It’s 1929 Week in Simon Stuck-in-a-Book (this post has links to all the reviews for the week) and Karen Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings‘ readalongs-by-year and I read and reviewed Alice Campbell’s “Water Weed” earlier in the week. However, reading other people’s entries for the week, I was taken by the idea of Lao She’s “Mr Ma and Son”, originally published (in Chinese) in 1929 and republished as a Penguin Classic this month, which I read about on the Literary Potpourri blog (here). So I requested it from NetGalley, won it on Friday and read it over the weekend!

Lao She (trans. William Dolby) – “Mr Ma and Son”

(28 October 2022, NetGalley)

‘When the Chinese see someone in a state, they clear off – the further the better, because our education teaches us to worry only about ourselves. When foreigners see someone in trouble, they do all they can to get them out of it. They don’t care whether it’s a white-faced person, a black-faced person or a green-faced one. Normally, they look down on their black-faced and green-faced brethren, but at the first sign of their needing a hand, they forget all about the colour of their faces. She didn’t rescue him because he was your father, but because that’s her notion of what’s moral’. (pp. 176-7)

Mr Ma and his son Ma Wei move to London on the death or Mr Ma’s brother, having inherited his antiques shop and, indeed, his shop assistant, Mr Li. They are installed in lodgings by the Reverend Ely, a Sinophile who has lived in China, and raised children there, although his wife has made sure they didn’t get any ideas about learning Chinese or engaging with the country while they were there. Reverend Ely forces Mrs Wedderburn to take the Mas on, and she’s encouraged by the extra money she can make to do do. Then we see her adapt to them, them adapt to her, and her daughter, the flighty Mary, and get used to London life, with scenes in pubs and parks most prominent and beautifully described.

There are many parallels with life today, for example the rather startling speech quoted above, which made me think of those people who say they don’t “see colour” and that someone could be brown, black, purple or green and they’d treat them the same, as well as echoes of migration-to-London novels like “The Lonely Londoners“. Another example is when Mrs Wedderburn embroiders a Chinese character on Mary’s hat band that she copies from Mr Ma, but upside down, so it says something rude (this reminded me of a short scene in “Mika in Real Life” with a tattoo). And in another one, when an English working-class person finds out the racing results in the paper … “When they see they’ve lost, they purse their lips and read a bit of the anti-foreign news to make themselves feel better” (p. 197).

The introduction by Julia Lovell states this was probably the first Chinese novel to confront British racism towards China directly, and draws parallels to the modern day. Lao She is clear on what causes this: China’s weakness as a country and the media portrayals of the Chinese as dangerous and devious. He himself worked against this stereotype in his few years in London, a quiet and bespectacled student, and the main characters are shown as kind, hard-working, loving and filial, while retaining a flavour of Chinese thought and action: descriptions often feature metaphors such as a wok full of porridge or a sorghum stem. There’s plenty of talk of colonialism, as well, and how the British bring back things and study them, so they have both knowledge and military strength.

An interesting strand is Catherine Ely’s modern status, where she suddenly defies convention, taking advantage of the changes in attitudes coming in after the First World War. This reminded me of my reading of “Square Haunting” [review to come], set among the people who were the first perhaps to set these mores.

As we travel through the Mas’ time in London and their dealings with the dangerous and devious English (also shown to be nuanced and complex, of course), the description of “melancholy ambivalence” is borne out: it is a comedy and there are amusing scenes, but the feeling of confusion in the opening pages, circled back round to by the end, points to mystery and untied-up endings.

An excellent read which I’m very glad I picked up on, however hurriedly I had to read it (and on the NG Shelf app as it didn’t render properly on my Kindle).

Thank you to Penguin for making a copy available for me via NetGalley in return for an honest review, and for turning my request around so quickly! This edition of “Mr Ma and Son” was published on 06 October.