The Chinese Love Pavilion follows a young British clerk, Tom Brent, who must track down a former friend—now suspected of murder—in Malaya. Tom faces great danger, both from the mysterious Malayan jungles and the political tensions between British officers, but the novel is perhaps most memorable for the strange, beautiful romance between Tom and a protean Eurasian beauty whom he meets in the eponymous Chinese Love Pavilion.
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The Chinese Love Pavilion
By Paul Scott
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1960 Paul Scott
All rights reserved.
THE STORY BEGINS NOT WITH TEENA CHANG BUT A man called Brian Saxby, and it begins before the war in India, not in Malaya.
India was of my bone.
The family tradition of service in that country had died with my grandfather before I was born but, as a boy, I could hardly imagine a life spent elsewhere and the house in Bayswater where I lived until the age of seven when it was broken up by the deaths of my renegade parents was full of Indian relics. Afterwards, as I moved from one distant relative to another, I had only grandfather's yellowing photographs, his diaries and papers and the pale, amateurish water-colours of the Punjabi plains which he had painted himself and signed with a flourish: Richard Warren Brent – the Warren, I liked to fancy, from Warren Hastings. My parents left nothing behind them except their own unused years and myself whom they had christened plain Tom. The Indian tradition was my inheritance, my proof of identity.
From early boyhood I had thought of a career in India in terms of the army and brave actions against the hillmen of the North-West Frontier; but at sixteen, forsaking Kipling for Forster, as it were, the vision faded, ousted partly by a youthful contempt for what I called the military mind (my parents would have been pleased) and partly by the beginning of a new vision: that of myself as a District Officer, following in grandfather's footsteps, wise, godlike, stern but just, administering the law from under the peepul tree.
This vision was shorter lived than the first and at this stage I had confirmation from an uncle, one of my mother's several brothers (my father had none), that my father's failure to follow an Indian career was not a combination of circumstances, ill-luck, and marriage but as I had suspected for some time the result of a deliberate policy. He had spent much of his childhood in India and his break with tradition had caused some unhappiness. My mother, according to this uncle, had been in "all the women's movements of her day". No doubt she had strengthened him in his resolve to have nothing to do with British Imperialism. They were schoolteachers.
I was torn between two loyalties. I admired my father and grandfather equally for keeping faith with what I assumed them to have believed in and yet I could not side with either of them. I too despised despotism, however benevolent, and yet I was bound to India emotionally and there was no point in denying it. For a while I considered the possibility of planting tea but the word "coolie" sat uncomfortably on my tongue. In the end, not unaware of anti-climax, acknowledging an urban upbringing, I plumped for commerce and became articled to a chartered accountant with the idea of qualifying and then applying for one of the jobs I used to see advertised by firms with offices in Bombay and Calcutta. It was a long-term project, too long for my patience. Within a year I approached a shipping line and after some weeks of waiting I was allowed, at the age of twenty, to work my passage out to Bombay in the purser's office of a small steamer carrying machinery and some hundred passengers. I had saved about eighty pounds and had the assurance of at least three months' work in the line's Bombay office. I felt rich beyond measure.
The year which followed fell into three distinct phases. The first, which lasted no more than a few weeks, at most a month, was a time of disappointment, even dismay. What had this city to do with me or I with it? It took young Brent by the scruff of his neck and rubbed his face in its own dirt as if to make sure the boy would be given a sharp lesson in reality. In a city where the white-skinned were usually rich, influential or favoured in some manner I quickly learned that I had chosen to live on the lowest level of sub-European society and that it needed more than half-baked notions to make it supportable.
In the shipping office I was an embarrassment to the executives, one of whom, in a chatty, probing interview, discovered the fact that we had gone to the same school. He offered me a job as his assistant, bed and board in his own house (he was careful to mention that he was married): social and financial security, the absence of which had hit me like a punch to the midriff within twenty-four hours of landing. I accepted his offer. He clapped me on the shoulder, said he was glad and a bit relieved because it would be awkward to have a chap like myself working as a temporary clerk with all the wogs. He added that it would involve a two-year contract of service. I began to raise objections which he brushed aside with the best good will. We were interrupted by an Indian clerk. He shouted at him, treated him like dirt. No, I thought, not two years, not two years. The office was cool, air-conditioned, the man himself young enough to speak the same language as I did. He would have been easy to work for and in two years I might not have noticed words like wog or irritable outbursts like: Get out and bloody well knock next time. But I noticed them now. I weighed them against the air-conditioned room and the sense of belonging which talking to him gave me; and went back to clerical grade B to work with the Eurasians and westernized Indians: the object of their curiosity and suspicion.
From the beginning I lived in a hostel run by a Mrs Ross, a dark-skinned Eurasian woman to whom I had been sent by the assistant purser. She catered mostly for male members of her own sad, rootless community. She was kind and gentle and I remember her and her guests with affection in spite of the hundred ways in which they conferred superior status on me because I was pure-bred white and came from that country most of them called home. Her own complexion was not light enough to let her pass as a European, even had she wanted to, but the others practised this deception even amongst themselves. Warm and motherly, she listened patiently to the imaginary tales of an English up-bringing with which they propped up their self-esteem. She worked far into the night at menial tasks they would have despised her for doing had they seen her at them. Every Monday great play was made of collecting laundry "for the man", filling in lists in duplicate, allotting marks; but I found her once, at two o'clock in the morning, in the room behind her kitchen, surrounded by those same bundles of ticketed clothes, ironing our white shirts and collars.
"Why?" I asked her, as she got me a cup of tea instead of the glass of water my sleeplessness had driven me downstairs to find. "Why don't you tell them there's no laundry, no man?"
"They know," she replied. "Now drink this down. I'll find you an aspirin."
"Yes," I said, "they know, so why not tell them?"
"Tell them yourself, Mr Brent."
"Tom. Call me Tom. For God's sake someone call me Tom and not always Mr Brent."
"All right, Tom. You tell them."
But I didn't. That marked the end of the first month. I needed people to talk to, to be talked to by, to go out with, get drunk with, argue with. The next day I looked for another job. You can never be part of a city like Bombay but you can be whole within its walls. I wanted to work with my hands, to lift weights, heave crates, lay bricks, to sweat away the stench of ink and the airless smell of large rooms filled with paper, but that was as impossible for a white man, it seemed, as it was for a black one to swim in the pool of a European club.
I asked my fellow guests at Mrs Ross's to help me. They were puzzled. "But you're at the shipping office, Mr Brent." They suspected I had money, a private income, what in their idiom was referred to as "means". A job was a position. Holidays were vacs. To chuck a good position was a sign of instability, the supposed failing of half-castes. I longed to tell them to stop pretending but I couldn't. I could have tripped them up a score of times when they talked about home ("Our place in Shropshire"), but I had not the heart. There was an affinity between my dream of their country and theirs of mine.
But I was done for the moment with dreams, visions. I laid claim to my room by taking grandfather's paintings from my black tin trunk and hanging them on the wall. I gave notice at the office. That night at the hostel one of them took me aside and asked, "Would you work for an Indian?"
"Why not?" I asked.
The Indian was short and fat and ran what he described as an import and export business which meant that he handled on an agency basis anything that came his way. He wore brown suits, black shoes, and cream-coloured ties with gold threads in them. The palms of his hands were yellow and he smelt of garlic and lavender water. He gave me a job as what he called his right-hand man. This meant answering the telephone, taking messages, and generally looking after the one-roomed office when he was out. It also meant spending a lot of time at the docks, searching for, claiming and checking consignments of consumer goods from England, mostly novelties destined for the bazaars. We liked each other from the beginning because we set up no barriers of pretence. His grandfather had been a peasant who was born, lived, and died in hopeless debt to the local moneylender.
"And now I can fire you, isn't it, the grandson of a D.O.?"
"You haven't hired me yet," I reminded him. It was our first interview and we had not got round to anything definite.
He offered me something like half the market wage. We haggled. The Indians haggle, the English discuss the weather. Both are a sign of good manners.
"You youngsters," he exclaimed, mopping his forehead with a folded white handkerchief.
The wage settled, the job in my pocket, I left his office feeling that I had bridged the gap between my father and Richard Warren Brent. I would work in India but under and not over an Indian.
The job was never arduous, never began to represent a fulfilment of ambitions, but I enjoyed it because so much of it was done in the open, on docks, in warehouses. Through it I established a circle of friends, none of them English, none of them close, all companionable. Time went quickly. I fell in love with a dusky Eurasian girl, if love is the word to describe what both of us recognized as a wholly physical attraction. It seemed that whatever she wore nothing would stop her nipples showing through.
I would have been a catch for her and she had the grace to admit it, and I, I'm glad to say, the grace to refuse a promise of marriage when she offered pre-marital rights in exchange for it. It was a sad, humorous, candid, lecherous business which led to a great deal of laughter on her part and, on mine, cold showers which I found over-rated.
Without the girl this second, gregarious phase might have ended sooner than it did: which was, appropriately, on my twenty-first birthday when there were three months to go to complete my first year out East. We had a beer party at Mrs Ross's: stag, because it was planned as a surprise for me and they had confused the celebration of a man's majority with that of his last night of bachelordom. It was wrong from the start, like the picnic arranged by the Indian in A Passage to India. I got drunk, my natural inclination to do so helped by their egging on of the Englishman to make a fool of himself. We did the thing in style: the sing-song, the bawdy solos (Brent the sole performer because they knew the tunes and titles but not the words), the feats of beer drinking and beer balancing, the rugger-scrum with the leather pouffe, which was ridiculous because I had played only soccer and they, I think, nothing but handball.
I went through it, good-humouredly at first, then sadly, finally angrily because through the beer haze – that not quite focused but deeply penetrating lens – I saw what I had not seen before: the communal resentment amounting to hatred which their individual good manners could not finally disguise. I had everything they most wanted in the way of background and education. I was English, I looked English, I was the raj, the elusive father-image, and I insulted them by counting it all cheap when circumstances caused them to hold it dear.
At the end of the scrum, my dander up because someone's elbow had cracked me on the left eye, I rallied them like troops round a flag by shouting, "To the District Officer!" and led them upstairs. I barged into my room, raised my bottle of beer to the water-colours and bid them drink to "Grandad, the old sod", and then hurled the bottle at one of the pictures, shattering the glass that had preserved it for fifty years.
In the morning all they said was, "Good show, Brent old man," and were solicitous over the eye which had turned a splendid purple. I apologized to Mrs Ross for the noise and the damage and she said that it was not to bother me because we were only young once. The place seemed to vibrate with our doing and saying what was expected of us. It was a Sunday. I walked alone to the Gateway of India, that triumphal arch so placed that it leads nowhere, and from the stone parapet I stared out at the shipping anchored in the roads and thought about birth, copulation and death, and living your life in the station allotted to you. What have I to do with these people or they with me? I asked myself.
During the two months which followed I came to the conclusion that my escapade had been a failure and that I must go back to England. The inheritance was an illusion: I could never be stern father, loving mother to grown men and women, never sit under the peepul tree or stand on the parade ground or enjoy the luxury of the air-conditioned office, but that was all the inheritance seemed to amount to. My father's rebellion had bred these tastes out of me but it had not bred into me a compensating taste for self-identification with the underprivileged.
Without telling anyone of my plans I went back to the shipping office. The prospects looked dim. Several weeks went by. A letter came at last. I was offered a passage home on the S.S.——which was due to leave Bombay in ten days' time. Nothing was said about the nature of the work beyond a cryptic instruction to report to the Chief Steward. It sounded suspiciously like washing up. I glanced at the water-colours (the damaged one since repaired) and wondered what grandfather would have made of it all.
* * *
That night I sat up late. The others had gone to bed and Mrs Ross had retired into the back room to set up her ironing board. I stayed in the sitting-room reading and re-reading the letter and trying to make up my mind, but the thunder and rain made it impossible to concentrate. I decided to turn in.
When I was half-way up the stairs I heard a rapping on the frosted pane of glass in the front door. The door looked on to a courtyard and was normally left on the latch but Mrs Ross had locked up and the bell did not work. I went down, unbolted the door and opened it. At the same time I switched on the light that illuminated the porch and the steps leading up to it.
There were two of them, a white man and a Sikh. The effect was rather startling. They stood shoulder to shoulder, broad, large-boned men with beards, the white man's red, the Sikh's grey. The white man was hatless, the Sikh turbanned. Both were coatless and wore their grubby shirts hanging loose outside crumpled cotton trousers. The white man, like the Sikh, wore sandals on his bare wet feet, sandals of the kind that are held on by suction and a single strap over the big toe. They reminded me of visitors likely to be encountered otherwise only in a story by Conan Doyle.
"Is this Mrs Ross's?" the white man asked. He was unmistakably English.
"Yes, I'll call her."
I crossed the hall, opened the door to her kitchen and called through that there was someone to see her. The Sikh remained in the porch but the Englishman came into the hall. His shirt was soaked and clung to his chest. His hair was plastered across his scalp. Water glittered in the spade-shaped beard and trickled down his smooth bronzed face and from the end of his aquiline nose. He did not seem bothered by it. I told him that Mrs Ross would be out in a moment and made my way to the foot of the stairs.
"Do you know whether she's got a room?" he asked.
"I don't, I'm afraid."
"They said up the road they thought she had."
"Up the road?"
"The smug little hotel on the corner," he explained.
"Are they full then?" I knew they weren't usually.
"They pretended to be," he said. "I expect I made an unfavourable impression."
I could not help glancing down at his shirt and trousers.
He said, "My friends always told me I had a genius for looking disreputable."
I smiled, began climbing the stairs, pondering on his use of the past tense, wondering whether the implication was that he had no friends left or that they had given up telling him.
"I've been away for a time," he called. "In Sumatra."
I paused, looked down at him. There was so much to look at on the outside that his eyes were the last things you noticed. I was noticing them now but, doing so, was uncertain what they told me, if anything.
"My name is Brian Saxby," he said.
"Is Mrs Ross a Scotswoman?"
I said, "Her father may have been."
Excerpted from The Chinese Love Pavilion by Paul Scott. Copyright © 1960 Paul Scott. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsThe Door by which men enter
The God Hunter
The Garden of Madness
The Flower Dreamer
The Door by which men go