guys hearts -- usually with a bullet. I can speak six languages and kill without saying a word.

Cherry turned out to be a sharpshooting, rooting tooting bimbo; mainly rooting. As far as she was concerned the Tongs were just another version of the Mob, just as shootable, just as rootable.

The Library was no place for Cherry's delights.

Marele Day is not making this up. The blurb she cites is the actual blub on the fly of a novel published in 1973, called Tong in Cheek, which is Number 2 in Glen Chase's Cherry Delight Thriller series. Tellingly, Day omits the very parts of the blurb that suggest what moved Valentine to declare the novel, a patently pornographic thriller, unfit for a library.

Thin plot

The Cherry Delight anecdote may raise a chuckle or two, even from readers who think Day made it up. The fun, though, comes at the expense of a plot that, in the final third of the story, turns lumpy rather than thick -- like a gravy that began with the right ingredients but wasn't properly stirred.

A note on Cherry Delight

Whether Cherry Delight belongs in the same stacks with Claudia Valentine, the N.Y.M.P.H.O. agent has seen a lot more action. Glen Chase, her creator, was the pseudonym of Gardner Francis Fox (1911-1986), Rochelle Larking, and Leonard Levinson. Fox also wrote as Troy Conway -- another house name he shared with four other authors -- and Rod Gray, Simon Majors, and Bart Somers.

The Glen Chase team cranked out 24 volumes in the Cherry Delight "Sexecutioner" series from 1972-1975. Five more titles in an "all new" series were published in 1977. The Troy Conway combo was responsible for 34 volumes in a series featuring Rod Damon, otherwise known as "Coxeman: The Man From O.R.G.Y".

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Chris Auer
The Chinese Puzzle Box
(Mysteries of Eckert House)
[Mystery Number Three]
New York: Zonderkidz (Zondervan), 2005
121 pages, paperback (Ages 8-12)
[252 Soul Gear series]

Zondervan was founded as a bookseller in 1931. It first published the New Testament of the New International Version (NIV) of the Holy Bible, in partnership with the International Bible Society, in 1973 and the complete NIV Bible in 1978. NIV overtook the King James version as the number one Bible translation in 1986. In 1988, Zondervan became a division of HarperCollins. So Zondervan now sells Bibles, books, and other Christian products all over the world as HarperCollins' evangelical imprint.

252 Soul Gear

The Chinese Puzzle Box is published by Zonderkidz, which is Zondervan's children's group. It is part of the "252 Soul Gear series" based on Luke 2:52: "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men" -- from NIV, of course.

Luke 2:52 is said to be one of the few in the Bible that "provides a glimpse of Jesus as a boy." Readers are urged to become "smarter, stronger, deeper, and cooler" as they "develop into a young man of God with 2:52 Soul Gear" -- which Zondervan has trademarked, in case you were thinking of using it on your publications.

The story begins to heat up on page 12, when 12-year-old Dan Pruitt recalls that his dad wanted him to think about a verse from the Gospel of Luke.

Dan grabbed his Bible, went downstairs to the kitchen, and while he was making toast, read the scripture passage. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men.

The storied pagoda

The plot starts to sizzle by the end of Chapter 2 -- which means we have already read one-fourth of the story. Miss Alma Louise Stockton LeMay, who is in charge of Eckert House, an old mansion, now a museum, full of secret passages and staircases and trap doors. Miss Alma invites Dan, his cousin Pete, and their best friend Shelby, into her office. There are roses on her desk, which the boys think are from her boyfriend (page 31).

Next to the roses was a cardboard box. Miss Alma opened it, reached in, and took out a model of a small building. It was a miniature Chinese pagoda. Eighteen inches tall, it was made of a dark exotic wood, and each of its three stories was smaller than the one below it. Each roof curved upward at the corners.

"What is it?" Dan asked as he got down on his knees to examine it closely.

"I believe it's a puzzle. A Chinese puzzle box to be exact. And I'd like the three of you to see if you can solve its mystery.

The black-and-white illustration after this scene, at the end of chapter, shows a five-storied pagoda, like the one Dan is holding on the cover. Dan, though, is confused by something else (pages 33-34).

"It doesn't look much like a box," observed Dan.

This was true enough, but the base of the building had a thin, box-like appearance. There was even a little drawer that Miss Alma pulled out. Miss Alma pointed to some faint writing on the edge of the lowest roof. They were Chinese characters. She translated them for Dan, Pete, and Shelby.

"'Apart, together, apart. Treasure within treasure within treasure. Begin your journey.'"

ABC and XYZ

The pagoda was one of two puzzle boxes Julius Eckert had brought back with him from China in 1875. Sixty pages later, Dan is led to the second box, which is not a pagoda but an ABC. Rick, a bad boy who is also looking for the treasure, had already found the ABC but discovered that it takes two people to assemble it. So the boys agree to cooperate, and when all the parts are in the right place, a drawer pops open, in which they find the treasure, an XYZ, handwritten in Chinese.

The boys struggle over the XYZ, which Rick thinks had been a gift from Kublai Khan to Marco Polo (1254-1324), who "had presented Kublai Khan (1215-1294) with a copy of the Holy Scriptures in Latin" (page 107). Dan is about to lose his life when an FBI agent comes to his rescue and arrests Rick.

When the XYZ turns out to be from only the mid 19th century, and not the late 1200s, Dan decides that it was not very valuable, particularly back in 1875. Miss Alma, though, reminds him that it is, after all, an XYZ, which causes Dan to agree that it was in fact "a treasure of greatest worth" (page 120).

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Wang, Chinese Box
North American DVD, 1998
Wang, Chinese Box
Hong Kong DVD, 2001

English title -- The Chinese Box
Chinese title 1 -- îlᴎq Qing2ren2 he2zi [Lovers' box]
Chinese title 2 -- ’†‘™¸ Zhong1guo2 zia2 [Chinese box]

Director -- Wayne Wang
Screen story -- Paul Theroux, Wang, and Carriere
Screenwriters -- Jean-Claude Carriere and Larry Gross
Starring -- Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Ruben Blades

Jeremy Irons -- John, British journalist, loves Vivian
Gong Li -- Vivian, former prostitute, runs Chang's bar
Maggie Cheung -- Jean, has scars on face and secrets
Michael Hui -- Chang, bar owner, Vivian's fiance
Ruben Blades -- Jim, John's friend

Wayne Wang's 1997 film The Chinese Box is both set and shot in Hong Kong on the eve of its reversion to China on 30 June 1997. The relationship between John (Jeremy Irons) and Vivian (Gong Li), however, pretty much follows the "Suzie Wong" pattern in that it represents the mysterious "Orient" that can't quite be comprehended by, in this case, a British journalist who considers Hong Kong his home and, though he knows he is dying with leukemia, continues to document the human condition in the city through his camcorder.

The movie is based on a story written by Jean-Claude Carriere, Paul Theroux, and Wayne Wang. It is not an adaptation, as some people seem to think, of Christopher New's 1975 novel by the same name, which was also set in Hong Kong but during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s.

Wayne Wang

Wayne Wang was born in Hong Kong in 1949 as Wang Ying, and his father also named him after his favorite actor, John Wayne. Wang came to the US at age 17 and studied film and television in Oakland, California. He returned for a while to Hong Kong then settled in San Francisco.

Both of Wang's earliest major films, Chan Is Missing (1982) and Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985), are set in San Francisco's Chinatown. Eat A Bowl Of Tea (1989), The Joy Luck Club (1993), Smoke (1995), and Blue in the Face (1995) are among other notable films Wang made before Chinese Box. More recently he has directed Anywhere But Here (1999), The Center of the World (2001), and Maid in Manhattan (2002).

Runaway identity crises

In The Chinese Box, Wang seems to have gotten carried away with identity crises. Every character in the movie, even Hong Kong, arguably the main protagonist, has one. Wang was probably looking back at Hong Kong with the sort of mixed feelings that all people who change their childhood homes inevitably embrace.

To be continued.

Jean-Claude Carriere (screenwriter, screen story)
"Chinese Box" and a Film-maker's Diary
New York: Faber and Faber, March 1998
144 pages, paperback

Forthcoming.

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