A rambling memoir of boyhood in a wealthy family in China before the Cultural Revolution.
Leo, who emigrated to the US and became an interior designer, recalls the mind-bogglingly privileged lifestyle his family enjoyed in the 1930s and 1940s. The early chapters offer intriguing descriptions of the luxurious family compound outside Changchow where he spent his infancy, though it seems unlikely that they are genuine memories. We barely glimpse the impoverished workers who made their masters' comforts possible; one passage casually describes servants cleaning the family's chamber pots "with detergent and handfuls of small clam shells, scrubbing them briskly with small bamboo whisks." There are hints of complicated relationships among the assorted characters peopling the households in Changchow and Shanghai, where Leo moved at the age of two. He lists various siblings, in-laws, and grandparents, but the descriptions are too generic to evoke distinct personalities or reflect generational or social differences. The author depicts the sexual shenanigans of the men, and the conflicts among their wives, mistresses, and prostitutes with gusto, but he offers no insight into the sexual politics that must have been involved and offers no social or cultural analysis whatsoever. Stripped of any larger cultural significance or context, the accounts of assorted catfights and recitals of the expensive clothes bought by the wives rapidly become tedious. Insulated by his parents' wealth, Leo barely acknowledges the Japanese occupation or the rise of Communism, and he offers more information about his grades in elementary school and his relatives' medical conditions than about the momentous historical events taking place. Even when Nationalist troops commandeer the family's residence, Leo observes only that "the troops ruined our lawn" and "the hardwood floors in the living and dining rooms were also badly charred from the women cooking on them with kerosene stoves." It's hard to work up much sympathy.
The life of China's aristocrats before the Revolution could be the subject of a fascinating account, but this complacent and oblivious narrative isn't it.